Monday, December 30, 2013

We Have Come Too Far

“We came too far not to get in.” I told myself as I peered into the dark water of the Edisto River in South Carolina. The Edisto is Americas longest free-flowing blackwater river. Blackwater says it all from a snorkelers perspective. The water is over brewed tea dark. It is clear, but orange black, and I can’t see much past 2 feet. The purpose of this South Carolina trip was not to snorkel the Edisto, but I have a hard time passing up an opportunity to get into a new river especially one that is labeled the longest blackwater river in America. I really didn’t expect to see much due to the dark nature of the water, but sometimes the allure of river snorkeling is experiencing the river from a different perspective, whether I see fish or not. We came too far for me to pass up the opportunity to get into the Edisto, so I waded out between cypress knees and eased myself into the fast moving tannin stained water. The river was cold and dark and my breathing reflected the chilly fear. There are gators here though the chances of me seeing one were slim due to the cold temperatures. Even if I were lucky enough, it was unlikely that a gator would bother me. Still there was this kernel of fear in the back of my mind that came from being in unfamiliar, dark, cold water and it fueled an active imagination. My breathing slowed as the first water into the wetsuit warmed and I controlled my anxiety. Everything glowed red and cypress knees rose from the bottom like mountains in a hobbit middle earth world. The journey was rewarded with a completely new view. Even if I saw nothing else, this scene was worth it. I hoped to watch a bowfin since I have never seen one. The cold water meant that fish wouldn’t be very active so I searched for some hiding in the woody debris covered bottom. There could be a dozen looking back at me from well camouflaged positions and I wouldn’t know it. I saw some spent Asian clam shells scattered on the bottom, but no fish. Finally just as I was getting out of the water due to cold numbed hands and feet, I saw a school of some kind of juvenile fish hold over a shallow sand bar. The Edisto’s label of longest free-flowing blackwater river unfortunately doesn’t guarantee this amazing rivers protection. People are competing for its water. Its fish are contaminated with heavy metals and other pollutants so that the consumption of some species can cause health problems. It receives unhealthy runoff and wastewater discharge. But we have come too far to give up on the Edisto, just like we have come too far to give up on protecting any river. The issues facing the Edisto generically face just about every river. Fracking places countless rivers at risk and needs to stop. We each need to take responsibility for the non-point sources of our pollution and correct it. Install rain barrels. Plant rain gardens and planters. Urge local officials to retrofit out dated storm water management systems to better control and filter runoff, and let your elected officials know that the quality of our rivers and streams are important to you. Get involved with your local conservation group, or the group working to protect your favorite river like the Friends of the Edisto. Finally, get into your local rivers and streams and appreciate them for what they are. You will be rewarded with a completely new view. We have come too far not to.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Scouting Joy

I have an opportunity to run a few trips in the Camden, NJ area. Not exactly the mecca for creek snorkeling. But I love getting into urban and suburban creeks. These are the forgotten rivers, tucked into the folds of suburbia and unrecognized by many who live near them. Snorkeling in them gives me the opportunity to illustrate the amazing life that lives in what many people have written off as waste systems, places that hold little value because they are perceived to hold no life. I looked forward to scouting a few promising locations. It started to rain lightly as I explored the first site. A cloud of oil black runoff entered the stream from a storm water drain pipe after the streets were just barely wet. It looked like the smoke monster from Lost. I climbed the bank to the street and found the source: us. Each one of us who drives contributes to this blackness that likely contains hazardous chemicals like heavy metals from brakes, and oil, gas, and antifreeze from countless drips. It is a tragedy of the commons. We each contribute a small amount to the large total problem. So the solution lies in each of us removing our small contribution, by driving less and fixing leaks. This site wasn’t suitable, not only because of the horrible runoff, but because the river here was more like a lake. The bottom was soft mud and the water column would be chocolate milk after a minute in the water. I moved to the next site a few miles away. The Pennsauken creek runs through a broad flat grassed flood plain that is lined by suburbia. But still for being in the middle of an urban area, this section of the Pennsauken felt pretty remote. Back yards ended at the edge of the creek on one side, but houses were hidden from view on the other by a thin veil of woods. I peered over the bank and saw a school of some kind of fish dart for deeper water over the sandy bottom. This creek was taking murky runoff from the rain as well, but this wasn’t nearly as black as what I witnessed at the first site, probably because the runoff had to travel down a half mile stretch of first order stream that likely served as a filter. The Cooper River is the centerpiece of the Penny Packer Park. It is lined on both sides by trail, and open savannah woods. The river isn’t more than a block from full on suburbanization and urban land uses. I hiked along the shores which showed obvious evidence that this river recently took serious flood flows. Large sand bars were washed over. Flood debris – grasses, plastic wrappers, and Styrofoam bits – were plastered to overhanging tree branches at the level the water reached. Not surprising. One of the things that kills an urban streams is its severed hydrology. In a forested watershed, much of the rain water soaks into the ground and the creek level rises gradually. When it rains in an urban or suburban area the water hits hard surfaces like streets and roof tops and runs off with great force. As a result, urban streams rise quickly and flow hard. This causes stream beds to erode, and bottom habitat to degrade as the stream is scoured. Their waters choke with sediment after even a small amount of rain. Which is exactly what I saw in the Cooper River here – evidence of very high energy flows and murky water. But there was something else about the Cooper. As I walked over the bare sand bar, I saw hundreds of recently emptied Asian clam shells. Asian clams are invasive and tend to take over river systems, so celebrating their presence maybe doesn’t make sense. But they are life, living in a pretty heavily impacted stream. They are proof that life finds a way. As I hiked over the sand I found something even better. Recently empty alewife floater shells Alewife floaters are native freshwater mussels that I certainly didn’t expect to find here, a sign that maybe the Cooper is healthier than I thought, and stronger proof that when given half a chance, life finds a way. These creeks are not untouched. The fact that I have to run fecal coliform tests to make sure the water is safe to enter is a disgraceful testament to how much we care for surface waters, even though our very existence depends on clean fresh water, and it gives a glimpse that these creeks are about as far from pristine as they can get. And yet still life finds a way and that life, when viewed in its element under water, is amazing. That’s what it’s is all about – showing people the incredible that lives among us, in the hopes that this new knowledge and connection will inspire action to not only protect what remains, but restore what once was. When given half a chance, life finds a way.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Winter Solstice Snorkel

It’s about hope, this shortest day of the year. It is the beginning of winter, but also the beginning of the end of winter. Days lengthen, nights shorten, The solstice is an assurance that it will get warm again. It has become a tradition of mine to snorkel on the solstice to celebrate the hope that comes from snorkeling rivers. The Gunpowder is an impacted river. It is dammed in a few places to provide reservoir water for Baltimore. Stretches are infected with didymo, an algae from alpine regions of Europe, Asia and North America that covers the stream bottom with a brown mat, so thick it is often mistaken for toilet paper or fiberglass. The microscopic algae clings to waders, tubes, boats and snorkeling gear, and is spread when the contaminated item is immersed in a new stream. The Gunpowder is impacted, just like most of our rivers, but it is still an amazing place. Just like most of our rivers. It was the perfect place for this years’ solstice snorkel. The Gunpowder wanders through a steeply cut valley in this section. I slid down the 30 foot tall snow covered bank and geared up at the water’s edge. The place was empty except for a kingfisher who rattled as he flew above. This was his place and he was letting me know it. I flopped into the cold water and started the downstream float. I wasn’t in the water for long before I saw a few trout. I would normally turn up into the current, hide in an eddy, stalk the trout to try to get a shot. But I knew I wouldn’t have a lot of time before my hands became so cold I wouldn’t be able to use them, and I had a few miles of river to go, so I skipped the usual upstream spin, appreciated the trout for their lightning fast skittishness and kept heading downstream. A school of fall fish held where the river is pushed to the right by a large pile of rocks, and the bottom drops out. Fall fish tolerate my presence, unlike trout, and I hang with this school for a few moments. A river chub lays on the bottom and doesn’t shoot off like usual. A huge fall fish, at least a foot and a half long, slowly patrolled in the distance. The fish was so large I thought it was a chub initially but its behavior was definitely fall fish and I was able to confirm my first identification hunch as I slowly continued downstream over the giant. The river shallowed, the pace quickened and soon I was flying head first through rapids. I tried to look ahead from time to time to anticipate when I would have to fend off a rock with my arms to protect my head. But it was hard not to watch for fish as I flew near, by, and over numerous trout, fall fish and suckers. I am sure there were a ton of other more camouflaged fish nestled down into the cobble that would have become apparent if I stopped and looked. But flying through the rapids was too much of a rush, and the cold clock was ticking on my hands. They were already starting to sting. I safely navigated through the last set of rapids after fending off a few larger boulders, and slowed into a deeper eddy. I twirled with the current and watched a few juvenile trout flutter their caudal fins in the current as they waited for a morsel of food to drift by. I made wider and wider circles in the eddy and lost track of where I was in the river. My head slammed into a large branch that stuck out from a tree lodged against the side of the river by the circular current. I spun out of the eddy and flowed downstream with the water. It really is an amazing feeling flowing with a river and I relaxed and enjoyed the last few minutes of this flight. Our rivers are in trouble and it is easy to become overwhelmed by the problems that threaten them: non-point runoff, erosion, eutrophication, drying up due to over utilization of water, multiple competing user groups, invasive species. Rivers are embedded in huge complex problems without any easy answers, and it is easy to become discouraged. But our rivers also provide the hope we need to carry on. To do the next right thing, to make a difference for water quality. Snorkeling on the solstice is a beautiful tribute to the hope rivers provide and a call to renew efforts to protect them.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Empty and Full of Life

