The relaxing and grounding effect of weightlessness instantly and suddenly takes over as I drift from the shore. Like a switch was thrown and all the noise of yesterday, tomorrow, task lists and the rest of the world was switched off in an instant. I had no agenda other than exploration, and the clear cool water once again grounded me in life. Big chubs colored up for mating kept a cautious eye on me, and kept their distance. Trout stopped feeding and shot back and forth in their pool, unsure of what to make of me. I found a good spot to the side of this pool to settle in and just float and watch. The fish started to go about their normal business as we all relaxed. It’s like they can sense tension.
The male chubs have sprouted tubercles and their bellys and pectoral fins had turned faint purple. The brook trout are abundant, and hold mid water column, head into the current pointed slightly to the surface, tails down. They dart and nab food morsels I can’t see. Every once in a while chubs and trout go after the same item but it seems the trout usually win. I watch as a large hog sucker vacuums the sand with its protruding mouth. The fish shoves its proboscis into the bottom and grubs it up. Rosey sided dace school in an eddy and a solitary black nosed dace plucks food off the slab of schist I am laying on, inches from my mask.
The water is clear. Bubbles from the upstream falls trail to the surface and all these fish go about their business. Feeding, courting, mating, competing for space and food, but living in a balanced system. There is a lesson for us there somewhere. I just float in the water and watch, and lose track of time and space. If Lancaster had an aquarium, this is what snorkeling in it would feel like.
Our team struggled into wetsuits as I scanned the water to get an idea of what we might see. A few dead shad lay in the middle behind a rock and a few fishermen tossed their flies from the middle toward the opposite bank. This was a training to gear up for what looks like a busy snorkeling trip season. We take school kids snorkeling in local streams, and this spring we have more trips than staff, so we need to cross train a bit.
The water was cold, as expected, but warmed quickly beneath the neoprene. We crawled upstream and started to see life. A few herring came into view, and took off when a shouted “look! Look! Herring” through my snorkel, though it probably sounded like Roscoe P Coltrane laughing. I came upon a few log perch, shouted again, and they skittered away across the bottom. I learned my lesson and the next time a fish came into view, I contained my excitement to share my find, pointed and waved people over instead. Soon the life in the river became apparent to everyone, and I heard excited identifications.
I am biased, but we have a pretty cool team. They are some of the most interesting people I know and are committed to making the world a better place. We do that by showing students that what they do in life matters, the choices they make have an effect. It is always a pleasure to work with our team, and spending time in one of my favorite rivers with this group is an awesome treat.
I hiked upstream a half mile to drift back down through a set of riffles. Huge schools of shad rocketed past. Every time I flew past a boulder I entered an eddy full of big shad. Herring pushed past me upstream as I flowed over shallower riffles. Tiger striped log perch held their bodies off the bottom by standing on their fins. The migrants were back and abundant. All was right with the world. A day spent with staff, log perch, and shad couldn’t get much more perfect.
The world expands when I drift into the water. The pool looks small from the surface, but becomes huge underwater. There is so much complexity and depth here. The bottom is diverse and intricate. A gravel bar ridge mounds lengthwise to the current and small hog suckers dabble in it. It drops off on both sides, one side to deeper water with stacked plates of schist. The other side drops to a small eddy that collects sediment on top of a flat smooth sheet of bedrock. Just upstream the gravel bar drops into a deep cleft in the bedrock that catches woody debris because it lies in the shadow of a large schist boulder that keeps all of the water in a 10 foot long chute, and lets the wood collect on the slower back water. The velocity in the chute is intense. It pulls at my mask and makes my whole body shake in the turbulence. I can only push halfway up to the short falls that forms the head of this pool, just far enough to barely make out a brook trout working hard to hold in the current at the base of the falls, before I need to float backwards, before my mask actually does get pulled from my face.
There is a diversity and abundance of fish here to match the diversity and abundance of habitat. Large suckers lay motionless on the bottom of the slower deeper pools, but rocket off with amazing agility when spooked. Large chubs are more leery and always keep me in sight. They tend to hang with the brook trout, bookies in the drift and chubs on the bottom. Rosey sided and black nosed dace stay close to the bottom. I take a few laps around. Pull upstream along the crannied wall of bedrock over a deeper trough, turn and let the current push me the short distance back downstream over the gravel bar and do it again until the cold sets in and I have to get out. I pull my head from the water, with the immensity of this section of creek still fresh in my mind. But from the surface it’s just a 30 x 10 stretch of still water. Such a big world for such a small pool.
I could see a large school of banded killis from the surface. They have been here for a month. I couldn’t see any of the migrants I was hoping for, but I got in the water anyway. The hundred or so strong banded killifish school moved away in unison pointing into the current like a hundred flags in a breeze. At least 50 darters hopped across the bottom. Some looked wide and pregnant. A smaller school of common shiner fed in the current as spot tail shiners pointed nose up into the flow.
I pulled my head from the water when an Amtrak train whizzed over the bridge. I could hear cars pass on the route 7 bridge just upstream. I ducked back underwater and all this abundance hidden from most came back into view. A few herring scales glowed on the bottom. The migrants are here somewhere. I drift over the deep hole under the bridge. I always have visions of huge catfish living there, though they only exist in my imagination. It’s that same uneasy feeling I get every time I drift from shallow to deep and peer over the edge. Silver flashes up from the bottom and soon the school comes into focus. Hundreds of foot long shad and herring pack this pool in a swirling mass of fish. From above they are barely visible, but they become apparent when they present their silver sides. There must be a thousand fish in this short 100 foot section of stream today, from six different species. So many people hustle through their existence without slowing just a little to notice the incredible world around us, the amazing nature among us. All this abundance hidden from view.
Male chubs have sprouted breeding tubercles, small pointy bumps on their heads that look powder blue against their brown bodies from here. We aren’t exactly sure what purpose tubercles serve. They may be used to show dominance, spar with other males for prime territory, demonstrate fitness to females, or all of these. It may be that the male with the largest/most tubercles wins the females affections. While the males have sprouted tubercles, I don’t notice any of the nest bowls they excavate for spawning. A huge brown trout snuggles in tight to a rock
Brook trout are so abundant they are common place. A sunny is out in an eddy. Black nosed dace school the way they have been for the last two weeks. A month ago this pool was a very different place. There wasn’t the abundance and diversity of fish life that is here now. Only benthic marcoinvertebrates and incredible bedrock architecture. Today it is full of life and spring changes from a slow emergence to a rapid expansion.
I can spend a lifetime here in this one pool and never fully observe and understand it. There is always more to discover and learn, and right now things are moving so fast, it’s hard to keep up.
The first dam on the White Clay was removed a few months ago and we heard reports that shad were migrating, so we slipped into the White Clay with the hopeful intention of witnessing the first shad run this stream has seen in more than 200 years. The first dam wasn’t much of one. A collection of timbers that barely rose a foot over the surface of the river. But it was enough to stop the shad and herring from making it any further up the White Clay. It was enough to eliminate 20 some miles of spawning habitat. Herring family fish aren’t very good climbers or jumpers, the way their migratory salmonid counterparts are. We were hunting for hope that the migrants will return, hope that the White Clay, and every stream, can be restored when given the chance.
The first hole turned up a few huge suckers. The next one held a sunny and smallmouth bass. And every subsequent hole held suckers, sunnies and bass. Darters hopped across the riffles. These are all fascinating fish, but they are also fish that have been able to adapt to our river modifications, unlike shad. There weren’t any shad or herring. We made it down to the former dam site. No shad or herring held in the pool below. Maybe they came up the White Clay in one slug and we just missed them. Maybe the fish reported to have been observed the day before were the advanced guard with more to follow. Maybe we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I pulled myself back upriver against a steady current and saw a shiny speck on the bottom. I picked the scale up. Herring and shad tend to shed scales when they migrate upstream, and this sure looked like one. It was a glimmer of optimism, more confirmation that migrants were here. More inspiration to continue to hunt for hope.
It is a dark night with no moon. A big fish swims around me too fast for me to see much more than a white streak, a few feet long. It heads downstream immediately. My world focusses down into a small dot of light on the bottom. I try to find the fish to determine what was swimming with me on this dark night, but all I could see were case maker caddis flies clinging to rocks. I see a white flash occasionally to let me know it’s still there, but I can’t keep up to identify it and it disappears into the night as fast as it emerged. I explore for other fish as I methodically crawl downstream on my fingertips. A huge eel pops out of the dark and startles me as it hunts. The cylindrical fish prods into each nook and cranny and doesn’t recognize my presence initially. When it does, the fish takes off with amazing grace, agility and speed, but I keep up as the current pushes the eel against a flat rock. It lets me get close enough to unintentionally blind it with my dive light and take a bunch of pictures. It is a beautiful eel, large, as fat around as my two thumbs together, olive yellow above creamy white undersides. This was probably a female given her size. She tolerated me for a while then resumed hunting until finally she swam off into the dark spring night.
