#DeepwaterHorizon-Using Reality in Fiction

 

Deepwater Horizon, BP oil spill

Deepwater Horizon well BP oil spill 2010

They’ve now made a movie about Deepwater Horizon (Click here to see the trailer). I heard an interview with the director, Peter Berg, and he said he didn’t focus the movie on the environmental impact but on the human lives lost. That’s good because the explosion on that oil rig killed eleven men. This tragedy could have been prevented.

I began writing Trails in the Sand in the months after Deepwater Horizon and the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion that killed twenty-nine miners. Forty deaths within two weeks of one another pushed me to write something that might serve as a reminder of two preventable disasters that occurred within two weeks of one another in 2010. Forty men died and countless wildlife and their habitats were injured or destroyed. Both events touched my life in some way and both made their way into the writing of Trails in the Sand.

The first tragedy occurred on April 5 when the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia exploded, killing twenty-nine miners doing their job in the bowels of the earth. Subsequent reports showed the company ignored safety regulations, which played an important role in the explosion. At the time, I was in the process of moving from Florida to western Pennsylvania. The mine is several hours south of where I moved so the local media covered the disaster continually for the next few weeks. The national news also kept its eye turned toward a small town in West Virginia where families mourned their husbands, sons, fathers, brothers, and cousins. After April 20, the lens of the cameras shifted to the southwest.

The news began as a whimper before erupting into cries of outrage. An oil rig somewhere off the coast of Louisiana caught on fire on April 20, 2010. Soon the whole rig collapsed and eleven men never made it out alive. Oil gushed from a well several miles below the Gulf’s surface.

As I made the transition to Pennsylvania, I still held my job in Florida, although I was in the process of leaving. I was a public relations director for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. I made the trip back and forth between the two states sixteen times in 2010. I conducted meetings from a cell phone in airports, highway rest areas, and at a dining room table from our small temporary apartment in Pittsburgh.

aptopix-gulf-oil-spill-1fee0422a0df6673Every time I started to give my two-week notice to my supervisors, something happened, and my wildlife biologist bosses pleaded with me to stay. During a crisis, the spokesperson for a company or agency suddenly becomes a very important part of the team. Scientists become speechless when looking in the face of a microphone. And all their scientific facts and figures must be distilled into sound bites for the public.

Nothing much happened in those early days of the oil spill for the wildlife community, although as a communications specialist, I prepared for worst-case scenarios, while hoping for the best. Partnerships between national and state agencies formed to manage information flowing to the media. By May, some of the sea turtle experts began worrying about the nesting turtles on Florida’s Panhandle beaches, right where the still gushing oil might land. In particular, the scientists worried that approximately 50,000 hatchlings might be walking into oil-infested waters if allowed to enter the Gulf of Mexico after hatching from the nests on the Gulf beaches.sargassum-oil-deepwater-horizon

 

 

An extraordinary and unprecedented plan became reality, and as the scientists wrote the protocols, the plan was “in direct response to an unprecedented human-caused disaster.”

When the nests neared the end the incubation period, plans were made to dig up the nests and transport the eggs across the state to Cape Canaveral, where they would be stored until the hatchlings emerged from the eggs. Then they would receive a royal walk to the sea away from the oil-drenched waters of the Gulf.

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The whole project reeked with the scent of drama, ripe for the media to descend on Florida for reports to a public hooked on the images of oiled wildlife. Since I was in transition in my job, they appointed me to handle all media requests that came to the national and state agencies regarding the plan. From my new office in Raccoon Township, Beaver County, Pennsylvania, I began coordinating media events and setting up interviews with the biologists.

As the project began in June 2010, I began writing Trails in the Sand. At first, I created the characters and their situations. Then slowly I began writing about the oil crisis and made the main character, Caroline, an environmental reporter who covered the sea turtle relocation project. Then suddenly I was writing about her husband, Simon, who mourned the loss of his cousin in the coal mine disaster in West Virginia. I didn’t make a conscious effort to tie together the environmental theme with the family saga unfolding, but before too long, I realized they all dealt with restoration and redemption of things destroyed. As a result, the oil spill and the sea turtles became a metaphor for the destruction caused by Caroline and her family.

