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Clarity and Abundance in the Creeks of Lake County

Clarity and Abundance in the Creeks of Lake County

By Matt Stansberry
Illustrations by David Wilson

All my life I’ve wanted to trick blood from a rock. I have dreamed about raising the devil and cutting him in half. I have thought too about never being afraid of anything at all. This is where you come to do those things.—Barry Lopez

On a sunny afternoon in June, my wife and I shepherd our two young boys down 263 timber steps on a dramatic descent into a steep valley.

The Hell Hollow Wilderness area, managed by Lake Metroparks, sits on a cliff overlooking 600 acres of woods. Those woods are divided by a gorge formed by Paine Creek, a tributary of the Grand River. Hemlock trees tower over the gorge and the stream flickers through the bottom of the hollow, knee-deep and glassily transparent.

On the valley floor, we hold the boys’ hands and wade into the cool water. I flip a small flat rock and dislodge a dragonfly nymph, a large predatory insect with a terrifying alien appearance. The mottled, creeping form is all sharp angles, bulging eyes, and it moves with a slithering serpentine grace in the water.

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Stonefly Nymph (Illustration by David Wilson)

“Does it bite?” my five-year old asks. Unsure but unconcerned, I smile and shake my head no, placing the nymph in his cupped palms. It clambers up the soft skin, tickling.

Dragonflies have some of the best names in the animal kingdom. Uhler’s Sundragon and Riffle Snaketail are rare dragonfly species, listed in Ohio as Endangered and Threatened species, respectively. Both can be found in Hell Hollow Wilderness.

At our feet, minnows dart in and out of silt we’ve kicked up, snapping up tiny critters and other morsels. There are all kinds of fish in this one pool—suckers, creek chubs, stonerollers and intricately patterned darters.

Dragonflies have some of the best names in the animal kingdom.

A juvenile salamander with external gills and a vertically compressed tail hunts in the clear, shallow water. Pausing to look more closely, I see many of them—slithering between rocks, methodically looking for food. It’s hard to tell species apart in the juvenile phase, but they could be Two-Lined, Allegheny, or Dusky Salamanders, according to John Pogacnik, Senior Staff Biologist at Lake Metroparks. Those species tend to live in the smaller, headwater streams, feeding on aquatic insects. All three species are indicators of good stream quality.

Mayfly nymphs creep along the base of rocks, with bulky front legs and flagellate three-pronged tails. Most of the insects are the size of a grain of rice. I proudly display them to the boys, as if I’d conjured all these animals myself out of nothing.

The abundance of life flitting between the rocks at our feet is staggering.

Translucent, blue-pink-tan crayfish with tiny red pincher tips and wispy antennae skulk in the shallows. They flutter away on little shrimp tails as my five-year old reaches for them. I catch one and hold it up in the sun for the boys to study its intricate overlapping armor. The boys approach and then recoil, screaming and laughing at its waving claws.

Identifying crayfish species is nearly impossible, but my catch is one of a handful of native species in the park, likely either a Great Lakes Crayfish or Northern Crayfish—both listed as Species of Concern by the state. A “Species of Concern” is defined as “a species or subspecies which might become threatened in Ohio under continued or increased stress.”

My sons are moved to ecstasy by the presence of wild animals in native landscapes.

All of these observations and interactions take place less than half an hour after first climbing into the creek. My two sons are as happy and excited as I’ve ever seen them. The cool water sucks heat out of their tiny little bodies (about fifty pounds combined), and they vibrate with early stages of hypothermia. But they refuse to leave, so I place them in the sun to soak up some heat from the warm, dry rocks.

My sons are moved to ecstasy by the presence of wild animals in native landscapes. Without  those animals, this woodland and stream bottom would seem slack, uninhabited. This abundance and diversity of animal life, a living cloud of wild creatures, surrounds us always, even in our homes and cities. But here in the creek, our shared existence is much more apparent.

Equating animals with happiness has been hardwired into our psyche.

Cohabitating a world with an abundance and diversity of animals has always been a part of basic human experience. In fact, equating animals with happiness has been hardwired into our psyche. Look at children’s cartoons and toys, made up almost entirely of anthropomorphic representations of animals, telling kids that they’re not alone in this world.

Even as habitat loss wipes out individual animals, species, and even entire earth processes, we will still  be surrounded by some forms of resilient, wild life. Nature dies hard, but it won’t be nearly as diverse or beautiful as what existed just a couple generations before. As the biologist Edward O. Wilson writes in The Creation:

With the global species extinction rate now exceeding the global species birthrate at least a hundredfold, and soon to increase ten times that much, and with the birthrate falling through the loss of sites where evolution can occur; the number of species is plummeting. The original level of biodiversity is not likely to be regained in any period of time that has meaning for the human mind.

Wilson describes the coming age as the Eremozoic Era—The Age of Loneliness.

