Friday, December 23, 2011

Snorkeling on the Shortest Day

The winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, has been celebrated since ancient times. It’s the beginning of winter here in the northern hemisphere, but more importantly, it’s the beginning of the end of the dark. It’s a celebration of hope that more light than dark will return. It’s a celebration of hope that things will get warm again.

I figured I’d spend at least part of the solstice in Basin Run. This has become a bit of a ritual for me. I have jumped into the same pool in Basin Run as a way of welcoming winter for the last three years. It’s more of a reminder to me that even though it’s getting colder out, and water temperatures are to the point where I can only stay in for 30 minutes or so before my hands are non-functional, I can still snorkel. I can still explore our streams through the winter. There are still things to learn beneath the ice. But more than anything I want to tell the passage of time by changes in the world rather than a flipped page of a calendar. Getting into Basin Run and other streams regularly throughout the year, regardless of weather, lets me track the year through seasonal transformations of our rivers.

I laid down and crept upstream. The cold stung as usual, but the water clarity was incredible. Case maker caddisfly larvae covered everything. Their sand grain cases dotted every rock and boulder, and the black larvae inside dutifully grazed on algae. There wasn’t a lot of algae covering the structure of this stream, possibly because the caddis kept it in check. I can witness stream ecology in action any day of the year. I just need to look for it.

I’ve been worried about Basin Run. It’s my go to creek. Basin Run is five minutes from my house, and is still a high quality stream. Most of its watershed is still forested and while other streams run murky for days after a rain, Basin Run typically flows clear.

It’s a beautiful little steam that still retains a lot of its character, but its watershed is developing which usually means murkier water. But the water still runs clear and the creek affords incredible views, and as I watch this herd of case maker caddis larvae graze, and black nosed dace sluggishly nestle into the gravel bottom, I feel my worry dissolve to hope.

There is hope for this stream and every other one. Hope that we have learned from our past transgressions and changed our behaviors that resulted in polluted, murky water. There is hope that this knowledge protects streams like Basin Run. There is hope that water quality and diversity will return as we work to remedy more impacted streams like Herring Run, and the Jones Falls in Baltimore City. There is hope that there will be more light than dark, and clear water will return.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

So Much River, So Little Time

Part of the draw of creek and river snorkeling is witnessing the brilliance of fresh water life. Part of it is exploring areas most haven’t seen underwater, and part of it is experiencing creeks and rivers on their terms. This trip was more about experiencing the Susquehanna on its terms than it was about witnessing riverine ecology in action, and that made me a little nervous.

The water was murky and cold and if things went just a little wrong, I could find myself in a lot of trouble. I was going to snorkel a three mile section of the Susquehanna from Octoraro Creek to just north of Port Deposit. This isn’t a particularly dangerous part of river. There aren’t any killer rapids, but a lot of people have died here. It was cold, so if one thing went wrong that caused me to be on the river for longer than planned, or if my drysuit failed for any reason, I was at real risk of becoming hypothermic. Then there were the usual drowning hazards.

I was familiar with this section of river, which heightened my caution. This stretch was controlled by the Conowingo Dam, or as controlled as we fool ourselves that dams control. Ultimately the river does what it wants when it wants, and each spring the lower Susquehanna reminds us all of that fact when she floods, in spite of Conowingo. But today the dam dictated the river, so water levels changed drastically in an instant. The risks I mentally listed included strainers and rocks. I wanted to make sure to swim clear of the heads of islands, rocks, and anything else that might catch and hold logs in the water that strain the water through them, but capture larger objects, like me. Strainers are usually fatal. One wrong rocky snag on my dry suit and I would be exposed to 39 degree water, and 29 degree air. Access to this stretch of river was limited so while I don’t consider it remote, rescue is difficult. If something went wrong, I was on my own. River snorkeling is largely a safe activity, but extra caution was warranted.

