This mountain stream; it is rushing, splashing, bouncing, and bubbling. A brook seldom static and nearly always dynamic. Currents move small sediments in low flows and gigantic medicine ball size boulders in large storm events. On lazy summer days it whispers; telling little secrets that tantalizes my imagination. In the spring, the season we hold now, this brook crashes loudly down this steep channel; boulders colliding like a liquid avalanche smothering all other audible sound. The intense volume consumes me and narrows my thoughts to this stream and this stream alone.
I am standing on the edge of a mountain brook that is part of my northern property boundary. It acts as a natural buffer to a dirt road. It separates human from wild. The stream sings to those that will listen; sometimes a sweet melody and at other times it plays like a loud, energetic symphony, perhaps Beethoven’s Fifth.
What flows before me, the water, the channel, the stone-laden banks, is the result of 14,000 years of running water. Since the last glacier receded from this area this stream has been running down the side of this mountain; moving sediment, rolling rocks, transporting clay particles and loam. The stream is steep and so does not meander in the true sense of the word. Rather it quickly zigs and zags, leaving sediment loads on outside bends and cutting into fresh soils on inside corners. It is a work in progress; an unfinished masterpiece; perhaps an undiscovered Monet. It is poetry in motion. There are no real words that can describe its totality. By the time a writer describes it, the stream will have changed.
I bend and reach into the fast moving water and pick up a rock from the toe of the stream bank. The stone that I hold in my hand is nearly round and smooth; the edges worn off from thousands of years of tumbling about in this brook. It could not have traveled for more than two miles, which is where the top of this watershed is located, but it is still worn by the constant motion in an unforgiving stream. The water is always moving forward, from source to eventual sea where it is evaporated by the sun, moved by clouds and redeposited again on this mountain more than 100 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. This rock, edges smoothed off by thousands of years of abrasion, will be moved miles more before it finds its final destination, most likely as a pebble in tens of thousands of years from now.
That this stream rapidly descends some 400 vertical feet within the first two miles of its journey is astounding. Deep pools are formed in straight runs from water falling over a boulder,log, or outcropped piece of bedrock. The plummeting water stabs into the receiving pool carrying oxygen that makes the water frothy and white. These pools occur every fifty feet or so as the stream runs downhill. The stream water cascades with such force each time it transcends over a boulder it introduces volumes of oxygen into the water column. These highly oxygenated waters help to clean the stream of nutrients; oxygen being a primary ingredient in decomposing these materials. This mountain stream water would be perfectly clean if it weren’t for the beaver pond that is located at the very top of the watershed. Giardia is persistent and perfectly capable of withstanding only two miles of travel within this stream corridor. For this reason I will not drink this water. I have had giardia and am perfectly aware as to how sick it can make a human.
Despite the giardia, this water passes the ultimate test for clean water. It holds brook trout. This species is like the proverbial canary in the coal mine. If the brook trout is not present, the water is not clean. Brook trout, one of the few native salmonoids to this part of the planet, is not a trout at all but rather a member of the char family. Like our other native salmonoid, the lake trout, it is kin to the arctic char found in the northern regions of Canada. This beautiful fish is a greenish brown with a whitish marbled pattern across the back. The belly and fins are a reddish orange and the outside edge of the fins have a bright white stripe. It is certainly one our most beautiful fish species and it is held in high esteem by anglers.
Brook trout spawn in the autumn. The males grow a hooked jaw, likely appearing fierce to competitors, and attractive to females. The female creates a nest by putting her head into the current and flagging her tail and waving her fins fashioning a bowl in the gravel by increased water movement. The eggs that are laid, sometimes in the tens of thousands, are fertilized by the male and will hatch in the spring. In the north country the eggs will hatch in about five months. Further south it may be only a few months. The exact time of hatching seems to correlate with water temperature. Brook trout found in large water bodies can reach five pounds but in small brooks may reach their top size at only a few ounces. This sensitive fish is one of the premier species that displays whether or not humans have significantly impacted a particular area. Where the brook trout is found human impacts are minimal.
