Creeks are all different, largely but not entirely based on their geology. This one has a loose bed so it changes regularly. A large tulip poplar fell across the creek and formed a temporary dam. It holds back a couple tons of sand and gravel. Leaves are mashed up against its upstream side. It towers over my head as I lay in the stream below. Water has worked its way under the log and scoured out a hole through the gravel. Water blasts through the hole with impressive fury. I inch in and fight the incredible force to shove my head under water, and under the log, into the hole to see if anyone is living here. I work my shoulders into the hole as my toes dig into the bottom but can’t hold against the force, even this small creek produces. Bubbles blur past me the way stars look when the starship Enterprise speeds up, and I feel like I am flying through space. I can’t creep in any further, and I run out of air so I let the water flush me back out, and I drift downstream.
A large school of assorted minnows congregate in what I am learning is a pre winter ritual. The trick is to follow them to see where they go when it gets really cold. A darter hops along the bottom. I passed a lot of fresh beaver chews on the hike in and I expect to see some evidence of the rodents in the stream but don’t. I was hoping to find a bank den I might be able to explore. They are here somewhere. I just can’t find them today.
The bottom on the outside of a bend is scoured out to bare compacted clay, where the waters velocity is greatest. Roots overhang into the water and provide excellent cover for a school of assorted minnows, and I suspect there might be the beginnings of a beaver bank den here, but I can’t find any evidence. The minnows look like a swarm around a pile of leaves and sticks on the bottom. The gravel sides, scalloped clay bottom and orange tinged water remind me of pictures of Mars. Streams are familiar from the surface, but alien below, and exploring them gives a sense of adventure and discovery. I walk out of this stream and head to the next experience. Warp speed Mr. Sulu.
I was here last night just as the sun was setting to test out a new camera system. I didn’t see any fish and it didn’t work very well, but as usual, it was still an interesting swim. They always are. I returned the next morning with my trusted system, slipped into the cold water and hoped that a few hour difference would mean the presence of life.
I saw a few fish as soon as I got in. They weren’t anything spectacular like brook trout or some kind of rare or colorful darter - the kind of fish that get people excited. They were just some non-descript minnow, common shiners. But even though they were common, and non-spectacular by most people’s standards, they kept me mesmerized.
The water is getting cold, it’s about 45 today, and things should start to slow down. But these fish held in the current faced upstream, and watched for food morsels to pass within range. Their caudal fins beat hard against the flow of water to keep them in the same spot, but their heads barely moved except to nab something from the water column as it flew past. I am always amazed at how efficient fish make it look, as I clumsily try to hold position in the same spot.
My feet get sucked through a chute and it takes all of my strength to claw back upstream. But the fish just swim in place with incredible grace compared to my awkward flailing.
I pull around a large boulder and watch another minnow hold in the eddy, a little more sluggish than the two in the current, but still beautiful. A crayfish crawled in the lee of a rock that split the incredible hydraulic force at the base of a short falls. I am just as amazed by the crayfish as I am by the common shiners. I played with them as a kid, caught them by the hundreds from the stream behind my house, any they still hold my fascination. How did it come to be here in one small pocket of refuge from the torrent in one of the most violent places in the stream? Where will it spend the winter? Life amazes. Basin Run is settling down for the winter, but life is still abundant. Pretty incredible what a difference a few hours can make.
The weather forecast is for heavy rain, and the radar shows that counties just to the west are getting drenched. We are next, so I hurriedly pull my drysuit on, and head to Deer Creek. I hike upstream to a reach I don’t normally snorkel, stick my head in the water, ignore the cold water sting, and am blown away by the unclouded water. For a minute the clarity rivals that of the springs in Florida, then I look across the river to the opposite bank through the water rather than straight down at the bottom and realize there is probably only 20 feet of visibility, which for here is amazing. Rock weed covers the boulders that are interspersed with sandy bottom.
There are hundreds, maybe thousands of case maker caddisflies covering the rocks and vegetation on the rocks. The insects cling to sprigs of rock weed that stick out into the current and the silver mica flecks in their cases make them look like ornaments on a Christmas tree.
Some of the caddis flies quiver in the current and end up peeling off to flush downstream. The current blows me off the rock too and I float until I am able to drop my feet to the bottom and crawl back to the riffle.
Hundreds of case openings point in the same direction into the current and a swarm covers the face of a rock. Each case sparkles with mica flecks and I have never seen such a large accumulation of case makers in one spot.
I stay for as long as I can endure the cold and I enjoy the clarity. I know I am racing the rain. Once it starts falling our streams quickly respond with greater flows, higher levels, and cloudy water from the mud that washes into the creek. But for now the river is clear, and the view is amazing.
I wanted to explore these falls since I realized they were here two years ago, but my timing never lined up with the rivers and anytime I was able to jump into them, the river had other ideas with high levels and muddy water. The falls are a stair step arrangement of 10-20 foot drops that end in deep snorkelable pools and wind through almost a mile of glacially tossed boulders.
It takes a little work to get to them and as I hike in I think about people I miss in my life: parents, old friends I lost contact with, and I think about places that have been special in my life. Most of them are aquatic.
A pile of recently cut brush piled into a river pool signifies a beaver bank den. The pool is part of a mill ruin and low straight line stacks of rocks are all that remain of the foundation. Beaver slides lead to trails that strike off into the woods. The falls complex starts here as a series of low drops and get progressively more dramatic as I head upstream. I decide to get into the pool above the beaver mill pond, where the remnants of a more modern mill come into view. This mill worked through by diverting water around the falls in a 4 foot diameter green tube into the brick powerhouse that lies at the base of the falls, just upstream of the pool I plan to snorkel. There’s a story here. A human and natural history that is intertwined, so that they really can’t be separated.
There aren’t any fish here that I can see, but I bet there are tons tucked in between all the voids the large rocks on the bottom provide. It’s cold and they are probably settled in for the winter. The water is murky and puffs of sediment float by. I start out in a relatively calm part of the river and work my way into increasingly more chaotic conditions until I am full in it and the force of the water tears at my mask with a disorienting curtain of bubbles. The underwater roar of falling water is immense.
Algae transform rocks, even out in the strongest current, into underwater gardens and paint the river scape in red, green and orange patches. I fight upstream and drift back down to feel the full fury of the water, the loud chaos and quiet still. I remember past river experiences with my parents, and friends I don’t have much contact with anymore, and I miss them. I think about memories of my kids in rivers when they were little. My oldest is almost ready to strike out on her own, and I miss those days. Like the mill remnants, beavers and falls all play a critical role in the story of this place, rivers play a central role in my story, and the story of my family and friends.
Maybe that’s why places like rivers are special. Because they evoke memories and help form new ones. The give us the space and opportunity to think about things we tuck away during the bustle of daily life, like people that were a part of our lives but aren’t any more. I have to come back to explore here in warmer weather when I can stay in for more than 30 minutes, and when more life is out and about. I need to spend more time in this water to get to know it better, to make new memories of exploration and adventure. I could spend a year just exploring here.
The river is hairy, and the bottom is covered in long wavy olive strands. It looks like shag carpet grew out of and over everything. The usual late fall algal growth has erupted. It has been 4 years since I snorkeled here, on a day when the June air temperatures reached 80 degrees and the 60 degree water felt good. Today the air and water matched a chilly 40, and I hoped to see mussels.
I hoped I would see the slightly agape shells that expose peach colored frills as the mussels filter water. This used to be one of the best mussel beds in the river and I hoped they remained. Mussels are some of the most imperiled organisms on the planet, and while that may not seem like a big deal to some people, it bothers me that we are ok with eliminating organisms that can live to be 100, and that play critical roles in how our ecosystems function. Mussels filter ridiculously great quantities of water and destroy disease causing organisms. Our health is related to theirs. It is all connected. But I wanted these mussels to be here not because of what they do for us, but because they are amazing in and of themselves. I was hoping this mussel bed would appear to be in as good a condition as it was the last time I was here. My assessment is based on non-quantitative observations, but there is still a lot of value in sticking your head in the water and just looking.
The cold water freely entered my wetsuit glove and I struggled against a full and moderate current. I wasn’t sure if I would see any mussels thought the algal hair on the bottom. I started to see empty halves and saw a recently dead adult, with bleached flesh still inside the partly opened shell. Then finally I found my first faint slit in the bottom. Then a second and third and soon I was in the middle of the mussel bed. I was surrounded by Muppet looking creatures with mouths all agape covered in soft long billowing algal fur.
