I hoped there might be some trout in this pool. I have been pursuing the ghost of a brookie here for a month, looking again for that dark sided trout that I swear I saw for an instant a month ago. I hoped the ice covering might make the fish less skittish. The open water in this pool was barely wider than my shoulders, and it wasn’t more than 2 body lengths long. Not much room to search for this fish.
The water hurt. It stung my lips and the small part of my neck that falls between my hood and drysuit gasket. Shelf ice grew out from the shore to the edge where the current flows just a little too fast to allow ice to form, which makes it difficult to peek into the recesses of undercut boulders. The scalloped silvery ice reflected the scalloped sandy bottom. A few leaves and twigs were stuck. Iced bubbles looked like pools of mercury. The water was perfectly clear, so clear that the only way I knew I was under water was because I was wet and weightless. Ice sculptures hung down into the water from the sheet and looked aquamarine in the distance.
I did a few duck unders, where I probed beneath the ice sheet, backed out, got a breath and did it again. Maybe I made too much noise as I walked over the ice to the edge of the open hole and the fish long scattered. Maybe the water finally got cold enough that they have found good hiding places where they will stay for the remainder of the cold. Either way, there weren’t any fish to see here today. But there was an amazing winterscape under the cold gin clear water.
There is more ice on Deer Creek than usual. Long tear drop shaped blocks of ice stretch in eddys behind rocks, and thin ropy channels of open water separate one slab from the other. The water looks murky from the surface, but we haven’t had any rain. I sit on the edge of the ice shelf and ley my feet dangle in the water. They are cold instantly.
I slip into the water careful not to get swept downstream, and under an ice sheet. The water is cloudy and I can barely make out the bottom. It was a lot of work getting geared up for an ice snorkel, and the poor visibility is disappointing. Then I realize the water is murky with ice. It was like snorkeling through a slushy. Things started to come into view as I cleared the congregation of ice that swirled in the eddy currents. There were fewer ice chunks in the stronger flow, and the bottom came into focus.
Northern case maker caddis sand grain cases cover the lee of boulders, behind over wintering patches of rock weed. The smooth cylindrical steel blue cases of humpless case maker caddisflys are intertwined with the rock weed on the tops of the boulders. They have sealed the openings of their tubes. Orange, green, metallic slate blue, and white all mix and bend and wave in the current in a kaleidoscope of winter life and color. Ice glows blue in the background. I am glad I didn’t give up when I first put my face in the water and say murk. I am glad I didn’t follow my original assumption that nothing was here on this frozen day. Ecology is always here. We just need to open our eyes to see it.
I have been in Basin Run before when it had ice on it, but never like this. Ice reaches from the surface to the bottom 3 feet below, and this icy nocturnal view gives me a new aspect of understanding what shapes this creek. I snorkeled in a 15 foot long, 4 foot wide L shaped pool hemmed in by ice. I was downstream of the rapid I usually snorkel because the current presents just a little too much risk of getting swept under the ice sheet.
The thick ice is in two layers. The top half is clean white and silver with each of the individual crystals visible underwater. Small rainbows refract through each of the individual crystals and the ice wall sparkles in prisms. Alone the crystals are little more than slush. Congregated together they are a formidable barrier. Entrained air bubbles from the short falls just upstream glow silver.
The ice below is dirty with gravel and sand. Larger rocks were picked off the bottom by the ice and are entrained six inches off the substrate. I wonder how much of a shaping force ice plays in this temperate stream. I wonder how life survives under it. Does it burrow in beneath rocks, does it move to an ice free section, or is there just enough space between the ice and bottom for things to survive? A northern case maker caddisfly clings to the clean gravel in one of the gaps between the ice and bottom that allows the water to flow downstream. I feel like I am diving Antarctica or maybe exploring the iced moon of some foreign planet. This world is largely frozen right now. It will be thawed in a few weeks, and right after that our migrants will return. But in the mean time I will enjoy this frozen otherworldly view.
The last bit of winter orange light evaporated from the western sky as I slipped the dive headlamp over my wetsuit hood. The light perched on top of my mask in a perfect spot to see who might be out on this cold winters night. The water looked clear from the surface, and during the day it would be, but the headlamp light reflects back from each of the tiniest of particles in the water and the beam shines through dilute milk to light up the bottom.
