“We came too far not to get in.” I told myself as I peered into the dark water of the Edisto River in South Carolina. The Edisto is Americas longest free-flowing blackwater river. Blackwater says it all from a snorkelers perspective. The water is over brewed tea dark. It is clear, but orange black, and I can’t see much past 2 feet.
The purpose of this South Carolina trip was not to snorkel the Edisto, but I have a hard time passing up an opportunity to get into a new river especially one that is labeled the longest blackwater river in America. I really didn’t expect to see much due to the dark nature of the water, but sometimes the allure of river snorkeling is experiencing the river from a different perspective, whether I see fish or not. We came too far for me to pass up the opportunity to get into the Edisto, so I waded out between cypress knees and eased myself into the fast moving tannin stained water.
The river was cold and dark and my breathing reflected the chilly fear. There are gators here though the chances of me seeing one were slim due to the cold temperatures. Even if I were lucky enough, it was unlikely that a gator would bother me. Still there was this kernel of fear in the back of my mind that came from being in unfamiliar, dark, cold water and it fueled an active imagination. My breathing slowed as the first water into the wetsuit warmed and I controlled my anxiety.
Everything glowed red and cypress knees rose from the bottom like mountains in a hobbit middle earth world. The journey was rewarded with a completely new view. Even if I saw nothing else, this scene was worth it.
I hoped to watch a bowfin since I have never seen one. The cold water meant that fish wouldn’t be very active so I searched for some hiding in the woody debris covered bottom. There could be a dozen looking back at me from well camouflaged positions and I wouldn’t know it. I saw some spent Asian clam shells scattered on the bottom, but no fish. Finally just as I was getting out of the water due to cold numbed hands and feet, I saw a school of some kind of juvenile fish hold over a shallow sand bar.
The Edisto’s label of longest free-flowing blackwater river unfortunately doesn’t guarantee this amazing rivers protection. People are competing for its water. Its fish are contaminated with heavy metals and other pollutants so that the consumption of some species can cause health problems. It receives unhealthy runoff and wastewater discharge. But we have come too far to give up on the Edisto, just like we have come too far to give up on protecting any river. The issues facing the Edisto generically face just about every river. Fracking places countless rivers at risk and needs to stop. We each need to take responsibility for the non-point sources of our pollution and correct it. Install rain barrels. Plant rain gardens and planters. Urge local officials to retrofit out dated storm water management systems to better control and filter runoff, and let your elected officials know that the quality of our rivers and streams are important to you. Get involved with your local conservation group, or the group working to protect your favorite river like the Friends of the Edisto. Finally, get into your local rivers and streams and appreciate them for what they are. You will be rewarded with a completely new view. We have come too far not to.
I have an opportunity to run a few trips in the Camden, NJ area. Not exactly the mecca for creek snorkeling. But I love getting into urban and suburban creeks. These are the forgotten rivers, tucked into the folds of suburbia and unrecognized by many who live near them. Snorkeling in them gives me the opportunity to illustrate the amazing life that lives in what many people have written off as waste systems, places that hold little value because they are perceived to hold no life. I looked forward to scouting a few promising locations.
It started to rain lightly as I explored the first site. A cloud of oil black runoff entered the stream from a storm water drain pipe after the streets were just barely wet. It looked like the smoke monster from Lost. I climbed the bank to the street and found the source: us. Each one of us who drives contributes to this blackness that likely contains hazardous chemicals like heavy metals from brakes, and oil, gas, and antifreeze from countless drips. It is a tragedy of the commons. We each contribute a small amount to the large total problem. So the solution lies in each of us removing our small contribution, by driving less and fixing leaks. This site wasn’t suitable, not only because of the horrible runoff, but because the river here was more like a lake. The bottom was soft mud and the water column would be chocolate milk after a minute in the water. I moved to the next site a few miles away.
