Monday, December 31, 2012

Where There Is A Will There Is A Way

I spent a lot of 2012 wishing for clear water. The more I creek snorkel, the more I realize how degraded the water in our rivers and streams has become because of the things we do on land. Most streams turn chocolaty brown after just a quarter of an inch of rain, and some stay too murky to snorkel for days, even weeks, after a good rain. I depend on clear water to snorkel and it just felt like this year was a year of muddy water, again. It wasn’t until I ran a trip with the National Aquarium that I realized where there is a will there is a way. We had a line of typical summer afternoon thunderstorms move through our region the day before the trip. A lot of the rain hit land that we disturbed which resulted in soil clouding the runoff, and our streams. A lot of the water ran from hard surfaces like roads, driveways and rooftops which scoured more soil into our streams. The result was really murky water in the stream where I planned to take this group snorkeling. I decided we would try the Susquehanna first. The river usually experiences very slow flows in the summer, and the water gets very clear. We slipped into the river below Conowingo dam and watched a herd of Virginia river sails graze algae off rocks, watched a few sunnies defend their nests, and saw the shadows of a few smallmouth bass stay just barely in view. Conowingo started to generate power and released water. The warning lights went off, the increased flow kicked sediment into the water which reduced visibility, so we left. I still had a half a day of snorkeling to fill and was out of options, I thought. We went to Deer Creek, our usual go to, and as assumed earlier in the morning, it was brown with sediment. As the group ate lunch I scoped out a smaller tributary to the Susquehanna. It is a rocky, boulder strewn creek, barely 10 feet wide that tumbles down the hills of the lower Susquehanna valley. It’s not very deep, maybe a foot in a few holes, but the water ran clear. We explored this small tributary after lunch, and watched an entirely different aquatic community of blacknosed dace, common shiner and crayfish function. As the year ended I found myself in the same situation. Every time my schedule opened up to allow a snorkeling trip, it rained, our rivers got muddy and I got frustrated. Then I checked some of the smaller steams, and they ran clear. I got into the water, experienced the familiar but always awe inspiring force water exerts even in this small stream, and was transported into another realm. As I hovered in the creek, a darter shot from beneath me and let the current wrap its body around another rock. Caddisfly larvae grazed. I floated and watched until I started to shiver in the barely above freezing conditions. This water isn’t as big, and the larger fish and fish schools aren’t here, but there is amazing life to see in the smaller tributaries. It’s easy for me to get pessimistic about the future of our aquatic environments when water clarity depends on a drought. But finding clear water to snorkel gives hope. In this season of making resolutions, I resolve to not let muddy water get in my way of exploring rivers and streams. We all need to resolve to take the actions necessary to protect our surface waters and all the amazing life it contains. Where there is a will there is a way.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Rock Tornados

We got an inch and a half of rain which raised the level of this stream by four feet, and turned it to chocolate milk. Three days later the water wasn’t as murky and the water level dropped but the flow was still greater than what I was used to at this spot. The water was hazy but clear enough to see the bottom. I hung onto edges of boulders as I crossed the rapid to the far shore, and felt like a leaf in a hurricane. Sand gathered in large mounds in the lee of shoreline rock, and a few minnows lazily drifted from their protective eddies. The higher velocity water rearranges the parts of the bottom it can and tornados of sand and rock swirl in eddies behind boulders. The water has uprooted some Asian clams from the bottom and piled them with a mound of pebbles behind a rock. Part of the bank is cut deeper and more tree roots are exposed. I watch the river shape itself as I creep upstream. There is a feeling of permanence that comes with watching a river. Rain falls, rivers rise, water wears away rock. This stream was here long before I was, and it will be here long after I am gone. In the mean time I get to share some moments in its current and I feel completely free as I drift downstream through the rapid, entirely at the mercy of the water. It’s reassuring and life affirming to know that there are things much larger than I at work in the world, and I get to play a small role. Most times snorkeling is about watching life. This trip was about watching the immortal processes that make life in streams possible.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Furry Rivers

I was just here three weeks ago and it didn’t look anything like this. Everything is covered in a fluffy algal fur. The angulated lines of the rocks that make up this rapid are softened and billow in the flow. The fast moving water mashes the algae to the boulders and form a mosaic of quarter sized green and brown patches that quiver in the current. If I didn’t know I was in Deer Creek, I could easily mistake my surroundings for another planet, it looks so alien. This is a normal seasonal progression for our streams. We see an explosion of algal growth when the balance of nutrients, sunlight and grazing is thrown off center with autumn leaf fall, and colder temperatures. Deciduous trees drop their leaves each fall and many of them end up in streams. This increases the amount of sunlight reaching our streams and increases the amount of nutrients in our creeks, which create conditions excellent for an explosion of algal growth. At the same time, temperatures drop, and algae grazing insets reduce their activity, so the streams control mechanism of excess algal growth stalls. The system gets temporarily off balance, algae cover everything, and our rivers get furry. We are familiar with the terrestrial passage of the seasons, and maybe take how life responds to changes in sunlight intensity, which affects temperatures, for granted. It is a more pronounced change in our streams because we don’t live there. Even though streams are familiar, their underwater views are foreign so changes appear less subtle, more dramatic and more easily noticed. What most people don’t recognize, and I often forget, is that streams have seasons too. Time goes on, and seasons come and go, even in our rivers and streams. I feel fortunate to watch the underwater seasons pass, generally in step with and definitely linked to the terrestrial ones, which ultimately are affected by cosmic events. But the underwater seasons of our rivers and streams are unique in how they present, and I get to witness the otherworldly seasonal progression.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Waterfall Hole

It’s loud here, but beautiful. A new realm. A large school of some kind of minnow curiously swims right up to my mask and camera, which makes getting a good shot difficult, but makes the swim really enjoyable. The topography of this large pool grades from fine sand on the shallow downstream edge to a deeper pocket with exposed bedrock where the water continues to wear it away. A large pile of leaves accumulates on the right, under a canopy of overhanging rhododendron. A rhododendron branch swirls in the current, and I have to work to keep from being pulled upstream into the waterfall. The stream funnels through a bedrock trough and dumps about 15 feet into this pool where a cascade of bubbles almost reach to the bottom 4 feet below. The large school actively feeds unconcerned that I am there. A large stoneroller grazes on the bedrock shelf at the back of the plunge pool and darts behind the curtain of bubbles for protection. I pick my head from the stream and a whole new view of the river is revealed. I am almost directly under the small falls, and what appeared to be a modest sized falls now seems enormous. It is so quiet above in the forest, but when I put my face back under, the river is filled with the crash of the waterfall, like an unexpected constant rumble of a train. That is the case most times I snorkel: the view below if often something unexpected, but there is also a reassuring permanence to our rivers and streams. Water flows downhill. Life goes on. And Snorkeling often becomes a celebration of that life and the opportunity to experience it.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Not So Angry Beaver

Lumps of sawdust poop laid on the bottom, and a fresh beaver chew was placed against what appeared to be an old beaver dam. More chew sticks and feces were on the bottom near what I suspected was a bank den. I thought this creek was partially beaver controlled, and these fresh signs prove it. That might explain the greater than expected diversity and abundance of fish we see in this small creek. In her book, Water, Alice Atwater presents a compelling argument about how beaver were responsible for water quality in North America. These large rodents were extremely abundant, and dammed flowing waters to form beaver ponds. Beaver ponds trap sediment, act as great filters for water, and create a diversity of habitats. Diverse habitats and clean water support biologically rich ecosystems. Beaver were trapped out initially for their fur and later because we consider them nuisances. As the beaver were removed, so were the benefits of their engineering. Today they are returning to even urban streams, though we still tend to remove them when they create what we consider flooding problems. Maybe part of the solution to restoring stream health is to leave the beaver alone. The beaver are welcome here at Eden Mill and we enjoy the benefits they provide to this stream.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Hoping For Hellbender, Grateful For Trout