There’s not much to see initially. The view is very different due to the different lighting. Stands of rock weed look like deep sea black corals in the spotlight of a submersible. A single fish sticks its head from behind a rock. Some kind of minnow, a kind I haven’t seen here during the day. I explore the deeper crevasses hoping to see some more fish life, hoping to learn the night time Ecology, but only see more deep sea coral looking rockweed, and a single snail. I was just here yesterday in daylight and found an incredible abundance and diversity of fish, but there isn’t much out tonight. I head back downstream.
The cold started to set in and there wasn’t much to keep me in the water, but I decided to spend a little more time exploring this pool, searching. Winter night time snorkeling takes more preparation than a more normal trip and I wanted to maximize my time in the water. I’m glad I stayed. There on the bottom, wedged nose first under the upstream lip of a cobble, was a frog. Her banded hind legs were drawn up tight under her sides. For a minute I thought she might be dead. What was a frog doing out in barely above freezing water? Did she over winter here? Seemed like a pretty forceful flow for a frog to overwinter. Maybe the tradeoff was the oxygen rich water. The frogs nictitating membranes covered her eyes, and I wasn’t convinced she was alive. I really didn’t want to disturb the frog, but my curiosity won and I gently poked her hind quarters. She tucked tighter into the rock. The frog was definitely alive, and chose to spend at least this part of winter here, huddled on the bottom of this rapid. I watched the frog for a while, and tried to get a good shot without disturbing the amphibian any more than I already did. I got out of the water into the cold dark night. It was definitely worth the extra gearing up to experience the night time winter Principio. Even if it was colder than a frogs ass.
By this time of winter I am usually just enduring the cold waiting for springs first emergence. There often isn’t much to see as winter trails off and the lack of life makes it feel like spring will never arrive with its biologic explosion. The 50 degree air temperature was deceiving because the water was still freezing. I’m not sure why I expected the water to warm in a day. Our weather this winter has been a roller coaster. Frigid weeks separated by a day or two of teasing warmth. The water stays cold, and an ice chunk hits me in the mask, which startles me. I laugh when I realize it’s just an ice chunk. I hoped to stay longer than what I would be able to based on cold.
I have labeled this time of year the biological doldrums since it seems fish and other life are hard to find right around now. But the Principio is beautiful regardless of fish. The river cascades down a 30 foot falls into deep canyon pools and flows over orange bedrock. The bottom is patches of smooth bedrock, quarts cobbles and clean sand, and this time of year there is a forest of winter time rock weed that holds against ice chunk batterings and swift water. I got in the river to see the forest, and to photograph it.
But I wasn’t in the water for long before I saw my first fish – a black nosed dace that very sluggishly eased back into its crevice. I pushed upstream, further into the falls. I forgot how loud it is here, and how chaotic the river becomes. Strong currents pull my legs out into the main flow while my torso is forcefully pushed down stream. I grapple onto the smoothed bedrock. Air bubbles from falling water make it hard to see. The deep crack that holds huge suckers in the summer is empty and I head back downstream.
I swirl into the pool at the base of the falls, the end of the fall line where mountain meets coastal plane, and see a school of rosy sided dace swirl with me in the gentle eddy. A hog sucker, very much aware and awake, watches me. The fish is so well camouflaged that when I look at something else, it vanishes in an instant and it takes me a while to relocate the fish who didn’t move from its spot. Its stealthy tactic works to avoid detection. Large darters mold around rocks and their personalities show. Some are skitterish and flit away, while others seem as curious about me as I am about them. Their black checkerboard pattern on a green background make them look like Connemara – green Irish marble. A small school of black nosed dace flit downstream.
Cars bang over the route 7 bridge, and I hope no one can see me. I am alone and in my own little aquatic wilderness world, even though I stopped on my way home from work, just off a major north eastern megalopolis traffic artery. I don’t want anyone to see me so that I am not confused with a body, to avoid all the commotion that tends to create.
