“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.