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.