A TEMPORARY REFUGE
Natural History of a
Wild Summer Steelhead Refuge Pool
in the Western Cascades of Oregon
© Lee Spencer
The North Umpqua Foundation
All rights reserved
Early June has its natural patterns of biological appearance, disappearance, and metamorphosis too, as do all months or even days if we pay sufficient attention. By this time, Sis and I have generally been at the pool for about two weeks and we are getting used to being back in the basin of the North Umpqua River and along the middle/upper portion of this creek, eleven to twelve miles as the raven hops above its confluence with the river.
We are getting up later now than we did during the preceding winter and earlier in spring, rising into low-angled green and gold light that slants in through a gap in the south-east ridge cut by the cold tributary creek that has its confluence with the main creek about a hundred yards above the pool. Different birds are singing depending on where we wintered, though these winter birds have always so far included the robin, a wonderful singer and singular cheeper. Sleep is deep and unusually satisfying with the sound of this familiar stretch of creek in our ears and due to the fact that we are no longer guests, as we were wherever it was we spent the preceding winter. Now we are gathering our water from this cold tributary creek to cook and make coffee with and to shower with. We can take our cup full of coffee down the short kink of a trail to the backside of our perch and see what the pool is up to. If the light has advanced far enough down the far slope with the rising of the sun into the sky, the shaded pool captures these sun-bright colors and shapes on its surface, reflecting them into my eyes.
Sis and I are in the really very enviable position of having all these rather large changes be good and familiar and enjoyable. We are where we want to be doing what we want to do and, in that, are luckier than really anyone can expect in this troublesome human world we seem to have made for ourselves. Further, we are lucky in that what we are doing is positive and relatively harmless.
Sis and I are not perfectly satisfied though and any semblance of enlightenment is far away. Irritations crop up, usually quite minor ones, the local packrat for instance, a rodent which is really a type of squirrel and not a rat at all. This handsome creature may have left a stream of reddish pee on the pad that I kneel on at the Perch or a youngster may be building nests in the engine compartment of my truck. On the other hand, my foot may have skidded on a rock that has been loosened over the winter and my hot coffee may now be all over my hand making me want to drop the cup but I know that it might break and I like this cup. Or I may be coming down the back way on the twisted trail quickly because a vehicle has pulled up and someone has walked right down to the pool.
In the six seasons so far spent here, other than the ODFW folks snorkeling the pool to count the fish—and in the process, of course, terribly disturbing them—the worst thing that has happened with any regularity is the people who throw rocks to stir up the fish and “see how many there are.” In the event of the early morning visit, I say “Hi,” and the other person, usually a man, says something like, “How’s it going,” and a short conversation begins.
“There have been a few passing through. Might be winter fish.”
“Just thought I’d stop in on my way back over. Been fishing.”
“Going back to Oakridge?”
“Yup. Been down to the Rock Creek Hole fishing spring chinook.”
Smile. “Had two on, but they broke me off.”
“Oh.” And I wonder how competent an angler he is. A spring chinook is a big fish and needs strong tackle. I also wonder about the scuttlebutt that it was people from the Oakridge side of the divide who had last poached the hole with dynamite about twelve years before. This visitor would have been a pre-teen then.
He says, “Someone brought in a steelhead, a big bright one.” Pause. “It was wild. They let it go. Boy, were they pissed off.”
“Don’t make no sense.”
Here it comes, I think. The diatribe about how there is no difference between the hatchery fish—which I call artificial fish—and the wild ones. I nod my head and put a vague smile on my face.
“Yeah, any idiot knows the wild fish are the future of the run. You should let them all go. Hell, you shouldn’t even beach the things. Let ‘em go, they haven’t done anyone any harm.”
And I am flabbergasted and mildly embarrassed that I saw this person in his worn work clothes and old noisy truck and made assumptions.
I smile and say, “Yeah, it’s funny how many people are pissed off by wild fish. It’s like . . .” and I think, it’s like people cutting off their noses to spite their faces, but say, “Well, I don’t know. It’s like . . . “
And the guy says, “Yeah, it makes no sense. Well, got to get over the hill to work.”
And I realize this person may be the loud vehicle I had heard well before first light, going by fast down the creek road headed for the river.
“You go by before dawn?”
Broad smile. “Yup! Wake you up?”