I’m a firm believer in the subject choosing the author. When that happens, it’s best to let go and enjoy the gift. Trails in the Sand became a novel sometimes classified as “faction” because it combines real-world events with fictional characters and situations. I have written nearly twenty novels since 1999, and of all of them, Trails in the Sand remains the one closest to my heart. Because the subject chose me, the words came easily and the characters became an extension of my family.

I wish the disasters never occurred. But I can’t wave a wand and erase the past. But with strokes on the keyboard, I can create something lasting that might make a difference. At the very least, I made that attempt. And so did the director of Deepwater Horizon, which releases today. We need all the reminders possible so we never repeat the events of April 2010 again.

Florida, BP oil spill, sea turtles

Excerpt from Trails in the Sand

Chapter One – Caroline

The next morning the whir of the coffee grinder woke me as Simon churned beans into grounds for our daily ritual. I savored that first sip of coffee every morning. Simon used only the darkest roast with an oily sheen. Every morning he brought me a steaming mug of the brew along with the morning papers. If my eyes weren’t open when he came into the room, he bent down and gently kissed me on the forehead.

“Good morning, baby,” he’d say, and I’d look up into his smiling face, his blue eyes twinkling a greeting. His eyes mirrored my own blue eyes. At one time, we both had blonde hair, but now with age, Simon’s had turned white while mine remained the same color of our youth, thanks to L’Oreal.

As I sipped the aromatic brew, I glanced at the morning’s headlines before the television and George Stephanopoulos diverted my attention.

It was only a blip on the charts of the day’s news stories. I would have missed mention of it if I’d gone to the bathroom when George said an oil rig had caught on fire in the Gulf of Mexico the night before. On the morning of April 21, 2010, other news took precedence over this minor incident occurring miles off the coast of Louisiana.

As I flipped the channels to find more news, I learned that volcanic ash from a recently erupted volcano in Iceland was costing airlines $1.7 billion to combat the loss in flights. The day before the Supreme Court overturned a ban on videos depicting animal cruelty. Matt Laurer announced the death toll after the April 14 earthquake in China now topped 2,000.

CNN reported that a former coal miner at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia decided to give an interview detailing the unsafe conditions at the mine prior to the explosion two weeks earlier.

But nothing more on a little oil rig burning in the middle of the ocean. Since the fire occurred the night before, the morning newspapers contained no reports.

I took another sip of coffee, trying to determine the level of my reporter’s barometric pressure climbing up the back of my neck.

“Were you listening to NPR in the kitchen?” I asked Simon as he came back to bed with his cup of coffee and a glass of orange juice.

“No. Why?”

“Just a curious little footnote to the news this morning, but I’ve only heard it on ABC so far,” I said. “It seems an oil rig caught on fire out in the Gulf last night. The report said eleven men are missing, but officials are confident the men are on lifeboats that haven’t been found yet because of the smoke on the water.”

“It sounds like it has the potential for a real disaster,” Simon said.

“They also said a former miner decided to talk about conditions at Upper Big Branch mine,” I said. “Sure wish I could have gotten that interview.”

A couple of the channels gave a brief account of the oil rig fire, but all agreed everything was under control. I hoped that was the case, but it bothered me when all the reports said the fire still burned. How did they have any idea what lay below the surface of that fire?

“Yesterday, April 20, was the eleventh anniversary of Columbine,” I said. “And the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day is tomorrow.”

“And the West Virginia explosion occurred on your mother’s birthday, April 5,” my husband said.

