Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Into the Wash

That’s what swimming into a rapid feels like. Getting tossed into a washing machine. I floated down the lower reach of the Octoraro that contains a few small sets of rapids. Nothing too big or serious, class 2, which are simple enough in a kayak. But it’s a different world in the rapid rather than on top of the rapid. Even a simple class 2 felt a bit treacherous. The bottom comes up from 4 feet to 2 and the pace quickens. What was easy to swim against is now impossible. The only stopping is to grab onto a rock. The water speeds up and spills through a v between two boulders, and I’m in it. There was no stopping. Even grabbing onto a rock to stop wasn’t an option without risking a dislocated shoulder. The best I could do was fend off fast approaching boulders before I plowed into them. I was poured over rocks and squeezed between them, just like the water that carried me. And while this rapid was fairly benign by kayaking standards, it had the potential to be more dangerous to snorkelers. One unprotected move and I could go head first into a boulder. A different wrong move and my chest could impact. Brain and lungs could be involved. I felt my heart quicken when I realized the danger. Fight or flight kicked in, and I couldn’t run so I was in for the fight.

I’m not one to work against rivers, but rather with them. I’m not big on me vs. them when it comes to nature. I think that’s a pretty human centered, simplistic view. But this rapid sure felt like we were opponents, when in fact the river could care less about my outcome. It did what it did: send water downstream, over, through, and around rocks, whether I was there or not. I was just another very large leaf that was either going to float out the end of the rapid, or get hung up somewhere in the middle. I kept my arms up to fend off rocks. Wax on wax off kind of thing.

The water got too shallow to float so I had no choice but to stand up. I turned around laid back down and clawed my way upstream. It was like aquatic rock climbing. I had to select foot and hand holds carefully or risk getting swept downstream. The rush of the water was deafening loud, like being in a 60 mile per hour wind. And still there was life here. A darter hunkered down in a gap between rocks and an eel emerged from under another one.

Creek snorkeling is what you make it, and what you want it to be. It can be a relaxing silent float, an awe inspiring exploration, or an adrenaline pumping somewhat dangerous downstream ride. Snorkeling through this rapid gave me a different perspective, a new rush, and I will swim rapids again.

Sunday, May 27, 2012


Yes we are. The school trip season is in full swing and we are just about to enter our weekend trip season. We have partnered with Roland Park Country School Kaleidoscope program in Baltimore (, Eden Mill Nature Center in northern Harford County (, and Shank’s Mare Outfitters ( in York County, PA to offer a diversity of beginner creek snorkeling trips that will help get you started on this incredible journey of discovery and adventure. Check out the web sites above for more information about our upcoming trips. You can also contact us through our website at

Deception is Beautiful

I always like being surprised on snorkeling trips. We form opinions based on how things look from the outside, often without considering what is inside, and when I look inside streams, I am usually surprised by the beauty, drama and ecology of even our most familiar and unsuspecting creeks.

Coopers Branch is like that. It is a suburbanized stream, surrounded by houses, roads and shopping centers. It isn’t much more than a trickle and it just doesn’t look like there should be much to see beneath the surface. I have been here before but was too busy running a trip to really notice the ecology of this stream. I looked beneath the surface of Coopers Branch while I waited for students to arrive.

Two distinct schools of rosy sided dace shot from rock to rock and congregated on two different clean gravel patches to spawn. It was an incredible sight for two reasons: rosy sided dace are some of the most ornately colored fish we have living in our streams, especially when they are spawning, and rosy sides usually need water that is less fouled by sediments. Their presence here in suburbanized Coopers Branch indicates that maybe this creek isn’t as impacted as I initially thought, based on my observations from the surface. A whole lot of other life was present too and together they compose a complex functioning ecosystem. Water striders skated on the water tension of the surface to eat other insects. Crane fly larvae munched on the decaying leaves on the bottom and crayfish scavenged. Tadpoles wriggled by the hundreds in the shallows.

Students arrived and my focus shifted to help kids see and connect with the life in Coopers Branch. This was part of the deceptive beauty. We often perceive middle school students as disengaged, uninterested. But Betzy Willis’ 7th grade class from Catonsville Middle was anything but disengaged. They immediately took their task of documenting the diversity of Coppers Branch life seriously and soon I heard students calling out ID’s. They didn’t know what everything was, but that didn’t matter. They were finding a wide variety of organisms all dependent on the water quality in Coopers Branch. At the end of the trip the students understood that the quality of Coopers Branch not only affects all the animals we saw in the stream, but it affects our health and the health of our communities too. We are all aquatic, as Jeremy Monroe from Freshwaters Illustrated says. Betzy Willis’ students understand that, and are ready to act to improve water quality in Coopers Branch.