Hundreds of dorsal fins and tails break and beat the surface as I walk up to the stream. I know this will be an otherworldly experience as I slip into the water. It is difficult to capture the magnitude and magnificence of the herring run. There is a constant flow of biomass, a constant flow of biological energy moving up river. The water is murky with spawning and sandy eggs collect on the bottom.
I lay in the water and watch thousands of fish with a single purpose: to propel their species forward. There was an understanding in the eyes of the fish that swirled past, an understanding of their purpose and their place in this river that far exceeds mine. I imagine the sensory overload they must experience, coming from boundless ocean waters to this base of a waterfall stream, a foot deep, by ten across. I wonder if it feels confining or comforting, and I wonder if the fish care. They don’t seem to mind my presence and swim through my arms and around my head. They come right up to my mask and camera as if I was just another structure in the river, so maybe the only thing that registers is the instinctual desire to reproduce, to become immortal by propelling their DNA into the next generations.
The fish continue to swirl past. Individuals shoot upstream. Males find an interesting mate, spin around to pursue the larger females in tight circles downstream and beat the water into froth. I feel like I am watching history and the future combine as I witness this millennia old process. How did these fish arrive at this arduous method of reproduction? Why not just mate at sea rather than run the gauntlet to get here? How many more springs will they reappear? Their return is questionable each year because of us. Because we over fish them, sever their migration routes, smother the clean gravel beds they need to spawn with silt, pollute their streams and oceans. Yet here they are in full abundance, and I feel like I am swimming in a cloud of fish.
Our ecological memory has a lot to do with how we perceive normal in today’s environment. How we recognize whether our systems are becoming impaired are based on how we define normal, which is largely based on this memory. It is heartbreaking to think that my grandkids might not even miss spring time herring runs. They might not even know they ever existed to recognize they are missing. The concept of shifting baselines usually pertains to ecosystems becoming impaired, and us not realizing it generation to generation.
As soon as I got into the pool I see a school of black nosed dace ply the current in a swirling black silver and gold cloud. A sucker takes one look at me and rockets out of sight upstream. I see two fish that aren’t all that familiar to me just upstream of the dace. A pair of brook trout held in a hole next to a small log. Their colors are striking with deep red bellies that grade to green mottled sides. Their crimson fins are white tipped and seem to glow. Brook trout are reversing the baseline here. Brook trout were native to our eastern streams. Sedimentation, warming waters, and non native trout that we stock drove the brookies from many creeks. These brook trout are a mix of native fish and trout fry raised by school students in their classrooms in a program run by Trout Unlimited and the Lancaster Conservancy. It is all part of an effort to restore Climbers Run to what it once was, and what it should be once again.
I don’t have any memory of brook trout in the creeks I explored as a kid. But they should have been there. I didn’t know they were missing. Brook trout in streams is a new thing for me. The norm were banded killis and black nosed dace, suckers and crayfish. The streams I explored were all impaired, significantly. But I didn’t know that. To me they were still these amazing places that held unlimited mysteries, and my attention.
I watched the brook trout swim beside each other. I am still mesmerized by streams and my new concept of what normal should include. My memory of what impaired means is moving to the good and my baseline was just shifted.
The plan was to snorkel the last 10 non tidal miles of the White Clay over two days, from just south of the Pennsylvania state line to just downstream of Delaware park in Newark; essentially the Delaware section of the this creek. This was the feeble start of what I hope will become an annual event: the White Clay Creek Dam Traverse. Currently no migratory fish make it past the lowest stretch of White Clay due to derelict dams. There is growing momentum to remove these dams, to breach these impediments to long distance migrants and restore the artificially ponded water back to the free flowing river it is supposed to be. We hoped to document the Delaware section of the White Clay, establish a baseline of conditions with dams in place that could be compared to conditions after the dams are removed. We hoped to see some migrants below the last dam. We hoped to see some hope these fish represent.
The water was a little chilly when we set off at Chambers Rock, and we didn’t account for all of the trout fishermen lining the shoreline. A big sucker appeared on the bottom immediately, saw us, and took off. We only swam about 100 feet before we had to get out and walk due to a shallow rifle, and to minimize our fisherman disturbance. This would set the tone for the day, and it became apparent that the distance we wanted to cover today was likely going to take twice as long as we planned.
Every deep hole held a large school of large suckers, and the holes that didn’t have any fishermen on them held recently placed trout. This was the pattern repeated tens of times throughout the day. The suckers were always so agile, graceful, and precise in their motions. Everything the name sucker doesn’t conjure. Most of the trout looked lost and skittish, probably because they were. Their reality went form life in a concrete walled and bottomed 4x50 hatchery trough where pelletized food rained from the sky twice daily to some semblance of a wild river. Darters, small white suckers and minnows gathered on the sandbars that form on the inside of bends in the river.
We know a dam lies ahead when the river bottom dies, and becomes a mud covered biological desert. Not long after the current slows and claw the bottom to drag ourselves along. I only saw a lone sunny in these slow sections. Funny thing was there were usually more fishermen upstream of the dams, where the fish weren’t, than below.
All of the fish – the suckers and trout- were always seen on the moving stretches. Though there wasn’t much fish compared to what I expected. We only saw a handful of species, and one of those was an alien placed to support an artificial fishery. We ran into a few dead suckers, and one dead eel. Their blanched carcasses eerily hovered just off the bottom.
I imagine this creek when the shad run again, when this traverse will reveal silver. I may never see these dams removed in my lifetime, but I can dream of a day when the next generation of snorkelers can run the traverse, watch herring and shad, and not have to ford any dams. They should probably not go on the opening day of trout season though.
The going was really slow and we wouldn’t make our 5 mile goal, so we decided to take out a mile short, just inside Newark. It was disappointing to not complete the 5 miles, to witness the change in the river gorge from mostly forested to mostly developed. To see how life responds. At the same time I felt accomplished. We witnessed and documented the drastic changes the White Clay experiences when it backs up behind dams that no longer serve any purpose. We experienced the White Clay on its terms, and we enjoyed flowing with the river through a beautiful valley. Its wild and scenic designation is no surprise.
As we waited for the rearranged shuttle we explored the paper mill dam, a low head 4 foot tall structure. Suckers worked hard to scale the dam in one futile try after another. A mass gathering collected at the base of the dam and waited their turn at an attempt. We puzzled why. So much to discover. So much to protect. So many dams to remove.
Fishing creek has always been a surprise to me. Looking at the watershed, it shouldn’t be loaded with fish. It winds through farmland, and its banks are largely unprotected and unforested. A herd of cows wade in the creek just upstream of this spot. All the ingredients for impaired waters and reduced diversity. But experience reminds me that this snorkel will likely upset my perceptions. I eagerly slip into the water.
A school of what looks like a hundred black nosed dace swim in a beautiful fluid dance of gold, silver, and black stripes. The clean lines and metallic colors are pretty amazing especially for what is considered a common fish, a fish that survives in the most urbanized of streams. It makes them look royal. Juvenile and mature brown trout fight up stream, shoot back down and repeat, and always keep a suspecting eye toward me. Common shiners are still olive brown, but soon they will add color to attract a mate, the way the rosy sided dace are just starting to get red.
Clean gravel piles next to rocks indicate new Crayfish burrows and glisten in the sun.
I work upstream and slide into a deeper pool. The sand bottom is scoured out under a wide log, and a few large brown trout peek out from underneath. The trout don’t last long before they think I present more of a threat than giving up their protection does, and take off for somewhere else. They move way too fast for me to see where they went. White suckers look lunky in comparison and stay in a tight school on the bottom. Stone rollers cautiously watch me. They keep their squared off heads and u shaped lips pointing upstream but occasionally dart to pick off a morsel of food.
The abundance and diversity of fish in Fishing Creek stand as testimony to the amazing worlds hidden just beneath the surface of even the most unsuspecting streams. It is motivation to tell that story to as many people as will listen and more importantly, inspire them to look and see for themselves that Fishing Creek is full of fish.
I have been witness to the appearance of a mass of eggs cemented to the lee side of a large boulder for years, and have wondered who put them there and what they turn into ever since I first found them. This year, I was intent on pin pointing the day they were placed, and hopefully gleaning more information about who is responsible.
