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.

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