These were all eastern Elliptios. They have a close relationship with eels, and depend on them for reproduction. Eliptios produce a web like substance full of juvenile mussels called glochidia that need an intermediary host in order to metamorphose into a mussel. Eels play much of that role for elliptios, and as an eel swims through the glochidia containing web they become infested with the parasitic bivalves. After a month, the glochidia finish their transformation and fall to the bottom as mini mussels where they start to filter feed and live out their lives that can span 100 years. For as much biological complexity and genius there is in this strategy there is a cost. If the host fish declines, so too do the chances of successfully reproducing young. And that’s what’s happening with elliptios. Eels are declining due to dams and sediments, and so the mussels are too. But today it seemed that while this mussel bed had been seasonally transformed into Muppets, it was intact, and thriving even. I found a few juveniles which is always a celebration. A reproducing population is a surviving population, and I found hope among the Muppet mussels.
I don’t understand the point of celebrating gratitude by indulging in gluttony. Rather I choose to celebrate gratitude by getting into rivers to watch the abundance of life and rejoice in the diversity of even our most common streams. That’s what I did this Black Friday, got into a creek most people don’t even notice as they go about their daily disconnected business.
The flow is up and the river is receding after a day of rain. Fresh leaves are matted to cobbles that are now exposed to the air, but were underwater just a day ago. The creek is a little milky. This stream drains a few wetlands and so the water is stained a dark tannic acid orange, and the water looks like black tea.
The bottom is really different. I was last here during the shad migration last spring. The bottom is heavily cobbled, and so it doesn’t move as much as some of the sand bottomed streams I explore. But since my last visit, a gorge has been cut from hardened sandy clay strata and it feels like I am flying over the Grand Canyon. A darter shoots up river through the ravine and lands on a wider flatter section of the layered substrate. This is part of a continuous cycle of river formation and alteration. Water flows, and carves. Sands deposit in another section and a sand bar forms. It’s all part of eons old processes that I get to experience when I snorkel rivers.
I drift feet first through a riffle and come into a deeper sand bottomed pool. The whole thing has a tangerine glow, and it feels like I imagine snorkeling on Mars would feel, if Mars had water. Wave shadows dance on the red orange smooth sand bottom. Schools of minnows are gathered in the deeper water preparing for the full onset of winter and cast hundreds of red shadows through the sunlight shafts. Even the three darters that hop along the sand bottom are dyed orange. I marvel that life is here at all, let alone in the abundance and variety this small overlooked, nondescript creek contains. Life, and all of its cycles, is a miracle.
A friend’s son died yesterday and as much as I tried to let the river wipe thoughts of that tragedy away, it didn’t. Watching fish and wondering about their behaviors gave momentary breaks, but questions of why and how persisted, and the pain for her loss was constant.
Life is fleeting. We never know what is in store for us or when ours will end. We need to live it to its fullest, whatever that means. For me that means exploring creeks most people don’t think about, feeling connected to the life that calls these aquatic places home, and being mindful that I am part of something much larger by experiencing powerful cycles. I am grateful for the reminder on this Black (Tea) Friday
Water temperatures are in the low 40’s already, and life is slowing down for the winter. Soon I will have a hard time finding fish, but there are still schools around, often tucked into the crannies. A banded killifish wriggles out from under the rock my hand is using to keep from getting swept downstream, and ambles upstream a few feet against a stiff current. It wriggles back into the cobble bottom.
A school of mixed species – banded killis, common shiners, black nosed dace, even a few small bluegill, hang motionless behind a large rock. In warmer weather this school would scatter but with the colder water temperatures, these fish lazily drift away from my approach. They finally escape me by wriggling into the cobbled bottom. Half of the school squeezes between the boulder and the bedrock wall.
I have seen these fish school up this time of the year in other rivers. Seems they collectively head for the same place to ride out the winter together. I just saw a puddle full of dead banded killis on a Susquehanna River gravel bar. They chose the wrong place to shelter and water levels dropped, which left the entire school stranded.
I pull upstream, squirm over a line of exposed rocks and slide into the next pool. A darter hops onto the open exposed slab of smoothed bedrock. Another one joins. They were there on the bottom all along. I just didn’t see them wedged into the gravel. It wasn’t until their tubular bodies landed on the bedrock and broke the flat plane that I noticed them. And once I saw one, I saw dozens. They were nestled between cobbles and among gravel. Almost anywhere I looked I saw a darter or killifish settled into the bottom and I questioned whether they are here through the whole winter, just well camouflaged and out of sight.
I have often wondered where all the fish go in winter and have conjectured that they either head for deeper water, hunker down into the bottom, or both. I just witnessed more evidence that some of them ride out the cold in their home stretch of stream tucked into the bottom. I have been here in this river hundreds of times, but never right at the moment when life slows down and prepares to wriggle into the crannies for the winter.
The Patapsco River forms Baltimore Harbor a few miles downstream from here. It has become a bit of a joke because of its poor water quality. From the surface this section looks remote and nearly untouched and it reminds me of some streams I know in the mountains of North Carolina even though this spot is just a short drive from the city. As soon as I submerge a different view appears. Everything is covered in thick olive algae. Dense algal growth is pretty normal this time of year in our rivers, but this amount is excessive. Even the sand bars are encased by a frosting of brown algae. It didn’t seem like I would see much more than river scape on this trip.
Eutrophication is the over fertilization of waterways. Excess nutrients that come from septic systems, leaky sewers, lawn fertilizers, car exhaust and farms enter our rivers and streams and make excess algae grow. Usually it is unicellular phytoplankton that bloom and turn the water turbid or green. Occasionally, as is the case here, the excess fertilizer results in more macro filamentous algae that coats the river bed.
I float in the eddy just to the side of the main flow where a riffle spills into the larger pool and watch the play of the air bubble curtain that forms when the water tumbles over a foot tall falls. Everything dances to the beat of the current. Air bubbles dive to the bottom and drift back to the surface. Water pins the algae flat to the rock, and vortices in the current make the algae dance up into the water then mash it back flat to the rock again. Tufts of bright green algae stand in sharp contrast to the olive drab background and pulse with the current. Even degraded waters are beautiful.
I was just about to give up looking for life other than algae when I saw a sculpin nestled between two furry cobbles. Its dorsal fin looked like an oak leaf wedged between rocks and undulated in the current. It’s body looked like a rock. Amazing.
Even on a day where my expectations to witness fish was low, I get to see one of my favorites. The sculpin was black, orange and red mottled and sat motionless on the bottom the way sculpin do except for its dorsal fin that waved in the current. The fish finally skittered off into a new crevasse when I stayed too close for too long. Impacted doesn’t mean ugly, or wasted or throw away. It just means impacted, and the life that continues to thrive is inspiration to reduce the impacts that affect our rivers. The Patapsco is a beauty, eutrophication and all.
It’s a question I ask myself often though the winter. Is it worth gearing up and getting in under freezing conditions? Winter snorkeling takes more time and effort. The required gear doubles, and hands usually get painfully numb. So it wasn’t strange that I questioned whether I really wanted to do this as I stood on a large rock above a rapid I swim regularly. What was odd is that I was asking this question before Thanksgiving. Temperatures here usually don’t dip into the painfully cold realm until after Christmas. But this year we had ice covering some overhanging twigs in the second week of November.
I skeptically started to gear up, pulled my dry suit up over my shoulders squeezed my head through the neck seal and zipped it closed. My hands were cold already, even before getting into the water. I knelt into the creek and instantly felt the cold penetrate through to my skin. I didn’t bother putting on a fleece layer beneath since this was going to be a fast trip. Based on the cold I felt it was going to be even faster. The water stung my face and I swam across the current into the lee of a large rock, into the same eddy I know well.
Long luxuriant green strands of rock weed billowed in the current and gave the creek an exotic welcoming look. I didn’t feel cold any more, but rather just twirled in the current and enjoyed the freedom weightlessness evokes, and the awe underwater riverscapes inspire.
Small clumps of sand grains clung to some of the rocks out of the main flow. Larger clumps were interspersed with the smaller ones, and they slowly crawled along the bottom. I realized I was watching juvenile casemaker caddisfly larvae. I never saw these before, never even considered that they existed. I always just saw the larger casemaker larvae in their sand grain clump cases, and knew these morph into winged adults after two years in the water. I thought their life cycle started as the larger larvae and the simple act of seeing the smaller larvae was revelatory for me. It was another part of river ecology I learned by seeing and experiencing.
My hands were numb and the cold finally took its toll on my core. I had to get out. I almost couldn’t unzip the dry suit due to painful barely functional fingers. I stood on the rock as the water that dripped onto the granite froze, and pondered whether it was worth it. I got to experience weightless freedom and awe and added another small but significant piece of river ecology to my knowledge about how rivers work. Was it worth it? Kind of a silly question.