I wasn’t thinking about hellbender until yesterday afternoon, when I heard they were abundant here in Pisgah National Forest. Someone who snorkeled this river said they saw 6 hanging out right in the open this summer, right where I was. Hellbenders are foot long salamanders, giants in North American terms. They need cold, clean water to survive so their numbers are declining and their range is shrinking since cold clear stream are becoming rare. They used to be in the rivers near my house but are now believed to be gone. I have never seen one even though I have been on an unofficial search for the last 3 years by looking for them any time I am in their range. I want to see one in case they disappear from the wild, but I have hope that we can protect the populations that remain. The river was clear and loaded with fish, but that didn’t matter. I had a search image of a flattened, round, well camouflaged, mottled head of a salamander blazed in my brain and nothing else mattered. I envisioned it barely peeking out from under a flat rock and I searched for an image to match the one in my head. I’m sure I missed some fish. I saw movement in my periphery and dismissed it. It wasn’t until I looked to my left and saw a large brown trout holding under a log that I realized I was missing incredible biology for the search of what might be. I was missing what was in front of me, which was pretty awesome, in the quest for something better. The fish was large as trout go, and beautifully colored with yellow fins and belly, red and brown spots above, and a slightly hooked lower jaw. The large fish just held under the log at the base of a small falls and watched me watch it until it decided I was too much threat to tolerate, when it disappeared with one flick of its tail. Brown trout are not native to North America. They were brought here from Europe and like the also non-native rainbow trout, are raised in hatcheries and released in our rivers and streams. They are top predators in the aquatic food web, and part of me wonders if the decline we are seeing in hellbender could be related to these non-native fish feeding on hellbender larvae. But this trout was an incredible animal and I shared a similar thrill in watching the brownie that fly fishers do when they capture this elusive fish. It definitely would have been amazing to see a hellbender. These animals are so secretive and well camouflaged, and the rivers in Pisgah afford so many places where a hellbender can effectively hide from a snorkeler, I bet that my search was very incomplete, that I was just at Pisgah at the wrong time of year and if I return in their breeding season, I’ll see one. Still, every time I search and come up empty, part of me worries that their numbers are dropping and maybe I will miss my chance to observe them in the wild. But for now I am grateful for trout and will continue my hellbender quest.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Hungry Mother

The water is clear and cold and there is no life, at least none that I can see, but the place is still interesting. The water stings my exposed cheeks, and ice crystals elevate pebbles on the shore. The stream scape is new, different for me. The bottom is angulated fractured bedrock that hasn’t had the time to get worn smooth by the water. A recent small avalanche put two boulders, a log and some moss into the middle of the small creek, and a large pile of leaves accumulated on the bottom of the lee side of the stream, over a small sand bar. The creek is tiny, barely 6 feet wide and I figure this is probably a first order stream. Streams are defined by size. A first order stream has no tributaries. A second order steam forms when two first order streams come together. A third order stream forms when two second order streams come together, and so on. Based on its tiny size, shallow nature and slow flow, I assumed Hungry Mother Creek was first order and while it was small and without any fish I could see, it was still interesting based on landscape and legend. Hungry Mother got its name from the story of a female settler, Molly Marley and her small child who were captured by Native Americans after they destroyed encroaching European settlements in the area. Molly and her son eventually escaped and when the young boy was found wandering down the creek all he could say was “hungry mother”. A search party found his mother dead along the creek I was snorkeling in, maybe even at this spot. We have, and still do, treat each other like crap. It’s no wonder we treat our environment the same. The tragedy of this place, perpetrated by both Native Americans and Europeans, gives the stream an unsettled feel. The lack of fish adds to the graveyard ambiance. But I don’t think the lack of life is due to abuse. It’s cold and I think things have hunkered down for the winter. I imagine this place is pretty different in summer, when the creek is full of fish and the valley full of humans enjoying the park named for this legend. I hope I get the chance to come back and snorkel here when it’s warm.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

All Holed Up

Big branch is really different than the last time I was here in August. The remnants of a hurricane came through and dumped 7 inches of rain in a short time. Big Branch took heavy flows, no doubt, and now the small creek is rearranged. Little is familiar. Logs that fall fish used for shelter are gone. New ones take their place. Holes are filled in, others are enlarged. Streams are dynamic places, and are supposed to change. The question is how fast, and as climate destabilizes and storms become more intense. I wonder if our stream ecosystems will keep pace. I approach the first hole in the stream with a lot of anticipation. There have always been a lot of fish here. A school of common shiner usually hangs on the fringe, and large fall fish usually hold beneath a wide tree trunk wedged in the sand. It’s all different now. The tree trunk is gone, the hole is wider, but still only 2 feet deep and there aren’t any fish. I wonder if everything has headed for deeper water in Deer Creek with the arrival of colder temperatures, and if Big Branch will be fishless for the winter. I head further upstream and slide into the largest hole in the creek, one that drops to 8 feet, and find out where all the fish have gone. Before me is a school of at least a hundred fish composed of at least 5 species. Common shiners, northern hog suckers, chubs, and white suckers all slowly move in unison away from me. And the large fall fish I liked watching and especially enjoyed showing to others who came out on snorkeling trips with me were there, near the bottom. Everyone I expected to be in this creek was, just all holed up in this single deep spot, which was just as deep but narrower than it was this summer. Maybe this is the refuge the fish in this stream seek in winter, the deeper water they need to avoid freezing temperatures. It certainly appeared that way today. If it is that refuge, it demonstrates the importance a single stream feature can play in maintaining its diversity and health. This hole is still as deep as it was this summer, but it’s a little more than half its original width. The outside of it has been filled in with sand deposited during the last large flow. If that trend continues, the hole will fill, deep water will be gone, and these fish will have to find somewhere else to hole up for the winter. The sand that fills this hole all comes from us, upstream. Our streams start on our driveways and rooftops and what we do in our backyards matters. But for now there is a healthy fish community living in this hole and I enjoy watching the large school.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Necessary Evil

The sign was prominent, with a big red slash through the silhouette of a fish. Don’t eat more than 2, 8 ounce meals of fish per YEAR taken from this river. No wonder why many people think our local streams and rivers are dead. No wonder people think there is nothing of worth or value living in our local creeks. No wonder people don’t act to protect what is still there. I am not suggesting these signs are not necessary, they are. But they only tell one small part of the overall picture. Yes we have polluted our environment to the point it is no longer safe to eat fish, drink water, or breathe air, for that matter, in some places. And somehow these degraded conditions are accepted as ok. How is it remotely ok to have fish so contaminated eating more than 2, 8 ounce fillets in a year can cause health effects? How is it ok to have water we can’t drink or air we can’t breathe? Unfortunately we need these warning signs, and I hope they serve as a wakeup. But what this sign doesn’t reveal is the incredible ecosystem that remains in the Brandywine and our other familiar rivers, in spite of the insults we throw at it. I slid into the water after explaining that there really are things to see in this river to a father and his 2 sons. I am sure snorkeling here looks odd in the summer. I’m sure it is perceived as flat out bazaar now, at the end of November. It didn’t take long before the first fish came into view. A large northern hog sucker darted off from right beneath me in 2 feet of water. I followed the motion to a flat rock, where the fish let me slowly approach. I watched the hog sucker for a while, until it finally had enough of me and swam upstream. I let the current carry me gently downstream and started to explore a pile of logs on the stream bank. A tail of some kind of large fish stuck out of a rotted hole. It beat the water frantically as I approached, trying to push the fish deeper into the cavity. A bass held beneath the clump of wood and watched all the commotion. He was well camouflaged among waterlogged branches and piles of recently shed leaves. A tessellated darter took a short hop away from me and stayed on the bottom. One of the benefits of snorkeling this time of year is the cold water slows everything down, and a lot of fish seem to be more reluctant to shoot away, so I have more time to watch and film. I see a few dead freshwater mussel shells, as I expect, but don’t see any live mussels, as I also expect. Mussels in many of the rivers I snorkel don’t seem to be reproducing and there is growing concern about their future, so I’m doubtful I’ll encounter any here. Then I see the well camouflaged end of the shell of an Eastern Elliptio. Then I see another, and another. I am drifting over a vast mussel bed, and everywhere I look I see mussels. Mussels are filter feeders, and help maintain water clarity. Seeing these animals here gives me true hope in the future of the Brandywine. Maybe we need to amend the signs. Yes we have crapped up the environment. Yes, fish is unfit to eat as a result. But it is far from a hopeless situation and there is a ton of incredibly beautiful, intriguing life waiting to be discovered and protected in our local, familiar rivers and streams. You just need to stick your face in the water.