He knew very well I kept track of dates and wondered at the curiosity of so many significant occurrences in history coinciding with other dates important to those closest to me. In my family, birthdays, anniversaries, and deaths more often than not occurred on important historical dates. Two of my aunts had been born on December 7, the anniversary of Pearl Harbor – a day of infamy. My best friend Holly was born on Christmas Day, and my sister died on the Fourth of July just two years earlier.

“I guess I better make some calls,” I said. “I’m a little skeptical that all is well in the Gulf.”

“Getting one of those hunches?” Simon asked.

“My ears are starting to tingle, so I better listen.”

I wouldn’t say I was clairvoyant or possessed powers of prescience, but I had a journalist’s instinct for news whether I was dealing with my job as a freelance environmental writer or as a woman assessing a person’s intentions. I learned over the years to follow those instincts. First, I felt something akin to hair rising on my neck. However, when I felt the tingling in my ears that sent a shiver down my spine, I began to pay attention to every little detail. The skeptic in me was still simmering beneath the surface even though my marriage to Simon the year before took some of the sharper edges off the knife of my cynicism. Love works miracles, but my transformation was still a work in progress. For the sake of my career, that was probably a good thing. I needed to question everything, or I’d never have a story.

I wondered where to start finding out about the fire. For nearly three decades, I made my living by writing about the environment and wildlife, with human interest thrown in the mix. One of the most recent stories took me to the Panhandle of Florida where a bear wandered into a residential neighborhood only to be darted with a tranquilizer by a wildlife biologist with the state wildlife agency. The drugged bear stumbled into the Gulf of Mexico before collapsing from the tranquilizer. The biologist wanted to knock the bear out temporarily, not drown him. He swam out to rescue the unconscious animal, dragging it back to shore. Photos of the rescue taken by a resident went around the world.

I wrote investigative pieces about illegal dumping of hazardous waste in rivers in far too many places in the United States. I wrote about environmental disasters and crimes whenever I received a tip from my sources that I’d cultivated and coddled over decades of trying to find the perfect quote. I wrote a story a few years back about a wildlife CSI lab in Oregon. I traveled across the country for stories filled with dramatic flourishes that somehow touched lives. I waded through the swamps of the Everglades hunting the invasive Burmese python, and I followed a group of camel traders in the deserts of Morocco, all in pursuit of the story.

When Simon came back into my life, I made the decision to give our marriage my full attention. I curtailed the scope of my writing, concentrating on stories from the southeastern Atlantic coast.

“Just when I thought our lives might settle down,” Simon said as he sat on the edge of the bed, flipping through the newspapers.

“You and I will never settle down. It’s our karma to be perpetually stirred up,” I said as I leaned forward to give him a kiss on the cheek.

trails-deepwater

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A special gift for the followers of my blog! Download my memoir Odyssey to Myself for free by clicking here. And thank you for following my blog.

FLORIDA FICTION – GRAB A COPY FOR #FREE!

Good morning – I’m running a special offer this week. If you haven’t read any of the books from my Florida Fiction series, now is the chance to grab the first two for free. All three books are stand alone novels. Each one has its own cast of characters and political, romantic, and environmental issues facing them. Let’s start with the first one.

TORTpsdTortoise Stew – FREE May 11-15 – The first book in the series follows the antics of rural small town Florida politicians, developers, reporters, and environmentalists. All of them have something to hide and the events that start unfold as Monster Mart tries to take over the town with trucks and warehouses.

Blurb:  When a bomb is left on reporter Kelly Sand’s desk, she’s determined to find out who wants her to stop reporting on corporate growth in rural Florida. The open threat thrusts Kelly back into the arms of her editor and former lover, Bart Stanley.

Together, the two begin to unravel the master plan of major developers who want to destroy the last vestiges of Florida’s natural beauty. Tortoise Stew is a satire on political crime and Florida sensibilities.

A sometimes humorous, often harrowing, and never boring Florida suspense novel, Tortoise Stew contains a cast of characters who leave dead armadillos as calling cards, dynamite ponds as a way to fish, and carry guns under Santa Claus costumes during the annual Christmas parade.

