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