Lean Linck of Merlin rides her jet ski Saturday on the area known as 'Savage Lake,' created by the building of Savage Rapids Dam. - Jamie Lusch

The Final Summer Of Savage Lake

A cool wind whips whitecaps like white shrouds over the top of this stagnant stretch of the Rogue River and all Jo Anne Manardo can do is stare out at the lake that soon will go away, pining for another chance to ski.

Since the 1970s, the 59-year-old Grants Pass woman has driven down Highway 99 from Grants Pass each summer to what the locals call "Savage Lake," a place that will disappear for good next month in the name of wild salmon.

No waterskiing Saturday for Manardo. Too cold. Just a lazy afternoon of melancholy waxing over the loss of the area's best backyard playground.

"It's hard to let this go," Manardo says. "It's sad to think that the grandkids will never get to know what this is about."

Personal watercraft operators and waterskiers like Manardo are living their last hurrah at Savage Lake this weekend, the end of the last boating season before the seasonal lake disappears and this four-mile stretch of the Rogue becomes a full-time stream for the first time in 88 years.

Beginning next spring, demolition crews will dismantle the summer lake's fish-killing creator — Savage Rapids Dam — which will be replaced with electric pumps to feed Grants Pass Irrigation District patrons beginning in 2009.

The lake will be reduced to a free-flowing section of the Rogue, allowing free and easy passage of wild salmon and steelhead past it as required by a federal court decree.

Gone will be the deep, stagnant and waterskiing-friendly confines that have existed here since the dam first impounded the Rogue in 1921.

So the skiers and speedboaters who have made Savage Lake a hot spot for fast water toys since the Eisenhower years instead will have to motor to Lost Creek Lake or Galesville Reservoir for their water fun.

"That was the only reason I bought this thing two years ago," says Jean Linck, straddling a personal watercraft that sends her screaming across Savage Lake at 60 mph. "My favorite thing to do in the world is to be on the water.

"Here, I thought I had a great source of fun just 20 miles away," says Linck, of Merlin. "Now, I'm gonna have to travel."

The loss of summer recreation is part of the collateral damage from the long and often contentious fight to reduce the dam's harm to wild salmon while still providing a vehicle to deliver water to GPID's roughly 9,000 patrons.

For decades, the dam's antiquated fish ladders and screens have drawn intense scrutiny for their role in harming the Rogue's ability to produce more wild salmon and steelhead. Various studies have labeled it as the Rogue's greatest fish-killer.

Government studies show that removing the dam and installing the pumps is the best and least costly long-term solution to the current dam's fish-passage problems while keeping GPID in the irrigation business.

Various feasibility studies weighed the needs of summer-lake users against the benefits of allowing driftboaters and rafters to float past the last man-made barrier between there and the Pacific Ocean 107 river miles away.

"It was a discussion point," said Bob Hamilton, the dam's project manager for the federal Bureau of Reclamation based in Boise. "The general determination was there was adequate opportunities in a reasonable range for recreation."

Ultimately, however, the federal court decree that opened the door for the dam to be replaced with pumps placed impacts on wild salmon as the determining factor, Hamilton said.

"It was based on fish," he said.

Mike Portus laments the loss. He buys and sells ski boats each year and rents an RV space along Savage Lake just for launching, though he lives barely 10 minutes from Savage Lake.

He's at the lake with Manardo to fish. He'll never ski Savage Lake again, instead heading over the California border to Iron Gate Reservoir for his water-play.

Portus and Manardo sit together in lawn chairs at the water's edge, their ski boat still parked on its trailer.

"It's a done deal," Portus says. "I've already said my good-byes. But she wanted to see it one last time."

Locals hardly remember a time when waterskiing on Savage Lake was not a Grants Pass summer staple.

"Whenever waterskiing became something people did, they were up here doing it," said Dan Shepard, GPID's 60-year-old manager who learned to waterski there at age 14. "By the early '60s, this was the place to be. There were no other options for people to go."

The lake sported its own marina and boat-rental facility, which was washed away during the 1964 flood, Shepard said.

Still, locals and out-of-staters have towed their water toys here regularly while the dam continued to crumble and the lengthy court fights over its fate played themselves out.

Now skiers see the future everywhere they look at Savage Lake, and they aren't part of it.

Salem-based Slayden Construction Group, which has the $28 million contract on the project, now is building the pumping plant that towers just downstream of the dam. A new pipe bridge that will deliver water to the Rogue's north side already spans the Rogue.

The water-side park where skiers once burned in effigy Jim Martin, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife' dam-busting biologist who lobbied for removing the dam in the early 1990s, is closed and the public ramp is off limits. It's an equipment-staging area now.

"For all the turmoil, hard feelings and all the stuff it took to get from Point A to Point B, it's all almost anti-climactic," Shepard said. "Maybe people have come to terms with it. It's as simple as that."

That's almost too simple to Lana Pinkerton.

I've been coming here since I was a little girl and pretty soon it's all going to be gone," she says. "It's sad. Just really sad."

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