The Head of the Metolius
by Michele Morseth

The Metolius River’s full emergence into the open air is a portent to the river’s turbulent journey north. The rush of 48 degree water out of a bank of jumbled basalt, nestled in ponderosa pines and meadow, turns to a full fledged river within a few feet. The Headwaters of the Metolius has drawn tourists to see this marvelous beginning of the 28 mile long river that flows swiftly through meadow and forest and careens through canyon walls before it empties into Lake Billy Chinook. For over a century it has been a tourist destination and since 1988 the river has been designated wild and scenic.

Freemont crossed the Metolius River in 1843 and, in 1855, Abbot of the Pacific Railroad Survey went through Indian Ford Meadows and camped on the creek called “Que-y-ee brook.” His party traveled up Green Ridge and down into the valley below. Abbot’s party explored the Indian trails and the rugged terrain of the lower Metolius canyon, but did not find the headwaters. First discovered and called Big Spring Valley by explorer John Gray Andrew Wiley and three others in 1859, the Tenino and Northern Paiutes had thought the river that flows from Black Butte was home for generations.

They called the river Mpto-ly-as or “white fish” for the light flesh of the salmon in its waters. Early explorers and settlers found ample evidence of their campsites, apparently used in the late summer/fall. Abbot, in September of 1855, bought a 25 pound salmon from a party of men, women, and children who had speared “the fish with barbed iron points, fitted loosely by sockets to the end of poles about eight feet long. When the point pierces the fish, it separates from the end of the pole, but remains strongly secured to it by a thong about 12 feet in length. This prevents the salmon from breaking the pole.”

The salmon of those days are now extinct, barred from their spawning grounds by the Pelton-Round Butte dam complex on the Deschutes River (completed in 1964). Still swimming the waters are the river’s trout, which Indians must have taken out of the clear cold waters when they stopped on the way to gather huckleberries on the slopes of Mount Jefferson. Early explorers saw Indian trails on the south side of the river and near Black Butte in the mid-1800s. For any traveler, the valley, with its large annual rainfall, lush meadows and fertile streams would have been a welcomed respite from the dry desert to the east.

The first claim on the ¼ section at the headwaters was by Mitchell Arnold in 1890. After a succession of owners, each paying a significantly higher price, in 1924 Samuel Oramel Johnson bought the 160 acres and it has remained in the Johnson family since.

The idyllic scenery at the headwaters has drawn visitors for over a century. Threatened with commercial development many times, the area has escaped alteration except for fairly benign uses. A teepee village with busloads of Warm Springs Indians set up in the meadow was a scene for “The Indian Fighter”, a 1955 Kirk Douglas and Walter Mathau movie. The Johnson family allowed visitors to the springs for decades before appealing to the Forest Service to help protect the site while allowing the public to enjoy it. They granted land for accessible parking and walkways and granted a scenic easement on the opposite shore to protect the natural view.


The Metolius’s class III and class IV white water is attractive to river runners and the cold water can offer relief to hot, dusty campers, and hikers. In 1938 the river’s ability to be conquered was in question by the following headline from The Oregonian:
“WILD METOLIUS OFFERS THREAT: Turbulent Stream Never Run by Man; Outcome Waited.” On July 30th John Gallois and Captain Jackman and guides Prince Helfrisch and Vlete Pruit launched 2 boats into the river. On August 1, after disappearing into the lower Metolius gorge, and after 20 portages, they reached the Mecca bridge at the confluence with the Deschutes. After the trip The Oregonian’s editorial read: “Death is still on duty where they passed.”

Hatton, R.R.
1996 Oregon’s Sisters Country: A Portrait of Its Lands, Waters, and People. Maverick Publications: Bend, OR



Copyright © 2006 Sisters Country Historical Society