I love this creek. It always amazes. Even now when we should be in the doldrums, our backyard creeks make enduring the cold worth it.
There is a deep pool in a small stream that I suspected held big trout for years. A large beech stands on an undercut bank and its roots hang down into the pool. Large boulders form dark recesses on the opposite bank. Lots of hiding places for big fish.
Visions of brook trout danced in my head as I got into the clear water. It was unlikely but possible that I might see the only native trout in this region. More likely were the two nonnatives. Even if I didn’t see any fish, this view of the underwater architecture of the stream, slightly tainted aqua marine in the distance was worth the submersion.
I crawled upstream slowly, careful not to disturb the bottom. I peeked under the first boulder overhang and startled a large trout as much as it startled me. We stared at each other in surprised amazement or a few seconds then it decided to rocket upstream. I thought I lost my opportunity to get a positive ID but I was pretty sure it was a brown, maybe a rainbow. It was a light colored trout with dark spots, and around here those are the two light colored choices.
Neither are native. Rainbows are put and take fish stocked from hatcheries to be fished out. They can’t reproduce in the wild here. Browns are European fish that are stocked and have established wild breeding populations.
I continued to ease upstream in the current. A large brown, possibly the same one I scared out from under the boulder, held in the current out in the open and watched me crawl closer, unfazed by my presence. It knew it was the biggest fish here and simply held in the middle in the open with an air of arrogant confidence. It swam against a stiff current with strong grace and seemed to have a wisdom that comes from really knowing an area. This fish knew this hole better than I ever could, and it would use that knowledge to evade me when the time came. The fish seemed to know I was out of my element.
It watched me watch it. A smaller brown quickly swam downstream. I focused on getting the perfect shot of the large brown trout when a dark trout shot past, so fast it was as if the fish vaporized and replaced with a a puff of sediment. Could that have been a brookie? Brook trout are special because if they are here, they were born here. And because they are climate change sentinels. They require clear, clean, cold streams and so are the ultimate aquatic canary for water quality.
I can’t be sure if this dark shadow was a brookie, but it is possible. The only fish that fits the brief visionary profile is a brook trout. I will need to return to confirm their presence. Visions of brook trout dance in my head, and one might have just shot past.
The James has been on my bucket list of places to snorkel for 4 years, after I read a piece in the Richmond Times-Dispatch about snorkeling the James. People interviewed in the story commented on clear water, abundant fish, and they likened the James to a reef – the same language I use when describing river snorkeling. They mentioned regularly seeing huge 20 – 40 pound cats and even named one of them the General, an 80 pound flathead. Flatheads aren’t native to the James, but that didn’t matter. I wanted to see one of these monsters. The notoriety of being in a large city newspaper, promises of clear water and big cats made me want to snorkel here for years. I got the opportunity recently while returning from a trip to North Carolina. I figured I’d take a small detour and jump in.
The wind blew hard down the length of the river towards the Chesapeake, and while the thermometer read 40, the winds drove that down below freezing. A flock of ruddy ducks fly a few feet up the rapid, dive under water and surface a dozen feet downstream fly back upstream and repeat. I wanted to see these birds underwater, but they were too far out in bigger water for me to make it to them without getting swept downstream.
The water is cloudy. Algae covers everything and traps bubbles of sediment. It turns the bottom into a golden fleece shag that waves and undulates in the strong current and reminds me of the fur on a golden retriever. I didn’t see much more than this algal mat, and the rounded rocky architecture of the pony pasture rapids.
Based on my one visit today, the James is impaired. There were no fish, and I only saw a single snail that plowed a trail through the algae and sediment. While the amber fur was attractive, I knew it was a sign of poor water quality, kind of the way rainbows on the water’s surface are captivatingly beautiful, until it’s realized they are the result of oil spills.
But I have a heart for urban and impaired waters. I think beauty can be found in every stream, and the life there is amazing and deserves our care and protection. I look forward to a restored James, and I’m fairly certain that the James in July looks different than the James in January. I’ll keep this spot on my bucket list to return someday in a different season, under less impaired conditions, but I’m thankful for today’s exploration, and the remaining promise of big cats in clear water.