The relaxing and grounding effect of weightlessness instantly and suddenly takes over as I drift from the shore. Like a switch was thrown and all the noise of yesterday, tomorrow, task lists and the rest of the world was switched off in an instant. I had no agenda other than exploration, and the clear cool water once again grounded me in life. Big chubs colored up for mating kept a cautious eye on me, and kept their distance. Trout stopped feeding and shot back and forth in their pool, unsure of what to make of me. I found a good spot to the side of this pool to settle in and just float and watch. The fish started to go about their normal business as we all relaxed. It’s like they can sense tension.
The male chubs have sprouted tubercles and their bellys and pectoral fins had turned faint purple. The brook trout are abundant, and hold mid water column, head into the current pointed slightly to the surface, tails down. They dart and nab food morsels I can’t see. Every once in a while chubs and trout go after the same item but it seems the trout usually win. I watch as a large hog sucker vacuums the sand with its protruding mouth. The fish shoves its proboscis into the bottom and grubs it up. Rosey sided dace school in an eddy and a solitary black nosed dace plucks food off the slab of schist I am laying on, inches from my mask.
The water is clear. Bubbles from the upstream falls trail to the surface and all these fish go about their business. Feeding, courting, mating, competing for space and food, but living in a balanced system. There is a lesson for us there somewhere. I just float in the water and watch, and lose track of time and space. If Lancaster had an aquarium, this is what snorkeling in it would feel like.
Our team struggled into wetsuits as I scanned the water to get an idea of what we might see. A few dead shad lay in the middle behind a rock and a few fishermen tossed their flies from the middle toward the opposite bank. This was a training to gear up for what looks like a busy snorkeling trip season. We take school kids snorkeling in local streams, and this spring we have more trips than staff, so we need to cross train a bit.
The water was cold, as expected, but warmed quickly beneath the neoprene. We crawled upstream and started to see life. A few herring came into view, and took off when a shouted “look! Look! Herring” through my snorkel, though it probably sounded like Roscoe P Coltrane laughing. I came upon a few log perch, shouted again, and they skittered away across the bottom. I learned my lesson and the next time a fish came into view, I contained my excitement to share my find, pointed and waved people over instead. Soon the life in the river became apparent to everyone, and I heard excited identifications.
I am biased, but we have a pretty cool team. They are some of the most interesting people I know and are committed to making the world a better place. We do that by showing students that what they do in life matters, the choices they make have an effect. It is always a pleasure to work with our team, and spending time in one of my favorite rivers with this group is an awesome treat.
I hiked upstream a half mile to drift back down through a set of riffles. Huge schools of shad rocketed past. Every time I flew past a boulder I entered an eddy full of big shad. Herring pushed past me upstream as I flowed over shallower riffles. Tiger striped log perch held their bodies off the bottom by standing on their fins. The migrants were back and abundant. All was right with the world. A day spent with staff, log perch, and shad couldn’t get much more perfect.
The world expands when I drift into the water. The pool looks small from the surface, but becomes huge underwater. There is so much complexity and depth here. The bottom is diverse and intricate. A gravel bar ridge mounds lengthwise to the current and small hog suckers dabble in it. It drops off on both sides, one side to deeper water with stacked plates of schist. The other side drops to a small eddy that collects sediment on top of a flat smooth sheet of bedrock. Just upstream the gravel bar drops into a deep cleft in the bedrock that catches woody debris because it lies in the shadow of a large schist boulder that keeps all of the water in a 10 foot long chute, and lets the wood collect on the slower back water. The velocity in the chute is intense. It pulls at my mask and makes my whole body shake in the turbulence. I can only push halfway up to the short falls that forms the head of this pool, just far enough to barely make out a brook trout working hard to hold in the current at the base of the falls, before I need to float backwards, before my mask actually does get pulled from my face.
There is a diversity and abundance of fish here to match the diversity and abundance of habitat. Large suckers lay motionless on the bottom of the slower deeper pools, but rocket off with amazing agility when spooked. Large chubs are more leery and always keep me in sight. They tend to hang with the brook trout, bookies in the drift and chubs on the bottom. Rosey sided and black nosed dace stay close to the bottom. I take a few laps around. Pull upstream along the crannied wall of bedrock over a deeper trough, turn and let the current push me the short distance back downstream over the gravel bar and do it again until the cold sets in and I have to get out. I pull my head from the water, with the immensity of this section of creek still fresh in my mind. But from the surface it’s just a 30 x 10 stretch of still water. Such a big world for such a small pool.
I could see a large school of banded killis from the surface. They have been here for a month. I couldn’t see any of the migrants I was hoping for, but I got in the water anyway. The hundred or so strong banded killifish school moved away in unison pointing into the current like a hundred flags in a breeze. At least 50 darters hopped across the bottom. Some looked wide and pregnant. A smaller school of common shiner fed in the current as spot tail shiners pointed nose up into the flow.
