Young Explorers find possibly the ugliest but coolest creature in the Blue Ridge Mountains

Young Explorers Club goes snorkeling for Hellbenders

On Thursday September 3, 2015, BRDC hosted a sign up and preparatory meeting for the Young Explorers Club at the Independence Public Library where twelve young explorers signed the membership rules and code of conduct to become the founding members of the club. During the meeting we discussed the basic premise of an explorers club and introduced them to the hobby of being a naturalist. In preparation for our first outing, a snorkeling trip to the South Fork of the Holston River, we studied up on fish species with the Guide to Freshwater Fishes of Virginia and discussed the hellbender. The following Saturday we met up and carpooled over the mountain to Buller Fish Hatchery and the South Fork of the Holston River which is part of the Tennessee River watershed to explore the riches of a mountain stream. 

With the water low and the sun shining bright it was the perfect day to explore the creek bottom. After a short study of the Mount Rogers National Geographic Map (part of the naturalist packs) the club took on the challenge of squeezing into wetsuits. Suited up and ready to roll we made our way downstream to form lines of snorkelers. With 64 deg water even the experienced snorkelers were hesitant, but once the crew laid flat and got their heads in the water the elation began to ring out. The group worked their way up stream finding all sorts of creatures. The occasional scream or snorkel muffled rambling of excitement signaled the next great find. Trout, darters, sculpin and crayfish were everywhere! Rhiannon became the group fish whisper as she surfaced with multiple sculpins and darters in hand for everyone to have a close look.

We worked our way up stream in 16" of water searching every crevice and crack for creatures of the deep, until the leading edge discovered the stone cold face of a hellbender under a large rock! Everyone got a chance to peak over the edge and come face to face with one of the ugliest creatures of the Blue Ridge. Hellbenders are often referred to as Mud Puppies by locals and have a mottled light brown and dark brown skin that resembles the coloration of a brown algae covered rock. On first look, one would not recognize the motionless hellbender for a salamander, not the least of the reasons being that it was over 20" long! Two beady pale blue eyes sat at the front of the head and kept a watch out for unsuspecting crayfish or snorkelers in this case! Lifting up the rock we got to see the full extent of the salamander. Handling the spectacular creature gently, everyone observed its "white finger nails" and long flat tail that it uses to propel itself in the water. Being careful to return the rock to its exact position, we let the hellbender crawl back into its hiding place. We were left stunned by the simultaneous beauty and ugliness of the hellbender. As such a docile creature it is easy to feel sympathy for its vulnerability but then you remember it eats crayfish for a living and is basically pure muscle! For more information about the hellbender, its distribution and threats, please visit: http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/hellbender/

Luke enjoying the waterfall!

Luke enjoying the waterfall!

The afternoon was capped off with a refreshing dunk under the cascading waterfall of the dam. The explorers found a large air pocket behind the water and took turns disappearing into the deafening roar of the water. After a gearing down we documented the species observed in our journal and each member got a Hellbender poster and one of the Crayfish of Virginia courtesy of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Everyone departed wishing we could keep on exploring and excited for the next trip afield!

The Young Explorers Club