Most years they are continuous puffy drapery that covers the entire lee face of this boulder by the time I find them. They last for a month or so and then disappear as suddenly as they appear. But I think their rapid appearance and disappearance is more related to my lack of observations than their reality. It is one of the many mysteries that keeps my head in streams. Life is never boring when exploring and wondering life’s and natures mysteries.
This year I saw them earlier than in the past. They are smaller, pale aqua, and it looks like the rock sprouted grapes. They aren’t continuous but rather placed singly which makes me think maybe more than one actor is involved in producing this mass. I am happy they are back regardless of identity. Reproduction means there will be another generation of phantom eggers, and more opportunity for me to investigate what emerges when they hatch.
This stream is artificial in that a few miles downstream a dam severs fish migration routes, besides the multiple dams that block the major river path to and from the sea. Right from the start I think that this creek is a fake shell of what it once was. But then I wonder if migrants like shad and herring actually made it this far upstream. I slip into the water anyway.
A Black nosed dace school feeds and a few look like they are starting to spar for breeding rights. Some of the males pectoral fins are turning bright orange. A juvenile brook trout tolerates me for a while, rockets up river and then floats back down. I wonder if this is a hatchery release or if this was a wild bred fish. A mature rainbow, an obvious hatchery plant, shoots past. An eddy of twig detritus turns out to be a huge congregation of northern case maker caddisfly larvae that crawl on the bottom.
The creek is loaded with crayfish, and my first assumption is that these are one of the invasive species present in the region, based solely on their abundance. It turns out they are one of the natives, rock crayfish, who appear to be expanding their range east. The rainbow trout is more invasive than these profuse crayfish.
It doesn’t matter hatchery or wild. Dam or not. Ecologically these things certainly do. But the reality before me in this snapshot in time of Hammer Creek is very real. Blacknosed dace silver black and gold. Orange knobs on rock crayfish claws, Green frills of algae, extremely agile light spotted brook trout fingerlings, are all very real, and inspire visions of a heathier Hammer Creek, which is no illusion.
The biological assemblage is entirely influenced by us, but that does not mean it’s not real or valuable. We are part of the biology. We are the environment and the environment is us. This doesn’t give us license to impact more streams. Rather it shows that we need to love what is here, preserve what remains, and work to restore the impaired.
The stream is a chaos of fish. The process of their return has been underway for months but it seems like they just exploded into our streams overnight. The herring are back and I rejoice in their return. Mid Atlantic populations of river herring have declined as much as 99% over the last 2 decades. I worry about their return every year as a result. But this stream was full of herring today. I checked daily for them over the last 2 weeks and finally, today, these migrants are here in all their spawning chaotic glory.
Hundreds of silver, gold and blue mirror sided fish flowed up river past me. They didn’t care that I was there. The herring swam through my arms and swirled around my head. I felt like I was swimming through a cloud of fish. Smaller males chased larger females, and occasionally ran into my arms, head and camera.
The mirror shimmering blue silver and gold reminded me of the most ornate color coordinated Christmas trees. These fish are beautiful, not just because of their physical appearance, but because of what they represent: Hope in restored fisheries. Hope in restored migratory fish runs, severed by dams, sediments and pollution. Hope that I can continue to share the magnificence and wonder of these runs and migratory journeys with my future generations. Hope that my future generations can experience the same connection to the herring’s future generations, the way I am connected to these mirror sided beauties.
This is an anxious time of year for me. I worry about the return of migrants to our streams. When our creeks should be exploding with life and they’re not, I worry that this might be the year the herring and shad don’t return. I worry that the eggs that are placed on the lee of a rock in the middle of a Deer Creek rapid every spring might not appear. This time of year I anxiously wait to see who arrives so that I can either celebrate their return, or lament their loss. I have been in Deer Creek every day this week looking, hoping, praying, that the shad and herring will reappear, but the rapid is still empty, and the eggs still aren’t placed.
I inadvertently flip over a rock as I struggle upstream and dislodge a huge stonefly. It is a beautiful insect with grey flanged thorax mottled with faint dull red. Its eyes were obvious, and its antenna probed its newly exposed environment. The presence of this insect makes me feel a little better – they are signs of good water quality. I swim into the middle of the pool and head downstream, headfirst through the rapid. Boulders appear suddenly, and I am tossed like a leaf in the current, over and around the rocks. I fend most of them off with my forearms, but really just survive the flush through the rocks rather than actually navigate a selected course. Even though the migrants haven’t arrived, Deer Creek is still amazing. Snorkeling through a rapid gives a completely different view on the river. And the stone fly gives hope. Hope that the water quality is here to support a restored shad and herring run. Hope that the moratoria placed on their take will work to restore their once glorious numbers. Hope that maybe their absence has nothing to do with declining numbers or water quality but rather just a colder than usual spring. Either way, this is an anxious time of year for me, until I see the silver return to our streams.
Something rocketed off the bottom and hit my arm, hard. It looked like a tessellated darter, but didn’t act like a tessellated. Was this fish a hyperactive johnny or tessellated darter, or something less common? My imagination went wild as I fumbled for my camera to try to get a shot, to prove my potential rare find.
This was the spot of the last sighting of a Maryland darter in 1988. I don’t know what a live Maryland darter looks like. I wouldn’t know one if I saw one, or if one hit me in the arm. But I know what isn’t a common darter, and this fish didn’t act like a common one. I am not saying this was a Maryland darter. I am saying the possibility exists that they are still here, in spite of numerous electrofishing attempts to find them. There is still the possibility, no matter how remote. Each time I get into the water here, I hang on the hope that I will see a darter that isn’t the normal, and that maybe it is a Maryland.
The fish disappeared into the labyrinth of crevasses that define this rapid and I couldn’t relocate it, in spite of multiple searches of the area. The darter was probably watching my futile attempt. I wound up enjoying the rock canyons formed by large boulders that push the water in chaotic directions. I wished I got a photo, but was happy for the experience. Sometimes it’s the architecture, and the promise of exploration rather than a discovery that brings the adrenaline. Sometimes it’s the hope of finding an endangered darter.
Algae covers everything and is a sure sign spring is progressing. This creek gets green and hairy this time every year. It is a brilliant emerald green algae, and accentuates the occasional orange cobble that shows through.
Different species of fish have set up shop in different habitats of the stream. The banded killifish school, which is noticeably larger than two weeks ago, hovers above the gravel bar on the upstream edge of the deep pool under the rail road bridge, the way snappers school and hold above a reef wall. A school of black nosed dace dart between the branches of a partly submerged red maple branch in swift current over a yellow sand veined red clay bottom. Darters hop from cobble to cobble throughout the whole stream, annoyed by my presence.
A juvenile copper and orange northern hog sucker uses micro eddys formed by cobbles among sand and gravel to explore the middle, where the current is the most swift. It is wary of me, darts across the current, and settles against a green furry rock. The frilly algae looks like green shag carpet that partly envelops the hogsucker. Stoney Creek is waking up from winter. More sunlight drives more algal production, more of the foundation of the aquatic food web. Fish respond to warmer temperatures by emerging from their wintertime retreats and Stoney Creek is once again emerald green and awesome.
The Big Elk is a suburban stream. And the section I am about to enter is just inside the largest city in my county. There is a storm water outfall to my back and the sand and gravel bars are significantly rearranged again. Based on the USGS hydrograph, this creek runs bank full after just about every rain, and it floods every other. All because of a highly developed watershed in this reach. All that impervious surface means the water runs right into the creek, carries a smorgasbord of contamination with it, and rearranges and smothers habitat.
I ease out into the tough current and work very hard to move upstream. I don’t see any life and am just about to give up, but then notice a large sucker tucked behind a stump. The fish takes off with a single graceful flick of its tail while I clumsily struggle in the current. I don’t see any more fish, or much more life other than web spinner caddis, and head back downstream. The sucker is back in the lee of the stump, but this time he tolerates my presence and lets me snap as many photos as I like. It is hard to get good shots since the current wants to peel me from the bottom and the strong water pins my snorkel to my face. Breathing is difficult and water pours into the purge valve when I turn the wrong way. I hold the camera at the end of my unsteady outstretched arm and hope I get a decent picture of the huge fish. I get all the shots I can, leave the fish in peace, and ferry back through the riffle to the large sand bar shore.
I figured that was all the Elk had to offer today, and while I was happy with this encounter since suckers are usually very skittish, and this one let me hang out with it for a while, I was ready to give up on the idea that the Big Elk held anything more than this single fish. There was a narrow channel that braided through the sand bar and carved a one foot deep channel along a submerged log. I decided to see if anyone was there, but was skeptical of my choice.
