Friday, December 23, 2011

Snorkeling on the Shortest Day

The winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, has been celebrated since ancient times. It’s the beginning of winter here in the northern hemisphere, but more importantly, it’s the beginning of the end of the dark. It’s a celebration of hope that more light than dark will return. It’s a celebration of hope that things will get warm again.

I figured I’d spend at least part of the solstice in Basin Run. This has become a bit of a ritual for me. I have jumped into the same pool in Basin Run as a way of welcoming winter for the last three years. It’s more of a reminder to me that even though it’s getting colder out, and water temperatures are to the point where I can only stay in for 30 minutes or so before my hands are non-functional, I can still snorkel. I can still explore our streams through the winter. There are still things to learn beneath the ice. But more than anything I want to tell the passage of time by changes in the world rather than a flipped page of a calendar. Getting into Basin Run and other streams regularly throughout the year, regardless of weather, lets me track the year through seasonal transformations of our rivers.

I laid down and crept upstream. The cold stung as usual, but the water clarity was incredible. Case maker caddisfly larvae covered everything. Their sand grain cases dotted every rock and boulder, and the black larvae inside dutifully grazed on algae. There wasn’t a lot of algae covering the structure of this stream, possibly because the caddis kept it in check. I can witness stream ecology in action any day of the year. I just need to look for it.

I’ve been worried about Basin Run. It’s my go to creek. Basin Run is five minutes from my house, and is still a high quality stream. Most of its watershed is still forested and while other streams run murky for days after a rain, Basin Run typically flows clear.

It’s a beautiful little steam that still retains a lot of its character, but its watershed is developing which usually means murkier water. But the water still runs clear and the creek affords incredible views, and as I watch this herd of case maker caddis larvae graze, and black nosed dace sluggishly nestle into the gravel bottom, I feel my worry dissolve to hope.

There is hope for this stream and every other one. Hope that we have learned from our past transgressions and changed our behaviors that resulted in polluted, murky water. There is hope that this knowledge protects streams like Basin Run. There is hope that water quality and diversity will return as we work to remedy more impacted streams like Herring Run, and the Jones Falls in Baltimore City. There is hope that there will be more light than dark, and clear water will return.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

So Much River, So Little Time

Part of the draw of creek and river snorkeling is witnessing the brilliance of fresh water life. Part of it is exploring areas most haven’t seen underwater, and part of it is experiencing creeks and rivers on their terms. This trip was more about experiencing the Susquehanna on its terms than it was about witnessing riverine ecology in action, and that made me a little nervous.

The water was murky and cold and if things went just a little wrong, I could find myself in a lot of trouble. I was going to snorkel a three mile section of the Susquehanna from Octoraro Creek to just north of Port Deposit. This isn’t a particularly dangerous part of river. There aren’t any killer rapids, but a lot of people have died here. It was cold, so if one thing went wrong that caused me to be on the river for longer than planned, or if my drysuit failed for any reason, I was at real risk of becoming hypothermic. Then there were the usual drowning hazards.

I was familiar with this section of river, which heightened my caution. This stretch was controlled by the Conowingo Dam, or as controlled as we fool ourselves that dams control. Ultimately the river does what it wants when it wants, and each spring the lower Susquehanna reminds us all of that fact when she floods, in spite of Conowingo. But today the dam dictated the river, so water levels changed drastically in an instant. The risks I mentally listed included strainers and rocks. I wanted to make sure to swim clear of the heads of islands, rocks, and anything else that might catch and hold logs in the water that strain the water through them, but capture larger objects, like me. Strainers are usually fatal. One wrong rocky snag on my dry suit and I would be exposed to 39 degree water, and 29 degree air. Access to this stretch of river was limited so while I don’t consider it remote, rescue is difficult. If something went wrong, I was on my own. River snorkeling is largely a safe activity, but extra caution was warranted.

The river was flowing at 10,000 cubic feet per second, gauge height was at 11 feet when I left my truck at the take out and I figured one of the problems I might face was the shallow nature of the river. If I had to repeatedly walk, my on water time would be longer than what I wanted given the cold. The Susquehanna’s rocky snaggle toothed character was evident through the low water. By the time I was dropped off at the put in 3 miles upstream, the dam was flowing 50,000 cubic feet per second, the river rose 3 feet, and my worry was now too much water, too fast that could drive me into a strainer or exposed rock. I wouldn’t have much control relative to the force of the river.

I flowed out from the Octoraro and hoped the visibility would improve once I was clear of its muddy trail. I only saw tan. Finally the bottom came into view and blurred past as I approached the head of a gravel bar submerged by the rising flow. I swam towards the middle of the river, and floated with the current. An immature eagle circled close overhead, and seemed curious about what I was. A mature eagle took flight from a shore line tree when I was next to it and multiple herons grunted off rocks as I passed.

Unseen rock behemoths forced large mushroom waves of water up from the bottom. Leaves that fell and entered the river this autumn were churned up with other bits of detritus that were swirled and pulverized. This is the food that drives much of the river ecosystem, and every time I approached a place where the water was forced up, I witnessed this process of detritus cycling that is so critical to the rivers ecology

Occasionally large rocks emerged through the murk then disappeared just as fast, but for the most part, I only felt their effects. I learned that splashing on the horizon meant the approach of a rapid, and so I occasionally lifted my face from the water to scan downstream. I wanted to spend more time in the rapids, to play in the eddies, but didn’t want to take more risks. I wasn’t sure exactly how long this trip would take, and my hands were already painfully numb. I wanted to hang behind some of the larger rocks to see if any fish were holding. I wanted to investigate some of the small tributary streams that flowed into the Susquehanna. But most of all I wanted to make it, so I passed up the urge to explore and kept heading downstream.

I reached the take out without incident, a lot faster than I expected, and good thing. My hands were so numb they were almost unusable. I was only barely able to open my truck door and start it for some heat. The rewarming process was excruciating.

This trip gave me a completely new perspective on this river, a new and different understanding and respect. It gave me pride for facing the fear of being alone on big water without a boat. Mostly it made me want to come back to explore some more with mask and snorkel. There is so much river and so little time.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Bagged Another

French Creek was up, and a little muddy. It ran bank full and looked more like a flat coastal plane stream in this section rather than the rolling piedmont stream I expected. I didn’t think I would find much living among the unconsolidated sandy bottom. There didn’t seem to be much habitat structure from my stream side perspective, and lack of habitat diversity usually means a lack of aquatic diversity. But still I suited up, zipped my drysuit closed, squeezed into the wetsuit hood, sealed my mask and slid into the smooth water.

French Creek flows through Crow’s Nest Refuge, one of the many preserves managed by the Natural Lands Trust ( ). The 612 acre Crow’s Nest preserve is adjacent to the Hopewell Big Woods which includes French Creek State Park and the Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site. This preserve complex forms the largest expanse of forest in south eastern Pennsylvania and together they protect, 73,000 acres, which should protect a lot of stream. I expected this section of the French to be dazzling.

