“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.
It didn’t rain, and the last snow was five days ago. It hasn’t warmed enough to melt. But it feels like it poured last night. The river is raging, and the only explanation is that the ice shelves growing into the stream force the water into a concentrated flow.
It is hard to grip onto the bottom and I pull ten pound boulders over as I scramble for a hold. There is a small patch of fast moving water that is open, but just downstream a solid ice sheet covers the whole creek. I’m able to slow, but not stop my progression towards the ice. The bottom passes by as I scratch at boulders that turn over, or slabs of bedrock slick with algae and no features to grab onto. I don’t want to get swept under the ice, and just for a minute fear floods my mind. Finally I am able to get into an eddy, drop my feet and hands and start the slow crawl upstream. Ice chunks clink off my mask as they hurtle downstream. My snorkel hums in the force of the water, and I watch fist sized rocks tumble downstream, dislodged by the force of the water deflected off me onto the bottom. I notice a lot of fish out as I make my way back upstream, which is odd for this time of year. Normally they are settled into the bottom for the winter.
Two tessellated darters vertically swirl in the current with their heads pointed to the bottom. They make feeble attempts to swim until they hit a micro eddy, drop to the bottom and assume their normal hoppy posture. A beautiful sculpin flops its body around a rock the way they do, like a fishy rag doll in the current. A large sucker wedges between two larger rocks. I enjoy the company of these fish, and enjoy watching how they respond to me, the current and each other. But then I realize that I uprooted these wintering fish. Snorkeling should be a low impact way of connecting with our streams and all the life that lives in them, and I feel bad for the disturbance I caused. I end the trip early and get out of the raging ice water.
The stretch of open water is pretty small – only about 5 body lengths. It’s been pretty cold here and all the water is frozen except for the fastest moving. Only this riffle section is open, but that’s ok since this part of the creek has always produced incredible life year round. It’s an unexpected place, a non-descript segment of stream in the middle of the mid Atlantic megalopolis, framed by the transportation corridor. This 300 foot stretch is bordered on one end by one of the original post roads, a north south thorofare established well before there were interstates, when carriages groaned through the undeveloped woods. This carriage path was paved and became the major road between towns, then was replaced by a 4 lane highway to speed things up, which was replaced by the current 6 lane interstate to get us from point a to b even faster. But the old post road still serves as a major traffic artery for the region and thousands of people drive on it and over Stoney Creek daily. The other end of this stretch is bordered by the Amtrak rail line that whisks people from Boston to DC at speeds up to 150 MPH, with New York, Phili and Baltimore in between. Both the car drivers and train riders pass over this common, 10 foot wide stream without much of a thought about what’s here. But as I slip into the water and make a mental note of the upstream and especially downstream edges of the ice, I expect to see amazing life, in spite of the cold.
Small darters come out of hiding to investigate the large intruder in their territory. They look like the young of the year, are more jittery than most of the adults I have seen, and don’t hold still long enough for a photo. A larger darter sits and poses beneath a branch at the upstream edge of the open water patch. The smaller ones scatter and tempt me to chase them under the ice, but I choose to keep my snorkel in air. A northern hog sucker whose coloration almost convinces me it’s a large sculpin wraps its body around a rock and watches me watch it. It is a beautiful orange and black banded fish. A large minnow, I think a common shiner, is wedged between cobbles, but I can’t be sure since I can only see the top of its head and one eye. How many creeks are like the Stoney? Common, in our back yards, under our bridges, yet a world apart beneath the surface.
Otter scat full of fish scales is piled on the exposed roots of a maple that leans over a deeper pool. A belted kingfisher rattles on the bank of this typical coastal plane creek: flat, low grade, muddy and tannin orange stained. The bottom is sand and gravel so the habitat is pretty flat too. Not as many nooks and crannies as the rocky bottomed piedmont streams. This is a small headwaters stream that flows into the Chester River. The Chester flows into the Chesapeake. The Chesapeake is Eutrophic – too many nutrients from farms, septics, lawns, and cars, flow into this small headwaters stream that flows into the Chester that flows into the Bay. The excess nutrients cause excess algae or phytoplankton to grow. Phytoplankton live for a day then die and use up oxygen as they decompose which results in not enough oxygen for bigger life, like fish, to survive. The Chester and the Chesapeake and their problems start with this and every headwaters stream.
Grey algae cover most of the rocks, and puffs of sediment reduce visibility to less than a foot. I can see abundant Asian clam shells, an invasive species. The Bays problems in microcosm before me as I slip into the water. Piles of Asian, clam shells cover the bottom. I started to see opened freshwater mussel shells. A glimpse into the streams past, when the bottom sheltered hundreds of freshwater mussels. These dead empty shells were possibly the remnants of those past days, killed off by sediments and corbicula. But there nestled among the mounds of open Asian clam shells was a small, live eastern elliptio mussel. Not only was there a live native mussel, it was a juvenile. A reproducing population is a hopeful one.