I took advantage of a warm day in the middle of a cold spell, to spend time in a familiar stream. The water temperatures were still freezing but often the worst part of winter snorkels isn’t getting in. It’s getting out of the water into freezing air temperatures at the end of the swim, and the warmth was a welcome change. The creek was empty of life but there was lots of evidence. Beaver have been active and rearranged the creek, again. The beginnings of a dam is gone with only a few remnants left that doesn’t effectively hold water so what used to be a deeper pool is now a shallow sandy flat. The downstream sides of the scalloped bottom are covered in silvery mica. There a few piles of saw dust filled beaver feces and a few smaller muskrat droppings scattered about. I float out over the big pool which is shallower by a foot. It is being drained by two new streams that formed after the beaver dammed up the main channel. I expect to see a collection of hundreds of common shiner, fall fish, and river chub since this is where they seem to gather this time of year. But the pool is empty. A large bank of leaves has collected on the left and it frames a spectacular underwater gorge on the right. This pool always had impressive architecture, but today with the steeply sided leaf pile, it seems more dramatic. I feel like I’m gliding over a small grand canyon. A trout rockets from behind me, darts past and disappears around the bend. I hope to see this fish again, since it was the only one today. I scare it up again and in typical trout fashion it shoots past me back upstream before I can even point the camera in its direction. I decide to check out some of the pools in the new riffle downstream of the main pool. I’m not there for more than a minute when a northern hog sucker speeds downstream and disappears into a collection of leaves and beaver chews hung up on the bank. I look for the fish in the tangle, and notice a sculpin looking back at me from the gravelly bottom. Sculpins are ambush predators. They are amazingly camouflaged to blend in with their surroundings and patiently wait for a fish to wander by. Their face is dominated by a huge mouth and when they rapidly open it, they suck the unsuspecting prey in. I knew sculpins should be here, but have never seen any, and for as many times as I have been in Big Branch, I was starting to wonder if maybe the bottom was just too sandy to support sculpins. But they are dominant in this gravelly stretch. I see another and another. A fourth and fifth hang out together for a while, but then they too dissolve into the background as soon as I take my eye off them. Another juvenile northern hog sucker swims between my arms. I start to shiver and slowly start back downstream very satisfied. I never know what I will see, even when everything seems to have gone somewhere else for the winter. Life shifts and adapts and learning where it goes and how it works is a true joy.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Early Winter

Snow hid the gaps between boulders on the bank so what is usually a quick series of hops to the waters edge was a much more cautious trip. It’s easy to snap a lower leg if not slow and deliberate today. Ice bells hang from pieces of grass that overhang the water and splashed water coats clogged twigs and leaves in ice. Cold water stabs my lips, the only exposed part of my face, and hands as the first squirt of water enters my gloves. I ease out of the eddy into the fast water in the rapid. Rock weed covers the rocks in this rapid with a thick green growth in spring summer and fall, but today the mat is sparse and the humpless casemaker caddisfly hang onto the remaining sprigs. Our rivers and streams have a seasonal progression of life that is hidden from common knowledge, mostly because we don’t look. Thick algae covers the bottoms of streams right around leaf fall in autumn, and the caddisflies come out in force in the winter. Mayflies alternate with the caddis through the cold months. Migrants like shad and herring follow the caddis in spring, and minnows become abundant through the summer. For now it’s the case makers turn to rule this rapid and hundreds cover rocks and cling to pieces of rock weed all pointed upstream to keep oxygenated water flowing through their cases. They hold two legs up into the current to snag morsels of food on stiff hairs. Cold leaks past my cheeks and lips and hits my teeth. It feels like I bit ice cream. I start to shiver a little. I take one last look at the endless pattern of caddisfly tubes that cover every rock in sight. It’s not winter on the calendar yet, but biologically, we are there.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

First Snow

We got our first snow yesterday and the 6 inches it delivered exceeded last winters total snowfall. The earlier darkness means it’s harder to get into the water in daylight. I have been wanting to explore my local stream at night anyway. Even the common when viewed from a different perspective provides new scenes and the excitement that comes from new observations. A half- moon provides enough ambient light to make the short hike through the fresh snow to the waters edge without a headlamp. The river is up and the water boils though, under, and around rocks. The edge of the river is noticeable in the moonlight as a distinct line where the snow ends and the dark starts. I gear up in the dark, and am not used to the extra equipment needed for night exploration. I fumble with the hand light, headlight and shore light a little. The water feels huge. This is a familiar hole, but it is unrecognizable when I can only see the little bit revealed in the narrow flashlight beam. The cold water doesn’t register over the excitement of being here on a late fall snowy night. I search for life but don’t see any. I have learned that there is always life present, It’s more a question of whether I can spot it or not. I start to see accreted pebble caddis fly cases attached to rocks. I work upstream into the next pool and scan it with my light, hoping to see a fish, but am happy for the experience regardless. The cold is starting to tingle my exposed lips and face. Finally I see a fish motionless on the bottom with its eye peering over a bedrock ledge. It’s a trout. Maybe the same one that has taunted me all year. Every time I slip into this pool a trout takes off before I can even get my camera close to ready for a shot. Tonight this fish was motionless on the bottom and gave plenty of photographic opportunity. The strobe filled the pool with light and blinded everything in it. I put my other hand down on the bottom to stabilize myself in the current as I crept in for a closer view and something alive shot out from under it. I could feel the power of whatever it was through my wetsuit glove and figured it was another trout. I took my last shot of the trout and explored the rest of pool in the swift current a bit more. A large tail stuck out from behind a large rock. I peeked over the side and sure enough, there was a good sized northern hog sucker. I tend to see these fish in cold weather and wonder if they are one of the fish that stay active in Basin Run throughout the whole winter. This short night swim in a very familiar hole in a common everyday stream gave a completely different view of the underwater streamscape and the life in it. It was an incredible nocturnal adventure. That’s what creek snorkeling is all about. Exploration. Adventure. Discovery. All available right in our backyard rivers. I have a few trips planned over the winter that will take me to warmer more exotic streams, but in the mean time I will enjoy night swims in my local winter rivers.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thankful Inspiration

The signs read that these waters contain unhealthy levels of fecal coliform after rains, and fish caught here shouldn’t be eaten. Not surprising, since this was the Brandywine in downtown Wilmington. It’s the norm for any urban stream, unfortunately. You wouldn’t know it from the surface. It was a picturesque spot, and certainly didn’t look impaired. We circled the fifth graders around a picnic table and introduced todays activities. We were going to determine the health of the Brandywine by looking for benthic macroinvertebrates, the things that live on the bottom, mostly insects, which tell us so much about water quality. The presence of some kinds of benthic macro indicates great water quality while the presence of others means horribly unhealthy conditions. We had the kids predict the water quality of the Brandywine with thumb votes. Most pointed down, including mine. The kids instantly got into the river, even though the air and water temperatures were in the 50’s. Most had boots. Some didn’t but that didn’t matter and it wasn’t long before a student fell in, but came up laughing in the knee deep water. They loved searching for life and were instantly connected to the Brandywine even though most had never been to the river before. I couldn’t keep up with excited requests. “Mr. Keith what is this?!?! Mr. Keith check this out!” The hour flew by. Amazingly these students found organisms that typically need pretty clean water to live. The Brandywine isn’t a trout stream. But it’s not a cesspool either, and there is a lot to celebrate and be thankful for. Including these Wilmington fifth graders. This trip came at a time when I was just about to give up on river snorkeling. I had other more seemingly pressing things to take care of, and after a summer of muddy water coupled with the frustration of cancelled trips, it just seemed that creek snorkeling was a futile idea. These kids proved me wrong. I was supposed to inspire this group to take action, but they inspired me to continue on the stream path I started 5 years ago. I can wait to come back here in warmer weather and take them snorkeling, so we can document the underwater world of the Brandywine, and spread the thankful inspiration that comes from exploring amazing rivers.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Freezing Beaver

