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The Pleasures—and Ecological Benefits—of River Snorkeling

In praise of river snorkeling, a pastime for fish obsessives that also reminds riparian activists what they’re protecting.
Thomas O’Keefe snorkels the location of a proposed hydro project on the north fork of the Snoqualmie River in Washington State.

Thomas O’Keefe snorkels the location of a proposed hydro project on the north fork of the Snoqualmie River in Washington State.

I’m like the reverse of a fish out of water — a floundering human in water, I think to myself and let out a nervous chuckle. This breaks the seal my mouth has formed around the snorkel’s mouthpiece, and as the frigid Cascadian water of Icicle Creek hits the back of my throat I start floundering more, coughing and thrashing around like a hooked fish.

Jesus, get a grip, continues my inner dialog. Show them you can handle yourself.

Them refers to Matt Collins and Russ Ricketts, my guides for my first foray into river snorkeling. And show them you can handle yourself is something I recall thinking often, back when I used to live in these wonderful central Washington mountains, where the three of us worked at a ski area. It felt important to prove myself: Up on the hill, after a storm had dumped unfathomable amounts of snow, I would struggle to keep the nose of my snowboard floating above the fray, always feeling like the slowest, weakest member of the crew. Usually, I was.

Now, on this warm July afternoon years later, I’m psyching myself up to delve into melted snow, which has traveled down from headwaters in the Stuart Range and through the Alpine Lakes Wilderness to this relatively placid stretch of water that joins the Wenatchee River and, eventually, flows down the Cascades’ eastern flank into the mighty Columbia.

On paper, river snorkeling — which, if you’re wondering, is just what it sounds like: snorkeling in a river — is a far safer pursuit than careening down a mountainside on skis or a snowboard. But thanks to warnings from my canoeist dad and after many years spent paddling on them and hanging out with more serious boaters, I’ve developed a very healthy respect for rivers and their hazards to humans. Even in the barely Class I whitewater we’re in, a leg or hand caught under a submerged log or boulder can mean curtains for the swimmer.

“I use river snorkeling as a force multiplier, to help rejuvenate people who are fighting to protect rivers and fish. Because that kind of work tends to burn people out.”

My goal is to move out of the shallow eddy, facing upstream, thrust my arm into the current, let it take me into the swift water, staying close to shore, and then, not 10 yards downstream, turn my head back toward the shore, and swim into the next eddy. There, maybe, I’ll see some fish. Aided by flippers, it turns out to be pretty easy, but it takes watching Collins and Ricketts (who wear weight belts over their wetsuits to help them swim more deeply) repeat the move a handful of times before I feel ready to take the plunge.

It’s fun. The minutes we spend floating in or above relatively still, deep pools, where one or two adult Chinook salmon might emerge, are the best.

I’ve always loved the perspective that floating on rivers provides, whether I’m riding a torrent of water that has knifed through bedrock over millions of years, or if I’m meandering through a delta, where tall reeds or a low-hanging canopy constantly threaten to halt the flow. But getting beneath the surface is something entirely different, and snorkeling really unlocks a river’s mystery and reveals its energy through glimpses of the life it harbors.

Collins, a fisheries biologist, first began river-snorkeling around 10 years ago for a work assignment for the Fish and Wildlife Service, conducting surveys of bull trout in steep mountain streams. Eventually, Collins began river snorkeling for fun, taking Ricketts along, and it became Ricketts’ new favorite pastime.

That was around 2010. Since then, it’s fair to say that river snorkeling has transformed Ricketts’ life. It’s not just that he loves being in the water (he even snorkels, armed with a very robust wetsuit, during winter); it has also turned him into an advocate for rivers and especially for salmon and other anadromous species in the Columbia River basin that have already been hugely hurt by dams and development and now face further challenges related to climate change. Ricketts is now a river steward for the Native Fish Society, which works on policies to protect native, wild fish in the Pacific Northwest. And he has started taking individuals or small groups who share his passion for fish on trips to favorite snorkeling holes near his home in Leavenworth, Washington.

Matt Collins.

