Our ecological memory has a lot to do with how we perceive normal in today’s environment. How we recognize whether our systems are becoming impaired are based on how we define normal, which is largely based on this memory. It is heartbreaking to think that my grandkids might not even miss spring time herring runs. They might not even know they ever existed to recognize they are missing. The concept of shifting baselines usually pertains to ecosystems becoming impaired, and us not realizing it generation to generation.
As soon as I got into the pool I see a school of black nosed dace ply the current in a swirling black silver and gold cloud. A sucker takes one look at me and rockets out of sight upstream. I see two fish that aren’t all that familiar to me just upstream of the dace. A pair of brook trout held in a hole next to a small log. Their colors are striking with deep red bellies that grade to green mottled sides. Their crimson fins are white tipped and seem to glow. Brook trout are reversing the baseline here. Brook trout were native to our eastern streams. Sedimentation, warming waters, and non native trout that we stock drove the brookies from many creeks. These brook trout are a mix of native fish and trout fry raised by school students in their classrooms in a program run by Trout Unlimited and the Lancaster Conservancy. It is all part of an effort to restore Climbers Run to what it once was, and what it should be once again.
I don’t have any memory of brook trout in the creeks I explored as a kid. But they should have been there. I didn’t know they were missing. Brook trout in streams is a new thing for me. The norm were banded killis and black nosed dace, suckers and crayfish. The streams I explored were all impaired, significantly. But I didn’t know that. To me they were still these amazing places that held unlimited mysteries, and my attention.
I watched the brook trout swim beside each other. I am still mesmerized by streams and my new concept of what normal should include. My memory of what impaired means is moving to the good and my baseline was just shifted.
The plan was to snorkel the last 10 non tidal miles of the White Clay over two days, from just south of the Pennsylvania state line to just downstream of Delaware park in Newark; essentially the Delaware section of the this creek. This was the feeble start of what I hope will become an annual event: the White Clay Creek Dam Traverse. Currently no migratory fish make it past the lowest stretch of White Clay due to derelict dams. There is growing momentum to remove these dams, to breach these impediments to long distance migrants and restore the artificially ponded water back to the free flowing river it is supposed to be. We hoped to document the Delaware section of the White Clay, establish a baseline of conditions with dams in place that could be compared to conditions after the dams are removed. We hoped to see some migrants below the last dam. We hoped to see some hope these fish represent.
The water was a little chilly when we set off at Chambers Rock, and we didn’t account for all of the trout fishermen lining the shoreline. A big sucker appeared on the bottom immediately, saw us, and took off. We only swam about 100 feet before we had to get out and walk due to a shallow rifle, and to minimize our fisherman disturbance. This would set the tone for the day, and it became apparent that the distance we wanted to cover today was likely going to take twice as long as we planned.
Every deep hole held a large school of large suckers, and the holes that didn’t have any fishermen on them held recently placed trout. This was the pattern repeated tens of times throughout the day. The suckers were always so agile, graceful, and precise in their motions. Everything the name sucker doesn’t conjure. Most of the trout looked lost and skittish, probably because they were. Their reality went form life in a concrete walled and bottomed 4x50 hatchery trough where pelletized food rained from the sky twice daily to some semblance of a wild river. Darters, small white suckers and minnows gathered on the sandbars that form on the inside of bends in the river.
We know a dam lies ahead when the river bottom dies, and becomes a mud covered biological desert. Not long after the current slows and claw the bottom to drag ourselves along. I only saw a lone sunny in these slow sections. Funny thing was there were usually more fishermen upstream of the dams, where the fish weren’t, than below.
All of the fish – the suckers and trout- were always seen on the moving stretches. Though there wasn’t much fish compared to what I expected. We only saw a handful of species, and one of those was an alien placed to support an artificial fishery. We ran into a few dead suckers, and one dead eel. Their blanched carcasses eerily hovered just off the bottom.
I imagine this creek when the shad run again, when this traverse will reveal silver. I may never see these dams removed in my lifetime, but I can dream of a day when the next generation of snorkelers can run the traverse, watch herring and shad, and not have to ford any dams. They should probably not go on the opening day of trout season though.
