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.

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