Monday, March 31, 2014

Checking Sculpin

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.

Monday, March 24, 2014


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.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


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.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Late Winterscape

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.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Two Stepping

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.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

So Long 80's, and Thanks For All The Fish

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.