What I thought was skim ice is a bit thicker and it takes almost all of my weight to break it into large chunks so that I can make it to the main part of Big Branch. This summer was a wash for trips here with Eden Mill – I only ran two out of a half dozen planned - due to cloudy water conditions. I heard a rumor that it was the wettest summer since the civil war, and I believe it. It poured before every tour which caused a murky river and cancelled trips. The water today is much different than the muddy river I remember from July and it runs clear and freezing cold. I slip into Big Branch as soon as I clear the ice chunks. The frigid water stings my lips and my teeth start to hurt from the cold. The water is about as clear as I have ever seen it here, and I start a slow crawl upstream. The river is rearranged again and the large downstream hole is gone. Beavers are starting to dam the river here and the main channel has been split in 2. All the rain and heavy flows moved the structuring logs that are embedded in the bottom sand which results in a very different stream scape. I belly hurdle over the first log that is now embedded in the bottom and float upstream. There were two deep holes here. But now the depth is more uniform and I realize I am swimming in a newly formed beaver pond. Evidence of the aquatic mammals is abundant and the light greenish white bark stripped chews are piled on the bottom near the bank. Schools of tiny fish huddle in the lee of logs ad look like small clouds. A large school of common shiner looks hovers over the bottom like a fog. The fish stay together as one mass and they slowly move away from me at first, but then come towards me once they get used to my presence. I notice there are a few fall fish and a rosy sided dace or two mixed in. I head into the big pool that is framed by a new beaver dam on the downstream side. The bottom 12 feet below is out of sight, or just barely visible most of the time. Today it feels like there is nothing between me and the leaves, logs and stumps below. My hands are numb. I can’t feel my feet and I start to shiver. It’s time to leave. Last year it was new years before this stream got ice. It’s not even Thanksgiving and we have frigid conditions already. The beaver are more active this winter than I have ever seen them here. It should be an interesting winter watching how Big Branch changes in response to both.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Second Leaf Fall

Leaves twirl in the current like Forrest Gump’s feather. Most of them dropped off trees here about a week ago and they are populating the creek now. I feel like a kid running through blowing swirls of leaves as I hang onto a rock in the rapid and leaves whiz past. Some get plastered to my snorkel and mask. This is half of the life blood of the stream. They provide energy that is converted from plant to animal by a diverse group of insects who shred and ingest the dead leaves. The insects are in turn food for fish. The rest of the streams energy comes from algae. I am watching more than just a few leaves twirling in water. I am watching an ecological process finely tuned by eons of adaptation. It is part of an interplay of energy between the forest and the stream. In the fall the net energy flow is downstream with the water. In spring and summer, the stream gives energy back to the forest in the form of hatching insects and migrating fish. Some leaves get stuck to rocks or are captured by sprigs of rock weed as they travel by. Others become waterlogged and gather in eddies on the bottom. I am more than watching a process. I am experiencing it. Another leaf plasters itself to my facemask. I inch up in the lee of a large rock and see the snout of a fish timidly peeking out from under a ledge. I follow it down over a sandy patch where a second one joins it in the stronger current. They are some kind of minnow but I can’t get a positive identification. They swim awfully close together and it looks to me like they are mating. But it sure seems to be the wrong season. I twirl out into the current and enjoy the weightless flight, crawl back upstream along the bottom and do it again. The freedom of snorkeling transcends season. It is getting dark, my hands are cold and the exposed parts of my face get numb. I make my way back up river against the strong current. Just as I am about to haul out I notice a motionless school of banded killis holding in the shadow of a rock. Banded killis are a common fish, though I have never seen them here in this rapid and they seem to be a little out of place. They are usually in quieter water, which this shoreline eddy provides. The school holds behind a large rock as they try to figure me out. They are in no rush and I enjoy watching them watch me, common or not. There is always something new to discover and experience in our rivers and streams. Whether it’s a school of common minnow or the twirling input of energy.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Connection to a Fault

Creek snorkeling is one of the most connecting experiences we can have in a river. I get connected to every river and creek I snorkel. But snorkeling also allows us to see the destruction of these amazing places first hand, and that can be disheartening. It was a pretty crappy summer for water quality. It seems that the summer weather norm on the East coast is becoming monsoonal. Lots of rain with lots of muddy runoff. One of my favorite creeks turned shades of unearthly green for all of August. I cancelled more trips than I ran, got frustrated and figured that repeatedly trying to snorkel in the north east was pointless. Bill McKibben was right. We ended nature. The climate is now dictated by us and so too is the new flashy hydrology of streams. I try not to be alarmist. I try to stay optimistic. But I got a little overwhelmed this summer, and gave up trying. When the water cleared enough for a trip, my schedule wasn’t. The last time I was here was on the Summer solstice. Now, five months later, I stand on the banks of Basin Run, ready to explore once again. This hole was full of fish on that first day of summer. It’s almost empty now. Everything is covered in thick olive fur and leaves swirl in the current. I have learned that this is a normal progression. Streams around here get covered in algal fur right about now every fall. Water flies through an upstream flume and sends a cascade of bubbles into the pool I am exploring. The force of this little creek is impressive, and I have a hard time hanging onto bottom. I figured I wouldn’t see much this trip. It is getting late and things are hunkering down. But still there is life. A trout darts and hides behind the veil of fizz. A few dace hide behind a large boulder. Caddis fly cases dot most rocks and the algae itself forms a unique stream scape. Even after all the rain and mud, and other stuff that washes into our streams with each rain, still there is life. And where there is life there is hope. I love Basin Run. Just like I love the Susquehanna, Deer Creek, Stoney run(s) The Delaware. All the rivers I have, and will, snorkel. I get really tired of seeing them negatively impacted. And yet there remains so much to admire. So much hope. It depends on how I look at things. This swim in Basin Run got me back on track, looking at our rivers and streams through a hopeful lens rather than a hopeless one. I will still get connected to the rivers I experience through snorkeling, but hopefully not to a fault

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Creepy River

It had been 16 years since I was here, when I had to clean out and close on my fathers house. My parents died 6 months apart and even though a lot of time has passed, the empty pain is still there. I don’t remember the closing, outside of feeling like I really didn’t want to sell the house. But I remember going to the river afterwards to sort things out, to help me make sense of this next parentless stage in my life. Rivers have always been so much more that conduits for water to me. They are spiritual places, sacred. As I snorkel them the feelings of connection and flow of time and spirit grow. Its grounding to be face down in a river. Cooks Creek empties into the Delaware here under the Delaware canal. This is the site of an old industrial complex. The buildings are long gone but the 30 foot tall caissoned sides of the creek walls, abundant slag and canal and road bridges high above stand as reminders to the sites industrial past. There were rumors of hazardous waste contamination of this place when the buildings stood, when I lived here, and that thought made me a little nervous to stick my face in the water. I slip into the Delaware just upstream of the Cooks Creek confluence. Thick, unnatural algae covers everything, in unnaturally warm water. I drift downstream and see thermal waves where the cold Cooks Creek water meets the warm stagnant eddy water. The thick brown fur that covers everything, rapidly plunging bottom scattered in industrial chunks of concrete, and the thermal waves give the place an eerie feel. A boat goes by and the flocculent crap shakes free in its wake. I am swimming in crud. The last time I was in this part of the Delaware, it was clear, and I eagerly anticipated the same conditions as I drove from home. I see a huge river chub in Cooks Creek under the canal bridge with a large sore on its head. Another chub had an ulcer rotted through its operculum gill cover. Creepy and concerning, but really can’t say much as to the cause. Either way this was quickly becoming a disappointing trip. I can’t believe this stretch of the Delaware is so degraded. I made a few drifts into and out of the cold Cooks Creek water and started to notice fish. Large smallmouth bass swam in the deeper water. Smaller ones stayed a little more shallow and watched me as I watched them. Schools of minnows hung right at the cold/hot interface and fed. One of those schools is satin fined shiners. I have only ever seen these as solitary fish, never as a school. Pale blue fins make them look tropical, and watching the school feed made me forget about my creepy surroundings.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Never Really Know

