Streams the perfect opportunity for a walk on the wild side
We call them streams, rivulets, branches and brooks. In spring, they can be freshets. Ours is a run. Connelly’s Run. But when you are talking about playing in a “small body of running water,” you call it a creek. And when you hop across stones or hunt crayfish in a creek, you call that “creek walking.” Although not an official after-school sport, it requires skills, teaches values and—equally important in this digital-device crazy age—gets kids outdoors, interacting with natural terrain and living things.
There are basically two kinds of creek walkers: the wet and the dry. Dry creek walkers try to cross without dipping a toe. They treat creek walking like horizontal rock climbing: Plan the route, look for the good hold.
Wet creek walkers could care less about keeping dry. They are less interested in what lies on top of the rock, a dry foothold, than what lies underneath: moving animals.
No matter which you are, you need to be graceful as a heron to walk a creek.
If you would catch critters, you also need technique. You have to know which rocks to turn over, how not to disturb the upstream sediment that may cloud your hole and the ways to catch a crayfish.
The patient approach is to stick the net behind the crayfish and move something in front of it. Crayfish swim backward and usually into your net. Experienced creek walkers can slowly move a bare hand behind a crawdad and then lunge for the spot behind the pinchers, pinching without getting pinched.
Finally, creek walking requires teamwork and sportsmanship. You must learn, for example, that your little sister also wants to hold that salamander (and that you shouldn’t yell at her when it slithers away), and that you should not cloud someone else’s hole by walking upstream and releasing the silt.
While looking for crayfish one day, my kids found a milk container sliced in half. A loop of duct tape, sticky side up, dotted with pennies served as ballast. At the back were taped two cardboard tubes, probably flag posts. Everything then became part of the sea wreck. Two small pieces of frayed, algae-covered plywood must be from its decking, and a galvanized fence post could be its bowsprit.
Creek walking develops imagination, discovery and spontaneous play.
One day I enticed my daughter and her friend to go to the creek by suggesting that we take Barbie for a swim. The doll shot the rapids. Much screaming, but brother Sam was ready with the net to rescue her.
The kids built dams, interested in the waterfalls, ripples, air bubbles and eddies they created. They used leaves to patch the cracks, but water found the weakness, and Barbie, having been laid in the water to rest against the rocks, dove through. After a vigorous chase to rescue her, the girls placed her on a rock to dry and to be “kissed by a prince,” an unlikely event, unless Prince Charming could be disguised as a frog. Or a salamander.
Frank Taylor, a biology teacher in Radford, VA, has helped us take creek walking to a new level. On a muggy Fourth of July, we took to the creek with long-handled nets, egg cartons and a brownie pan. The kids scooped pebbles out of the riffles, scattered them in the cookware and sifted them as if panning for gold.
Tiny invertebrate insects and crustaceans came into focus. We saw mayflies and their aerodynamic shape that helps push them down on the rock surface like a race car. We saw the caterpillar-like caddis fly nymph and the yellow stonefly, the latter doing something like push-ups to bring oxygen into its gills.
The kids learned that these species need clean, oxygenated water to survive, and that there is a world underneath rocks: casings of hatched larvae and tracks from the gilled snail.
From creek walking, kids learn about how this creek will blend with that river, and that river with the next, on down to the Bay and ocean. Along the banks, the kids see cups, bottles and bags, metaphors for the heavy metals, E. coli, and fertilizer they cannot see.
They see how pollution ends up in the creek and downstream. They realize that if there’s too much, these species will disappear.
Each time we return to the creek, something has changed. The seasons, the banks, even the well-placed rocks of the dams move. Unlike other sports, creek walking’s playing surface shifts—unstructured and loose, free-flowing and without bounds.
As much as kids catch in a creek, they will also be caught by it if they take up creek walking. If they become walkers and guardians of their neighborhood creek, they will learn to appreciate nature, gain skills and values, and enjoy the active and alive outdoors.
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