The creek is deceiving. It’s not very wide, and while the stream is small in stature, it is great in force. Before I could get my bearings, the current carried me ten feet. I sailed over a sandy bottom with four foot holes carved into clay that edged the stream. Occasional logs and stumps tried to snag my dry suit. A shell caught my attention. I stopped, spun around head up into the current and swam against the flow. Sure enough, there tucked halfway into the sand was a young unionid mussel. This was a great find. Not that unio's are endangered, but freshwater mussels as a class are one of the most imperiled group of North American fresh water organisms. Many unionid mussel species are common though they aren’t as abundant as they were a few decades ago and they are struggling in some rivers like the Susquehanna. There doesn’t seem to be any recruitment of young Eastern Elliptio mussels into the population above the Conowingo dam. A population that isn’t recruiting or producing new members is destined to collapse, so it seems just a matter of time before elliptios disappear from the Susquehanna. We think this is because juvenile eels can’t make it past Conowingo on their upstream return to the river, and eels, we think, are essential to elliptio reproduction. The female mussel produces glochidia and spits a spider web of them into the water and substrate. The glochidia latch onto the eels when they pass through the web and start their lives as parasites. After four weeks, the glochidia drop from the eels and settle into to the bottom of the river as baby elliptios where they will live, possibly for the next 100 years. Knowing the complex and intricate reproductive biology behind this juvenile makes me appreciate its presence that much more. I snap a few pictures and continue to let the current carry me where it will. I never know what lies around the next bend, in the next hole.

A school of chub scatter for deeper water when I pass over, and I am positive at least one of them was a trout. A small fish darts for the scant protection of a small rock. I figured it was a tessellated darter, since it stayed on the bottom, and kind of hopped the way darters do. But as I took some shots I noticed that it had a different body type than a darter. I’m not sure what this one was, but I don’t think I have it yet.

I collect pictures of fish. It’s kind of like an aquatic life list. But it’s more than a collection. Each photo is a strand in the connection I have with streams. Each picture represents a trip, a stream and species that I affect through the choices I make, and who in turn affect me through life affirming experiences I share with them. Everything we do affects water quality, and I am grateful for organizations like Natural Lands Trust who choose to preserve land, which protects water. I came home satisfied and fulfilled. I got another one that I didn’t have, and as usual, witnessed the unexpected hidden from view in our streams. This section of French Creek was dazzling, and I can’t wait to come back.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Water Wears Away Rock

“The fall of dripping water wears away the stone.”- Lucretius

"Water dropping day by day wears the hardest rock away." - Chinese proverb

“The waters wear the stones:” Job 14:19

Water wears away rock. It seems this is a universal truth. Maybe that’s the draw of this place. We can see tangible evidence that persistence does produce results. Water does wear away rock, given enough time. I am at the pot rocks on the Gunpowder River, so named for the pot holes carved into the schist bedrock by eons of water.

The smoothed rock feels warm as I suit up, and its mica flecked blue and white bands are striking. The area brings back memories of a favorite family vacation to Ausable Chasm in New York. I think about these kinds of things much more since my parents died, and it’s a rare day in a river when I don’t think of them at least once. Ausable chasm had potholes carved into its rock too, only on a much more grand scale, in a much more dramatic canyon. But the pot rocks on the Gunpowder do a fine job proving that water in fact does wear away rock.

I slip into a slower moving section of river, partly protected from the main flow by a wall of jagged bedrock, and I scramble upstream. It’s hard to hold onto smooth and slick schist. The flow intensifies as I approach a short falls, and the water becomes turbulent with disorienting infused air bubbles. I dive for the bottom two feet below and scramble to find any lip to hold onto. The rock is worn smooth and sticks are wedged into a crack between two slabs.

I let go and let the current carry me downstream where I cross a gravel bar and enter the main flow of the Gunpowder. This isn’t an especially large or powerful river, but all of its energy seems to be focused here where water from the piedmont quickly falls to meet the coastal plane.

I think I see a ghost school of shad waiting in the large eddy below the forceful rapid, but second guess myself as it’s the wrong time of year to have shad here. I try to stand in the 5 foot deep water but the force of what appears to be even a gentle upstream eddy sweeps me off my feet and tries to push me into the main fast, hard flow. I swim against the eddy, downstream, and confirm they weren’t ghosts. The school of a dozen shad zip into the gloom.

The power of the water is intense and the large eddy continues to try to swirl me into the main flow. This is a remote spot, yet I feel watched. I feel reluctant and nervous. Scared even. I feel like nothing more than a leaf swirled around in the drift. I feel insignificant. Just another speck in the river. I have minimal control on where I go. I am at the mercy of the river, and I am humbled and grounded.

And maybe that grounding is part of the attraction to this truth, that water wears rock. It reminds us that everything, even things that seem infinitely permanent and unmovable like rock, or parents, is ephemeral. The sooner we accept this, the sweeter life becomes, and rivers are great teachers of this lesson.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Rumors of My Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

I guess I looked like a body floating in the White Clay Creek. Except I wasn’t just floating, I was moving. Upstream, against the current. But still I appreciated that people stopped to make sure that I was not dead. I was thankful for all 5 “Are u ok’s?” I got, and no one called 911 before checking to see that I was in fact not dead. I appreciated that. I appreciated peoples concern that they would stop to see if anything was wrong. Restores my faith in humanity.

But someone snorkeling in the White Clay Creek should not be the exception, even on the cusp of winter. It should be the norm, so that when people see someone floating in a stream they assume they are watching fish, or appreciating the architecture of the creek, or maybe enjoying the rush of weightless flight through riffles and rapids rather than assuming they’re dead. Creek snorkeling shouldn’t be that abnormal. There should be hundreds of people creek snorkeling. Hundreds of people should be sticking their faces in the nearest stream to see what’s going on, to experience the perceived mundane in extraordinary ways.

I was trying to watch a school of large chubs, and tried harder to get a decent shot of the shy fish. But it was difficult to get lost in the wilderness of the White Clay after the 6th “Hey can you hear me? Are you ok? WHAT are you doing?” followed by my explanation that there really are amazing things to see here, even now. Really, I’m not crazy, and I’m not dead. On the contrary, I’m very sane and very much alive…creek snorkeling does that for me. It’s been a long 6 week haul without a day off and these trips keep me sane. Creek snorkeling helps me stay in the here and now, and helps me feel alive. It puts things into perspective. Maybe I can get these folks into the creek when things warm up in the spring so they too can experience the weightless solitude, perspective, and discovery that keeps me coming back.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


I looked forward to this day for 6 weeks: my first day off in as long. I planned on snorkeling new waters. Maybe check out French Creek, the Delaware at the water gap, maybe somewhere in the Pocono Mountains, or the Mullica in the Jersey pine barrens. Either way it was going to be a local adventure. Then it rained. A lot. And the weather service issued a flood warning for the region. The USGS hydrographs for all the streams within a few hours’ drive were up. I went to my local creek, just to check to make sure the warning was accurate, and sure enough the Octoraro was bank full, running hard and darker than chocolate milk. Damn it.

It’s been a flooded season, and good visibility was spotty as a result. We were in a few week intermission between significant rain events and clarity in most creeks was stellar. Not anymore, and now I have to wait for two or three weeks after the water recedes for the fine clay particles to settle out and clarity to return to where it was yesterday, before the rains.

It’s all part of a cycle, a circle of life kind of thing. It’s all part of the system and process, and so are we. Rivers flood and get murky. Water recedes and clears. Snorkeling gets good. It’s the nature of river systems. There is no static. It’s always different and I am thankful that I can never go in the same river twice. This too shall pass, and I am thankful for the realization.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

It Ain't Over Till The Fish Don't Swim

The season is winding down as temperatures fall. Things are getting lethargic, and soon they’ll disappear. Riffles that were chock full of fish become barren and soon trips are more for experiencing the architecture of the stream than they are for watching the drama of aquatic survival. Every winter I chase life till it mysteriously disappears. I want to know where the fish go when it gets cold, and each fall I learn the winter time fate of another species. I look forward to the November when I discover where all the other species go.