I pulled my head from the water when an Amtrak train whizzed over the bridge. I could hear cars pass on the route 7 bridge just upstream. I ducked back underwater and all this abundance hidden from most came back into view. A few herring scales glowed on the bottom. The migrants are here somewhere. I drift over the deep hole under the bridge. I always have visions of huge catfish living there, though they only exist in my imagination. It’s that same uneasy feeling I get every time I drift from shallow to deep and peer over the edge. Silver flashes up from the bottom and soon the school comes into focus. Hundreds of foot long shad and herring pack this pool in a swirling mass of fish. From above they are barely visible, but they become apparent when they present their silver sides. There must be a thousand fish in this short 100 foot section of stream today, from six different species. So many people hustle through their existence without slowing just a little to notice the incredible world around us, the amazing nature among us. All this abundance hidden from view.
Male chubs have sprouted breeding tubercles, small pointy bumps on their heads that look powder blue against their brown bodies from here. We aren’t exactly sure what purpose tubercles serve. They may be used to show dominance, spar with other males for prime territory, demonstrate fitness to females, or all of these. It may be that the male with the largest/most tubercles wins the females affections. While the males have sprouted tubercles, I don’t notice any of the nest bowls they excavate for spawning. A huge brown trout snuggles in tight to a rock
Brook trout are so abundant they are common place. A sunny is out in an eddy. Black nosed dace school the way they have been for the last two weeks. A month ago this pool was a very different place. There wasn’t the abundance and diversity of fish life that is here now. Only benthic marcoinvertebrates and incredible bedrock architecture. Today it is full of life and spring changes from a slow emergence to a rapid expansion.
I can spend a lifetime here in this one pool and never fully observe and understand it. There is always more to discover and learn, and right now things are moving so fast, it’s hard to keep up.
The first dam on the White Clay was removed a few months ago and we heard reports that shad were migrating, so we slipped into the White Clay with the hopeful intention of witnessing the first shad run this stream has seen in more than 200 years. The first dam wasn’t much of one. A collection of timbers that barely rose a foot over the surface of the river. But it was enough to stop the shad and herring from making it any further up the White Clay. It was enough to eliminate 20 some miles of spawning habitat. Herring family fish aren’t very good climbers or jumpers, the way their migratory salmonid counterparts are. We were hunting for hope that the migrants will return, hope that the White Clay, and every stream, can be restored when given the chance.
The first hole turned up a few huge suckers. The next one held a sunny and smallmouth bass. And every subsequent hole held suckers, sunnies and bass. Darters hopped across the riffles. These are all fascinating fish, but they are also fish that have been able to adapt to our river modifications, unlike shad. There weren’t any shad or herring. We made it down to the former dam site. No shad or herring held in the pool below. Maybe they came up the White Clay in one slug and we just missed them. Maybe the fish reported to have been observed the day before were the advanced guard with more to follow. Maybe we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I pulled myself back upriver against a steady current and saw a shiny speck on the bottom. I picked the scale up. Herring and shad tend to shed scales when they migrate upstream, and this sure looked like one. It was a glimmer of optimism, more confirmation that migrants were here. More inspiration to continue to hunt for hope.
It is a dark night with no moon. A big fish swims around me too fast for me to see much more than a white streak, a few feet long. It heads downstream immediately. My world focusses down into a small dot of light on the bottom. I try to find the fish to determine what was swimming with me on this dark night, but all I could see were case maker caddis flies clinging to rocks. I see a white flash occasionally to let me know it’s still there, but I can’t keep up to identify it and it disappears into the night as fast as it emerged. I explore for other fish as I methodically crawl downstream on my fingertips. A huge eel pops out of the dark and startles me as it hunts. The cylindrical fish prods into each nook and cranny and doesn’t recognize my presence initially. When it does, the fish takes off with amazing grace, agility and speed, but I keep up as the current pushes the eel against a flat rock. It lets me get close enough to unintentionally blind it with my dive light and take a bunch of pictures. It is a beautiful eel, large, as fat around as my two thumbs together, olive yellow above creamy white undersides. This was probably a female given her size. She tolerated me for a while then resumed hunting until finally she swam off into the dark spring night.
Hundreds of dorsal fins and tails break and beat the surface as I walk up to the stream. I know this will be an otherworldly experience as I slip into the water. It is difficult to capture the magnitude and magnificence of the herring run. There is a constant flow of biomass, a constant flow of biological energy moving up river. The water is murky with spawning and sandy eggs collect on the bottom.
I lay in the water and watch thousands of fish with a single purpose: to propel their species forward. There was an understanding in the eyes of the fish that swirled past, an understanding of their purpose and their place in this river that far exceeds mine. I imagine the sensory overload they must experience, coming from boundless ocean waters to this base of a waterfall stream, a foot deep, by ten across. I wonder if it feels confining or comforting, and I wonder if the fish care. They don’t seem to mind my presence and swim through my arms and around my head. They come right up to my mask and camera as if I was just another structure in the river, so maybe the only thing that registers is the instinctual desire to reproduce, to become immortal by propelling their DNA into the next generations.
The fish continue to swirl past. Individuals shoot upstream. Males find an interesting mate, spin around to pursue the larger females in tight circles downstream and beat the water into froth. I feel like I am watching history and the future combine as I witness this millennia old process. How did these fish arrive at this arduous method of reproduction? Why not just mate at sea rather than run the gauntlet to get here? How many more springs will they reappear? Their return is questionable each year because of us. Because we over fish them, sever their migration routes, smother the clean gravel beds they need to spawn with silt, pollute their streams and oceans. Yet here they are in full abundance, and I feel like I am swimming in a cloud of fish.