Keith Williams lies motionless in the shallows of Fishing Creek in southern Lancaster County, face down and spread-eagled, only half of his body submerged.
He’s not moving.
Sometimes when Williams does that, someone calls 911 about a dead body in a creek.
However, Williams is far from dead. He is a freediver in freshwater streams and rivers – anywhere, anytime. Just beyond the face mask he has laid a few centimeters below the surface of the water is a teeming world of small fish, light, currents and sound.
That’s what the Lancaster Conservancy’s community engagement coordinator and author of “Snorkeling Rivers and Streams: An Aquatic Guide to Underwater Discovery and Adventure” hopes: Lancaster County residents of all ages will buy a snorkel and a cheap face mask and will head to a nearby stream or river and dip their head underwater.
On some level, he wants to expose more people to the easy, inexpensive, and incredibly accessible wonders of surprisingly complex underwater ecosystems through snorkeling. “Freshwater snorkeling is discovery and adventure accessible to all,” he writes in his book.
He rises briefly from his window lying on his back in the underworld of Fishing Creek to address a bewildered group of riders. Their curiosity satisfied, they clip.
“When we look at a river from this perspective, we don’t see anything,” Williams tells me. “It looks like this muddy water or a reflective airplane. But when you stick your face in there, there’s all this life that’s hidden in plain sight. And it’s beautiful life. There’s all this complexity and these ongoing behaviors. It’s mind-boggling.
Indeed, when Williams invited me for a snorkeling trip on Fishing Creek, I expected that we would float above the bottom of the creek for a while and be lucky enough to spot a minnow or sunfish.
But we hadn’t entered the 10ft creek when Williams lay down in the creek bed at the base of a small waterfall created by a concrete crossing. I lie on my stomach next to him, absorb the brief shock of the cooler water, and lower my head a few inches into the gurgling water.
Immediately I see small fish staring at me with insect eyes and twirling back and forth in gentle to frantic motions. When they spin just like that, a silver flash ignites the water. You can see rays of light in the water column and hear the hum of moving water.
I let out a muffled exclamation of joy, so taken aback by this instantaneous new world.
Many of the fish in my new home tank have bright red spots or stripes on the sides, like a smaller version of a rainbow trout. The pinknose dace, a big minnow, Williams told me after I surfaced him.
Williams moves a few feet across the creek, crawling very slowly with her fingertips and toes. He uses his fingers at one point to stir the bottom mixture of sand and small pebbles. Fish of several varieties swim and swallow the tiny invisible aquatic insects that have been dislodged.
In about 20 minutes and without moving more than a few feet, we approach within a foot of a surprising variety of fish: eastern blacknose, northern sucker, white sucker, cutlip minnow, central stoneroller minnow , tessellated dart. Male blacknose dace always wear mating colors with orange fins.
The rusty crayfish give us the claw before rushing backwards in a whirlwind of silt to the shelter of the rocks.
Williams, 56, who grew up along the Delaware River in Bucks County, had his first snorkeling experience in a New Jersey lake when he was around 10 on a camping trip with family. After university, he was a biologist/ecologist for the army, but especially for terrestrial research.
Then, about 20 years ago, he saw a documentary about river ecosystems that was studied by a Japanese scientist almost exclusively by snorkeling. “I was wondering what our streams were like here underwater, so I put on a mask and never went back,” Williams recalled.
Then as now, he lived in Cecil County, Maryland, just below the Lancaster County line. He made his first snorkeling foray into nearby Big Elk Creek. It was a waterway in a heavily urbanized area with sewer overflows, rubbish and heavily eroded banks. He thought he had made a bad first choice to experiment.
“But it was amazing,” he recalls swimming among a variety of minnows and young eels. “The diversity and beauty of the things I saw rivaled the coral reefs of Australia.”
Since then he has dived all over the country and around the world, day and night and in all seasons – “There are also seasons underwater,” he says. Many trips have involved setting up outdoor education programs for young people that involve snorkeling, including in Puerto Rico and several national forests as part of a program initiated by the US Forest Service.
He swam and photographed migratory fish such as herring, shad and salmon. Her book contains a powerful passage about an exhausted chinook salmon, its breeding mission complete after an epic journey from coast to coast, taking its last breaths sideways, against the lee side of its knee. He finds it floating above a waterway in a current similar to flying.
It has been lightly attacked by such delicate fish as minnows and sunfish when they see their reflections in its mask and think it is a rival fish. It was rammed by smallmouth bass guarding nests against any intruders.
Besides bringing the underwater spectacle to the surface for the masses, Williams has a deeper and more pressing goal.
“We are losing biodiversity from aquatic systems globally faster than any other system on the planet,” he says. “If we expose people to the beauty that is there, that we don’t even see, it will inspire them to take action to protect that beauty.”
Start by exploring a creek of any size in Lancaster County, advises Williams. “That’s the beauty of Lancaster County. We have 1,400 miles of waterways.
Any stream will likely produce at least small fish, crayfish, freshwater mussels, sparkling light, water noises, and other delights. In addition to all kinds of fish and aquatic insects, you can see turtles, frogs and snails.
Look especially for sections with varied habitat, rocks, pebble stream bottoms and the confluence of streams. If a stream bed is flat sand with no rocks or submerged wood, float on it, suggests Williams.
“Just lay there. Often the fish come right in when you’re part of the background,” he says. And stay still. Sometimes you can never hear fish like when Stoneroller minnows break their jaws while chewing seaweed on a rock.
Some of its local favorites include Fishing Creek, Trout Run, Tucquan Creek and Climbers Run – all four are on Lancaster Conservancy reservations – as well as Little Conestoga Creek and Mill Creek. He loves the architecture of the undulating underwater grasses in the Susquehanna.
A no-frills mask and snorkel can be purchased for around $20. Fins are not necessary unless you intend to float a considerable distance. In summer and fall, no wet or dry suits are needed, just bathing suits.
A word of warning: Given that Lancaster County has a plethora of cows still wading through creeks and the combined sewer and stormwater discharges into the Conestoga River, Williams advises against snorkeling in all waterways except the cleanest after moderate rain. Any stream should be suitable for snorkeling a day or two after such rain events, he says.
The Williams Snorkeling and Aquatic Guide is available online and at select local bookstores.
As you can imagine, Williams receives strange comments when they see him diving into a stream not deep enough to cover his body. The most common is “What are you looking for?”
“I am not looking for anything”, he will often reply. “I watch stuff.”
Ad Crable is a LNL | Outdoor Editor LancasterOnline. Email him at [email protected]