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.