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.

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