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A Tempoary Refuge

Posted by Mark Sunday, January 9, 2011

Natural History of a
Wild Summer Steelhead Refuge Pool
in the Western Cascades of Oregon
Lee Spencer
© Lee Spencer
The North Umpqua Foundation
All rights reserved

A stranger comes down into the viewing area at the pool and sees the steelhead.
“What are these fish?”
“Summer steelhead.”
“What are the rest?”
A letter from Gargantua to his son Pantagruel,
“A knowledge of nature is indispensable; devote yourself to this study with unflagging curiosity.  Let there be no sea, river or fountain but you know the fish that dwell in it.  Be familiar with the shrubs, bushes and trees in forest or orchard, all the plants, herbs and flowers that grow on the ground, all the birds of the air, all the metals in the bowels of the earth, all the precious stones in the orient and the south.  In a word, be well informed in everything that concerns the physical world we live in.”
Francois Rabelais
It might be the shovel-scraping-on-asphalt croak of a blue heron or the brilliant complex cascading song of the winter wren, it could be the yammering calls of the kingfisher or the lively guttural chatter of a dipper, in the fall it could be the pure clear whistles of a flock of kinglets moving through the trees and shrubs surrounding my camp that I become aware of as I wake.  It could be the splash or surge of a steelhead turning near the surface in the pool or the rain dropping to tarps.  It could be anything.  I am reasonably sure, however, that it’s the vibrations of my movements toward the front end of this twenty-five-foot Airstream trailer and/or some aspect of the soft explosion of the gas burner under the pot of creek water that wakes Sis, my fifteen-year-old heeler companion who, though happy and spry—still able to take three stair steps at a bound on a good afternoon—has become largely deaf.  Always there is the sound of the main creek as a backdrop, rushing almost booming along if it is in spate, burbling and with musical overtones that remind me of winter wrens when it is slower and low enough for some of the boulders to surface in the riffles above and below the pool.

Sooner or later during any given day, Sis and I negotiate the short zigzag of trail down to the viewing area, a small terrace that has formed about fifteen feet above the creek.  We settle ourselves there on a wooden observation platform constructed next to the base of a twisted old-growth fir.  This is our Perch.  It is located over the middle of a moderate-sized pool which—from early summer through late autumn—contains an average of around a hundred-fifty wild summer steelhead, with high counts of 500 to 700 of these anadromous rainbows, each season.  From the Perch, the steelhead are fifty to eighty feet away from us in water that is usually clear enough to see what a person might want to see, for instance, whether a steelhead is a male or a female.  Once the cooler days and nights of autumn arrive, the clarity of the creek becomes such that I can see the smallest anatomical details and even tell which way a steelhead may be looking.
For more than six years now, Sis and I have spent much of our time from mid-May through early to middle December seated at this Perch watching these fish and whatever else is happening around the pool.  A long history of poaching at the pool is the reason why we are here.  These large groups of steelhead have been a focus of poaching for more than four human generations.  We are a deterrent to this activity, a poaching so pervasive and thorough that the pool has earned the local name of The Dynamite Hole.  These dynamitings used to happen once or twice a year and, of course, for every one of these explosions, there have been multiple snaggings and other types of poaching.
Lest we come down too hard on local people in this regard—local people anywhere there is poaching—we should bear in mind that, to all intents and purposes, the smaller and smaller numbers of wild adult salmon returning to their natal streams and the loss of local breeding populations here along the edge of the North Pacific was not—for the most part—brought into being by poaching . . . or by seals or otters.  The fundamental aspects of the Pacific salmon problem are and continue to be primarily the result of our industrial assault on the webbing of primal ecologies and our population numbers and what we think and accept that it takes to feed, cloth, warm, and entertain us in the ways that we have become used to.  So the summer steelhead have found their refuge and, because the enemy we have met is us, this refuge for now and for the foreseeable future itself needs a caretaker.  Presently, Sis and I are these caretakers and we know we are lucky to be so, lucky to be doing something that is this positive in such a straightforward fashion.  We are also lucky to be able to live so simply for seven months of the year.

The summer steelhead that gather in this pool each season are here because it is a haven from summer heat and summer and autumn low flows in the creek.  The wild fish that use the pool do so because it is possible to and because their life habits make it necessary.  If there were no cool deep refuges on this Western Cascades creek, there would be no steelhead holding in the creek from early summer through late autumn.  Equally, if there were no summer steelhead populations that continued to enter their natal streams nine to ten months before spawning, no refuge from warm and low water would be necessary for them.

