Saturday, December 21, 2013

Empty and Full of Life

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.

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