While its time to celebrate the fall harvest, and give thanks, this time of year I often find myself mourning the loss, even if only temporary, of schools of fish and abundant macroinvertebrates. I certainly didn’t expect to see life still making a living two weeks before Thanksgiving on the Brandywine. This trip was more about logistics: finding good access points, and getting a feel for the hydroscape. This trip to the Brandywine was going to be one about structure more than life. I wanted to learn the topography of riffles and pools of this part of the Brandywine that is bordered by the ChesLen preserve, in preparation for trips I hope to run this summer. ChesLen is the largest privately held preserve in south eastern Pennsylvania at 1,263 acres, and is owned and managed by the Natural Lands Trust. Natural Lands Trust ( has preserved 21,000 acres in eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and I look forward to exploring the underwater world of all 40 Natural Lands Trust preserves.

The water in the Brandywine was invitingly clear. Clear that I haven’t seen since I snorkeled the Conesauga River in Cherokee National Forest. This was going to be a good trip regardless of whether I saw shiners or trout or darters or any other life. Stream structure and geology can be just as intriguing. I waded into knee deep water and laid down over a sandy bottom. It was difficult to hold against the strong current without any rocks to grab. Drifts of sand played across the bottom as mica flecks sparkled. Small scalloped dunes formed and washed away with each flow change in this temporary place. I crawled upstream on fingertips and toes and headed toward the cobbly middle. Brilliant green algae with strands of red covered the rocks and stood at down stream attention. Orange yellow quartz boulders were scoured clean of any growth on their upstream sides, and perfectly round smoothed caddis fly cases were glued fast.

I enjoyed trying to solve the puzzle of the Brandywines geologic past. I admired how water shaped rock and rock affected water, and how the hydroscape reflected all of these eons old forces to produce this view that lasts for just this one moment in time and then is forever changed. I noticed a cylindrical tube of fish hunkered down into the gravel, between two pieces of mica, which drew my attention to this spot. I would have never seen this northern hog sucker if it weren’t for the glint of mica. Northern hog suckers are one of those fish whose wintertime whereabouts puzzled me. Is this where they go for the winter? Are they always present, but are just so well camouflaged that I can’t detect their presence unless I am literally on top of them? Their motion gives them away when its warmer and they are more active. They usually shoot off before I can decipher them from their background due to their cryptic coloration. But this one stayed put, probably because of the cold and I was able to appreciate its gold tipped fins and green banded body.

The force of the water was still tremendous here in the center of the stream so I struggled upstream and toward river left, where a nice eddy swirled behind a finger of gravel that protruded into the river. As I crawled along I found two spiny checked crayfish mating in the gravel. More life and the drama of its procreation here on the cusp of the winter, when life slows, hides, seems to just hang on. But maybe that’s just my perception based on not seeing life out and about flaunting its existence the way it does in our summer time streams. Maybe life is always there and abundant. We just need to look in the right way to see it, from the right perspective.

I floated into the eddy and rested. Movement caught my attention. A school of common shiners with brilliant peach pectoral and anal fins fed in the drift. The fish held against the current, then drifted down stream, shot into the eddy and repeated in a swirling calculated pattern of hunting for prey I couldn’t see. They were intent on feeding so my presence was hardly noticed, except that they enjoyed devouring the stuff I inadvertently kicked into the water column as I clawed upstream.

The cold water started to chill through my dry suit and fleece layer. My mouth was getting numb and hands were hard to move. It was time to leave. I let go of the rock that kept me stationary on the edge of the eddy and floated in the lifeless flow. There was plenty of life there below me between the rocks and cobble that I couldn’t see, just nothing obvious in the water column. I enjoyed the weightless flight as the current pushed me downstream so fast boulders were blurred. It ain’t over till the fish don’t swim, and even then, it ain’t over.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Moonlight Snorkel

It’s a few weeks before Thanksgiving and I need to get into the water. Shorter days and longer nights mean I need to snorkel in the dark, which is fine. Except that I don’t like the dark very much. But still, I like snorkeling more than I dislike the dark, so I decided to take advantage of the first full moon after Halloween to get into the river, mostly just to get in, but also to experience this other worldly realm.
Terrestrial systems are different at night. They look different, they feel different. There are different creatures out. Things act differently. But still they are familiar. I expect the night time Octoraro to be completely foreign. This place I have visited underwater hundreds of times I am sure will be hard to recognize.
I get to the waters edge and look over my shoulder frequently. I am thankful for the full moon that lights up the stream valley with a warm blue hue. But I wouldn’t call it welcoming. There is a lot of human history here, and I have experienced a lot of the more recent tragedy. I have responded to drownings, overdoses, fatal car accidents, and shootings, all within a mile of this spot, and their ghosts seem close. So while the guiding moon light takes the edge off my nervousness, I’m still a little jumpy.
I zip up my dry suit, wriggle into my hood and mask up. I step into the stream, lay down and am instantly disoriented. This spot I have visited thousands of times is so different in the dark, where I can only see whatever is illuminated in a small foot wide circle of light. Familiar boulder, log and root land marks are hidden.
An eel rockets upstream out of my beam of light. They are supposed to be migrating right about now, on a no moon night near Halloween, so I figure I missed them by a week. Or maybe this mythical mass migration a just a ghost too, a figment of what once was. I’ve never seen it, and I’m pretty sure this eel is a young one who is just out hunting tonight.
Algae covers the bottom and waves in the current like fine black hair. Leaves in the drift come into view just before they strike my mask, which makes me more nervous. There doesn’t seem to be any fish, but I think I’m looking in the wrong places, or they take off as soon as my light touches them. The bottom is a monotonous expanse of sand and gravel, in a stretch of stream that should be riffle. Erosion puts more sand and gravel into streams and covers the nooks and crannies of a diverse habitat like rock and cobble, which cuts down on the number of species and individuals present. It looks like a hairy desert at night, and the algal fur comes from too much nitrogen that we unintentionally put in water by driving too much, not maintaining our septics, and overfertilizing our lawns.
Rocks come into view it seems only after I am right upon them, even though my beam extends ten feet upstream. A small school of minnows hang and feed in the eddy. Finally some life besides algae. Even though they are a non-descript muddy brown, their metallic sides glisten when my flashlight catches them just right. Always hidden beauty. Vision confined to a light beam becomes normal, and I start to head upstream into the current. I hope to see more nocturnal life, to observe the night time workings of this familiar day time ecology. Just as I get used to the unsettling feeling of leaves striking my mask without warning, and restricted vision, my light quits. I am in the middle of the stream with no light, and leaves plastered to my mask by the current. Time to leave. I drift towards the bank where I started and haul out of the stream.
Moonlight reflects like white paint swirled on a black sea as I un peel from wetsuit hood and dry suit. I feel more at ease. The only real ghosts here are the ones I concoct, and the ones of clean and abundant streams past.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Jumping Back In

