Stranded minnows get another go at life

As the swollen river receded, the little minnows were trapped in ever-shrinking puddles, so she scooped them up into her bucket.

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    Schooling minnows.
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The Wabash River cuts diagonally across Indiana before joining the Ohio at the southwest tip of Posey County. Heavy June rains fed the Midwestern waterway lavishly.

Arriving at our part-time home in New Harmony, Ind., in time for Fourth of July celebrations, we found the Wabash invading outlying cornfields, riverside bike paths, and the grounds of the historic town's Athenaeum. The visitor center parking lot had become a semicircular fishing pier.

Fortunately, our brick cottage two blocks away was never threatened, nor were any other structures around town.

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Just before the celebratory fireworks were launched from an island of dry land below the Athenaeum, the Wabash began to ebb, leaving behind lake-, pond-, and puddle-size remnants of its invasive arms – broad swaths and pockets of swampy river water that would slowly shrink and disappear in the hot dry days to come.

I began biking the graveled paths again as they gradually re-appeared along the river-banks – sections covered by rippling currents one day were reduced the next to stagnant sloughs. The route was soon fully navigable by bicycle, the few remaining water-filled depressions easily skirted. I forded one elongated puddle the way I'd done as a child, feet tucked up above the pedals from the arcing splash.

And glancing down, I saw them – dozens of minnows parting before my front wheel, darting over the gravel bottom of their ephemeral and shrinking home to the pool's edges. Finding no route of further escape, they swam back to fill the deep middle of the puddle after I'd passed.

Something about their plight stopped me, striking a chord. While my first instinct was to rescue them, I dismissed the idea as preposterous. The little fish, near the bottom of the food chain, were perishing by the millions, left high and dry to fill the bellies of foraging birds and other wildlife, enriching the forest and fertilizing fields, a process as natural on this flood plain as the river's rise and fall.

But try as I might I could not simply dismiss those in the puddle I'd just traversed. And so, before the sun set, I returned to crouch with a bucket and measuring cup to scoop up the creatures and carry them down to the retreating river.

I must have made a curious sight to visitors in the glass-fronted Athenaeum, but I found it a strangely compelling mission, this quiet rescue of these particular minnows.

For their part, the little fish did everything in their minute power to dart around and under the scoop and avoid capture, unaware that temporary freedom spelled doom.

These were likely blunt nose minnows – one of the most common freshwater fish in the eastern United States – and they were fast running out of room and time. By scooping them one or two to a dip I conspired with the evening's still intense heat to reduce the puddle to a mere film, and picked the last stalwart wigglers from the wet gravel by hand.

As I gently poured my bucketful into the broad embrace of the Wabash at the nearby boat ramp, I knew what little difference it would make in the scheme of things, to downstream ecosystems. But that wasn't the point, really.

I had been brooding for weeks over the oil despoiling the Gulf of Mexico, powerless to do anything direct and meaningful to stem the tide and mend the ecological damage.

I knew the art of the possible – bike more, drive less, sign petitions, donate, register as a volunteer for beach cleanup – but I had not yet been able to make a direct, hands-on contribution to any kind of restoration effort.

Here, at the edge of a river whose waters would eventually reach the Gulf, I could at least give one bucketful of minnows another go at life. It was a gesture – albeit one of dubious impact – I was helpless to resist.

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