Climbers Run is a complicated stream. Its bottom is a collection of exposed bedrock, rock slabs, extensive mounds of gravel and sand bottomed eddys. The currents reflect the complexity of the architecture and Climbers water flows in unexpected directions. I am not familiar with Climbers. This is a new stream for me, so I don’t have enough experience in its waters to establish normal, if there is such a thing for a steam. The complicated structure and diverse habitat results in lots of diverse life, and lots of places to search.
I start in a downstream pool and slowly swim upriver. A juvenile trout of some kind holds over a gravel flat. Its caudle fin beats like the wings of a hummingbird just to keep position in the river yet its body stays motionless, and it reminds me of an excited puppy, wagging its tail as fast as it can. A school of stonerollers glides over the bottom then darts when they encounter my shadow. A group of common shiner huddle just to the side of a strong current, in a bowl framed by flat rock slabs. Their iridescence always takes my breath for a minute. Common doesn’t do this fish justice. I worked each pool in this fashion, downstream to up, side to side, main flow to eddy and back, and I never explored all of the crannies of even one pool.
I enter into one last pool. I am shivering, and my hands barely hold the camera. A black nosed dace shoots under me, followed by a brook trout, way too fast for me to capture on my camera. I follow them upstream. I really want to get the brook trout image. Instead a large fish comes out of the shadows and follows the V fracture in the bedrock right at me, turns and retreats to the shadow before I can make an identification. It is a large fish, with what looks like a snout, and it is bold. It comes right at me quickly again, hovers in front of me, and heads back to the dark recesses under the snort falls that forms this pool. This time it is in my mask long enough for me to fire off a few shots and get a positive identification. It is a stone roller. A big one, and it is bold. It seems to think it is bigger than I am and wants to take me on. Maybe I am in its prime breeding spot, but it doesn’t have any breeding tubercles, growths males get on their head in breeding season. Maybe he’s just warming up.
The stoneroller and I played for a while in this way, and the fish became used to my presence and let me get very close as it hid under the undercut stone shelf behind the short waterfall. It was hard to control my shivering so I reluctantly got out. My feet were painfully cold, and my hands were barely functional. I stayed in Climbers Run way too long, but it wasn’t nearly long enough to fully explore all of the diversity it contains.
Eggs appear on the lee side of this rock this time every year, but I never know who puts them there, or where they go. They just appear one day, then leave a month or so later. Every spring I visit the rock frequently to see if I can catch the phantom egger. The river was up and a little murky, so I made quick work of swimming across the fast current to reach the lee of the rock. The eddy carried me up river the rest of the way. There weren’t any eggs stuck there yet.
Rock weed still covers the tops of rocks though it is just stalks by this time of year. Soon, it will start to regrow and become lush soft coverings that drape the boulders in this rapid, and make the underwater place look tropical, but for now it is still beard stubble. Which seems fine for the caddis who are more actively grazing than a week ago, and seem to take advantage of the open grazing range. Each case is crafted by the caddisfly larvae it contains and the orange, white and red quartz sand grains and silver mica flecks that make up each case look like gemstones walking on the bottom. The hoard of jeweled cases roams across the rocks.
I nosed into each nook and cranny along the shore, just in case the phantom egger chose another spot but the search only revealed more caddisflies. Maybe it’s just a little colder longer this year. Maybe the egg laying is flow dependent. Maybe the phantom egg layer is gone. Regardless, there aren’t any eggs here yet, and I will continue my expectant search in the hopes to solve the mystery of the phantom egger.
I don’t know why but I successfully freaked myself out. Thoughts of a body we pulled out of this creek ten years ago dominated my mind. I have nocturnally snorkeled here at least a dozen times, and not once did I focus on that night. But tonight, for some reason, visons of the young man lying in the creek bed set up shop and were reluctant to leave. It made me want to continually look over my shoulder.
I got into the water that was still cold with winter, and my existence tightened into the tiniest circle of light. The world became whatever my headlamp lit. Everything else was black. I started to feel claustrophobic. I picked my head out of the water and could barely make out the opposite shore, even though it was only 10 feet away. The creek felt so big from the surface, but underwater it felt like I was swimming in a linen closet. I could only see what felt like a dime sized spot of light. I was on a very alien world, like I left earth and landed underwater on some foreign planet full of ghosts. And I thought I knew this place.