Fishermen line the banks of the White Clay on one of the first days of trout season. I quietly hiked upstream on the dry silty trail and found a 50 yard section that was unoccupied. I suited up, and gently slid in. I didn’t want to disturb my fishing neighbors.
Some small fish shot off into faster moving water from the rocky riffle. I assumed they were darters based on how they swam. I was looking for put and take trout – fish that are hatchery raised and released for the purpose of getting fished out rather than restoring depleted populations. Not that there are depleted populations of rainbows in the east since they aren’t native to here. I traversed the riffle a few times, checked in the eddies behind larger rocks and crept upstream into a larger, deeper pool all in the hopes of spying a pink and silver sided speckled beauty. None were there. I did confirm that the fish I saw earlier were darters and one of them had a calm personality that allowed me to closely approach and watch. It wasn’t a trout but darters are cool too.
“Now that you swam through my favorite hole what is in there?” a fisherman shouted as I waded back to shore.
“Here it comes.” I thought. I usually get along with fishermen, especially fly fishermen. We have a lot in common with what we do. Snorkeling explorations are methodical, take patience, and result in an intimate knowledge of the stream, just like fly fishing. Fly fishermen and river snorkelers love rivers and what lives in them. But sometimes, rarely, fishermen don’t appreciate my presence. I was worried this was going to be one of those times.
“Not trout” I said.
“Where did they all go? They just stocked this last week. There’s is no way they were all fished out. Did it flood?”
“I don’t think it flooded.” I said.
We conjectured on why the fish were absent and ruled everything out except they must have been fished out. I enjoyed our conversation. I always like talking to people who love rivers as much as I do and this gentleman knew the white clay much more intimately than I did. I gleaned as much knowledge as I could.
There is a growing body of evidence that shows hatchery raised fish can have a negative effect on native populations and river ecology. Rainbows aren’t a native east coast fish, so when we stock them not only do we stand the chance of changing river ecology, we are putting a non-native fish onto our streams.
I’m not a fan of hatchery fish, but I’m not an opponent either. They bring people to the river and that is the first step in forming a connection. The white clay doesn’t have any native trout left, so in this case the non-native rainbows don’t compete with the natives, though they could affect other fish and the benthos. Still I wanted to experience the thrill of capturing an image of a put and take rainbow, native or not, just like my new fisherman friend wanted to experience the thrill of capturing one on a hook. The search for that perfect rainbow continues because it seems all the put and takes were taken.
They are back. Finally after a long wait the first run of herring have returned to Principio Creek.
I watch as the first fish make their way back into the creek after what was perhaps a thousand mile journey. The pioneers battle current through swift riffles. The majority of the fish swirl into the rocky shallows where a number of smaller males chase larger females. Tails beat the water into a boil, but I don’t see any spawning and I think this might just some courtship behavior. Black tipped tails beat hard to propel the fish upstream and the school looks like blurry lines as I swim upstream with them. Their bronze backs and silver sides glow in shafts of sunlight that penetrate the water.
Thinking about the immensity of their journey makes me feel small in comparison and inspires awe at the complexity of the cycle. These fish started here, in this riffle 4 or 5 years ago as sandy colored eggs. The eggs that aren’t eaten and remain viable hatch into frail two eyes and a squiggle of a fish. Of the millions of eggs laid and fertilized, maybe 1% survived their journey to the ocean, and a fraction of that survived running the oceanic gauntlet to return home. These aren’t just a bunch of fish. These are the survivors. I can’t understand how these fish knew to return to the stream they were born. The intelligence it took for these fish to arrive here, in their natal stream, is beyond my comprehension. Some of these fish won’t survive to return to the sea. Others will. Either way these fish have a singleness of purpose: procreate. Perpetuate the species. There is a kind of immortality in that.
This moment of being in the water with thousands of fish was a celebration. Mid Atlantic herring populations have declined by 95% over the last 2 decades. But they still return in spite of us, and our dams, our over fishing and sediment clogged gravel bars. That they are so thick is hopeful that we can reverse the declining trends. I am watching the alpha and omega, finality and immortality. The beginning and the end of thousands of lives, the end of one generation and the beginning of another
Rain dimples the surface of the pool at the Amtrak bridge. This is one of my favorite spots. Largely because there is such an amazing hidden world right under the noses of people using the Amtrak rail line above and they have no idea how amazing this world is. How many similar non-descript unnoticed creeks does this train cross in its travels? How many thousands of people don’t know what they are missing?
The cobbles are covered in a thick emerald green shag algae. Days are lengthening but the winter is protracted by low temperatures so everything is delayed. Herring aren’t running yet and the crew of grazers that would normally keep this algae in check aren’t active due to the ongoing cold. The river is only 40 today. The result is thick billowy green covering anything hard in this section of creek.
A small fish darts from the shallows. I can’t identify it, but the background shows through its translucent body. I am able to follow the fish for only a few minutes before it blends into the stream bed and I lose it.
A serpent like creature emerges from the green and swims at me. This is the second leach I have seen in a week after never seeing any in the 7 years I have been exploring rivers. They have probably always been here just not seen. The lack of herring makes me look at other life that was likely here this time of year in the past, just not noticed due to the prevalence of herring that drew my attention away from the more cryptic.
The leach startled me. It looked like a long streamer in the wind when it swam and seemed to intentionally search for something. Seeing this leach spawned a bunch of questions. What is their ecology? How does it live? Can it make its way back upstream?
A sawdusty clump of beaver feces lay on the bottom beneath a floating beaver chew. The single small fish I saw earlier found a few friends and the 3 fish school nearly disappeared over open sand bar habitat. Sometimes the most amazing sights are out in the open just waiting for us to see them. Like this small stream under the Amtrak bridge.
Forty eight degree water proves what I felt and saw. The warmer water signals the beginning of the end. Wood frogs call for mates in beaver canals that connect a flood plain wetland to the stream. Spring is emerging and the stream is changing. What is usually a clean gravel bottom is covered in strings of emerald green algae.
A darter perches on a tangle of twigs wrapped in green strands. Minnows collect in large schools in bank den debris piles. A school of big somethings swim in the green depths of the large pool and are hazily outlined by shafts of sunlight that pierce through the pastel milky green murk. The biology of the stream is starting to reassemble.
The stream is rearranged again, significantly, and a new deep pool is formed upstream of the existing one. The restructuring has uncovered long buried stumps and they provide convenient holds against the strong flow. The large sand and gravel island that formed a good part of the dam that creates the large deep pool now has two streams braiding through it. The beaver have dammed one of them and the other cuts a deep channel through layers of deposited cobble and gravel. The stream is always changing and I wonder if it is the beaver that are responsible for changing the stream or if the stream changes and the beaver adapt. It’s probably both. The beaver influence the stream and the stream influenced the beaver.
I float into the outlet stream that has carved a walled sluice barely twice as wide as my shoulders and the trip feels like a crazy underwater log flume ride. I drop a hand and a foot to hold in the riffle. The water is forced under me and it scours a bunch of sculpin from their hiding spots between and under smaller cobbles. Sculpin are abundant in the races below beaver dams, probably because of the abundance of their preferred clean cobble and gravel habitat. The fish accidentally forced from their homes by me vary in sizes and I am surprised to see a lot of little ones. Everything has an effect, even the innocent act of putting a hand down in a riffle.
This river is very different again. Seems to be the only common theme in big branch. Every time I return it’s seriously rearranged and I wonder what it will be like underwater. The holes that I knew well and understood their ecology - where the fall fish held and the common shiner schooled - are filled in and new ones appear in different places. I don’t know what to expect. But every time change is just change. Fish are still there, living in different places to match the altered structure. The new tree that fell across the stream and the sands that filled in the deep hole just means the fish are redistributed. It adds a level of newness to a river I have visited a hundred times, and makes me realize that I will never really know a river. It changes too frequently. And I am reminded that change is a part of life. I get to witness how life goes on every time I snorkel a river. Things change, life responds and recovers. I watch the sculpin I accidentally flushed out of their holes wriggle back into the cobble.
A thick biofilm covers everything in the river. It shimmers in breezes of current like wheat in a field. The covering is probably thicker than what should be here since a component of biofilm is algae, fueled by excess nitrogen. Still this thick furry growth is normal this time of year, and it is critically important for nutrient cycling and spiraling in streams. It makes the river furry and so slick that I have a hard time walking. I had to crawl to avoid an uncontrolled descent as I made my way back downstream from a mid falls pool. If I floated, I wouldn’t have been able to control my speed. Not enough friction on the rocks.