The last dynamiting event at the pool occurred in 1993.  People began to volunteer to stay up here after that, myself and Sis among them, though we began three years later in 1996.  During those early years people would sign up for a day here or two days there.  When Sis and I came to the pool during those times, usually we would arrive in the late afternoon or evening and set up a cot behind the truck—with a bed for Sis under it.  My memories of these nights do not include heroic escapades of saving steelhead because it was then and is now a human presence that is the deterrence, volunteers at the pool are warm bodies.  I do remember many times drifting off to sleep watching the brilliant array of stars centered around the Milky Way as they made their oblique way across the northeast/southwest opening in the larger surrounding trees.  In those days, what time was spent at the pool was short and involved camp duties or it was sleep time.

The first day of the first year that Sis and I set up a season-long camp at the pool—this was 1999 and camp was a tent and tarps that year—I realized that it was a different situation, that Sis and I were going to have a lot of time on our hands, or paws, as the case may be.  You can consider me slow, and I am in certain ways, but it didn’t occur to me until that first day that the pool represented an unusual opportunity to watch and to take notes on whatever the wild summer steelhead there seemed to be doing.

Note taking and observation is what I had spent the previous more than twenty-five years doing as a working prehistoric archeologist, that is, I spent a large part of every year working outside in the dirt.  Not only was I comfortable working out of a field camp, but I was particularly trained in documentation of the little known and the unknown—archeology encounters only fragments of time and culture, those artifacts and their associations that have been left behind by variably ancient peoples, and these fragments have been acted on by the natural processes of weathering.  So any archeologist with their eyes open is dealing with unknowns all the time.  An abiding interest in natural history has suggested many useful answers to archeological puzzles for me and it seemed like this interest would serve me well at the pool too.  The final but by no means the least consideration that led to this note taking, which in turn led to this book, was exceeding curiosity.  By 1999, I had been casting flies to steelhead in the North Umpqua River for more than seventeen years and these fish fascinated me to no end.  They still do.
So to see what I could see and to pass the season in an interesting way, I decided to try to make an informal study of wild summer steelhead behavior at the pool.  Now, it is clear that I really had no idea what I was getting into.

By the time of this writing, I have typed up six of these seasonal volumes of natural history notes which amount to a total of more than a million and a half words.  About half of these manuscripts are the timed entries made each season and the rest are tables, analyses, and comparisons.  Whatever else they may be however, these six manuscripts are not by the stretch of any imagination an easy read.  At the suggestion of friends and because of a predilection for making a readable accounting, I have attempted to distil this mass of data about the natural history of the wild steelhead populations that use the pool into a more manageable and readable form.  This narrative is what you have in your hands.
I have designed this book to be a seasonal almanac of sorts.  Along with a preliminary chapter called Late Winter and Early Spring, each of the eight months that summer steelhead occupy this pool as a refuge constitutes a chapter, making nine chapters in all.  Other than May and December, these monthly chapters are divided into an early, a middle, and a late part.  The transcriptions of my natural history notes for the past six seasons have been gleaned like a thimbleberry patch . . . or, perhaps more appropriately, a wild strawberry patch, the berries of this latter plant being smaller and more hidden; gleaned for information on the environment, on steelhead and the other Pacific salmon that use the pool, on vegetation, birds, mammals, for information on insects, reptiles and amphibians, and interesting events or stories that were documented during the relevant portion of the relevant month on one of these six years.
There are three appendices, one about hatcheries and artificial fish, one about past abundances of wild summer steelhead in the North Umpqua River, and the other about aspects of casting flies for summer steelhead and fishing ethics in times of warm water.  Additionally, there is a bibliography and a comprehensive glossary of terms and usages.