A large case maker caddisfly hunkered in the sand behind a larger rock. Some kind of minnow stayed motionless in the lee of another. I forgot about the ghost of the man we pulled from here ten years ago. I forgot about the aliens. The fish didn’t move, but tolerated my closeness, headlamp spotlight and blinding flash as I snapped pictures. I don’t know what kind of fish this was, but that didn’t matter right now. My world came into focus on that fish. Not yesterday, or tomorrow, or the dead guy we recovered ten years ago. It was just me and this fish, and now. Which is one of the draws of river snorkeling and exploration. It puts me into the now. It grounds me. River snorkeling refocuses my attention on what is real and important and it makes the alien ghosts disappear.
It was a good day. Spring seemed to arrive in one swoop, though the progression to this day has been underway since winter started. Osprey whistled overhead while peepers peeped in a sweet chorus from the wetland. I slipped into Stoney Creek and the Amtrak Acela train whistled past, carrying all those people to their important appointments at their important destinations.
Darters instantly scattered across the bottom, then stayed where they were so that I could slowly approach. A school of some kind of silver minnow hung in the roots of an undercut tree. Other minnows work against the current as they move back upstream. I have seen these fish occasionally through the winter, wedged out of the current under larger rocks, waiting for the warm.
I flow over the cobbles with the current to the deep pool under the bridge. A school of a couple hundred banded killifish has gathered. There are a few small sunnys mixed in. Migrations happen on a number of temporal and geographic scales, and I’m pretty sure the mass gathering of fish in this deeper hole is the beginnings of a short range dispersal from wintering grounds back to their summer range. Soon the longer distance migrants will be back, the herring and shad, and Stoney Creek will run silver.
The water is still cold, but noticeably warmer than it was even just last week. The arrival of spring has been in the works for weeks. Subtle changes in temperature and precipitation triggered hardly detectable shifts in the abundance and composition of the fish I encountered, but it seems like life has erupted on this one day. The beginning of life’s spring time emergence is certainly in full swing and the full of life glory that defines our rivers and streams is once again apparent.
Water in Climbers Run was the clearest in the region, but it still had a pale haze to it, so that I could barely make out the bottom of the four foot hole. Not likely I would be able to see any brooks in these conditions. If I can’t see them first and stealthily move closer, they sense my presence and are gone long before I know they are here. But that doesn’t matter right now. The architecture of the creek is incredible. Huge scalloped bedrock spires lay on their sides. Water piles clean orange, red, blue and white gravel behind them. Woody debris collects in the slower spots and the water moves in deceiving directions with a strong upstream push on the far bank, that looks like downstream current from the shore.
An Appalachian brook crayfish darts back into her burrow when she sees me pass nearby. If I had clearer water, I would have seen her first, and been able to watch from a distance and maybe creep up on her. This stream, like most in the Susquehanna Riverlands region, seems like it belongs in western Pennsylvania. Hemlock and rhododendron grow in the bottom of the steep sided gorge and shroud the stream as it tumbles from bedrock shelf to pool and over the next shelf.
A large stone fly gets swept out from under a rock, and it scrambles to gain a footing on the slick schist slab it lands on. The insect has an intricate tan lined design on its head and thorax that interrupts the deep chestnut of its body. There aren’t many other noticeable benthic macroinvertebrates here. Every stream has its own signature, its own look. This one seems to have its nutrient load in balance. Lots of algae that supports lots of grazing caddisflies, like most of the streams I snorkel, are over fertilized. This one is clear of visible algae, and there are few caddis. But is has a few large stoneflies instead. Stoneflies indicate really clean water and are the building blocks of a healthy native trout fishery. But this stoney is so much more than a water quality canary or trout food. It is a beauty and a wonder in its own right.
I push back up into a chute that forces the water into a strong flow, through as much current force as my mask will tolerate and still stay on my face, and land in a deep side eddy. I barely notice a dark trout through the haze as it darts under me. A second one ambles away from under the tangle of branches lodged in a bedrock cleft, but this one is still just a little too far to get a good view and shot. These were brooks, I am sure of it, and I will be back to watch them when the water is clearer. I am happy with this short visit to a wonderful stream, and the beautiful stone fly made the trip worth it. Stone flies are so much more than trout food.
