Decades ago, poachers would set off explosives in this North Umpqua River, Ore., pool, killing steelhead by the dozens. That was before Lee Spencer settled in to watch over the trout.
Everyone on the river calls it “Lee’s pool,” and that alone might be proof one person can make a difference.
Decades ago, it was Dynamite Hole. Poachers would set off explosives and kill steelhead by the dozens, fish that had made it upriver from the ocean — past sea lions, fishermen and a dam — but hadn’t yet reached their spawning grounds.
That was before Lee Spencer settled in almost 20 years ago to watch over the trout. First with Sis, a cattle dog he still mourns, and later with Maggie.
“I am acutely aware that a dog is a gift given to us for perhaps 10 years if we’re fortunate, and everything after is extra,” says Spencer, 65, resting a hand on Maggie’s back.
Spencer and Maggie watch a pool that in late summer is a teal mirror reflecting firs, cedars, vine maples and dogwoods. The details of a towering sugar pine are easier to see on the water than by looking up into the sky. The world outside this spot, where blue-green fireflies shimmer and river otters play, seems far away — although it will determine whether places like this survive.
At a time when environmental protections are being lifted, scientific research budgets slashed and frenzied political battles center around single species, one man's study of the world in front of him is a throwback to conservation work rooted in bearing witness to simple truths in nature.
The migrating trout rest here for months in this protected, cool creek that feeds the wild Umpqua River. It can take a moment for a person’s eyes to make out that the dark stripe at the center of the pool is actually about 60 steelhead, just enough space between them to show their outlines.
Wild summer steelhead returning from the sea, left, take refuge in "Lee's pool" on the North Umpqua River. Right, Lee Spencer has kept notes and drawings for nearly two decades documenting life at the pool. (Photos by Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)
By December, they will be on their way. But on this summer day, there is an easy quiet while they hold and Spencer and Maggie watch.
The cattle dog’s ears prick. Alex Gonsiewski and Nick Rowell make their way down the dirt steps. They’ve been obsessed with fly fishing since they were boys.
“Hi,” Spencer says. “Make yourself at home.”
“I remember seeing a picture of this pool when I was around 12,” says Gonsiewski, now 32 and a fishing guide on another river. “You can’t be a steelhead fisherman and not know about Lee.”
Spencer makes note in his yellow-paged journal of two sulfur butterflies, the color of a low flame.
He used to write everything down — each nighthawk sighting, each season’s berry count. He figures he’s written about 6 million words, including a book on wild summer steelhead and 16 volumes of natural history posted on the North Umpqua Foundation website.
“But I’m relaxing as I spend my last years here,” he says. “I wonder if I’m trying to hold as big a picture in my mind as possible while I wait to see if something is going to show up I haven’t seen before.
“That being said, I will make note of that great spangled fritillary,” Spencer says as an orange butterfly almost brushes Maggie’s nose.
Spencer is tall and lean, with the same mustache and hairstyle he has worn since college. He has wire-rimmed glasses and a watch turned to the inside of his wrist to make it easier to see the time — so he won’t forget the medicines he takes four times a day for Parkinson’s disease.
His voice is deep, his delivery deadpan even when throwing out endless puns.
The conversation with Gonsiewski and Rowell lands on what constitutes the perfect fishing fly. Spencer’s version is a moose hair muddler — tied with the sparse, wiry hair from a moose’s genital region.
Spencer was once a fisherman obsessed with catching steelhead in the Umpqua. But now he forgoes the hook, casting only to see whether he can get a steelhead to, in fishing parlance, “rise to the fly.”
Gonsiewski asks if Spencer judges them for trying to hook the trout before throwing them back.
“Not at all. I’m not here to proselytize,” Spencer says, offering tips on the best spots.
They talk about hatchery steelhead released in the North Umpqua, an effort the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has said will protect the species.
All three find it wrong-headed.
“Same species, different critters,” Gonsiewski says, offering a litany of reasons he thinks hatchery fish could hurt recovering wild steelhead populations.
“But it’s good for the state making money off of fishing licenses,” Rowell says with an eye roll.
Spencer listens to the others’ opinions before adding his own.
He recalls watching a man catch a wild steelhead. The man was furious because by law, he could keep a marked hatchery fish, but had to throw back a wild fish. He tore the fish’s mouth and bashed it against a rock.
“When you see people act in violence against a defenseless creature, you know something has been unleashed,” Spencer says. “As a species, we can be unbelievably kind on an individual basis — a person will give you the shirt off their back on the trail. But start creating vested interests, and people can be unbelievably brutal.
“Sitting here, I’ve learned a lot about fish and a certain amount about human nature.”
Clockwise from top left: In the quiet of his trailer, Lee Spencer ties a moose hair muddler fly. Once an obsessive fisherman, he now casts only to see whether he can get a steelhead to "rise to the fly." In notebooks over roughly the last two decades, Spencer has documented life on the river. Dusk on the creek, according to Spencer, is "the luminous hour." (Photos by Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)
On an early morning at Lee’s pool, songs from a Swainson’s thrush spiral up-up-up. Two Merganser drakes drift past, like an L.L. Bean print.
