True to character, Sam will not release the crayfish, even while its pinch on his finger is making him howl. His persistence is one of his strengths, I often remind myself.
“Just let it go,” I tell him.
“No. Owww! I want it,” he says, juggling his fingers while the claws keep grabbing him until he manages the unpinchable tail hold, looks up at me, and grins.
We’ve been creek swimming with our kids since they were in diapers, across Alabama and Georgia. They grew up in sandy creeks, swamp creeks, creeks cobbled with multicolored stones. Now we’re dabbling in the shallows of Schoharie Creek, not far from where it joins the Mohawk River, our watershed here in New York, which lacks the South’s poisonous snakes and diversity of native freshwater mussels.
We’ve heard rumors of mussels in Schoharie Creek, and Andrew brought snorkels and a viewbucket to search for them here. He wades a short distance upstream from us, straps on his snorkel mask, then flops into the water. Our puppy, Skip, with the overactive sense of responsibility that plagues herding dogs, follows him up the bank, then plunges in heroically behind him, swimming towards his prostrate body. She reaches him, scrabbles up onto his back, and perches there, keeping watch while he searches the creek bottom for mussels.
These native mussels, not good to eat, offer a feast of biological wonder. They captured our hearts in the South, the global hotspot for mussel diversity. First, I loved their names: fatmucket, pistolgrip, heelsplitter, shinyrayed pocketbook, pigtoe, snuffbox, washboard, three-horn wartyback. Then, their reproductive tricks astonished me; they lure fish to host their parasitic larval stage. Also, they’re endangered, thanks to human-driven damages to creeks and rivers.
Freshwater mussels range in size from thumbnail to dinnerplate. They encase themselves in smooth or ridged or pimpled shells that are brown or black or yellow, some with dark stripes fanning across them, some without. Mussels always have a pearly lining—white, pink, deep violet.
This lining glimmers on the few shell shards that Andrew can find on the creek bottom, marking them as the remains of native mussels. Otherwise, this piece of Schoharie Creek seems mussel-less. A creek without mussel seems less alive to me, but the beauty here woos me anyway.
Forested hills frame some cliffs of angled stone, that has shed chunks of rock along the creek bank. Across from where the kids and I wade, the water pools invitingly, and Sam will later practice his own snorkeling there.
Just upstream of our crayfish and snorkeling spot, large rocks form a shoal, where the creek speeds up and thins over the rocks. Water pours over edges, curving into cracks and churning in holes. The water level, lower than average, allows us to wade across the creek on this rock pavement.
Sam and Stella monkey along, dangling from our hands and squat-scooting through the water. Skip worries, unable to follow at our heels, shivering as her fluff slicks against her surprisingly scrawny body. We carry her until she warily curls onto a warm rock, still vigilant as we swim.
This is how we play. We need hours like these, away from farm projects and jobs and the daily needs of everything. Our limbs loosen in the flowing water. The creek sings over the shoals, constant trickle-rush sounds that both invigorate and relax us. We can see our challenges as our strengths, our own pearly linings. We can watch each other laughing and jump in together.