The water is murky with less than a foot of visibility. The water is up in this small creek and deflects off big rocks to cause strong currents and interesting eddys. Detritus, this past falls leaves, swirl and flush downstream. I’m looking for trout, as is usual in this spot, but really don’t expect to find any. Trout are skitterish fish and if I don’t see them first, they are long gone before I even get close. With this poor visibility, my chances are slim. But it’s not always about trout. Most days it’s about experiencing the river on its own terms.
An eddy grabs me and starts to carry me upstream. I try to hold where I am, intent to peek under just one more ledge looking for that brookie or brown, but finally decide just let go, enjoy the ride, go with the flow and worry less about documenting, and think more about experiencing.
I ride the eddy to where it meets a rapid. My upper body gets pulled upstream. My legs dangle out into the main downstream current and I get twirled around.
Case maker caddis are still huddled in divots in the rock, but they are starting to peel their sealing pebbles off the openings of their cases. It still amazes me how they anchor their cases to the rock when it gets cold, and seal the opening with a larger sand grain. Today I got to witness the step wise process they use to get active again when the water warms. They remove the larger grain from the opening, but keep it on their constructed mobile tube of sand grains, just in case it gets cold again, I assume.
Every time I get into water, every time I encounter a stream on its own terms, I find something new to see and learn. Even if it’s just riding eddys, or watching cadis flies unpack from their winter slumber. Get out and explore your local creek, muddy or not. There is always something new to experience and discover.
Ice left our streams over the last 24 hours. Not completely but now the open water is contiguous and I can snorkel a length of river without having to seal over ice. I can be a little less cautious about getting swept downstream since I can easily find open water if I need it and I am less concerned with getting pulled under an ice sheet. There is still ice on our rivers, but it is receded to the slower waters, and splashed on rocks and overhanging branches. The heavy ice has broken out, but skim ice forms overnight and retreats in the day. Small chunks still flow down river in the water column and pelt my head and face, and the water is biting, but the thaw has started. We are in the interplay between frozen and thawed, but the biology still reflects frozen.
Wintertime life in our rivers is more subdued and hidden. It’s here, just less flamboyant than in spring and takes more effort to see. Besides facing the challenge of living in a very dynamic place, winter adds the threat of cold and ice. Cold that results in less food availability and slower metabolism, and ice which is one of the strongest landscape shaping forces on the planet, poses a physical threat.
Remnants of the autumn leaf fall are re entrained in the water column and tattered black and brown sycamore and maple leaves whiz past. A darter pokes his head out from a cobble and darts for the deeper water still shrouded by a thick surface ice sheet. I don’t chase after him. A quartz cobble is fractured and is as clear as a piece of ice. It fools me for a minute until I reach down to grab it. Didn’t make any sense that an ice chunk would be negatively buoyant.
I pull myself upstream along the unconsolidated sand, pebble and cobble bottom. I am exhausted in short order, and my arms are a rubbery burn. It’s like running on a beach, twice the work for the same distance gain. Life is scarce. I drift back down stream in the shallow water and work to keep my chest from dragging on the bottom. Finally I see what I was hoping for. A large sculpin pops out from behind his water worn smoothed quartz cobble home and stares at me. Its orange and tan mottled body blends perfectly with the orange, tan and white rock bottom. He is perfectly suited for his bottom based predatory lifestyle and we watch each other for a while until he tires of my presence and wiggles off into the strong current.
Most people cross over this small creek without knowing or caring to know its name. But I know Mill Creek as a beautiful example of a stream that sits in the transition between piedmont and coastal plane. Mill Creek has a name, and a unique look and an amazing community. And things are about to become even more interesting as the biology reflects the thawing process.
There are advantages to freezing temps. The biggest one is clear water. All the precipitation we have received has been locked up in the growing drifts, so our rivers have stayed clear. Cold but clear. The sun came out after an overnight ice storm and the air warmed to 42 degrees, the warmest it has been in two weeks. I took advantage of the heat to get into the water. Problem was the warm air melted part of what accumulated over the last two weeks, and our creeks rose and got muddy. I found a stream that was clearer than most and got in.
The flow was strong, and the water lapped at the bottom of the ice cover. I had to work hard to not get swept downstream. I only stayed in the upstream part of this 30 foot long open water section to give myself more chances to stop my downstream flush if my grip came off the bottom. After that there was no open water. Just a thick ice sheet. I was very careful that I had solid foot and hand holds as I moved through the creek. Water fell through a chute and cut across the width of the stream. It hollowed out under the ice shelf where it eddied and detritus gathered in a swirl. A dragonfly nymph spun in mid water column and looked very much like a piece of anoxia darkened bark.