The Pennsauken creek runs through a broad flat grassed flood plain that is lined by suburbia. But still for being in the middle of an urban area, this section of the Pennsauken felt pretty remote. Back yards ended at the edge of the creek on one side, but houses were hidden from view on the other by a thin veil of woods. I peered over the bank and saw a school of some kind of fish dart for deeper water over the sandy bottom. This creek was taking murky runoff from the rain as well, but this wasn’t nearly as black as what I witnessed at the first site, probably because the runoff had to travel down a half mile stretch of first order stream that likely served as a filter.
The Cooper River is the centerpiece of the Penny Packer Park. It is lined on both sides by trail, and open savannah woods. The river isn’t more than a block from full on suburbanization and urban land uses. I hiked along the shores which showed obvious evidence that this river recently took serious flood flows. Large sand bars were washed over. Flood debris – grasses, plastic wrappers, and Styrofoam bits – were plastered to overhanging tree branches at the level the water reached. Not surprising. One of the things that kills an urban streams is its severed hydrology. In a forested watershed, much of the rain water soaks into the ground and the creek level rises gradually. When it rains in an urban or suburban area the water hits hard surfaces like streets and roof tops and runs off with great force. As a result, urban streams rise quickly and flow hard. This causes stream beds to erode, and bottom habitat to degrade as the stream is scoured. Their waters choke with sediment after even a small amount of rain. Which is exactly what I saw in the Cooper River here – evidence of very high energy flows and murky water. But there was something else about the Cooper. As I walked over the bare sand bar, I saw hundreds of recently emptied Asian clam shells. Asian clams are invasive and tend to take over river systems, so celebrating their presence maybe doesn’t make sense. But they are life, living in a pretty heavily impacted stream. They are proof that life finds a way. As I hiked over the sand I found something even better. Recently empty alewife floater shells Alewife floaters are native freshwater mussels that I certainly didn’t expect to find here, a sign that maybe the Cooper is healthier than I thought, and stronger proof that when given half a chance, life finds a way.
These creeks are not untouched. The fact that I have to run fecal coliform tests to make sure the water is safe to enter is a disgraceful testament to how much we care for surface waters, even though our very existence depends on clean fresh water, and it gives a glimpse that these creeks are about as far from pristine as they can get. And yet still life finds a way and that life, when viewed in its element under water, is amazing. That’s what it’s is all about – showing people the incredible that lives among us, in the hopes that this new knowledge and connection will inspire action to not only protect what remains, but restore what once was. When given half a chance, life finds a way.
It’s about hope, this shortest day of the year. It is the beginning of winter, but also the beginning of the end of winter. Days lengthen, nights shorten, The solstice is an assurance that it will get warm again. It has become a tradition of mine to snorkel on the solstice to celebrate the hope that comes from snorkeling rivers.
The Gunpowder is an impacted river. It is dammed in a few places to provide reservoir water for Baltimore. Stretches are infected with didymo, an algae from alpine regions of Europe, Asia and North America that covers the stream bottom with a brown mat, so thick it is often mistaken for toilet paper or fiberglass. The microscopic algae clings to waders, tubes, boats and snorkeling gear, and is spread when the contaminated item is immersed in a new stream. The Gunpowder is impacted, just like most of our rivers, but it is still an amazing place. Just like most of our rivers. It was the perfect place for this years’ solstice snorkel.
The Gunpowder wanders through a steeply cut valley in this section. I slid down the 30 foot tall snow covered bank and geared up at the water’s edge. The place was empty except for a kingfisher who rattled as he flew above. This was his place and he was letting me know it.
I flopped into the cold water and started the downstream float. I wasn’t in the water for long before I saw a few trout. I would normally turn up into the current, hide in an eddy, stalk the trout to try to get a shot. But I knew I wouldn’t have a lot of time before my hands became so cold I wouldn’t be able to use them, and I had a few miles of river to go, so I skipped the usual upstream spin, appreciated the trout for their lightning fast skittishness and kept heading downstream.