Finally, there are a lot of endnotes.  I have decided to make my citations in the form of endnotes so that the flow of the reading won’t be interrupted unless the reader desires it to be.  The citations will generally be the date a given observation was made so that the reader can find the data in the natural history notes if they own or have access to the CD containing them.  The endnotes also include ancillary comments and references.
As another issue in this preface, I need to point out a primary and perhaps dangerous characteristic of this type of natural history writing which is organized by month and season.  In the Pacific Northwest and in many other regions on this planet, it is obvious and undeniable that natural cycles organized around seasonal change exist and repeat themselves.  This said, the playing out of a given cycle for a given creature on a given year is not a given.  A colder or warmer or drier or wetter season, a fire, a flood, a population explosion, a mass wastage event, each of these circumstances can affect the timing of a given life-cycle event or an event’s existence at all.  Natural systems are organized around multiple interdependent cycles with variable degrees of uncertainty and it is this uncertainty keeps the ecologies and wild denizens resilient, adaptive, and strong. 
Except for the first chapter entitled Late Winter and Early Spring, what are presented herein by way of seasonal events for wild summer steelhead and various other organisms are based virtually exclusively on what Sis and I have observed at the pool.  If it is included in this book, I have some confidence that it occurs in the right place relative to other things in the book, but I have less confidence that a wetter, drier, warmer, or cooler season won’t shift its timing by ten days or two weeks one way or the other.  Some additional information has been gleaned from various books which will be referenced when this is so.  If you, the reader, come across a passage that you think should have an endnote but doesn’t, this will likely be because I consider it common knowledge.  I could certainly be wrong.
It is also important to be aware that this book is written from the perspective of wild, naturally propagated fish in their natural environment, not of hatchery fish.  The reason this is possible is that the absence of adipose fins that characterize this basin’s hatchery fish is clearly visible from the Perch and because 98-100% of the summer steelhead in the pool each of these seasons are wild.  All of the steelhead juveniles are wild.

I have not chosen to name the relevant creeks, but only call them the main creek and the colder tributary creek.  The reason for this is that I do not want to encourage you to visit.  As much as I would like to see you, and I would, and Sis really would too, every visit to the pool has its influence on the peace of mind of the steelhead holding there.  Presently, I record around 1,200 visits each season.  If these visits were to significantly increase in number, it would have negative consequences for the summer steelhead holding in this refuge pool.  My observations make this unambiguously clear.

Finally, a lengthy and somewhat detailed discussion of natural history is difficult without some mention of evolution or ultimate causes.  I believe that evolution and adaptation exist as natural processes and have no purpose, regardless of how awkward my wording may at times become.  Evolution has no direction either.  It is simply a word used for a process of organized change based on the fundamental mutable structure of life in association with the basic changeability of the universe.  Each creature is an equally perfect summation of three billion-plus years of interaction with organic and inorganic, biotic and abiotic environments on this planet.

I do not really believe in single causes, ultimate or otherwise.  I think we are on our own and, solely for us humans, compassion is both possible in any situation and the only important thing.
After fifteen or so years of hiding in the wilderness with a tribe of hunting people, watching over their nets, Hui-neng (638-713 Common Era), the pivotal sixth and final patriarch of Chan Buddhism in China, decided to go out again into the world to disseminate his teaching.  On a day when the wind was blowing and pennants were flapping, he came upon two monks arguing about this.  One monk was saying that it was the wind that was moving and the other was saying that it was the flags themselves that were moving.  After listening to them, Hui-neng approached and said that it was neither the wind nor the flags, but it was their minds that were moving.

The mundane mind, for all its apparently static observations of everything, flows.  It sees what it wants to see and then sees support for that conclusion, whatever it is.  The mind, generally, does not easily see what is uncolored by preconceptions.

With apologies to Hui-neng and compliments to Thomas Cleary—I neither read nor speak any Chinese—there are steelhead outside our minds.  These steelhead are themselves as individuals, as demes, and as a species.  They do not know themselves by our name whether this name is steelhead, or Oncorhynchus mykiss, or sea-run rainbow, or some other bright or dark symbol in our minds. 
This almanac merely scratches an itch I have.  I trust that eventually and before it is too late, we can simply leave the wild populations of these fish alone and leave alone what they need to be left alone to survive—protected, but otherwise unhelped—as natural breeding populations.  While this species may not know what is best for itself or know at all in any self-conscious human sense, we certainly do not.  This is abundantly clear.

Sis and my seasonal stays at the pool are made possible with per diem supplied by The North Umpqua Foundation, a non-profit organization I believe in and volunteer with.  The USDA Forest Service is also an active and positive partner in this effort.  The Foundation, bless them, also comes up with a stipend so that I can more easily have the time to transcribe these notes during the five months I am off the pool.  I am sure that Sis and I are luckier than we realize in this fortuitous set of circumstances.

While I may not agree with all of Lee's philosophies and world views, his views on the fish and dedication to protecting them is nothing short of amazing.


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