Under the stream: Blue Ridge Snorkel Trail
For most people, the word “snorkeling” conjures images of blue Caribbean waters, pink coral reefs and a rainbow of tropical fish. But witnessing a world of aquatic beauty doesn’t require a flight to the Florida Keys.
From the top of the Tuckasegee to the waters of the French Broad, Western North Carolina is home to an incredible diversity of fish, salamanders and other aquatic creatures. The new Blue Ridge Snorkel Trail will make it easier than ever to meet them.
“When you get under the water with your snorkel and stuff on, the fish think you belong there,” said Callie Moore, western regional director for MountainTrue. “They’re not afraid of you at all. And as long as you don’t thrash around and make a bunch of noise, you can just sneak right up on them and they’ll just keep building their little nests in the rocks and crayfish come out, and it’s just really incredible.”
The snorkel trail, a joint venture of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, Mainspring Conservation Trust and MountainTrue, is the first of its kind in the region.
The Blue Ridge Snorkel Trail consists of 10 pilot sites, one in each of 10 western counties, but the partners hope to expand it to include all 24 western counties. The 10 sites are located on easily accessible land that’s already open to the public, and in the coming months they’ll each have a kiosk highlighting the species that live there and giving pointers about how to identify them.
“I’m obviously biased as an aquatics person, but in my mind, [snorkeling] covers all the bases,” said Jason Meador, aquatic programs manager for Mainspring who has been taking groups out snorkeling since 2014.
Snorkeling gives an up-close view of creatures that normally live out their lives unnoticed in Western North Carolina’s cool mountain streams, but it’s also easy to try and low-impact, allowing people to experience aquatic creatures in their natural state without harassing or harming them.
Luke Etchison, western region aquatic wildlife diversity coordinator for the Wildlife Commission, said he and Mountain Habitat Conservation Coordinator Andrea Leslie came up with the concept as a way to get people excited about aquatic wildlife and to show them the importance of clean water and healthy streams.
“This is just another way to reconnect people with their local [water resources] and help them see why they should care,” Etchison said.
It’s hard to care about something that you’ve never seen, Etchison said, so the more experiences people have in their mountain streams, the more they’ll want to protect them. That’s a philosophy that’s become something of a rallying cry in the conservation field, birthing multitudes of endeavors aimed at connecting people to the beauty, complexity and necessity of the species and ecosystems around them — in the hope that sense of connection will lead to a sense of urgency to protect them.
In WNC’s shallow streams, snorkeling is an all-ages activity.
“It’s really just trying to get more folks out there and get more folks thinking about what what’s going on in the water,” Etchison said.
The 10 pilot sites cover five different watersheds, featuring a diversity of freshwater habitat, ecosystems and species.
The trail features four locations in the Little Tennessee River Basin, starting with the Tuckasegee River at East LaPorte River Access Park in Jackson County. The river eventually flows down to another site at Island Park in Bryson City. The water is warmer there, resulting in an assemblage of fish distinct from that seen higher up at East LaPorte.
At Mainspring’s Queen Branch Nature Preserve property in Macon County, the river is broad and shallow, with a lot of bedrock. The water at the Joyce Kilmer Bridge Fishing Access on the Cheoah River below Lake Santeetlah is warmer and home to a community of fish that were reintroduced to the stream after that stretch of river was dewatered in the past. In the Hiawassee River Basin is a site on the Valley River in Andrews, one of the lower-elevation locations at about 1,780 feet above sea level.
In the French Broad River Basin, there’s the Pigeon River at Canton Recreation Park, Mills River at Mills River Park and the Swannanoa River at Black Mountain Veterans Park. The trail also features a stop at Stone Mountain State Park in the Yadkin River Basin and at the Joseph McDowell Historical Catawba Greenway in Marion.
North Carolina is home to 234 freshwater fish species, each with distinct needs for food and shelter. Even slight variations in geology, elevation and water quality can have significant impacts on the types of aquatic creatures living in a given section of stream.
“They have all very different aquatic communities,” Etchison said, “So, they’ll be able to see the difference in even a 15, 20-minute drive.”
The trail’s supporters hope its launch coinciding with the 2023 North Carolina Year of the Trail, will help it gain more support and attention. The N.C. General Assembly passed a resolution in 2021 giving 2023 that title, and all year groups across the state will be holding events and focusing their marketing to draw even more people into the state’s growing community of trail enthusiasts.
“When people find out how much aquatic biodiversity there is, and that it’s not just trout or not just bass in the lakes that’s under the water, I think there’s a lot more incentive to be asking the questions like, okay, how do we protect that?” Moore said. “The more people love a resource, the more they’re willing to do to try to protect it.”
For more information and a full list of locations on the Blue Ridge Snorkel Trail, click on www.blueridgesnorkeltrail.com.
Check out the trail:
The new Blue Ridge Snorkel Trail boasts 10 sites spanning 10 Western North Carolina counties:
- Bryson City Island Park in Bryson City, Little Tennessee River Basin. Sponsored by Town of Bryson City.
- East LaPorte River Access Park near Cullowhee, Little Tennessee River Basin. Sponsored by Jackson County.
- Joyce Kilmer Bridge Fishing Access near Robbinsville, Little Tennessee River Basin. Sponsored by U.S. Forest Service.
- Queen Branch Nature Preserve near Cowee, Little Tennessee River Basin. Sponsored by Mainspring Conservation Trust.
- Valley River Heritage Park in Andrews, Hiawassee River Basin. Sponsored by Town of Andrews.
- Canton Recreation Park Boat Ramp in Canton, French Broad River Basin. Sponsored by Town of Canton and Haywood Waterways Association.
- Mills River Park in Mills River, French Broad River Basin. Sponsored by Town of Mills River and Mills River Partnership.
- Black Mountain Veterans Park in Black Mountain, French Broad River Basin. Sponsored by Town of Black Mountain.
- Stone Mountain State Park near Roaring Gap, Yadkin River Basin. Sponsored by N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation.
- Joseph McDowell Historical Catawba Greenway in Marion, Catawba River Basin. Sponsored by Town of Marion.
The Blue Ridge Snorkel Trail website is still under development at blueridgesnorkeltrail.com and will be populated with information about site kickoff events with guided snorkeling, the trail and snorkel sites.