This was another fishless trip and while I really miss seeing fish, I enjoyed the alien stream scape caused by the excess biofilm growth. Motion sticks out from the undulating background and I see something I have never witnessed before underwater. A leach stretches out from under a rock into the current. I’m not sure what this invertebrate is doing but it is fascinating. I have seen leaches on rocks picked from the stream, but never one under water, in its element. A friend showed me a picture of a giant Amazon leach last week, a full foot long blood sucker, and I would like to see that in the water too, just like most Amazonian species. My leach stayed attached to the bottom on one end and only stretched a few inches into the current, then retracted.
I have been talking a lot about another blood sucker, sea lamprey, lately. I became fascinated with this fish when we found one during a fifth grade trip last May, and concerned about them while I worked on curriculum for an upcoming Freshwaters Illustrated movie about efforts to protect Pacific lamprey. I have included the lamprey story as part of a presentation I do on our declining migratory fish. Even outdoors lovers, and folks committed to conservation get a twisted look on their faces when I tell them about the importance of protecting lamprey. Granted, they feel like muscular tubes of mucous, and the way they make a living is freakish, unless you are a lamprey.
These organisms might not be the most beautiful or cuddly, but they are all critical parts of the stream system, and their biology is fascinating. The world would be a lesser place if it didn’t have biofilms, leaches and lamprey. It’s all about perspective. Yuck is in the eye of the beholder.
There is a rock in the middle of a rapid I snorkel frequently. Eggs appear on the lee face of this rock this time every year. I’m really not sure what kind of egg they are. I think they might be sculpin, but that is just a guess. The eggs covered it last year on this date and I got into the water today to see if the fish responsible returned, in spite of prolonged winter conditions.
I have never seen the fish that lays them, and I have never seen them hatch. I just know that they appear in the lee of this rock right about now, and they are gone by mid May. They are one of the mysteries snorkeling this river has revealed. I would have never known they existed had I stayed topside. I hope this year provides answers to some of the questions these eggs generate.
Who lays them? When? Does every large rock in fast moving water get their lee faces covered in eggs or is there something special about this one. Is one fish or many responsible for all these eggs? They always just seem to appear.
Green fur covers the rocks and caddis graze it. The stream is moving steadily towards spring and I hope to see a sure sign that seasons are turning: eggs on the back of the rock. The current pulls at my mask before I make it into the large eddy and drift upstream to the back of the rock. There are no eggs.
I wonder if the eggs will appear this year. They always inspire so much joy. Eggs mean the procreation of the species, whatever species it is. They mean one more generation, one more year that will likely see these fish fill the river. Sculpin are abundant around here, though I have never seen any in this particular rapid, and I’m not convinced a sculpin lays these eggs each year. Whatever fish it is I hope they come back again this year. The unknown identity illustrates the discovery that accompanies snorkeling in our local rivers and streams. Deer creek is 5 minutes from home and is beautiful but mundane by most standards. And yet these kinds of mysteries lie just below the surface. There weren’t any eggs today. But that just adds to my anticipation of spring and the cascade of events that signal the re-eruption of life.
This creek must have been a mud hole 100 years ago. The forest from the whole region was clear cut, so I’m sure the soil flowed into Linn Run like syrup. I have a hard time imagining such an impaired river and forest as I gear up beneath mature hemlocks and laurels. The river is clear and the bottom is clean rock and gravel.
The river is really forceful and I am lucky to ferry into the large eddy on the opposite shore before getting swept downstream over a low foot tall shelf. I float in the eddy behind a large boulder and enjoy the peace. Such a different world than the torrent just a few feet away, and a universe apart from what this place must have been like 100 years ago. I have no doubt this pool was completely silted in.
I instantly see a crayfish crawling over the bottom, then I see another. A sculpin emerges from the background that closely matches the fishes camouflage. The crayfish approaches the sculpin and I expect the crayfish to take the sculpin in whatever kind of conflict I was sure was going to happen. This crayfish is an Appalachian brook crayfish, native to this area. One of the threats our rivers face is from biological pollution – species not from here that take over. The threat from invasive crayfish is that they run off, kill off, and out compete the native bethos, including sculpin. And while sculpin are common right now, nothing is guaranteed forever. A new threat can emerge and wipe these out too. I never take anything for granted in our streams, no matter how common. The crayfish crawls under the sculpin completely disinterested in the fish, The sculpin skitters off a few inches away from the crayfish and seems unconcerned. Woody debris swirls in the eddy with me. My presence in the river has changed the currents and re entrained material that was out of the mix on the bottom. Each of our actions has an effect.
I pick my head out of the water and picture this forest as nothing but stumps, with topsoil washed into the stream that flows thick and brown. The reality is very different. The river is restored from where it was but that doesn’t mean there are no threats. In addition to the threat of unwanted biological introductions, Linn Run is susceptible to the effects of acid rain, which is a result of coal fired power plants and car exhaust. Everything we do has an effect. Still I celebrate the restored condition and twirl in a deep eddy behind a boulder.
We often think that the environment is getting worse. And it certainly seems more impacted now than when I was a kid. Fewer fish, muddier water. What I sometimes forget is that we really have come a long way already, and that gives me hope for more restoration.
Recently hatched stone flies crawl over a remaining opaque white ice block stranded on the large rock I usually use to stage my gear. I strip down to a t-shirt and don’t get cold before I can get my fleece dry suit undergarment pulled up over my shoulders.
The 38 degree water almost felt warm, compared to the one degree above freezing conditions we experienced the last month. Things are starting to move toward spring. The signs are subtle but distinct, and sometime the progression is so rapid I miss the change if I am not in the rivers daily. Every year around this time it seems spring can’t arrive fast enough, but when it does it arrives all at once.
Rocks are crusted with the beginnings of an orange algal growth that should blossom into orange shag shortly. Many case maker caddis flies move around and graze instead of huddling together in the lee of rocks. Thirty eight degree water is still cold, but things are moving in the right direction.
The sequence into wintertime slumber starts with a flourish of furry algae, followed by an eruption of grazers, mostly caddis, that eventually huddle in groups behind rocks at about the same time most of the algal growth on rocks is gone. This order of events is starting to turn with the movement of the case maker caddis flies, and the initiation of the furry orange algal growth. These changes signal the reversal of the seasons which means the spring return of our migratory herring and shad is getting closer.
Migrating fish will move upstream soon. At least that’s the hope. It is a time full of expectation, especially expectation surrounding the uncertainty of what our migrants will look like this year.
Shad and herring have been dropping in numbers and each spring is filled with the nervous anticipation of their homecoming. Questions of whether they will return, and by how many dominate my thinking and I hope this is the year their declining population trend is reversed.
The 33 degree water stung as it usually does when it hovers just barely above freezing, but at least the river was ice free. Bright emerald algae covers sheltered areas of water smoothed rock. I can make out the name “John” carved into the bedrock bottom since a growth of algae fills the slight depressions of the letters that keeps it just barely out of the scouring flow.
I wonder if this is something historic or just a more recent piece of graffiti. This site is rich with history and the geography that keeps drawing me to this place year round also drew the first industrialists. This falls was one of the reasons the first foundries in North America was founded on the banks. The energy that I am working to hold against is the same energy that supplied this furnace, established in 1720.
Rockweed sprigs still cling to the rock in thin patches where they haven’t been scoured out. In a few months they will be luxuriant thick green growth. But even in their sparse state they still affect the stream bottom and each patch traps a mound of gravel in spite of their weak appearance. The frail looking dark brown sprigs hold gravel against the current, and finer sands also accumulate in the lee of the larger pebbles. Dunes of gravel and sand form, all caused by a few pieces of weak looking unattractive late winter rockweed. It’s amazing how a few loosely connected plants can affect the stream. Maybe that’s a lesson for us.
I barely hold on and watch the rock weed capture gravel flowing over the falls in a loud, cold, and chaotic place. It is harsh. This river scape could easily be a world on a distant planet, it is so alien. But it is just the norm for late winter, and soon this place will be transformed with spring.
The warm up that inspired so much hope in the coming of spring was followed by another deep freeze with single digit nights and two snow storms. I am frustrated with the weather taking one step towards warmer spring conditions and the explosion of life that results, and then two steps back towards the frozen doldrums of late winter. Cold water stabs the exposed parts of my face and makes me question this trip. I really was done with feeling that until next year I thought.
