Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Winter Solstice Snorkel

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.

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