Through it all, the steamy relationship between Kelly and Bart heats up to blistering hot as they rediscover what brought them together in the first place.

Click here to download.

Trails in the Sand - BookcoverTrails in the Sand – FREE May 11 and 12 – This book leaves rural Florida to concentrate on state issues when the oil spill from BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig threatens to harm the wildlife and environment on Florida’s Panhandle. While a sweeping romance between Caroline and Simon reveals much more about the family, environmental issues create the disastrous background from the oil spill to a coal mine tragedy in West Virginia.

Blurb: Caroline Carlisle loved Simon from the moment she first laid eyes on him when she was nine years old. Unfortunately, he married her older sister, and thus set a southern family on a collision course with its past. After the death of her sister that makes Simon a widow, the two finally marry and attempt to make a family with Simon’s daughter Jodi. Jodi has other ideas, and they don’t include welcoming a new step-mother who also happens to be her aunt.

As Caroline starts to report on the oil spill threatening the sea turtles on Florida’s Panhandle beaches, she begins to uncover the secret of her own mother’s past, which includes her brother’s suicide and a teenage pregnancy. With Caroline’s sharpened reporter skills, she digs until she brings all the secrets to light, including her own.

Click here to download.

NATIVE_WEBNative Lands – $2.99 Kindle – The final book in this series widens its scope to the whole state from St. Augustine and the Everglades and beyond. It also goes back in time to the original native Floridians who are also fighting the invasion of their world.

Blurb: When their environment is torn apart by a conglomerate of international interests, a tribe of native Floridians thought to be extinct rise up and form their own oddly matched conglomerate, and with the assistance of nature, attempt to halt the destruction of the natural world they treasure. Cultural boundaries established centuries ago are erased as love and nature seek the balance lost in the battle for power and control of the last of the Florida frontier. Native Lands is a novel rich in intrigue and history as a tribe of Native Americans, thought to be extinct, fight to save their beloved heritage. They join with others willing to sacrifice everything to save the Everglades and St. Augustine.

Click here to download.

There you have it! The three books in my Florida Fiction series. I’m also thrilled to announce that all three books are now available on Audible, narrated by the talented Jeffrey A. Hering of Hering Voices.

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Tortoise Stew

Trails in the Sand

Native Lands

 

TRAILS IN THE SAND CONTINUES

 

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Click on cover to download for FREE on Kindle December 8, 9, 10

I wrote Trails in the Sand in 2013, two years after BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the Upper Big Branch Massey coal mine explosion in West Virginia. The two events occurred within two weeks of one another and killed a total of forty men. Both tragedies could have been prevented if safety standards had been in place and enforced. The book uses both events as the backdrop to the disasters occurring in the lives of the main characters as families mourn and oil gushes from the rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Lives were lost unnecessarily and wildlife and their habitats were threatened. And are still threatened to this day.

Last week, the CEO of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, was found guilty of “conspiring to violate federal safety standards,” which led to the death of twenty-nine men. This is a misdemeanor and carries a maximum of one-year in prison. He was exonerated on three felony charges. It seems to be a ‘slap on the wrist,’ but it is the first time that a major coal executive has ever been held accountable for decisions made at the top of the chain that impacted the workers far below the earth, who put their lives in jeopardy every single day. To read more about Blankenship and his date with the jury, go to the New York Times article.

Someone needs to be held accountable. Someone needs to know that when regulations are in place, they must be followed or there are consequences. Someone must enforce the regulations.

I maintained in Trails in the Sand  that we will not be able to live without the energy and fuel from coal and petroleum, but we don’t have to retrieve them in a way that endangers human and animal life and their habitats. Yet it happens and those responsible are rarely asked to pay for their crimes.

There are forty families in the United States who will celebrate the holidays this year for the sixth time without a member of their family because of greed and the quest to bring us gas for our cars and electricity for our homes.

