Friday, December 19, 2014

Into the Worm Hole

Creeks are all different, largely but not entirely based on their geology. This one has a loose bed so it changes regularly. A large tulip poplar fell across the creek and formed a temporary dam. It holds back a couple tons of sand and gravel. Leaves are mashed up against its upstream side. It towers over my head as I lay in the stream below. Water has worked its way under the log and scoured out a hole through the gravel. Water blasts through the hole with impressive fury. I inch in and fight the incredible force to shove my head under water, and under the log, into the hole to see if anyone is living here. I work my shoulders into the hole as my toes dig into the bottom but can’t hold against the force, even this small creek produces. Bubbles blur past me the way stars look when the starship Enterprise speeds up, and I feel like I am flying through space. I can’t creep in any further, and I run out of air so I let the water flush me back out, and I drift downstream. A large school of assorted minnows congregate in what I am learning is a pre winter ritual. The trick is to follow them to see where they go when it gets really cold. A darter hops along the bottom. I passed a lot of fresh beaver chews on the hike in and I expect to see some evidence of the rodents in the stream but don’t. I was hoping to find a bank den I might be able to explore. They are here somewhere. I just can’t find them today. The bottom on the outside of a bend is scoured out to bare compacted clay, where the waters velocity is greatest. Roots overhang into the water and provide excellent cover for a school of assorted minnows, and I suspect there might be the beginnings of a beaver bank den here, but I can’t find any evidence. The minnows look like a swarm around a pile of leaves and sticks on the bottom. The gravel sides, scalloped clay bottom and orange tinged water remind me of pictures of Mars. Streams are familiar from the surface, but alien below, and exploring them gives a sense of adventure and discovery. I walk out of this stream and head to the next experience. Warp speed Mr. Sulu.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Few Hours Apart

I was here last night just as the sun was setting to test out a new camera system. I didn’t see any fish and it didn’t work very well, but as usual, it was still an interesting swim. They always are. I returned the next morning with my trusted system, slipped into the cold water and hoped that a few hour difference would mean the presence of life. I saw a few fish as soon as I got in. They weren’t anything spectacular like brook trout or some kind of rare or colorful darter - the kind of fish that get people excited. They were just some non-descript minnow, common shiners. But even though they were common, and non-spectacular by most people’s standards, they kept me mesmerized. The water is getting cold, it’s about 45 today, and things should start to slow down. But these fish held in the current faced upstream, and watched for food morsels to pass within range. Their caudal fins beat hard against the flow of water to keep them in the same spot, but their heads barely moved except to nab something from the water column as it flew past. I am always amazed at how efficient fish make it look, as I clumsily try to hold position in the same spot. My feet get sucked through a chute and it takes all of my strength to claw back upstream. But the fish just swim in place with incredible grace compared to my awkward flailing. I pull around a large boulder and watch another minnow hold in the eddy, a little more sluggish than the two in the current, but still beautiful. A crayfish crawled in the lee of a rock that split the incredible hydraulic force at the base of a short falls. I am just as amazed by the crayfish as I am by the common shiners. I played with them as a kid, caught them by the hundreds from the stream behind my house, any they still hold my fascination. How did it come to be here in one small pocket of refuge from the torrent in one of the most violent places in the stream? Where will it spend the winter? Life amazes. Basin Run is settling down for the winter, but life is still abundant. Pretty incredible what a difference a few hours can make.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Racing The Mud

The weather forecast is for heavy rain, and the radar shows that counties just to the west are getting drenched. We are next, so I hurriedly pull my drysuit on, and head to Deer Creek. I hike upstream to a reach I don’t normally snorkel, stick my head in the water, ignore the cold water sting, and am blown away by the unclouded water. For a minute the clarity rivals that of the springs in Florida, then I look across the river to the opposite bank through the water rather than straight down at the bottom and realize there is probably only 20 feet of visibility, which for here is amazing. Rock weed covers the boulders that are interspersed with sandy bottom. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of case maker caddisflies covering the rocks and vegetation on the rocks. The insects cling to sprigs of rock weed that stick out into the current and the silver mica flecks in their cases make them look like ornaments on a Christmas tree. Some of the caddis flies quiver in the current and end up peeling off to flush downstream. The current blows me off the rock too and I float until I am able to drop my feet to the bottom and crawl back to the riffle. Hundreds of case openings point in the same direction into the current and a swarm covers the face of a rock. Each case sparkles with mica flecks and I have never seen such a large accumulation of case makers in one spot. I stay for as long as I can endure the cold and I enjoy the clarity. I know I am racing the rain. Once it starts falling our streams quickly respond with greater flows, higher levels, and cloudy water from the mud that washes into the creek. But for now the river is clear, and the view is amazing.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Introspection Falls