Monday, November 19, 2012

March of the Caddis

The water was a lot colder than I expected and I wondered if the effort to get into a dry suit was worth it. I doubted I’d see any fish as cold as the water felt. But Deer Creek was clear and I’m always grateful for good visibility, so I slid into the rapid. At first there didn’t seem to be much life. The usual rock weed covered the boulders, but looked thinner and drab compared to summer. It looked likes the rocks were balding. I didn’t see any non-plant life, as the water stung the exposed skin on my face. I slid out into the fast flow and clawed upstream, into a familiar eddy behind a large familiar rock. This is where I go for short quick snorkels, when I just need to get in a river. Smooth cylinders start to emerge on the face of the large boulder that forces the river flow to divide. Humpless caddis flies in the tubes extend their legs up into the current, to filter morsels of food from the water as it rushes by. They quake in the strong current, and my placement in the river changes the current dramatically for these small insects. Other caddis flies cling to algae threads on rocks. I drift out of the slower eddy, and creep into the strong current where I am whisked downstream. I snag a rock edge with one hand and let my floating body trail behind. I feel free. I slowly crawl upstream against the strong water, and notice that there are hundreds if not thousands of caddis cases all facing up into the current, all with outstretched black legs into the current, feeding. I realized that while there isn’t the larger piece of biomass swimming by that I am used to here in the spring summer and early fall, there is just as much life here, carrying out important functions and filling important roles in the rivers food web. The river changes subtly until the changes add up and the place appears very different. A completely different group of animals compared to last trip, a new arrangement of gravel in the eddies, thinned rock weed, and more algae. The caddis become abundant in winter, shad in spring, minnows and eels through the summer. And each river has a slightly different seasonal procession. The extra effort it took to put on a dry suit was definitely worth it today, and I can’t wait to see how our rivers change as fall turns to winter.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

No Better Way to Spend the Day

It has been a busy summer. The first half evaporated before I realized it was gone, and it hit me this morning that in a month, the kids will be shackled back to a school routine. We have been running a lot of trips, about one a week, and while on those trips our focus is on introducing a new group of people to creek snorkeling, making sure people are safe and seeing the cool things we see, finding the right places to go to ensure an abundance and diversity of fish, making sure folks are comfortable, having fun and being amazed by our creeks. We aren’t necessarily there for our enjoyment, though I can’t think of a better way to spend the day.

We slid into Big Branch, and as usual, the group was loud and splashy, but soon they settled into the water and started to see things. First it was the bluegill then the fall fish. Soon they were spotting hog suckers, marveling at the abundance of common shiner, and making satisfying comments about how cool creek snorkeling is.

This was my sixth trip to this stream in as many weeks and it never gets old. Everything is different; nothing is ever the same except for the feeling of exploration and discovery. Some days the first hole holds a large school of large fall fish. Others it holds shiner. Yesterday the big surprise was a school of mixed sized hog suckers, no fall fish and a trout. It was a day of connection at Eden Mill Nature Center, sharing what I know and learning more. There really is no better way to spend the day.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Into the Wash

That’s what swimming into a rapid feels like. Getting tossed into a washing machine. I floated down the lower reach of the Octoraro that contains a few small sets of rapids. Nothing too big or serious, class 2, which are simple enough in a kayak. But it’s a different world in the rapid rather than on top of the rapid. Even a simple class 2 felt a bit treacherous. The bottom comes up from 4 feet to 2 and the pace quickens. What was easy to swim against is now impossible. The only stopping is to grab onto a rock. The water speeds up and spills through a v between two boulders, and I’m in it. There was no stopping. Even grabbing onto a rock to stop wasn’t an option without risking a dislocated shoulder. The best I could do was fend off fast approaching boulders before I plowed into them. I was poured over rocks and squeezed between them, just like the water that carried me. And while this rapid was fairly benign by kayaking standards, it had the potential to be more dangerous to snorkelers. One unprotected move and I could go head first into a boulder. A different wrong move and my chest could impact. Brain and lungs could be involved. I felt my heart quicken when I realized the danger. Fight or flight kicked in, and I couldn’t run so I was in for the fight.

I’m not one to work against rivers, but rather with them. I’m not big on me vs. them when it comes to nature. I think that’s a pretty human centered, simplistic view. But this rapid sure felt like we were opponents, when in fact the river could care less about my outcome. It did what it did: send water downstream, over, through, and around rocks, whether I was there or not. I was just another very large leaf that was either going to float out the end of the rapid, or get hung up somewhere in the middle. I kept my arms up to fend off rocks. Wax on wax off kind of thing.

The water got too shallow to float so I had no choice but to stand up. I turned around laid back down and clawed my way upstream. It was like aquatic rock climbing. I had to select foot and hand holds carefully or risk getting swept downstream. The rush of the water was deafening loud, like being in a 60 mile per hour wind. And still there was life here. A darter hunkered down in a gap between rocks and an eel emerged from under another one.

Creek snorkeling is what you make it, and what you want it to be. It can be a relaxing silent float, an awe inspiring exploration, or an adrenaline pumping somewhat dangerous downstream ride. Snorkeling through this rapid gave me a different perspective, a new rush, and I will swim rapids again.

Sunday, May 27, 2012


Yes we are. The school trip season is in full swing and we are just about to enter our weekend trip season. We have partnered with Roland Park Country School Kaleidoscope program in Baltimore (, Eden Mill Nature Center in northern Harford County (, and Shank’s Mare Outfitters ( in York County, PA to offer a diversity of beginner creek snorkeling trips that will help get you started on this incredible journey of discovery and adventure. Check out the web sites above for more information about our upcoming trips. You can also contact us through our website at

Deception is Beautiful

I always like being surprised on snorkeling trips. We form opinions based on how things look from the outside, often without considering what is inside, and when I look inside streams, I am usually surprised by the beauty, drama and ecology of even our most familiar and unsuspecting creeks.

Coopers Branch is like that. It is a suburbanized stream, surrounded by houses, roads and shopping centers. It isn’t much more than a trickle and it just doesn’t look like there should be much to see beneath the surface. I have been here before but was too busy running a trip to really notice the ecology of this stream. I looked beneath the surface of Coopers Branch while I waited for students to arrive.

Two distinct schools of rosy sided dace shot from rock to rock and congregated on two different clean gravel patches to spawn. It was an incredible sight for two reasons: rosy sided dace are some of the most ornately colored fish we have living in our streams, especially when they are spawning, and rosy sides usually need water that is less fouled by sediments. Their presence here in suburbanized Coopers Branch indicates that maybe this creek isn’t as impacted as I initially thought, based on my observations from the surface. A whole lot of other life was present too and together they compose a complex functioning ecosystem. Water striders skated on the water tension of the surface to eat other insects. Crane fly larvae munched on the decaying leaves on the bottom and crayfish scavenged. Tadpoles wriggled by the hundreds in the shallows.

Students arrived and my focus shifted to help kids see and connect with the life in Coopers Branch. This was part of the deceptive beauty. We often perceive middle school students as disengaged, uninterested. But Betzy Willis’ 7th grade class from Catonsville Middle was anything but disengaged. They immediately took their task of documenting the diversity of Coppers Branch life seriously and soon I heard students calling out ID’s. They didn’t know what everything was, but that didn’t matter. They were finding a wide variety of organisms all dependent on the water quality in Coopers Branch. At the end of the trip the students understood that the quality of Coopers Branch not only affects all the animals we saw in the stream, but it affects our health and the health of our communities too. We are all aquatic, as Jeremy Monroe from Freshwaters Illustrated says. Betzy Willis’ students understand that, and are ready to act to improve water quality in Coopers Branch.

