A Cool River RunningJun 03, 2015 08:27PM ● By Erica Shames
I reached down to remove something dark adhering to my ankle, which was glistening with water from opaque French Creek. I repeated my brushing motion and it reasserted itself, causing me to panic. The black thumb shape forced me to pull it away; once gone, it left behind a grid of red dots. Yes, I recall it like yesterday, though it was 50 years ago -- the Day of the French Creek Leeches.
Way back when and today
The leeches were a cultural memory of the unique and decidedly appealing abundance of this 117-mile-long creek flowing through its focal point of Meadville, Crawford County. The same is true of the signature salamander of the stream, the hellbender, 25 inches of ugliness so repulsive that fishermen cut their lines rather than handle it. Yet, it is also true of the huge mussel shells, 8 inches long with a pink opalescence that I found on The Day of The Leeches, and of a long catalogue of summer pleasures maintained by the French Creek Valley Conservancy.
The conservancy (www.frenchcreekconservancy.org), in Meadville, PA, inventories 27 species of mussels and 80 species of fish in French Creek—which makes the waterbed home to some of the most diverse creatures in the nation. Underscoring this abundance is an endangered designation for 13 of those mussels and 9 of the fish. The conservancy is celebrating such diversity with its 3rd annual French Creek Summer Solstice Sojourn on June 20 and 21.
David Washousky, program director, identifies kayaking as the preeminent recreational activity on the creek, and the conservancy has made this sport the vehicle for the Summer Sojourn. The 2015 version is a fluid festival staged at various points along the creek banks between the communities of Union City and Cambridge Springs, with kayakers passing from educational speakers to catered food events to live entertainment.
This celebration of diversity comes indirectly from the Wisconsin glacier, which thousands of years ago reversed the direction of French Creek from north to south, resulting in ecological ambiguity that caught up a wide array of aquatic life. Musky and northern pike from the North Country share the flow with sunfish and largemouth bass more typical of southerly waters. Bald eagles consume many French Creek residents, while the fish consume smaller minnows, which feed on a rich variety of aquatic insects.
Surprising things surface from an environment such as this—pearl buttons, for instance. Darran Crabtree, director of conservation for the central and western chapter of The Nature Conservancy, entertained me for nearly an hour with his account of French Creek mussels, among the species used in antique buttons and duplicated to this day for their mother-of-pearl sheen. I thought of the
shining pink in my shells of 50 years ago.
Darran offered a lesson in mussel culture. Drift down on a kayak or wade to a sandbar. Pick up one of these common shells. Soil-colored on their exteriors, they glint with the coveted opalescence within. On the back of the shells are concentric rings, dark rings representing dreary winter and light rings summer, shell rings adding up to 60 and more years of button-building. Darran speculated that my shells were Ligumia recta, commonly known as the black sand shell.
Management is a must
Enlightened management has removed French Creek mussels from consumptive use. With endangered species among them and a general lack of identification skills, threats arise. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission prohibits harvest of either shells or animals, except by special, limited permit.
At the creek’s focal point in Meadville, the commission contributes importantly to public interaction with this waterway. It maintains an access area for Cussewago Bottoms, a primitive bottomland forest designated as one of 85 Pennsylvania Important Bird Areas. Cerulean warblers, bald eagles—birdwatching trophies are there for the asking. The access area is located off of Kerrtown Road. A good way to reach the Bottoms is by kayak; and for this, Stoney Crick, LLC Kayak and Canoe or Outdoor Allegheny River Services, are happy to accommodate.
Hiking is a plus
Explore an alternative introduction to French Creek through the Ernst Trail (www.ernsttrail.org), a 6-mile rail trail conveniently accessed from Meadville. The trail soothes after a long drive and offers a chance to decide whether to explore the Bottomlands or to venture into Shopping Country or the grounds of
Allegheny College. On July 12, the trail hosts a 15K and 5K running event.
David Warshausky disclosed to me in guarded terms the presence of the splendid Showy Ladyslipper orchid in Cussewago Bottoms. Rare, and in bloom at the time of the Summer Solstice Sojourn, it is the festival’s invisible Grand Marshall. He narrowed down its location to “somewhere within a 10,000-acre area.” A life goal for wildflower enthusiasts, it is white and pink like a mussel shell.
However domestic or wild your visit turns out when arriving in Meadville, the pearl button—from the sand bar, by the flowing creek—remains in mind, and that is how the French Creek Valley Conservancy wants it to be.
by Bill Rozday, who writes frequently about man-earth relations.