“For a moment. You must think a lot of fishing.”
“Live for it. See you.”
I nod and raise my hand and the guy starts up the trail, about faces, and strides over and reaches out a hand.
I tell him to drive carefully and to stop in any time. His parting comment is that he has been doing so since he could drive, that his granddad brought him here first.
In the first part of June when we go down to our perch with our books and notebooks and binoculars, we miss having the summer steelhead to watch because, usually, they haven’t arrived yet. There may still be a late winter fish or two hanging around, shifting subtly in the still just slightly bluish-green currents, and the first thing we do is look . . . the first thing we always do is look. We know we don’t have a really clear idea of what the natural variations are in the patterns we are beginning to see now with the passage of our seasons at the pool. At least another twenty years would be necessary to even get an outline of what was happening here . . . now . . . and then we realize the only sensible recurrence cycle worth paying attention to is the 40,000 year cycle of the glacial advances and retreats.
Our lives are far too short for comprehension of the grand cycles like that, the common ones of this earth. So why are we in such an unholy rush to do things?
I believe that we may still be in the regular almost tidal planetary surge of advancing and retreating continental ice sheets that has been established for the last six million years anyway, spanning the whole of the Pliocene and Pleistocene epochs. And certainly, no one can show any evidence that we are not.
Early in June, my expectation of fish in the pool when I take my first look of the day declines each season and my acceptance increases of whatever is happening around me. With the passage of time, I have become more and more aware of the many other things going on at the pool, from the plants to the animals to the shifting bank shadows as they move up the pool with the westward passage of the sun across the sky and the interdependencies of all these things and the awareness that there is a lot more going on than I am aware of and, potentially, could possibly be aware off. Sometimes a particular shadow has been removed by the falling of a tree during the winter. This tree may or may not still be present depending on how far into the creek it fell . . . if it fell into the creek at all . . . and depending on how high and forceful the winter floods were.
The plants and animals and weather and environments are just names, symbolic representations. “All verbal and literary expressions are like labels, like pointing fingers. Labels and pointers mean shadows and echoes. You obtain a commodity by its label, and you see the moon by way of the pointing finger—the moon is not the finger, the label not the thing itself.”
Simply the fact that a thing has a name and a person knows it, has allowed it to blink a picture into existence in their mind, may be of little consequence other than communication. But we are human and naming and cataloguing things is important. This naming certainly has to be at the beginning, though, the start, and not be any kind of a graceful end to any understanding.
It could be said that wily-nily, with the passage of seasons here, Sis and I are becoming aware of our context with the area. It is a context that includes the two-lane road with a center line a hundred feet away, the narrow sky here with its unique margins of trees, the creek and the steep forested slopes around the valley, and the early morning mists. It is a context that includes everything seen and unseen, comprehended and uncomprehended around the pool in a radius of several miles . . . except for the light of the sun that has traveled 93 million miles.
One has a context wherever one is, but it is a context that is difficult to comprehend if we are being distracted from what is immediate to our surroundings—now—wherever we may be. On occasion, I find myself reflecting on what could be called the ancient condition of human beings, or another term could be the commonest condition, the condition and contexts that have formed us as a species and within which we have spent at least 99% of our time as a genus and species on this earth. As short a time as five thousand years ago, most people were non-civilized—or non-domesticated—and lived in grandly simple societies and in intimate contexts with local landscapes that supplied virtually all of their needs through the immediate work of their hands. Some trade items might be obtained for special purposes, such as obsidian because it was easier to work into complex tool forms than the local chert, or flint, was. More importantly, for your average person older than ten, whole years might pass between encounters with strangers.
During the last thirty-five or so thousand years when our human rituals and psychologies were developing—and are still with us like shadows on a brightly sunlit day—effectively everyone you met by the time you were an adult would be a known person, but not just simply known. You would know how you were related to the average person you met and you probably would be related by kinship or ritual context. During these pre-domesticated times, humans were born, grew, and died in what have been called face-to-face societies. They were societies without significant surpluses and without wars. As Alfred Kroeber says somewhere in a discussion in his Handbook of the Indians of California, members of these societies committed individual homicides, but they did not engage in warfare. As hard as it is to believe, life wasn’t difficult in these societies. Among the challenges that confronted your average person, woman or man, would be what to do with your “spare” time, or the time that was yours to do with as you wanted because everything that needed doing was relatively simply done. Life was so straightforward that retirement and a health care plan were not only unimaginable concepts but unnecessary.
