By Emma Castleberry
The NC Wildlife Resources Commission has announced the launch of the Blue Ridge Snorkel Trail this spring. Snorkeling in the mountains may sound unexpected, but the rivers and streams of our region offer unique and thrilling encounters with the underwater world. “River snorkeling opens folk up to a whole new way of looking at our rivers and streams,” says Kevin Merrill, who owns Oxbow River Snorkeling with his wife Christie. “I can stand in a room and talk about our rivers and the animals that inhabit them. I can also show PowerPoint slides with great photos of a fish or caddisfly larva, or the eastern hellbender salamander, but if I take you on an adventure and show you this hidden world, now you have a lifelong connection.”
This connection was what inspired the two biologists who conceptualized the Blue Ridge Snorkel Trail during the pandemic. Andrea Leslie and Luke Etchison with the NC Wildlife Resources Commission came up with the idea after they helped to create the film Hidden Rivers, a documentary that highlights the wonders of animal life in Southern Appalachian streams. “If people could experience those wonders in person,” says Leslie, “we knew it could inspire a whole new way of appreciating streams and encourage river stewardship.”
Leslie and Etchison partnered with Callie Moore of MountainTrue and Jason Meador of Mainspring Conservation Trust to build the pilot version of the Blue Ridge Snorkel Trail, which includes ten publicly accessible sites that were selected for safety, good water quality and the presence of a diversity of aquatic animals. The trail offers snorkeling opportunities in the Catawba, French Broad, Hiwassee, Little Tennessee and Yadkin River Basins.
Oxbow River Snorkeling leads river snorkeling excursions on the upper French Broad River, which is home to more than 50 native species of fish, several species of crayfish and freshwater mussels, a number of aquatic insects, and the eastern hellbender salamander. Merrill says clients are most impressed by colorful darter fish like the gilt and redline darter, or minnows in spawning colors, like Tennessee and saffron shiners. “When many folks think about colorful fish, they think of coral reefs, but many of our native fishes express vibrant colors of red, blue, green, yellow and orange,” he says.
The experience of river snorkeling is exciting and visually stimulating, but there is another, longer-term result that pays dividends for the health of our rivers and communities. “You’ll never cross a bridge or stream without thinking of that banded darter or some other aquatic animal that intrigued you while snorkeling,” says Merrill. “But most importantly, you now feel you have an obligation to protect our freshwater resources.”
There will be kick-off events for the Blue Ridge Snorkel Trail from mid-June to August, including an event in the Pigeon River on June 17 and the Little Tennessee River at Mainspring Conservation Trust’s Queen Branch site on August 2. For more information, visit NCFishes.com/blue-ridge-snorkel-trail. Find a trailer of the film Hidden Rivers at FreshwatersIllustrated.org/hidden-rivers.