There is a saying on bumper stickers from the organization We Love Catonsville…Life is great in 21228. Yes it is. Even the unexpected, unnoticed, underwater life. Looks can be deceiving and that is beautiful.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Elkton High School Trip Report

Photo by Adelma Gregory-Bunnell
By Adelma | 0 comments
Snorkeling in the Big Elk Creek is not a very common activity, but passersby in Elkton on Friday probably noticed some swimmers.
Elkton High School ninth graders Justin Dzie and Maya Price were snorkeling in the creek as part of their environmental science class for teacher Rachael Coffey.
They were counting types and numbers of fish, as well as how erosion and biodiversity are affecting the fish as part of a curriculum with North Bay education director Keith Williams and a few members of his staff.
“Part of the curriculum is to have a positive impact on the Chesapeake Bay, and what we do here at the creek ultimately impacts the bay, our food source and our recreational activities,” Coffey said.
Coffey said her class was investigating the biodiversity of the creek and how much life it contains.
“The more diversity there is, the healthier the creek,” she added. “We found mayfly larvae and larvae of the dragonfly, which indicates that the creek is pretty clean.”
The class also looked at erosion in the creek caused by buildings in the area, Coffey said.
“That’s what the islands are from, extra erosion, and when you have lots of erosion, you lose the diversity,” she said.
Dzie and Price both saw an eel with a blue ring around it along with several schools of fish, a few bass and some bigger fish in the water.
The previous week, the class went to the creek and did some observations of the erosion. Some bio-diversity was found but not near what the students had expected, Coffey said. They also tracked native versus non-native plants in the area.
They also placed onion bags last week in hopes to catch some insects in them as well.
The students will gather all the information that was collected over the last three weeks and then present their findings to other students.
“I think we are doing our part to keep it clean,” Price said.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Disappointed Hope and a Call to Act

The Big Elk Creek rarely disappoints, and today was no different. I counted 8 species of fish within the first 10 minutes in the water. The problem was I was the only one in the water while 20 high school environmental science students watched from the shore.

We had plenty of gear for everyone to get into the water to see the underwater world of the Elk for themselves. We talked about this trip for a month leading up to the date. Even the weather cooperated with a sunny 80 degree day.

My excitement at the diversity and abundance of fish: darters, white suckers, common shiners in breeding color and the sighting of the more maligned ones like eels coaxed a few students in but still we only had three students finally decide to gear up and get in.

I was disappointed in my ability to convince these students to get in the water to check out what’s below the surface, to challenge and expand their view of the Big Elk. To form connections that I hoped would translate into action. I never had a student snorkeling trip not get into the water. Most times I have to work to get them out of the creek, and I wondered why this trip was different. It turns out there was a mix of reasons. Some students had to go to a different class after this one and didn’t want to go there wet. Others weren’t prepared to get in the water.

But the one reason that was most disturbing was the concern that getting into the Big Elk would get them sick. Maybe we have done too good of a job talking about problems so people perceive that the environment, especially the environment where we live, is impaired to the point of being unhealthy for us. Maybe we have presented a hopeless situation.

If creek snorkeling is about anything, it is about hope. Witnessing a diversity of fish, and the struggles of ecology in our local streams, the same streams many people consider to be disease causing, void, lifeless, and sick, proves that while our actions have impaired our waterways, it is far from too late. It is time for hope to generate action. Hope to maintain the amazing ecosystems that still thrive in our streams, and even restore them to an improved condition.

Above all there is hope. We can work to make our world a better place, and that work can start with the local stream. There is a vibrant ecosystem in the Big Elk Creek, and we can work to protect and restore it. I owe these students this lesson.

Saturday, May 19, 2012


The smell of pine opened a flood of memories. It has been a while since I have been here, but I used to spend summers here growing up. The Jersey Pine Barrens have always held a special place in my heart. Maybe because my parents first took us camping here. Maybe because it is where I first tasted adult freedom. First in the form of solo early morning bike rides on deserted roads as whip-poor-wills called while the rest of my family slept, then as unsupervised canoe trips down the tannin waters of the Mullica and Batsto rivers. I miss those days, and the people I shared them with.

I could feel my heart beat just a little faster as I geared up, a result of the usual expectancy of exploration. Snorkeling the Mullica is not like a first attempt on Everest, or challenger deep descent. But this was new territory for me. Creek snorkeling often gives me that small jolt of exploratory excitement. While rivers and streams are familiar to us, their underwater views are not. I used to feel at home in the barrens but now I am a stranger here. They are a mystical place full of lore and legend, and I looked over my shoulder frequently. I felt a little uneasy, and wondered if the Jersey devil was watching. I never snorkeled dark waters, and didn’t know what to expect.

Tannins leach from decaying vegetation and stain the waters to a dark burgundy tea. Water flowing out of bogs is especially dark. One of the unique aspects of the Pine Barrens is the contrast between adjacent systems: very arid nutrient poor sands interspersed with areas where the aquifer surfaces and forms bogs. There was a bog located just upstream so I couldn’t see the bottom of the few foot deep Mullica as I reluctantly stuck my head under the water.

The water was clear but dark and being here was a little unnerving. Everything was tinted red, as if there was a crimson lens in my mask. It was like swimming through the set of a horror film, with everything under a red light. The stream scape was interesting, at least what I could see of it was. Sand bars looked orange striped and some kind of underwater grass grew from the cut bank of the river like fine green hair. I didn’t see any fish, but didn’t spend a lot of time looking. Jeremy Wade and his search for river monsters planted a small kernel of possibility that assured a short trip in this dark water.

But still I was glad I got in. I can say I tried to snorkel in tannin stained water. It gave me a different perspective of a very different kind of stream.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Where Have All the Herring Gone?

I have been checking Principio Creek daily for the last two months, anxiously waiting for the return of the herring. The DNR sign nailed to a tree was not a good omen, but I thought it was more preventive in nature. Possession of any herring, unless you had a receipt to prove you bought it last year, was now illegal due to a 93% reduction in herring numbers on the Atlantic coast over last 25 years. But I really didn’t think that 93% reduction applied to this creek. The run last year was incredibly abundant, so abundant that it was easy to think it would continue.

Herring are migratory. They spend the majority of their lives at sea, and migrate to our fresh water rivers and streams to spawn each spring. This time last year I shared the base of Principio falls with three fishermen who were trying to snag the migrants for bait. I watched thousands of fish push up through the falls. I watched thousands of fish lay and fertilize eggs. I left Principio confident in the future of this herring run and looked forward to the opportunity to witness one of the most amazing events in our rivers and streams every spring. But the fish never came back and every day I checked, I came away wondering if I was early or they were late, but I figured they would be back. They had to. There were so many of them last year. It was a seasonal rite of passage I was confident I could hand down to my kids, maybe even my grandkids. It was something in nature I could count on returning. Until now. The first week of May arrived without sighting any herring and I had to accept that they weren’t coming back this year.

It seemed like such a limitless resource, and while I am not a proponent of overfishing, I didn’t think the fishermen last year were doing any harm. There were just so many fish in the creek, how could the couple dozen they removed have an affect? Nature will make more. Maybe that’s why we are where we are, because of that very flawed thinking that our resources are so abundant we can never deplete them.

The lack of a run in the Principio this year is concerning, especially combined with a 93% reduction in mid Atlantic seaboard herring. Maybe the Prinicipio run is gone for good and all that remains are the pictures I took last year, of the last run. Or maybe the warm and dry weather we had this spring reduced all the runs. Sure seems like the Deer Creek shad run fizzled after a robust start. I hope it was the weather and I will be back looking for the migrants again in April, looking for that seasonal rite of passage I can pass down to my kids.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

No Fish but Plenty of Blood

Conditions sucked. The water was murky, and there weren’t any fish. I didn’t expect to see anything but hoped for shad. It is a very rare trip when I don’t see any fish, or any bottom dwelling invertebrates…snails, crayfish, mayflies, caddis. Fish or not, I floated and relaxed in the gentle flow, and enjoyed the quiet and separation being underwater brings.

I swam through a snow storm of sycamore seeds. The frilly tufts that carry then though the air also keep them suspended in the water and they swirl about like snowflakes. There is a collection of walnuts behind a rock in a small rapid.

Algae covers everything. Probably a function of over fertilization…the Octoraro is one of the most heavily impacted streams in the area by nutrients, and nutrients make algae grow. But the excess algal growth is also a function of season. More sunlight due to lengthening day along with a forest canopy not yet fully unfurled, and fewer grazing animals, like aquatic insects due to colder temperatures mean algae can really take off since nothing is there to control its growth.

