A participant of Paddle Tribal Waters 2022

Empowering River Protectors

Photo: Rios to Rivers

How Paul Robert Wolf Wilson is creating the next generation of river runners (and advocates), using whitewater paddling expeditions to connect Indigenous youth with their traditional waterways.

Ríos to Rivers is an interesting transnational group of paddlers working to empower the next generation of river stewards. With roots in South America and in the U.S., the seemingly disparate collection of educators, creatives, scientists, coaches, philanthropists, energy experts, environmentalists and humanitarians share a common passion: running and protecting healthy rivers. The group’s chief storyteller is Paul Robert Wolf Wilson, a Klamath and Modoc tribal member from the Klamath River headwaters in his ancestral homelands of Southern Oregon and Northern California. And this corner of the country, marked by what the Forest Service recognizes as “globally outstanding biological distinctiveness,” is where Wilson’s work for the nonprofit is centered: connecting local peoples with the lands and waters they rely upon and the cultures that tie them together.

As Wilson sees it, the key opportunity for Indigenous youth to strengthen and grow relationships with their rivers is through paddling. It’s a journey toward river-running advocacy that he knows well. As an alumnus of Ríos to Rivers’ programs, he co-founded the Chiloquin Kayak Club with his sister Ashia to provide paddling access to their Oregon-based tribal community. He’s also worked to change policy around dams and endangered rivers worldwide, serving as an advisory member for Water Climate Trust and facilitating expedition-style exchanges that help youths develop relationships with rivers impacted by hydroelectric projects. Recently, Wilson co-produced the film Paddle Tribal Waters, which highlights a young group of Native paddlers’ plans to lead the first descent of the restored Klamath River from source-to-sea in 2024, following the completion of the largest dam removal project in U.S. history—a monumental victory for Indigenous communities who have been fighting to remove four of the Klamath’s dams for over a century.  

Public Lands caught up with Wilson to discuss his drive to get more Native youth out on the water—and to turn them into river protectors.  

PUBLIC LANDS: Tell us about Rios to Rivers…what’s its mission?

PAUL ROBERT WOLF WILSON: It’s a nonprofit organization with the goal of inspiring and empowering the next generation of river stewards. We use source-to-sea expeditions to hold conversations with youth from rivers impacted or endangered by hydroelectric dams about the relationships their communities hold with the watershed.  

Why empower the next generation of river stewards?

Rivers and water are life. Youth are the ones inheriting the responsibilities to govern and steward our rivers and our futures. Empowering our youth is an investment in our shared future.  

Youth representing the tribal nations from throughout the Klamath River Basin partake in the first Paddle Tribal Waters program with Rios to Rivers at Otter Bar Lodge on the California Salmon River. Karuk Territory 2022 Photo: Rios to Rivers/Rush Sturges

How did you get started with it?

I actually started out with Rios as a student in 2017. My first river trip was on the Rio Baker in Chilean Patagonia shortly after their grassroots campaign saved their river from major hydroelectric destruction.  

Was paddling and the outdoors a big part of your life growing up?

I’m from the Klamath tribes—our name for ourselves is Ewksiknii, translating to the ‘People of the [Upper Klamath] Lake.’ Paddling canoes is in our blood. Many of our first food systems are gathered and harvested via the water. Whitewater is a newer introduction in my community—removing what would’ve traditionally been far more dangerous paddles or portages.  

Why focus on getting more Indigenous youth on the water?

Whitewater paddling is a sport that is very white and privileged in its participants. Growing the number of tribal youth in this sport will bring a sense of depth and hopefully reduce the culture of colonial language and intent within the sport. Recreation and expedition sports have a large focus on conquering natural features, distancing the athlete from the land and waters they’re traveling through. Tribal youth typically hold relationships based around reciprocity and stewardship of their lands and waters.  

How do paddling trips like these create positive change?

The conversations that the tribal youth within our programs are having demonstrate the need for intersectional policy and paddling. When you develop an intimate physical relationship by traveling through a river from its source to its outlet—working with all of the parties on the river while working to understand the history and nuance of its waters—positive change occurs naturally.  

Tell us about the new Paddle Tribal Waters program and film...what's its goal?

The PTW program aims to prepare youth participants from each of the tribal nations on the Klamath River to be ready to paddle the undammed Klamath in 2024. Our curriculums focus on getting our youth the necessary skills to paddle with security and confidence on their ancestral river, while learning about the laws and history of water law and tribal rights, and growing their abilities as spokespeople for the river. Paddling the Klamath in 2024 will have an expedition component as the reaches of the river under the reservoirs present unknown conditions. Our youth will be working with the Klamath River Renewal Corp., and other stakeholders restoring our river. Filmmaker Rush Sturges and I are co-directing the documentary to tell the story of this journey. We hope that this story can carry the momentum of dam removal from the Klamath to other rivers worldwide.  

The film was partially born out of the idea that there aren’t enough Indigenous whitewater paddlers on our rivers…how might it help?

Our program has demonstrated that proper education and resources can bridge whitewater paddling’s high barrier of entry. We got our first cohort of paddlers to a level of confidently paddling Class III with confidence in a relatively short period of time, while inspiring others’ interest in the sport. Other groups and companies can contribute to getting Indigenous and other underrepresented paddlers into our sport if they make meaningful efforts toward growing and strengthening our river community. 

What have been some of the challenges?

Logistics and capacity building have been among the biggest challenges for us. Fundraising to make sure that every aspect of PTW is done to the highest level of security possible has taken a lot of time for our team—but the stoke of the program continues to make it happen! 

Why are Indigenous-specific outdoor opportunities so important?

Indigenous communities and nations have systematically been removed from our lands and waters—be it war, law, or organizational violence. Globally, we steward a majority of the remaining biodiversity. When Indigenous peoples are back on our lands and waters, our communities and the lands and waters that are recreated on heal (#landback).

What makes you proudest about your work?

I am most proud and excited for how the Paddle Tribal Waters crew takes whitewater paddling and makes it their own. Their peoples have been on this river since time immemorial—thousands and thousands of years—so as they become more established paddlers, I can’t wait to learn from them how best to travel through our shared river and how to approach other rivers with the same respect and approach.  

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.