I haven’t been in the water for 3 months, at least not to snorkel for the sake of snorkeling. I led some ridiculously large trips with kids on the upper Chesapeake in 1 foot visibility that turned more into free swims than snorkel explorations of bay grass beds. The trips got kids who never swam in the Chesapeake into the water and a few of the 100 students I saw each day for two weeks really got into snorkeling. For the majority it was a loud screaming free swim. Not a bad thing, necessarily, especially for kids who otherwise would have never had the chance to experience the Chesapeake. But they weren’t the snorkeling explorations I envisioned when I organized the trips. A few factors led to the dry hiatus, and I really started to question the point of it all. Water stayed murky late into the summer, so visibilities never really got good. The more I questioned why, the more it seemed that human existence, even at its most basic simple level, meant impaired waters. What actions could creek snorkeling possibly inspire that would improve water quality if human existence impaired it? Funding for environmental education continued to get slashed and while there was (and is) a ton of hype and saber rattling about no child left inside, funding for environmental education programs is not only lacking, but diminishing. Opportunities to get kids out snorkeling seemed to be disappearing. Thunderstorms dumped, rivers got muddy and flashed, water levels slowly receded and the mud settled. But the small windows of clear water seemed to always conflict with my schedule, so I finally conceded to what’s the point, and quit trying.
I felt the effects of not being in water. Water is so primal to our existence. We need it physiologically, and I need it spiritually, so after three months without being in a creek I started to feel disjointed, ungrounded, and floundering on land. I decided it was time to jump back in.
I stood on the bank of Basin Run on an early November afternoon. I knew the water was going to be cold, and wasn’t sure what to expect. There have been a lot of big flows between the last time I was here 4 months ago and now, including the largest rainfall event since Hurricane Agnes in 1972. I expected things would be different and not necessarily for the better, but this spot on the side of the creek still felt like home.
The stabbing sensation of frigid water on my face and hands felt comfortable. There weren’t the mounds of sediment I expected after the heavy runoff we had over the summer. Rocks weren't smothered by sands and gravels. The bottom, while different, was the same as I remembered it: cobbles and boulders, clean of sediment and sand. I pushed upstream against the swift current and fresh cold water shot down the front of my wet suit. I crested a line of cobble and boulder and watched a school of black nosed and rosey sided dace hold in the pool. Even the fish are here. The point is, to answer my question from three months ago, that life goes on. Rivers flow. Things change, but there are also constants. Basin Run is here, and it will be. But it will be different. Life finds a way. Creek snorkeling helps me remember these truths, and this short dip reconnected, reengaged, recentered and reinspired me to take up the cross of clean water once again.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Feeding Frenzy

I could hear the faint clicking intensify as the school approached. Then the bottom of the river downstream of where I lay started to wriggle, and I realized that the school had arrived beneath me. The stonerollers were here. They moved across the bottom in a crazed grazing frenzy. Hundreds of them in the same school swam along the bottom scraping algae from rocks as they moved upstream. Their sides flashed silver with every twisting bite they gouged from the algae covering rocks and their jaws snapped, which explained the clicking sound. Stonerollers are some of my favorite fish partly because of the elaborate stone piling mating rituals the males use to attract females in the spring. But I also like them because they are really a non-descript fish for most of the year. However, careful observation reveals how well adapted they are for keeping algae in check in our rivers and streams, and the non-descript, even unnoticeable, become incredible. Their mouths slightly protrude downward, and hard bony plates on their upper jaw leave u shaped scrapes in rock coating algae. Dr. Mary Powers conducted an interesting exclusion experiment. Bass are stone roller predators, so she excluded stone rollers from sections of river by keeping bass there, and eliminated bass from other sections. The sections where the bass were kept became overgrown in algae. This demonstrates the importance of the stonerollers to the system, but it also illustrates the often unnoticed, and very hidden interrelationships between everything in nature. Everything matters and as John Muir said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Algae, bass, and marauding stonerollers.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Swimming With Snakes

Misidentified and Misunderstood
“There’s a copperhead down there in the creek bed. I wouldn’t go down there.”
“Thanks for the heads up” I said and continued to the stream as people piled out of a favorite swimming hole. Better visibility and more room for me. I knew it wasn’t a copper head. It was a northern water snake. The same kind of snake that bit Mike Rowe numerous times on my favorite Dirty Jobs episode.
Water snakes like any animal, including humans, will lash out when threatened or captured. So Mike was bitten time and again. I have never been bitten by a water snake, but then I’m not trying as hard. I don’t like snakes. I like to watch them, but I’m not big on handing them. Water snakes are common this time of year, and every time I see one in the water, I try to swim with it, but usually can’t keep up. They are incredibly striking animals, graceful and adept in the water, and fast on land. Unfortunately they are constantly confused with the poisonous copper head. Water snakes are not poisonous and will not come after people. Their diet is almost entirely fish and it is really amazing to watch them hunt and successfully snag a fish that are often surprisingly large for the snakes’ body size. But still they are regularly the target of rocks thrown by people who just don’t understand how harmless they are or how important they are to the stream system. Maybe they just can’t see past their unfounded fear to notice the beauty and agility of these extraordinary reptiles.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Still Clear

I’ve driven over this little non-descript and forgotten stream hundreds of times on my way to and from work, and each time I peer over the low barricade on the short bridge to get a glimpse of the water, and every time it looks clear, even after heavy rains. But it’s a small creek and not very accessible due to fast traffic and overgrown banks so I never considered exploring it. I decided to snorkel this stream when I got frustrated with the seemingly perpetual murky condition of other streams in the area due to flashy downpours this early summer season. This stream never seemed to be affected, and I wondered if this was just an illusion, or if the water really was clearer.
I struggled through the climbing bittersweet, and poison ivy, to get to a pool that was out of sight from the road. I was paranoid about being confused with a body, which has happened before.
As soon as I stuck my face in it, I knew the water was clearer. Fish were abundant and diverse. Tessellated and johnny darters sent small puffs of sediment into the water with every jerky leap off the bottom. Chubs slowly came in to explore what I was, and nervously shot off into the distance. A common shiner in reddish hue breeding color danced before me as blue gill and pumpkin seeds put on aggressive displays to defend their nests. A small school of northern hog sucker worked the bottom and I’m pretty sure I saw a stoneroller. It was like swimming in an aquarium. While the water is clear, it isn’t without impact. Algae covers everything.
I checked out this tiny gem on the map, to try to determine why it stays clear when many of the other streams in the area turn brown after rains. It’s called Stony Creek, and its watershed is about 40% developed, mostly in new houses. So, this stream should be as muddy as the others, unless the storm water management requirements of newer construction, like storm water retention ponds, work. Maybe that is why Stony Creek is clear, but overfertilized. We have required technology to reduce heavy flows that come from impervious surfaces, which reduces scouring flows from reaching streams like this which results in clearer water. But we haven’t done too much yet to control nitrogen runoff, which makes this stringy algae that covers everything in this stream. Stony Creek gives me hope that maybe newer storm water management regulations do work in reducing sediment loads to our streams, which translates to healthier streams and clearer water to snorkel. And lots of fish to see.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Creek Snorkeling Isn’t Braille Diving

I heard a diver describe local diving conditions as braille diving because you dive by feel, the visibility is that poor. I used the same language when I was an avid diver and knew that there wasn’t much to see on the bottom of the deeper holes on the Susquehanna, or in the quarries turned diving destinations. But still, his comment bothered me, even if he did have a point. Maybe it was because that perpetuated the attitude that there isn’t anything of worth or value to see or protect in the rivers and streams in our neighborhoods, which certainly isn’t the case. But I think his comment hit a nerve because I caught the same attitude creeping into my psyche. There is a seasonality to water clarity here, and it seemed that the better summer visibility was really late in arriving. It seemed that in the last week I walked to the waters edge, gear bag in hand, watched clouds of sediments blur the bottom, shook my head, turned around and went home more than I got into the water. Maybe the comment from this diver bothered me because my reality, living in the developed east, is muddy water, compared to other places like Cherokee National Forest.
So when I got to the Octoraro tonight and saw less than clear water, my first inclination was to turn around. But it has been a few days since I was in any water, and it was hot, so I decided to get wet. I crept along in a foot of water with the bottom in clear view. Three feet of visibility might mean you can’t see anything in 60 feet of water, but in a foot of water everything is sharp. A small mouth bass confronted me behind his rock, circled around and confronted me again. Must have been in his territory. Further upstream, the water deepened, and things on the bottom of the four foot hole were hazy, but recognizable. I swam over a two foot long catfish. A small rapid dumps into this deeper pool, and I let the upstream eddy carry me into it.
A few male satinfin shiners were in a dog fight over prime breeding terrain. Their dainty iridescent blue dorsal fins and silver white pectoral and pelvic fins fluttered and flared like butterflies in a stiff breeze. I was able to watch this mid water column display of glowing blue and silver-white for quite some time as the males defended their spot, and enticed females, while creek chubs fed on the bottom. One of the males mistook me for another satinfin shiner and flared right in front of my mask. Maybe he saw his reflection in the lens. Either way it was an incredible display. The water was murky, and I couldn’t make out more than the outline of a large bedrock slab four feet away. But that didn’t matter. I had plenty of visibility to witness the beauty and drama of the Octoraro this evening. Creek snorkeling isn’t braille diving.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Murky Refuge