Some kind of darter shoots out from my shadow through the murk. A crayfish bulldozes through the bottom pebbles. Snow geese call overhead and a heron grunts off, all tied to the health of this tiny eutrophic creek, the Chester River it flows into and the Chesapeake Bay. In spite of the excess nutrients and algae it drives, the excess sediments and the cloudy water it causes, and the invasive species, amazing life persists. Life is resilient, we just need to give it a chance, and there is hope here where the Chester, and Chesapeake start
Our first snow fell yesterday and the first ice started to form today. Winter finally arrived a few weeks after the solstice. I suited up on the snow covered shore of Basin Run and fumbled in the dark to find gear in my bag: hood, gloves, mask, camera. I slid down the bank to this point and was a little worried about scrambling over the ice covered boulders that made up this part of Basin Runs shoreline to get into the water. I didn’t expect to see much life. I was going in mostly to experience the accumulation of the first anchor ice, the flocculent bits that form and cluster in the lee of boulders. I was going to admire the nocturnal winter sculpture of the river. The air was 20, -10 with wind, and the water was a degree above freezing. I didn’t expect to see much fish life. This was going to be a quick trip, a fast aquatic fix to get me through the next few days of frigid, until temperatures climbed above freezing again.
I braced for the usual painful cold shock, but it didn’t happen. The barely above freezing water felt warm compared to the air. Something shot out from under me into the current, and swam around me. It looked like a large leach. I’ve seen those in freezing water before, then it looked more eel like, finally I was able to make a positive ID: it was a lamprey. This ancient jawless fish looked clean and silver, free from blemish. Very different than the last lamprey I saw, beaten at the end of its life’s journey. Lamprey migrate into streams to spawn. The lamprey I saw two Mays ago was at the end of its run. This one is just starting, and it looks fresh – new and shiny.
The lamprey and I swam together, but mostly the lamprey tried to escape my flashlight beam. The current pushed me into an anchor ice shelf and the lamprey swam under it. I kept watching as the lamprey searched for a hiding spot a few feet away. I was tempted to follow the fish under the ice shelf, but there was only one way out: the way in and that would be against the current. I decided to watch the lamprey from a few foot distance and hoped I had a good enough shot. Sometimes I forget that it’s more about being here experiencing the underwater river than it is about documenting it. The lamprey successfully wriggles out of sight and I resume with my initial mission to explore the first accumulation of flocculent ice in the creek of the year. It’s easy to fool myself that I am exploring some arctic creek as my light glows through the underside of the ice that extends behind larger rocks in the river. I can see the masses grow as neutrally buoyant inch long frozen bits float down stream and stick to their comrades. The cold finally takes its toll and I need to get out. My feet freeze to the snow covered ground and stick with each step as I move towards my gear bag and safety light set up a little further up the bank. My flashlight freezes and I quickly wipe off my camera before the water can solidify. My drysuit gets stiff and crinkly. My chin sticks when it touches the ice on the suit. The moon starts to rise and lightens the dark night. This has been an amazing trip. I got to witness two, eons old phenomena: lamprey that pre date bony fish and other vertebrates in the fossil record, and the process of freezing water in a moving river. What an amazing world we live in.
The river looked dark but it was an illusion of the bottom showing through relatively clear water. The bottoms of our rivers get covered in thick algae this time of year due to increased nutrients in the form of fallen leaves, and more sunlight due to an open leaf less canopy. The algae covering the bottom of the Octoraro was dark green, almost black. It’s part of the seasonal progression of rivers. Just like leaf fall and leaf out on trees, our streams experience predictable seasonal changes few of us observe.
Impressive water carved and smoothed bedrock slabs made holding positon in the river slick and difficult. Caddis cover the rocks in the parts of the river with a heavier flow. The still eddies were covered in tan sediments and pockets of accumulated leaves. There are a few main channels here since the water braids through a rapid and the force of the water in them is impressive. I have a hard time hanging on. I try not to drop my feet to avoid an ankle entrapment, but mostly so that I don’t knock the caddis that are clinging to the rocks into the current.
An Asian clam is tumbled in the turbulence of a micro eddy formed behind a fist sized rock, like a ping pong ball on a jet of air. These animals came to North America with Chinese settlers as a food source and moved east across the continent with the immigrant rail road workers who brought them along. They are a part of our aquatic systems now, and this is one of two species I witness on this cold trip. I explore the base of the rapids a little more, creep up eddy to eddy into the lower part of the rapid, and then let the current push me through the rocks like the dark water in the creek.