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.

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