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.