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.