I instantly kicked up a johnny darter. Then noticed a young northern hog sucker. An orange fish, I initially thought was a sculpin, shot out onto the sand flat as I watched the hog sucker. I realized the second fish wasn’t a sculpin but rather an orange hog sucker. These were same aged northern hog suckers. One black and tan, and second orange and peach. The color variation in this species in incredible. Same species, same age in the same riffle and yet two very different colorations. I explored this little slough a little while longer but didn’t want to disturb these fish any more. I hoped I didn’t disturb them too much. I was glad I came to the Elk today. A river many in my region would throw away. People certainly have a hard time understanding my attraction to this stretch of urban water. But as usual, just when I was going to give up on the Elk, the river proved me wrong, and turned up a nice assortment of beautiful fish. And this is why I am a sucker for the Big Elk.
Every part of the stream is amazing. Fish, invertebrates, even the geologic architecture that composes much of the stream complexion and personality. Insects on the underlying geology dominated this snorkel and while not the trout I was searching for, provided an incredible experience.
As soon as I dropped my head into the water, an Ameletid mayfly larvae took off and disappeared again. I tried to follow its path, and found two more hanging onto the lip of a rock with their long tails waving in the current. These are the building blocks of trout, and they indicate relatively clean water.
Elbow Branch really isn’t much to look at from the surface. It is a small stream that runs just feet off a dirt road. But it flows clear most days because the land that drains into the creek is still forested. The abundance of mayflies here confirms that Elbow Branch supports decent water quality. Everywhere I look I see Ameletids, and other species of mayfly larvae. They cover every hard surface, and small clouds of them leap from rocks as I approach.
They are a beautiful insect and have long frilled white and dark brown banded tails.
The intricate grey, chestnut, brown and white design on their body reminds me of contour lines on a topographic map. Translucent wing buds hold the promise that this animal will someday metamorphose from a bottom dwelling aquatic organism to an air breathing delicate flyer.
Mayflies are here because of good water quality, which is due to the forested nature of the land that drains to this tiny creek. The trick is to replicate the water cleaning action of a forested watershed in urban and suburban landscapes, so we can have beautifully intricate mayflies in all of our rivers and streams.
This section of the White Clay isn’t special by most people’s standards. It is suburban, tucked into the folds of our urbanizing existence, out of sight and mind to most. It is dammed, and sedimented and takes polluted runoff. But it is still special like all rivers and streams. There are no throw aways. The dam traverse is going to be a 10 mile down river snorkel. The purpose is to raise awareness about the White Clay and dam removal efforts designed to restore migratory fish that have historically flooded this creek with life. Each spring herring and shad pushed upriver to spawn, and the dam traverse hopes to bring that story to the public consciousness. But the dam traverse is also a celebration of the White Clay, of the stream that remains, and the hope of its complete restoration. This trip was just a short jaunt to help get me used to the river, aware of its character so I better know what to expect during the 10 mile descent.
The bottom is embedded in sand and gravel, so the habitat isn’t too diverse. Tires are washed into the stream bed and a sewer line parallels the creek in its floodplain. Broken glass is common among the quartz pebbles, and almost looks like it’s supposed to be part of the substrate. A merganser pair slaps into flight as I get near to the water’s edge.
There isn’t much life beneath the surface. I don’t see any fish. There is a beaver slide carved into the side. Solitary case maker cadis grazes on one of the only exposed rocks. The current is strong, and I work hard to move upstream. The unconsolidated bottom doesn’t give me any purchase to claw against the current so for each forward move I make, I lose a half back downstream. I get winded fighting the fast water and sand bottom, but finally enter into a deeper lee. Pockmarked white clay banks wall the sides of the four foot deep pool and I wonder if this is how the stream was named. I feel like I am in a biological desert. I haven’t seen much life, nor much habitat, so I turn with the current and quickly start to flow downstream. I am disappointed that there isn’t much life here but also recognize this trip was far from exhaustive. It was just a small snapshot in this creeks biological time, and while there wasn’t much life here in the 30 minutes I was in the water, that doesn’t indicate that the White Clay is devoid of life. Another day, and other season, another time of day can reveal a biological scene completely different. But then, suddenly, I realize that a garden of web spinner caddisflies stretches before me and completely covers what I thought were barren white clay banks. Life is abundant here too, I just had to change my perspective. They were hidden on the way upstream, but the downstream view reveals their webs opened into the current. And maybe that will be the key to restoring the White Clay. Just a slight change in people’s view to show that it is an amazing creek. Hopefully the dam traverse will be one of the instigators of this transformation.
Climbers Run is a complicated stream. Its bottom is a collection of exposed bedrock, rock slabs, extensive mounds of gravel and sand bottomed eddys. The currents reflect the complexity of the architecture and Climbers water flows in unexpected directions. I am not familiar with Climbers. This is a new stream for me, so I don’t have enough experience in its waters to establish normal, if there is such a thing for a steam. The complicated structure and diverse habitat results in lots of diverse life, and lots of places to search.
I start in a downstream pool and slowly swim upriver. A juvenile trout of some kind holds over a gravel flat. Its caudle fin beats like the wings of a hummingbird just to keep position in the river yet its body stays motionless, and it reminds me of an excited puppy, wagging its tail as fast as it can. A school of stonerollers glides over the bottom then darts when they encounter my shadow. A group of common shiner huddle just to the side of a strong current, in a bowl framed by flat rock slabs. Their iridescence always takes my breath for a minute. Common doesn’t do this fish justice. I worked each pool in this fashion, downstream to up, side to side, main flow to eddy and back, and I never explored all of the crannies of even one pool.
I enter into one last pool. I am shivering, and my hands barely hold the camera. A black nosed dace shoots under me, followed by a brook trout, way too fast for me to capture on my camera. I follow them upstream. I really want to get the brook trout image. Instead a large fish comes out of the shadows and follows the V fracture in the bedrock right at me, turns and retreats to the shadow before I can make an identification. It is a large fish, with what looks like a snout, and it is bold. It comes right at me quickly again, hovers in front of me, and heads back to the dark recesses under the snort falls that forms this pool. This time it is in my mask long enough for me to fire off a few shots and get a positive identification. It is a stone roller. A big one, and it is bold. It seems to think it is bigger than I am and wants to take me on. Maybe I am in its prime breeding spot, but it doesn’t have any breeding tubercles, growths males get on their head in breeding season. Maybe he’s just warming up.
The stoneroller and I played for a while in this way, and the fish became used to my presence and let me get very close as it hid under the undercut stone shelf behind the short waterfall. It was hard to control my shivering so I reluctantly got out. My feet were painfully cold, and my hands were barely functional. I stayed in Climbers Run way too long, but it wasn’t nearly long enough to fully explore all of the diversity it contains.
Eggs appear on the lee side of this rock this time every year, but I never know who puts them there, or where they go. They just appear one day, then leave a month or so later. Every spring I visit the rock frequently to see if I can catch the phantom egger. The river was up and a little murky, so I made quick work of swimming across the fast current to reach the lee of the rock. The eddy carried me up river the rest of the way. There weren’t any eggs stuck there yet.
Rock weed still covers the tops of rocks though it is just stalks by this time of year. Soon, it will start to regrow and become lush soft coverings that drape the boulders in this rapid, and make the underwater place look tropical, but for now it is still beard stubble. Which seems fine for the caddis who are more actively grazing than a week ago, and seem to take advantage of the open grazing range. Each case is crafted by the caddisfly larvae it contains and the orange, white and red quartz sand grains and silver mica flecks that make up each case look like gemstones walking on the bottom. The hoard of jeweled cases roams across the rocks.
I nosed into each nook and cranny along the shore, just in case the phantom egger chose another spot but the search only revealed more caddisflies. Maybe it’s just a little colder longer this year. Maybe the egg laying is flow dependent. Maybe the phantom egg layer is gone. Regardless, there aren’t any eggs here yet, and I will continue my expectant search in the hopes to solve the mystery of the phantom egger.
I don’t know why but I successfully freaked myself out. Thoughts of a body we pulled out of this creek ten years ago dominated my mind. I have nocturnally snorkeled here at least a dozen times, and not once did I focus on that night. But tonight, for some reason, visons of the young man lying in the creek bed set up shop and were reluctant to leave. It made me want to continually look over my shoulder.
