May 262013

I've been watching cormorants lately. They are fascinating birds. They gather in great numbers below the Conowingo Hydroelectric Dam on the Susquehana River in Maryland near the northern end of the Chesapeake Bay.

Did I say "in great numbers?" Just survey a portion of the gathering (click to enlarge). The cormorants are the black birds and the most numerous. Harder to see are the ones fishing in the rushing water. Unlike ducks, the feathers or cormorants are not buoyant, so they sink down in the water instead of riding up on top of it. The reason their feathers don't float is so they can dive down for food, which most ducks can't do. Cormorants can dive down very deep after food, although fishing is so good below Conowingo that they likely get plenty to eat not far beneath the surface.

Since the feathers of cormorants get wet and heavy, the birds have a struggle to get airborne during a water takeoff. Their wings have to work really hard and also their webbed feet need to help out as well. It takes a good distance and creates a lot of fuss. A feeding cormorant may have to perform these takeoffs numerous times before catching a fish. They fly up close to the dam and land, then float downsteam watching for their next meal. If they don't find it by a certain point downstream, they takeoff and land upstream again. 

There are 40 some varieties of cormorants. These are the most common in our area — the double-crested cormorant, so named because the male sports a second crest during the mating season. As shown here, the birds have a fearsome weapon for snagging fish. Not only are their beaks long and needle sharp, the top part has a wicked hook in the shape of, well, a fish hook. Imagine being a fish and having that thing come toward you at lightening speed. And this only moments after you got churned through the massive turbines of Conowingo dam.

When a cormorant dives down and gets a small fish, it will swallow it under water. But when it catches a large fish, it must bring it to the surface and perform an amazing maneuver. It has to release the fish from its beak, flip it so the head is pointing down and the tail pointing up, and catch it just right for swallowing. As my picture shows, they can swallow very large fish, and all without the aid of any hands, fingers, claws, or feet. Because this flipping and swallowing operation has to be so precise, it is also an opportunity for a fish not inclined to be swallowed to wiggle and get away.

A further aspect of cormorant activity at Conowingo is the turbulence and speed of the river. The best fishing is when the turbines are running and the river swolen and rushing. In the short video that follows, you will see them seeking and catching their food in water no human swimmer would attempt. You will see many of them sunning and watching from dry rocks while others churn past them. We assume that most of the watchers have already had success and are settled to dry off and digest their meals. This video represents a 55-second slice to time on the river. I have counted in it 17 bald eagles, 7 great blue herons, and at least 4 of the comorants visibly catching fish.

May 182013

It is not entirely clear that human beings were intended to swim in water. Compared to fish and birds and other swimming animals, we are slow and very limited. Still we, and I, keep trying. Doctors tell us it's great exercise. As a former runner, I know it beats pounding the pavement with my feet, ankles, knees, and hips. 

The earth is covered with a lot of unfrozen water where swimming can take place. There are oceans, bays, rivers, and lakes abundant. But for most of us, swimming takes place in artificial man-made pools filled with clean, filtered water and with life guards watching. There are well marked swim lanes of measured distances and timing clocks to consult. There is a uniformity, a sameness, about swimming in these places, whether indoors or outdoors. I know that in a pool with 25 meter lanes, I need to do 64 lengths, 32 laps, to make a mile. There is no risk of getting lost or off course. Just follow the black line on the bottom of the pool. 

But swimming in the lakes and rivers and oceans is a different matter. And swimming in a tidal river like the Nanticoke on the Eastern Shore of Maryland is especially so. If this account of the 2013 swim is of interest, do read my account of the same Nanticoke swim event from 2012.

As before, the Nanticoke swim begins at a small beach near the marina and starts out along a sea wall to the river. The course is triangular and you swim counter clockwise, staying to the outside of each marker buoy at the corners. We came expecting a three mile swim, which requires swimming around the triangle twice. But when the Coast Guard arrived, they announced that small craft warnings had been posted because of rough conditions which would make swimming difficult if not dangerous. A settlement was negotiated with race officials to allow the swim to go on, but shortened to two miles. Two miles meant swimming out and around the triangle once, and then back to the finish. It also defined a course with five legs which I have numbered on the graphic. 

Nanticoke River Swim 2013 diagramThe first leg was in water mostly protected from the winds and river current. The challenges included starting out with the mass of swimmers in a small space and trying to get use to the unusually cold water, about 61 degrees. The cold water made it hard to breath, and I kept running into other swimmers or having them run into me. I arrived at the first buoy to begin the second leg still struggling.