These are the life blood of the stream. Streams get their energy that fuels their food chain from items that drop into the water from the surrounding land and from algae that grows in the stream. Aquatic insects eat the leaves, seeds, wood and algae. The insects are eaten by fish and so on. While too much algae is an unhealthy creek condition, too little is equally harmful to the system. And even though I didn’t see any life larger than algae, I was still able to witness the amazing ecology of our streams.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Joy of Trout

I slid into the cold clear water of Fishing Creek to scope it out for a trip I will be running with Shanks Mare outfitter in June. The architecture of the place instantly impressed. Water cascaded over shelves of schist into pools lined with smoothed bedrock and angulated slabs. The clarity was impressive.

I saw a group of minnows and crept in to try to get a good shot and positive identity. I noticed the speckled snout of a trout sticking out from under a rock. I pointed the camera at the trout and the fish allowed me to snap a few shots before it rocketed off into the main flow below a short falls, leaving the minnows in a cloud of silt.

I always admired trout. They are elusive, and when I spent more time fishing for them than snorkeling with them, it was one of the ultimate challenges to hook one. Trout have an intelligence that leads to the difficulty of their capture. And now that I try to observe them, I find that they are just as difficult to watch.

My little trout shot off and joined another larger fish feeding in a deeper swift current. I hid behind a rock and watched the two fish feed. They precisely moved to exactly pluck insect morsels from the water, and maintain position in the river. Watching them was like watching the most incredible ballet. Grace, power, agility.

It didn’t take the fish long to realize they were being watched and they disappeared. I swam through the pool where they were, but the only thing I found was a puff of sediment in a bedrock crevasse where one of the trout hid and shot off when I passed over top without detecting its presence. I caught peripheral glimpses of these fish through the rest of the trip, but wasn’t able to spend any time watching them again. I enjoyed the beauty of Fishing Creek, looked for the trout, and admired their ability to dominate a pool one minute and completely vanish the next.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Skunked In Monkton

The Gunpowder River still looks and feels almost pristine, even though it flows through some of the most developed real estate in the east. Its steep sided valley is largely protected in state park. It is a river in my region, like many, that I have explored little from beneath the surface. It is a river I want to spend more time with, to learn it.

I pulled into the parking lot of the old Monkton Train station on the NCR trail, and saw a wader wash. Not a good sign. I knew didymo was in the Gunpowder, but I didn’t know it was in this section.

Didymo is a diatomaceous alga that is originally from northern Europe and Asia, it has spread world wide. It coats everything in the stream with a thick dark olive brown mucous like material, hence its common name, rock snot. Since it smothers the stream bottom, it kills aquatic insects and robs the stream of diverse habitat which translates into less fish diversity. The ironic thing about didymo is the people degrading streams by spreading the algae are the same ones who probably love creeks the most. Pieces of didymo can become attached to waders (or snorkeling gear). When the fisherman (or I) steps into a different stream the didymo washes off and can infect the new stream.

I had another more critical trip planned for this afternoon to check on the progress of the spring herring run in another stream. This afternoons trip was more critical than this Gunpowder exploration since the herring are only in our streams for a short while and I can explore the Gunpowder any time. I wouldn’t be able to thoroughly decontaminate my gear between swims so I chose to not get into the gunpowder. I didn’t want to risk spreading didymo.

The sections of the gunpowder infested with didymo aren’t less valuable or less special. This is far from a river to give up on, so I will be back to explore, didymo and all

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Swimming With a Wall of Fish

The bottom of the pools looked grey from the bridge. But the grey patches moved. I knew the pools we full of shad. I walked fast, like a kid on a pool deck, down off the bridge, down the embankment to the shore. I suited up quickly. So fast that I almost forgot to zip my dry suit closed, waded into the river, and when I got close to the first pool, laid down in the two foot deep water.

Before I thought I should, I was surrounded by foot long fish, all moving in unison. I found a large rock, planted my feet on the upstream side and stretched out upstream into the current. The shad were jittery and each time I cleared water from my snorkel, each time a car drove over the bridge above me, or each time I got too sideways to the current and was thrown off the rock that kept me propped against the current, they scattered with panicked jerky movements. But soon they returned to their upstream quest and rhythmic almost mesmerizing undulations.

The few hundred fish strong school was made up of gizzard shad and smaller river herring, and it looked like each pool held about the same number. They all swam together and presented their sides to me to form a wall of fish. Swimming with this many fish is always a thrill. But the fact that many of the fish in this school were endangered American shad made the experience that much more special. To think that I was surrounded by possibly hundreds of a kind of animal that is at risk of dying off gave me hope that these fish would make it. I also felt honored to be witness to this incredible run, to possibly be one of the last humans to see such a sight. I have hope for the shad, but it is a guarded optimism. Their numbers started to drop in the 1800’s and we tried to reverse the trend even then, with little effect. We are good at destroying, not so good at restoring. It seemed the trend of declining American Shad populations reversed at Conowingo Dam a few years ago, and then another unexplained decline occurred, in a population that is already at historic lows. Turns out that the latest threat to the shad may be rockfish. Rockfish eat menhaden. However the menhaden fishery has been largely unregulated, and as many fish as possible were sucked from the Bay and converted to cosmetics and fertilizers. At the same time, one of the few fisheries success stories, rockfish, made a tremendous comeback after a moratorium on their take. Rockfish are top predators, and when there weren’t enough menhaden for the rockfish to eat, they switched to shad. Of course this isn’t the definite cause of the more recent shad decline, but to me it seems the most plausible.

As John Muir said, when we look at any one thing in universe, we find it hitched to everything else, and that certainly applies to the fish world. Our actions matter. As I swim with this wall of fish, I certainly feel that connection.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


It is easy to get discouraged. It seems our country can’t do anything because of politics, at a time when we need to do a lot. I get tired of all the finger pointing rhetoric. I get tired of the head in the sand attitude about how climate change isn’t happening. I am tired of our government giving huge subsidies to oil companies who continue to show record profits. I just get tired of all the negativity, and all the things that just don’t make any sense, that we should be able to change easily, but just don’t seem able to. There doesn’t seem to be very much positive out there. But seeing shad return gives me hope.

The first school of the year, maybe 50 fish strong, made it to the swimming hole in Susquehanna State Park. There were a few yellow perch there too. The spring spawning migration of shad returning into our streams is a fraction of what it once was. And there are some species, like American Shad, that are still struggling. But their numbers are generally increasing. Yellow perch, also recently declining in number seemed to have reversed too. I celebrate these ecological victories as I float in this pool above my favorite rapid and watch each individual struggle against the current to reach its clean gravel spawning ground. We recognized shad were declining and decided to do something about it, so their return is a testament to what we can accomplish when we want to accomplish something. When we put our will behind action. It is a testament to the tenacity and resilience of ecological systems. There are definitely limits, and we can easily exceed them. At the same time there is elasticity, and if we recognize those limits early enough, and act, the system can recover. All is not lost. Not yet. But we need to act.

It is fitting that shad returned on Easter weekend. It is a time of hope, resurrection, and rebirth, and their presence in this creek signals the continuation of their species, the hope that more will return next year, more proof that maybe their species has been resurrected. It is one of the most hopeful events we can experience in our streams. Seeing these first migrants is the rebirth of my optimism that we will recognize the limits we are fast approaching, drop the rhetoric, and get busy. Seeing these fish renews my commitment to show people the incredible life just beneath the surface of our local streams.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Catching Eddys

There is a section of Brandywine River just upstream of Thompsons bridge that has some large boulders scattered across it. The river is a few feet deep here, just deep enough to swim but not so deep that the bottom is out of the reach of an outstretched arm. The boulders don’t really form rapids, but the water quickens as it deflects around the rock, and a good eddy develops behind each.

A freshwater mussel, Eastern elliptio, is wedged between a branch and bedrock. It’s alive, I think. While elliptios aren’t endangered, they give me hope each time I see one in a river. They are the forgotten filters, and have been shown to purify billions of gallons of water a day in the Delaware River. The number of young Elliptio mussles entering the population in some eastern rivers is low, so they may be in trouble in the next decades. I enjoy them while they are here. Caddis larvae tubes are lined up parallel to the current, and the shelter one of the larger rocks provided the ideal place for a sculpin to lay its eggs. Hundreds of the wispy blobs cover the protected downstream side.

