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.