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.

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