Here’s an excerpt from Trails in the Sand  from two different chapters – one a factual recounting of mining disasters in the U.S., and the other from the main character, as she and her husband travel to West Virginia to visit family members directly impacted by the mine disaster.

 

CHAPTER 7

History of coal mining disasters in the United States

Wildlife exhibits the first signs, acting as the harbinger of coming environment disasters. Coal miners knew it to be true. That’s why in the earliest days of coal mining, the miners would take a caged canary down into the mines with them. This small songbird could detect the smallest quantities of methane and carbon monoxide. If the canary kept singing, the mine was deemed safe. If the singing stopped, the canary keeled over, and the miners escaped.

The early miners in West Virginia in the 1880s were mostly European immigrants and African-Americans, and they served a sort of peonage in those early mines. They rented or bought their own equipment and lived in company houses, and their pay went to the company store for food. It was a hard life, during the day and during the night. The fear of death never left their doorstep because the owners of those mines did nothing to ensure the safety of those workers. West Virginia’s safety record was one of the worst in the nation, and that distinction was sealed in 1907 when the worst mine disaster in history occurred on December 6 at the Monongah Mine in West Virginia. Methane most likely ignited coal dust in two mines, killing at least 400 men, if not 500. Now it’s an accepted fact that to keep coal dust from becoming combustible, it needs to be coated with lime. Rumblings among the families of the victims at Upper Big Branch hinted that more than one hundred years later coal dust sometimes accumulated because Massey was cutting corners, and not enough workers were available to make sure the lime was applied to keep the dust levels low. When the workers went down into the mine on April 5, 2010, more than one hundred years after the disaster in Monongah, a caged canary might have warned the miners to the danger lurking in the air.

CHAPTER 9

Caroline

We left for West Virginia early on Friday morning with coffee mugs filled and snacks packed in the cooler. We planned to be at Simon’s parents in Morgantown sometime before 9 p.m. As we drove we listened to NPR when we could, but at times, especially driving through South Carolina, it was difficult to find any station not broadcasting country songs.

As we sped up I-95 through a small bit of Georgia, we heard a commentator remark on how large corporations such as BP and Massey Energy ignored safety regulations and even citations.

“We can point the finger at the companies all we want, but why wasn’t the government enforcing the regulations?” I asked at one point. “It took twenty-nine miners to die for the mine safety folks to suggest that perhaps they should be using the powers granted to them decades ago.”

“Our greed for energy, as cheap and as quickly as we can pull it out of the ground, fuels the energy companies to bring it to us fast and cheap,” Simon said.

“It sure looks as if both disasters could have been prevented with a little more precaution,” I said.

Simon and his family moved to Calico in 1974, so Bob McDermott, Simon’s father, could take a job teaching at nearby University of Florida. When my father-in-law retired a couple of years ago, Simon’s parents did a reversal of what most folks did; they moved back to Morgantown, almost two hours south of Pittsburgh.

“I’ve never understood why your folks moved back to West Virginia,” I said as the wildflowers of spring streaked by us in the median of the highway.

“They never stopped missing that part of the country,” Simon said. “I’d move back, too, if it wasn’t for the winters.”

“You’d move back alone,” I said. “I’m a Florida girl, born and bred. You’re lucky you got me to come back to north Florida after living in the Everglades for so long.”

“I’m the luckiest guy in the world. Don’t worry. I’ve no desire to move back to coal country,” Simon said.

My family had its own history with the coal mines. My grandfather, Arthur Stokley, came from England in the 1920s to work in the mines of West Virginia, right near where the explosion occurred. He escaped a life underground in the mines by the grace of God and the owner of the mine where he worked. My family never said much about his life prior to becoming a worshipped doctor in Calico, but the story always intrigued me. It was probably one reason I wanted to write about this latest disaster. I read enough to know that not many young people ever found the means to leave the mines all those years ago when the miners lived in company towns. The conditions left them beholden to the mining companies raking in the dough while the workers lived in cobbled together houses huddled close to the mines.