I got into the water that was still cold with winter, and my existence tightened into the tiniest circle of light. The world became whatever my headlamp lit. Everything else was black. I started to feel claustrophobic. I picked my head out of the water and could barely make out the opposite shore, even though it was only 10 feet away. The creek felt so big from the surface, but underwater it felt like I was swimming in a linen closet. I could only see what felt like a dime sized spot of light. I was on a very alien world, like I left earth and landed underwater on some foreign planet full of ghosts. And I thought I knew this place.
A large case maker caddisfly hunkered in the sand behind a larger rock. Some kind of minnow stayed motionless in the lee of another. I forgot about the ghost of the man we pulled from here ten years ago. I forgot about the aliens. The fish didn’t move, but tolerated my closeness, headlamp spotlight and blinding flash as I snapped pictures. I don’t know what kind of fish this was, but that didn’t matter right now. My world came into focus on that fish. Not yesterday, or tomorrow, or the dead guy we recovered ten years ago. It was just me and this fish, and now. Which is one of the draws of river snorkeling and exploration. It puts me into the now. It grounds me. River snorkeling refocuses my attention on what is real and important and it makes the alien ghosts disappear.
It was a good day. Spring seemed to arrive in one swoop, though the progression to this day has been underway since winter started. Osprey whistled overhead while peepers peeped in a sweet chorus from the wetland. I slipped into Stoney Creek and the Amtrak Acela train whistled past, carrying all those people to their important appointments at their important destinations.
Darters instantly scattered across the bottom, then stayed where they were so that I could slowly approach. A school of some kind of silver minnow hung in the roots of an undercut tree. Other minnows work against the current as they move back upstream. I have seen these fish occasionally through the winter, wedged out of the current under larger rocks, waiting for the warm.
I flow over the cobbles with the current to the deep pool under the bridge. A school of a couple hundred banded killifish has gathered. There are a few small sunnys mixed in. Migrations happen on a number of temporal and geographic scales, and I’m pretty sure the mass gathering of fish in this deeper hole is the beginnings of a short range dispersal from wintering grounds back to their summer range. Soon the longer distance migrants will be back, the herring and shad, and Stoney Creek will run silver.
The water is still cold, but noticeably warmer than it was even just last week. The arrival of spring has been in the works for weeks. Subtle changes in temperature and precipitation triggered hardly detectable shifts in the abundance and composition of the fish I encountered, but it seems like life has erupted on this one day. The beginning of life’s spring time emergence is certainly in full swing and the full of life glory that defines our rivers and streams is once again apparent.
Water in Climbers Run was the clearest in the region, but it still had a pale haze to it, so that I could barely make out the bottom of the four foot hole. Not likely I would be able to see any brooks in these conditions. If I can’t see them first and stealthily move closer, they sense my presence and are gone long before I know they are here. But that doesn’t matter right now. The architecture of the creek is incredible. Huge scalloped bedrock spires lay on their sides. Water piles clean orange, red, blue and white gravel behind them. Woody debris collects in the slower spots and the water moves in deceiving directions with a strong upstream push on the far bank, that looks like downstream current from the shore.
An Appalachian brook crayfish darts back into her burrow when she sees me pass nearby. If I had clearer water, I would have seen her first, and been able to watch from a distance and maybe creep up on her. This stream, like most in the Susquehanna Riverlands region, seems like it belongs in western Pennsylvania. Hemlock and rhododendron grow in the bottom of the steep sided gorge and shroud the stream as it tumbles from bedrock shelf to pool and over the next shelf.
A large stone fly gets swept out from under a rock, and it scrambles to gain a footing on the slick schist slab it lands on. The insect has an intricate tan lined design on its head and thorax that interrupts the deep chestnut of its body. There aren’t many other noticeable benthic macroinvertebrates here. Every stream has its own signature, its own look. This one seems to have its nutrient load in balance. Lots of algae that supports lots of grazing caddisflies, like most of the streams I snorkel, are over fertilized. This one is clear of visible algae, and there are few caddis. But is has a few large stoneflies instead. Stoneflies indicate really clean water and are the building blocks of a healthy native trout fishery. But this stoney is so much more than a water quality canary or trout food. It is a beauty and a wonder in its own right.
I push back up into a chute that forces the water into a strong flow, through as much current force as my mask will tolerate and still stay on my face, and land in a deep side eddy. I barely notice a dark trout through the haze as it darts under me. A second one ambles away from under the tangle of branches lodged in a bedrock cleft, but this one is still just a little too far to get a good view and shot. These were brooks, I am sure of it, and I will be back to watch them when the water is clearer. I am happy with this short visit to a wonderful stream, and the beautiful stone fly made the trip worth it. Stone flies are so much more than trout food.
The water is murky with less than a foot of visibility. The water is up in this small creek and deflects off big rocks to cause strong currents and interesting eddys. Detritus, this past falls leaves, swirl and flush downstream. I’m looking for trout, as is usual in this spot, but really don’t expect to find any. Trout are skitterish fish and if I don’t see them first, they are long gone before I even get close. With this poor visibility, my chances are slim. But it’s not always about trout. Most days it’s about experiencing the river on its own terms.
An eddy grabs me and starts to carry me upstream. I try to hold where I am, intent to peek under just one more ledge looking for that brookie or brown, but finally decide just let go, enjoy the ride, go with the flow and worry less about documenting, and think more about experiencing.
I ride the eddy to where it meets a rapid. My upper body gets pulled upstream. My legs dangle out into the main downstream current and I get twirled around.
Case maker caddis are still huddled in divots in the rock, but they are starting to peel their sealing pebbles off the openings of their cases. It still amazes me how they anchor their cases to the rock when it gets cold, and seal the opening with a larger sand grain. Today I got to witness the step wise process they use to get active again when the water warms. They remove the larger grain from the opening, but keep it on their constructed mobile tube of sand grains, just in case it gets cold again, I assume.
Every time I get into water, every time I encounter a stream on its own terms, I find something new to see and learn. Even if it’s just riding eddys, or watching cadis flies unpack from their winter slumber. Get out and explore your local creek, muddy or not. There is always something new to experience and discover.
Ice left our streams over the last 24 hours. Not completely but now the open water is contiguous and I can snorkel a length of river without having to seal over ice. I can be a little less cautious about getting swept downstream since I can easily find open water if I need it and I am less concerned with getting pulled under an ice sheet. There is still ice on our rivers, but it is receded to the slower waters, and splashed on rocks and overhanging branches. The heavy ice has broken out, but skim ice forms overnight and retreats in the day. Small chunks still flow down river in the water column and pelt my head and face, and the water is biting, but the thaw has started. We are in the interplay between frozen and thawed, but the biology still reflects frozen.
Wintertime life in our rivers is more subdued and hidden. It’s here, just less flamboyant than in spring and takes more effort to see. Besides facing the challenge of living in a very dynamic place, winter adds the threat of cold and ice. Cold that results in less food availability and slower metabolism, and ice which is one of the strongest landscape shaping forces on the planet, poses a physical threat.
Remnants of the autumn leaf fall are re entrained in the water column and tattered black and brown sycamore and maple leaves whiz past. A darter pokes his head out from a cobble and darts for the deeper water still shrouded by a thick surface ice sheet. I don’t chase after him. A quartz cobble is fractured and is as clear as a piece of ice. It fools me for a minute until I reach down to grab it. Didn’t make any sense that an ice chunk would be negatively buoyant.
I pull myself upstream along the unconsolidated sand, pebble and cobble bottom. I am exhausted in short order, and my arms are a rubbery burn. It’s like running on a beach, twice the work for the same distance gain. Life is scarce. I drift back down stream in the shallow water and work to keep my chest from dragging on the bottom. Finally I see what I was hoping for. A large sculpin pops out from behind his water worn smoothed quartz cobble home and stares at me. Its orange and tan mottled body blends perfectly with the orange, tan and white rock bottom. He is perfectly suited for his bottom based predatory lifestyle and we watch each other for a while until he tires of my presence and wiggles off into the strong current.
Most people cross over this small creek without knowing or caring to know its name. But I know Mill Creek as a beautiful example of a stream that sits in the transition between piedmont and coastal plane. Mill Creek has a name, and a unique look and an amazing community. And things are about to become even more interesting as the biology reflects the thawing process.
There are advantages to freezing temps. The biggest one is clear water. All the precipitation we have received has been locked up in the growing drifts, so our rivers have stayed clear. Cold but clear. The sun came out after an overnight ice storm and the air warmed to 42 degrees, the warmest it has been in two weeks. I took advantage of the heat to get into the water. Problem was the warm air melted part of what accumulated over the last two weeks, and our creeks rose and got muddy. I found a stream that was clearer than most and got in.
