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.