Thursday, March 14, 2013

Big Pool on the Big Elk

A big pool of the Big Elk extends before me, and I’m sure it holds tons of fish in the summer. I have never snorkeled here though because it usually holds tons of swimmers. Swimming hole (wild) swimming is an awesome activity and I am always encouraged to see people enjoying their rivers and streams, connecting with these amazing waters that seem to have their own personalities. Sure there are times I wish I had these prime spots to myself with water that wasn’t filled with stirred bottom sands and sediment and unspooked fish. But people connecting with the river is more important to me than my snorkeling pleasure. But the last few weeks of winter present an excellent opportunity to scout warmer weather snorkeling destinations, and this large deep pool has been on my hit list for a while, so I took advantage of the 35 degree day, with few people out on the river to slip into this pool to have a look around. I drift over folds of bedrock that reach up from the bottom. A medium sized carp darts from the protection of one of the bedrock prongs back upstream and startles me more than I startle it. Awful nimble and fast for a fish that is often characterized as sluggish and fat. I just can’t respond as agilely or gracefully, and all I can produce is a gasp. There is a jumble of boulders on the downstream end, that look like the remnants of a small riverside avalanche that obstruct the river and are partially responsible for the formation of this pool. The rock fall is on the outside bend of the river so the water here moves faster than on the inside of the bend and I quickly drift over the pile. The river shallows and quickens. I notice a shape that is different from the soft algae covered edges of the rocks on the bottom and spin around to see a crayfish out foraging. I try to hold my position to check out the crayfish but the force of the water is deceiving, and I get sucked through a gap in the rocks where the entire volume of the river drains through a 4 foot wide by 2 foot deep opening and pours me into the next pool. My shin bounces off a rock, and my knee strikes another, but I float out safely, completely energized, saying ‘do it again’. The habitat in this stretch of river is extremely diverse which should mean a diverse assemblage of fish in the summer, and I make plans to come back and visit, swimmers or not. Maybe I’ll bring a few extra sets of snorkeling gear for them to use, so they can also explore the big pool on the Big Elk.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Coming Back to Life

Life has always been here. It’s just not very abundant through the winter. With the weather just starting to turn into early spring, things are going to start happening fast in our rivers and streams. It’s one of the most exciting times to get in the water and watch as life reemerges. Clouds of small fish hover near cover and appear like blurry patches in the water, the way gnat swarms look in the air. This stream experienced significant restructuring this winter. Beaver dams were broken and new pools were formed. Piles of beaver gnawed branches pile against trees that lay across the river, not quite dams, and I wonder if this is how beaver start the damming process. There are new bank dens in the newly deepened spots, and the creek is thick with beaver sign. Bark stripped white beaver chew sticks are everywhere. Some kind of nervous fish darts around submerged logs in the deeper holes. At least a half dozen 6 inch lightning fast fish torpedoes disappear under cover, then reemerge and swim for a new hiding place. I realize these are some kind of juvenile trout when one holds still long enough for me to recognize its body form. Soon fall fish will hold in the deeper holes and let me get close, common shiners will show their not so common breeding colors, and the skunk cabbage will appear on the banks. This place will change daily because Big Branch is coming back to life.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Freedom of Flight

Creek snorkeling can be a lot of things; contemplative, adventurous, grounding, explorative. Most trips have all of these elements which is the attraction for me. But on this particular trip to a river I know well, it was more of the adventurous journey that kept my attention. When I snorkel I usually take my time, start downstream and work my way up while I look for life and admire the complex ecology of the river. I am preparing to take some longer downstream journeys and so have been practicing snorkeling through rapids. I still get to admire life on these trips, but most of my concentration is focused on fending off oncoming rocks. The view is incredible and conditions rapidly change from sand bar bottoms that skirt deep holes to snaggle toothed rocky rapids just a foot or two deep. The biology changes as well. I crawled upstream against forceful water. Deer Creek was up, but clear. I grabbed the edge of a rock with one hand and let my body trail behind in the strong current. I noticed cadddisfly larvae doing the same thing. Only they were using all 6 of their appendages, were snuggled into the lee of a rock and were generally better designed for this environment than me. I reached the head of a class 2 rapid and swam a few yards further upstream into the middle of a large deeper pool. Bedrock juts from the bottom and forces the water up towards the surface. Part of the pool has an extensive sandy bottom. A diversity of fish congregate here in the spring summer and fall and shad, eels, bass, carp, quillback, catfish, and sunnies are all very common. But there isn’t any obvious fish life here today. The only noticeable life is the rock moss that covers the bedrock outcrop. I stop swimming against the current point my head downstream and let the current do the rest. While the force of the water is strong, the river moves slowly through the second half of this large pool. It picks up pace as the head of the rapid approaches, and it gets loud. The churn of water fills the underwater river. I see the surface of the water bend around and over rocks and when the drop is big enough, the smooth surface breaks. Bubbles fill the water and disorient so that It’s hard for me to tell if my head is still pointed downstream, and more dangerously, it makes it hard to see rocks until I am on top of them. It makes selecting a route impossible and the river becomes completely in charge of which route I take. I have little say in the matter and can only fend off approaching obstacles. It’s like riding a fluid roller coaster, flowing over around and between rocks. I am ultimately tossed through the rapid like a leaf, but am able to avoid collisions with rocks. I quickly recognize that I am not in control, that I am at the mercy of the river. I relax and stop struggling against it but rather go with the flow and let it help guide me around boulders. The rapid becomes less violent and I glide through the remaining rocks. If I lean right I turn right, lean left, turn left and soon I am effortlessly flying through the river unencumbered by motors, paddles or the hull of a boat separating me from the water. I circle out into an eddy behind a large rock tired but thrilled. There is nothing more freeing than flying through a river.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Hunkered Down at Hildacy

Hildacy Farm is the headquarters of the Natural Lands Trust, a non-profit land conservation organization that protects forests, fields, streams and wetlands in eastern Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey ( Crum creek skirts along the edge of the 55 acre property just downstream of Springton reservoir. The water looked a little milky and churned up by the outfall below the dam a couple hundred yards upstream. I wasn’t sure if I would see anything, but I hoped for the usual assortment of winter insects and fish, mostly caddisfly and river chubs. There wasn’t much life here, at least not at first, so I admired the unique asteroid texture of the clay and gravel stream bed. I grappled my way upstream and surveyed the bottom. It was winter and life wriggles into the bottom and moves to deeper spots which makes it hard to see. The river carved a 3 foot hole out of the clay and cobble under a tree root mass. It was dark in the back of this hollow and I almost ignored it. I took a breath, clung to the bottom and inched my way in. As soon as my eyes adjusted to the low light I saw the large turtle wedged into the bottom. I came up for an excited breath and eased back down to try to get a positive identification and a few pictures. I didn’t want to disturb the reptile since I was fairly certain it was hunkered down here for the winter. I never considered that I might encounter a turtle here today. Seeing first hand where and how a turtle hibernates was incredible. A lot of turtle species numbers are declining due to the loss of habitat to suburban development. It is no coincidence that this turtle is here on a Natural Lands Trust preserve. I left the stream feeling energized and excited for my next Natural Lands Trust adventure. What we do on land matters. The critically important work of the Natural Lands Trust protects not only essential terrestrial habitats but aquatic ones too, and I can’t wait to see what discoveries await in other Natural Lands Trust creeks.