The flow was strong, and the water lapped at the bottom of the ice cover. I had to work hard to not get swept downstream. I only stayed in the upstream part of this 30 foot long open water section to give myself more chances to stop my downstream flush if my grip came off the bottom. After that there was no open water. Just a thick ice sheet. I was very careful that I had solid foot and hand holds as I moved through the creek. Water fell through a chute and cut across the width of the stream. It hollowed out under the ice shelf where it eddied and detritus gathered in a swirl. A dragonfly nymph spun in mid water column and looked very much like a piece of anoxia darkened bark.
A black nosed dace half-heartedly beat its tail in the current, then decided the current was too much and swam off to the side under the ice where there was less flow. I crawled upstream to see if I could find any other fish. The water flow noticeably increased and I had to work harder to keep from getting swept downstream. I decided to follow the lead of the dace and swim to the side, and get out. This isn’t the final melt, but it is the beginning of the end of winter, the beginning of the play between frozen and thawed, muddy and clear, and I look forward to experiencing it all.
I snorkeled along the boundary of a thin clear ice pane that looked like a sheet of cellophane floating on a cove between rock outcrops. Painful collisions with the edge of the ice reminded me of my boundary. A large hinge of a mussel that was firmly wedged into the substrate glowed white among the brown and orange bottom. I assumed the mussel was ancient based on its girth. Maybe not ancient, but likely older than me. I am still amazed that an animal we often consider ‘lower” can achieve such maturity.
Amber algae covers a large boulder and billows in the current like a wheat field in the wind. Caddisflies nuzzle into the fur and graze. A northern case maker caddisfly case, made with long thin twigs cemented together between mica and quartz grains, laid between cobbles on the bottom. I have seen them in Holtwood, and on the Delaware but I have never seen them here.
I swim upstream to the head of a chute formed by two rock outcrops, turn and flow downstream with the current, back to where I started. I lateral out and watch a hellgrammite crawl along the bottom. These are fierce ancient looking large insects with multiple legs and strong mandibles. This female has smaller pinchers than males, but they are effective and I have had these draw blood before when I handled them. Her head and thorax are a deep reflective chestnut, her abdomen is drab olive and bits of bottom algae are stuck on her exoskeleton. The insect realized I was here and started to back up.
This is a sign of hope. Hellgrammites indicate good water quality. So do caddisflies. And mussel numbers are declining. Finding live ones gives hope. The Susquehanna is far from a pristine river. By the time its waters reach me here near its mouth, it has been used a few times over, and is plagued by problems: sedimentation, over fertilization, pharmaceutical contamination, declining fisheries. But the presence of the caddisflies, hellgrammites and mussels inspire hope that the river is restorable, that we can bring the Susquehanna back to health.
I caught myself cursing the cold. Six inches of fresh snow covers the ground. Temperatures are supposed to be 20 degrees warmer than they are and while winter is supposed to be winding down, it feels like it’s just getting started. I want the spring and the migratory fish runs it brings, but my reality is the cold, the largely fishless cold.
I hike in through the fresh snow. We got another inch or two today and the half-moon shines through a wispy haze of a cloud cover and reflects off the snow to make the night pretty bright. The creek is 75% covered by ice and I approach one of the few openings. The river flows two feet beneath the surface of the ice. I turn my head lamp on, slip underwater, and my world is narrowed into the beam that shines on the bottom
A black nosed dace leans against a rock. His clean gold above, cream below and black striped body is an artful contrast to the drab olive algae that covers the surrounding bottom. The dace’s red tinged pectorals and caudal fin almost glow. The fish is lethargic with cold and I suspect I inadvertently rousted the dace from his winter home. A northern case maker caddisfly creeps along the rock a few inches above the fish.
I pull upstream against the current into the ice cave formed above the swiftly flowing water. Silver icicles hang from the roof and almost touch the water that also shines in the light. I feel like I have entered into Jack Frost’s palace through the moat.
Last week there was ice from the surface to the bottom. Today the ice sits a foot above the waters’ surface and the ice cave it forms is adorned with jewels. I am fascinated by the dynamics. How does this happen and change from solid top to bottom to hollowed beneath? How does ice affect the ecology of the creek? Where was this dace last week when the water here was hard? It is intensely beautiful, a crystalline palace, with fanciful gravity defying sparkling frozen shapes.
I feel fortunate to have witnessed this beauty, this frozen ephemeral world that will be gone. Maybe next week, maybe in a month but it will be gone, and will never return the same. The ice that forms next year will be different than this sculpture just as this ice is very different than last winters. The shad will be here again, I hope, and the ice will be gone. But for now I’m grateful for the opportunity to participate in this ephemeral frozen world.
I hoped there might be some trout in this pool. I have been pursuing the ghost of a brookie here for a month, looking again for that dark sided trout that I swear I saw for an instant a month ago. I hoped the ice covering might make the fish less skittish. The open water in this pool was barely wider than my shoulders, and it wasn’t more than 2 body lengths long. Not much room to search for this fish.
The water hurt. It stung my lips and the small part of my neck that falls between my hood and drysuit gasket. Shelf ice grew out from the shore to the edge where the current flows just a little too fast to allow ice to form, which makes it difficult to peek into the recesses of undercut boulders. The scalloped silvery ice reflected the scalloped sandy bottom. A few leaves and twigs were stuck. Iced bubbles looked like pools of mercury. The water was perfectly clear, so clear that the only way I knew I was under water was because I was wet and weightless. Ice sculptures hung down into the water from the sheet and looked aquamarine in the distance.
I did a few duck unders, where I probed beneath the ice sheet, backed out, got a breath and did it again. Maybe I made too much noise as I walked over the ice to the edge of the open hole and the fish long scattered. Maybe the water finally got cold enough that they have found good hiding places where they will stay for the remainder of the cold. Either way, there weren’t any fish to see here today. But there was an amazing winterscape under the cold gin clear water.
There is more ice on Deer Creek than usual. Long tear drop shaped blocks of ice stretch in eddys behind rocks, and thin ropy channels of open water separate one slab from the other. The water looks murky from the surface, but we haven’t had any rain. I sit on the edge of the ice shelf and ley my feet dangle in the water. They are cold instantly.
I slip into the water careful not to get swept downstream, and under an ice sheet. The water is cloudy and I can barely make out the bottom. It was a lot of work getting geared up for an ice snorkel, and the poor visibility is disappointing. Then I realize the water is murky with ice. It was like snorkeling through a slushy. Things started to come into view as I cleared the congregation of ice that swirled in the eddy currents. There were fewer ice chunks in the stronger flow, and the bottom came into focus.
Northern case maker caddis sand grain cases cover the lee of boulders, behind over wintering patches of rock weed. The smooth cylindrical steel blue cases of humpless case maker caddisflys are intertwined with the rock weed on the tops of the boulders. They have sealed the openings of their tubes. Orange, green, metallic slate blue, and white all mix and bend and wave in the current in a kaleidoscope of winter life and color. Ice glows blue in the background. I am glad I didn’t give up when I first put my face in the water and say murk. I am glad I didn’t follow my original assumption that nothing was here on this frozen day. Ecology is always here. We just need to open our eyes to see it.
I have been in Basin Run before when it had ice on it, but never like this. Ice reaches from the surface to the bottom 3 feet below, and this icy nocturnal view gives me a new aspect of understanding what shapes this creek. I snorkeled in a 15 foot long, 4 foot wide L shaped pool hemmed in by ice. I was downstream of the rapid I usually snorkel because the current presents just a little too much risk of getting swept under the ice sheet.
The thick ice is in two layers. The top half is clean white and silver with each of the individual crystals visible underwater. Small rainbows refract through each of the individual crystals and the ice wall sparkles in prisms. Alone the crystals are little more than slush. Congregated together they are a formidable barrier. Entrained air bubbles from the short falls just upstream glow silver.
The ice below is dirty with gravel and sand. Larger rocks were picked off the bottom by the ice and are entrained six inches off the substrate. I wonder how much of a shaping force ice plays in this temperate stream. I wonder how life survives under it. Does it burrow in beneath rocks, does it move to an ice free section, or is there just enough space between the ice and bottom for things to survive? A northern case maker caddisfly clings to the clean gravel in one of the gaps between the ice and bottom that allows the water to flow downstream. I feel like I am diving Antarctica or maybe exploring the iced moon of some foreign planet. This world is largely frozen right now. It will be thawed in a few weeks, and right after that our migrants will return. But in the mean time I will enjoy this frozen otherworldly view.
The last bit of winter orange light evaporated from the western sky as I slipped the dive headlamp over my wetsuit hood. The light perched on top of my mask in a perfect spot to see who might be out on this cold winters night. The water looked clear from the surface, and during the day it would be, but the headlamp light reflects back from each of the tiniest of particles in the water and the beam shines through dilute milk to light up the bottom.