The going was really slow and we wouldn’t make our 5 mile goal, so we decided to take out a mile short, just inside Newark. It was disappointing to not complete the 5 miles, to witness the change in the river gorge from mostly forested to mostly developed. To see how life responds. At the same time I felt accomplished. We witnessed and documented the drastic changes the White Clay experiences when it backs up behind dams that no longer serve any purpose. We experienced the White Clay on its terms, and we enjoyed flowing with the river through a beautiful valley. Its wild and scenic designation is no surprise.
As we waited for the rearranged shuttle we explored the paper mill dam, a low head 4 foot tall structure. Suckers worked hard to scale the dam in one futile try after another. A mass gathering collected at the base of the dam and waited their turn at an attempt. We puzzled why. So much to discover. So much to protect. So many dams to remove.
Fishing creek has always been a surprise to me. Looking at the watershed, it shouldn’t be loaded with fish. It winds through farmland, and its banks are largely unprotected and unforested. A herd of cows wade in the creek just upstream of this spot. All the ingredients for impaired waters and reduced diversity. But experience reminds me that this snorkel will likely upset my perceptions. I eagerly slip into the water.
A school of what looks like a hundred black nosed dace swim in a beautiful fluid dance of gold, silver, and black stripes. The clean lines and metallic colors are pretty amazing especially for what is considered a common fish, a fish that survives in the most urbanized of streams. It makes them look royal. Juvenile and mature brown trout fight up stream, shoot back down and repeat, and always keep a suspecting eye toward me. Common shiners are still olive brown, but soon they will add color to attract a mate, the way the rosy sided dace are just starting to get red.
Clean gravel piles next to rocks indicate new Crayfish burrows and glisten in the sun.
I work upstream and slide into a deeper pool. The sand bottom is scoured out under a wide log, and a few large brown trout peek out from underneath. The trout don’t last long before they think I present more of a threat than giving up their protection does, and take off for somewhere else. They move way too fast for me to see where they went. White suckers look lunky in comparison and stay in a tight school on the bottom. Stone rollers cautiously watch me. They keep their squared off heads and u shaped lips pointing upstream but occasionally dart to pick off a morsel of food.
The abundance and diversity of fish in Fishing Creek stand as testimony to the amazing worlds hidden just beneath the surface of even the most unsuspecting streams. It is motivation to tell that story to as many people as will listen and more importantly, inspire them to look and see for themselves that Fishing Creek is full of fish.
I have been witness to the appearance of a mass of eggs cemented to the lee side of a large boulder for years, and have wondered who put them there and what they turn into ever since I first found them. This year, I was intent on pin pointing the day they were placed, and hopefully gleaning more information about who is responsible.
Most years they are continuous puffy drapery that covers the entire lee face of this boulder by the time I find them. They last for a month or so and then disappear as suddenly as they appear. But I think their rapid appearance and disappearance is more related to my lack of observations than their reality. It is one of the many mysteries that keeps my head in streams. Life is never boring when exploring and wondering life’s and natures mysteries.
This year I saw them earlier than in the past. They are smaller, pale aqua, and it looks like the rock sprouted grapes. They aren’t continuous but rather placed singly which makes me think maybe more than one actor is involved in producing this mass. I am happy they are back regardless of identity. Reproduction means there will be another generation of phantom eggers, and more opportunity for me to investigate what emerges when they hatch.
This stream is artificial in that a few miles downstream a dam severs fish migration routes, besides the multiple dams that block the major river path to and from the sea. Right from the start I think that this creek is a fake shell of what it once was. But then I wonder if migrants like shad and herring actually made it this far upstream. I slip into the water anyway.
A Black nosed dace school feeds and a few look like they are starting to spar for breeding rights. Some of the males pectoral fins are turning bright orange. A juvenile brook trout tolerates me for a while, rockets up river and then floats back down. I wonder if this is a hatchery release or if this was a wild bred fish. A mature rainbow, an obvious hatchery plant, shoots past. An eddy of twig detritus turns out to be a huge congregation of northern case maker caddisfly larvae that crawl on the bottom.