I admire the ecology formed by subtle changes in water velocity, but mostly I play in the current. I use my body and the current to get where I want to go. Lean to the right into the current to fly right, cross the eddy line and get gently carried upstream in tranquil water behind a rock that is such a contrast to the torrent just inches away. I lean to the left and peel out into the current, fly downstream a little and catch the next eddy to explore its biology. Each one is different.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Darter Falls

There are hundreds of darters at Principio falls. The darters have been here for a few weeks, and I figured they were congregating to mate, but they are just now starting to display breeding behavior. Males are in breeding color, and fan their fins to attract a mate, advertising they are the most fit based on their dorsal fin. Maybe size does matter. Either way watching the males display and females respond is entertaining.

They are even in the falls themselves, right at the fall line where the Principio tumbles 30 feet over bedrock. I am always amazed at how such a dainty looking fish like a darter can hang on in such intense conditions. I hop from waterfall pool to waterfall pool, and come upon a three foot fissure. There were darters there, of course.

A large fish floats under me as I admire the darters ability to wriggle into cracks and flatten to the bedrock to hold in this mid waterfall pool. As much as I didn’t expect few inch long darters to be here they weren’t a shock Foot long river chubs were. The first one took off when it realized it just drifted under something much larger. I followed the fissure, barely a foot wide for a few feet and found the rest of the river chub school. I couldn’t believe that this many large, perceived to be lumbering fish could make a living in the intense currents of a waterfall. I really expected this pool to be devoid of life simply because of intense physical conditions. Consistent strong currents, heavy scouring flows with almost every runoff producing rain, and not many places to hide due to the smoothed bedrock nature of the bottom aren’t very conducive for fish to survive. And yet there was an entire community living in this mid waterfall pool.

Monday, April 2, 2012

When You See Your Chance Take It

I stood on the bank of the Big Elk and listened to the high trill. First one call to my right then an answer to my left. A third calls from across the stream. It feels early for American toads to be calling for mates, but here they were, trilling away. I scared one couple, in amplexus, into the water. Amplexus is how toads mate. The smaller male tightly grasps onto the top of the larger female, and won’t let go until she deposits her fertilized eggs.

American toads are an urban success story. They have figured out how to not only tolerate but actually prosper in the most densely populated areas, even though we aren’t sure how. I wanted to capture images of the toads in amplexus because it is such a sign of hope and an incredible story of amazing nature accessible to everyone. I figured the toads would still be here trilling and in amplexus in two days, when I had a little more time.

I return as planned and now, 2 days later, the toads are done, their eggs are laid. I should have gotten in the water with the toads when I had the chance. Things change fast in a stream. But still I suited up to explore what is a very impacted creek.

The Big Elk is a heavily urbanized stream. The bottom is completely embedded in deposited silt so that it is now one continuous sand flat, with no cobble, and therefore, little habitat. Over fertilized water results in long stringy mustardy tan algae that covers everything.

I slide into the water, disappointed that I missed the toads, and think that this is a waste. The stream is featureless except for a half submerged tree trunk, and a tire filled with sand. It’s like swimming over a lunar landscape. Barren. But then, life. A white sucker swims for a deeper hole and gets used to my presence so that I can watch this fish without it darting for cover. Tessellated darters send up fine puffs of sediment as they shoot away. A small school of small sunnies hold under the sunken tree. I turn to see if anything is trailing me and see a large school of common shiners. I have stirred a lot of the string algae off the bottom into a flocculent cloud, and the shiners feed in it. I get a faceful of the olive chunky haze as I turn upstream and really hope I didn’t get any into my snorkel. I try not to gag, thinking about the possibility.

I continue to crawl upstream over the plain sand bottom. Then I see lines of black dots. I may have missed the opportunity to capture toads mating, but I can capture images of the next toad generation. There is nothing more hopeful in ecology than reproducing populations, and I feel grateful to be able to witness the process. This part of the elk is impacted, maybe even perceived to be disgusting at times. But still there is amazing life.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Silver Threads of Opportunity

4 am is awful early to leave for the airport. I need to remember this next time I want to book a 6 am flight. But the idea was to arrive back in Maryland with enough daylight left to snorkel, and I looked forward to the flight. I had a window seat and I always love the new perspective a few thousand feet provides. It gives me a completely different view of our fresh water systems. I spent the last week looking at them from within. The next few hours were an opportunity to look at them from above.

As the plane climbed through the atmosphere, silver threads woven through the fabric of the landscape started to appear. Each one a creek, river, or stream. Each one unique, each one holds incredible life. Each one is an opportunity for exploration, discovery and adventure, and I want to explore them all

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Busy Day at Deer Creek

The water in Deer Creek seemed like it was up and a little less clear than last week. I figured it rained upstream somewhere. But based on the hydrograph, the water level has dropped since my last visit. Guess I just got used to the clear waters of Florida springs.

The water definitely warmed while I was gone, and I barely noticed the cold when I stuck my face in the rapid. I ferried across the swift current into the lee of the large rock that last week sheltered adult caddis flies heading back into the water. I expected to see more of this phenomenon, but things change fast in a stream. There were no caddis to be found. Instead the entire back of the rock was covered in bulbous sculpin eggs. At least that’s what I think they are. Sculpin are primarily nocturnal predators, and I would love to watch this egg laying process in the wild. Now I know when to look…the week before St Patrick’s day.

I drifted out from the protection of the rock into the main flow. A slab of grey wriggling into a gap between rocks on the bottom caught my eye. I stopped, turned and crawled upstream against the stiff current. Two of the largest eels I have ever seen were going after something under one of the large cobbles in the rapid. Were they hunting together? Or was each one out for itself? It sure seemed like they were working in tandem.

I continued to crawl upstream against the heavy current into the large pool above the rapid. Even the flow here was strong. Much of the eddy in this pool has been embedded by sand moved from upstream during some of the heavy flows this winter and late fall. The only thing certain about streams is that they change. I am attached to this pool. Joyce and I raised our family here. It’s the local swimming hole. I had my daughter in this pool when she was 6 months old. I taught my sons how to fish and snorkel here. Gracie will help me lead a snorkeling trip here for the first time this summer. And each time I come back it is different with more memories, different life, life doing things I can’t explain and don’t expect, different structure. I head out into the main flow and let the current carry me. I scare a huge carp as much as it scares me and it shoots upstream. I drift over a small advanced school of a dozen shad and they peel off to the right. Thousands will soon follow.

The current quickens as the stream bed comes up. Water is forced over rocks and I am painlessly drug with it, like a leaf in the current. I can correct my course here and there, but I am largely at the mercy of the river. Good reminder for life. I eventually reach an eddy which spins me into still water. I leave Deer Creek elated and feeling very much alive.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Prehistoric Drift

Blue Springs is deep. The spring flows from a dark opening about 70 feet deep. So much water flows from this one cave that a river instantly forms. I slide into the spring from the upstream platform in Blue Springs State Park for what I think will be a drift snorkel to a second swim/snorkel platform a half mile down-stream. As soon as I put my face in the water I am transported to another time.

Giant submerged trees instantly created a prehistoric looking view, and the first fish I encountered completed the scene. A male and female gar hung in the protection of an intact submerged oak. The four foot fish hovered together in the large branches and slowly left upstream, together, when I got too close. Jeremy Wade did a River Monsters episode on these fish, so I was little nervous.

I turned into the current and drifted downstream. I looked to my side and found that I was surrounded by large gar. The fish allowed me to approach slowly without retreating. I sensed a confident assurance as I looked into the eyes of this predator. A kind of calm confidence. A kind of knowledge. It seemed to know that it had a mouth full of teeth, and that it could do some damage if provoked. The gar tended to not get too excited on my approach and really didn’t move much. This gave me the opportunity to interact with incredibly ancient looking fish.

Algae draped aquatic plants and branches to complete the prehistoric scene. It looked like an aquatic diorama at the Smithsonian. Schools of gape-mouthed mullet scoured the bottom in unison, and the huge gar continued to hang on the edges in the cover, waiting to pounce.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Fish Feelings?