It was a really hard week, and tougher day. I couldn’t wait to get under water, to become enveloped by the silence and the white noise rush of water over rock. To only exist in the moment the way river snorkeling always brings me to the here and now. A small but intense thunderstorm traversed the upper parts of Deer Creeks watershed last night, and while the surface of the creek barely rose, the water became murky with soil in water runoff. I couldn’t see much but that didn’t matter. I skulked upstream, clambered over rocks, held on and dug in. I used eddies to work my way up river.
The creek slackens here into a deep pool and I explored the margins. Fry squiggled through the slower moving water. An eel, I think, darted along the bottom when my shadow passed over. A bass shot from under a rock. The bright day made seeing what lie in the shadow of rock impossible until my head was well shrouded in the dark, which was a little disconcerting. The unknown, even in a known river, is a little unsettling, and I fully expected to see a foot long hellbender lunge out from the dusk.
While there wasn’t much to clearly see in the way of fish, the up close macro world was plainly in view, and just as fascinating. Snails rasped trails through the algae that covered rocks. Hydropsche caddis nets captured more than their share of fine sediments. The world around me was silent, except for the gurgle of water flowing past my ears, and the occasional clicking that I suspect is produced by stonerollers as they snap algae off boulders. I watched the water sheet over rocks, and the problems of the day washed away with each eddy that swirled past. There is something rejuvenating about being encapsulated in water, even when it’s cloudy.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Hope on Deer Creek

I needed a trip like this. It hasn’t been a hopeful week. An expert panel of marine scientists convened by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean determined that marine life is at significant risk for extinctions never before seen in human history due to over fishing, pollution and climate change. I’m not much for alarmist environmentalism, but there is some good science behind this report.
It’s also been a little depressing to snorkel in my region lately. I haven’t seen clear water for a month, since leaving Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee. We have had a flashy weather pattern this spring where localized storm bursts flush sediments into the streams, because of the poor choices we make on land. Forests and marsh can absorb these downpours without much mud entering our streams. Farm field, lawn, rooftop and driveway cant, so our streams turn to chocolate milk instantly after a rain, and drive visibilities to inches for days. I still snorkel, and am still amazed at what I see when I go, but it’s nowhere near as good as it can be.
Yesterday was the clincher when I witnessed a family stoning a northern water snake to death on Deer Creek. It was too late before I realized what they were doing. People can be ignorant. I really questioned the value of time spent doing environmental education in rivers and streams.
But today I took a group of Baltimore City high school students snorkeling in the Susquehanna River and Deer Creek, and I have hope because of them. They are interns at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, and they are the next wave of environmentalists working to protect the environment which by default protects our health. In the short time I spent with these students today, it was obvious that Kathy Fuller who heads up the program and other staff members of the aquarium are preparing them well. They are versed in concepts such as watershed, and the issues killing our streams and Chesapeake: sediments, nutrients, and invasive species, and they are acting to educate on these topics. While each of them didn’t feel comfortable in the water today, they all at least tried to snorkel, and they were all engaged in being in the river. Thank you National Aquarium in Baltimore interns for braving cloudier than usual water today, and for restoring my faith in the future.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

In Search of Monsters

I got a text from Jeremy Monroe, Director of Fresh Waters Illustrated saying that the Tellico River just behind the cabin I was staying in held hellbenders. The search was on. I have wanted to see hellbenders in the wild for the last 20 years. They were last sighted near my house, in the lower Susquehanna, in the mid 80’s. Jeremy Wade did a River Monsters episode on the giant Japanese salamander last month, and while the hellbender is nowhere near 4 foot, finding a one foot long salamander in the Tellico would be incredible.
Dave Herasimtschuk, a photographer/videographer with Fresh Waters Illustrated saw a half dozen out in the open at this same spot a month ago when waters were much colder. We slipped into the river and searched for 2 hours before dusk. The Tellico here is interesting. I searched through 3 foot deep smooth walled canyons the water carved from the otherwise jagged bedrock. I dove to the bottom to peer into the shadows formed under the ledges of larger rocks, which is typical hellbender habitat, and I looked in the small crannies of the fractured bedrock, which isn’t. Orange and black striped tangerine darters were plentiful, and they put on colorful displays that made not finding any hellbenders ok.
We conjectured why we didn’t see any hellbenders since they were so abundant a month ago, and figured that water temperatures have gone up, so either the hellbenders headed upstream to cooler waters, or have assumed their typical secretive, nocturnal habit. They respire through their skin, so water conditions are pretty critical, which is one of the reasons they are at risk. They are very susceptible to low oxygen levels and high sediment loads, and can’t tolerate either. Cold water can hold more oxygen than warm water, so we thought they either headed upstream for cooler waters, or are active at night since water temps mirror air temperatures slightly, and drop after dark. We decided that a night snorkel in the Tellico might produce one.
Hellbenders are important to me because they represent wild rivers. They are a species that was present where I live, that are now thought to be gone because of increased sediments that come from the things we do on land, and because some fishermen killed the ones they caught out of fear. Even today they are found dead wrapped in fishing line on rivers in the southern Appalachians. I hold hope that there are still hellbenders in the lower Susquehanna. The large slabby bedrock habitat is perfect for them, and is part of the reason for my hope that a population is still hiding somewhere in the 9 mile stretch of river below the Conowingo dam. Even if the lower Susquehanna hellbenders are gone, I have hope that maybe they can be restored. This is why I want to find them here in Tennessee.
It was a few minutes before midnight when I slipped into the dark water. I debated a bit before getting wet, but decided I had to make the attempt to find the hellbender. It’s not like they are unheard of or never seen here. But I have never seen one.
The water feels bigger at night. The deepest spot on this section of Tellico might be 3 feet deep, but it feels like 30 since my sight is limited to a narrow cone of light. I can’t see more than the reach of the beam which only feels like 3 feet. I slowly creep upstream through canyons carved through the bedrock, holding on tight to the search image of a dark brown foot long salamander with broad mouth and wrinkly folds of skin. I find a hog sucker that seems to be sleeping, or dazed by the light and it lets me get in close for some photos. A few large red horse startle me as they rocket out of the dark. I turn to try to get a picture, and one of them hits my thigh hard in the chaos a bright beam of light creates in a narrow deep section all silted up from the commotion.
The night snorkel didn’t produce any hellbenders, but I’m not done looking. I will keep peeking under ledges when I snorkel the lower Susquehanna at home. And I will be back here again to look for these incredible animals. I didn’t find any hellbenders, but I like the idea of continuing the search, and keeping hope for their survival and restoration.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Last Gasp On the North East