The creek is loaded with crayfish, and my first assumption is that these are one of the invasive species present in the region, based solely on their abundance. It turns out they are one of the natives, rock crayfish, who appear to be expanding their range east. The rainbow trout is more invasive than these profuse crayfish.
It doesn’t matter hatchery or wild. Dam or not. Ecologically these things certainly do. But the reality before me in this snapshot in time of Hammer Creek is very real. Blacknosed dace silver black and gold. Orange knobs on rock crayfish claws, Green frills of algae, extremely agile light spotted brook trout fingerlings, are all very real, and inspire visions of a heathier Hammer Creek, which is no illusion.
The biological assemblage is entirely influenced by us, but that does not mean it’s not real or valuable. We are part of the biology. We are the environment and the environment is us. This doesn’t give us license to impact more streams. Rather it shows that we need to love what is here, preserve what remains, and work to restore the impaired.
The stream is a chaos of fish. The process of their return has been underway for months but it seems like they just exploded into our streams overnight. The herring are back and I rejoice in their return. Mid Atlantic populations of river herring have declined as much as 99% over the last 2 decades. I worry about their return every year as a result. But this stream was full of herring today. I checked daily for them over the last 2 weeks and finally, today, these migrants are here in all their spawning chaotic glory.
Hundreds of silver, gold and blue mirror sided fish flowed up river past me. They didn’t care that I was there. The herring swam through my arms and swirled around my head. I felt like I was swimming through a cloud of fish. Smaller males chased larger females, and occasionally ran into my arms, head and camera.
The mirror shimmering blue silver and gold reminded me of the most ornate color coordinated Christmas trees. These fish are beautiful, not just because of their physical appearance, but because of what they represent: Hope in restored fisheries. Hope in restored migratory fish runs, severed by dams, sediments and pollution. Hope that I can continue to share the magnificence and wonder of these runs and migratory journeys with my future generations. Hope that my future generations can experience the same connection to the herring’s future generations, the way I am connected to these mirror sided beauties.
This is an anxious time of year for me. I worry about the return of migrants to our streams. When our creeks should be exploding with life and they’re not, I worry that this might be the year the herring and shad don’t return. I worry that the eggs that are placed on the lee of a rock in the middle of a Deer Creek rapid every spring might not appear. This time of year I anxiously wait to see who arrives so that I can either celebrate their return, or lament their loss. I have been in Deer Creek every day this week looking, hoping, praying, that the shad and herring will reappear, but the rapid is still empty, and the eggs still aren’t placed.
I inadvertently flip over a rock as I struggle upstream and dislodge a huge stonefly. It is a beautiful insect with grey flanged thorax mottled with faint dull red. Its eyes were obvious, and its antenna probed its newly exposed environment. The presence of this insect makes me feel a little better – they are signs of good water quality. I swim into the middle of the pool and head downstream, headfirst through the rapid. Boulders appear suddenly, and I am tossed like a leaf in the current, over and around the rocks. I fend most of them off with my forearms, but really just survive the flush through the rocks rather than actually navigate a selected course. Even though the migrants haven’t arrived, Deer Creek is still amazing. Snorkeling through a rapid gives a completely different view on the river. And the stone fly gives hope. Hope that the water quality is here to support a restored shad and herring run. Hope that the moratoria placed on their take will work to restore their once glorious numbers. Hope that maybe their absence has nothing to do with declining numbers or water quality but rather just a colder than usual spring. Either way, this is an anxious time of year for me, until I see the silver return to our streams.
Something rocketed off the bottom and hit my arm, hard. It looked like a tessellated darter, but didn’t act like a tessellated. Was this fish a hyperactive johnny or tessellated darter, or something less common? My imagination went wild as I fumbled for my camera to try to get a shot, to prove my potential rare find.