A school of fall fish held where the river is pushed to the right by a large pile of rocks, and the bottom drops out. Fall fish tolerate my presence, unlike trout, and I hang with this school for a few moments. A river chub lays on the bottom and doesn’t shoot off like usual. A huge fall fish, at least a foot and a half long, slowly patrolled in the distance. The fish was so large I thought it was a chub initially but its behavior was definitely fall fish and I was able to confirm my first identification hunch as I slowly continued downstream over the giant.
The river shallowed, the pace quickened and soon I was flying head first through rapids. I tried to look ahead from time to time to anticipate when I would have to fend off a rock with my arms to protect my head. But it was hard not to watch for fish as I flew near, by, and over numerous trout, fall fish and suckers. I am sure there were a ton of other more camouflaged fish nestled down into the cobble that would have become apparent if I stopped and looked. But flying through the rapids was too much of a rush, and the cold clock was ticking on my hands. They were already starting to sting. I safely navigated through the last set of rapids after fending off a few larger boulders, and slowed into a deeper eddy. I twirled with the current and watched a few juvenile trout flutter their caudal fins in the current as they waited for a morsel of food to drift by. I made wider and wider circles in the eddy and lost track of where I was in the river. My head slammed into a large branch that stuck out from a tree lodged against the side of the river by the circular current. I spun out of the eddy and flowed downstream with the water. It really is an amazing feeling flowing with a river and I relaxed and enjoyed the last few minutes of this flight.
Our rivers are in trouble and it is easy to become overwhelmed by the problems that threaten them: non-point runoff, erosion, eutrophication, drying up due to over utilization of water, multiple competing user groups, invasive species. Rivers are embedded in huge complex problems without any easy answers, and it is easy to become discouraged. But our rivers also provide the hope we need to carry on. To do the next right thing, to make a difference for water quality. Snorkeling on the solstice is a beautiful tribute to the hope rivers provide and a call to renew efforts to protect them.
I took advantage of a warm day in the middle of a cold spell, to spend time in a familiar stream. The water temperatures were still freezing but often the worst part of winter snorkels isn’t getting in. It’s getting out of the water into freezing air temperatures at the end of the swim, and the warmth was a welcome change.
The creek was empty of life but there was lots of evidence. Beaver have been active and rearranged the creek, again. The beginnings of a dam is gone with only a few remnants left that doesn’t effectively hold water so what used to be a deeper pool is now a shallow sandy flat. The downstream sides of the scalloped bottom are covered in silvery mica. There a few piles of saw dust filled beaver feces and a few smaller muskrat droppings scattered about.
I float out over the big pool which is shallower by a foot. It is being drained by two new streams that formed after the beaver dammed up the main channel. I expect to see a collection of hundreds of common shiner, fall fish, and river chub since this is where they seem to gather this time of year. But the pool is empty. A large bank of leaves has collected on the left and it frames a spectacular underwater gorge on the right. This pool always had impressive architecture, but today with the steeply sided leaf pile, it seems more dramatic. I feel like I’m gliding over a small grand canyon. A trout rockets from behind me, darts past and disappears around the bend. I hope to see this fish again, since it was the only one today. I scare it up again and in typical trout fashion it shoots past me back upstream before I can even point the camera in its direction.
I decide to check out some of the pools in the new riffle downstream of the main pool. I’m not there for more than a minute when a northern hog sucker speeds downstream and disappears into a collection of leaves and beaver chews hung up on the bank. I look for the fish in the tangle, and notice a sculpin looking back at me from the gravelly bottom.
Sculpins are ambush predators. They are amazingly camouflaged to blend in with their surroundings and patiently wait for a fish to wander by. Their face is dominated by a huge mouth and when they rapidly open it, they suck the unsuspecting prey in. I knew sculpins should be here, but have never seen any, and for as many times as I have been in Big Branch, I was starting to wonder if maybe the bottom was just too sandy to support sculpins. But they are dominant in this gravelly stretch. I see another and another. A fourth and fifth hang out together for a while, but then they too dissolve into the background as soon as I take my eye off them. Another juvenile northern hog sucker swims between my arms.
