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.