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.