Hours pass in the bottom of Hell Hollow, and we barely realize it. In the late afternoon, we start the long slog back up the stairs, my sons chattering as they climb. They ask about the lives of the crayfish and salamanders, and wonder when we might return.

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Illustration by David Wilson

Creek time is an investment in children’s health

So much of modern parenting is fraught, a constant tradeoff between safety and development of the kids. Sitting in a creek felt like a beautiful combination of the two.

There are few places where I can cut my boys loose, to let them explore and be themselves. Not at the public pool where my 18-month-old wants to throw himself into the deep end to drown, not even the back porch at my house, where the concrete stairs cascade down to the yard at a neck-breaking angle, and sharp corners could easily fracture a soft skull. No. There is no safe refuge, no break for the weary parent of the toddler.

But on the creek, where the water is softly moving downstream, and the rocks are perfect for throwing, I feel that I can let my guard down, and that release is something I can feel good about. So much of modern parenting is fraught, a constant tradeoff between safety and development of the kids. Sitting in a creek felt like a beautiful combination of the two.

Author and activist Richard Louv writes in his book, Last Child in the Woods:

Countless communities have virtually outlawed unstructured nature play, often because of the threat of lawsuits, but also because of a growing obsession with order… Children, when left to their own devices, are drawn to the rough edges of parks, the ravines and rocky inclines, the natural vegetation. A park may be neatly trimmed or landscaped, but the natural corners or edges where children once played can be lost in translation.

Unstructured play doesn’t require the neon plastic bullshit that clutters my home and car, worthless toys quickly abandoned to slowly decompose over the next ten-thousand years.

Unstructured play doesn’t require neon plastic bullshit.

Even with the minor torture and inconvenience associated with cornering and molesting wild animals for fun (for both us parents and the crayfish), Hell Hollow felt like a big win, as far as parenting tradeoffs were concerned. So we sought out other places where we might find safe, wild experiences for two young boys.

Luckily, Lake County is defined by water, bordered by Erie to the north and bisected by two major river systems and multiple tributaries with 437 miles of river and stream. The county is Ohio’s smallest by area, and sits a mere 20 miles east of downtown Cleveland, but it’s full of amazing wild places.

Lake County is a mere 20 miles from downtown Cleveland, but it’s full of amazing wild places.

The Grand River, one of the most scenic and treasured waters in the state, is fed by multiple tributaries including Paine Creek, Mill Creek and Big Creek. You can access each of these creeks through Lake Metroparks properties. After a successful Paine Creek trip, my family attempted another at Mill Creek in Hogback Ridge.

On the confluence

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Pickerel Frog (Illustration by David Wilson)

A hogback is a twisted ridge sticking out of the ground, shaped like the back of a wild hog. The descent into the Mill Creek Valley is wooded, and much more gradual than the steep dive into Paine Creek.

After a short hike, we reach the water and spot some similarities and differences. The water is cold, clear and full of life. But there are also blockages—places where trees have formed logjams and sediment has built up to create deep, slow pools and a different kind of habitat.

Bullfrog tadpoles rest in the slow water, massive bulbous green heads with long eel-like tails, lolling around on the bottom. There are dozens of them, and my sons and I try to catch them without much luck. We chase to the deeper part of the pool.

A Pickerel Frog, a smallish gray-brown amphibian with rectangle-shaped olive patches, leaps down the stream bank. Pickerel Frogs occur in the cool, clear waters of streams as opposed to warm sluggish still water. They call at night, with a crazy snoring noise that many of us have never heard, unless you’ve been creek-stomping in the dark. They often call underwater.

Pickerel Frogs call at night, with a crazy snoring noise that many of us have never heard.

Other frogs we find in the valley floor—an adult Wood Frog, Green Frog, and an Eastern Toad—all prove easier to pin down and hold.

In the shallow riffles, we find elegantly patterned stonefly nymphs, very large aquatic insects that will grow into big, awkward adults. There are about 100 species of stoneflies in Ohio, and some are very rare and limited to tiny drainages where the water is cold and clean enough for them to survive. They are indicators of great water quality. It is great to see these bugs here.

The boys start to see how isolated patches of protected watershed support these overlapping lives, complex stories told in the shallow water about life, death and transformation. They bend down on hands and knees, into the water. They break down the false barriers we put between ourselves and animals, and the river washes over them.

The boys start to see complex stories told in the shallow water about life, death and transformation.

I set my 18-month old down in a pile of warm rocks to regain some body heat, and the five-year old starts yelling—Look! Look! My wife snaps up our baby, and we look down where he’d been sitting. A Dark Fishing Spider, roughly the size and shape of a grown man’s hand, peeks out of the pile of rocks we’d just set our baby to crawl in.

