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.