A shad lay on its side, still passing water over its gills but barely. Its body was dark purple and blue mottled instead of clean silver. A sad sight, but the shad had run its course. This is the natural order. Shad migrate in the spring and some of them die in the process, unlike salmon where each migrant swims upstream to its death. Many shad return year after year to spawn. But this shad was one of the group that wouldn’t be returning next year. As I watched this fish futilely work to pump water over its gills, gasping for water, I felt for this animal. It obviously wanted to live. It was struggling to survive even though it was such an obvious futile attempt. At the same time, this was a sign of hope. That shad are here at all is a miracle. The North East is a fairly impacted stream. It is eutrophic, heavy with sediments, and there is a short dam a half mile upstream, that I bet is just tall enough to stop shad from making their way any further up the North East. But this fish was here, which I assumed meant it made its way as far upstream as it could, laid its eggs, or fertilized some, and set the process in motion for future runs of shad. This fish lived the life it was supposed to live and now it was done. There shouldn’t be anything sad about that, but rather there should be joy, and hope that we should all be so lucky.
I continued on over thick growths of stringy algae, signs of over fertilized water, fertilizers we put in creeks by what we put on land: lawn fertilizers, animals waste, even car exhaust is a huge source of nitrogen. But the sunnies didn’t mind and as I floated into a large eddy to the side of a short riffle, I was greeted by curious small bluegill, and large defensive male pumpkin seeds in full red coloration. I stayed for as long as the cold water would allow, watching the blue gill get closer, and the pumpkin seeds take aggressive postures then swim off in a tight circle only to return nose to nose with me. A lot of these fish are non –native. Many species of sunfish were introduced here and they have become part of the natural aquatic backdrop. The algae don’t belong here either, at least not in these quantities. The only thing I saw today that belongs in the North East was the dying shad. But even in this impacted stream there is something of worth and value to see. For the North East that’s ancient migrations hanging on, and in some cases making a comeback, and non-native fish putting on incredible displays of color and territoriality.

Thursday, June 9, 2011


Just as I was packing up at New River Junction, Jeremy Monroe, Director of Fresh Waters Illustrated called me to finalize our plans for the rest of the week. When he learned I was staying on the New River, he gave me a tip for a riffle that held candy darters, located in Stony Creek. I wasn’t planning on snorkeling here today, but I couldn’t pass up the possibility of seeing candy darters. I have seen pictures of these fish in field guides and part wonder if the artists renderings are more fiction than fact. I didn’t think fish that brightly colored, red, orange, green, and blue, were supposed to live in North America. The riffle is behind the Interior Whistle Stop, a small picnic park with a wooden train playground. The riffle doesn’t look like much from the surface. Not much more than shin deep. But as soon as I stuck my face in the water, a candy darter shot off. Then another darted from behind a rock that I was able to slowly trail upstream and snap multiple shots of the amazingly colored fish. This is why I do this, why I snorkel streams and rivers and document what I see. To protect amazing sights like this. To protect the diversity that remains in our fresh waters. There were other fish here as well, mountain red belly dace, and crayfish. Seeing them gave me the same thrill I got when I saw the candy darter. And this was the same thrill I got when I snorkeled with the smallmouth this morning, the shad this spring, and the sunnies every summer. There are things of worth and beauty in our streams, and we need to work to protect them all. I want my kids and grandkids to have the same opportunities I did to see these incredible streamscapes and witness the drama, struggles and splendor of fresh water life. I want the seventh generation to have more of these opportunities than we do today.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Into The Unknown, The Journey Begins

I always feel a little trepidation before I get in the water. Not really fear, but more a healthy respect. This is especially true of big water and new rivers. It’s the expectancy of exploration, the excitement of the unknown, and the little voice that says “maybe there really are river monsters here.” So my feelings while I ate breakfast on the bank of the New River in Blacksburg, Virginia, while a little uncomfortable, were familiar. This was my first stop on a week-long mini snorkeling expedition of the South East US, one of the most biologically rich freshwater regions in the world.
The New is anything but as one of the oldest rivers in North America. It cut through the layers of bedrock as the mountains that surround it rose. It is legendary among white water boaters, but this was my first visit. Steep sided forested mountains descend into the gap where the river flows and continues to carve its course. Geology dictates hydrology, and hydrology shapes geology. This is supposed to be world class small mouth bass water, so I am hoping to see some. The water is clear, especially compared to the streams I have been in so far this spring.
The above surface expectations were matched under water. The river is cutting down through the bedrock to form canyons where the water has carved away bands of softer rock. Snails are abundant and their gold, red and dark blue metallic shells dot the exposed rock. Extensive gardens of aquatic plants cover the rocks in reds and greens. A small smallmouth stays just barely in view but too far away to get a decent picture, and I figure this snorkel will be like most when it comes to smallies. Teasingly stay just barely in view I think to keep an eye on, and maybe figure out, the large new thing floating in the river, but I have rarely had them come in close enough in order to capture a good image. I turn and drift downstream in the fast current, fly over plant covered bedrock ridges and soar through orange and black rock canyons. A large smallmouth darts out ahead of me and lets me keep up with it. Then I notice two more in a shallower, slower moving part of the river. They allow me to get in close enough to get a few good shots as I watch how they act, how they respond to me and the river and the current around them. One of the fish has an Ohio lamprey attached to the caudal peduncle. Lamprey are parasitic, and this bass was providing nourishment for its hitchhiker. Ohio lamprey are native fish, they evolved with other native fish unlike the non-native sea lamprey, so they don’t have a negative effect on host fish populations. They are an incredible fish in their own right.
So much discovered, explored and seen at one spot on a large river for part of one morning. So much more to see. What is it like to snorkel the rapids I hear humming downstream? What fish live there? What does the river look like underwater upstream? Who come out at night? And this is the beauty of river snorkeling. Always something to see.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Mud Puddle Snorkeling

Coopers branch isn’t much to look at. Its tiny, barely 5 foot wide, and maintains a scant trickle of water. As is typical of urban stream, it swells to 10 times its size after even just a small rain. I was skeptical that it would be able to keep 40 snorkeling middle schoolers engaged, but this was their creek. The stream that passes through their neighborhood, that drains chemlawned back yards, so I agreed with their dynamic teacher, that the experience would be worth the risk.
I got lots of strange looks as I schlepped bags of snorkeling gear from Oella up the trolley trail to the snorkeling location. “Oh! Snorkeling, really?” was one comment I heard, and used it as an opportunity for friendly explanation about how it might not look like much, but just beneath the surface lies a whole different world, possibly full of life, and we were going to explore that, even though I was myself a little skeptical. Coopers branch is a tiny impacted waterway, a heavily suburbanized stream. Most of its watershed is impervious road, driveway and roof top. It drains communities in Catonsville and empties into the Patapsco River at Oella, across the river from Ellicott City, and I was skeptical that we would see much.
I gave instructions and handed out gear. Everyone got in the water, but not everyone snorkeled. Those who did saw life from a different perspective. Crayfish, blacknosed dace, some kind of minnow, frogs and water snakes were all sighted. There wasn’t a lot of diversity, as was expected, but life was abundant and the students were excited to explore it.
They all got connected and that’s what it’s all about isn’t it? Exploring our connection to the creek and the creek to us and how that all fits into the larger world around us. Each student came away a little more connected to the Coopers Branch, whether they stuck their face in it or not. And as usual the view below was unexpected and spectacular. Even in this tiny smudge of a creek.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Little Conestoga