Back when Spencer was one of the revolving cast of North Umpqua Foundation volunteers who took turns guarding the pool, he would arrive for his three-day shift at lavender-charcoal dusk and fall asleep looking at the Milky Way.
One of those mornings, he woke up with the word “compassion” stuck in his head.
“I remember thinking it was an odd thing to fixate on,” Spencer says.
He spent about two years working out a definition of compassion that suited him. He settled on “wishing all sentient creatures not to suffer.”
“I liked that idea,” he says. “I admired the crap out of it, actually.”
In 1998, the foundation decided it would take one person staying from May to December to protect the fish. They offered Spencer the job. The per diem was small, but he had money left from a summer’s anthropology consulting work for a Native American tribe.
He moved into a 25-foot Airstream trailer parked beneath a “pistol grip” fir that grew sideways from the bank before righting itself vertically. He built a viewing area for visitors around its huge, crooked roots. He rigged an outdoor shower, and says that a bucket of hot water when it is 20 degrees out is true luxury.
“I didn’t have a marriage or a mortgage,” he says about his ability to live simply. “I think life may be more uncomplicated alone.”
He has been engaged three times, but never made it to the altar.
“I do have regrets in life,” Spencer says. “There were a couple of dogs along the way, before I knew better, that I don’t believe I trained as well as I could.”
On another day at the pool, the stillness of a warm afternoon settles in. Even the kingfisher swooping down to catch a crawdad seems leisurely.
Then the sound of car doors opening and shutting.
“Hi, Lee, remember me?” asks Robbins Church as he climbs down the dirt steps with five friends.
Last season, after recovering from a serious illness, Church came with his brother to fish the North Umpqua. They took a day off to find Spencer and the pool they had long heard about.
On that afternoon, the three chatted for less than half an hour before Spencer asked if they wanted to go fishing.
“He and Maggie took us to one of his favorite spots, and we were over the moon,” says Church, a retired Environmental Protection Agency scientist. “He just seemed to know I needed that.”
His group includes friends he hasn’t fished with for 50 years, since their teens, and others he knows through work. They discuss what Lee’s pool means in the bigger scheme of things, at a time when environmental sciences and political will seem to be on a collision course.
“It’s a testament to people’s resilience,” says Jim Wigington, a retired hydrologist. “It was never going to be the federal government that protected places, but the people who cared the most about them, like Lee.”
Bert Lindler, an outdoors writer, says Spencer’s copious notes hold power.
“This pool will not lie. It will tell a story that goes all the way to the ocean,” he says. “The fish are there or they are not. The water is too warm or it is not.”
Spencer shyly bows his head.
“I thank you for those words,” he says. “It makes me happy to hear that you take something from this place.”
Lee Spencer casts a fly, top, in the North Umpqua River. After gathering water from the creek, he fills buckets that he uses for cooking and showering, bottom left. Erica Kinsel, right, points out the steelhead in Lee's pool to her 2-year-old daughter, Elliott. (Photos by Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)
It's really hard to catch a steelhead on the 40-mile, fly-fishing-only stretch of the North Umpqua — a word that to the Native Americans who once lived here meant the sound of thunder.
One rule of thumb locals like to toss around is that the prerequisite is about 10,000 casts and seven years on other rivers.
One summer, before Spencer cut off his hooks, he hadn't landed a single fish as August approached. He started wondering whether he could make it a whole summer fishless.
“I fished hard, and I fished well, and I achieved my goal of catching no fish,” Spencer says.
He enjoyed it just as much. What he found curious was that he once had burned and ached and even dreamed of landing fish. But the better he got, the less he cared about whether he caught anything.
So he was surprised by how crushed he was when the first signs of Parkinson’s marred his casting skills.
Medications are working well so far.
Spencer can cast again, the way he used to, smooth and sure.
In the mornings, he runs down the road with Maggie — her eyebrows now white with age — holding out an arm that she jumps up and play bites. It’s their routine.
“It’s really something,” Spencer says. “Sis didn’t play. She got it kicked out of her before I got her.”
Parkinson’s is a progressive disease, and he once was worried that he would always be waiting for the other shoe to drop — not appreciating his mobility in the moment.
But so far, he says, gratitude for everything he still has wins.
It’s evening at the pool. Or what Spencer calls “the luminous hour.”
Everything unfolds as he has predicted: the swirling colors in a sunset sky, the flapping of bats. But the beaver pulling a tree branch through the water is a mild surprise. Two steelhead jump and splash back down. Spencer’s theory is that they came out of the water to get a better look at the beaver.
Night falls, and the pool glows beneath a moon that’s just a couple of days past full.
The sound of snapping branches causes no alarm. It’s likely an animal coming down to the water to drink.
Spencer has never been threatened by poachers. It’s been decades since there have been any signs of those who would risk the future of the steelhead run by killing them in a spawning creek.
“It appears to be,” begins Spencer — and pauses to take a long look at everything around him — “simply enough to be here.”
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