There is a saying on bumper stickers from the organization We Love Catonsville…Life is great in 21228. Yes it is. Even the unexpected, unnoticed, underwater life. Looks can be deceiving and that is beautiful.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Elkton High School Trip Report

Photo by Adelma Gregory-Bunnell
By Adelma | 0 comments
Snorkeling in the Big Elk Creek is not a very common activity, but passersby in Elkton on Friday probably noticed some swimmers.
Elkton High School ninth graders Justin Dzie and Maya Price were snorkeling in the creek as part of their environmental science class for teacher Rachael Coffey.
They were counting types and numbers of fish, as well as how erosion and biodiversity are affecting the fish as part of a curriculum with North Bay education director Keith Williams and a few members of his staff.
“Part of the curriculum is to have a positive impact on the Chesapeake Bay, and what we do here at the creek ultimately impacts the bay, our food source and our recreational activities,” Coffey said.
Coffey said her class was investigating the biodiversity of the creek and how much life it contains.
“The more diversity there is, the healthier the creek,” she added. “We found mayfly larvae and larvae of the dragonfly, which indicates that the creek is pretty clean.”
The class also looked at erosion in the creek caused by buildings in the area, Coffey said.
“That’s what the islands are from, extra erosion, and when you have lots of erosion, you lose the diversity,” she said.
Dzie and Price both saw an eel with a blue ring around it along with several schools of fish, a few bass and some bigger fish in the water.
The previous week, the class went to the creek and did some observations of the erosion. Some bio-diversity was found but not near what the students had expected, Coffey said. They also tracked native versus non-native plants in the area.
They also placed onion bags last week in hopes to catch some insects in them as well.
The students will gather all the information that was collected over the last three weeks and then present their findings to other students.
“I think we are doing our part to keep it clean,” Price said.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Disappointed Hope and a Call to Act

The Big Elk Creek rarely disappoints, and today was no different. I counted 8 species of fish within the first 10 minutes in the water. The problem was I was the only one in the water while 20 high school environmental science students watched from the shore.

We had plenty of gear for everyone to get into the water to see the underwater world of the Elk for themselves. We talked about this trip for a month leading up to the date. Even the weather cooperated with a sunny 80 degree day.

My excitement at the diversity and abundance of fish: darters, white suckers, common shiners in breeding color and the sighting of the more maligned ones like eels coaxed a few students in but still we only had three students finally decide to gear up and get in.

I was disappointed in my ability to convince these students to get in the water to check out what’s below the surface, to challenge and expand their view of the Big Elk. To form connections that I hoped would translate into action. I never had a student snorkeling trip not get into the water. Most times I have to work to get them out of the creek, and I wondered why this trip was different. It turns out there was a mix of reasons. Some students had to go to a different class after this one and didn’t want to go there wet. Others weren’t prepared to get in the water.

But the one reason that was most disturbing was the concern that getting into the Big Elk would get them sick. Maybe we have done too good of a job talking about problems so people perceive that the environment, especially the environment where we live, is impaired to the point of being unhealthy for us. Maybe we have presented a hopeless situation.

If creek snorkeling is about anything, it is about hope. Witnessing a diversity of fish, and the struggles of ecology in our local streams, the same streams many people consider to be disease causing, void, lifeless, and sick, proves that while our actions have impaired our waterways, it is far from too late. It is time for hope to generate action. Hope to maintain the amazing ecosystems that still thrive in our streams, and even restore them to an improved condition.

Above all there is hope. We can work to make our world a better place, and that work can start with the local stream. There is a vibrant ecosystem in the Big Elk Creek, and we can work to protect and restore it. I owe these students this lesson.

Saturday, May 19, 2012


The smell of pine opened a flood of memories. It has been a while since I have been here, but I used to spend summers here growing up. The Jersey Pine Barrens have always held a special place in my heart. Maybe because my parents first took us camping here. Maybe because it is where I first tasted adult freedom. First in the form of solo early morning bike rides on deserted roads as whip-poor-wills called while the rest of my family slept, then as unsupervised canoe trips down the tannin waters of the Mullica and Batsto rivers. I miss those days, and the people I shared them with.

I could feel my heart beat just a little faster as I geared up, a result of the usual expectancy of exploration. Snorkeling the Mullica is not like a first attempt on Everest, or challenger deep descent. But this was new territory for me. Creek snorkeling often gives me that small jolt of exploratory excitement. While rivers and streams are familiar to us, their underwater views are not. I used to feel at home in the barrens but now I am a stranger here. They are a mystical place full of lore and legend, and I looked over my shoulder frequently. I felt a little uneasy, and wondered if the Jersey devil was watching. I never snorkeled dark waters, and didn’t know what to expect.

Tannins leach from decaying vegetation and stain the waters to a dark burgundy tea. Water flowing out of bogs is especially dark. One of the unique aspects of the Pine Barrens is the contrast between adjacent systems: very arid nutrient poor sands interspersed with areas where the aquifer surfaces and forms bogs. There was a bog located just upstream so I couldn’t see the bottom of the few foot deep Mullica as I reluctantly stuck my head under the water.

The water was clear but dark and being here was a little unnerving. Everything was tinted red, as if there was a crimson lens in my mask. It was like swimming through the set of a horror film, with everything under a red light. The stream scape was interesting, at least what I could see of it was. Sand bars looked orange striped and some kind of underwater grass grew from the cut bank of the river like fine green hair. I didn’t see any fish, but didn’t spend a lot of time looking. Jeremy Wade and his search for river monsters planted a small kernel of possibility that assured a short trip in this dark water.

