Sunday, November 9, 2014

Can't Wait for Minnows

There’s a medium-sized river in western Pennsylvania that contains no fish. I know because I paddled it.

The river, the West Branch of the Susquehanna, is remote and beautiful with stretches of slightly challenging rapids through steep, wooded canyons. Small streams flow out of the forest and pour off the canyon walls into the bigger water.

The scenery was part of why we came, but something was odd about the whole thing. Probably had something to do with the water. Because the river was so acidic from decades of mining along its banks, no fish swim in it, no snakes hunt in it, and no crayfish crawl in it.

I didn't realize it then but I was experiencing what could be the future of the oceans. This was before scientists combined the words ocean and acid to form a new, unfortunate term -- ocean acidification.

For the ocean, it's not mine tailings dumping into the water but it is carbon in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels.

The ocean naturally absorbs more than half of the carbon in the air. Trouble is as humans continue to put more carbon into the air, the ocean continues to absorb it. It's just too much -- it's changing the very chemistry of the ocean as we speak.

When the water chemistry changed on the West Branch of the Susquehanna decades ago, the fish disappeared.

We heard more about the death and life of the river before we even got into our canoes.

Our local outfitter was a self-proclaimed old river rat in cut-off jeans and dirty converse high tops with a friendly smile. He was vibrantly proud of his daughter who races kayaks through the river's rapids in the big April runoff while icicles freeze on her helmet.

He told us that the river is coming back, quickly adding that it’s definitely coming back, as if to reassure himself. After forty plus years, the fish are back, he said again. In his large blue Bronco with rust creeping along the edges, it felt like he had been waiting even longer.

As we drove, the river glinted enticingly through the ash and pines. Occasionally, full bloom Mountain Laurel, the state flower, floated by like clouds.

He said he heard somebody recently pulled a twenty one inch steel head out of the water and “that’s a pretty big fish." Another billow of pinkish laurels drifted by outside the window and I wondered where the fish tales begin and the river ends.

On day two, truth be told, as we paddled the river, a bald eagle rode a wind current river right ahead of us for a few long seconds before alighting on top of a tall maple. His back was a pure white stripe. Eagles eat fish so that was a positive sign. But they also eat small mammals.

We encountered fat flies on more than a few windless, hot turns in the river. Rarely biting, they remained a nuisance with their thick bodies smacking onto our skin. Flies are certainly fish food, so I continued to lean toward recovery of the river. My buddy pointed out, however, that the flies could be thriving because one of their chief predators – fish – are conspicuously absent.

The whole natural balance of the area is probably off starting with the acidic water, but maybe the place is working its way back to center.

As we approached our final take-out, we pulled into a tributary and dragged the canoes through ankle deep water. I looked down and small minnows darted away from my toes. I smiled.

Thing is, the world cannot afford for all the fish in the ocean to disappear and then wait over forty years or who knows how long for a few minnows.

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