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.