But still I was glad I got in. I can say I tried to snorkel in tannin stained water. It gave me a different perspective of a very different kind of stream.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Where Have All the Herring Gone?

I have been checking Principio Creek daily for the last two months, anxiously waiting for the return of the herring. The DNR sign nailed to a tree was not a good omen, but I thought it was more preventive in nature. Possession of any herring, unless you had a receipt to prove you bought it last year, was now illegal due to a 93% reduction in herring numbers on the Atlantic coast over last 25 years. But I really didn’t think that 93% reduction applied to this creek. The run last year was incredibly abundant, so abundant that it was easy to think it would continue.

Herring are migratory. They spend the majority of their lives at sea, and migrate to our fresh water rivers and streams to spawn each spring. This time last year I shared the base of Principio falls with three fishermen who were trying to snag the migrants for bait. I watched thousands of fish push up through the falls. I watched thousands of fish lay and fertilize eggs. I left Principio confident in the future of this herring run and looked forward to the opportunity to witness one of the most amazing events in our rivers and streams every spring. But the fish never came back and every day I checked, I came away wondering if I was early or they were late, but I figured they would be back. They had to. There were so many of them last year. It was a seasonal rite of passage I was confident I could hand down to my kids, maybe even my grandkids. It was something in nature I could count on returning. Until now. The first week of May arrived without sighting any herring and I had to accept that they weren’t coming back this year.

It seemed like such a limitless resource, and while I am not a proponent of overfishing, I didn’t think the fishermen last year were doing any harm. There were just so many fish in the creek, how could the couple dozen they removed have an affect? Nature will make more. Maybe that’s why we are where we are, because of that very flawed thinking that our resources are so abundant we can never deplete them.

The lack of a run in the Principio this year is concerning, especially combined with a 93% reduction in mid Atlantic seaboard herring. Maybe the Prinicipio run is gone for good and all that remains are the pictures I took last year, of the last run. Or maybe the warm and dry weather we had this spring reduced all the runs. Sure seems like the Deer Creek shad run fizzled after a robust start. I hope it was the weather and I will be back looking for the migrants again in April, looking for that seasonal rite of passage I can pass down to my kids.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

No Fish but Plenty of Blood

Conditions sucked. The water was murky, and there weren’t any fish. I didn’t expect to see anything but hoped for shad. It is a very rare trip when I don’t see any fish, or any bottom dwelling invertebrates…snails, crayfish, mayflies, caddis. Fish or not, I floated and relaxed in the gentle flow, and enjoyed the quiet and separation being underwater brings.

I swam through a snow storm of sycamore seeds. The frilly tufts that carry then though the air also keep them suspended in the water and they swirl about like snowflakes. There is a collection of walnuts behind a rock in a small rapid.

Algae covers everything. Probably a function of over fertilization…the Octoraro is one of the most heavily impacted streams in the area by nutrients, and nutrients make algae grow. But the excess algal growth is also a function of season. More sunlight due to lengthening day along with a forest canopy not yet fully unfurled, and fewer grazing animals, like aquatic insects due to colder temperatures mean algae can really take off since nothing is there to control its growth.

These are the life blood of the stream. Streams get their energy that fuels their food chain from items that drop into the water from the surrounding land and from algae that grows in the stream. Aquatic insects eat the leaves, seeds, wood and algae. The insects are eaten by fish and so on. While too much algae is an unhealthy creek condition, too little is equally harmful to the system. And even though I didn’t see any life larger than algae, I was still able to witness the amazing ecology of our streams.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Joy of Trout

I slid into the cold clear water of Fishing Creek to scope it out for a trip I will be running with Shanks Mare outfitter in June. The architecture of the place instantly impressed. Water cascaded over shelves of schist into pools lined with smoothed bedrock and angulated slabs. The clarity was impressive.

I saw a group of minnows and crept in to try to get a good shot and positive identity. I noticed the speckled snout of a trout sticking out from under a rock. I pointed the camera at the trout and the fish allowed me to snap a few shots before it rocketed off into the main flow below a short falls, leaving the minnows in a cloud of silt.

I always admired trout. They are elusive, and when I spent more time fishing for them than snorkeling with them, it was one of the ultimate challenges to hook one. Trout have an intelligence that leads to the difficulty of their capture. And now that I try to observe them, I find that they are just as difficult to watch.

My little trout shot off and joined another larger fish feeding in a deeper swift current. I hid behind a rock and watched the two fish feed. They precisely moved to exactly pluck insect morsels from the water, and maintain position in the river. Watching them was like watching the most incredible ballet. Grace, power, agility.

It didn’t take the fish long to realize they were being watched and they disappeared. I swam through the pool where they were, but the only thing I found was a puff of sediment in a bedrock crevasse where one of the trout hid and shot off when I passed over top without detecting its presence. I caught peripheral glimpses of these fish through the rest of the trip, but wasn’t able to spend any time watching them again. I enjoyed the beauty of Fishing Creek, looked for the trout, and admired their ability to dominate a pool one minute and completely vanish the next.