This is a rosy picture of ancient societies and not what we are often led to believe about the human past. Unfortunately, it is the true picture, as any unbiased examination of ethnographic and exploration records will show. We, now, are slaves to our technologies and have been since the development of animal husbandry and agriculture and greater surpluses than we need. This domestication did not free us, it made us into slaves, shortened our lives, and packed us together, making us vectors for disease like artificial fish are in a hatchery or fish farm. In wildness, what remains of it, is our primal context and there resides a sense of our true freedom.
Sis and my gradually deepening contextual appreciation for the fish and other creatures in the middle and upper portions of this creek is not that ancient wildness and freedom, nor can it be. We meet more than a thousand people each season at the pool and, while we do not have a phone or a connection to the internet, we have a computer that we write with, we also have books of paper we pencil notes on, and occasionally we watch a DVD of a film that over our years we have grown to love like the good books they almost are, say Jacque Tati’s Mr. Hulot’s Holiday or the four Marx brothers in Monkey Business.
In the pool in early June, reddened and snouted winter steelhead males still appear with regularity, sometimes staying for a few days, sometimes for a few hours. When resident in the pool, these winter males spend some time holding in one place, usually at the lower end of the pool. Most of their time, though, seems to be spent moving around the pool and they appear to test the scents that are stored in the large eddies on either side of this pool, as well as nosing into and out of the upcreek riffle that ends where the slower, deepening water of the pool begins.
If there are summer steelhead present they are generally passing through and appear in ones and threes and they also come and go. As near as I can tell, what they are doing is surveying the creek for the variety of local conditions it contains. This is, of course, pure speculation about steelhead conceptualizations because I am not a steelhead, nor would I wish to be. I really do not think—for what it’s worth—that steelhead conceptualize in a way that is understandable. We see their behaviors, and generalize about them in ways that are simply familiar to us. There is no reason why another species should or could be comprehensible . . . unless we reduce their motivations to the sort of pleasure, pain, greed, fear absurdities that appear to work for us . . . but really do not.
It is enough that we recognize them as beings with an equal right to avoid suffering and achieve happiness—whatever these words represent to another species. Our way of making assumptions and predictions, scientific or otherwise, that now and then pan out, is not sufficient reason to think that we know what is going on with some creature or environment. We may have gotten at a shade of truth or meaning, but the universe of any creature, especially a complex vertebrate like a steelhead, is far more intricate than we, really, have any conception of. Face it. Because we have a cerebral cortex which we do not understand and an even less understood larger brain than a steelhead does not mean that they are subject to our understanding or that they fit into any linear or nonlinear equation I have ever heard of.
Consider the person who has cast flies for steelhead on the North Umpqua for thirty years and who hooks more than a hundred fish a year, releasing them all. This time and this success at bringing the fish to her fly cannot help but give her
the idea that she knows what she is doing, and she might . . . about flies and steelhead. Where she gets into trouble is when she makes the linked assumption that she knows, therefore, what a steelhead is doing, she knows what it is thinking. Joseph Conrad has written, belief is not necessarily understanding , however much we might want it to be so.
This same thing holds for Sis and me . . . well, really, it holds for me only. Regardless of believing that I have been a reasonably objective observer over the course of the last six seasons, I happen to be insulated by my perceptions and personal history and culture and by my air breathing from any of the fish in the pool.
So, the early-entrant summer steelhead are sometimes present with the winter steelhead in early June. What I see of the behaviors of these two varieties of steelhead seems to show that they are responding in different ways to the same stimuli of scents and currents and visible things present in this creek. To some things like bird shadows passing over the pool, they respond in similar ways. Reading and observation strongly suggest to me that the late-holding winter steelhead males are mostly on the look out for unspawned female winter steelhead. As is true for us, steelhead don’t wear signs on their sleeves that answer every observer’s quandary, so a winter steelhead male must move close to newly entered summer steelhead to attempt to ascertain whether they are receptive female winter steelhead. This determination appears to take time and isn’t a perfect conclusion on their part either.