Matt Collins.

Ricketts is now building these trips into a more formal arrangement, whereby he’d serve as a snorkeling guide for many fish-focused non-governmental organizations in the Pacific Northwest — reaching out not just to scientists but also to policy folks who work long office hours without necessarily experiencing the places they’re fighting to protect.

“I see river snorkeling as a force multiplier, to help rejuvenate people who are fighting to protect rivers and fish,” he says. “Because that kind of work tends to burn people out.”

His underwater photography and video (his Instagram handle is @river_snorkeling) reveal a glimpse of the riparian magic he encounters, and may even help advance science. Last summer, Ricketts showed some researchers videos he had shot of a large gathering of bull trout and steelhead trout sheltering in a cold-water stream. That piqued their interest, and now, through the Native Fish Society, he’s raising funds for a study in which he’ll work with fishery biologists to identify and track more of these fish hideouts along the Wenatchee River basin. The goal is to prioritize these areas for protection because, as water temperatures rise in the main-stem river, which happens in years of low snowpack and high temperatures (something climate modeling indicates will become more common), cold-water refuges will be ever more important for species such as steelhead, bull trout, and spring Chinook salmon.

Getting beneath the surface is something entirely different, and snorkeling really unlocks a river’s mystery and reveals its energy through glimpses of the life it harbors.

And on Facebook, Ricketts had built a growing community, a sort of virtual water cooler for river snorkeling enthusiasts from around the world who share images, videos, and stories about their time underwater. Many of those contributors ply Southeastern waterways, where river snorkeling remains popular thanks to easy year-round access and, more importantly, phenomenal biodiversity, for which (Ricketts tells me) we can thank millions of years of evolution, absent glaciation. The Conasauga River, which runs through southeast Tennessee and northwest Georgia, host 76 native fishes in its watershed — while the Columbia and Colorado Rivers hold 33 and 25 native species in their respective watersheds.

For decades, logging and industrial activities threatened the health of the richly biodiverse fisheries of southern Appalachia. But through government regulation and community-generated clean-up efforts, riparian health has improved and the region’s unique mix of aquatic species is becoming a tourism draw. In fact, the Forest Service now hosts river snorkeling trips in the Cherokee National Forest, complete with guides and gear rental.

A few years ago, while in Chattanooga, Tennessee, for a journalism conference, I snagged a spot on a snorkeling outing to the Tellico River. On a very mellow stretch of the river we floated in very shallow water over the rocky riverbed, looking for Tennessee shiners and other small-but-pretty species such as the tangerine darter. Sometimes, having remained quite still in an effort to prevent churning up debris, I would zone out for a long string of seconds. Because of the weightlessness, it was a kind of zoning out that is more profound than what is possible on land. Unlike the serenity of ocean snorkeling, the white noise of the river water rushing over and around my body, unabated, kept me feeling, paradoxically, hyper-aware. Until the noise started to soothe me. And then the cycle would repeat.

I’d come in and out of a sort of fugue state, reminding myself to look for fish, that it was OK that I was breathing underwater, that I wasn’t in some altered state but merely lying over river rocks, inches from a bunch of other people whom I couldn’t see or hear.

One of the trip leaders eventually spotted an eastern hellbender, which, besides having the coolest name next to the spiny lumpsucker, is North America’s largest amphibian. These salamanders hide under rocks and feed, at night, on crayfish. They can live for up to 30 years, but their populations are shrinking, which scientists think is due to inner-tubers and other recreationalists disturbing their habitat, along with changes to water chemistry from sources such as pharmaceuticals in wastewater. (In North Carolina, the Forest Service is running some public education programs to help protect the eastern hellbender.)

Collins describes river snorkeling as an underwater analog to bird-watching — an apt comparison, since both groups tend to become a bit obsessive, prizing the most elusive species. But that’s not what I’m interested in. What I want to do is make like an eastern hellbender, and just lie, very still, underwater, feeling the river’s tug but not succumbing to it. Not floundering, or even trying to be an expert swimmer, but simply looking at the river from a new perspective.