The stream bank behind me is steep, deeply eroded, and unstable. I am standing on the lower, nearly level, part of the new stream bank that is the result of a devastating storm. The remnants of Hurricane Irene brought more than eleven inches of rain to this area at the end of last August and the damage was monumental. At this particular location, which is directly across the road in front of our house, the stream cut away a chasm of earth lowering the stream bed by nearly five feet. The brook bed is comprised now of material from God knows where and the yards and yards of material that used to support this stream was washed far away. Some of the heavier rocks and cobbles likely ended up in the down gradient North and Deerfield Rivers. Medium weight soil particles might have been held suspended until they reached the mighty Connecticut River. And the lightest soil particles that turned the clear waters to a gray and brown slurry likely reached the vast Atlantic Ocean. A long trip indeed from this location in western New England.
As I turn around to examine the steeply cut stream bank I can see a most interesting morphology. This vertical slice in the earth reveals much. I can see the top horizon of the soil, referred to as an “A” horizon, that is primarily formed from organic material. It is about 10 inches thick, deep, dark, and rich. Below it there is a deep layer of round cobble; stones of various sizes but all smooth and worn from years of tumbling. This tells me that the stream channel used to be further to the north, and after some great storm event like the one we just had it moved to the south by six or seven yards. Beneath the smooth stone cobble there is a deep gray layer of silt. The gray color tells me it was long saturated; remaining wet enough to color strip the iron out of the soil resulting in this slate color that glistens with water in the morning sun. This condition likely reflects the water level of the old stream bed. The present stream bed, at which I stand at the edge of, is nearly four feet lower. The layer of gray silt is deep. The soil texture and color on this cut bank are consistent right down to where my feet stand at the edge of the new stream bed. This silt gray soil likely extends all the way until it meets bedrock; perhaps 30 or 40 feet beneath the bottom of my feet.
I have lived along this stream for 38 years. As a casual observer I have witnessed many small changes over this time period. I have witnessed the undercutting of banks, trees toppling into the stream as the soil is slowly eroded beneath the tree’s roots, and the relocation of moderate sized boulders, smaller cobble, and the bed load of the stream in the many storms over the years. In 1987 we had a major flood and washout that cut away large areas of the banks after 9 inches of rain on an April night. The flood was severe enough that it devastated out our road and the down stream bridges. For quite a while after the storm we used to dive our old Land Cruiser across the streams where the bridges were washed out to get to civilization where we could buy groceries and sundries for our family. My oldest son Brendan was four years old at the time and I remember how he used to shriek with glee from his car seat as the Land Cruiser went down the steep bank, through the shallow stream, and climbed the bank on the other side only to continue down what was left of the road and do it all over again at the next stream crossing where another bridge was washed out. In his four year old mind nothing could be more fun. But even in that storm the stream did not cut down into the underlying soils like it did in the late August storm of 2011.
These thoughts bounce around my mind like the round ball in the old 1980′s Pong computer games. I realize that I have to adjust the way I think about stream morphology. I always assumed that streams change shape and form slowly; a millimeter at a time over many years. It now occurs to me that these streams, at least the smaller ones like Taylor Brook, are shaped by cataclysmic events like Irene last summer. What I thought would take thousands of years to occur, the down cutting of a stream by nearly five feet, took place in about 16 hours. That the force of nature can change a landscape so quickly and so dramatically is truly mind boggling. Having witnessed this event in person makes it easier to comprehend. I will never forget standing with Maureen in what was left of the road watching the raging stream. The rushing water and tumbling boulders were deafening. Gigantic boulders as big as ten feet across could be seen careening down this narrow stream channel. The constant and loud banging they made as they collided with each other was downright scary. That water in this small stream could carry enough energy and fury to move boulders that weighed tons and tons was truly awesome. It seemed to be natural anarchy at its worse. We dared not stay watching for too long for fear of a boulder jumping the banks and taking us out. Even from our house two hundred and fifty feet away the constant rumble and roar was frightening. Savage nature at its worse.
