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.

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