“I never really know exactly what we will see. I almost always see something unexpected.” I wrote in an email about what to expect to see to a prospective snorkeling trip participant. I am always amazed at how much the life in a river changes with season and time of day, so while I usually have an idea of what I might see, I never really know for sure. Principio falls is a gathering spot for herring and darter in spring. But today the falls contained many more surprises. I didn’t see any herring when I first put my face in the water, but then I didn’t expect to. They are thick in spring and return to the sea after they spawn. But I also didn’t see any darters, which I thought would be here. They always are. Schools of common shiner and black nosed dace danced in the strong current and plucked food morsels from the water with pin point accuracy. White suckers hovered near the bottom and hog suckers shot off into the distance when they noticed my presence. Stone rollers grazed their way upstream. Darters were relegated to the nooks and crannies of smooth bedrock walls in what I think is an example of habitat partitioning. In colder months when the minnows like common shiner are less common, darters dominate the whole stream. In warmer months when other competitors increase their numbers, the darters switch to bedrock where they are better adapted to survive. At least that’s my theory. Juvenile darters hop from cranny to cranny just like the adults. One of the things I love about this spot is watching darter courtship displays in the spring. Now I get to watch the result off that effort and it is reassuring to know they will continue. A juvenile catfish swims under a shallow gap beneath a rock and I worry that it is a flathead. Flathead catfish are invasive predatory catfish, that will likely rid this river of its darters pretty quickly if they are here. I didn’t get a good enough look at this fish to get a positive ID. I surface dive to the bottom and peer into the gap to find a bullhead staring back. Fortunately, the cat wasn’t a flathead. A school of juvenile bullhead catfish swirl in a large eddy silhouetted against the yellow water hue. I didn’t expect all these catfish to be here. Huge river chub swirl on the bottom. A juvenile eel pokes its head out from beneath a small cobble. A school of bluegill and pumpkin seeds huddle in the lee of a large bedrock slab and nibble on me. These fish are typical of lakes and slow moving rivers, not rushing waterfalls. For as many times as I have been here, the Principio today was a completely different river because of its different and unexpected biology. I never really do know.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

This is Badass

The word “badass” never came to my mind when explaining creek and river snorkeling. But that was exactly how one of our participants described it during Wormleysburg’s River Day. Wormleysburg is a small town right on the Susquehanna across the river from Harrisburg. They have never celebrated the Susquehanna before. We were grateful to play a small part in the event by taking people snorkeling off the Wormleysburg “Yacht Club” pier, to show people that even right here there is stunning life. And that’s where the badass comment came from: awe at the life in Wormleysburg’s front yard. Crayfish were everywhere, some pretty large. All of them were the non-native rusty sideds, but that really didn’t matter. They were still amazing and entertaining to watch. Juvenile small mouth bass huddled in the lee of large mounds of wild celery, a kind of underwater vegetation. The orange and black stripe on their tails quivered as they worked to hold against the lazy current. Adult smallies patrolled just out of reach. It was great seeing healthy smallies here since their numbers are dropping for yet to be determined reasons. Huge Chinese mystery snails, another non-native, grazed along the bottom. Some were almost the size of a tennis ball. But the find of the day were three species of fresh water mussel: eastern elliptio, and two species of lamp mussel. These animals are all native. Freshwater mussels are some of the most imperiled organisms in North America, and while the eastern elliptio is still considered common, the lamp mussels are species of conservation concern. There is also concern about potentially declining elliptio numbers. All three mussels were juvenile. Where there are young coming into the population, there is hope. The day was filled with joy and discovery. People lined up to get out on pontoon boats, paddleboards, kayaks and canoes as we shuttled people and gear in and out of the water. Wormleysburg came together to celebrate this great resource in their town, to show people how amazing the Susquehanna is both above and below the surface. There is wonder in life, any life, native or not. Rivers are special places, pristine or not. And Wormleysburg River Day celebrated all of that. Badass Wormleysburg. Very Badass.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Water Fallin

It is loud and chaotic and the current twists and turns and tugs at me. Every move is planned and deliberate much like rock climbing. I make sure I have secure finger and toe holds in the smooth bedrock before I move my right hand closer to the main flow of water. The current catches my legs and pulls them toward my head. I am careful not to get swept down the 10 foot falls. I hold tight to the bottom as I get into the main flow and am amazed at the view, even though fine entrained air bubbles make things look murky. I think I may have a new favorite subset of river snorkeling. I like downstream drifts and skulking where you start downstream and slowly work upstream, but snorkeling waterfalls is a whole new venue. I am amazed because an incredible diversity of life swirls before me in strong eddies and lives in what seems to be a pretty violent place from the surface. A school of 20 or so young bullhead catfish swirl in a large circle close to the bottom. Suckers face upstream and look like weather vanes pointing into the wind as their bodies change orientation based on deflections of current. Darters hunker in the cracks in the smooth bedrock and a decent sized striped bass darts through the center of the swirling current repeatedly. Sunnies hang on the periphery. A large eel startles me when it swims over my left arm and under my right. This is awesome I say through my snorkel. I watch the different fish interact with each other, but mostly they are focused on how they interact with the current. Like me they are working to not get swept over the falls. The current is strong, and while it is loud here, it isn’t nearly as violent as it appears from the surface, and a sense of calm comes over me as I watch and experience life happen. I never expected to see all this biology in the strong current. I never expected to experience calm in the middle of a waterfall. But then creek snorkeling is good at expanding expectations. River snorkeling is all about exploration and experiencing the world from a very different perspective. It’s about expanding our view of the world. And snorkeling waterfalls does just that.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Live Action! Getcha Some!

I like Turtle Man. He’s genuine and shows true care and concern for the wildlife he captures to return to safety. But what I like most is his enthusiasm. He exudes what I feel every time I snorkel. This trip to Big Branch was no different. Large male sunfish took me on as I approached their nests. They flashed neon turquoise stripes and one even turned red. A large school of large fall fish swirled in a hole beneath some big woody debris. A small mouth bass challenged me just like the sunnies, and charged at my mask. Swarms of young darters hopped along the sand flats. Mixed schools of rosy sided dace, black nosed dace and common shiner swam upstream in the current past me in lock step order and looked like a group of leaves in the wind as they flowed back downstream in disarray. This was the typical Big Branch. Tons of life that displayed incredible behaviors. I reached the big pool and started the slow float downstream. I decided to go a little past my usual take out to explore an oak that recently fell into the river. As I approached I thought I saw the shell of a turtle but it could have been a rock or other obstruction sticking out of the mud and sand bottom. Then I saw the head. Sure enough it was a snapper. I have never seen this animal in the water. All of my encounters with snappers have been on land where they are slow and lunky, except for their strike. But in the water this animal was agile and graceful. And just like on land, this animal didn’t want anything to do with me. It started to back away as soon as it saw me approach. I kept my distance, not out of fear but rather respect. I am not afraid of snappers. I have worked very closely with these animals and found them to not be the finger removing monsters they are made out to be. But rather they respond like any other animal when threatened and cornered. I have gotten careless around snappers and inadvertently gave them opportunity to inflict injury, but none of them took it. I have been struck with their heads, mouths closed. It was almost as if they used their head as a warning punch rather than immediately striking with a snapping mouth. This turtle in the water was no different. It gently and agilely moved away. I didn’t want to disturb it so I kept my distance. Turtle man rescues snappers from ponds where they cause conflict with humans, largely based on our fears of these turtles, and that produces adrenaline fueled encounters. I experienced a little of that live action, and I got me some, snorkeling Big Branch today.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Mill Creek Revealed

It’s just a little thing and really doesn’t look like much from the road. The creek is only 5 feet wide and the shallow 6 inch deep runs of riffles are interspersed with 1-2 foot deep pools. But the water is clear and the gravel is clean. I wasn’t sure what we would see, but we didn’t have many other options. It has been a wet early summer and our eastern rivers are muddy for the most part. Mill Creek was one of the few exceptions. “I’m not sure what we are going to see today.” I told the group of teacher who were joining us to learn how to engage their students in stream science through snorkeling. “But then I never really know what I am going to see when I snorkel any stream. That’s one of the beauties of it.” Clear water reveals lots of fish once I submerge beneath the reflective surface. Rosy sided dace compete for a mate. Common shiner feed in the water column. The colors of these fish always impress me, and for a minute I forget I am in a temperate stream. It looks more tropical. Something hopped from one spot to another on the bottom. I looked down to see a sculpin mashed around a smooth round cobble by the current. It let me get a few pictures, then decided I was too close and in an instant, disappeared into the background. I slowly crawled upstream and saw another. A thin tail stuck up from the pebbly bottom and as I suspected, an elver appeared from the other end of a larger rock. Another sculpin shot off and settled against a round stone. Darters darted and a large sunny challenged me from under woody cover in a deeper hole. It was satisfying to hear comments like “I never knew this creek was here.” and “I would have never thought to snorkel here.” That’s the whole point. It’s amazing what lives in even our most forgotten streams. All we need to do is reveal it by snorkeling