The river was flowing at 10,000 cubic feet per second, gauge height was at 11 feet when I left my truck at the take out and I figured one of the problems I might face was the shallow nature of the river. If I had to repeatedly walk, my on water time would be longer than what I wanted given the cold. The Susquehanna’s rocky snaggle toothed character was evident through the low water. By the time I was dropped off at the put in 3 miles upstream, the dam was flowing 50,000 cubic feet per second, the river rose 3 feet, and my worry was now too much water, too fast that could drive me into a strainer or exposed rock. I wouldn’t have much control relative to the force of the river.

I flowed out from the Octoraro and hoped the visibility would improve once I was clear of its muddy trail. I only saw tan. Finally the bottom came into view and blurred past as I approached the head of a gravel bar submerged by the rising flow. I swam towards the middle of the river, and floated with the current. An immature eagle circled close overhead, and seemed curious about what I was. A mature eagle took flight from a shore line tree when I was next to it and multiple herons grunted off rocks as I passed.

Unseen rock behemoths forced large mushroom waves of water up from the bottom. Leaves that fell and entered the river this autumn were churned up with other bits of detritus that were swirled and pulverized. This is the food that drives much of the river ecosystem, and every time I approached a place where the water was forced up, I witnessed this process of detritus cycling that is so critical to the rivers ecology

Occasionally large rocks emerged through the murk then disappeared just as fast, but for the most part, I only felt their effects. I learned that splashing on the horizon meant the approach of a rapid, and so I occasionally lifted my face from the water to scan downstream. I wanted to spend more time in the rapids, to play in the eddies, but didn’t want to take more risks. I wasn’t sure exactly how long this trip would take, and my hands were already painfully numb. I wanted to hang behind some of the larger rocks to see if any fish were holding. I wanted to investigate some of the small tributary streams that flowed into the Susquehanna. But most of all I wanted to make it, so I passed up the urge to explore and kept heading downstream.

I reached the take out without incident, a lot faster than I expected, and good thing. My hands were so numb they were almost unusable. I was only barely able to open my truck door and start it for some heat. The rewarming process was excruciating.

This trip gave me a completely new perspective on this river, a new and different understanding and respect. It gave me pride for facing the fear of being alone on big water without a boat. Mostly it made me want to come back to explore some more with mask and snorkel. There is so much river and so little time.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Bagged Another

French Creek was up, and a little muddy. It ran bank full and looked more like a flat coastal plane stream in this section rather than the rolling piedmont stream I expected. I didn’t think I would find much living among the unconsolidated sandy bottom. There didn’t seem to be much habitat structure from my stream side perspective, and lack of habitat diversity usually means a lack of aquatic diversity. But still I suited up, zipped my drysuit closed, squeezed into the wetsuit hood, sealed my mask and slid into the smooth water.

French Creek flows through Crow’s Nest Refuge, one of the many preserves managed by the Natural Lands Trust ( ). The 612 acre Crow’s Nest preserve is adjacent to the Hopewell Big Woods which includes French Creek State Park and the Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site. This preserve complex forms the largest expanse of forest in south eastern Pennsylvania and together they protect, 73,000 acres, which should protect a lot of stream. I expected this section of the French to be dazzling.

The creek is deceiving. It’s not very wide, and while the stream is small in stature, it is great in force. Before I could get my bearings, the current carried me ten feet. I sailed over a sandy bottom with four foot holes carved into clay that edged the stream. Occasional logs and stumps tried to snag my dry suit. A shell caught my attention. I stopped, spun around head up into the current and swam against the flow. Sure enough, there tucked halfway into the sand was a young unionid mussel. This was a great find. Not that unio's are endangered, but freshwater mussels as a class are one of the most imperiled group of North American fresh water organisms. Many unionid mussel species are common though they aren’t as abundant as they were a few decades ago and they are struggling in some rivers like the Susquehanna. There doesn’t seem to be any recruitment of young Eastern Elliptio mussels into the population above the Conowingo dam. A population that isn’t recruiting or producing new members is destined to collapse, so it seems just a matter of time before elliptios disappear from the Susquehanna. We think this is because juvenile eels can’t make it past Conowingo on their upstream return to the river, and eels, we think, are essential to elliptio reproduction. The female mussel produces glochidia and spits a spider web of them into the water and substrate. The glochidia latch onto the eels when they pass through the web and start their lives as parasites. After four weeks, the glochidia drop from the eels and settle into to the bottom of the river as baby elliptios where they will live, possibly for the next 100 years. Knowing the complex and intricate reproductive biology behind this juvenile makes me appreciate its presence that much more. I snap a few pictures and continue to let the current carry me where it will. I never know what lies around the next bend, in the next hole.

