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.