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.
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.
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.
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
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.