Big branch is really different than the last time I was here in August. The remnants of a hurricane came through and dumped 7 inches of rain in a short time. Big Branch took heavy flows, no doubt, and now the small creek is rearranged. Little is familiar. Logs that fall fish used for shelter are gone. New ones take their place. Holes are filled in, others are enlarged. Streams are dynamic places, and are supposed to change. The question is how fast, and as climate destabilizes and storms become more intense. I wonder if our stream ecosystems will keep pace.
I approach the first hole in the stream with a lot of anticipation. There have always been a lot of fish here. A school of common shiner usually hangs on the fringe, and large fall fish usually hold beneath a wide tree trunk wedged in the sand. It’s all different now. The tree trunk is gone, the hole is wider, but still only 2 feet deep and there aren’t any fish. I wonder if everything has headed for deeper water in Deer Creek with the arrival of colder temperatures, and if Big Branch will be fishless for the winter.
I head further upstream and slide into the largest hole in the creek, one that drops to 8 feet, and find out where all the fish have gone. Before me is a school of at least a hundred fish composed of at least 5 species. Common shiners, northern hog suckers, chubs, and white suckers all slowly move in unison away from me. And the large fall fish I liked watching and especially enjoyed showing to others who came out on snorkeling trips with me were there, near the bottom. Everyone I expected to be in this creek was, just all holed up in this single deep spot, which was just as deep but narrower than it was this summer.
Maybe this is the refuge the fish in this stream seek in winter, the deeper water they need to avoid freezing temperatures. It certainly appeared that way today. If it is that refuge, it demonstrates the importance a single stream feature can play in maintaining its diversity and health. This hole is still as deep as it was this summer, but it’s a little more than half its original width. The outside of it has been filled in with sand deposited during the last large flow. If that trend continues, the hole will fill, deep water will be gone, and these fish will have to find somewhere else to hole up for the winter. The sand that fills this hole all comes from us, upstream. Our streams start on our driveways and rooftops and what we do in our backyards matters. But for now there is a healthy fish community living in this hole and I enjoy watching the large school.
The sign was prominent, with a big red slash through the silhouette of a fish. Don’t eat more than 2, 8 ounce meals of fish per YEAR taken from this river. No wonder why many people think our local streams and rivers are dead. No wonder people think there is nothing of worth or value living in our local creeks. No wonder people don’t act to protect what is still there. I am not suggesting these signs are not necessary, they are. But they only tell one small part of the overall picture. Yes we have polluted our environment to the point it is no longer safe to eat fish, drink water, or breathe air, for that matter, in some places. And somehow these degraded conditions are accepted as ok. How is it remotely ok to have fish so contaminated eating more than 2, 8 ounce fillets in a year can cause health effects? How is it ok to have water we can’t drink or air we can’t breathe? Unfortunately we need these warning signs, and I hope they serve as a wakeup.
But what this sign doesn’t reveal is the incredible ecosystem that remains in the Brandywine and our other familiar rivers, in spite of the insults we throw at it. I slid into the water after explaining that there really are things to see in this river to a father and his 2 sons. I am sure snorkeling here looks odd in the summer. I’m sure it is perceived as flat out bazaar now, at the end of November.
It didn’t take long before the first fish came into view. A large northern hog sucker darted off from right beneath me in 2 feet of water. I followed the motion to a flat rock, where the fish let me slowly approach. I watched the hog sucker for a while, until it finally had enough of me and swam upstream. I let the current carry me gently downstream and started to explore a pile of logs on the stream bank. A tail of some kind of large fish stuck out of a rotted hole. It beat the water frantically as I approached, trying to push the fish deeper into the cavity. A bass held beneath the clump of wood and watched all the commotion. He was well camouflaged among waterlogged branches and piles of recently shed leaves.
A tessellated darter took a short hop away from me and stayed on the bottom. One of the benefits of snorkeling this time of year is the cold water slows everything down, and a lot of fish seem to be more reluctant to shoot away, so I have more time to watch and film.
I see a few dead freshwater mussel shells, as I expect, but don’t see any live mussels, as I also expect. Mussels in many of the rivers I snorkel don’t seem to be reproducing and there is growing concern about their future, so I’m doubtful I’ll encounter any here. Then I see the well camouflaged end of the shell of an Eastern Elliptio. Then I see another, and another. I am drifting over a vast mussel bed, and everywhere I look I see mussels. Mussels are filter feeders, and help maintain water clarity. Seeing these animals here gives me true hope in the future of the Brandywine.
Maybe we need to amend the signs. Yes we have crapped up the environment. Yes, fish is unfit to eat as a result. But it is far from a hopeless situation and there is a ton of incredibly beautiful, intriguing life waiting to be discovered and protected in our local, familiar rivers and streams. You just need to stick your face in the water.
The water was a lot colder than I expected and I wondered if the effort to get into a dry suit was worth it. I doubted I’d see any fish as cold as the water felt. But Deer Creek was clear and I’m always grateful for good visibility, so I slid into the rapid.
At first there didn’t seem to be much life. The usual rock weed covered the boulders, but looked thinner and drab compared to summer. It looked likes the rocks were balding. I didn’t see any non-plant life, as the water stung the exposed skin on my face. I slid out into the fast flow and clawed upstream, into a familiar eddy behind a large familiar rock. This is where I go for short quick snorkels, when I just need to get in a river.
Smooth cylinders start to emerge on the face of the large boulder that forces the river flow to divide. Humpless caddis flies in the tubes extend their legs up into the current, to filter morsels of food from the water as it rushes by. They quake in the strong current, and my placement in the river changes the current dramatically for these small insects. Other caddis flies cling to algae threads on rocks.
I drift out of the slower eddy, and creep into the strong current where I am whisked downstream. I snag a rock edge with one hand and let my floating body trail behind. I feel free. I slowly crawl upstream against the strong water, and notice that there are hundreds if not thousands of caddis cases all facing up into the current, all with outstretched black legs into the current, feeding. I realized that while there isn’t the larger piece of biomass swimming by that I am used to here in the spring summer and early fall, there is just as much life here, carrying out important functions and filling important roles in the rivers food web. The river changes subtly until the changes add up and the place appears very different. A completely different group of animals compared to last trip, a new arrangement of gravel in the eddies, thinned rock weed, and more algae. The caddis become abundant in winter, shad in spring, minnows and eels through the summer. And each river has a slightly different seasonal procession. The extra effort it took to put on a dry suit was definitely worth it today, and I can’t wait to see how our rivers change as fall turns to winter.