I walk down the stream and reach into the water from the cobbled bank. I roll a boulder over to expose the smooth bottom. Hellgramites, the aquatic larval form of the dobsonfly, scatter as I try to gather one of these insect larvae into my hand. Hellgrammites are voracious predators. They consume other macro invertebrates within the water column to survive their long stay in these fast moving waters. This critters are quite large, sometimes reaching three inches. Their long segmented body squirms, flopping about a right angles, when they are handled. They have two large pinchers that make them look like some sort of primitive predator left over from the dinosaur era. In fact this order (Megoloptera) dates back to the Permian era some 250 million years ago. To have survived in any form for this length of time is way beyond any imagination that I possess. It seems wondrous that I am holding in my hand a creature that dates back to this ancient time period. Although many people would recognize a dobsonfly, few would know a hellgramite unless they spent a great deal of time around fast moving streams. The dobsonfly lays eggs in a rocky section of stream. The eggs hatch and hellgrammites begin their long aquatic stay in the moving water. A hellgrammite may shed its exoskeleton many times before it emerges to a non-aquatic environment. In fact the hellgrammite may stay in the water for four years and turn into a flying insect that survives as an adult for only a handful of days before it perishes after laying eggs and beginning the cycle all over again.
A scant distance of a quarter mile downstream, in a short flat stretch of channel, early settlers built a small dam and grist mill. There are remnants of the foundations constructed of large angular boulders and wedge shaped rocks. It was a short lived enterprise; perhaps destroyed by a massive spring freshet that carried currents stronger than the friction and gravity that held the stone and boulders together; perhaps resulting in broken dreams for those who toiled so long and hard to erect the heavy structure.
The water in the brook is clean, pure, and fresh. On this day there is no reach of the stream where the bottom cannot be seen. Occasionally my foot steps startle a trout as I ramble along the stream bank. They quickly dart from sunning themselves on a gravel shoal to dark cover under a bank or boulder. Only the glimpse of a black silhouette can be seen as they seek shadows where they may lurk undetected.
I knew a local fellow who could catch brook trout with his bare hands. It was a skill of deception more than speed. It took great patience and decisive movements. I was so amazed the first time he did this in my presence that he took immediate legend status in my mind. I also used to have a Newfoundland dog that would stand in knee deep water in this very brook while I stood on the banks with a fishing pole in my hand. She would sometimes stay put for a half hour or more and remained as still as a granite statue. When a trout swam between her legs she would grab it in her jowls and tip her head back. The fish would slide down her throat and into an anxious belly. It was the most efficient angling operation one could ever witness. Who would think that they could be out-angled by a one hundred and fifty pound Newfoundland?
As I reach into the water to extract a piece of trash, probably careless litter thrown from a car on the adjacent dirt road, I notice that the water is ice cold. It takes no time for numbness to set into my knuckle joints and the wrists. Only two weeks ago this stream corridor was still lined with snow. Although the freezing water is a bit shocking I find myself putting my hand into the water again. Like a child wiggling a loose tooth with his or her tongue, I remember that there is only a fine line between pleasure and pain.
For the first time I notice a swarm of black flies around my head. These adults are hatching from larvae attached to the boulders in the stream before me. They are not biting yet. In a few days they will become a major nuisance requiring constant swatting or the cover of mosquito netting. They will remain until the weather reaches into the 80′s for seven days in a row when these blackfly armies will be replaced with legions of mosquitoes. Still there is little question that the beauty found here, the marvels appreciated here, far outbalance these bothersome insects. Life is far too short to focus on the negative. Each day in the natural world brings elegant wonder and discovery. And this mountain stream seems to be no exception.
This mountain stream; it is rushing, splashing, bouncing, and bubbling. After all of these centuries it still carries fresh, clean, water through an ever dynamic channel. It serves as nearly perfect habitat for the sensitive brook trout and elusive hellgrammite. The rapid descent of the water over steep landscape mixes clean air with pure water, perhaps the perfect blend of nature’s finest ingredients. This mountain stream will likely continue to shatter a dream or two in the coming centuries when some human seeks to tame her wild nature and underestimates her raw power. But more importantly this mountain stream will continue to whisper her wise secrets to those who will take the time to listen. Those few will find solace. They will experience the true freedom of a wild setting. But most important they will hear a song that will make them complete.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in April 2011. May our water always be clean and free!