Monday, July 1, 2013

Flying The Gunpowder

I feel like a squid as I push off the shore, take one large powerful sweep with my arms and legs and jet downstream. My plan is to fly a few miles of the Gunpowder, a cold water river not far from my house but one I spend way too little time in. I call it flying because that’s the sensation that best describes downstream river snorkeling There are tons of brown trout here. These are fish I barely see when I’m working upstream in a river. They are probably the most nervous fish I know and take off after just I catch enough of a glimpse to know they are trout. But on this downstream run, I surprise trout as I fly by and I am moving so fast they don’t attempt to flee. I saw at least a half dozen in the first hundred yards of river. The river shallows so I flatten myself to float over shallow riffles and just barely scrape by as I flow into a deeper pool chock full of fish. Fall fish feed in the middle of the water column while trout nervously shoot for cover. River chub amble along the bottom then rocket from view with one flick of their tails when they realize I’m above them. The water picks up velocity and I glide over green and purple rock weed covered boulders interspersed with mica flaked sand and gravel. I feel weightless and free. Fast riffles grade to deep slower moving pools and the ecology changes accordingly. This is an unbelievable run. The excitement from navigating rocky riffles while an incredible force of water pushes me through combined with a sense of wonder as I watch fall fish feed and river chub scatter places me squarely in the moment. I watch in awe as the impressive river bed geology and dramatic underwater landscape pass beneath me. Flying the Gunpowder opens up a whole new way to experience this amazing river, and I will never look at it the same again.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Forty One Years After Agnes

It’s hard for me to picture what this spot looked like on this day 41 years ago. Hurricane Agnes came up the Chesapeake and slowly passed over the Susquehanna. 650 million gallons of water, mud and silt screamed over Conowingo dam with all 53 flood gates open as a result. Today was the exact opposite. I tried to picture the violent torrent as I lounged in the gentle calm flow just below the dam and looked upstream at a dry wall of concrete, not a cascade of mud and logs. If I were here on June 24, 1972, I would have been killed. Two mature eagles launch from a water willow bed in the middle of the river. An immature takes off from the top of a river maple on the shore. These birds wouldn’t have been here in 1972 either. They were too rare. The insecticides, DDT, and DDE caused eagle egg shells to thin, which meant the eggs cracked before hatching and the national symbol was almost driven to extinction. National environmental legislation such as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act and the Federal Pesticide Control Act, which protected the eagles, all came about right around the time of Agnes. Before then it was accepted practice to dump everything into our waters. Hazardous waste and raw sewage went into our rivers untreated. It’s no wonder our rivers were dying and a natural disturbance, like a hurricane, almost killed the Chesapeake Bay. It was already weakened from everything we did to it. Water quality has improved as a result of the regulations passed in the early 70’s, but we still struggle with too much nitrogen and sediment entering our rivers. Fish haven’t done as well. The Maryland darter and hellbender were last seen in this area in the late 80’s and are expected to be gone. New arrivals assure a changed ecology. If hellbenders were here, I can’t see how they could survive the gaping predatory mouths of flathead catfish, which are native to most of the Mississippi drainage, but are introduced here. The fates of the hellbenders and darters were probably sealed long before the flatheads arrived. Shad are holding at historically low levels. The Susquehanna was a world class smallmouth bass fishery just a few years ago, but now the Susquehanna smallmouth are in trouble. Males have been found with ovaries and other smallies are turning up with lesions. No one can agree on a cause so there is no progress toward a solution. Our rivers are never safe and secure from damage we inflict. Conditions change and river ecology suffers. I looked for fish that were here today rather than the ones we may have lost. There is still an amazing system here. The architecture of smoothed huge bedrock outcroppings that characterize this part of the river always gives an otherworldly feel. I started to see water willow rhizomes as I pulled myself along the bottom so I knew I was approaching an island or sand bar. Young fish use the protection of water willow stands and two juvenile log perch foraged on the bottom between the green shoots. Their tiger striping is always dramatic. Darters flitted around and a school of some kind of minnow turned in unison. Power in numbers. And at one time there was power in environmental laws. We made great strides in protecting our rivers in the era of environmental regulation. The problems our rivers face today are largely created by each one of us rather than single large polluters. Non-point sources of pollution, pollution that doesn’t enter the river from the end of a pipe but rather operates more insidiously by coming from multiple sources, is much harder to control with regulation. There is a place for regulation, but there is a growing place for personal action. It’s not time to get complacent. It’s time to act. A lot has changed since Agnes roared through here 41 years ago. Some changes have helped to restore the Susquehanna and all of our rivers, some changes have had the opposite effect. Let’s work so that a river snorkeler exploring this spot in 41 years can see clear progress. Thanks to Erika Quesenbery Sturgill for the Agnes facts.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Solstice Snorkel

I have been in Basin Run hundreds of times, but it turns out I haven’t been here in summer. It’s a local creek, about a mile from my house and its watershed is still mostly forested, so it stays clear when other streams get muddy and clears faster than the others when it does turn to chocolate milk. I go to Basin Run in fall and winter because of its convenience. I can’t justify a long drive when I can only stay in the water for maybe 30 minutes before the cold sets in. In the spring and summer I wander farther to witness migrations and explore, which means Basin Run gets ignored in the warmer months. I figured the solstice was a fitting time to explore what Basin Run looks like in summer. I know it well in winter, and I expect to see pretty different things here today. The creek cascades through a series of pools and I slip into one of the deeper ones on the downstream end of this run. I instantly see a combined school of common shiner and stoneroller. They divide up the stream to feed, stoneroller take the bottom and shiner pluck morsels from midwater. A fall fish swims in the lee of a large boulder and three brown trout hold in the current flowing over bedrock in the bottom of a scoured hole. They take off as soon as they see me peeking over the ledge. A juvenile trout hovers in the strong current like a hummingbird, with its tail down and nose up. An elver ambles across the gravel bottom then jets for a crevasse in the bedrock when it notices me. I scare up another one a few minutes later. Another wriggles into the small cobble bottom. Another darts off when I accidentally touch it. I saw at least a half dozen in a small two pool section of stream. These juvenile eels are returning from the Sargasso Sea where they were born, and it is a joy to witness so many in Basin Run. I always suspected eels were here but I thought I was just missing them due to a combination of poor timing and their cryptic lifestyles. I hoped for a hellbender, but no luck. As many times as I have been in Basin Run, I have never seen these fish here. The normal winter community includes a few darters, fairly abundant black nosed and rosy sided dace, and tons of caddisfly and may fly larvae. In fact most trips to basin run in winter results in 10 minutes of picking may fly larvae off my dry suit after I get out of the water, they are that abundant. I didn’t see one today. It’s the same creek but a very different place today, on the solstice. Water temperatures are up and the fish community is expanded. Today celebrates the beginning of summer and for many the beginning of the river snorkeling season. Take advantage of the summer to get out there and explore your local rivers and streams. I am always amazed by what I find.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Love That Orange Water

I have snorkeled Stony Run before, but upstream from here. I have always been amazed by this small creek. Its watershed was recently almost all forested but the steam still stays clear in spite of encroaching suburbanization. It’s a stream that gives me hope that maybe we have learned how to manage the balance between development and open space. Maybe progress can occur without destroying water quality. A white fine sand beach frames a deep pool at the foot of a riffle. This spot is wedged between the major North East corridor transportation routes: Amtrak to the south, Routes 7, and 40 to the north. This half mile stretch is just barely out of sight of route 7 and is just beneath the NE corridor tracks. I certainly didn’t expect to see the abundance and diversity I experienced today, given the location. Stony Runs water has an orange tinge due to tannins that leach from decaying vegetation in the wet woods and wetlands that form a lot of the Stony Run drainage so from the surface it seems like visibility will be poor. But as usual, as soon as I break the reflective plane, a whole new world is revealed. A small mouth bass comes up from the bottom of the hole to investigate. Common shiners nibble on me as I try to get closer to the bass. Hogsuckers head for deeper water from a shallow cobble riffle. Juvenile sunnies hover over a sandy part of the bottom and log perch hop away as I try to grab a picture. Darters wedge between rocks. Some kind of minnow I still need to identify feed over a gravel flat. With this diversity and abundance, this spot might just become my new favorite place to snorkel. It’s the unexpected that keeps me in the water. I never know what I am going to see, and there are so many rivers and reaches of rivers to explore. I will never be able to see them all. This little stretch of orange water reinforces that.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Quick Dip

I finished meeting with the guys that run Monkton Bike and Tube ( They rent inner tubes to people who float down the Gunpowder. I really enjoy talking to people who know and love rivers, and while this meeting was about a potential partnership, the discussion with Jim and Dan was largely centered on the Gunpowder and how amazing that river is. Their shop is right on the NCR trail which parallels the gunpowder. A short walk up the trail brings you to an easy put in. I decided to explore a little. I didn’t have much time before I had to leave, but I had enough to get in for a quick dip, and fast look around. The water is brisk and it takes a minute before I get used to the chill. In the end the cold water feels great on this muggy afternoon. I scoot downstream a little with the current and don’t see much outside of interesting geology. I hang onto a rock to explore the bottom a little more closely, but still don’t see any fish. I turn to head downstream a little further and there, in my wake is a large school of shiner and stoneroller that pluck morsels of food from the water column I inadvertently scour off the bottom. I knew there were fish here. It was just a matter of looking in the right place. And the fish that are here are interesting ones. Stonerollers have a hardened u shaped upper jaw that is perfect for grazing algae off rocks, which is exactly what they do. Common shiners will be lit up in neon green red and orange shortly in their quest to impress a mate. The dark skies opened up and the rain drops pattered the surface. A distant clap of thunder slowly rumbled up the river valley. It was time to go anyway. I reluctantly swam back to the put in. I got to see amazing biology for just a quick dip, and I can’t wait to spend a whole lot more time in this river.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Cold But Still Very Cool

