I spent a lot of 2012 wishing for clear water. The more I creek snorkel, the more I realize how degraded the water in our rivers and streams has become because of the things we do on land. Most streams turn chocolaty brown after just a quarter of an inch of rain, and some stay too murky to snorkel for days, even weeks, after a good rain. I depend on clear water to snorkel and it just felt like this year was a year of muddy water, again. It wasn’t until I ran a trip with the National Aquarium that I realized where there is a will there is a way.
We had a line of typical summer afternoon thunderstorms move through our region the day before the trip. A lot of the rain hit land that we disturbed which resulted in soil clouding the runoff, and our streams. A lot of the water ran from hard surfaces like roads, driveways and rooftops which scoured more soil into our streams. The result was really murky water in the stream where I planned to take this group snorkeling. I decided we would try the Susquehanna first. The river usually experiences very slow flows in the summer, and the water gets very clear. We slipped into the river below Conowingo dam and watched a herd of Virginia river sails graze algae off rocks, watched a few sunnies defend their nests, and saw the shadows of a few smallmouth bass stay just barely in view. Conowingo started to generate power and released water. The warning lights went off, the increased flow kicked sediment into the water which reduced visibility, so we left. I still had a half a day of snorkeling to fill and was out of options, I thought. We went to Deer Creek, our usual go to, and as assumed earlier in the morning, it was brown with sediment. As the group ate lunch I scoped out a smaller tributary to the Susquehanna. It is a rocky, boulder strewn creek, barely 10 feet wide that tumbles down the hills of the lower Susquehanna valley. It’s not very deep, maybe a foot in a few holes, but the water ran clear. We explored this small tributary after lunch, and watched an entirely different aquatic community of blacknosed dace, common shiner and crayfish function.
As the year ended I found myself in the same situation. Every time my schedule opened up to allow a snorkeling trip, it rained, our rivers got muddy and I got frustrated. Then I checked some of the smaller steams, and they ran clear.
I got into the water, experienced the familiar but always awe inspiring force water exerts even in this small stream, and was transported into another realm. As I hovered in the creek, a darter shot from beneath me and let the current wrap its body around another rock. Caddisfly larvae grazed. I floated and watched until I started to shiver in the barely above freezing conditions. This water isn’t as big, and the larger fish and fish schools aren’t here, but there is amazing life to see in the smaller tributaries.
It’s easy for me to get pessimistic about the future of our aquatic environments when water clarity depends on a drought. But finding clear water to snorkel gives hope. In this season of making resolutions, I resolve to not let muddy water get in my way of exploring rivers and streams. We all need to resolve to take the actions necessary to protect our surface waters and all the amazing life it contains. Where there is a will there is a way.
We got an inch and a half of rain which raised the level of this stream by four feet, and turned it to chocolate milk. Three days later the water wasn’t as murky and the water level dropped but the flow was still greater than what I was used to at this spot.
The water was hazy but clear enough to see the bottom. I hung onto edges of boulders as I crossed the rapid to the far shore, and felt like a leaf in a hurricane. Sand gathered in large mounds in the lee of shoreline rock, and a few minnows lazily drifted from their protective eddies. The higher velocity water rearranges the parts of the bottom it can and tornados of sand and rock swirl in eddies behind boulders. The water has uprooted some Asian clams from the bottom and piled them with a mound of pebbles behind a rock. Part of the bank is cut deeper and more tree roots are exposed. I watch the river shape itself as I creep upstream. There is a feeling of permanence that comes with watching a river. Rain falls, rivers rise, water wears away rock. This stream was here long before I was, and it will be here long after I am gone. In the mean time I get to share some moments in its current and I feel completely free as I drift downstream through the rapid, entirely at the mercy of the water. It’s reassuring and life affirming to know that there are things much larger than I at work in the world, and I get to play a small role. Most times snorkeling is about watching life. This trip was about watching the immortal processes that make life in streams possible.