I start to shiver and slowly start back downstream very satisfied. I never know what I will see, even when everything seems to have gone somewhere else for the winter. Life shifts and adapts and learning where it goes and how it works is a true joy.
Snow hid the gaps between boulders on the bank so what is usually a quick series of hops to the waters edge was a much more cautious trip. It’s easy to snap a lower leg if not slow and deliberate today. Ice bells hang from pieces of grass that overhang the water and splashed water coats clogged twigs and leaves in ice. Cold water stabs my lips, the only exposed part of my face, and hands as the first squirt of water enters my gloves. I ease out of the eddy into the fast water in the rapid.
Rock weed covers the rocks in this rapid with a thick green growth in spring summer and fall, but today the mat is sparse and the humpless casemaker caddisfly hang onto the remaining sprigs.
Our rivers and streams have a seasonal progression of life that is hidden from common knowledge, mostly because we don’t look. Thick algae covers the bottoms of streams right around leaf fall in autumn, and the caddisflies come out in force in the winter. Mayflies alternate with the caddis through the cold months. Migrants like shad and herring follow the caddis in spring, and minnows become abundant through the summer.
For now it’s the case makers turn to rule this rapid and hundreds cover rocks and cling to pieces of rock weed all pointed upstream to keep oxygenated water flowing through their cases. They hold two legs up into the current to snag morsels of food on stiff hairs.
Cold leaks past my cheeks and lips and hits my teeth. It feels like I bit ice cream. I start to shiver a little. I take one last look at the endless pattern of caddisfly tubes that cover every rock in sight. It’s not winter on the calendar yet, but biologically, we are there.
We got our first snow yesterday and the 6 inches it delivered exceeded last winters total snowfall. The earlier darkness means it’s harder to get into the water in daylight. I have been wanting to explore my local stream at night anyway. Even the common when viewed from a different perspective provides new scenes and the excitement that comes from new observations.
A half- moon provides enough ambient light to make the short hike through the fresh snow to the waters edge without a headlamp. The river is up and the water boils though, under, and around rocks. The edge of the river is noticeable in the moonlight as a distinct line where the snow ends and the dark starts. I gear up in the dark, and am not used to the extra equipment needed for night exploration. I fumble with the hand light, headlight and shore light a little.
The water feels huge. This is a familiar hole, but it is unrecognizable when I can only see the little bit revealed in the narrow flashlight beam. The cold water doesn’t register over the excitement of being here on a late fall snowy night. I search for life but don’t see any. I have learned that there is always life present, It’s more a question of whether I can spot it or not. I start to see accreted pebble caddis fly cases attached to rocks. I work upstream into the next pool and scan it with my light, hoping to see a fish, but am happy for the experience regardless. The cold is starting to tingle my exposed lips and face. Finally I see a fish motionless on the bottom with its eye peering over a bedrock ledge. It’s a trout. Maybe the same one that has taunted me all year. Every time I slip into this pool a trout takes off before I can even get my camera close to ready for a shot. Tonight this fish was motionless on the bottom and gave plenty of photographic opportunity. The strobe filled the pool with light and blinded everything in it. I put my other hand down on the bottom to stabilize myself in the current as I crept in for a closer view and something alive shot out from under it. I could feel the power of whatever it was through my wetsuit glove and figured it was another trout. I took my last shot of the trout and explored the rest of pool in the swift current a bit more. A large tail stuck out from behind a large rock. I peeked over the side and sure enough, there was a good sized northern hog sucker. I tend to see these fish in cold weather and wonder if they are one of the fish that stay active in Basin Run throughout the whole winter.
This short night swim in a very familiar hole in a common everyday stream gave a completely different view of the underwater streamscape and the life in it. It was an incredible nocturnal adventure. That’s what creek snorkeling is all about. Exploration. Adventure. Discovery. All available right in our backyard rivers. I have a few trips planned over the winter that will take me to warmer more exotic streams, but in the mean time I will enjoy night swims in my local winter rivers.