“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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.