“I’ve often wondered about my grandfather and how he managed to escape the life of a miner to become a respected doctor,” I said. “He came to this country penniless.”

“Wasn’t there some story about a canary in the mine he brought back to life?”

“I never believed that one. And why would that make him such a hero? Didn’t they take those canaries down in the mine knowing full well they’d die if the gas fumes were too strong?”

“Maybe he slept with someone important,” Simon said.

“Right. The Queen of England, perhaps. Except when he left his mother country, there was a King in charge over there.”

“Stranger things have happened.”

In honor of the men who died in both disasters in 2010, Trails in the Sand is available for free downloads on Kindle this week, December 8, 9, and 10. In addition, if you still enjoy reading real books you can hold in your hands, please leave a comment here, and I’ll send the first two requesters an autographed copy of Trails.

 

 

 

 

Paying the Price for Oil Spills and Coal Mine Explosions

UBB Miners' Memorial Completed

Upper Big Branch Miners’ Memorial
Whitesville, West Virginia

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

We’re approaching the third anniversary of two major disasters in U.S. history – both claiming undistinguished titles.

First, on April 5, 2010, at a coal mine in West Virginia, twenty-nine miners lost their lives when an explosion ripped through the Upper Big Branch mine. The tragedy was the worst coal mine disaster in four decades in the United States. Fifteen days later, another explosion occurred on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana. Eleven men died in the explosion, which began the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill’s effect on the environment may take decades to assess.

Forty lives lost and record-making disasters in the same month in 2010 have something else in common.

Both could have been prevented.

It didn’t take long for investigators to determine that policies at both BP – the company running the oil rig – and Massey – the company that owned Upper Big Branch – played at role in the unsafe conditions that caused both disasters.

The Wall Street Journal reported on February 26, 2013, that the Justice Department found “a last-minute conversation between BP engineer on the rig and onshore . . . showed that the oil giant [BP] acted with gross negligence.”

oiled wildlife during BP's oil spill in 2010

oiled wildlife during BP’s oil spill in 2010

BP runs television commercials that encourage tourists to the states impacted by their oil spill. They’ve also agreed to pay $30 billion in fines, settlements, and clean up costs. They’ve paid out $4 billion in criminal suits for charges as high as manslaughter, which gives the oil spill another distinction for paying out the largest settlement in U.S. history.

Deepening the burnish on the behemoth company, the U.S. government has suspended BP from any new federal contracts because of its “lack of business integrity.”

Yet former CEO Tony Hayward walked away with no charges filed against him, and BP’s shareholders barely felt a blimp on investments in a company intent on increasing profits at the cost of human lives. Something tells me BP is hardly unique or record-setting in that department. They were simply the ones who were caught – and the money and advertising are simply the price to pay.

CEO Don Blankenship headed up Massey Energy at the time of the coal mine explosion. His arrogance during the aftermath angered many. He eventually stepped down eight months and many disastrous press conferences later.

Now a former employee of a Massy subsidy has implicated Blankenship. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette reported recently that many of the families of the victims wanted justice in the form of prosecution of the former CEO who at one time even went so far as to suggest the miners were responsible for their own deaths.

Three years ago, forty men lived their lives and worked grueling jobs miles offshore on a rig or underground and in a mine shaft. By the end of April 2010, forty men paid the price for bringing fossil fuels out of the earth. They did their jobs based on the rules and regulations followed by the company.

They didn’t know they were risking their lives by following orders.

The prosecution of the men sitting at the top of the heap making the big decisions and reeling in the big paychecks and bonuses will never bring justice. Justice means the dead men would be home for Easter dinner.

But it might bring a moment of grace to the families and friends who remain.DSC00870

EPA Coal Mine Water Rules Struck Down By Federal Judge

As I was perusing articles about the massive ice melt in Greenland, I came across this article.