Summer steelhead that show up in early June, the few of them that do, as stated, appear and disappear from the pool. Early in the season, I know this because there are so few only slightly reddened or bright marine-colored fish present in the basin of the main creek and I see them come and go. On occasion, one of these fish is marked with a distinctive pattern of missing scales or some other distinguishing character that allows me to recognize it and, now and then, I see these identifiable fish come and go.
While these early summer fish are in, they swim about it examining the perimeters and appear to show particular interest in the upper part of the refuge where the shallow riffle water smoothes and deepens into the pool.
I am intrigued by this initial movement through the pool, apparently examining it thoroughly, and moving on. My assumption is that the steelhead are examining the other pools and riffles of the creek in a similar way and that they are making an assessment, storing some of the information they are gleaning from their middle and upper basin wanderings. The summer steelhead that have visited the pool and moved on—if some of my assumptions are correct—have retained information of many kinds about the pool, such as that there are two currents entering the head of the pool with different trace element characteristics and that one of these currents is cooler than the other, for the waters of the tributary creek that has its confluence just a hundred yards above the pool are cooler at this time of the year. This temperature difference intensifies as the summer progresses and the creeks and rivers of the Pacific Northwest heat up.
The creek below the pool is split by a large and long bar of cobbles and boulders with, here and there, what appear to be small rounded moundings of bedrock lifting up. About fifty feet below the pool, in the channel to the left of the bar, there is a small area of spawning gravels that has been used by spring chinook and steelhead for spawning. The gravels are just above where the smooth flow of the creek increases its gradient, picks up speed, and becomes a riffle.
It is possible, I guess, that this small area of spawning gravels is recognized for what it is and this information is retained. Undoubtedly, the steelhead are aware of this area of spawning gravels on some level because the winter males resort to it in the presence of new steelhead and, perhaps, the eggs that are or were buried in it are evident from some tantalizing smell and by some aspect of the cobbles and pebbles that characterize relatively recently used gravels.
Finally one morning Sis and I go down to the Perch at the base of the old eccentric fir and there is one or a few summer steelhead holding in the lower end of the pool, possibly in front of the subsurface peninsula of bedrock that stretches out across the flow down there. These bright silvery fish are easily lost from sight as they appear to waver in the currents, currents that are still big and slightly malachite colored from the snow that is continuing to melt at higher elevations in the basin.
These newly resident fish that have made up their minds to take advantage of the pool as a refuge do not wander its perimeters like the transient steelhead do or are not doing so by the time I see them at any rate. Other fish are wandering and transiting the pool, but these resident steelhead pretty much stay in place in the lower pool . They shift around some in relation to various things, such as, other new fish entering, otters, mergansers, and left-bank tree shadows cast by the sunlight that falls on the big south-bank trees. Mostly, however, these newly resident steelhead hold together in a small group in the neighborhood of a small pocket of boulders in front of the peninsula at the lower end of the pool. And these fish remain in the pool all day and are there on the following days.
On what level of awareness do these steelhead that hold in the pool know what is ahead for them? Do they know that lethal temperatures will be coming to the creek and that the flows will decline? Their presence in the pool and the way in which they come and go from it now and then in response to spates during the summer and fall clearly show that they are aware that it is a refuge, or at any a rate, it is a place in which they are more comfortable than other places they are aware of . . . other than perhaps ten miles downcreek past two major falls and many rapids and in the North Umpqua River. And beyond that the ocean?
Some of these fish may remain in the pool for all of the six to seven months that a refuge is necessary for steelhead in this creek. Perhaps, as well, one or two of these initial fish may remain after another look around the basin during a fall freshet or two, remain to spawn in the gravels below the pool. The regular movement into and out of the pool with the five to ten-inch creek rises that are rare in the summer and more common in the fall, make it clear that one awareness these steelhead have is that the refuge is a passing one and, conditions allowing, they would just as soon be on about their affairs. They are in this refuge because they need to be, not because they necessarily want to be, and this refuge is a temporary one.
Sometime in the first week or two of June, bald eagles often make one of their rare appearances in the air over the creek. Several years ago, I visited a pool about three miles downcreek to see if it had steelhead in it and how many. As I walked out of the trees and started stepping carefully through ankle-high young poison oak plants in the dappled shade there, a bald eagle flew up from the bank of the creek. It was a juvenile bird and it landed in a snag across the creek and then flew away, upcreek as I remember, when Sis and I continued our way across the sand pockets and gray bedrock to the pool.
