Mad River, McKinleyville

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Mad River, McKinleyville

by | Mar 18, 2021

The Mad River starts in the Coast Range and flows generally northwest for 113 miles (182 km), draining a watershed of 20,122 square miles (128,722 ha), and enters the Pacific Ocean about 12 miles (19 km) north of Eureka and 1.8 miles (3 km) northwest of McKinleyville, California. On 5 November 1849, a party of poorly provisioned miners led by Josiah Gregg departed from a mining camp on the Trinity River intending to reach the Pacific coast in 8 days. They were warned by natives to not follow the Trinity River to the sea, but this advice was ignored and they followed the river until it became impassable. About six weeks after they started, they emerged from the redwood forests and saw the ocean. After exploring slightly to the north, they turned south along the coast and camped at Trinidad. The party crossed a large river, and at this point the miners were annoyed with Gregg’s leadership and did not wait for him to determine the latitude of the river mouth, and left without him. The furious Gregg caught up with the group, and the river was named Mad River for the ensuing emotional outburst.

Before Euro-American settlers arrived in the mid-1800s, the lower Mad River watershed was inhabited by the Wiyot people who spoke a dialect related to the Algonquian language. The upper watershed was controlled by three different native groups the Whilkut, Nongatl, and Lassik whose languages are related to the Athabascan family. The Whilkut, Nongatl and Lassik were essentially annihilated during the Bald Hills War in the 1860s, and today, only the Wiyot are a federally recognized tribe. The Wiyot and Yurok people continue to live here in their traditional territories and both groups are ingrained within the McKinleyville community. McKinleyville is a community made up of a combination of smaller settlements that developed near the Mad River. Joe Dows settled in the general area in the 1860s and that area was known as Dows Prairie. Slightly south was a small community called Minor that was also first settled in the late-19th century. Just south of Minor was Calville. Calville was settled by the employees of the California Barrel Company. After President William McKinley was assassinated in 1901 the community of Minor changed its name to McKinleyville in his honor. All three areas are collectively considered to be part of McKinleyville.

The Mad River provides groundwater recharge for agriculture and is free-flowing for 85 percent of its length. The Matthews Dam forms the Ruth Reservoir in the upper watershed near the community of Ruth, about one-third of the way downstream from the headwater source near South Kelsey Ridge. One of the greatest problems for the Mad River watershed is erosion causing increasing sedimentation and turbidity in the river and its tributaries. The main causes of erosion are excessive road building and logging, especially historical logging practices. The removal of riparian vegetation for agriculture, ranching, and urbanization also increases erosion as well as adding pollution from untreated runoff. In 1992, the Mad River was listed under the California Clean Water Act Section as sediment impaired, due to elevated erosion and siltation. In 2006, the river was additionally listed as temperature and turbidity-impaired. Read more here and here. Explore more of Mad River here:

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This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2019 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

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