I wanted to explore these falls since I realized they were here two years ago, but my timing never lined up with the rivers and anytime I was able to jump into them, the river had other ideas with high levels and muddy water. The falls are a stair step arrangement of 10-20 foot drops that end in deep snorkelable pools and wind through almost a mile of glacially tossed boulders. It takes a little work to get to them and as I hike in I think about people I miss in my life: parents, old friends I lost contact with, and I think about places that have been special in my life. Most of them are aquatic. A pile of recently cut brush piled into a river pool signifies a beaver bank den. The pool is part of a mill ruin and low straight line stacks of rocks are all that remain of the foundation. Beaver slides lead to trails that strike off into the woods. The falls complex starts here as a series of low drops and get progressively more dramatic as I head upstream. I decide to get into the pool above the beaver mill pond, where the remnants of a more modern mill come into view. This mill worked through by diverting water around the falls in a 4 foot diameter green tube into the brick powerhouse that lies at the base of the falls, just upstream of the pool I plan to snorkel. There’s a story here. A human and natural history that is intertwined, so that they really can’t be separated. There aren’t any fish here that I can see, but I bet there are tons tucked in between all the voids the large rocks on the bottom provide. It’s cold and they are probably settled in for the winter. The water is murky and puffs of sediment float by. I start out in a relatively calm part of the river and work my way into increasingly more chaotic conditions until I am full in it and the force of the water tears at my mask with a disorienting curtain of bubbles. The underwater roar of falling water is immense. Algae transform rocks, even out in the strongest current, into underwater gardens and paint the river scape in red, green and orange patches. I fight upstream and drift back down to feel the full fury of the water, the loud chaos and quiet still. I remember past river experiences with my parents, and friends I don’t have much contact with anymore, and I miss them. I think about memories of my kids in rivers when they were little. My oldest is almost ready to strike out on her own, and I miss those days. Like the mill remnants, beavers and falls all play a critical role in the story of this place, rivers play a central role in my story, and the story of my family and friends. Maybe that’s why places like rivers are special. Because they evoke memories and help form new ones. The give us the space and opportunity to think about things we tuck away during the bustle of daily life, like people that were a part of our lives but aren’t any more. I have to come back to explore here in warmer weather when I can stay in for more than 30 minutes, and when more life is out and about. I need to spend more time in this water to get to know it better, to make new memories of exploration and adventure. I could spend a year just exploring here.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Muppet Hope

The river is hairy, and the bottom is covered in long wavy olive strands. It looks like shag carpet grew out of and over everything. The usual late fall algal growth has erupted. It has been 4 years since I snorkeled here, on a day when the June air temperatures reached 80 degrees and the 60 degree water felt good. Today the air and water matched a chilly 40, and I hoped to see mussels. I hoped I would see the slightly agape shells that expose peach colored frills as the mussels filter water. This used to be one of the best mussel beds in the river and I hoped they remained. Mussels are some of the most imperiled organisms on the planet, and while that may not seem like a big deal to some people, it bothers me that we are ok with eliminating organisms that can live to be 100, and that play critical roles in how our ecosystems function. Mussels filter ridiculously great quantities of water and destroy disease causing organisms. Our health is related to theirs. It is all connected. But I wanted these mussels to be here not because of what they do for us, but because they are amazing in and of themselves. I was hoping this mussel bed would appear to be in as good a condition as it was the last time I was here. My assessment is based on non-quantitative observations, but there is still a lot of value in sticking your head in the water and just looking. The cold water freely entered my wetsuit glove and I struggled against a full and moderate current. I wasn’t sure if I would see any mussels thought the algal hair on the bottom. I started to see empty halves and saw a recently dead adult, with bleached flesh still inside the partly opened shell. Then finally I found my first faint slit in the bottom. Then a second and third and soon I was in the middle of the mussel bed. I was surrounded by Muppet looking creatures with mouths all agape covered in soft long billowing algal fur. These were all eastern Elliptios. They have a close relationship with eels, and depend on them for reproduction. Eliptios produce a web like substance full of juvenile mussels called glochidia that need an intermediary host in order to metamorphose into a mussel. Eels play much of that role for elliptios, and as an eel swims through the glochidia containing web they become infested with the parasitic bivalves. After a month, the glochidia finish their transformation and fall to the bottom as mini mussels where they start to filter feed and live out their lives that can span 100 years. For as much biological complexity and genius there is in this strategy there is a cost. If the host fish declines, so too do the chances of successfully reproducing young. And that’s what’s happening with elliptios. Eels are declining due to dams and sediments, and so the mussels are too. But today it seemed that while this mussel bed had been seasonally transformed into Muppets, it was intact, and thriving even. I found a few juveniles which is always a celebration. A reproducing population is a surviving population, and I found hope among the Muppet mussels.