Thursday, July 30, 2015

Minnesotan Horror Story: Terrors of the Dark, Murky Waters

Minnesota has some beautiful rivers, and no two rivers are ever exactly the same.  There are often flowers blooming along the banks, trees shading the water, and picturesque homes and farms along the meandering waterways. Birds swoop over the water and sing, and dragonflies dart around happily while frogs hop away from your advances. 

Don't be fooled! This is more than a serene view. 

But when you're in the water, everything changes.  

There's a lot of suspended sediment (check out Brooke's post, "You look Mighty FINE with a 'Mudstache'" for more information) in the rivers we've been in, making visibility nonexistent. Once the water gets more than 3-4 feet deep, there isn't even sunlight filtering through the water, no longer making it appear light and warm and safe. It becomes dark. And cold.  You feel alone.  Anything could happen. 

Without vision, your other senses become heightened, but this really only makes things worse.  On the river bottoms, you can hear the clinking of gravel being swept downstream. But is it gravel? Is it actually catfish stalking you? Is it a snapping turtle warming up its snapper? Is it a serial killer chuckling in the depths, waiting for you to fall into a hole? On occasion, you find your vision actually does work, and you come face to face with a fish darting past your mask. 

Then there's your sense of touch.  To search for mussels, there are a couple of techniques--a sweeping motion like a windshield wiper or a more rummaging technique, like you're frantically playing a piano but doing so under the top layer of sediment. Either way, your hands seem to be magnetically attracted to half-buried objects that should not be there, like farm equipment, glass, your fellow project-mates' boots, or weird cloth bundles.  

For some reason, it is impossible to not let your mind go to the worst possible place--buried bodies, dismembered animal skeletons, or fecal matter. Around rocks, you undoubtedly picture gigantic, aggressive, ferocious crayfish ready to claim your fingers or monster fish that might swallow you whole. On top of it all, minnows like to satisfy their curiosity by lightly nibbling any exposed skin. It's a strange feeling. 

Our timed searches looking for the species richness and abundance at different sites take 20 minutes.  While finding mussels is absolutely the goal, survival is also a goal.  The best way to get through the time is to try and NOT think about any of the things above: what you're feeling (unless they're mussels), what you're hearing, and definitely not what you can't see.  Singing, daydreaming, and repeating "mussels! mussels! mussels!" are all great methods of coping.  

Despite all this, hanging out in the rivers is a lot of fun.  Every snorkeling search is an adventure, and the unknown can be super exciting. We never know what to expect. All of us are great at exercising our imaginations. In the end, we always make it through to the next site and with all our fingers attached.  On to another survey! 

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