I was just here three weeks ago and it didn’t look anything like this. Everything is covered in a fluffy algal fur. The angulated lines of the rocks that make up this rapid are softened and billow in the flow. The fast moving water mashes the algae to the boulders and form a mosaic of quarter sized green and brown patches that quiver in the current. If I didn’t know I was in Deer Creek, I could easily mistake my surroundings for another planet, it looks so alien.
This is a normal seasonal progression for our streams. We see an explosion of algal growth when the balance of nutrients, sunlight and grazing is thrown off center with autumn leaf fall, and colder temperatures. Deciduous trees drop their leaves each fall and many of them end up in streams. This increases the amount of sunlight reaching our streams and increases the amount of nutrients in our creeks, which create conditions excellent for an explosion of algal growth. At the same time, temperatures drop, and algae grazing insets reduce their activity, so the streams control mechanism of excess algal growth stalls. The system gets temporarily off balance, algae cover everything, and our rivers get furry.
We are familiar with the terrestrial passage of the seasons, and maybe take how life responds to changes in sunlight intensity, which affects temperatures, for granted. It is a more pronounced change in our streams because we don’t live there. Even though streams are familiar, their underwater views are foreign so changes appear less subtle, more dramatic and more easily noticed. What most people don’t recognize, and I often forget, is that streams have seasons too.
Time goes on, and seasons come and go, even in our rivers and streams. I feel fortunate to watch the underwater seasons pass, generally in step with and definitely linked to the terrestrial ones, which ultimately are affected by cosmic events. But the underwater seasons of our rivers and streams are unique in how they present, and I get to witness the otherworldly seasonal progression.
It’s loud here, but beautiful. A new realm. A large school of some kind of minnow curiously swims right up to my mask and camera, which makes getting a good shot difficult, but makes the swim really enjoyable. The topography of this large pool grades from fine sand on the shallow downstream edge to a deeper pocket with exposed bedrock where the water continues to wear it away. A large pile of leaves accumulates on the right, under a canopy of overhanging rhododendron. A rhododendron branch swirls in the current, and I have to work to keep from being pulled upstream into the waterfall.
The stream funnels through a bedrock trough and dumps about 15 feet into this pool where a cascade of bubbles almost reach to the bottom 4 feet below. The large school actively feeds unconcerned that I am there. A large stoneroller grazes on the bedrock shelf at the back of the plunge pool and darts behind the curtain of bubbles for protection. I pick my head from the stream and a whole new view of the river is revealed. I am almost directly under the small falls, and what appeared to be a modest sized falls now seems enormous. It is so quiet above in the forest, but when I put my face back under, the river is filled with the crash of the waterfall, like an unexpected constant rumble of a train. That is the case most times I snorkel: the view below if often something unexpected, but there is also a reassuring permanence to our rivers and streams. Water flows downhill. Life goes on. And Snorkeling often becomes a celebration of that life and the opportunity to experience it.
Lumps of sawdust poop laid on the bottom, and a fresh beaver chew was placed against what appeared to be an old beaver dam. More chew sticks and feces were on the bottom near what I suspected was a bank den. I thought this creek was partially beaver controlled, and these fresh signs prove it. That might explain the greater than expected diversity and abundance of fish we see in this small creek.
In her book, Water, Alice Atwater presents a compelling argument about how beaver were responsible for water quality in North America. These large rodents were extremely abundant, and dammed flowing waters to form beaver ponds. Beaver ponds trap sediment, act as great filters for water, and create a diversity of habitats. Diverse habitats and clean water support biologically rich ecosystems. Beaver were trapped out initially for their fur and later because we consider them nuisances. As the beaver were removed, so were the benefits of their engineering.
Today they are returning to even urban streams, though we still tend to remove them when they create what we consider flooding problems. Maybe part of the solution to restoring stream health is to leave the beaver alone. The beaver are welcome here at Eden Mill and we enjoy the benefits they provide to this stream.