A black nosed dace half-heartedly beat its tail in the current, then decided the current was too much and swam off to the side under the ice where there was less flow. I crawled upstream to see if I could find any other fish. The water flow noticeably increased and I had to work harder to keep from getting swept downstream. I decided to follow the lead of the dace and swim to the side, and get out. This isn’t the final melt, but it is the beginning of the end of winter, the beginning of the play between frozen and thawed, muddy and clear, and I look forward to experiencing it all.
I snorkeled along the boundary of a thin clear ice pane that looked like a sheet of cellophane floating on a cove between rock outcrops. Painful collisions with the edge of the ice reminded me of my boundary. A large hinge of a mussel that was firmly wedged into the substrate glowed white among the brown and orange bottom. I assumed the mussel was ancient based on its girth. Maybe not ancient, but likely older than me. I am still amazed that an animal we often consider ‘lower” can achieve such maturity.
Amber algae covers a large boulder and billows in the current like a wheat field in the wind. Caddisflies nuzzle into the fur and graze. A northern case maker caddisfly case, made with long thin twigs cemented together between mica and quartz grains, laid between cobbles on the bottom. I have seen them in Holtwood, and on the Delaware but I have never seen them here.
I swim upstream to the head of a chute formed by two rock outcrops, turn and flow downstream with the current, back to where I started. I lateral out and watch a hellgrammite crawl along the bottom. These are fierce ancient looking large insects with multiple legs and strong mandibles. This female has smaller pinchers than males, but they are effective and I have had these draw blood before when I handled them. Her head and thorax are a deep reflective chestnut, her abdomen is drab olive and bits of bottom algae are stuck on her exoskeleton. The insect realized I was here and started to back up.
This is a sign of hope. Hellgrammites indicate good water quality. So do caddisflies. And mussel numbers are declining. Finding live ones gives hope. The Susquehanna is far from a pristine river. By the time its waters reach me here near its mouth, it has been used a few times over, and is plagued by problems: sedimentation, over fertilization, pharmaceutical contamination, declining fisheries. But the presence of the caddisflies, hellgrammites and mussels inspire hope that the river is restorable, that we can bring the Susquehanna back to health.
I caught myself cursing the cold. Six inches of fresh snow covers the ground. Temperatures are supposed to be 20 degrees warmer than they are and while winter is supposed to be winding down, it feels like it’s just getting started. I want the spring and the migratory fish runs it brings, but my reality is the cold, the largely fishless cold.
I hike in through the fresh snow. We got another inch or two today and the half-moon shines through a wispy haze of a cloud cover and reflects off the snow to make the night pretty bright. The creek is 75% covered by ice and I approach one of the few openings. The river flows two feet beneath the surface of the ice. I turn my head lamp on, slip underwater, and my world is narrowed into the beam that shines on the bottom
A black nosed dace leans against a rock. His clean gold above, cream below and black striped body is an artful contrast to the drab olive algae that covers the surrounding bottom. The dace’s red tinged pectorals and caudal fin almost glow. The fish is lethargic with cold and I suspect I inadvertently rousted the dace from his winter home. A northern case maker caddisfly creeps along the rock a few inches above the fish.
I pull upstream against the current into the ice cave formed above the swiftly flowing water. Silver icicles hang from the roof and almost touch the water that also shines in the light. I feel like I have entered into Jack Frost’s palace through the moat.
Last week there was ice from the surface to the bottom. Today the ice sits a foot above the waters’ surface and the ice cave it forms is adorned with jewels. I am fascinated by the dynamics. How does this happen and change from solid top to bottom to hollowed beneath? How does ice affect the ecology of the creek? Where was this dace last week when the water here was hard? It is intensely beautiful, a crystalline palace, with fanciful gravity defying sparkling frozen shapes.
I feel fortunate to have witnessed this beauty, this frozen ephemeral world that will be gone. Maybe next week, maybe in a month but it will be gone, and will never return the same. The ice that forms next year will be different than this sculpture just as this ice is very different than last winters. The shad will be here again, I hope, and the ice will be gone. But for now I’m grateful for the opportunity to participate in this ephemeral frozen world.