Seeing the river through the eyes of a science journalist

Editor’s note: This student blog post is the second in a series of three written by UO students who attended a special field trip in April with Dennis Dimick, former picture and environment editor for National Geographic, founder of Eyes on Earth and the speaker for the SOJC’s 2018 combined Robert and Mabel Ruhl/Richard W. and Laurie Johnston lecture.

Story and photos by Natalie Waitt-Gibson

SOJC Professor of Practice Torsten Kjellstrand laughs with SOJC students as they protect their cameras from the falling snow at Hoodoo Ski Area. 

The lifespan of water is infinite, its course of travel is expansive, and its future is changing.

I’ve often viewed the McKenzie River as a natural source of great beauty, inspiration, and recreation. But I didn’t think much about how climate change might be affecting its fragile ecosystem — or how to communicate that story to others in a way that would get them to care.

This spring, I spent a day with UO School of Journalism and Communication faculty, students, and former National Geographic photo editor Dennis Dimick traveling the length of the McKenzie River. With the help of Dimick and SOJC faculty, I was able to start thinking critically, scientifically and creatively about Oregon’s natural resources and the threat climate change poses to our future.

We stopped at several key locations throughout the day. At each stop, several students were asked to give a brief presentation about the history of the location and the natural features that mark its importance in Oregon’s climate. Each presentation started a conversation within the group, allowing Dimick and professors Torsten Kjellstrand and Mark Blaine to share their knowledge and experience.

Several students hike into the Willamette National Forest.
Several students hike into the Willamette National Forest.

We began the day high in the snowy Cascades, and within just two short hours, our group was able to travel to a completely different climate from where we started in rainy Eugene. The Hoodoo Ski Area was the perfect location for our discussion about the importance of snow pack, which serves not only as a water source for the cities and forests below, but also for the upkeep of recreational areas.

Next, we stopped at Clear Lake. The headwaters for the McKenzie River, this lake is directly fed by snow runoff. Its crystal-clear waters and submerged petrified trees make it a popular tourist destination, but on the drizzly day of our visit, there was not a tourist in sight. Surrounded by enormous trees bathed in falling rain, the idyllic Oregon scene became our photographic playground.

As we traveled out of the forest, we made sure to stop at the McKenzie River, the primary water source for the Eugene and Springfield area. The McKenzie is a large tributary of the Willamette River that spans about 90 miles.

The cultural and environmental history of the McKenzie is important to recognize today, as it has been an indispensable source of life since it emerged thousands of years ago. The area along the river once belonged to the Kalapuya Tribe, but in the late 1800s, the Kalapuya were forced off their land into federal reservations to make way for the logging industry.

SOJC students and faculty follow Jack Richardson, owner of Redneck Organics, around his farm.
SOJC students and faculty follow Jack Richardson, owner of Redneck Organics, around his farm. Richardson explained that many of his plants are several decades old but continue to produce a plentiful harvest.

The last stop, and perhaps my favorite, was Redneck Organics, an organic farm on the outskirts of the Willamette National Forest. There we met Jack Richardson, who tends to his farm daily and sells his produce each weekend at the Eugene Saturday Market.

During the tour of his farm, Jack explained that on hot summer days, he sometimes drinks directly from the canal that surrounds the fields. Moments like that are a reminder that humans are meant to live in symbiosis with our natural surroundings.

While regrouping at the end of the day, many of the students had questions: What do we do now? What creative approaches can we take to make a difference?

We discussed the importance of clear writing, visuals and telling the stories of people like Jack Richardson to illustrate the importance of Oregon’s natural resources to humanity and how quickly they are changing. Complex science can be a difficult subject to conceptualize to the general public, and the group agreed that collaboration between creative and scientific minds is a crucial tool to motivate education and change.

Throughout the day, I was inspired not only by the industry professionals around me, but by my peers. Each person I spoke to had an immense amount of passion for the subject and an abundance of ideas to bring to the conversation.

The SOJC’s new Media Center for Science and Technology will provide a space dedicated to taking these ideas and making them a reality. It seems cliché to say, “The future is in the hands of the new generation,” but programs such as these offer opportunities for 20-somethings to develop efficient and well-researched content that matches the work of seasoned professionals.

Climate change is a daunting issue that is easy to ignore. But days like the one we spent with Dimick and our SOJC community on the McKenzie remind me there are capable people with a myriad of ideas, particularly within the University of Oregon, that will inspire change.

Natalie Waitt-Gibson is a native Midwesterner and recent graduate from the UO School of Journalism and Communication. With a primary focus in photojournalism, she hopes to tell stories of women’s and gender issues, science communication, arts and music, and anything in between. See more of her work at