The second leg was by far the hardest. There was some tidal current in our favor but a terrific wind and breaking waves in our face. Normally in open water you want to swim with your head down as you would in the pool, raising up to check your position about every 6-8 strokes. When I tried to swim like this there were two problems: I was still not getting enough breath, and often times when I tried to breath I got hit in the face by a wave and swallowed salt water instead of breathing air. This put me even further in breathing deficit.  I ended up swimming most of the second leg doing a survival breast stroke and holding my head up to try and anticipate the large waves coming toward me. I knew I was moving slowly but it was the best I could do. I looked forward to the turn into leg three where we would at least be swimming cross-wind and somewhat down wind as well.

I have experienced the effects of wind as both a runner, a swimmer, and a bicyclist. The effects are significant in each of these sports.  One might assume that the wind is more of a factor in biking or running, since you are upright and more exposed to it. One might assume that a swimmer, whose body is mainly beneath the water, would be largely unaffected. This is not the case, and the game changer is the force of moving water. In open water swimming, the wind moves the water and you must deal with that force. If the waves are coming directly toward you and breaking in white caps, water hits you head on and tries to drive you backward. On the other hand, if you are lucky enough to have the wind at your back, and you time your strokes just right, you can actually get a "ride" off of the breaking waves, somewhat like body surfing. If waves are coming from the right and you breath on that side as most of us do, you are facing the waves as you search for a quick breath.  There is much to consider and adjust to in terms of the wind.

I finally made the turn and sighted toward the next buoy far out in the river. Indeed, I was now able to swim normally. But the river had another surprise in store. When I got my next sighting of the buoy it was far to my right.  I was heading straight down the river, parallel to the shore. I corrected and swam more. The next time I sighted the same thing had happened.  I corrected even more and swam harder. What I and other swimmers did not know was that the tidal current was flowing downstream and not upstream in this area. Some later called it a whirlpool. I know I was carried far off a straight course on this leg, but finally I rounded the marker, wondering what lay in store as we headed cross-river toward the finish.

It was not as bad as I feared. I feared that this unpredictable tide would be pushing me off course. But I was able to take a bearing that helped greatly. I sighted a line from an anchored sailboat to some distant houses beyond it.  The sailboat was very close to where I needed to go.  I knew if I stayed on the course of this alignment, I would be heading straight.  This worked out well, and I was able to finish the course rather strongly, probably at about a 30 minute per mile pace. However, my total time for the two miles was an hour and 21 minutes.

I would have hoped to complete this course in an hour or less. Even under these conditions, some younger and stronger swimmers completed in 45 minutes. I was grudgingly happy to have completed it at all. The next day I found myself replaying the course and the conditions and wishing I could do it over and do it better.

May 122013

What do you do when it's Mother's Day and your mother is only a memory? I guess you take some time to remember.

My mother was a kind and loving person with a simple Christian faith and a multitude of friends. She had three sons, but lost the oldest of them in World War II. As a Christian and loyal American she accepted that loss, but she felt the pain of it all the rest of her life. I was her youngest son. Although mother has been gone for many years now, I still feel her love and influence. 

Like everyone else, mother thought about the meaning of life and what it meant to live it well. I was given the strong impression that my life was important and that I had a responsibilty to make the most of it. I was given the strong impression that the success of my life depended not only on what I did for myself but what I would do for others. In other words, I had a moral and social responsibility. And this coincided with my responsibility to God, my maker. In mother's view, we all had responsibilities to be taken seriously. Many of these were reflected in her repeated sayings.

Study hard.

Always do your best.

Do unto others and you would have them do unto you.

Be polite.

Turn the other cheek.

Mind your own business.

Take our time.

Wait your turn.

Make yourself useful.

As I remember those sayings and get reminded of them in daily living, I realize there was other advice my mother never gave. She never advised about getting even if others did you wrong. She wanted me to succeed but not at the expense of others. The idea of advancing yourself by putting others down would never have occurred to her. Nor did the excuse that the end justifies the means, and you should do whatever you need to do to get ahead. Mother believed in right and wrong, and that no personal gain was worth the cost of doing wrong to get it.

I have not always followed these teachings, but I have never forgotten them, or failed to remember them when I contemplate moral choices.