When was the last time you traveled a creek?

I’m not talking about hiking along the bank, or proceeding in a canoe or kayak; I mean walking the creek, right up the middle.  Creek stomping is a lonely business, unless you’re in the middle of an urban area, and even then it’s a sparsely attended event. I never outgrew the childhood urge to wade – and I seem to be partnered with the only other adult in the Indy metro area who can say the same. Most people, I think, prefer swimming pools to anything quite as earthy as a creek.  After all, we’ve managed to pollute our waterways with things like combined sewer overflows, herbicide runoff and chemical spills.

I wonder if that would be the case if more people of good conscience took a walk in the water.

To be sure, you have to be discerning – stay away from creeks that are suffering from CSO or known spill issues. Know your waterways. A creek must be shallow enough to walk through, and yet deep and wide enough not to be stagnant or dubiously murky. You will know you’ve found the right one when you are unable to resist the urge to step in on a hot day. Wear water shoes, because a creek is nature, a thin ribbon of wildness. It’s not a swimming pool. That’s not to slam pools; I like a good swimming pool as much as the next guy, but a creek is an infinitely more curious space.

Sean on the creek, age 5.
Sean on the creek, age 5.

You will see things, perhaps immediately. This afternoon when we arrived at the creek, we adults plunged right in, but Sean stayed behind on the rocky shore.  He was looking for crawdads, and I saw him crouched over the rocks yelling that he’d found one. This seemed improbable until I got a little closer, and saw that he’d found what passes for a tide pool in central Indiana – a pool created by recent heavy rains that then receded, leaving a large population of minnows and tiny crawfish trapped. We were staring at an impending mass death, and Sean wanted to relocate the marine refugees.

I considered this for a minute, pondering the ethics of intervention, and then decided I was being a little pedantic. I dug into my bag for any useful tool, and came up with a stray plastic grocery bag. “That’ll work,” Travis said. The pool was long and narrow, with a deep spot in the middle. We opened the bag and anchored it with rocks. I walked slowly from one end of the pool to the bag, a giant Godzilla moving the masses of fish into the bag. We got about twenty minnows and four crawfish in the first round. Travis picked up the bag and handed it to Sean, who then released them into the main waterway. We spent about half an hour doing this, and relocated about 90% of the trapped minnows. We made a deeper well for the remaining fish that declined to swim into the bag, and moved on upstream.

Late afternoon light is a gorgeous thing to behold on a creek in summer, with little streams of honey slipping through the spaces in the leaf cover to bounce off the water. The creek was astonishingly clear, though the ecosystem was not as healthy as some of the more remote creeks we travel. There were no snakes, turtles, or frogs on this creek – it’s still recovering from a devastating chemical spill that occurred about 17 years ago, and that could be the cause. But there were plenty of fish, some of them big. A Question Mark butterfly landed on a branch next to me. Dragonflies and moths followed us the whole way. Deer prints were everywhere.  Life lives there.

So that’s my suggestion: go travel a creek. Take a kid if you can, the more electronics-obsessed the better. Watch what happens, and what they see. Be wise, as you would with any natural space. But don’t be afraid to walk right up the middle, and let the cool water wash over your feet. That’s the best place to be.

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