Is the Potomac back?

“So, what’s new?”

I ask the question each spring on my first visit to the Potomac. Maybe a massive silver maple has fallen after many years of leaning farther and farther over the water. Or perhaps the head of an island disappeared, replaced by mountain of logs and smashed docks. Or the river might reveal to me some new plant or creature.

Change means life, and the Potomac is a living river, always coming up with surprises, always something new.

That’s the way it’s been in the past. But how about this year? I wondered because the year before it seemed that the river was struggling to survive, as if it were a covid-19 patient on a ventilator. Hardly any fish, birds, insect life, just the sparkle of the sun dancing on the waves, pretty, but deceiving.

The reason for the downturn, I had concluded, was the back-to-back floods of 2018 that had scoured everything in their paths, like armies on a scorched earth campaign. (I later learned there was more to it than that.)

First impressions. Emerging from the creek I turned onto the river and headed upstream. The current ran strong, so I hugged the shore where logs and fallen trees created pockets of slack water where I could make progress. I looked for any clue that the river was healing.

Nooks and crannies on the river bottom
give cover to a well-camouflaged fish.

The first thing I checked out was the river bottom. Last year it was covered with a layer of silt deposited by the floods, as lifeless as the outwash from a construction site. But now, although the water was a little discolored, I was able to see the familiar mosaic of stones and shells, the river equivalent of the nooks and crannies of an English muffin, creating micro-refuges for fish and many other creatures. I felt encouraged.

I was also happy to see tough, sturdy plants poking up out of the river bank, holding the promise of a mini forest of blue and yellow blooms. In contrast, all last year the shores lay bare and covered with foul mud, as if they had been bulldozed.

Birds called in the branches above me and I saw flashes of movement. A cuckoo briefly emerged, its sleekly pointed wings and long tail giving it the agility of a stunt plane as it pursued a luckless insect. Back out of sight it called with a throaty kao-kao-kao followed by a series of staccato ka-ka-kas.

I started keeping mental notes. Great blue herons flew off of snags at my approach. Gangs of shaggy cormorants perched on half-submerged logs out in the mainstream. An immature bald eagle flew past me, and far over head a mixed flock of black and turkey vultures rode the thermals.

It did seem like the river had come back to life. But so soon? The experts I had consulted in my last article—an ancient Greek poet, Dr. Antonio Fauci, a legendary microbiologist, a roomful of government biologists, and a shifty trickster named Potowmack—agreed that nature will decide what ultimately happens to the river, and when. That sounded ominous, not surprising since that same nature also has bestowed us with what cognitive psychologists call a negativity bias: We fixate more on bad things than on good things. Biogeographer Jared Diamond calls this “constructive paranoia,” the idea that it makes more survival sense to prepare for the worst than to lie back whistling Happy Days Are Here Again.

Butt-bobbing birds. But maybe the happy days had in fact returned. Continuing up the shoreline I was seeing an unusual number of stilty-legged birds probing the mud for worms and other invertebrates. They would take to the air when I got near, fly a hundred yards up the river, and in a few minutes we’d do it all over again.

These are solitary sandpipers, one of my avian favorites. For one thing, despite their nondescript plumage, they’re easy to identify from their idiosyncratic butt bobbing. The other thing is their migrations. With just a couple of ounces of bone and muscle and a brain the size of a pea, they somehow get from the Amazon Basin, up through the US, to finally breed along the lakes and streams of Canada and Alaska.

Also impressive in their own lumbering way were the turtles. They formed lines on nearly every log. The big ones cannon-balled into the water when I got too close, followed by the plops of the little ones. A muskrat swam toward me and then disappeared in a tangle of exposed tree roots.

Were the soft rushes always here,
or are they new this year?

I was about to leave the shore to head for a string of little gravel bars on the Virginia side when I noticed something new, at least to me. It was a patch of stiletto-tipped rushes that looked familiar from my years of slogging through salt marshes. But those were dark and rigid, while these, called  soft rushes, were lighter green and not as stiff.

Maybe the rushes had always grown along this stretch of the river, and I just never noticed them. Or perhaps the flooding produced some change that gave them a foothold. In any event, the soft rush is a very common plant, though far from ordinary. Like houseflies, humans and killer whales, it is a cosmopolitan species, native to every continent except Australia.

An uncertain sign. At the gravel bar I pulled my canoe onto a mat of yellow-green roots and got out my fishing rod. I cast a few times down one eddy line, then down the other, and was not surprised at the non-results.

Then I dropped my lure directly downstream from the bar, and immediately felt the pulsating energy of a fish at the end of the line. It was a smallmouth bass, and it was determined to do the opposite of whatever I wanted it to do. I guess that pretty much defines the allure of fishing.

I knelt to pick up the fish, admiring its golden brown coloration and the vertical bands down its flanks. It was plump and healthy, with no sores or tumors that have raised alarms about the health of fish in the Potomac. I took a picture of the two of us and slipped out the hook. The fish paused for a moment at the water’s edge, and then vanished.

Handsome and healthy: icon of the
Potomac (referring to the fish).

Was the fish a sign that the river was back? Or was it just a fish? I turned to Patowmack the Trickster for an answer. He replied with a riff on Aristotle: “One bass does not a fishing season make.” As if for emphasis, a wild turkey let loose a mocking gobble from the nearby woods, and continued gobbling as I began my downstream paddle.

Ancient ritual. Now the sun was descending over the rapids and I began to see pale yellow insects, their bodies arched and their translucent wings erect as they lay on the surface, then rising into the air like spirits. There were thousands of them.

I was witnessing one of nature’s great rituals, a celebration of life and its perpetuation.  These were mayflies, an insect that spends most of its existence as armor-bodied nymphs, scuttling about on the underside of rocks on the river bottom. Now, responding simultaneously to some signal, they were transforming themselves into airborne creatures to search for a mate, reproduce, and then die.

I wasn’t the only one to take notice. Up and down the river I could hear the splashes and slurps of the fish as they feasted. Swallows joined in, swooping down to scoop up the tiny morsels and leaving behind little splashes that sparkled in the last light of the day.

Mayflies are part of what biologist E. O. Wilson calls the “little things that run the world.” If the mayflies are OK, there’s hope for everything else.

To which Patowmack the Trickster would reply, “Well, we’ll just have to wait and see.”

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