Thursday, January 22, 2015

Crystal Falls

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.

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