The world beneath: Snorkeling in the Esopus

(Photo by Brent Gotsch)

Swimming is a great way to commune with the Esopus Creek, but there’s something extra satisfying about adventures that involve us in a more active way. Fly fishing and kayaking are two I’ve experienced with pleasure, and now I can add snorkeling to the list — and so can you, if you and your kid(s) would like to head over to Mount Tremper’s Emerson Inn either of two Fridays, July 19 and 26, for a snorkeling session led by the Ashokan Watershed Stream Management Program (AWSMP). A whole day of activities in the creek, including snorkeling, will be held on Friday, August 16, and all these educational events are free.

Years ago I took one of AWSMP’s classes on collecting and identifying the stream insects whose presence or absence indicates the relative health of a stream. For several months, I was entranced by the little creatures, known technically as benthic macroinvertebrates, which means “bottom-dwelling beings without a backbone and big enough to be seen with the naked eye.” 

I took bunches of autumn leaves from the stream behind my house, shook them out in a bucket of water, and scooped up the macros that came near the surface. Once they were swimming in a white saucer, I could identify them and enjoy their strange and beautiful shapes: the two or three curving tails of the mayflies, the rhythmic underwater breathing of the stoneflies, the caddisflies swimming half in and half out of their self-manufactured cases. On July 12, at the first of this year’s snorkeling sessions, I was able to observe some of them within their habitat, while enjoying the glories of the creek.


I joined four youngsters, aged eight to 16, and their parents, as we stepped into the Esopus, accompanied by stream educator Matt Savatgy and several other AWSMP employees, including a certified life guard. After an orientation by Savatgy, we adjusted the masks and breathing tubes we had selected from the thoroughly cleansed array set out by the staff on the bank. The water we explored initially, in the middle of the creek, was only a few inches deep. We could kneel and lower our faces into the water, but Savatgy recommended lying flat on our bellies and pulling ourselves upstream over the rocks with our hands.

I was startled by the clarity of my first look through the mask. I saw stones coated with tiny brownish plant filaments, flickering in the current. As Savatgy had suggested, I turned over stones until one of them yielded an insect, about three-quarters of an inch long, that flailed in the current and then clung to my hand. I recognized it as a flat-headed mayfly, an elegant creature with a flat brown body and three tails. Even in the rushing water, it was able to stay on my skin, although I couldn’t feel it. I knew with confidence that it wouldn’t bite, so I spent some time admiring the little beast.

I also found a crayfish, another indicator of healthy streams. The creature was resting on the rocks, which matched its color precisely, so the ghostly, lobsterish shape took a sharp eye to detect.

Once we had experience with the shallows, Savatgy guided us to a hip-deep section with a fallen tree about ten feet from the bank. He emphasized the importance of avoiding logs perpendicular to the current, which can trap people underneath and have even caused deaths on the creek. This log was lodged parallel to the bank, a safe orientation that is conducive to the hatching of stream insects. It happened that a hatch was occurring that day.

We made our way along the side of the log, and Savatgy pointed out the tiny insects flying just above the surface of the water. Thousands of them sat on the log, having just developed beyond their underwater form and emerged as flying adults. The ones that escaped the role of fish food — and an 18-inch trout had been seen in the water that morning — would live for no longer than a week or two, mate, lay eggs, and die. 

When I waded out of the creek, I was feeling invigorated by the rushing water and awed by a glimpse of mysterious underwater life. Snorkeling in the Caribbean, of course, is more colorful, but it’s a delight to have this opportunity right in our back yard.

On August 16, AWSMP will set up three stations along the creek, and attendees will have the opportunity to rotate among them. One will allow for snorkeling, in the same way as the July programs. At the second station, macros will be collected for observation and study outside the stream. At press time, the activity for the third station had not yet been determined, but in past years, subjects have included invasive species and turbidity, or suspended sediment in the water, and how it affects water quality.

The snorkeling sessions and the August 16 stream study event are open to Ashokan Reservoir watershed residents and guests of the Emerson Resort at no charge. Children must be at least nine years old or entering fourth grade, and they must be accompanied by at least one adult family member. Register for a snorkeling session from 9:30 a.m.–10:30 a.m. or 10:45 a.m.–11:45 a.m. on Friday, July 19, or Friday, July 26, by calling the AWSMP at (845) 688-3047 and asking for Linda. You may also register for the program on Friday, August 16, running from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. The programs are held at the Emerson Resort and Spa, 5340 Route 28, Mount Tremper.

There are 2 comments

  1. Suzette Green

    Absolutely fantastic activity! My studies on the Esopus started with my employment at NYSEnCon in ’72, my research prior to that with Dr, Ted Wohnseidler in ’69. It is a wondrous world, preserved by the activity of scientists and concerned citizens. It gives me great joy to read this today. Thank you!

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