A school of chub scatter for deeper water when I pass over, and I am positive at least one of them was a trout. A small fish darts for the scant protection of a small rock. I figured it was a tessellated darter, since it stayed on the bottom, and kind of hopped the way darters do. But as I took some shots I noticed that it had a different body type than a darter. I’m not sure what this one was, but I don’t think I have it yet.

I collect pictures of fish. It’s kind of like an aquatic life list. But it’s more than a collection. Each photo is a strand in the connection I have with streams. Each picture represents a trip, a stream and species that I affect through the choices I make, and who in turn affect me through life affirming experiences I share with them. Everything we do affects water quality, and I am grateful for organizations like Natural Lands Trust who choose to preserve land, which protects water. I came home satisfied and fulfilled. I got another one that I didn’t have, and as usual, witnessed the unexpected hidden from view in our streams. This section of French Creek was dazzling, and I can’t wait to come back.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Water Wears Away Rock

“The fall of dripping water wears away the stone.”- Lucretius

"Water dropping day by day wears the hardest rock away." - Chinese proverb

“The waters wear the stones:” Job 14:19

Water wears away rock. It seems this is a universal truth. Maybe that’s the draw of this place. We can see tangible evidence that persistence does produce results. Water does wear away rock, given enough time. I am at the pot rocks on the Gunpowder River, so named for the pot holes carved into the schist bedrock by eons of water.

The smoothed rock feels warm as I suit up, and its mica flecked blue and white bands are striking. The area brings back memories of a favorite family vacation to Ausable Chasm in New York. I think about these kinds of things much more since my parents died, and it’s a rare day in a river when I don’t think of them at least once. Ausable chasm had potholes carved into its rock too, only on a much more grand scale, in a much more dramatic canyon. But the pot rocks on the Gunpowder do a fine job proving that water in fact does wear away rock.

I slip into a slower moving section of river, partly protected from the main flow by a wall of jagged bedrock, and I scramble upstream. It’s hard to hold onto smooth and slick schist. The flow intensifies as I approach a short falls, and the water becomes turbulent with disorienting infused air bubbles. I dive for the bottom two feet below and scramble to find any lip to hold onto. The rock is worn smooth and sticks are wedged into a crack between two slabs.

I let go and let the current carry me downstream where I cross a gravel bar and enter the main flow of the Gunpowder. This isn’t an especially large or powerful river, but all of its energy seems to be focused here where water from the piedmont quickly falls to meet the coastal plane.

I think I see a ghost school of shad waiting in the large eddy below the forceful rapid, but second guess myself as it’s the wrong time of year to have shad here. I try to stand in the 5 foot deep water but the force of what appears to be even a gentle upstream eddy sweeps me off my feet and tries to push me into the main fast, hard flow. I swim against the eddy, downstream, and confirm they weren’t ghosts. The school of a dozen shad zip into the gloom.

The power of the water is intense and the large eddy continues to try to swirl me into the main flow. This is a remote spot, yet I feel watched. I feel reluctant and nervous. Scared even. I feel like nothing more than a leaf swirled around in the drift. I feel insignificant. Just another speck in the river. I have minimal control on where I go. I am at the mercy of the river, and I am humbled and grounded.

And maybe that grounding is part of the attraction to this truth, that water wears rock. It reminds us that everything, even things that seem infinitely permanent and unmovable like rock, or parents, is ephemeral. The sooner we accept this, the sweeter life becomes, and rivers are great teachers of this lesson.