The Little Conestoga isn’t much to look at here. Its surface looks brown and the bottom is nondescript. It flows through a pastoral landscape and the region is picturesque. But the stream itself at this point doesn’t look like much. I debate about whether the effort of donning a dry suit is worth it, whether the rest of the bottom will mimic the featureless part I can see here at my neoprene clad feet. One way to find out: I spit in my mask, rinse it out, slip it over and tuck it under the wetsuit hood and splash into the fast moving stream. The force of the water is intense and I have a hard time holding my place in the stream against the current. My toes dig in and slide downstream through the gravel bottom. I struggle to the center of the river where the bottom becomes rocky which gives me something to hold onto. The force of the water mashes my mask to my face and the bridge of my nose starts to hurt where the plastic frame pushes against it. I really start to wonder if the effort is worth it. I wonder if someone driving over the bridge behind me will mistake me as a body and call 911, which has happened elsewhere. I wonder if an owner of one of the homes on the left bank is going to come out and try to shoo me out of their stream. It all makes me feel unsettled, and since I don’t see much life, feel like I went through all this effort for nothing. But as I relax my mind, focus more on the stream, and less on the things that may happen outside of the stream, life comes into view.
A tessellated darter, one of the most abundant bottom dwelling fish in our region, stares back at me inches from my facemask. This fish is so well camouflaged, I wouldn’t have noticed him if he didn’t move. Minnows I can’t identify lazily drift downstream in the current sideways, catch an eddy to point back into the flow, swim back upstream and repeat.
Tessellated Darters like the bottom of slower sections of the stream. Minnows hang in the moderate flow areas and the green sided darters seem to like the fast flowing riffles, and wriggle down into the nooks between rocks. I briefly saw a pair nestled into a water carved bowl on the lee side of a boulder. Green sided darters are elusive. I’ve been unsuccessfully chasing them for the last few weeks in Conowingo Creek just for the chance at a picture. I usually see them as dark green squiggles that quickly disappear somewhere into the bottom. Today I learned that green sided darters look like algae blowing in the current.
Green darters are one of those fish that, when in breeding color, don’t look like they belong here. They look tropical, like I should see them in the Amazon basin somewhere, or maybe the Congo. But they are here in this nondescript from the surface stream, and once I was able to decipher their flowing algae camouflage, I was finally able to recognize one before it disappeared so I could follow the fish and capture a photo of the elusive beauties. The life in our streams is truly amazing, and gives us more reasons to take action to protect water quality. There is life of worth and value in our streams that deserves just as much care and concern as the amazon rainforest.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Rainbow Ballet

Fishing Creek was clear after a week without rain. I took advantage of the visibility to explore another section of stream, just 100 yards downstream from my last trip. Each stream is unique. Even adjacent stretches of the same creek can have drastically different feels as was the case here. Just 100 yards upstream, Fishing Creek is dominated with finer gravels, and a three foot deep hole is prominent in the stream scape. Here, 100 yards downstream, and downstream of a short steep riffle, fishing creek is different. There’s less gravel bar and more cobble and bedrock. And the fish community is different as a result. Upstream the fish I observed were mostly white sucker in the bottom of the gravely hole, with some black nosed and rosy sided dace hanging around a large rock and tree strainer in the center of the stream. Here, one of the first fish I saw was a northern hogsucker. These fish are elusive. They are excellently camouflaged, and they usually rocket off into the hazy distance by the time I notice them.
White suckers and creek chubs are also present, and I enjoy watching them feed on the bottom in the current. But what really catches my attention is the rainbow under a rock as a school of rosy sided dace hold their position in the current. Their red sides seemed to glow from the dark. It is a colorful time to be in streams. These fish, like many others are in breeding coloration as attempts are made to attract mates.
A little ways upstream a group of rosy sided dace dance above a patch of clean gravel nestled between two slabs of schist bedrock. Rainbow squiggles of red, green and blue dart in circles above the sediment free patch. Rosy sided dace spawn over nests of other fish, and what looked like two creek chubs hunkered on the bottom. I wonder if their clean gravel nest was the site of this reproductive ballet. Spring is an amazing time. The world awakens and just as the great freshwater migrations trickle to an end, the dramatic flashes of breeding fish color take over. All in the streams right in our own region.

Monday, May 9, 2011


The shad have been running for a few weeks now, and I am as in awe of their migration today after being in the water with them a dozen times, as I was the first day of their journey this year. It’s the sign that I look for that says spring is here, though the water is still frigid.
I spent too much time in the water one day last week watching them, as I tried for the perfect shot that never arrives, and hauled out shivering. I stripped out of my wetsuit and laid on a warm slab in the sun. Four herons also watched the shad, with the intention of making a smaller one dinner. Caddis flies hatched and in the water beneath my rock, the fresh water miracle of spring continued - shad passed upstream. Others have joined the shad since the first day of their journey. I saw carp with the shad over the last week and a large eel bisected a school in an eddy.
The shad draw more humans as well, and available parking spaces became rarer as the shad run increased. Room on the river to snorkel between fishermen got a little tight. Herons and humans, shad and carp all participate in this rite of seasonal passage.
But the spring migration has crescendoed and is now trickling away. There are fewer fishermen, more parking spots, and less fish. I’m a little disappointed to see all the action and excitement of this incredible journey go until next year. Witnessing the upstream drama, and to experience a little of it by swimming with the fish on the journey makes me feel alive.
One of the thrilling encounters this year was swimming with a school of quillbacks as these tanks of fish made their way against a strong current through a rapid in Deer Creek.
I have been around for 45 years and still learned a lot this spring about who migrates. I never knew quillback traveled upstream in search of gravel beds to spawn. I never really looked for them. It was a true thrill to hold onto the bottom in the midst of 6 of these large fish. They seemed to acknowledge and accept my presence and kept on pumping their caudal fins against the current, right next to me, so that I could feel the pressure waves coming off their tails through my wetsuit. Learning like this makes life exciting.
I wanted to swim with the quillbacks one more time. These were my big discovery this run. I learned their ecology, where they fit into the stream system, where they migrate from and to and I learned how to swim with them, how they respond to my presence so next year I should be able to get closer to them. But I will have to wait 11 months to find out. In the meantime, the underwater seasons of our streams march on, and I am off to try to witness and capture the breeding colors of green sided darters.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Great Expectations

I expected to see lots of fish here today, specifically trout. I snorkeled the Tucquan Creek before. The water was muddier then following some July showers, and the shadows of larger fish stayed in view just enough for my imagination to identify them as native brook trout, but they never came close enough for me to confirm the fictional id. The water was clearer on this early spring day than that day last July, and showers threatened as I suited up along side the creek. Tucquan Creek is remote feeling and looking. It cascades over schist shelves through a steep sided hemlock and rhododendron valley. The spring forest floor is covered in may apple, tooth wort, trout lily and a few trillium. It’s easy to imagine the eddies and holes filled with trout nose up in the current waiting to pluck insect morsels as they drift by. I expect to not only see these fish, but capture their images since the last time I was here the murk made catching a shot of them impossible.
The native trout populations in most streams have been replaced by non native rainbow trout, raised in hatcheries and released for fishermen to fish out. The put and take ritual is repeated every spring. Brown trout, also not originally from North America, have established widespread wild breeding populations, and often replace the native brookies. Tucquan seems an ideal candidate for remnant native bookies, or wild browns, at least based on its setting. But looks can be deceiving, and while Tucquan is definitely a special place, it may not be special because of the trout it holds. Turns out that the Tucquan isn’t listed as a trout stream at all, in spite of its stereotypical LL Bean troutish appearance. Maybe it’s the largely agricultural watershed with resulting muddy water after rains that limits the trouts ability to survive here. Maybe it’s the shallow riffles. Whatever the reason, the reported lack of trout doesn’t make the Tucquan less exceptional. This feels like a wild stream and that does something for my soul. When I snorkel here, I snorkel alone. There isn’t anyone else around who I need to explain myself to, which is typical at most other streams I visit. The ravine is deep and sheltered, and I look over my shoulder frequently, just to make sure a bear isn’t watching. Every once in a while a bear is reported from this region, and it makes the news since they are not at all common. But still this place feels wild and remote enough that if a bear were to be in the area, it would like to be here. The wildness, the deep holes and forceful chutes, all remind me that I am just another part of the larger whole. My actions matter. But in the end, we all end up recycled back into the living fraction of the planet, human and fish alike.
I change my focus from searching for elusive trout to exploring all the components of the creek. The views underwater are spectacular. Clean schist glistens silver. Green, red and black algal clumps wave in quiver in the current. Stone and may flies crawl along water smoothed bedrock and are worth watching as much as trout. Ameletid may flies cling to submerged logs. A tan shape shoots from under a rock to under a short falls. Could it be a trout? I crawl upstream towards a chute that cascades water over a one foot falls. The environment here is otherworldly. It is loud. All I can hear is the rush of water that sounds like a train, and air bubbles blind me. I pull myself through the current to behind the chute and witness the force of the water as it carves smooth holes in the sparkly silver orange bedrock. I don’t see any fish. I drift with the current back down stream, let myself experience the freedom of getting spun in an eddy, and look under a lone rock in the middle to a pool to find a brown trout. Turns out the Tucquan does live up to its LL Bean appearance.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Golden Glimmer of Hope

