SAN JOSE -- Amid the din and concrete of downtown San Jose, one man rejoiced over the autumnal return of a species as wild and old as the hills -- and even more mysterious.

"They're here! The Chinook salmon are coming in," crowed Roger Castillo, a disabled forklift operator and self-taught naturalist, striding the banks of the Guadalupe River on Saturday morning. "They're hiding, right under our noses!"

For decades, Castillo -- dubbed "The Watchdog of the River" by friends and local officials -- has combed the banks of his beloved Guadalupe almost daily, reading its waters like a scholar reads a book.

Roger Castillo’s model, used to simulate how water moves through the Guadalupe River after a one- to two-inch rainfall in San Jose, has working sewer
Roger Castillo's model, used to simulate how water moves through the Guadalupe River after a one- to two-inch rainfall in San Jose, has working sewer drains at his home in San Jose on Nov. 23, 2013. (LiPo Ching/Staff)

It is Castillo who in 2005 found the fossilized bones of a Columbian Mammoth near Trimble Road. He was the first to sight the family of beavers near the St. John Bridge last spring. He's photographed mating lamprey in the shadow of Mineta San Jose International Airport and an elegant osprey atop the Highway 87 freeway sign.

But it's the incoming Chinook -- heroic migratory creatures, born here and then returning to spawn and die -- that capture his heart. Every winter, the silver Chinook, also known as King Salmon, migrate hundreds of miles from the Pacific Ocean in search of their Guadalupe birthplace. They use their sense of smell to navigate.


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As soon as Castillo senses a shift in the barometric pressure at his Evergreen townhouse, he heads for the river. Sightings just last week alone: the carcass of a male, a nesting female and a mating pair.

Rainbow trout? They're in their late November feeding frenzy, thick as thieves, snatching insects at the water's surface. The river is closed to all fishing; it is illegal to catch either Chinook or trout.

"If something's there, Roger will find it," said longtime friend Larry Johmann, president of the Santa Clara Country Creek Coalition.

Castillo is 52, married and the father of three children, born in a San Jose once so rich with wildlife that "the earth moved with frogs" along creek beds, he recalled. His first float down the Guadalupe, as a boy, was in a box.

When he was a teenager, times were tight, so he started working straight out of high school. But his parents, who worked at the canneries, "taught me to always keep learning," he said. He found career success as a computer technician before losing his job when the company relocated. "They offered me a job in Texas -- it even came with a house -- but I said, 'Nope. I love this city.' "

"I need the spirit of the river," he said, calling his sightings "an act of the angels."

Over years, his fondness for the water turned into an obsession, linking him to a long line of people who have sought beauty and solitude in a river that tumbles out of the dark and brooding Santa Cruz Mountains. An Ohlone tribe arrived at its river banks as early as 8000 B.C., when it ran as clear and cold as chilled gin. It nurtured the late 1700s Spanish village called el Pueblo de San Jose Guadalupe. But as San Jose grew, development neglected the river as an important urban feature.

In recent years the city has committed to its welfare -- an effort that is paying off. Castillo, as chairman of the nonprofit Salmon and Steelhead Restoration Group, is a major part of that effort. He studies hydrology and urban planning, reports poachers, files complaints about herbicide use, testifies at public hearings and educates children.

One of the California Toads that Roger Castillo keeps at his home  in San Jose on Nov. 23, 2013.  Castillo found the toads in Canoas Creek in San Jose.
One of the California Toads that Roger Castillo keeps at his home in San Jose on Nov. 23, 2013. Castillo found the toads in Canoas Creek in San Jose. (LiPo Ching/Staff)

"We see him as a river steward," said Chris Elias, watershed manager for operations and maintenance of the Santa Clara Valley Water District. "He shares what we see and comes to us with constructive suggestions about what we can do together to improve the habitat for fisheries."

At the Guadalupe River Park Conservancy, executive director Leslee Hamilton said, "He has helped connect the community to the river and its importance to our local ecosystem." The conservancy's education coordinator, Richard Tejeda, said, "He is a true grassroots-type person. He answers to nobody -- a rogue and a watchdog. Everything is straight from his heart, expecting nothing in return. That's a rare thing."

Joyful in the woods, he scrambles through tangled willows and alders with the agility of a teen, although a tragic 2012 workplace accident disabled most of his right hand.

He won't confide the precise locations of Chinook spawning spots, to protect them. But he has assembled a personal list of hundreds of "microhabitats." He hopes to enlist Google Earth to help catalog each spot on a map, then track its changes over time.

At night, he is transferring 300 videos of special sightings -- taken on old 8 millimeter film movie camera -- to his computer.

He found Chinook in the drought of 1992, when water was so shallow it scraped their bellies. He found Chinook again in the deluges of 1995, when massive flooding flushed out gravel nests.

He frets during storms, then dons rain gear and inspects rain gauges and 30 storm drain outfalls, measuring flow rates with a stopwatch and plastic bucket. "Just a quarter inch of rain can make the river jump three feet," dislodging the precious spawning beds, he said.

To better understand their ancestry, he sent tissue samples to UC Berkeley labs for genetic analysis. To understand urban water flow, he built 13-foot model of San Jose's Byzantine storm drainage system. To protect the fish, he hunts for any evidence of poaching; in one homeless encampment, he found a 100-foot net, snares and primitive concrete-made traps.

He also has a weak spot for other river dwellers, he admits.

In search of rainbow trout, he pries off the tops of manhole covers and descends into the city's underground waterways, filming the fish with a camera attached to his helmet. He admires shy Pacific slender salamanders, rescued a stranded raccoon kit with a milk carton and in his kitchen keeps an aquarium of breeding Pacific Chorus tree frogs, singing "krek-ek'' like a symphony of creaky door hinges.

But he's heartbroken by what he can't find. This year he walked six miles of watershed in search of once-abundant California Toads, and found only six. What is happening to a place, he wondered, that it can't support a toad?

"If you pay attention to the river, it will really show you something," he said. "It repays you everything you put into it."

Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 650-492-4098.

SAN JOSE's RIVER

The Guadalupe River is believed to be the southernmost major American river with a Chinook salmon run. To learn more about the river and its creatures, visit the Guadalupe River Park Conservancy at www.grpg.org or call (408) 298-7657.
A video of spawning Chinook, shot last week by the conservancy's Richard Tejeda, can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FwcKfUtosj8