There’s not much to see initially. The view is very different due to the different lighting. Stands of rock weed look like deep sea black corals in the spotlight of a submersible. A single fish sticks its head from behind a rock. Some kind of minnow, a kind I haven’t seen here during the day. I explore the deeper crevasses hoping to see some more fish life, hoping to learn the night time Ecology, but only see more deep sea coral looking rockweed, and a single snail. I was just here yesterday in daylight and found an incredible abundance and diversity of fish, but there isn’t much out tonight. I head back downstream.
The cold started to set in and there wasn’t much to keep me in the water, but I decided to spend a little more time exploring this pool, searching. Winter night time snorkeling takes more preparation than a more normal trip and I wanted to maximize my time in the water. I’m glad I stayed. There on the bottom, wedged nose first under the upstream lip of a cobble, was a frog. Her banded hind legs were drawn up tight under her sides. For a minute I thought she might be dead. What was a frog doing out in barely above freezing water? Did she over winter here? Seemed like a pretty forceful flow for a frog to overwinter. Maybe the tradeoff was the oxygen rich water. The frogs nictitating membranes covered her eyes, and I wasn’t convinced she was alive. I really didn’t want to disturb the frog, but my curiosity won and I gently poked her hind quarters. She tucked tighter into the rock. The frog was definitely alive, and chose to spend at least this part of winter here, huddled on the bottom of this rapid. I watched the frog for a while, and tried to get a good shot without disturbing the amphibian any more than I already did. I got out of the water into the cold dark night. It was definitely worth the extra gearing up to experience the night time winter Principio. Even if it was colder than a frogs ass.
By this time of winter I am usually just enduring the cold waiting for springs first emergence. There often isn’t much to see as winter trails off and the lack of life makes it feel like spring will never arrive with its biologic explosion. The 50 degree air temperature was deceiving because the water was still freezing. I’m not sure why I expected the water to warm in a day. Our weather this winter has been a roller coaster. Frigid weeks separated by a day or two of teasing warmth. The water stays cold, and an ice chunk hits me in the mask, which startles me. I laugh when I realize it’s just an ice chunk. I hoped to stay longer than what I would be able to based on cold.
I have labeled this time of year the biological doldrums since it seems fish and other life are hard to find right around now. But the Principio is beautiful regardless of fish. The river cascades down a 30 foot falls into deep canyon pools and flows over orange bedrock. The bottom is patches of smooth bedrock, quarts cobbles and clean sand, and this time of year there is a forest of winter time rock weed that holds against ice chunk batterings and swift water. I got in the river to see the forest, and to photograph it.
But I wasn’t in the water for long before I saw my first fish – a black nosed dace that very sluggishly eased back into its crevice. I pushed upstream, further into the falls. I forgot how loud it is here, and how chaotic the river becomes. Strong currents pull my legs out into the main flow while my torso is forcefully pushed down stream. I grapple onto the smoothed bedrock. Air bubbles from falling water make it hard to see. The deep crack that holds huge suckers in the summer is empty and I head back downstream.
I swirl into the pool at the base of the falls, the end of the fall line where mountain meets coastal plane, and see a school of rosy sided dace swirl with me in the gentle eddy. A hog sucker, very much aware and awake, watches me. The fish is so well camouflaged that when I look at something else, it vanishes in an instant and it takes me a while to relocate the fish who didn’t move from its spot. Its stealthy tactic works to avoid detection. Large darters mold around rocks and their personalities show. Some are skitterish and flit away, while others seem as curious about me as I am about them. Their black checkerboard pattern on a green background make them look like Connemara – green Irish marble. A small school of black nosed dace flit downstream.
Cars bang over the route 7 bridge, and I hope no one can see me. I am alone and in my own little aquatic wilderness world, even though I stopped on my way home from work, just off a major north eastern megalopolis traffic artery. I don’t want anyone to see me so that I am not confused with a body, to avoid all the commotion that tends to create.
I love this creek. It always amazes. Even now when we should be in the doldrums, our backyard creeks make enduring the cold worth it.
There is a deep pool in a small stream that I suspected held big trout for years. A large beech stands on an undercut bank and its roots hang down into the pool. Large boulders form dark recesses on the opposite bank. Lots of hiding places for big fish.
Visions of brook trout danced in my head as I got into the clear water. It was unlikely but possible that I might see the only native trout in this region. More likely were the two nonnatives. Even if I didn’t see any fish, this view of the underwater architecture of the stream, slightly tainted aqua marine in the distance was worth the submersion.
I crawled upstream slowly, careful not to disturb the bottom. I peeked under the first boulder overhang and startled a large trout as much as it startled me. We stared at each other in surprised amazement or a few seconds then it decided to rocket upstream. I thought I lost my opportunity to get a positive ID but I was pretty sure it was a brown, maybe a rainbow. It was a light colored trout with dark spots, and around here those are the two light colored choices.
Neither are native. Rainbows are put and take fish stocked from hatcheries to be fished out. They can’t reproduce in the wild here. Browns are European fish that are stocked and have established wild breeding populations.
I continued to ease upstream in the current. A large brown, possibly the same one I scared out from under the boulder, held in the current out in the open and watched me crawl closer, unfazed by my presence. It knew it was the biggest fish here and simply held in the middle in the open with an air of arrogant confidence. It swam against a stiff current with strong grace and seemed to have a wisdom that comes from really knowing an area. This fish knew this hole better than I ever could, and it would use that knowledge to evade me when the time came. The fish seemed to know I was out of my element.
It watched me watch it. A smaller brown quickly swam downstream. I focused on getting the perfect shot of the large brown trout when a dark trout shot past, so fast it was as if the fish vaporized and replaced with a a puff of sediment. Could that have been a brookie? Brook trout are special because if they are here, they were born here. And because they are climate change sentinels. They require clear, clean, cold streams and so are the ultimate aquatic canary for water quality.
I can’t be sure if this dark shadow was a brookie, but it is possible. The only fish that fits the brief visionary profile is a brook trout. I will need to return to confirm their presence. Visions of brook trout dance in my head, and one might have just shot past.
The James has been on my bucket list of places to snorkel for 4 years, after I read a piece in the Richmond Times-Dispatch about snorkeling the James. People interviewed in the story commented on clear water, abundant fish, and they likened the James to a reef – the same language I use when describing river snorkeling. They mentioned regularly seeing huge 20 – 40 pound cats and even named one of them the General, an 80 pound flathead. Flatheads aren’t native to the James, but that didn’t matter. I wanted to see one of these monsters. The notoriety of being in a large city newspaper, promises of clear water and big cats made me want to snorkel here for years. I got the opportunity recently while returning from a trip to North Carolina. I figured I’d take a small detour and jump in.
The wind blew hard down the length of the river towards the Chesapeake, and while the thermometer read 40, the winds drove that down below freezing. A flock of ruddy ducks fly a few feet up the rapid, dive under water and surface a dozen feet downstream fly back upstream and repeat. I wanted to see these birds underwater, but they were too far out in bigger water for me to make it to them without getting swept downstream.
The water is cloudy. Algae covers everything and traps bubbles of sediment. It turns the bottom into a golden fleece shag that waves and undulates in the strong current and reminds me of the fur on a golden retriever. I didn’t see much more than this algal mat, and the rounded rocky architecture of the pony pasture rapids.
Based on my one visit today, the James is impaired. There were no fish, and I only saw a single snail that plowed a trail through the algae and sediment. While the amber fur was attractive, I knew it was a sign of poor water quality, kind of the way rainbows on the water’s surface are captivatingly beautiful, until it’s realized they are the result of oil spills.
But I have a heart for urban and impaired waters. I think beauty can be found in every stream, and the life there is amazing and deserves our care and protection. I look forward to a restored James, and I’m fairly certain that the James in July looks different than the James in January. I’ll keep this spot on my bucket list to return someday in a different season, under less impaired conditions, but I’m thankful for today’s exploration, and the remaining promise of big cats in clear water.
“I’d be a fool not to get in.” I said out loud as I stood on a frozen sand bar and watched broken ice sheets float past. The water was clear and a sign at the canoe launch advised people how they can protect hellbenders - don’t turn over rocks, and keep sediments from entering our streams. Not that I expected to see an amphibian out in freezing water, but I have been surprised before. Seeing a hellbender is a longshot but seep mudalias, a kind of snail only known from the New River drainage, are a more realistic possibility, though I wouldn’t know one if I saw it.
