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.