At least three steelhead had recently been poached from that pool. There were viscera and cut-off heads and tails scattered about in the water, on the bank, and away from the pool among young alders and tall shaded grasses. I reported it and took photographs and a person from the Forest Service later told me that, while it was the umpteenth report of poaching over the years, it was the first “official” sighting of a bald eagle up the creek. Bald eagles are clearly carrion feeders much of the time—most predators are to some degree—and they appear strategically on the creek during those times when steelhead or salmon carcasses may be expected. I am reasonably sure that, rather than having a calendar in their minds, the few eagles that make a home of the river basin and fly the corridor over the North Umpqua River simply fly up the creek to examine things when they have learned to expect carcasses on the river. This eagle sighting was in the middle of September when the few spring chinook present in the main creek spawn.
Anyway, when I first arrive on the pool in late spring, now and then, a bald eagles flies by. My assumption is that, with the ravens, minks, otters, and other creatures, they are—among other things—looking for the final winter steelhead that will not be going back to the ocean.
On warm years following winters with little precipitation falling as snow at higher elevations—a common circumstance so far here at the pool for Sis and me—the late afternoon temperatures in the main creek by the end of the first week of June are often approaching or slightly above 57°, the upper end of the comfort zone of summer steelhead. The temperatures in the main creek peak around four in the afternoon, while those of the cooler tributary peak an hour or so later. With the temperatures of the main creek now regularly edging above those that are comfortable for steelhead, I guess it is it is to be expected that some fish are probably resident in the pool by some time in the second week of June. One thing is unambiguous, however; steelhead clearly seem to begin to use the pool as a refuge on the basis the temperature of the creek, not at a particular time of the season.
It was during the last three seasons, 2002-4, when I kept better records of the temperatures of the two creeks above the pool, that these temperatures show the main creek was in the low sixties and the cold tributary was edging above 57º by this time. While both the main creek and the tributary creek are warming, at this time the temperatures of the tributary creek average between 3° and 4° cooler than those of the main creek.
Under these conditions, it is often around the middle of the month of June that the pool begins to hold water—that of the colder tributary—that remains in the comfort zone of steelhead (47° to 57°), while the temperatures in the main creek above the tributary are rising above this zone during the late afternoon. This means that the pool begins to function as a thermal refuge. Within six to eight weeks, the late afternoon temperatures of the main creek may be a much as 15º to 18º higher than they are at this time.
Early June is often when the young-of-the-year steelhead first appear in large numbers in the shallows of the main creek, small fish three-quarters of an inch in length with some larger ones that are about an inch long by this time. The first young-of-the-year steelhead usually show up in the flow in late May. These fry are heavily parr-marked creatures. Almost certainly, these small fry are the offspring of steelhead that held for at least part of the previous season in the pool. I am unable to be sure that these fry are steelhead rather than cutthroat trout because the diagnostic character I use to differentiate these two species of Pacific salmon, the parr marks on top of the back and forward of the dorsal fin—the mediodorsal parr marks—don’t form until a few weeks after these fish emerge from the gravels.
On quite rare occasions, Sis and I see a steelhead carcass in the spring. In itself this is an interesting rarity given the thousands of steelhead that have spawned and died in the creek since we began our long stays at the pool. Once when walking the edge of the main creek about a mile above the pool, I came across the empty skin of a female steelhead wrapped around some boulders. The skull with teeth was still intact, but the skin was empty, the bone and the flesh of the body were completely gone. On another occasion the front part of the head of a male steelhead was found on some rocks beside the creek well down from the pool. These remains were long dead and sun dried. The head had been consumed by some animal up to behind the eyes.
An interesting aspect of these latter remains was the nature of the teeth on the lengthened part of the jaws, the part that comes into being as a secondary sexual character while the males are in freshwater. These teeth were different from the fish’s original teeth. The original teeth were more slender, curved, and needle-like and apparently were for the purpose of gripping prey. The new teeth on the jaw tips were noticeably stouter with relatively quite broad bases and slightly curved and less pointed tips. In the notes for that day I speculated that these new teeth were designed for biting other male steelhead during dominance displays. If so, the anatomy of these teeth suggest that they are not for gripping and holding on, but perhaps are designed for repeated brief strong bites.