We ran the first trip of the season with Eden Mill on Big Branch the last Saturday in May. I figured the water would still be a little chilly, but not too bad. Then an unseasonable cold snap hit, and frost warnings covered a lot of the area for two nights before. Two groups of two brothers pulled their wetsuits on as I talked about what we could expect to see today: dace, hogsuckers, sunnies, common shiners, maybe a trout... I also said that we didn’t need to stay in the water the whole time, that if anyone got cold it was ok to say so and we could end a little early. Air temperatures were in the upper 60’s and I was worried about people being comfortable. I want to introduce them to the sport/adventure/discovery that is creek and river snorkeling, and I want them to try it again. If folks are uncomfortable on this trip, they are unlikely to give it another shot. I was ready to end the trip at the first signs of cold challenge. We slid into the clear waters of big branch and I gasped as the first slug of cold water filled the void between my skin and wetsuit. Everyone else gasped as they slowly inched into the creek. “The water is going to be cold at first, but it will warm up after a little bit.” I encouraged. Soon everyone was in, faces in the water, exploring, and we followed a school of sunnies upstream. A large school of common shiner flitted just downstream of a submerged log that captured a nest of branches. A few silvery tubed fall fish joined them, along with some black nosed dace. A trout rocketed upstream for better cover. We slid around the obstruction and continued to explore Big Branch. The diversity of this creek always amazes me. Its bottom is sand and gravel. There isn’t much rocky substrate here. But what is here is large woody debris, and I think that’s why we see the diversity and incredible abundance we do. One of our trip members started to get cold as we entered the large pool that holds lots of fish. He waited in the sun as we pushed upstream just a little further. Large schools of common shiner, not quite in breeding color fanned away from our approach. Large foot long river chub nervously darted under the submerged leaf mat 6 feet below. Big fallfish coolly swam just ahead of us. We reached the head of the pool and I checked in with the group. We were all cold after an hour in the stream, and the consensus was to start to snorkel downstream. We drifted over a large sand flat expanse and small puffs of sediment popped up from the bottom. We were over a school of darters that were so well camouflaged, we could only locate the fish when they shot off leaving a cloud of sediment behind. We hauled out of the creek, chilled. The sun felt good and we started to warm as we hiked along Deer Creek back to the center. The water and air was definitely colder than expected, and we got cold as a result. But the trip and Big Branch was still very cool.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

100 kids in 7 days

I have been lucky enough to take more than 100 kids snorkeling on rivers on 3 of the last 7 days. It is fun work, but exhausting when done right. I enjoyed the sunny morning and clear water of our last trip. It was the last group of 25 and we just found about a dozen elvers making their way back upstream to find a clean gravel/cobble bar home where they will mature for the next 25 years or so. It is so rewarding to see kids watch this amazing feat, to watch kids become connected to our rivers right before my eyes. The school’s principal was also out with this 5th grade class, and she gave an approving nod. We were reaching curricular outcomes. Kids were learning while they explored their river. I rolled onto my back and enjoyed the rush of water, the sun, the laughter of students. Life was good, and I was satisfied. A commotion downstream changed all that. A half dozen students gathered around a section of riffle and yelled “eel!” I rolled over and snorkeled to them to find a large, 3 foot long orange colored lamprey, firmly attached to a rock. I have never seen a lamprey in the wild before. Just as I thought today couldn’t get any better, I see a life list fish. Some people collect bird life lists. I collect fish, and this was quite the find. I have been hoping to see a lamprey for 20 years. I have been intently searching for 5. Sea lamprey have a reputation of being an invasive parasite that is killing off the great lakes fish populations, which they are, but here in Maryland they are native, and declining in number. We think. They really haven’t been all that well studied, and historic population data is scarce. They are a very primitive fish. They even predate sharks. They are so primitive, jaws evolved after them so they are called jawless fish. Instead, they have a sucker disc lined with sharp raspy teeth which allows them to latch onto the sides of larger fish and suck body fluids to the point of death. While they appear to be a parasite, they are actually a predatory fish since parasites don’t typically kill their hosts. They spend their lives at sea and migrate into our rivers and streams to spawn, and like most migratory fish, they are in trouble. Freshwaters Illustrated ( produced a series of excellent videos on Pacific lamprey. While this is a different species the story of decline is similar. The lamprey was pretty beat up from its long journey and it was nearing the end of its life. We took lots of pictures and some video and showed the fish to all the kids. In that instant these students became strongly attached to their river and this fish. The lamprey was the galvanizing agent. As amazing as this fish is, they seem to be forgotten in the east. I hope we can learn how east coast lamprey are faring, and take action before no one remembers these primitive wonders.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

It's Always Sunny at Stroud

The Brandywine at Stroud has a diversity of habitats: slow moving areas with sandy/silty bottoms, underwater vegetation beds, cobble flats where the river picks up speed, woody shoreline debris, shallow riffles and scour holes. The diversity of habitats should provide a diversity of fish, and I expected to see a ton as I slid into the river near the downstream riffle. The reflection on the smooth surface rippled as I pushed off the shore. I dug my fingers into the soft bottom to claw my way upstream. While the river here is calm, it is moving. I slid past underwater vegetation beds interspersed with sand and gravel flats and saw no fish. I slid over cobble piles and saw no fish. The river bottom dropped off into deeper holes and still no fish. I started to doubt whether I would see anything this trip. That’s how it goes sometimes. Sometimes river snorkeling is more about enjoying the underwater river scape, enjoying the river from a very different perspective. I continued upstream, and looked for sunnies. I can always count on sunnies, just about anywhere I snorkel in spring summer and fall. They are everywhere and while they are a common fish, their behavior is always interesting and enjoyable to watch. I headed for the woody debris near the shoreline and coasted under the bridge. There, blending in really well to the backdrop of sticks and silt, was a school of a half dozen sunnies, intently watching my every move. There are a number of species of sunfish that occur on the Brandywine. Some of these hybridize readily which makes getting a positive ID difficult. But I really didn’t care about identifying which species was in front of me. Rather I enjoyed watching their behavior: how they responded to me, the river the other sunnies. Pretty soon the bottom of this stretch of river will be dotted with bowl shaped nests and the males will get right in my facemask to defend their territory. For now they hovered at a safe distance. I drifted with the current and enjoyed the sensation of flight. A small mouth bass patrolled around me, careful to keep me in sight. A juvenile bass darted for the opposite shore. I could see the ghostly outlines of large river chubs in the bottom of a deeper hole. Common shiners fed on the morsels I inadvertently kicked off the bottom, and darters laid among the gravel ready to pounce. Even if I didn’t see these other fish that represent the diversity I first expected, this still would have been an amazing trip. It’s always sunny at Stroud.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Artificial Creek

Jordan creek is corralled by stone masonry walls, placed to keep the river channel static. Exactly what streams don’t do, stay still. Stream channels meander across valleys over time. They shift and move and shift again, and the walls that keep Jordan Creek static were the first sign this was a highly altered, artificial river system. The walls sever the natural link between the stream and its floodplain. Trout were abundant, probably because they were recently stocked as part of a put and take fishery. Fisheries managers put hatchery raised rainbow trout in streams and fishermen take them out, which is just as well since the trout probably wouldn’t survive on their own. Regardless, they are a west coast fish and are not native to the east. In fact a few studies show that when rainbows are released into a stream their introduction significantly changes the feeding ecology of the stream. But that doesn’t matter now because I love watching rainbows, native or not. Besides they are feeding with small mouth bass, another non-native top predator. Smallies are from the Mississippi river drainage, were widely introduced, and have had significant negative effects on native fish. And like the rainbows they are cool to watch native or not. Trout have sleek muscular bodies that are perfect for holding in strong currents found in cooler stream environments. Bass are stockier and are better at hunting in slower moving warmer waters. While they are both top predators, they hunt different waters so they usually don’t directly compete. I have never seen them hunting side by side and it is a thrill to watch two top predators, both most efficient in their own water, hunting side by side. The river is forced into a thin sheet of water over a low head dam that looks like at one time also served as a wet crossing for vehicles since it is about 6 foot wide. A red eared slider laid on the bottom of the quiet part of the plunge pool below the dam and craned its neck toward the surface to watch me watch it. Red eared’s are native to the midwest and were common pet store turtles. This reptile could be a pet that gained its freedom when its keeper got tired of caring for it. Or it could be part of the introduced eastern Pennsylvania population that is now reproducing. The creek above the dam is a different world, more lake than river where thick beds of Hydrilla and Eurasian water milfoil cover the monotonous bottom. These plants are also aquarium escapees. Smallmouth bass stay just barely in view, and a stocked trout rockets into the muddy distance. Everything I saw today in Jordan Creek is artificial. Non-native biology placed in an artificially constructed hydrology at the expense of a native stream scape. That doesn’t mean this wasn’t a phenomenal snorkel. Getting to see trout and bass feed side by side, and watching a red eared slider as intrigued by me as I was by it, was absolutely incredible, and I list this urban stream experience right up there with some of the most pristine streams I have snorkeled. There isn’t much real in Jordan Creek, except for the sense of awe, wonder and adventure it provides me as I explore it. That and hope. Witnessing how life finds a way in response to a completely artificial habitat alteration gives me as much hope as knowing that people like the folks at Wildlands Conservancy ( are working to restore it.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Future River

