The following is my latest adventure from the Falls of the Ohio State Park. It’s official now, the month of November was among our top ten coldest Novembers ever recorded. This continues a see-saw trend where one month might set a record for heat (like October did) only to bounce back down to the other extreme. It’s too early to tell about December, but on this recent visit it was cool and overcast. We have since had several days of rain causing the river to swell. Today’s story begins at the westernmost point on the Woodland Loop Trail. This path is bordered by what folks around here refer to as a “creek”, but in actuality is a channel cut into the riverbank by storm water overflow released from the town of Clarksville. I wish it were a creek and perhaps long ago, may have been one. During periods of flooding and high water, driftwood and logs back up into this area and are stranded once the water level recedes. The picture above is a recent illustration of this.
I was exploring this water-cut channel and noticed that there were lots of beaver signs present. In addition to their tracks left in the mud, I found plenty of chewed willow branches. I added some of the nicer sticks to my collecting bag. It made me think about how much the appearance of the black willow trees around here are shaped by the beaver’s “pruning” methods. I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me before…perhaps it was just too obvious. Actually, I think it has something to do with the beaver population rebounding over the last few years. In certain local places, they have become “pests”. Their damning of local drainage canals has necessitated their capture and removal to other more remote areas.
Exploring a bend on the Woodland Loop Trail, I found this deer skull laying upside down on the fallen leaves. It was kind of hard to see, but something in the old brain said to look more closely and I did. After taking a few photographs, I laid it upon the trunk of a large fallen tree for others to discover. Like the beaver, it appears the deer are becoming more numerous as well. After years of finding just their tracks and the occasional bone, this season I was able to spot a doe and her fawn in the park during broad daylight.
I walked to the top of the riverbank to get a better look at the peninsula that has been created at the mouth of the “creek” from the storm sewer’s overflow. Over the years, I have witnessed stringers of sauger and catfish being caught here by the local fishermen. I like how the rising and falling of the river has terraced the mud into a series of graduated steps. I was relaxed and zoning out on the view when I noticed something white that had surfaced and was entering the “creek”. I quickly took a photo and here it is.
I scrambled down the riverbank to get a better view and got my clothes severely muddy in the process. In my head I’m telling myself that for all the world this looks like a shark’s dorsal fin…but is this possible? I remember hearing that there are a few shark species (notably bull sharks) that are capable of swimming up rivers and able to tolerate being in fresh water for extended periods of time. Still, we are a long way from the ocean which also includes navigating a large section of the Mississippi River before entering into the Ohio River… just to reach this spot. I observed the fin submerging as it disappeared from view. Hustling, I reached the general location where I thought the fin was heading and was “blown away” by this sight!
Emerging from the muddy water was this white figure sporting an improbable headdress or mask? The figure was carrying a staff and appeared to have fins on its body similar to a shark. I let this fellow come fully out of the water before my curiosity overwhelmed me and I went in for a closer look.
This strange being did not seem to be afraid of me and regarded me through his dark eyes. His face was framed by what looked like the jaws, teeth, and the head of a shark. My attention kept returning to the fearsome mask it was wearing which I surmised might be a part of some breathing apparatus? A yellow light on its chest would occasionally blink signaling some other unfamiliar technology was present. The staff the figure was holding was terminated by a hand pointing a finger which reinforced the stranger’s mysterious presence.
Using its staff, I watched as the figure drew the outlines of several sharks in the soft mud and then pointed to one of his eyes. He followed this by making a sweeping movement with his arm that seemed to encompass the river and its surrounding landscape. It took me a moment, but I think it asked me if I had seen any sharks in the area? Reflexively, I replied by shaking my head “no” which the figure seemed to understand by dropping his head and shoulders in a disconsolate manner? That’s when I had this mental flash that this guy was a shepherd, a shark shepherd and he was looking for his lost flock? From here on out, I will refer to him as the Shark Shepherd. He next stuck his staff into the mud and walked away from it. I decided to tag along to see if I could learn anything else about my new silent friend.
The Shark Shepherd seemed to have a curiosity about our world. I observed as he approached an improvised tent that someone had set up among the trees. It’s owner(s), however, were not around, but it didn’t seem abandoned in my eyes. Probably made by fishermen and there seemed to be several trying their luck along the riverbank on this windy day. I too have a curiosity about the world and after my encounter with the Shark Shepherd ended…I rushed home to try to figure out what he was doing here so far from the sea? Using the miracle of the internet, I learned a few alarming facts about shark disappearances worldwide.
On average, between 20 million to 73 million sharks a year are taken out of marine ecosystems across the planet. Most of the statistics mentioned the higher number…regardless, that’s too many sharks. Sharks are “harvested” for their fins, cartilage, and teeth. The boom in popularity for shark fin soup has led to an insidious practice where millions of sharks are harvested and often indiscriminately by using thousands of hooks set on miles of trailing “longlines”. Sharks are a valuable bycatch. The captured sharks (which are often caught alive) have their fins cut off and are frequently thrown back into the seas to die in agony. It’s a lucrative business because this was once a delicacy and status symbol reserved for the wealthy back in the day when sharks were harder and more challenging to catch. Now it is within the reach of more people. Through industrialized commercial fishing, millions of mostly Asian consumers can have a bowl of shark fin soup on special occasions. Interestingly, the soup itself needs to be flavored with beef or chicken stock because the fins themselves are a textural element and contribute no flavor of their own. Of course, a bowl of soup is not the only challenge sharks face. Commercial sports fishing, pollution, reef destruction, and overfishing of the shark’s prey base play their part as well.
In the United States, large sharks have disappeared from the Gulf of Mexico. I think this is the reason the Shark Shepherd was this far inland. Along our Atlantic Coast, it has been reported that eleven of the largest shark species have essentially vanished. This has important repercussions for the overall marine environment. You can’t remove this many apex predators from an ecosystem and expect it to function normally. There are cascading effects. A recent study attributes the decline in our East Coast scallop industry is due to the loss of sharks that normally would keep cownosed rays and sting rays who eat scallops in check.
I followed the Shark Shepherd as he explored the area around the newly closed Interpretive Center. There were people around and they did exhibit interest in my friend, but were generally respectful for what was going on. A few folks asked if they could take pictures of the Shark Shepherd and he obliged them. During my internet research, I did find it fascinating that there are places like American Samoa, Hawaii, Guam, and the island nation of Palau where sharks are protected. Interestingly, these are all places in the Pacific Ocean where people regard the shark as a culturally and spiritually significant animal. These Polynesian cultures understand that their very identities are connected with sharks. The same, however, can’t be said for the rest of the world who regard sharks as nuisances and or threats. Better to view something with reverence than through fear.
The Shark Shepherd climbed the staircase to gain a better vantage point overlooking the river. I watched him scan the waters, but only an occasional fishing boat presented itself. If he was looking for sharks, well, there probably hasn’t been any here for about 400 million years when this area was a Devonian Age coral reef. I could feel the poignancy of the Shark Shepherd’s search as it failed to bear fruit. After a short while, we reversed our course and retraced our steps. The Shark Shepherd gathered his staff and walked back into the creek where after acknowledging me with one last look back…disappeared into the Ohio River. Although I realized that I would not see him again, I couldn’t help but hope that he and his sharks wouldn’t disappear forever from the oceans of the world.
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