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.