As the heat builds and things dry out around the creek in the late spring, the varied thrush, the winter wren, and possibly the hermit thrush make their retreat up the slopes and away from the pool. If there is a drop in temperature or several days of rain, these birds may show up again for that time. If the weather allows things to continue to warm up and dry out, the dominant riparian and pool birds become the merganser hens that will shortly be followed by their trains of pups, and the sandpipers, robins, juncos, and the dippers. Sometimes the kingfisher is active around the pool and sometimes it isn’t, but then all of these birds are often absent for longer or shorter periods of time on occasion.
Bats begin to fly in the early dusk of these late spring evenings. At the beginning of the month, if they are out by this time, the first bat is appears at or about 8:40, or in the early to middle dusk. By the end of the month the first bat of the evening will appear approximately thirty-five minutes later. I don’t know what kinds of bats there are at the pool, but there are probably several different species. As a rule, bats don’t sit and preen or make loud distinctive calls and they are therefore difficult for me to identify. The bodies of the ones that have been glimpsed are about mouse size and more gray or more brown.
Occasionally, obvious size differences are evident among these small creatures doing an amazing job of flying about over the creek, but this difference may represent the bats that are the young-of-the-year pirouetting with adults.
There begin to be lots of very tiny insects out, particularly on the sunny days and blue-green darning needle dragonflies regularly use the air over the creek as a hunting area. These blue-green darners are among the insect megafauna along the creek and they are out virtually all season, first observed in May and last observed sometime in October. Among the larger insects out now are crane flies, various stoneflies and mayflies. The caddis that are in the air now seem uniformly to be small to tiny. Hornets, bees, hover flies (gentle seeming, interesting creatures), house fly-type flies, and various beetles are also common.
The large flying ants sometimes remain common and not only common but often prolifically flying and crawling everywhere. These big dark ants generally show up first in April. On some years, it is not uncommon to have to pull one out of the bedding or off my face during the night. Fortunately, their bite is quite mild. Smaller ants are also everywhere. The pale tiger swallowtail is the dominant large butterfly on sunny days around the pool. There are also yellow tiger swallowtails about, but they are far outnumbered by the pale, or white, variety. Lorquin’s admirals, whites, and blues are also common butterflies early in the month. The great arctic, tortoise shell, lady, sulphur, and mourning cloak butterflies appear now and then, but not as commonly . . . though on one season or another, one or another of these species may be common around the pool at this time. Now only the pale tiger swallowtails and the blues appear occasionally in large numbers.
Often, if warm enough, I hear the first cicadas in early June. There appear to be at least two of the reputed 6000 North American cicada species in the basin of the main creek. One is smaller and dark with violet-hued wings and the other is much larger and is a general pale green with wings that are at times over two inches in length. It’s a big bug.
Spring chinook, either wild or artificial fish, may show up in the pool early in June. Like the steelhead, these larger salmon appear to wander around the basin for a while before settling in for their own wait. The chinook may also decide to hold in the deep narrow hole about half a mile downcreek from the pool Sis and I sit at. This chasm of a hole may be holding some steelhead by this time too, but often this doesn’t happen until somewhat later in the season. On some years, this next-downcreek hole holds more steelhead than the main pool does, but when this is so, by late summer the main pool begins to hold more fish. Every year, eventually, the downcreek hole empties of steelhead and this is often four to six weeks sooner than the main pool does. And on some years, such as 1999, no steelhead to speak of ever show up in this next hole downcreek from the refuge pool.
The colder water from the tributary creek, which enters the main creek just above the refuge pool, also influences temperatures in this next-downcreek hole. Indeed, at the height of the summer’s heating, the plume of cooler water from this tributary extends downcreek for about four miles to the main falls on the creek. The plume of mixing tributary water warms as it goes, but three miles below the pool the creek remains a degree or two cooler than the main creek is just above the tributary, during early and middle summer.