This was the spot of the last sighting of a Maryland darter in 1988. I don’t know what a live Maryland darter looks like. I wouldn’t know one if I saw one, or if one hit me in the arm. But I know what isn’t a common darter, and this fish didn’t act like a common one. I am not saying this was a Maryland darter. I am saying the possibility exists that they are still here, in spite of numerous electrofishing attempts to find them. There is still the possibility, no matter how remote. Each time I get into the water here, I hang on the hope that I will see a darter that isn’t the normal, and that maybe it is a Maryland.
The fish disappeared into the labyrinth of crevasses that define this rapid and I couldn’t relocate it, in spite of multiple searches of the area. The darter was probably watching my futile attempt. I wound up enjoying the rock canyons formed by large boulders that push the water in chaotic directions. I wished I got a photo, but was happy for the experience. Sometimes it’s the architecture, and the promise of exploration rather than a discovery that brings the adrenaline. Sometimes it’s the hope of finding an endangered darter.
Algae covers everything and is a sure sign spring is progressing. This creek gets green and hairy this time every year. It is a brilliant emerald green algae, and accentuates the occasional orange cobble that shows through.
Different species of fish have set up shop in different habitats of the stream. The banded killifish school, which is noticeably larger than two weeks ago, hovers above the gravel bar on the upstream edge of the deep pool under the rail road bridge, the way snappers school and hold above a reef wall. A school of black nosed dace dart between the branches of a partly submerged red maple branch in swift current over a yellow sand veined red clay bottom. Darters hop from cobble to cobble throughout the whole stream, annoyed by my presence.
A juvenile copper and orange northern hog sucker uses micro eddys formed by cobbles among sand and gravel to explore the middle, where the current is the most swift. It is wary of me, darts across the current, and settles against a green furry rock. The frilly algae looks like green shag carpet that partly envelops the hogsucker. Stoney Creek is waking up from winter. More sunlight drives more algal production, more of the foundation of the aquatic food web. Fish respond to warmer temperatures by emerging from their wintertime retreats and Stoney Creek is once again emerald green and awesome.
The Big Elk is a suburban stream. And the section I am about to enter is just inside the largest city in my county. There is a storm water outfall to my back and the sand and gravel bars are significantly rearranged again. Based on the USGS hydrograph, this creek runs bank full after just about every rain, and it floods every other. All because of a highly developed watershed in this reach. All that impervious surface means the water runs right into the creek, carries a smorgasbord of contamination with it, and rearranges and smothers habitat.
I ease out into the tough current and work very hard to move upstream. I don’t see any life and am just about to give up, but then notice a large sucker tucked behind a stump. The fish takes off with a single graceful flick of its tail while I clumsily struggle in the current. I don’t see any more fish, or much more life other than web spinner caddis, and head back downstream. The sucker is back in the lee of the stump, but this time he tolerates my presence and lets me snap as many photos as I like. It is hard to get good shots since the current wants to peel me from the bottom and the strong water pins my snorkel to my face. Breathing is difficult and water pours into the purge valve when I turn the wrong way. I hold the camera at the end of my unsteady outstretched arm and hope I get a decent picture of the huge fish. I get all the shots I can, leave the fish in peace, and ferry back through the riffle to the large sand bar shore.
I figured that was all the Elk had to offer today, and while I was happy with this encounter since suckers are usually very skittish, and this one let me hang out with it for a while, I was ready to give up on the idea that the Big Elk held anything more than this single fish. There was a narrow channel that braided through the sand bar and carved a one foot deep channel along a submerged log. I decided to see if anyone was there, but was skeptical of my choice.
I instantly kicked up a johnny darter. Then noticed a young northern hog sucker. An orange fish, I initially thought was a sculpin, shot out onto the sand flat as I watched the hog sucker. I realized the second fish wasn’t a sculpin but rather an orange hog sucker. These were same aged northern hog suckers. One black and tan, and second orange and peach. The color variation in this species in incredible. Same species, same age in the same riffle and yet two very different colorations. I explored this little slough a little while longer but didn’t want to disturb these fish any more. I hoped I didn’t disturb them too much. I was glad I came to the Elk today. A river many in my region would throw away. People certainly have a hard time understanding my attraction to this stretch of urban water. But as usual, just when I was going to give up on the Elk, the river proved me wrong, and turned up a nice assortment of beautiful fish. And this is why I am a sucker for the Big Elk.