I drifted in the clear waters of Alexander Springs between two large patches of emergent vegetation. I saw a silver glint out of the corner of my eye. I turned and there in front of me was a foot long Atlantic needle fish. The silver tube reflected off the quiet surface. The fish stayed with me, not afraid, not tame, but as curious about me as I was about it. It was a little unnerving as we got close enough to each other so I could clearly make out the numerous sharp teeth filling its beak. The needle fish took a few stabs at some mosquito fish, then swam off, not interested in me anymore. A blanket of small fish hovered over the thick algal mat that covered the bottom and darted as small golden dots against the green algae. Sunnies and bass also came slightly away from cover to investigate and I enjoyed watching them as they watched me. All of these fish seemed to be sentient beings, feeling in some way even though we often think that fish and “lower” don’t feel or sense. But there seemed to be a real sense of curiosity about these fish. Maybe they do sense and feel. Maybe we just can’t understand it in our terms. Either way deciphering fish behavior is fascinating and makes snorkeling that much more interesting.

Monday, March 19, 2012

New Snorkelers

I love to introduce people to the sport of freshwater snorkeling. It can be as exciting or relaxing as you make it. Snorkeling reveals worlds hidden from the surface, and is full of adventure, and wonder. Freshwater snorkeling relaxes, connects and centers. It reminds us that we are a part of a much larger whole, and it always puts things in their right perspective for me. It is easy for me to lose total track of time and place when I am in a river or stream watching and participating in life. I love to share this with as many people as I can, and the Florida trip presented a few opportunities to introduce new people to the sport.

We had a few people on this trip who have never been snorkeling before, or who had only been snorkeling a few times. Sometimes all it takes to get someone in the water is to provide equipment. Sometimes it takes a little instruction. Anyone, with a little coaching and a little time to get used to the gear can enjoy underwater wonders wherever they are. It didn’t take long for the new snorkelers in our group to explore the springs on their own and come back with comments like “I never swam with fish before.” “I can see why you love it.” and “I’m hooked.” Me too.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

We Have Arrived

It took a while to get here, but we finally arrived at Juniper Springs, one of many phenomenal fresh water springs in central Florida. This was our first stop in a short tour of the major springs in the region. The area offers some of the best snorkeling opportunities in the country and I looked forward to seeing and photographing life I don’t see in my usual east coast creeks.

Jupiter is clear and about 20 foot deep. It is fed by a spring that bubbles 72 degree water from a fissure at the bottom of the pool. I grabbed my snorkeling gear as soon as I arrived before camp or anything else was set up. Priorities.

Immediately I was in another world. Not really a different sensation for me when I snorkel. Even streams I have been in hundreds of times are new on each trip. But I can usually identify most of the players in those ecosystems within a few minutes. Here, almost everything is alien and unidentifiable to me.

Juniper is more developed than other springs and a concrete ledge and wall lines the spring bowl. In some ways it looks more like a swimming pool than a spring. But the fish don’t care, and an assortment of eastern mosquito fish, and melanistic eastern mosquito fish hang on the artificial ledge. Hundreds of fish congregate at the edge of sand flat and grass beds. I surface dive to the bottom 6 feet below and swim through the schools. I played in the pool until I shivered. I will return tomorrow, with a wetsuit and more time to learn more about Juniper, and the other springs in this amazing region. I can’t wait to explore with more time and intent. Can’t wait to see what lies in other springs. Can’t wait to discover the miracle of Florida’s freshwater life.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Reverse Hatch

Deer creek ran clear, a lot more clear than this time last year. I was here to see if shad have returned, but knew it was early. Still I hoped I would see some in this incredible clear water. As soon as I put my face in this very familiar spot, a very foreign stream scape appeared. For as many times as I’ve been here, this was new. Algae covered the rock moss carpet in pinks and orange pastels, and silver dots crawled down the lee face of a large rock in a rapid.

The silver dots were caddisflies and they glowed as they crawled down the face of a rock back into the rapid. I thought these might be recently metamorphosed adults, emerging, and tried to get some close up photos to document this phenomenon, but the water is this rapid was just too rough to keep the camera still. Caddis flies spend a year or two in creeks as aquatic larvae, then emerge from the water into the air as winged adults where they mate, lay eggs and die. I wasn’t sure what these flies were doing, coming or going. Adult caddis flitted just above the surface in clumsy flight. But as I watched these silver coated adults slowly creep back into this rapid I realized that the silver was from an envelope of air that surrounded the adult caddis flies body and these were probably mated females returning to the water to lay their eggs to ensure the next generation and die. Circle of life.

Caddis are always in creeks, and in just about every creek I snorkel. I am used to them and I though I knew their biology. But today changed all that. I never witnessed this incredible feat. I never expected it. I learned the caddis life cycle in ecology. I learned that the females lay eggs after they mate, but no one ever told what that looked like. No one ever told me what an amazing sight this was. Maybe the Professors who taught me didn’t know. Maybe they never witnessed the caddis return to water.

It’s a shame, because if more people knew about the miracles taking place in our creeks and rivers, maybe they would care more. But not just knowledge of the mechanics of the process, but rather what the process actually looks like, how it feels to be a part of it, a direct witness to ask questions like “Why are there silver caddisflies walking down this rock?” Maybe then people would care more for our most vital resource, water, and maybe then more people would feel alive by experiencing the excitement of discovery.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Shad Are Comming!

Snorkeling with Shad from NorthBay Media on Vimeo.

I look forward to this rite of spring every year! Swimming with this many fish is absolutely amazing! Any week now!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

(Another) Fishing Creek

There must be something in a name. Every area has a fishing creek, and every fishing creek I snorkel is full of fish. The Fishing Creek that empties into Long Level on the Susquehanna was no exception.

Kitchen table sized schist slabs were scattered on the bottom where the moving waters of Fishing Creek met the still water of Long Level. I figured I would start my exploration here and ducked under the cold water thinking this would be perfect hellbender habitat. I held onto the remote hope of sighting one. It was definitely a long shot but I never, ever, know what to expect while creek snorkeling. A foot long salamander very well may be hunkered down under one of these slabs, however unlikely.

I thought I would have to search for fish life, as is usually the case in winter time streams, but I was instantly in the midst of a thousand strong school of spot tail shiners, hold up at this confluence of moving and still waters. These are common fish, and non-descript. They don’t have elaborate fins, or brilliant colors. They are easily overlooked, mundane. Their only distinguishing characteristic is a dark spot on their tails, thus the name spot tail shiner. But seeing thousands of these fish shoaled up was nothing short of remarkable. Why were they all here? Were they congregating to spawn? Or were they taking advantage of food flowing into Long Level from Fishing Creek? It was like swimming through a school holding on a reef.

I started to work my way upstream against a strong flow. The architecture is complex and fascinating. Schist is the dominant rock and it is present in both angulated slabs and smoothed ropy bedrock. Makes for interesting scenery and plenty of hiding places for a diversity of aquatic life. A plump green sided darter nestled into a crevasse in the carved bedrock. I wished the early march water temperatures were warmer. I wanted to spend hours more exploring Fishing Creek. But my hands were numb, and I was starting to shiver. I needed to get out of the water. I let the strong current carry me back down stream over bedrock plains and boulder riffles. The spot tail were still congregated, and I’m pretty sure I saw an encrusting freshwater sponge. I am always amazed at what I see in our rivers and streams and I can’t wait to see what swims in fishing creek this summer. Another Fishing Creek certainly didn’t disappoint.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Big Water

Most snorkel trips I go on involve crawling along in a few feet of water, with the bottom usually in easy arms reach. I am regularly amazed by the power of water. Experiencing one of earth’s elemental forces is one of the draws of creek snorkeling. But I can usually hold my own by hanging on. That isn’t the case on Muddy Creek.

The Muddy flows through a deeply cut gorge, forested in old hemlock. It is secluded, and I feel like I am in the Pacific Northwest or anywhere else much more remote than here which is only an hour from both Philadelphia and Baltimore. The water is blue green clear and big compared to most rivers in my area.

Ropy bands of smoothed schist plunge into the water as a sheer wall. Water carved chutes are too smooth to hold against the current and the eddy pushes me upstream, and then out into the main turbulent flow. I can make out the outlines of smooth scalloped bedrock sheets eight feet below as I swim hard across the current to an eddy on the opposite shore and get swirled upstream again over a large peaked sandbar.