The refuge pool is where the affect of the cold tributary is most pronounced and this probably explains why, judging by the numbers of wild fish that regularly hold in the pool—hundreds—this pool is the main refuge on the creek during the height of the summer. At the upper end of the pool and in the shallows of the riffle there, steelhead are able to nose into tributary water that is up to fifteen degrees cooler than that of the main creek when the water of the main creek is at its warmest. By the time the cooler tributary water reaches the lower end of the pool, about where the nose of the central bar splits the creek into two channels, the mixture of the waters of the main and the tributary creeks has occurred and even this mix is about ten degrees cooler than that of the unadulterated flow of the main creek above the tributary. . . during the warmest times.
By the time the creek has traveled the half mile of boisterous rapid to the next downcreek hole, the water is still within a degree of what it is at the lower end of the refuge pool. In some sense, this would make the next hole downcreek the second best summer holding pool in the creek. But why would steelhead, on some years only and earlier in the season, seem to prefer the second coolest to the coolest pool?
The common snakes and lizards begin to show themselves, sometimes even by swimming the creek as spring slips toward summer with the final northward easing of the track of the sun across the sky. The fence swifts, western skinks, and the alligator lizards appear. The juvenile skinks have teal-blue tails, the brightest teal blue I know of in the natural world that I am familiar with . . . well, except for some damsel flies and dragons and the eye brows of a Steller’s jay.
Through the first five seasons, these juvenile skinks were the most common lizard at the pool. In 2004, as has been stated, for some reason this changed and the heretofore rare fence swift became the common lizard at the pool and along this portion of the creek.
Surprisingly, given how relatively common the active juvenile western skinks are scurrying along the ground in the sun, I have only seen a few adult skinks. With one exception, these adult skinks were climbing among the gigantic plates of bark on the grown-old fir at the edge of our camp. These bark plates are sometimes more than six inches thick and three to five-feet high by a foot or two broad. A couple I know, Tony and Sandy F., refer to these big plates on old growth firs as crocodile bark. On at least two occasions, during a conversation on a warm evening, my eyes have idly—I think idly—wandered to the tree and an adult skink was climbing oh-so-slowly upwards on this tree. They appear to be partly wedging their way upward between the bark plates as much as climbing and, as stated, they are moving slowly. Now without the blue tail, the skinks are quite well camouflaged for this tree climbing.
I once talked to a couple of guys who made their living climbing trees to survey aspects of this arboreal habitat niche and was told that they see lizards and salamanders way up in the tops of big trees all the time. “All the time” may mean “now and then” in the lingo of conversations where the unusual is emphasized.
As indicated above, during our sixth season on the pool, for some reason, we saw fence swifts more commonly than any other lizard. Prior to this, one or two would make it into my notes a season and Sis and I didn’t see our first lizard of this kind at the pool until we had been here three years. These swifts are commonly called blue bellies and I am more used to seeing them in environments that are drier than I associate with this creek, for instance among rock outcrops on grassy areas of ridges along the creek. They are the ones that are commonly doing pushups from somewhat elevated perches.
The two lizards are quite different in their way of moving, or their gait. Swifts are relatively long-legged runners with little if any body curving visible. Skinks, when they move, have a serpentine body motion, curving like snakes, there relatively shorter legs apparently not moving at all. It is possible that this serpent-like motion incidentally makes them more adept at wedging their way up trees between the plates of bark.
The sixth season was wet and cool, though with a historically warm dry April. This may have had to do with the pre-eminence of swifts during this season, but, given their predisposition to drier habitats, this seems unlikely. The swifts may have been more common because of an adaptive idiosyncrasy of local reproductive success during the previous two or three particularly hot dry summers.
Ring-necked snake sightings are rare compared with garter snakes or rubber boas or even the yellow-bellied racers which can move so swiftly through the undergrowth of the riparian zone. This small slender snake is named for the quite bright bright salmon-pink bellies and a ring that circles its neck right behind the head. Sis and I have seen only around half a dozen in our six years so far at the pool. One was a freshly killed headless snake about a foot long that was draped over a viewing area bench. The long-tailed weasel or the spotted skunk that I regularly saw around the area that season had probably taken it. I tossed the still limp carcass into the undergrowth and it was gone when I looked for it the next morning.
Like the rubber boa, the ring-necked snake will bury its head in its coiled body and raise its tail in a tight knot-like curl with the pointed tail tip sticking up out of it. The tight coiling of the tail end dramatically shows off the snake’s brightly colored underside. Undoubtedly, this exposure of its bright belly is meant as a distraction to something that has spooked the snake, a person and dog out for a walk or a raven or something. If there were a Buddha bending down for a look, it is likely that the snake would send up this brightly colored bundle of tail too, however, I could be wrong about this. The snake is able to gradually move away from danger while still holding its tail up in a tight coil.
