“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.