Every part of the stream is amazing. Fish, invertebrates, even the geologic architecture that composes much of the stream complexion and personality. Insects on the underlying geology dominated this snorkel and while not the trout I was searching for, provided an incredible experience.
As soon as I dropped my head into the water, an Ameletid mayfly larvae took off and disappeared again. I tried to follow its path, and found two more hanging onto the lip of a rock with their long tails waving in the current. These are the building blocks of trout, and they indicate relatively clean water.
Elbow Branch really isn’t much to look at from the surface. It is a small stream that runs just feet off a dirt road. But it flows clear most days because the land that drains into the creek is still forested. The abundance of mayflies here confirms that Elbow Branch supports decent water quality. Everywhere I look I see Ameletids, and other species of mayfly larvae. They cover every hard surface, and small clouds of them leap from rocks as I approach.
They are a beautiful insect and have long frilled white and dark brown banded tails.
The intricate grey, chestnut, brown and white design on their body reminds me of contour lines on a topographic map. Translucent wing buds hold the promise that this animal will someday metamorphose from a bottom dwelling aquatic organism to an air breathing delicate flyer.
Mayflies are here because of good water quality, which is due to the forested nature of the land that drains to this tiny creek. The trick is to replicate the water cleaning action of a forested watershed in urban and suburban landscapes, so we can have beautifully intricate mayflies in all of our rivers and streams.
This section of the White Clay isn’t special by most people’s standards. It is suburban, tucked into the folds of our urbanizing existence, out of sight and mind to most. It is dammed, and sedimented and takes polluted runoff. But it is still special like all rivers and streams. There are no throw aways. The dam traverse is going to be a 10 mile down river snorkel. The purpose is to raise awareness about the White Clay and dam removal efforts designed to restore migratory fish that have historically flooded this creek with life. Each spring herring and shad pushed upriver to spawn, and the dam traverse hopes to bring that story to the public consciousness. But the dam traverse is also a celebration of the White Clay, of the stream that remains, and the hope of its complete restoration. This trip was just a short jaunt to help get me used to the river, aware of its character so I better know what to expect during the 10 mile descent.
The bottom is embedded in sand and gravel, so the habitat isn’t too diverse. Tires are washed into the stream bed and a sewer line parallels the creek in its floodplain. Broken glass is common among the quartz pebbles, and almost looks like it’s supposed to be part of the substrate. A merganser pair slaps into flight as I get near to the water’s edge.
There isn’t much life beneath the surface. I don’t see any fish. There is a beaver slide carved into the side. Solitary case maker cadis grazes on one of the only exposed rocks. The current is strong, and I work hard to move upstream. The unconsolidated bottom doesn’t give me any purchase to claw against the current so for each forward move I make, I lose a half back downstream. I get winded fighting the fast water and sand bottom, but finally enter into a deeper lee. Pockmarked white clay banks wall the sides of the four foot deep pool and I wonder if this is how the stream was named. I feel like I am in a biological desert. I haven’t seen much life, nor much habitat, so I turn with the current and quickly start to flow downstream. I am disappointed that there isn’t much life here but also recognize this trip was far from exhaustive. It was just a small snapshot in this creeks biological time, and while there wasn’t much life here in the 30 minutes I was in the water, that doesn’t indicate that the White Clay is devoid of life. Another day, and other season, another time of day can reveal a biological scene completely different. But then, suddenly, I realize that a garden of web spinner caddisflies stretches before me and completely covers what I thought were barren white clay banks. Life is abundant here too, I just had to change my perspective. They were hidden on the way upstream, but the downstream view reveals their webs opened into the current. And maybe that will be the key to restoring the White Clay. Just a slight change in people’s view to show that it is an amazing creek. Hopefully the dam traverse will be one of the instigators of this transformation.