The winter cast shows no signs of yielding the stage to spring players. Caddis still hang on to rock weed and there are few fish here. Even the first subtle signs of spring in our rivers haven’t arrived: the change in composition, texture and color of the plant and algal life that clings to the rocks, becomes furry and orange right before the spring transition. It is still sparse black remnant sprigs of the summers growth of rock weed. I am frustrated with the apparent lack of progress towards warmer conditions, at a time when I am frustrated with the lack of progress toward cleaner, restored streams.
In North Carolina 70 miles of Dan River bottom are coated with toxic coal ash after a 35 million gallon leak. The Elk River in West Virginia received a 10,000 gallon spill of toxics used to clean impurities out of coal. Closer to home, the lower Brandywine River is unfit for human contact due to raw sewage that continues to overflow into the river from Wilmington’s outdated combined storm and sanitary sewer system. I had every intention of snorkeling this section of river below the last dam last weekend but decided to sample the river first. It showed positive for fecal coliforms at concentrations that exceed safe contact limits. Fresh water fish are the most threatened group of vertebrates on the planet. Twenty percent are predicted to go extinct in the next 30 years, and we just can’t get many migratory fish species to return in fishery sustaining numbers it seems.
One step forward and two back. Sometimes it feels like that. But I think more accurately its two forward one back. American shad are returning to the Patapsco, a highly urbanized mid Atlantic river. Dams are coming down nationally, and American Rivers reports 51 were removed last year alone. The leadership of Duke Energy and the North Carolina Governor are being investigated for criminal charges related to the Dan River tragedy. The EPA has blocked an Alaskan copper and gold mine that would significantly impact salmon if it were constructed. Pacific lamprey are returning to the Umatilla River in low but increasing numbers. Paddlefish have returned to Caddo Lake. There is growing interest in a restored Brandywine. Hope in the midst of despair. It’s supposed to be 40 degrees tomorrow.
We decided to leave Alexander Springs about a day early. We could have stayed and continue to play in the clear water and warm weather but requests for work on the Brandywine, White Clay, and Delaware were piling up. So we left the warmth to head back into the cold. When the thermometer on the dash board hit 79 we knew it’d be a long time before we saw 80 degrees and 100 foot visibilities again. But the Brandywine White Clay and Delaware are amazing places too. A forecast warm spell at home meant things might start moving in our rivers early so we drove through the night to get there. Stream life just seems to leap out this time of year, like someone throws a switch. We go from doldrulms, with not much moving, to streams packed with the excited energy of life. We didn’t want to miss the emergence, the instance the switch turns on.
Principio was swollen by a foot above normal, and the water roared through the falls. An adult caddis fly purposefully crawled on the bedrock slab, a good omen that Principio is chock full of life. The water was murky, but clear enough I could see bottom through a milky haze. Anything deeper than 2 feet wasn’t visible. The force was intense. I hung onto rocks and my body was tweaked and jabbed by the turbulence. I let the current take me and I flowed through a short rapid into a slower pool. I descended downstream rock by rock looking for life. I hoped for some early migrants. Heard yellow perch were just making their way up into the streams from tidal waters, and this part of the principio was lessthan a mile from the tide line. Or maybe I would see darters like I have in years past. Hundreds gather here, though I don’t understand the cue that causes the assemblage. But today I saw nothing. We didn’t miss the switch.
I clawed the half mile back upstream to where I put in and still didn’t see any fish. The intensity of the waters flow remained and my forearms burned from pulling my body through the current as I scanned the bottom through the murk for perch, darters, and possibly an errant very early herring. I saw nothing but white and orange quartz cobbles through the white haze. I really wanted to see the first spring fish, the ones that signify winter is done and temperatures are going to warm, but I was also happy I didn’t miss the switch. I can feel the system loaded with life’s energy ready to release and I am filled with excited anticipation. I will check the creeks just about daily from here on out so that I can witness that moment when life springs in our eastern rivers. It’s good to be home.
We saw alligator eyes in the beams of our flashlights reflect yellow and orange back at us last night. It changed my mind about doing a night snorkel. So today, in full sunlight I am feeling a little nervous as I creep toward the spot where those glowing yellow marbles were last night. That gator had to go somewhere. I had one growl at me a few years ago.
They are ambush predators and where I carelessly swam through, over, and around thick emergent lily beds yesterday, today I feel anxious, stick to open water, and scan the bottom for a pair of eyes peering back at me. Intellectually I understand that the chances of me getting bitten by an alligator are extremely remote. Instinctually I feel like I’m being watched. It makes me feel vulnerable, and that’s an uncomfortable place. I am not the top of the food chain here, and in some primal way it feels like this the correct order of things. It reminds me of my place as a part of this system, not apart from it.
I check over my shoulder frequently which makes no sense since an alligator isn’t going to get me from behind. I can’t shake the feeling that I am being watched.
Part of me really hoped to sight an alligator. I would love to get an underwater shot of one of these amazing animals. I think like most things that can cause us harm, they are misunderstood and maligned. An Atlantic needle fish comes in close for a better view of me from out of nowhere. It just seemed to appear, and its teeth didn’t fit in its beaked mouth. The silver thin tube of a fish disappears as fast as it arrived. I keep watching the bottom and finally see two unblinking black eyes staring up at me from under the blanket of green algae. They intently watch my every move but never shift.
I surface dive to the bottom and come face to face with this ambush predator of Alexander Spring: large mouth bass. I view this fish head on. Its eyes are set to look forward, in addition to a wide field of vision to the sides, which gives the bass depth perception thanks to binocular vision. It is an ominous looking creature but doesn’t seem interested in me out of aggression or fear and doesn’t seem to care that I am sharing the bottom with it.
I see bass regularly and often pass them up in my quest to get a shot of a more elusive fish. They are abundant in Alexander Springs and I am intrigued by their behavior. I saw a large lunker well camouflaged under a floating mat of lilies that took off as soon as it realized I was able to differentiate it from the well matched background. But a bunch of the bass here really don’t seem to care there are humans around them. They have their safe distance limits and I can only get so close before the fish isn’t comfortable with my approach anymore and takes off with a single flick of its tail.
The bass in front of me must think his camouflage under the algal mat is effective because it doesn’t budge even when I get within a foot. Its cold black eyes face forward and look through me, its large downturned mouth waits for the opportunity to open on some unsuspecting prey. If a gator were to reach up and grab me, there is no malice in its bite, just like this bass waiting to snatch one of these cute baby somethings that flit along the top of the algal fluff in large shoals. Nothing personal, just ecological business. They aren’t quite alligator eyes, but they are close, and I’m glad I’m not a smaller fish.
Alexander Springs looks pristine, except for a low retaining wall on the near shore and two sets of concrete stairs that lead to the water. It is an idyllic subtropical paradise. Crystal clear waters bubble to the surface at 72 million gallons per day. The freshwater pool is lined by sable palms and live oaks draped in Spanish moss. Beds of submerged vegetation cover the bottom and algae covers it, along with the parts of bottom that should be sand. Thick green algae blanket the bottom from the edge of the spring pool to as far downstream as I can see, and schools of sunnies grub through it. The water is characteristically clear for a Florida spring, but the algae lining the bottom seemed to be too thick.
Alexander is one of Florida’s freshwater springs, one of Ponce de Leones fountains of youth perhaps, though it seems that part of history is more fairy tale than fact. And it is amazing. The clarity of the water makes it an ideal place to snorkel and watch fish. It is relatively remote by most peoples standards, located in the Ocala National Forest and surrounded by undeveloped land. But even this seemingly pristine, remote place is affected by very similar problems as the more suburbanized rivers I am used to snorkeling.
The water fueling Alexander’s ecology comes from large underground reservoirs. The water in the cave that empties into the bottom of Alexander comes from rain that percolates through the soil and underlying limestone bedrock. Like the water that runs off land into our streams in the mid-Atlantic, the water here also picks up contaminants on its surface journey, and just like home, the contaminants that head the list are excess nutrients.
Algae is limited by the amount of nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorous. When we increase these limiting factors, we increase algal growth and set the system off balance. Algae is necessary for a healthy balanced ecology. It is the foundational building block of the aquatic food web. But too much of it and we end up with a caddywumpus ailing system. It’s like chocolate cake. Eat one piece and I’m happy. Eat the whole thing, and I’m sick. It looks like Alexander went back for seconds. Nutrients come from us. Sewage, pet waste, farm manure, lawn fertilizers. WE do this to our rivers, streams and springs by what WE do on the land.