This place almost wasn’t. It was nearly destroyed by the placement of a dam in the 1960’s. Construction on the Tocks Island Dam was supposed to start in 1967. I was grateful to have the opportunity to take a group of students snorkeling 38 years after the dam idea was defeated. This might not have been possible it weren’t for the actions of a few committed citizens. What we do matters. This was the second day on the river for about 100 United Nations school students who were participating in a three day canoe trip down the Delaware with the Delaware Riverkeeper ( Six of them joined me in the river to experience the underwater side of the Delaware. Clouds of juvenile fish huddled in the lee of every large rock. The students picked out numerous juvenile freshwater mussels. Juvenile anything is good news. It means the parts of the river system are reproducing. It means the continuance of species and the critical roles they perform. In the case of mussels, it’s water filtration. The Delaware River population removes sediments and algae from the water column in addition to disease causing organisms, as they filter an estimated couple billion gallons of water each day. We admired caddis fly larvae, three species of snails, and the clean river scape as we crawled our way upstream. We turned and drifted over beds of diverse submerged vegetation interspersed among clean cobble. It’s a feeling as close to flying I have ever been able to get to without being in the air, and I think the students felt the same sense of awe and freedom. A few fly fishermen were wetting their lines just downstream as I stowed gear. One landed a nice buck shad. Stoneflies flew from the shoreline out over the river and I realized I was in the middle of a huge hatch. Stoneflies are indicators of good water quality. Stoney nymphs crawl from the water onto land where they metamorphose and emerge as winged adults. I watched hundreds of adults launch from the long shoreline grass and said “this is amazing” aloud. One of the fishermen replied “This river has a lot going for it” Yes it does, and the Delaware Riverkeeper organization that works to protect the Delaware, is one of those things along with the 100 students who are now connected to this amazing river thanks to their efforts. The future of the river is in our hands now, just as it was in the hands of those who decided to shelve the Tocks Island Dam idea in 1975. The decisions we make and the actions we take will dictate whether there will be juvenile fish, mussels, and students here in another 38 years. I hope we choose wisely.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Diversity Day

Endangered species day was this week. But I didn’t think about that much as I slid into Big Branch. I was last here in March and spring was flying by. The river was very different, again. Every river has a personality and Big Branch’s is all about change. Large woody debris is common and provides excellent cover for a variety of fish. It also forces water to take different paths which in turn carves new canyons into the sandy bottom, and fills old ones. Of the streams I regularly snorkel, Big Branch changes the most. A few sunnies nervously swam just ahead of me. A mixed assortment school of minnows: rosy sided dace, black nosed dace, common shiner, bridle shiner, fall fish hovered in the lee of a large log. Big fall fish held under bigger cover. I love fall fish based on their behavior. They always are as curious of me as I am of them and so the let me get in pretty close. Not like the river chubs holding on the bottom who dart off out of sight into deeper water as soon as they are noticed. One of the chubs did just that. As soon as I turned to see it partially tucked under a branch tiny in comparison to its robust body, it shot for a deeper pool. A trout rocketed upstream. I don’t think there is a more nervous fish. Northern hogsuckers scoured the gravel and a few darters, possibly two different species, bounced along the bottom. At the end of this 45 minute swim, I counted 13 different species of fish, and I realized this is all about endangered species. Endangered species designation is about maintaining diversity. Diverse systems are healthy and resilient systems. Things change. Incredibly abundant species can become imperiled. Unfortunately, there are excellent examples of this in our history. Look at passenger pigeons, or more recently, Susquehanna smallies. Every time I snorkel Big Branch I am amazed at the diversity it contains, and I try not to take it for granted. There is an endangered species day for a reason. Fortunately today was dominated by diversity on Big Branch.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Back To The Gap

It’s been a long time. I used to be connected to this place. I snorkeled, fished and canoed here. I came here after my prom to watch the sun rise over the river. I learned how to kayak here. One of the best memories I have of my dad is a camping/fishing/snorkeling trip we took here when I was in middle school. I was first mesmerized by the Delaware’s clear water, deep pools and abundant fish on that trip. It’s been over 26 years since I have been to the Delaware Water Gap, and a lot of life has happened since I was here last. Part of the life that has happened is my dad’s death 15 years ago. Can’t believe it’s been that long. Being here brings back great memories, and a little pain. I miss him, and I wish he could see what I’m doing on rivers now. I was here to run a snorkeling trip with some students as part of a much larger effort by the Delaware Riverkeeper ( to get kids connected to the Delaware. I arrived hours early to remember. I have so many memories tied to this river, this place. Rivers are much more than conduits for water. The place was almost the way I remember it. Pit toilets were replaced with composters. The river looked unchanged. Its surface was calm but obviously moving. The shores were still forested and the silt islands still split the river in two. I slid into the water with the same slight trepidation I do when I enter any large river. This is big water and the feelings of smallness, insignificance, and lack of control are uncomfortable. The force of the water mats vegetation beds to the cobbles. The bottom fades into the haze of deeper water that gives the river an infinite feel. Large web spinner caddisfly nets fold and billow in the current. A water snake appears in mid water before me, bobs to the surface and dives when it realizes I am there. It wedges between the bottom and a rock and almost blends in, but I end up losing it to the background when it moves to a better hiding spot. These are such misunderstood and victimized animals. I could have swam with that snake all day of it would let me. I could have drifted over cobble and submerged vegetation beds all the way to Easton. The river still holds the same captivated awe. It was good to get back to the gap. It won’t be nearly as long before I am here again.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Stream Desert

Low head dams scare me. Even small ones. Uncertain scour holes and unpredictable currents can make even the most benign looking low head dangerous. I approached the fish hatchery dam on the Little Lehigh with a lot of caution. Low head dams are ecologically frightening as well. They completely change the ecology of a river. Sediments build up behind the dam and smother diverse habitat creating a monotonous sand and mud flat plane. The still water warms and becomes oxygen poor and the artificially ponded water provides habitat for artificially introduced species. Things that really don’t belong in our creeks, but are at home in a pond. And so the Wildlands Conservancy ( and their partners have undertaken an ambitious project that will remove 9 dams on the Little Lehigh and Jordan Creeks in the next few years. This will be a monumental step in restoring these streams to their natural free flowing condition, and I want to watch the process. Underwater. I entered the stream a hundred yards downstream of the dam and crept into the current. The bottom here is angular cobbles, all covered in an algal carpet. This stream receives excess nutrients which makes excess algae grow, and it covers everything. That doesn’t seem to bother the trout that gather in a deeper eddy in the lee of a large rock. Or the darters that flit from the shallows into deeper water as I approach. Eutrophication, or the over fertilization of our rivers and streams, is a problem. But maybe habitat diversity is more important. I continue upstream and slowly enter the plunge pool of the dam. This dam isn’t more than 2 feet tall, but still I can feel the recirculating current pull me in. I drop my feet to the bottom and hook my toes on some rocks. There isn’t any obvious life here. It is loud and full of entrained air bubbles. But there aren’t any large fish like I envisioned, at least none that I can see. It’s a violent place, and the bottom drops out of view. Dams affect downstream as much as they do upstream. Hydraulics and hydrology, nutrient cycling and sediment flows are all affected by dams. I’m pretty sure the lack of abundant life here is related to the dam. Every dam site I have snorkeled except one had less than expected fish abundance and diversity. I was confident that pattern continued here as I climbed over the concrete abutment on river left and slid into the large flat water expanse. The downstream habitat was algae covered cobble; a diverse assemblage of different sized rocks with deeper areas where water scoured around some of the large rocks and shallower area where sands were deposited. This creates opportunities for a diversity of species to set up shop and live. Diverse habitat usually means diverse biology. The upstream habitat in contrast was a monotonous sand and mud flat plane. No diversity of contour, and the biology reflected it. The dam effectively formed a desert devoid of any larger life. If there aren’t places for fish to safely hunt and hide, there won’t be any fish. As I turned to float downstream I saw an Asian clam with its foot extended, feeding. The only life in this large pool that I witnessed today. I stopped a few feet upstream of the dam and got out of the river. This 2 foot tall hunk of concrete has outlived its usefulness, and significantly altered the ecology of this river. It’s time for the dam, and the desert it formed, to go.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Eels and Kids in the Creek