My pondering all of this is interrupted by my sudden realization that I am surrounded by a cloud of black flies. These tiny flies seek my blood for reproduction. They are beyond persistent and will stop at nothing to forage on what I have to offer. Their mere presence is a mystery to me. Black flies lay their eggs on the stones and cobble in the stream. There the pupae develop over about a year and eventually mature into the terrestrial fly that we are all familiar with. What bothers me is that there is likely not one single stone, soil particle, cobble, or boulder that was here last summer. It seems to me that the black fly larvae in this stream should all be crushed, washed away, or transported far, far away. The only answer that I can conjure up in my mind is that I am experiencing black flies that emerged from larvae transported here by the storm. What are the chances that the eggs could have stayed attached to the rocks and gravel as they were tumbled down a raging stream where it seems as if nothing else survived.. The bed load of soil particles, rocks, and boulders were so forceful that it stripped all of the bark off of a tree that fell into the tree and got lodged between two boulders. How could black fly eggs stay attached and alive in the midst of all that power and force? It occurs to me that someone ought to look into the substance that the black flies use to attach their eggs to the rocks. My memory seems to remember that it is a spit-like material that they produce from chemicals in their own body. Beyond velcro and rivaling super glue it may have valuable uses for humans.
My original reason for coming down to look at the stream was to see if I could see any brook trout. For those of you haven’t witnessed these fish that locals call “square tails” they are one of the most beautiful fish in North America. These fish are not true trout but rather members of the related char family. Like all char the basic background color of the fish is dark (trout are light). The brook trout has many yellow and pink spots on the upper body. The lower body is salmon pink, tangerine, and white. The fins are generally pink with a beautiful white outline along the edge of the fin. They are native to these parts of New England. They crave cold, clean water and are a sign of a pristine environment. I have been wondering if any survived the storm and the aftermath. The waters remained cloudy and murky, signs that they were carrying soil, for about 6 weeks. Irene was followed up by another 30 inches of rain over this period. The streams remained full. They were sediment loaded. Both a dangerous condition for a fish that loves clean, pure water.
I had heard from acquaintances that some brook trout have survived. Based on my earlier theory of their being little of no remaining macroinvertebrate forage in the stream I wondered what they would eat. This new stream bed down cut is at the base of a newly formed miniature waterfall. Two large quartzite boulders got wedged into the stream channel resulting into an upstream pool and a downstream plunge cut. I am standing in front of the plunge cut where there is enough oxygenated water to support an entire colony of brook trout. I reach into my vest pocket and pull out a tin that contains some worms harvested from our compost bin. I throw one into the outside of dark water where I see it settling towards the bottom. Before it even gets to the bottom I see a dark shadow zip to the worms position, snatch it up, and retreat to the cover of an over hanging rock. Brook trout possess amazing aquatic athletic abilities. They are hydrodynamic and incredibly fast. They can swim, seemingly effortlessly, against strong currents and they can jump over high barriers while swimming upstream. This particular trout harvested to worm so quickly it was barely visible. These char had survived!
Did they hide in the recesses of bank undercuts during the storm thereby avoiding the most dangerous forces? And how had they survived the month and a half of silt laden water without it plugging their sensitive gills? Had they found small out-of-the-way areas where the water remained clean enough for them to survive? Or had they migrated into the very small streams that feed these larger brooks where cleaner and less violent water prevailed until the water receded and allowed them to return at a time when conditions were better and more appropriate for their survival? I just don’t know, but given the fury of this stream it seems nothing short of a miracle to me that they are here at all.
I toss in another worm. Same results, but a smaller fish. I find myself smiling, from ear to ear, as I think about how wonderful it is that this fish could survive such terrible and threatening conditions. I love the surprises that the natural world has in store for us. They seem endless and far beyond the reaches of my imagination!
I look downstream. About 100 yards away the bank is not nearly as incised. The brook bed, although still down cut, is closer to its original elevation. It is a good place to exit the stream bed as I start to wander back to my house. The round stones are slippery and a challenge to the neuropathy in my feet that I experience since back surgery. I slide and stumble several times but manage to stay on my feet. My rubber boots have adequate tread and I stay upright. And that is a good thing considering the water temperatures is still in the lower 40 degree (Fahrenheit) range.
There is a naturally graded intermittent stream channel where I exit. It makes the perfect ramp and leaving the stream is easy. Tall white ash trees and sugar maples fill the woods along the road. As I start to walk away from the stream I see a good stand of ostrich fern just breaking the surface of the rich soil from which it grows. The fronds are still wound into a tight coil; shaped like a nautilus. They are ripe for the picking and a take a few for dinner. I am careful to leave the majority behind so that future generations may still grace this stream corridor. I clean the lint out of my vest pocket and tuck the fiddleheads into the enclosure for safe travel back to the house.
I am leaving this stream and this moment with a good meal, a new knowledge of stream dynamics, and many unanswered questions about the relationship between the biota of this stream and the mechanisms they hold and use to survive cataclysmic events. Like all my trips in the wild I emerge with more questions than answers.
Perhaps these questions are the only constant in a natural world that changes at will and without my full understanding.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in April of 2012