Unwanted fish ready for the ‘gauntlet’

PHOTO: Kate Gardiner, Flickr CC

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

ANNOUNCER: … in other news, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced its plan to block the advance of invasive Asian carp through the locks and dams of American rivers to the Great Lakes.

The plan combines new lock engineering, complex noise, water jets, and electric barriers to turn back the carp. The scheme also provides additional mooring areas and boat launches for rapid response, which the Corps says will block Asian carp while still allowing river navigation. The National Wildlife Federation describes this approach as “the gauntlet.”

DATELINE — Joliet, Illinois. Three miles south of the Brandon Road Lock and Dam.

Becoming an embedded correspondent covering Asian carp as they swim toward the Great Lakes isn’t easy. First, you must memorize the complex geography of lake bottoms and river beds. Then you must spend years mastering several distinct dialects of an intricate carp language. But if you ask me, the hardest part is learning how to breathe underwater.

It’s a quiet day in the camp. Progress stopped at the dam a few days ago, allowing most carp a much-desired respite — a time of frivolity, and no shortage of native plants to consume. Aside from a few carp lost while jumping out of the water at boats, this inactivity stanches casualties.
These idle moments make this weary journey almost appear like a vacation, though for these subaqueous sojourners it is anything but.

“Carp swim?” asks one carp.

“Carp swim?” asks another. When carp don’t know they answer, they just ask the same question, a refreshing feature of the carp language.

The carp all know that only one will determine when they swim up river toward the most harrowing ordeal they have ever seen. And that one is Carpo.

Carpo enlisted in the migration just like all the rest, but it was apparent early on that his aptitude exceeded that of most fin soldiers.

I find him swimming in a steady figure-8, a pattern established as most conducive to keeping the vapor of e-cigarettes out of the low set eyes of the carp anatomy.

“Carp swim?” I ask.

Carpo stops. He stares directly at me. I think. Actually, his eyes are on the sides of his face. I guess that means he’s looking away.

“Carpo swim.”

He would go alone. One veteran swimmer against the gauntlet. If he survived others would follow. But if he floated, his fish would know to find another way into the Great Lakes, a place the carp refer to as Glub Club Club, or “Yum Yum Carp Eat Everything.”

“Carpo scared?” I ask.

Carpo stretched his fins, making short sprints back and forth. This was part preparation, part ritual. He completed each stage of the stretching exercises with close attention to form.

“Carpo ready,” he said.

“Do you think the Great Lakes is ready for Asian carp?”

“Carpo not Asian carp. None of us Asian carp. We American carp. Born in Illinois.”

The school of carp gathered to watch Carpo swim away. In keeping with carp ways, there was no fanfare. No words were exchanged. The carp simply watched him swim away. A pair of scouts followed to see if he survived the gauntlet. Their report would determine the future of the entire carp civilization.

In the distance, we could hear the pinging of the sound barriers. Electric fences buzzed like howitzers, followed by the resonant thump of the lock walls. Silence.

We could see the scouts swimming back. I’ve never seen fish swim so fast.

“Carp swim?” asked a fish in crowd.

“Carp swim? asked another.

Carp swim.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


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