Part of me hoped the South Branch of the New River would have been too muddy to get in. The ice was going to hurt, but I don’t get to snorkel the Mississippi drainage very often. The bobble in the hydrograph last night must have been ice messing with the gauge. I shivered when a chill wind blew as I geared up.
This place almost wasn’t. A dam was proposed that would have flooded this valley, and buried this nearly pristine river and all its unique inhabitants under tons of sediments and millions of gallons of water. But a group of concerned citizens stopped the project and helped to establish the New River State Park. Another reason to get in, to celebrate what was saved.
An ice chunk almost ripped my mask off the instant I pulled into faster moving water. Ice constantly ground on my mask and hood as it slid past. The bottom was a large expanse of water smoothed fractured bedrock. Anchor ice is starting to cling to the bottom and looks like crumpled up cellophane stuck on orange encrusted mica flecked rock. Olive rock weed grows on top and case maker caddis fly larvae hang on just behind the accreting ice. An ice clump occasionally dislodges one, but the insect quickly regains its footing and grasp on the bottom. Snails huddle in cracks and I wonder if these are seep mudalias. A darter flops out of the current into the lee provided by one of the fractures and lets me take multiple pictures. I wonder if the fish would be this patient in warmer conditions, or if its nonchalant attitude is a function of the cold. My mouth was numb so that I couldn’t feel the snorkel any more, and my hands became painful and marginally useful. I stayed in too long, but I would have been a fool if I didn’t get in.
“There Is Nothing Like the Feeling of Discovery”
Lawrence Konrad in A Birders Guide to Everything.
I have spent my entire life studying creeks. I grew up in the creek that ran behind my house in suburban New Jersey. Rivers and streams were the focus of my undergraduate and graduate studies, and I have spent my career studying the life that lives in rivers and teaching people about it. But every time I snorkel is an opportunity to see something new. Maybe not new to science, but new to me. Every time I snorkel I learn how much I don’t know.
This is a rapid in a river I snorkel almost once a week year round. It’s close to home and easy to access before or after work. It’s how I am able to stay in rivers during the “off “season, when added gear and preparation required to endure cold air and water temperatures, less life out and about, and shortened swim times make trips further from home less justifiable. But Deer Creek is one of a half dozen spots I use throughout the winter, to watch how life molds around the cold. I don’t expect to see anything new. I have been here a hundred times.
The water is painfully cold and exposed parts of my face and neck sting. There is no getting used to the cold today, and the sting in the gap between my dry suit seal and wetsuit hood intensifies into a steady stab. An ice chunk bounces off my chest and I think it’s a fish for a minute, but realize its frozen water when the next chunk clinks off my mask. Different kinds of case maker caddisflies cover everything. Northern case makers are huddled out of the current in the lee of larger rocks, and in deeper cracks. Longhorned case makers are in the sprigs of rock weed, and have their legs extended into the current to capture morsels of food. Humpless case makers are arranged in whorls so that the opening of each tube faces into the current and their positioning reflects the swirling direction of micro eddies. Rapids are complicated places and there is no such thing as non-turbulent flow. The arrangement of the humpless case makers reflect that complexity. It’s freezing out, and the water is maybe a degree above, and yet all this invertebrate life is out, arranged into their particular niches by species. The caddis are so thick I try to hold on only by finger tips so I don’t dislodge them. I don’t want to drop a foot to the bottom and wipe out an entire assemblage with one step. These organisms are often overlooked but they are the critically important building blocks of the aquatic food chain.
These species aren’t new to science. Most are well known and described. But I am just learning their winter behavior, and I wonder how these ectotherms, organisms that assume the surrounding temperature-organisms that don’t generate metabolic heat - make it as ice chunks hurtle past. The water continued to stab at my neck.
How can life ever become boring as long as I am looking and discovering. Lawrence Knorad got it right. There is nothing like the feeling of discovery, and I get to feel that every time I stick my face in water.
: a person who is easily tricked or deceived
: a person who is very strongly attracted to a particular type of thing or person
: an annoying person or thing
: a fish
A mountain of leaves gathered on the inside of the curve, and a channel a few feet deep was carved into the bottom. A pod of six suckers and a trout tried to hide under a rock that was way too small for all of the fish, so three would wind up outside of the protection, sit contently for a few minutes then squirm under the rock and evict three different fish to the exposed side. In spite of their reputation as being unimportant and worthless, suckers are ecologically significant. They occupy most aquatic habitats, but are usually found in slower deeper sections of streams like this stretch. Every good trout stream has a healthy population of suckers, and the young are food for larger trout. Suckers mostly eat insect larvae.
The suckers continued to wrangle for the best position under the rock and occasionally a few would dart downstream and barrel back up. They looked like torpedoes head on. Torpedoes with pink fringed pectoral fins. They swam with power and agility. Not the clunky stupid being the slang definition suggests. They have intelligence, grace, power and beauty.
I find this often. Fish that have a reputation as being throw away, aren’t. How many things in nature, or in human communities, do we fail to place value on because we don’t take the time to watch and learn? Observing these suckers gave me a better understanding of their lives, and a much deeper appreciation for these fish. Yep, I’m looking at you sucker, and I’m richer for it.
This is a somber trip. Its purpose is to document what is here before it’s lost. Rather than celebrate the life in our creeks, this trip is more like a last visit with a dying friend. Tucquan was always a special place to me. The clear stream cuts through a deep hemlock and rhododendron filled gorge past exposed cliffs of mica flecked schist. It is a magical place, a place where the spirit of the stream and land is palpable. It was a place that was supposed to be safe to fall in love with because it was protected by the Lancaster Conservancy. It would remain an undeveloped gem. It would out last me.
Tucquan isn’t pristine. The river is a shadow of what it once was. It is amputated from the ocean by 2 dams on the Susquehanna, so the magnificent seasonal migrations of shad, herring, lamprey and eels are forgotten. But it is still incredibly beautiful, even if only a fraction of its original biologic grandeur remains. Tucquan is one of the anchor preserves in the unique south eastern Pennsylvania region known as the Riverlands where deep forests and clear streams tucked into the folds of schist hills flow to the Susquehanna. Tucquan is wild, remote, rugged. It’s a place where, if hellbenders still existed in this region, I would bet they lived here. It is one of my favorite places. I was here to document what is left before that is lost too.
A pipeline was proposed to barrel through this preserve. So much for the assumption that preserve means preserved, and out of harm’s way. The pipeline has been rerouted for now, but that just means that land and streams somewhere else will be messed up. And while Tucquan appears to be safe for now, that could change with one decision. The pipeline threat is a wakeup and it is important that I start to document the incredible underwater world here. Progress has a strange definition.
The hike in was sketchy. It is normally a rugged trip over a rocky trail that is not much wider than the sole of my boot in places, cut into the side of a steep hill. But last night we had an ice storm that glazed parts, and made going even slower than normal. Every step had to be planned and thought out. I had to crawl over a few sections where the ice covered bedrock slabs and provided absolutely no traction.
I started to question the sanity of this effort. I probably could have waited a month or two and come back when the trail wasn’t iced. But I wanted to experience and document Tucquan Creek in all seasons. I was pretty certain that no one ever snorkeled here in the winter, so in a way I was going where no man had gone before. All the effort and risk was worth it when I got to the gorge, and saw the crystal falls.
Tucquan is special for a number of reasons, but this was never one of mine, because I was never here when this small stair step falls was frozen. Water plunges into a deep pool carved from the bedrock, and half of the flow is frozen into stop motion gravity defying sculptures. The ice is framed by a steep sided gorge and rhododendrons. I completely forget I am in the middle of the North Eastern megalopolis.
I do a controlled slide down a steep icy bank from the trail above to the downstream edge of the ice sheet that frames the larger pool. The water is clear, and I immediately see two brown trout huddled along the edge where the straight rock wall meets the gravel bottom. I move upstream against the heavy flow to where the water splashes into the pool. The bedrock is water scalloped and glows metallic slate blue from beneath a bronze biofilm. More large trout try to hide under an overhang right at the base of the falls, just out of the center of the current, and it works. I am not able to hold my position in the flow to work my way closer to the fish. Leaves have settled at the bottom of an eddy and a cliff of bedrock plunges into the pool. Its overhangs forms dark recesses.
I forgot that my purpose in being here was to document what was left before it’s gone. As usual, snorkeling placed me square in the moment, so that I forgot about the threat, and yesterday and tomorrow, and just enjoyed what was here in this moment. Tucquan is far from dead. It is very much alive, and it makes me feel alive. And I’m ready to fight to protect places like this, rather than lament their loss.