One of the most fascinating ways to enter an alternate reality is to strap on a mask and snorkel and dunk your head in an Appalachian river. I am not talking about an altered state; you are literally entering another world. Water is the source of oxygen, not air, and there is not wind but rushing currents, pools, eddies, tumbling cascades and riffles.
Once you enter this reality you no longer see a river or creek the same way. Jon Michael Mollish grew up on the Little River in Blount County. He says the only toys he and his sister ever needed were a swing and fishing poles. "We had no cable TV or big toys," he said. "The only fish I knew were big fish, little fish, and smallmouth."
When he started thinking about college, he "knew I wanted to do something outside" but was not sure what. His family property sits on a bend in the river that includes an island. Among the neighbors, it was a convenient and popular place to put in canoes or cast a line, and the Mollish family has now converted it to a commercial campground and boat launch, River John's Island.
One summer, Jon's father asked a TVA crew sampling fish near the island if they could use his son's help. They could. Even someone with no knowledge of fish can handle a seine net. To study fish in a river, biologists stretch a net across the current then start kicking rocks and shocking the water with a modest electrical current that stuns fish long enough to drift into the net and be identified and counted.
Watching the TVA biologists identify dozens of species changed Jon's perception of his backyard river. "Knowing there was a federally endangered fish in my backyard blew my mind." Little River is home to several endangered or threatened fish, insects, and amphibians, including the marbled darter that lives near River John's.
Earning a degree in aquatic biology from Eastern Kentucky University in 2009, Jon is now one of the first biologists to plunge his hand into the net's haul and start reeling off names, "warpaint, redline, river chub, warpaint, hognose, greenside..."
There are all sorts of darters and shiners and suckers in Appalachian creeks. "Little River is one of the most diverse systems in North America," says TVA biologist Charlie Saylor. TDEC uses Little River as the reference water for Pigeon River restoration efforts. Both rivers are similar in size and speed, and both have headwaters in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A paper mill in Canton, N.C. killed all but the most pollution-tolerant fish in the Pigeon during the past century, but the mill has reduced and treated their effluent enough for several extirpated fish species to be reintroduced.
In 2011, Little River scored 56 out of 60 on its Index of Biotic Integrity. Two Fridays ago, local, state and federal biologists gathered at a parking area in Townsend to measure this year's IBI score. To compute a river's score, biologists sample multiple habitats along the river for fish, insects and other animals.
Finding everything that lives in a river is a big challenge, especially in a jewel of biodiversity like Little River, so the experts team up. Biologists from TWRA, TDEC, TVA, Knox County and the University of Tennessee worked together. Some boarded a skiff to survey deep areas, others set off in small groups looking for the more skittish and secretive fish. The rest helped herd fish toward the seine net.
Just a few yards of riverbed yields hundreds of fish, most just a few inches long. Experts identify fish to species, and the sampling revealed more than two dozen varieties. There are so many kinds of insects in the river, biologists identify them only to family to keep the task manageable.
As a sign of how healthy the river is, biologists look for pollution-sensitive insects and fish that feed on insects. While this year's data is still being analyzed, UT fisheries biologist Joyce Coombs noted an absence of logperch and tangerine darters in the samples. These are insectivores, and Coombs worries that it may be innertube riders impacting these fish.
An artificial chute had been constructed from river rocks in the middle of the study site, and the IBI crew disassembled it. Tubers build such structures to raise water levels where the river is too shallow to float on, but they inundate important habitat and cause sedimentation that can smother fish eggs. Insects and fish that prefer faster, more oxygenated water lose their homes.
Coombs noted that park rangers had to post signs and educate visitors at Abrams Creek campground about the harm such dams and chutes can cause. Park biologists were attempting to reintroduce species to the creek, but their efforts were failing because campground visitors were unwittingly disturbing the fish's habitat.
Little River Watershed Association is a citizen group that advocates for protection and appreciation of the river, and they are working with outfitters and the public to reduce such habitat alteration. At River John's Island, where canoes are the preferred craft, "We don't put anyone in the river that we don't tell how precious Little River is," Jon Michael Mollish says.
The river is managed as a trophy fishery, and it can accommodate many types of recreation and still be a world-class biodiversity resource as it flows out of the national park and through Blount County.