Written by Joe Brehm, Chief Program Officer
For many years, Nate Schlater’s email was firstname.lastname@example.org, which always struck me as significant. Something akin to the Lorax speaking for the trees, Nate speaks for the water. What a great responsibility and privilege, which Nate and other Watersheds staff–Caitlyn Park, Hannah Kopp, Matt Ledford, Julia Sullivan (and Michelle Shively-MacIver, director of True Pigments)– carry out with great joy and effectiveness. One of the intangible benefits of working at Rural Action for all these years is that I get to spend time with people who have deep expertise in the things I care about, and who have played no small part in my own learning journey.
A few summers ago, for example, I spent the day with Nate and his team studying fish in Federal Creek:
As you look up and down Federal Creek, you don’t see anything to prepare you for how many beautiful fish there are right under your nose. Big sycamores hang over the creek, which is moving so slowly we have to ask each other seven times which way it’s flowing. It’s clear but the sandy bottom makes it look brownish, and it glistens in the morning sun. It’s been hot and dry, so the box elders and elms are dropping leaves, which float down to the water like birds and, when the surface is disturbed, sink like fish. Goldenrod, ironweed, wingstem, and fall phlox are in bloom. Everything seems slowed by the late season heat (it will crest 90 degrees by the day’s end). We put waders on, carry nets and other equipment down to the water’s edge, and then wheel down a generator to the bank. I notice some tracks and scat on the sandbar–otter and bobcat, respectively.
We stun the fish with pulses of electricity so as to collect, identify, and weigh them before returning to the creek. They are eager to explain the minute differences between the striped shiner and emerald shiner, or greenside darter and rainbow darters. Someone often brings me a fish unsolicited, and shows me the defining characteristics with patience and sincerity; “see that invisible line that shows at that angle?” and, “see how these bands go all the way around?” The team has so much to say not only about the fish, but about their habitat, behavior, predators, and life cycles. In short, they know the fish about as well as the otters do.
We are fairly quiet during the sorting process, so I continually look up and downstream for otters, but the river is still. I get to hold a brindled madtom in my hands, a tadpole-like relative of catfish that is small and a marbled brown-orange with long whiskers. I had just learned about this species during a workshop with another brilliant fish lover, Kelly Capuzzi, and really hoped to see one today. I also behold a site that melts my innards to pure river water: a rainbow darter. These small riffle lovers are aptly named, as they are made of colors across the spectrum, and the wild vibrance of their scales and eyes ensures I will never look at a creek the same way ever again.
Monitoring the biology of streams is an important indicator of their health, and when combined with chemical analysis provides a more complete picture of a water body’s status. Rural Action’s Watershed team regularly engages in monitoring in several watersheds in Appalachian Ohio, including Sunday and Monday Creeks, Raccoon Creek, Federal Creek, and Huff and Mud Run. Recently the team has added sampling action in rivers like the Walhonding, which harbors a variety of freshwater mussels, the most endangered taxa in the world whose fate is completely tied to water quality. The Watershed team has also become involved in efforts to study the endangered eastern hellbender, North America’s largest species of salamander that also goes by endearing nicknames such as “snot otter” because of its luxurious but underappreciated excess of skin (more skin = more surface area and more contact with the water, which is how the hellbender breathes). These studies will help Ohio get a better understanding of where we still have eastern hellbenders, and will inform ongoing reintroduction efforts.
Many of my favorite streams are in my own home watershed, Sunday Creek, such as Big Bailey Run, Long Run, and an unnamed tributary of Mud Run that flows through the Trimble Township Community Forest. Every time I visit these streams–by myself or with family, friends, or students–I think of all the hard work of our current Watershed team and all of the former staff, National Service members, volunteers, and long-time agency partners like Mitch Farley and Mary Ann Borch who helped get watershed restoration work started here. Considering all of these people and their contributions to the work over the decades makes it all the more precious to observe two-lined salamanders pasting their jelly-like eggs to the undersides of flat rocks in clear flowing streams, to encounter shadowy mottled sculpins resting stoically between quartz pebbles under shade-throwing eastern hemlocks, or reading fresh mink tracks along silty sandbars. Most of all, I am so grateful for their work, which makes it possible to take our young people down to the West Branch of Sunday Creek, for example, as it flows past Millcreek Elementary. Where the students would have once found hardly a trace of life, they can now catch many of the 30-plus fish species that have returned to Sunday Creek because of these restoration efforts. The students not only get to observe and learn about more wild species in the creek, they also see that people care enough about their creek to give it the attention and restoration it deserves.