I wasn’t thinking about hellbender until yesterday afternoon, when I heard they were abundant here in Pisgah National Forest. Someone who snorkeled this river said they saw 6 hanging out right in the open this summer, right where I was.
Hellbenders are foot long salamanders, giants in North American terms. They need cold, clean water to survive so their numbers are declining and their range is shrinking since cold clear stream are becoming rare. They used to be in the rivers near my house but are now believed to be gone. I have never seen one even though I have been on an unofficial search for the last 3 years by looking for them any time I am in their range. I want to see one in case they disappear from the wild, but I have hope that we can protect the populations that remain.
The river was clear and loaded with fish, but that didn’t matter. I had a search image of a flattened, round, well camouflaged, mottled head of a salamander blazed in my brain and nothing else mattered. I envisioned it barely peeking out from under a flat rock and I searched for an image to match the one in my head. I’m sure I missed some fish. I saw movement in my periphery and dismissed it. It wasn’t until I looked to my left and saw a large brown trout holding under a log that I realized I was missing incredible biology for the search of what might be. I was missing what was in front of me, which was pretty awesome, in the quest for something better.
The fish was large as trout go, and beautifully colored with yellow fins and belly, red and brown spots above, and a slightly hooked lower jaw. The large fish just held under the log at the base of a small falls and watched me watch it until it decided I was too much threat to tolerate, when it disappeared with one flick of its tail.
Brown trout are not native to North America. They were brought here from Europe and like the also non-native rainbow trout, are raised in hatcheries and released in our rivers and streams. They are top predators in the aquatic food web, and part of me wonders if the decline we are seeing in hellbender could be related to these non-native fish feeding on hellbender larvae. But this trout was an incredible animal and I shared a similar thrill in watching the brownie that fly fishers do when they capture this elusive fish.
It definitely would have been amazing to see a hellbender. These animals are so secretive and well camouflaged, and the rivers in Pisgah afford so many places where a hellbender can effectively hide from a snorkeler, I bet that my search was very incomplete, that I was just at Pisgah at the wrong time of year and if I return in their breeding season, I’ll see one. Still, every time I search and come up empty, part of me worries that their numbers are dropping and maybe I will miss my chance to observe them in the wild. But for now I am grateful for trout and will continue my hellbender quest.
The water is clear and cold and there is no life, at least none that I can see, but the place is still interesting. The water stings my exposed cheeks, and ice crystals elevate pebbles on the shore. The stream scape is new, different for me. The bottom is angulated fractured bedrock that hasn’t had the time to get worn smooth by the water. A recent small avalanche put two boulders, a log and some moss into the middle of the small creek, and a large pile of leaves accumulated on the bottom of the lee side of the stream, over a small sand bar. The creek is tiny, barely 6 feet wide and I figure this is probably a first order stream. Streams are defined by size. A first order stream has no tributaries. A second order steam forms when two first order streams come together. A third order stream forms when two second order streams come together, and so on. Based on its tiny size, shallow nature and slow flow, I assumed Hungry Mother Creek was first order and while it was small and without any fish I could see, it was still interesting based on landscape and legend.
Hungry Mother got its name from the story of a female settler, Molly Marley and her small child who were captured by Native Americans after they destroyed encroaching European settlements in the area. Molly and her son eventually escaped and when the young boy was found wandering down the creek all he could say was “hungry mother”. A search party found his mother dead along the creek I was snorkeling in, maybe even at this spot.
We have, and still do, treat each other like crap. It’s no wonder we treat our environment the same. The tragedy of this place, perpetrated by both Native Americans and Europeans, gives the stream an unsettled feel. The lack of fish adds to the graveyard ambiance. But I don’t think the lack of life is due to abuse. It’s cold and I think things have hunkered down for the winter. I imagine this place is pretty different in summer, when the creek is full of fish and the valley full of humans enjoying the park named for this legend. I hope I get the chance to come back and snorkel here when it’s warm.