Despite being totally harmless (to the extent that a bee or wasp is harmless to a non-allergic individual), the giant spider spurred a visceral response. After dialing our adrenaline back down to functional levels, my older son and I creep in close and study the spider, the intricate patterns all down its legs, the W-shaped stripes on its abdomen.

The secret is to do nothing.

The Dark Fishing Spider is interesting on multiple levels. Its size enables it to hunt without a web, ranging over its habitat looking to overpower smaller prey, rather than waiting around for insects. They can swim, even skimming across the surface of the water like a water strider, and reportedly eat fish. The specimen before us was a female, the larger of the two spider sexes.

The boys gradually overcome fear of the spider and accept it as a part of the assembly of animal life sharing the creek bottom. Our toddler goes back to flipping small stones into the creek, but the five-year old asks how I find the animals. Why can’t he see them first?

I try to explain that the secret is to do nothing. Just stop or move slowly and quietly, and wait for whatever forms emerge below the surface. Running from one place to another, constantly scanning, it’s almost impossible to see animals. While moving, our field of vision is narrow and our brains are running on familiar cues, rather than really looking at what is in front of us.

There’s nothing untrammeled, not here in northeast Ohio.

When we are still, the animals’ movement will give them away. We stand silently and watch crayfish and minnows moving in the water.

Ebony Jewelwing Damselflies, a streamside species with iridescent green bodies and black wings, flit above the stream. Then we notice movement on the shore.

A Queen Snake writhes out of the creek, glistening on the sandy bank, warming itself in the sunny ground. Queen Snakes are listed as Species of Concern in Ohio, a smallish Garter snake lookalike with extra striping down its lower sides. This one is about two feet long, near maximum size. They primarily forage on soft-shelled crayfish, so this big female was in the right place.

Like their relatives the Garter snakes, the Queen Snake is ovoviviparous; eggs are fertilized within the female’s body and develop and hatch within her. I tell my son that this snake would give live birth to a dozen baby snakes later this summer.

Like nearly every species in this essay, the Queen Snake relies on cold clean water for its preferred food source. Protecting this species means protecting riparian habitats.

Like so much of this area, Mill Creek was subject to the boom and bust cycle.

There’s nothing untrammeled, not here in northeast Ohio. Even the most pristine-looking sites were developed by Europeans over 200 years ago, and used by Native Americans before that. Like so much of this area, Mill Creek was subject to the boom and bust cycle—exploited for logging, agriculture, and mineral extraction, and abandoned when profitability dwindled. But crumbling foundations and old roads slowly breaking apart in the woods are the only remnants of this previous activity.

These creek bottoms in Lake County are as whole and functional as any ecosystem in our region.

An example: On July 27, 2006, 10 inches of rain fell in Lake County in a 20-hour period. The Grand River at Painesville crested the following morning at nearly 18 feet, a 500-year flood, over four feet higher than its previous record level. Hundreds were displaced and FEMA declared Lake County a disaster area.

The flood scoured the Grand River tributaries—Big Creek, Mill Creek and Paine Creek. Pogacnik said at Hell Hollow, he found a piece of shale 20 feet long and a foot thick, carried far into the woods by the flood. Despite the violent conditions, the state-listed dragonflies were able to find refuge and rebounded the next year.

Wildlife in this watershed was able to recover due to the natural buffer of its riparian zone. In the 1950s, the Lake County Planning Commission contracted a consultant to draft a Comprehensive Plan of Lake County. An element of this plan was allowing for parks and open space, designating areas of the county that should be protected from development. One of the elements of this plan was the Grand River valley and its Big, Paine and Mill Creek tributaries. When the park district was formed soon thereafter, the Grand River system naturally became a focus of the agency’s preservation efforts.

That this level of biodiversity and protection occurs twenty miles east of Cleveland, one of the most industrialized places in the country, should be a source of optimism.

That this level of biodiversity and protection occurs twenty miles east of Cleveland, one of the most industrialized places in the country, should be a source of optimism. It can also serve as a model for how we can protect sensitive species and habitats with mindful planning.My five-year old son is now obsessed with finding animals, turning over every rock and log, getting dirt under his nails, toting around beetles in a plastic carrying case. He wades into ponds and falls down in the woods. He understands that there are other worlds under the surface of things, and that we share this habitat with hidden creatures, sometimes glimpsed and grasped for a moment. Without these experiences, our kids will not be motivated to protect and restore wild places and biodiversity in the future. If we don’t continue to unleash our children on the banks of creeks, there may not be any places like this left in future generations.

Matt Stansberry was born in Akron. He spent the last six years in Oregon writing about fly fishing and environmental issues, and moved back to the Cuyahoga Bio-Region as part of the Bigfoot Witness Protection Program. He blogs at Ohio Outdoors and Wildlife.

More of David Wilson’s illustration work can be found at dwillustration.com.

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1 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    August 01, 2014

    What a beautiful piece of writing. Thank you.

    Reply

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