These are the same problems that face the rivers I am very familiar with, that run through much more developed landscapes. Over fertilized waters, or eutrophication, is a growing global problem. A dead zone smothers the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi, not due to BPs Deep Water Horizon disaster (though that certainly didn’t help), but rather due to low dissolved oxygen caused by excess algae caused by excess nutrients, caused by us. Two thirds of the Chesapeake Bay dies every summer, all because of too many nutrients, because of what we do on land. The good news is that since the problem of eutrophication starts with us, we can end it. Hold off on fertilizing the lawn, or test your soil first to see exactly what your grass needs before throwing random amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous into the environment. Make sure your septic is working properly. Drive less. One of the things that comes out of the tail pipe of our cars is oxides of nitrogen.
Alexander is degraded, just like almost every other freshwater body. That doesn’t make it any less special, beautiful, spectacular, or spiritual. Just like the Brandywine, Delaware or Susquehanna. Seeing the beauty of these special places in spite of our impacts just inspires more action to lessen the imprint we leave on the world.
I usually over plan trips to insure their success. But sometimes the unplanned trips are the best. This trip was supposed to be an instructor training trip that I wasn’t able to make due to a nor’easter that dumped ice and snow along the east coast from Georgia north. There was no way I could drive through those conditions and make it to the training on time. I still had the week reserved with no other commitments and decided to use it anyway, just head to the springs instead of the coast and snorkel. I brought Gracie with me. We slid south in the lull between two snow events, but this was much more than a trip to escape the cold.
My graduate school advisor gave me a lot of great advice, but some of the best was personal. She recognized that my two careers and graduate school were taking me away from my family life and instructed me to make sure to spend time with my kids, no matter how important I think my life’s mission is, because they are the ones who will continue my work.
I don’t know if Gracie is going to continue the work of telling people about the amazing life in our freshwater rivers and streams but this trip was an opportunity for me to share some of the places I hold as sacred. Ever since I was introduced to the Florida springs I feel a strong urge to make a pilgrimage at least biannually to pay homage and reconnect. These are some of the places I hold sacred, and I wanted to share that with Grace. This was my chance.
She needs to know about these spots, and how they make me feel, about why I think they are so special, why they need to be protected, whether she chooses to carry on the job of telling people about the life in these aquatic wonderlands or not. I am far from done, and nowhere near ready to pass any kind of torch. But she is growing up fast, and will be out of the house all too soon. Opportunities like these will become more rare.
Millions of gallons of clear 72 degree water flow from the spring at the bottom of the pool 30 feet below. The clear water creates a river scape of blue and green hues accentuated by the bright colors of fish. The spring bowl is ringed with submerged grasses that grade to shallow fine sand flats covered with algae. Pods of emergent plants provide great habitat for a variety of fish, though most just hang out in the open and seem to be pretty used to humans. Large turtles bask on a log. Different species set up shop in different habitats and predators, grazers and piles of juvenile fish flow in a delicate cautious ballet.
I pointed these things out to grace, how different species held in different areas and habitats, and how they related to each other. I pointed out the ecology of the spring. But what was more important was telling Grace about how all of this made me feel alive. The sense of awe, wonder, adventure, and discovery it inspired, and how I feel connected to this place and everything living in it. I told her how these feelings are common anywhere I snorkel, but some places have an intangible quality that makes them spiritual. Alexander is one of those places.
I don’t need to go to the Florida springs to feel connected. I don’t need to go to the Conasauga River, or anywhere else. Snorkeling my local rivers and streams does that. But I am grateful that I occasionally get the opportunity to explore the diverse collection of freshwaters across North America, and I am grateful that I get to share this impromptu subtropical adventure with Grace.
I never met Elmer Crow, but I feel like I know him after watching Lost Fish, a movie by Freshwaters Illustrated. What Elmer says resonates with me. I get it, and Lost Fish does a great job of telling the story. Elmer is part of the Nez Perce tribe and tirelessly worked to restore Lamprey. He saw what he thought was the last Pacific Lamprey on the South Fork of the Salmon River in 1974. He was puzzled as to why the Creator showed him this one fish swimming over a sand flat, and he worried that he might have seen the last one. So he dedicated himself to preserving Pacific Lamprey. Elmer died last year and I wish I would have had the opportunity to meet him in person.
Last May I saw a lamprey for the first time. I was running a trip with 5th graders and the students and I were amazed by this 2 foot long tube of muscle. I watched the lamprey in the water for as long as I could without losing the class. The caramel brown fish clung to a rock with its sucker disc mouth. Its eyes were set back on its head and watched me as I watched it. There was a consciousness in that eye, a kind of ancient wisdom. Its spiracles, precursors to the gills on more evolutionarily modern fish, pumped water. Its nose was beaten and white due to its incredible journey from the sea to this stream. Maybe it was the look of the fish, and its prehistoric place in the evolutionary ladder. Maybe it was its calm demeanor. Even though it was surrounded by 50 legs, it just held onto that one rock. Maybe it was the knowledge that its life was almost over after this incredible reproductive journey. Or maybe it was the feeling that I might be looking at the last one in the Octoraro, just like Elmer experienced in the South Fork in 1974. There are few surveys of lamprey where I live, and we don’t have a good assessment of lamprey population trends. It is likely that numbers of these fish are dropping like other aquatic migrants such as shad, eels, and sturgeon, due to dams and declining water quality. Maybe it was all of those things, but whatever it was, something instantly bonded me to this lamprey. Like Elmer, I felt a connection to that one fish.
It’s pretty amazing how one person’s passion can be the catalyst needed to inspire others to act. Thanks to Elmer Crow and Freshwaters Illustrated ’s story telling ability we are working on a migratory fish education program and are putting energy into dam removal efforts on a few eastern rivers. Understandably the two are closely related. We are excitedly preparing to take a group of inner city 5th graders on an exploratory journey that will investigate removing the first dam in a string of 11 on a river that runs through their city. It might be the igniter needed to drop the 10 others and re open this river to shad, herring, lamprey and eels. I try to tell people about these amazing ancient fish, and the other aquatic migrants who are declining in number every chance I get. But maybe most importantly, I try to share a little of Elmer’s passion in the hopes that it will inspire more.
Lost Fish by Freshwaters Illustrated will be released this spring. Go to their web site www.freshwatersillustrated.org for more info and to orrder your copy.
I am tired of winter. I’m tired of the snow and ice and cold water. I’m tired of the restrictions placed on my snorkeling by iced over rivers and freezing air temperatures. The larger members of our river ecosystems have settled in for the remainder of the winter, and it’s a rare event to see a fish anymore. This is the normal progression. It’s the calm before the bursting forth of the spring migrants. In a month, our rivers will start to fill with the expectant energy of migrating shad and herring on the move upstream to spawn. Yellow perch have already stated to gather at the mouths of our rivers. But for now there isn’t much larger life on the move and we are in the doldrums, that time of year when there just isn’t much biologically going on.
I might be tired of winter, and there might not be much mega fauna inhabiting our streams right now, but that doesn’t mean snorkeling in the doldrums is pointless. Ecology is the interplay between the living and nonliving components of a system. When I snorkel a river at this time of year I get a more complete understanding of those interactions. I gain a more thorough appreciation of what life in our rivers and streams experiences throughout the entire year, not just the warmer biologically active parts. And I get to see some absolutely incredible river and ice scapes. The challenges winter doldrum snorkeling present are part of the attraction.
Cold air, water, and ice cover increase safety concerns, and add a few degrees of difficulty. Trips take a little more skill to navigate without getting injured. A stretch of river that is pretty simple and straight forward to snorkel in the summer can become more difficult with a partial ice cover, and trips need to be planned and executed with greater care. All of that is the attraction. Watching a commonplace river from a very different perspective in slightly difficult conditions makes it extraordinary. We might be in the winter doldrums, but they are far from dull.
I have experienced a lot of death in the last week. My life outside of rivers includes responding to medical emergencies as a paramedic. We see people at their worst and most days I am able to manage that well. But the other day I let the emotional intensity that accompanies seeing people die entirely too young out of its cage and significantly mismanaged the resulting emotional shit storm. I headed to the river to lick my wounds, to retreat, to help sort it all out. Rivers help me put things into perspective. When I immerse myself in the ancient processes of the river I get reminded that I am part of something much larger, something much greater than myself. I am reminded that there is a plan to all the madness whether it makes sense to me or not.
This section of the Principio is dramatic as water tumbles over a stair step 20 foot falls. It contains deep pools, swift flats, and water worn bedrock that is covered in a seasonally changing flora just like the woods, but unnoticed. Principio is normally full of life. Today it was covered in foot thick frozen water spray ice. There were a few open pockets where the water moved too fast to freeze. I scooted across the ice, sat on the edge and let my feet feel the cold as I masked up. The sting of ice cold water on my face was familiar.