Twenty five 5th graders shrieked as they tried to lay down in the cold water. There was a lot of splashing and stomping around, but not much snorkeling. The water got murky fast from the sediments that were re-entrained off the bottom. I started to think this was a failure. But then I heard comments like “This is the best trip ever!” and “Hey look at the eel!” And while every kid didn’t spend all of the time in the river, most did, and most looked around. A lot saw some cool things, like elvers and darters. It was in that moment that I realized the trip was a connecting success. The aquatic standouts were the elvers, making their way back up the Octoraro. They stay low in the cobble which lets them move against the strong current but usually means we just get glimpses of the back half of their bodies. Eels reproduce in the Sargasso Sea, and these babies are the young returning to the Octoraro to live in this creek for the next 25 years when it will be their turn to migrate down river to the Sargasso. Eel numbers are dropping due to sediment choked gravel beds, overfishing, and dams that sever migration routes, so it was reassuring to watch the return of the juvenile eels and I was encouraged to see the next generation of both species getting to know the Octoraro. Here’s to the continued presence of eels and kids in the creek.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Same River, Very Different Day

I have snorkeled this spot hundreds of times, usually in late summer when the water is warm and clear. I have been to this river thousands. But I never snorkeled this place now, in mid spring. The river scape is alien. Gravel bars that are covered in thick green stands of water willow in summer are barren and caked in a fine dried mud. It feels like I’m on the plains and can almost see horizon to horizon. Rock hoodoos pop up from the flat river and give the scene some texture. A few rotted shad carcasses are strewn on the naked gravel islands and the place looks more like the exotic opening scene from River Monsters than it does the lower Susquehanna. The water is low, the way it usually is in late summer, but not very common this time of year. This is an opportunity to see the same river on a very different day. The bottom is its usual gravel and cobble strewn among scoured bedrock monoliths, but its texture is different. The grazers haven’t caught up with the excess algal growth yet and everything is covered in soft olive fuzz. The dismembered head of a dead shad lies on the bottom encased in gelatinous decomposition ooze, and hovers as a temporary tribute to the end of life for this individual who returned from the ocean to spawn, but the beginning of life for the next generation. A school of common shiner dodge around me. I never see them here in summer. Smallmouth, usual summer residents that patrol just barely in view, are missing. Sunnies are out and jockey for territory and a few yellow perch, a rare sight in summer, hold under some newly rearranged cover. This is a big river system where the only thing constant is change. It’s the same river, and the same place on the same river, but a very different day.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Aint Nothin O What It Used To Be

A guy stood by a pool a hundred yards downstream. He had a full grey beard, wore a dirty t-shirt and jeans and a worn baseball hat. He sipped on a beer while he looked into the water. I searched the pools closer to the falls. We were both looking for herring. “See any?” I called over the roar of the river. “Nope.” I could tell that he cared for this river very much, just like me. A few herring were here two weeks ago, and I hoped it was the start of a strong run for this river. I got distracted by a few other streams that were full of fish and have been snorkeling them for the past two weeks so I wasn’t able to see if this trickle of fish picked up into a good flow. It didn’t. This river used to host an amazing herring run, fish so thick they would bump into me as I watched their upriver procession. Last year I didn’t see any, so this year’s small run was improvement over last, but nowhere near where it was. Another river I snorkel regularly followed a similar pattern but a third had an incredibly abundant run this year. Regionally herring numbers have significantly declined in the mid-Atlantic over the last few decades. I am hopeful that the great runs will return, and as long as there are herring making their way upstream to spawn, there is promise. We watched the water in silence, and wanted to see the splash of a tail or the flash of a side. Any sign that the fish were running upstream. Nothing. It seems the small run I witnessed two weeks ago was it for this year. I felt disappointment, and significant concern. There were more fish here this year than last, but that’s not saying much. And once again I have to wait a year to see if the run will return. “It aint nothin o what it used to be.” My new friend said. “No it’s not.” I replied. “But hopefully they’ll come back.”

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Thick Herring and a Couple of Shad

I heard there were tons of herring holding in the pool at the base of the falls near the Amtrak bridge on the North East Creek. The last time I was in the North East I admired the alien stream scape of a significantly degraded creek, just upstream of the falls. The bottom was a flat sand, mud and gravel plane that was covered in tan and olive algae. Oxygen bubbles formed on the algae and added quicksilver highlights. Castle spire fronds of algae reached toward the surface where enough bubbles formed to provide lift. The North East is pretty significantly degraded by sedimentation and eutrophication, over fertilization that makes too much algae grow. Still this section was interesting, messed up as it was. It was a nice place to visit once but there were many other streams for me to explore, so I never returned. Until I heard about all these fish holding at the base of the falls. A thick furry growth of too much algae covers everything. I can see it from the surface and I wonder if this trip will be similar to my last…a swim over an interesting stream scape, but one that really didn’t hold much diversity. Then a few tails slapped the surface as the fish struggled their way up through the rapid. The herring were here. The bottom is angulated fractured bedrock and drops to a 4 foot hole. The first fish I see is a large log perch, large as far as log perch come. A school of some kind of medium sized minnow swam upstream along the bottom. A few sunnys held in a corner of the deeper pool. A hefty eel hunted. I couldn’t believe the diversity here. In just a few minutes I saw a half dozen species of fish. Then the herring arrived. Schools of the silver fish swarmed around me in an energetic mating frenzy. Many of the silver torpedoes swam into me. I never swam with so many fish. The four foot hole became filled thick with herring and a couple of shad. Herring and shad numbers have been tenuous over the last decades and seeing these fish here is reassuring. This is not a throw away creek. None of them are. There is incredible life here, amazing ecology. And this should give us hope at a time when it seems all the news about the environment is negative. This creek and all its extraordinary ecology, should give us hope. Hope that we can restore what we degraded, and hope in the knowledge that even in their degraded states, our local rivers and streams are pretty amazing places.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Monsters Real and Imagined

A dark green smudge darted across the gravel flat as soon as I stuck my face in the water of the Brandywine at the Natural Lands Trust Stroud preserve ( I barely saw it so a positive ID wasn’t possible but based on the little that I did see, (dark green color, robust but small body, and fast bottom swimming), I was sure this was a green darter. I hoped it was a green darter. The males get brilliant emerald green vertical stripes in spring and early summer. I really wanted to see this fish, and maybe get a picture of it if I was lucky so I searched the flat gravel bottom for 15 minutes, and didn’t see a thing. Not even other fish. Maybe seeing the possible green darter was wishful thinking, imagined. I inched my way upstream, looked to my left and saw a hefty tail sticking out from under a rock ledge. I peered into the void and saw a large chub staring back. The fish watched my every move, but held perfectly still which gave me the opportunity to take a few pictures of the sizeable minnow. We perceive minnows to be these tiny things, when in fact members of the minnow family get pretty big, like this beauty. I continued upstream searching for more fish. I was distracted by some braches from a fallen tree on my right. These make great habitat and I focused on seeing some sunnies holding in the cover. When I looked back in front of me, right there, just inches from my hand was the largest hog sucker I have ever seen. I fumbled with my camera, to try to get a picture of this fish, but all that commotion sent this giant off upstream with one flick of its powerful tail. I have seen hundreds of hog suckers. They are a common fish and I expect to see at least one just about every trip. But common doesn’t mean mundane. They are perfectly adapted for their bottom dwelling life. I turned and let the current carry me downstream. The feeling of weightlessness is always relaxing. The bottom started to pass by more quickly and I realized I was approaching a deep riffle. I came out of the fast moving water on the left side of the river and the bottom dropped out of sight as I drifted through a large circulating pool, formed by a strong eddy. It was a little unnerving. I don’t know how deep this hole is. I don’t know who lives on the bottom or what “monsters” lie below. My imagination is pretty active. I do know that our rivers always hold surprises, even our common ones. The Brandywine is a common river, and hog suckers are common fish. But seeing that large hog sucker directly under me, then watching it fade into the murky distance was thrilling. And wondering who lives in that next deep hole, or under that next rock ledge keeps me coming back to explore again.