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.