Water tore through this unfrozen riffle. I could feel a little work its way past my neck seal and stab my neck with cold. Brilliant green algae grew on glowing amber cobbles and it felt like I was swimming through a bright oil painting. I crawled upstream and really struggled against the current. Water occasionally squirted past the seals on my wrists and neck, but that didn’t matter. I was in the stream, and enjoyed the feel of holding against a current that has been at work here for eons, a force that will be here long after I am gone. It’s a kind of immortal comfort, a reminder that life goes on even after one ends.
I reached the upstream extent of this section of open water, flopped out onto the ice, wriggled over it like a seal to the next hole, and plopped back into the water, careful to not get into current too strong. I didn’t want to get pulled under the ice sheet. I’d probably pop out at the downstream hole, but didn’t want to test that theory.
The deep hole was devoid of fish. No darters or cats, suckers or sunnies. But there was a luxuriant growth of rock weed that captured islands of sand in each patch, and caddis fly larvae clung to the plants. My head crunched into the edge of the confining ice sheet a few times before I sealed over the ice again, and floated feet first through a riffle to control my descent. A sucker head stuck out from between cobbles and for a minute it looked as though it was alive. Its pupils were still clear back, not milky, and the colors on its face weren’t paled. But only half the fish was here. The other half was reincorporated into the rivers food web long ago. This sucker gave life to the river through its death. Life dies, and life goes on. Death is a fact of life, and as hard as we might try, we can’t ultimately stop it. We don’t have that kind of authority. We can appreciate life while it’s here, help it through the rough patches, and recognize that death is part of the process, and that even in death there is life.
I debated about getting into the water for a while. It was murky – only had a foot or so of visibility, and cold. A bunch of factors pushed towards getting into Tuckahoe Creek. I drove an hour and a half to get here, it was World Wetland Day and snorkeling would be a fitting celebration, I never snorkeled here before and last time I scouted here visibility was even worse. Maybe this is as good as it gets. But the driver in the decision was what looked like otter tracks on a sand bar. The possibility that I might see an otter, though very remote, tipped the decision. It was the anticipation of what I might see that got me into the water.
The bottom was neatly sorted into piles of sand and like sized gravels. Piles of Asian clam shells gathered where either the raccoons or the currents placed them. There were a few freshwater mussel shells mixed in but I didn’t see anything live. An endangered mussel is known to live here and I hoped to see one but the closest I got on this trip was an empty shell.
Tree trunks were embedded into the unconsolidated bottom and faded into the murk. A half dozen snails clung to the lee side of one. I searched through tangles of submerged branches and beaver chews hoping for a mussel or fish, any fish, but only watched swirls of detritus blow off the bottom. A crayfish halfheartedly tried to escape with a few sluggish flicks of its tail.
I traveled a long way to not see any fish or mussels today, but this was still a memorable trip. It’s not always about seeing. Sometimes it’s about experiencing, and I got to experience Tuckahoe for the first time. It won’t be the last.
I was here on the longest day of the year when everything was green and the pools were full of fish – darters, logperch, smallies, carp. Today it was an alien riverscape. There were small patches of open water relative to the breadth of the frozen Susquehanna. But the little that was open was clear. The flat white expanse was occasionally interrupted by an outcropping of dark schist bedrock. It was quiet except for the creaking ice. I remember my last visit as being loud with life.
The bedrock bottom was covered in olive algae biofilm that shimmered in the sunlight. The bottom dropped and I floated free over 5 feet of clear water. I had an unobstructed view under the adjoining ice sheet that penned me into this one pool. A chunk of ice hung below the sheet and looked like a small iceberg. The ice cover cast a green hue over everything. For a minute I forgot I was in Holtwood. This scene could have been from a much more exotic polar locale. The pool was divided by a peninsula of ice. I swam a few laps around the mid river side, rounded the horn on and started to explore the near shore side. Longhorn case maker caddis flies ambled along the bottom. It seems I only ever see these insects in winter and I wonder if they are more abundant in the cold or if they are just more noticeable. Their oversized cases always look top heavy and one tumbled off the ridge of bedrock it was climbing.
This is such a different place today than it was a few months ago. In June abundant life was everywhere, but the water wasn’t nearly as clear and the bedrock had a muddy appearance. Today life wasn’t as plentiful as in the summer, but the bedrock had a clean olive covering that glowed through the clear water. Same place on the same river, opposite seasons, very different experiences. And both trips had me saying that was pretty freakin awesome when I got out.
It is apparent that this place experiences high flows, and it looked like that happened recently based on the washed clean exposed gravel bar and sharp snow line where the water wasn’t. The far bank was steeply cut and actively eroding. Ice covered most of the river and the moving water kept a channel open. I crept our over the ice fully expecting it to snap, but it didn’t. I sat on the edge over foot deep water, fitted my mask and slid in. I was hoping for some fish today but didn’t expect it – it’s the middle of winter, the water is at 32, and the habitat here is pretty homogenous. The bottom was a desert of shallow sand flats with current shaped dunes. Even though this kind of bottom doesn’t support a diverse fish community, it is still pretty amazing to swim over the scalloped surface and I figure there will be multiple tessellated darters heading for deeper water when I snorkel here in summer. A few deeper clay bottomed pools form on the outside bend and are the underwater continuations of steeply cut banks. Piles of clay chunks provide hiding places for fish in summer and this should be great habitat for shiners and sunfish, but today the only thing present are longhorned case maker caddis and what appear to be some kind of caddis that turned the hard clay into a honeycomb with their burrows.
Ice clinks as it moves downstream and sounds like a muted wind chime. Water laps at the underside of the ice sheet. There is a gap in the ice just wide enough for my head so I shove my shoulders under the ice sheet, keep my head at the surface and move upstream to a pool with a few bedrock boulders on the bottom. A northern case maker caddis and mayfly graze together on one of the rocks and their presence indicates decent water quality.
I didn’t see much in the way of fish today, but then I really didn’t expect to. Fish aren’t very active this time of year, and the Middle Patuxent is impacted. It experiences heavy flows due to suburbanization which changes the bottom from an assortment of habitats to a sand and gravel dominated flat. But the Patuxent is far from a lost cause or wasted stream. There is an ecosystem here that still intrigues and this spot has potential to hold a variety of fish in warmer weather. I wonder if I will witness migrating shad in the spring. There is huge restoration opportunity here. The question is whether we will let the Middle Patuxent live up to its potential.
Pete Seeger died today. I saw Pete Seeger perform in Perth Amboy New Jersey after he arrived on the Sloop Clearwater. Pete Seeger and his wife Toshi established the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater to preserve and protect the Hudson River, its Tributaries and surrounding water bodies. The Clearwater stopped in Perth Amboy to promote a restored Raritan Bay. I loved the Raritan. I grew up on an in one of its tributaries, and fished and crabbed her waters. I didn’t know who this guy was who played a banjo, but my 8th grade mind could tell he loved the river he sang about and that he wanted to protect it and I could relate to that.
I came to learn more about Pete as I grew older and was impressed with how he lived what he believed, how he lived his principles, and that impressed and inspired me. It still does. I got into the water today because of, and for, Pete.
The air was 15 degrees and the water was barely above freezing. It hurt to get in, but the water was clear. A new growth of brilliant emerald green algae emerged in the last week and covered the bedrock bottom. Some case maker caddisflies clung hard to the rocks they grazed. I am always amazed at how these seemingly dainty animals can hang on against what feels like impossibly forceful currents. Others hunkered in clusters in a crevice on the lee side of a rock and sealed the openings of their case with white milk quartz pebbles. Why they choose milk quarts instead of any random pebble is beyond me, but it seems to be intentional.
Pete taught us lessons through the way he lived. Maybe those caddis are a lesson too. I am trying to put a few trips together for some urban kids and learned that they aren’t allowed in their local streams since they are impaired waters and unsafe for contact. I participated in a freshwater mussel workshop today and the fairly consistent message was that mussel ranges are shrinking, diversity is dropping. When it seems that the immediate fix of greed outweighs any consideration for future generations, when it seems the basic human need for clean water is unattainable, and the only environmental news is bad, it would be easy to let go and get swept away in the current of pop culture distraction. But that’s when we need to hang on and make steady progress, like the caddis I watched graze in almost frozen water. A green caddis slowly crawled between pebbles and its jabba the hutt body seemed to glow against the white and orange cobble bottom. It too hung on.
I floated in the pool as ice formed on the back of my drysuit and hood and just enjoyed being in the water. I enjoyed the freedom of floating, and I enjoyed Pete Seegers vision of Clearwater. Thanks Pete.