It started to rain 30 minutes ago, and already this small stream is recognizing the effects. It’s flowing a little more powerfully, there’s more stuff in the water from the forest canopy, leave bits and seed coverings, and there’s more silt. There’s still a fine covering of silt over almost everything from the last rain. Erosion is a natural process that causes siltation. But we have increased the eroding power of water by increasing hard surfaces that don’t allow water to percolate through. Water runs off roof tops and driveways hard and fast and scours soil into the local stream. The soil, now silt, covers everything, chokes the gills of fish and aquatic insects, and homogenizes habitat.
One of the predicted scenarios associated with global warming induced climate destabilization is that rains in the mid-Atlantic will become heavier and more sporadic which means heavier, more scouring flows of water.
In spite of the grayish covering, there were still stone flies present. Stone flies are like aquatic canaries and they typically can’t survive in waters too impacted by sediments or nutrients. Their presence is usually interpreted to mean relatively healthy water. One golden stonefly in particular, served especially as a beacon of hope. All is not lost, and if anything these grey silts and golden stoneflies are calls to action: calls to install rain barrels and rain gardens to contain the runoff coming from our roof tops and driveways.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Cycle of Life

Blueback herring are holed up in pools of the Principio falls, spawning, oblivious to me, the intruder. Masses of metallic blue and silver shoot past upstream and swirl back downstream in pulsating eddies of fish. This is one of the incredible rites of spring, and I am grateful to be here with my head underwater to witness the drama.
A dead half-eaten herring lies on the bottom, on a bed of eggs. Eggs cover part of the carcass. The entire bottom is covered in eggs, and they occasionally swirl up past my face mask when an eddy whirls them back into the water column. Nothing goes to waste, and I’m sure the rest of this herring will be eaten by someone in the next few hours, giving sustenance to a heron, or otter, crayfish or catfish. Just as I’m sure most of these millions of eggs will become someone else’s dinner rather than become new bluebacked herring. It’s hard to tell whose eggs are whose and who fertilized which ones. It’s just one procreative soup, and each fish contributes with the hope and expectation that their young will make it. An assumption that they achieved a form of immortality by passing their genetic information to the next generation. The remains of the dead herring are a reminder that I will be there too someday, and the eggs are a reminder that my kids will be here to carry on. This amazing annual feat of migration, life and death models the shortness of our journeys and the spiraling cycle of life.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

That's Not a Shad

Hundreds of hickory shad pushed their way upstream to spawn. I hovered on the edge of the current in a large eddy and stretched out into the stream to get as close to the school as possible without interrupting the procession.
The fish got used to me and allowed me to stay without leaving until I coughed, or cleared my leaky snorkel. They would swim from the hole when they heard the noise only to timidly return a few minutes later. I just hung out with the fish, a part of this eons old ritual of upstream migration, and enjoyed the privilege of witnessing this feat. There was an intensity of purpose with these fish. There wasn’t much that was going to keep them from their destination, and I absorbed as much of the view of their journey as I could.
The fish scattered and the pool became eerily still. There weren’t silver tubes struggling upstream in the hazy distance. There weren’t over bitten lower jaws characteristic of hickory shad, wiggling side to side in the current. There was an unexplained quiet in the pool and I thought I saw a large shadow pass just barely out of sight. If I were in the ocean I would have been thinking predator, the way the fish disappeared, as a shadow arrived. But this was a freshwater stream, and I figured my imagination was at work. The shad returned and I set back to experiencing this timeless journey.
Then it came up through the center of the pool against the current like the shad: a large Asian carp. The 2 foot long fish was twice as long and three times as wide as the shad. Asian carp were brought to North America to control algae and aquatic plant growth in aquaculture operations. They escaped captivity and are now considered an invasive species in most freshwater systems. They can alter habitats that results in the reduction of other species. They are herbivores and effectively out eat other fish. Billions of dollars are being spent on trying to keep them from entering the great lakes, and sometimes I wonder if it’s all folly. Once the genies out of the bottle, it’s pretty hard to put it back, especially when the genie is wet and slippery. Carp are considered invasive in the Chesapeake region and they root up submerged vegetation beds as they feed and reproduce. But still they are amazing fish to swim with. Shad spend their lives at sea and move into rivers and streams in spring to spawn. They are built with compact bodies and powerful caudal fins to make such a journey. Carp are more tubular and rotund, better built for lakes and slow moving water than this rapid. But this carp was able to move against the current with as much grace as the migrants, even though its body type is obviously not well suited for this environment, and I wonder what it was doing here, moving upstream with the sleek lined shad.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Power of Water

I clawed along the bottom to pull my way upstream in 2 feet of smooth but quickly flowing water. When I let go of a stone or boulder, I was swept down river, until I was able to dig my toes into the cobbles. I drifted into an eddy slowed by the rooty shoreline and came nose to nose with a tessellated darter who excavated a home from the sand underneath a small cobble, well out of the flow. I swam back towards the middle of the river and allowed the current to carry me down stream. I peeked above the surface every few minutes to gauge how far I had before the river shallows. It will take some time and effort to stop short of the boulders that form a downstream set of rapids.
I cautiously entered the short rapid and held onto a boulder with one hand, which allowed my body to trail behind in the strong current. Ameletid mayfly nymphs clung to the lee side of rocks. Their black and white banded frilly tails waved in the turbulent water. The darter and mayflies have all devised graceful ways to sustain themselves against the flow that I clumsily struggled against. The bedrock below was scoured smooth, and a submerged whirlpool twirled a stone in a circle that wore a small cup in the rock. Water shaped the course of this river and set its depth. It placed, moved and restructured the rocks that form this rapid. Water is a dynamic force. It’s not done working and the river shifts and changes before my eyes. This will be a different place tomorrow, and almost unrecognizable next year. The holes I knew six months ago are either deeper or gone. One rapid is now a short falls. Nothing is static. Water is a powerful force on our planet. It shapes bedrock, landscapes, ecosystems and lives. It launches wars. Tessellated darters need clean water. Ameletid mayflies need clean water. We need clean water. Life is not possible without it and yet we treat water as if it held no authority. As if our lives didn’t depend on it. We treat water as some kind of throw away commodity rather than giving it the respect and honor it deserves. Many native peoples felt that water was spirit, and I can feel the spirit of this river while I watch the effect it has on the darters, mayflies, bedrock and me.