Jenni’s Bucket List
Exploring the Underwater Wonders of our Region
When most people compile their life bucket list, they include things like, “drive a racecar,” “visit the Taj Mahal” or “dance the tango.” For Jenni Frankenberg Veal, a freelance writer with a passion for the outdoors, top on the bucket list was seeing a big, brown, bottom feeding salamander. And last summer, during a snorkel trip on the Hiwassee River in Polk County, Jenni checked off her item.
Jenni Veal (3rd from right) with the Hiwassee River snorkeling crew
Jenni and several other folks from the Polk County Chamber of Commerce, the Thrive Regional Partnership, the Cleveland-Bradley Chamber of Commerce, National Park Service and McKee Foods joined the National Forest Service for a guided snorkel trip on the Hiwassee State Scenic River.
The snorkel trips, which are also offered on Citico Creek and the Conasauga River, give land lubbers a rare glimpse into the extraordinarily rich and colorful world that lies under the surface of our region’s freshwater streams.
“We saw a Hellbender!” crowed Jenni, giddy as she slogged out of the river shallows in a dripping wetsuit. “We actually saw two!”
Jenni's Hellbender Salamander in the Hiwassee River
Young Ethan Bullock, a trip participant with sharp, 10-year-old eyes, had spotted a juvenile Hellbender, only 4 inches long. He set the tiny creature in his snorkel mask for some pictures and then released it back to the river bottom. (Editors note: Since the publication of this blog, we have learned that what Jenni and Ethan thought was a young Hellbender was actually a Sculpin, a bottom-feeding fish that populates freshwater streams and oceans all over the world.)
Ethan Bullock's baby Hellbender (aka, Sculpin)
Seeing a Hellbender in its native habitat is worthy of a bucket list item. Though reaching up to two feet in length, the reclusive salamanders hang out on river bottoms and closely resemble the rocks that they hide under. Seeing one in the wild requires stealth and a very sharp eye.
Hellbenders are also becoming rare, even in the rich waters of our tristate region. According to a National Geographic article from 2013, the salamander, which is native only to the eastern U.S., has been slipping quietly away since the 1980’s. And populations in the northeast and in the Ozarks are declining to the point of endangerment.
“Unlike a lot of other salamanders, [hellbenders] breathe entirely through their skin,” says Kim Terrell, Conservation Biologist with the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., in the National Geographic article. As a result, Hellbenders require cold, clean water in which to live. The peaceful creatures are extremely vulnerable to silt and pollutants that disturb their pristine environment.
Inspecting Ethan's Sculpin
So it is good news that Jenni Veal spotted a Hellbender in the Hiwassee River, which is fed from the clear springs and creeks of the Cherokee National Forest. For our region’s future, the Hellbender could be considered an indicator species. If we do a good job planning how our communities develop, the big, brown salamander and his river cousins will thrive. If we grow with disregard for our natural treasures, especially those that we don’t see every day, then Jenni’s treasure might be lost forever.