“Participation - that’s what’s gonna save the human race.” – Pete Seeger
The river looked arctic as I approached. I recently saw a picture of the Hofsa River in Iceland and it instantly made my bucket list of places to snorkel. Deer creek reminded me a little of that picture. The water ran clear and gained an Aquamarine hue over the last few days.
What I found under the surface was a very different scene. Waves of temperature distortion and flocculent ice suspended throughout the water column significantly reduced visibility. I could still see bottom, but not with the crispness I expected. It felt like I was swimming through a partially melted slushy.
A tongue of ice formed in the lee of a large rock out in the rapid. I assumed it was just a sheet and I would be able to peer under it. The water behind this rock provides a refuge from the chaos of the rapid. Sculpin lay their eggs on the downstream face in spring, shad use the lee to climb the rapid in April, caddis flies lay their eggs on it in late summer, and eels hunt around it year round. I looked forward to a beneath ice view of this eddy and rock I have come to know very well over the last 5 years. What I found was a solid accumulation of slush to the bottom 2 feet below. Bands of slush filled in some of the gaps on the bottom out in the main flow, looked like coagulated fat, and made everything blurry.
This is a phenomenon called anchor ice which forms during periods of extreme cold. Water dips below the freezing point but ice won’t grow on the surface due to the moving water. Ice platelets form in the water column and gather on the bottom. Sometimes anchor ice forms a thick blanket on the bottom of rivers and can cause them to flood. The clear appearing aquamarine arctic view I enjoyed from the bank was water flowing over anchor ice, not crystal clear water flowing over river bottom.
Northern case maker caddis flies clung to green sprigs of rock weed on the face of a boulder as anchor ice piled up on the ridge behind them. I didn’t see any of them get picked off by slush hits, but my mask and exposed forehead got pelted as I faced upstream. A larger ice chunk knocked the camera out of my hand as I tried to film the flow of slush.
I really can’t wait for spring, not just for the warmer temperatures, but also because the life that is hunkered down right now will return. At the same time, swimming in slush was a unique experience and it helped me understand the ecology of Deer Creek more fully. It helped me understand exactly what life in this rapid experiences, and it made me appreciate it that much more.
Sometimes snorkeling is about admiring and celebrating the life that lives in our streams. Sometimes it’s about appreciating the structure and geology of the stream and how water can wear away stone and sometimes it’s about adventure and adrenaline. Tonight was supposed to be about life, about getting into a river to see what wintertime nocturnal inhabitants might be out. It turned into something much more knee weakening.
The river was loud and I could hear it as soon as I opened my car door. The noise grew as I walked closer until the river drowned out any other sound. It was up a little, maybe six inches higher than the last time I was here, but the water was clear. The river isn’t large, and there are plenty of opportunities for self rescue, but still being in a river alone at night in the cold is a little sketchy. I laid my head lamp on top of my gear bag, pulled on my wetsuit hood and mask, turned on my underwater light, waded out into the current and laid down.
The river was definitely flowing harder today than most trips here, and I had a hard time holding in a pool that normally doesn’t take more effort than dropping my toes to the bottom. I acclimated to the current, slowly worked upstream, and searched for life as I went. I expected to see some kind of fish here, but wound up admiring the rock structure of the river. Scoured bedrock formed large parts of the bottom and the slick rock made it hard to hold against the current. Boulders sat on top of the water worn bedrock. Piles of gravel accumulated in the lee of the boulders and sand gathered in the eddies. The water glowed from my light. I felt like I was caving, exploring all the nooks and crannies between smoothed bedrock and angulated granite boulders. I tried to keep 2 points in contact with the bottom at all times to keep from getting swept downstream but my feet peeled off the slick bedrock and I started to spin in the pool. My legs got sucked into a chute and I couldn’t get out so I flowed through over a short drop into the next pool. I swam into the lee behind a large rock and picked my head out of the water. In the few spins and flow through the chute I became disoriented and had no idea where I was. I didn’t know where my gear bag was on the shore, and I couldn’t see the small light I left on with the bag so could find it in the dark. Soon I found a familiar log strung between boulders and from there it was easy to find my light and bag. Once I reached my gear and was able to replace my wet cold gear with dry fleece, I realized that my knees were weak from the excitement of unintentionally swimming a short rapid at night. I hoped to see fish tonight, but instead I saw and experienced the physical side of the river, and felt the adrenaline it produced.
Temperatures rose 50 degrees in a little more than 24 hours and our rivers changed from ice covered to mud choked. Muddy water is my ultimate frustration. I can’t snorkel if I can’t see, and I let it get the better of me this past summer when I had to cancel more trips than I ran due to chocolate milk conditions.
I can’t say if our weather is changing from relatively dry summers with scattered afternoon thunderstorms to a more monsoonal system with a wet summer – last summer was the wettest on record since the Civil War. A few years of anecdotal data doesn’t define climate change. But I can say we are putting too much sediment into our rivers. I vowed that muddy water wouldn’t keep me out of our creeks this year, and this was my first opportunity to find alternative streams to snorkel on muddy days. I scanned USGS stream gauging stations within a 3 hour drive. All were high or rising. I decided to stay local and look to smaller tributaries.
I didn’t know the name of Elbow Branch when I got into it. I was familiar with it from the surface. It is a small second order tributary that empties into Deer Creek near one of my standard snorkeling locations, and I have scoped it out frequently. But the deeper, larger Deer Creek always had priority. Deer Creek ran dark and thick today so I slipped into Elbow Branch.
The creek is shallow and this pool is barely deep enough for me to float in. The water has a faint fog to it, like someone spilled a little milk in it, but it is still clear just a day after we received about two inches of rain.
Fish scattered as soon as I stuck my face in the water, though they were sluggish due to the cold. A black nosed dace nestled into a blanket of leaves. A banded killifish laid on the bottom in the lee of an undercut rock. The tail of another stuck out from around the back of the same rock, and soon I was watching a school of six banded killifish all holding on the upstream side. The fish were as interested in me as I was in them and they turned around to watch me watch them. The only other time I have seen these fish in a creek was a few months ago in Deer Creek and I wonder if these are the same individuals moved up into the tributary for the winter.
Banded killis aren’t exotic or rare or particularly interesting as far as life history goes. But they are here, and that to me is amazing. These fish are resilient to the temperature swings and the mud. They can adapt to change, and we are changing our rivers and streams rapidly. I can adapt to the muddy water too. The beauty of life, the miracle of it all, is its resilience, its ability to adapt, and I celebrate that every time I snorkel.
“I can’t go outside without getting cold, and you are going in water?!?!?. You are insane.” My daughter proclaimed. Yeah, maybe if we define insanity as doing something most people wouldn’t. It has been uncommonly cold here, in the negative teens without wind chill, and our rivers flash froze as the polar vortex descended to the mid latitudes. I don’t get a chance to snorkel with ice, to witness how our rivers and streams look under the frozen cover, and how life responds very often, so I couldn’t wait for an opening in schedule, that coincided with clear water and daylight to get in a creek.
I knew it would hurt when I got in the freezing water and again when I emerged into the freezing air. But I knew in between would be amazing. I knew this would give a different view, few people have ever experienced.
There was a small hole in the ice three body lengths long and one and a half wide, framed by an ice covered pool on the downstream side, shallow riffle upstream, and shore ice on banks. I lay down in the foot deep water and gently floated downstream until my head cracked into the leading edge of the ice. I turned around, swam upstream, and crashed into another sheet of ice that formed around a protruding branch. I crawled as far up the riffle as possible. Cold water hurt my neck as it flowed in a small gap between my hood and neck seal. I floated downstream and hoped for a sculpin.
Sculpin seem to be common in winter. At least that’s when I see most of them. Maybe because there are so many other fish here in spring and summer that I don’t have the focus needed to pick out the camouflaged sculpin from the background. Or maybe they are just more active in winter. I drift downstream on my third or fourth lap over the same small stretch, and pick my head out of the water periodically to avoid the edge of the ice. I stop before my head hits the sheet, but my feet and legs get sucked under. It feel strange to be confined by the ice and I am careful not to let any more of my body slip under since there wasn’t an opening anywhere downstream that I could see. It was easy to pull myself back upstream and as I did, I found a decent sized sculpin sitting among the orange quarts cobbles on the bottom. As most sculpin do, this one sat still for a while, until I wore out its patience with frequent photos. It finally swam in a short hop to a new rock. I followed, and it hopped again until finally it had enough and swam off.
A popular definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and expecting a different result. I did the same thing but expected the same result. I snorkeled in a creek and knew it would be a grounding experience, that it would make me present in the present. I knew it would provide an opportunity to explore the world from a completely different perspective. It’s one of the sanest things I can do. Ice or not.