The circular current pushes me out into the main flow where I am swept downstream across the river into the eddy, pushed upstream and back out across the flow in what would be a perpetual figure 8, if I didn’t grab a smoothed nub of schist in shallower water. It’s a pretty incredible rush, akin to weightless flying.

I picked my head out of the water and viewed the river from water level. A small hatch of small flies flittered away from the surface. Water continued to flow, and the eddies swirled. I have seen Muddy Creek dozens of times from a kayak, but this one short trip gave me a completely different perspective and appreciation for the forces that shape this place.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Cold Focus

The last time I was in Principio Creek, there was 6 inches of visibility, partly because of high spring flows, and partly because of the soup millions of herring eggs swirled in the current makes. Today was different. There weren’t any herring, and no eggs, but in exchange the water was incredibly clear. I slipped into the stream in a deep pool downstream of the falls, where migratory fish often congregate before making a push up the falls, to breach the fall line, the dividing line between coastal plane and piedmont. The principio is one of those no mans land streams, not quite coastal plane, not quite piedmont, but the transition between the two. It is neither and both. I hoped to see some of the early migrants holding in the large pool - some herring, or maybe some yellow perch. Instead I saw darters, and had to wonder if these fish were in the throes of reproduction, as abundant as they were. Two or three shot out from their cobbled cranny hiding spots each time I grabbed a new hold as I crawled upstream.

A large school of river chub shot around my right flank. I spun around to chase them, to try to get a shot and soon I was among a 50 strong school. The water was painfully cold, cold enough that my teeth felt like I bit ice cream. But none of that registered anymore. In the instant I found myself in the midst of all of those fish, my world narrowed to me, this stream and these fish. As usual, creek snorkeling put me into the here and now and all the thoughts of yesterday and tomorrow were gone. I had a focused acuity I have only ever experienced underwater.

The skittish river chub outswam me, but the tessellated darters were more reluctant to swim from their protective stones, so they tolerated my close approach. Tessellateds are one of those fish I am used to. I see them on almost every trip. And yet, like other common fish, they still hold my attention and fascination. I love how their bodies just kind of limply conform to the cobbles, and just when I think the river just pushes them around, they muster an incredible burst of energy and master the current to put distance between me and them. I love how their large pectoral fins hold them to the bottom and almost irridesce blue, and I love how some individuals allow my camera to get within inches while others scatter when I’m still feet away. A lone crayfish sits out exposed on a sand bar and its brilliant red color is striking. The usual never gets mundane.

There is always the fascination with the familiar in streams and maybe that’s why time becomes focused, and compressed to the moment. Maybe the focus comes from experiencing the stream on the streams terms, and learning about the life of the stream from its vantage point rather than ours. The more I snorkel streams, the more I realize that we have a lot to learn.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Love of Streams

It’s my parents’ anniversary today, so it’s fitting for me to celebrate and remember by snorkeling a creek. My dad gave me my first underwater experience. I stood on a rock in water over my head with mask and snorkel on, but too afraid to put my head in the water. He gently nudged me off the rock so I had no choice but to look below and a whole other world was revealed. I’ve never been the same since. He took SCUBA classes with me in 7th grade, and they always supported me being in a creek. They fostered my love for streams, and I miss them terribly, so a fitting tribute is to get in the water, to explore.

Stoney Creek is a non-descript suburbanizing stream. And it has the typical features you would expect to see where houses are taking over woods. The stream is far from pristine, and while it’s not trash filled, it isn’t clean. Stream corridors make convenient routes for sanitary sewer mains, and Stoney Creek isn’t any different. Manhole monuments of concrete and steel rise 5 feet above the floodplain. Amtrak trains scream though a thin veil of woods that hides them from sight, and the back of a new shopping center perches on a hill overlooking the stream. A homeless encampment of three tents sits in the skinny strip of woods between the creek and shopping center. It’s a typical stream, tucked into the folds of suburbia and forgotten.

I slipped beneath the surface, and as usual a whole new world appeared. Algae covers everything and creates an otherworldly scene. While the view was interesting, it was also expected. This much algal growth is a sign of an over fertilized creek, and most of our suburban streams are over fertilized by nutrients that run off of our yards and streets. But even in its impacted state, Stoney Creek still had a certain beauty about it, just not a pristine beauty.

I figured this trip would be mostly about witnessing incredible stream scapes and geologic architecture rather than seeing life. The water was extremely cold, and after just a few minutes it penetrated my dry suit and insulating layer and chilled through to my skin. Knives of cold stabbed my exposed face the minute I got in the water, and now my thighs were starting to sting. I saw a lone caddis fly on a rock and as I watched the cadis graze, a sculpin darted from under a cobble out into the open.

Sculpin are predatory, and this one had large down turned puffy lips that defined the edges of a mouth that took up most of the fishes face, and a tapered body shape camouflaged in mottled tan and grey. A bright orange band framed the edge of its dorsal fin. Perfectly constructed for an ambush predator. This fish lies well hidden and waits for an unsuspecting darter, or other small fish to wander by when it explosively snatches the prey. This was a special fish for me as I have never seen a sculpin in this area, and certainly didn’t expect to see one in this stream, in this suburbanized, sewer lined, forgotten stream.

It might be suburbanized, it may be forgotten, but this fish is a good reason to remember all the experiences I have had in suburbanizing streams. It’s a good reason to continue to explore and witness all the incredibly unexpected sights and natural drama, and to remember the people who have fostered my love for streams, even ones that some would consider unlovable.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Suburban Stream

I slipped into the water and really questioned the sanity of it all. The unforested lawns of a trailer park flanked the creek just upstream. There aren’t any forested buffers to protect it from the things we do on land that affect water quality like fertilize lawns, wash cars and salt walks. There are no trees to soak up excess nutrients before they reach the stream, or to hold soil in place. We had a little rain this morning, barely a tenth of an inch, and that was enough to cloud the water.

It’s obvious this is an impacted stream, over fertilized and muddy with sediment. But there are no throw away streams. There aren’t any disposable creeks. Each one has value and worth, and there is beauty in them all. It just took a few minutes for this stretch of Stone Run to reveal its splendor to me today.

White and olive algae and bacteria biofilms cover rocks and create an otherworldly brilliance.
Roots that dangle into the water from the undercut bank are covered in golden biofilm and look like locks of course blonde hair. Always there is life, and life is always incredible.

I floated over a deeper hole and thought how I need to return in spring, when things warm and mating starts. I bet this hole is chock full with fish. Just then three river chubs darted underneath, with the copper fringe of their gill covers and pectoral fins glowing through the smoky water. I turned to follow and found a small school of fat dace trailing. Life is here in abundance now. I do have to return in spring.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Mid-Winter Swim

There’s about a month to go till things start to come alive again around here. Not that things are really dead. Life is there, it’s just not as active and noticeable. It’s nuzzled down into the cobbles instead of flying over the bottom. It has been a warm season, and while most days it hasn’t felt like it, it is still winter and things, while present, are more muted.

We haven’t had any ice on our creeks and I’m starting to wonder if we will ice over this season at all. Not that I particularly enjoy snorkeling in ice, but ice is part of the system, and its absence is a departure from normal. Not good, not bad, but different, and different has an effect. I wonder what effect no ice will have on our stream ecosystems if in fact we remain ice free for the next month.

Temperatures are off, but everything else points to winter. The sun sits low in the sky and long shadows are cast early. The stream valley is grey by four. Cold knife points of frigid water stab my face and hands as I crawl upstream. Caddisfly larvae have sealed the openings of their cases with quartz grains as they usually do right about now.

Other caddis are still out grazing. A Northern case maker caddisfly is clawing at a smooth cobble, as it tries to get a firm grip to hold against the current. A blast of water blows the caddisfly off the rock, and a single thread keeps it tethered. Its twig case vibrates violently like a kite in a storm, drops to the bottom, scrambles for a good grip and gets blown into the water column again. If fish were out and active this insect would have been eaten long ago.

I want to explore more, to see who is out and who isn’t. To see who is struggling to hang on and who is just waiting till water temperatures increase and the flourish of spring life ensues. But my hands become painfully cold after just 20 minutes in the water, and it’s time to leave. There is always amazing life in our streams, even our most common ones.