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.