Are we really going to go backwards at this time? I just wrote a piece about the “recovery” of a creek near us that sits in the middle of abandoned mines. Without the new standards on pollution from acid mine drainage, this creek would now be dead. Is this really what this federal judge wants?  Please go to this link to read the rest of the article:

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The Environmental Protection Agency overstepped its powers by setting up water-quality criteria for coal mining operations in Appalachia, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton in Washington ruled that the EPA infringed on the authority given to state regulators by federal clean- water and surface-mining laws. A coal mining industry coalition sued the EPA and Administrator Lisa Jackson, and the lawsuit was joined by West Virginia and Kentucky.

The ruling represents the latest setback to the Obama administration’s attempts to crack down on mountaintop removal coal mining.

Last year, the EPA revised standards issued in April 2010 by tightening guidelines on the practice of dumping waste from surface mine blasting into Appalachian valley waterways. Critics say that practice destroys the environment. The mining industry defends it as an efficient way to produce cheap power and employ thousands in well-paying jobs.

Read more

A View from the Creek

Raccoon Creek 2011Raccoon Creek May 2011

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

Raccoon Creek winds for nearly thirty miles through the foothills of the Alleghenies in western Pennsylvania. During its course through valleys and woodlands, it picks up several tributaries flowing down the hillsides before it dumps into the Ohio River thirty miles northwest of Pittsburgh.

We recently kayaked five miles of the creek from outside Raccoon Creek State Park. We actually put in our kayaks in Little Traverse Creek in the park and paddled a short distance to Raccoon Creek which begins its flow seven miles upriver.

Downed trees made the first mile or so rather challenging but interesting. We managed to get by the majority but were forced to portage the kayaks twice – once pulling under a tree and once carrying over a split trunk of a large sycamore. We hit some small white water flows and a few places where stones and rocks required some fast maneuvering. It’s a pleasant cruise. As soon as a challenge is met, there’s a wide expanse of deep water and easy floating as the water carries the kayak downstream. We saw deer swimming across the creek. Great blue herons yakked in the air above us flushing out smaller birds from the bushes on the banks. Little blue herons sat on downed tree limbs basking in the sun. And catfish more than a foot long swam past us in the clear water.

Skipping stones

When I wasn’t figuring out how to wedge between tree limbs or how to dodge the large rocks on the riverbed, I gazed at the trees, birds and skies with gratitude and relief. At one point, tears filled my eyes when I considered how close we came to losing this creek. While it looks pristine now, it really isn’t. Surrounding us in the hills and in the woods are abandoned coal mines, both underground and strip mines on the hilltops. A decade ago, this creek was filled with acid mine drainage, and no birds sang. If fish swam, they were filled with toxins such as mercury and unfit for consumption by any living thing.

Since 1781, the entire area was mined for coal, and Raccoon Creek and all its tributaries were nearly killed by acids and metals draining from the abandoned mines. The Raccoon Creek Watershed covers 184 square miles in southwestern Pennsylvania and Raccoon Creek runs right through the middle of it. After a report was released in 2000 on the levels of poisons in the creek, major efforts began, resulting in the installation of  acid mine drainage pollution treatment systems. Those efforts in the past decade have made a big difference here and elsewhere.

I brought my back up camera on the trip and took lots of pictures of Raccoon Creek and its abundance. As I prepared to write this blog, I couldn’t find the camera to download the pictures. I’m using photos from our trip last year when we attempted to kayak nearly the entire length of the creek. It ended two miles from our takeout point when we both collided into a fallen tree with a fast current moving underneath it.

The tree that took us out.

The rescued kayak from 2011

My kayak got away from me and our paddles floated along behind it. A rescue crew brought us home although the only thing rescued that day was my kayak.

Raccoon Creek is only navigable from March to June when the water is higher. We’ve been in a drought here for most of the spring and summer so we had to wait this year to get out until the rains brought the water level up high enough. Now we’ll have to wait until next year for our next cruise. Thanks to wise environmental practices now being implemented, the creek will be there waiting. And so will the wildlife.

A living creek