Thursday, January 21, 2010

The 'Wild' Headwaters of the Conococheague

Continuing on the exploration of my ecological address, I set off last weekend to find the origin of the Conococheague (pronounced locally as CON-OH-CO-JIG with the emphasis on the first syllable) , one of the namesakes for my USGS watershed. The Conococheague has an Eastern and a Western branch. The eastern branch begins in Michaux State Forest in Pennsylvania--its starting point lies very close to Caledonia State Park.

The more than 85,000 acres of forest are named in honor of Andre Michaux, a French botanist, who was sent to the New World by the King and Queen of France in 1785 to gather plants for the royal gardens. From the 1700's through much of the 1800's the land was owned by the iron industry. The forest supplied large amounts of wood for the charcoal needed to fuel the furnaces. Iron ore was dug from open pits, and transformed into "pig iron," for tools, stoves, and other necessities (including cannon balls for the Revolutionary War). Back then, a visit to these mountains must have been a very different experience.

The iron industry finally abated due to competition from new technology, and the area then became known as a center for forestry. The first Pennsylvania nursery for forest trees was sited here. In 1903, a forest academy was established -only the second in the nation to train professional foresters. Michaux still provides lumber and wood products--it is managed sustainably. These days water appears to be its most valuable commodity. But also recreation-- hiking, mountain biking, bird watching, cross country skiing--and fishing, boating. The Applachian Trail passes through.

The eastern branch flows west to Chambersburg before making a turn and heading south to the Potomac. The water that flows down the mountains and rises up from springs within Michaux are known for their purity since no industry or agriculture (other than intermittent selective logging) is present. So Chambersburg taps the water close to its source before it can be contaminated, treats it, then runs it to the city via gravity. Chambersburg is not required to even test for certain pollutants.

On my little trip "up" that way (north and at a higher elevation) I visited the old reservoir (below) which was drained a few years ago due to a leaking dam. (The Long Pine dam and reservoir nearby is much larger and quite fine for a day of meditative kayaking.). I'm not sure if this stream pictured is the Conococheague or considered another creek at this point, but certainly the water flowing here flows into the 'Cheague. The fisherfolk cast their flies upon the waters here now.

The reservoir bed is being restored to forest. My friend Bill, my forestry consultant, conjectures that the new trees in this photo (in the white protective sleeves) include water loving species like sycamore near the stream, and also varieties of eastern hardwoods like walnut and oak. I'm finding that when I search for information about my local watershed, it is often the fisherfolk, especially the fly fishing aficionados, who are most in the know, at least of those who aren't biologists, surveyors and designated water quality keepers. The fisherfolk are the ones on intimate terms with the creeks and streams, and the fish therein. If a creek runs through it, they are interested. Which makes me more interested in them and what they do. I just might have to finally look into fly fishing...

Not disposed to hiking on this day, I drove around trying to get as close to the beginning of the Conococheague as I could. I found this bridge and sign next to a mobile home park. Not a bad place to set up housekeeping-- at the foot of the mountains, at the headwaters of the Conococheague.

Friday, January 8, 2010

My Ecological Address Part One: Watershed

I decided to blog my journey as I discover my ecological address. Essentially I will use myself as guinea pig, see what can be learned, and also see the [appalling] degree of ignorance I currently have about my ecological address. The Audubon site has links that help you figure out all the different ecological overlays for where you live.

The first category of links is Watersheds. I click on the link to the Environmental Protection Administration website, punch in my zip code and a map of my Watershed comes up. I knew I live in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and the Potomac River Valley, but more specifically I find that I live in the watershed designated as Conococheague-Opequon, by the United States Geological Survey, aka Cataloging Unit 02070004. Conococheague and Opequon are nearby creeks that drain into the Potomac. Sound like Native American words, as is Potomac. (A tangent to research but let’s keep focused here!)

There are links to various other sites. I can peruse multiple water quality studies and link to a range of water quality advocacy groups for my watershed. I try to read over one water quality study and rapidly begin drowning in technical terms. I’ll need to get help from a new friend who is a fish disease expert.

I learn that I live in what is known as the Upper Potomac River Basin (within the political state of Maryland,that is). A fact sheet on the total miles of wadeable streams in this area shows that the Fish Index of Biotic Integrity (FIBI), which is based on fish populations, is 55% poor, 31% fair and only 14 % good.

That does not sound encouraging.

Do you know the FIBI for your area? FIBI sounds like a particular concern for fly fishermen--indeed a group called Antietam Fly Anglers are the ones who posted the fact sheet.
They have also posted a report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on intersex fish being studied in the Potomac and its tributaries including the Shenandoah River.
This is when features of the female sex organs are found in the sex organs of male fish, and vice versa. It is believed caused by pollution in the water (endocrine disruptors).
Again, rather alarming. My drinking water comes from the Potomac River, it is “treated” but I need to find out more about how that works…

The EPA site is mind-boggling. There is an Envirofacts page
where you can easily find air quality, radiation, toxic waste emitters, compliance reports, etc all according to your zip code! I did not realize how easily available all this information is online. It is not something that is talked about everyday on your local news, in your local paper, or among your co-workers ‘around the water cooler.’ But it should be. Why isn’t it?

Well, just one hour of discovery and I have a multitude of more questions. Perhaps that is the point, once you begin knowing your ecological address you become engaged with the reality of the world in which you are living on a different level.
Of course as living, breathing inhabitants of our local ecosystem we are already unavoidably involved but we are disconnected from consciousness of it. I see that working my way through the Find Your Ecological Address project is going to be much more time consuming, complex and enlightening than I expected. Life-changing might not be too extreme a word. Pretty crafty, Audubon.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Pileated Woodpecker

Here are some snaps of the Pileated Woodpecker mentioned in the post below. By the way, pileated means capped, from the Latin pileus=cap. It is pronounced with the long i sound as in pie.