Some years on our evening walks, young-of-the-year rubber boas are surprisingly common basking in the day’s heat being radiated from the surface of the road. Once, miles away from the pool on a paved logging road, Sis and I came across a large rubber boa of around twenty inches. This snake was pale brown on top and pale yellow below and had curled up its tail too and also protruded, in this case, its blunt tail tip from the coil. The end of this one’s tail showed a dramatic set of healed scars, suggesting that the diversion had worked on some snake predator in the past. When I urged it gently off the road with a branch end, the boa evacuated a whitish waxy-seeming substance from its vent. I did not sniff this exudate to determine if it was as ill smelling as that released by garter snakes. It is the blunt end of the rubber boa’s tail that has almost certainly given rise to the name of the two-headed snake that is used by some people for this species.
One of the more interesting boa observations I have heard was by my friend Bill Buchner. While wandering in the woods above the North Umpqua River once, he came upon a boa of about twenty inches swallowing a slug of four to five inches. Bill said the two creatures were about the same color and for a moment he had no idea what he was looking at. If slugs are regular prey for rubber boas then this food source is a relatively assured one for these snakes. I have read that garter snakes also prey on slugs.
Yellow racers and several species of garter snakes start to come out much more commonly during warm days in late spring too.
Juncos and chickadees are hopping about the viewing area and our camp while they gather the hair that Sis has shed. Neither of these birds are shy, so they are easy to see when about this task. It is likely that other birds gather Sis’s hair too. One spring in the Coast Range outside of Eugene, I looked out a window and saw a hummingbird gathering thistle down, dried remnants from plants of the previous year. I put out a clump of Sis’s hair and watched the hummingbirds gather it too. I actually had to replenish the clump. At the pool, it is interesting that sometimes the birds selectively gather the softer fine undercoat hairs and, at other times, the stiff guard hairs. I wonder whether this has to do with ambient temperatures or with different structural parts of the nest, say outside versus inside.
Chickadees are so fearless and obsessive about hair collection, that one of these birds once flew to the top of my head and spent several seconds hopping and pulling there. I can remember the sharp feel of it toe nails. The probing of the blunt bill did not hurt and I sat very still. The unprofitability of my head for gathering purposes was shortly apparent to the bird and it flew to a perch a few feet away in a vine maple.
In the wetlands and on the rock faces that seep water, blue camas have their brief blooming with other much-longer-blooming flowers, the pink plectritis and the yellow-orange monkey flowers. These monkey flowers will bloom for a protracted period if the sediments it grows in remain moist. Also flowering are thimbleberries, blackberries, viburnum, red-osier dogwood, and Labrador tea. The purple brodiaea and wild roses are beginning to spread their blooms too. Some daisies are also beginning to show up.
By this time, the white iris are beginning to fade, their white petals withering as their sepals close up like the green beaks of small herons. Here and there are late blooming dogwoods that still spread flowers, sometimes lots of them. The ground in places is littered with the white petal-like sepals of the dogwoods too. An initial though quite sparse crop of dogwood leaves are now reddening, preparatory to dropping.
During early June of the fourth season, an older gentleman named Vick visited with tales of early days, well, they seemed early to me anyway. In the 1930’s he and his family—four to seven kids depending on the time—would live in one of what would ultimately be three log cabins built up here in the main creek basin during the summers. They’d walk in on trails from the North Umpqua and Vick thought that nine miles was a day’s worth of walking through the basin on the trails of that time.
During these summers, Vick’s dad would placer mine for gold. The kids would probably do what kids are designed to do once chores are done, spend their time running and playing and, if they were like I was, spending little time just walking. Vick told me that his dad would fall a tree across the creek to dam it and use the overflow water for sluicing sediments. Apparently, his father made enough to get by.
His dad was born around 1888 (the year Harpo Marx was born) and died in a logging accident in the 50’s. Vick said his dad would snag a few steelhead out of some pool for smoking, about half a gunny sack full. He used a cane pole and a hook with a chunk of lead attached.
Cedar creek was one of the cabin sites.