Living in a Caddisfly Case
By: Cassie Sevigny
The wind carries the sharp, salty smell of dead seaweed, thick and dark, strewn across the grey stones. Most things are grey on the Puget Sound beach – the salted and sundried driftwood above the tide line, the clouds that hang overhead, the seagulls picking at picnic scraps, the puddles of rain… I relish the quiet, contemplative mood required to enjoy this grey but textured landscape. My siblings and I would spend hours collecting logs to build forts to withstand the tides and wind coming off the water, as if we were marooned and in need of shelter. This piece of ocean was my main connection to water for almost a decade. Then I moved to Montana.
Montana is landlocked. There is no ocean, not even a protected piece of one like Puget Sound. Nowhere to stand on a beach and imagine how far out the horizon expands. There were mountains and forest though, so with them as the structure of my new home, I sought out inland waters to nourish it.
The Watershed Education Network found me at a volunteer fair. They teach youth (and adults) about what makes a healthy watershed, at least for Missoula County. A woman named Becca gave me the basics of understanding water chemistry, insects, and measuring physical characteristics. She had bright, peppy eyes, frizzy hair in a perpetual ponytail, and an adoration for bugs.
I wanted peaceful moments to experience and learn about rivers myself before I taught watershed science to local kids, so I joined WEN’s citizen science program called Stream Team. Volunteers went out in the fall and spring to gather data from streams, as if we were doctors conducting check-ups. Each trip consisted of four hours of freezing our hands, checking the sky and our waders for leaks, estimating the river’s depth at full flows, and taking its temperature. I ate up the information, and the snacks packed by Deb, the Director. Like any other animal, I knew these people feeding me would be my friends.
My first trip, we had to leave Missoula to reach our stream site. My mental orientation at this point lacked a compass rose. I biked to the office, crammed myself into Becca’s car like another piece of gear, and sat quietly for an hour while we drove off the map into the Wilds of Montana. In other words, we went to Lolo.
We lost cell phone service. We passed driveways with signs and side roads without. Rusty pickup trucks guarded the paint-peeling houses. We parked on a dirt shoulder near the day’s assigned stream spot. Popped the trunk, loaded our arms with waders, measuring tools, and clipboards.
Riverside, we untied our shoes, stowed them on the bank, and pulled on the waders. I glanced enviously at the boot-waders the rest of our small team wore. With small feet, my only option were the child-sized, overall-style waders. The waterproofed camo fabric of the legs hugged me so snugly that I had a slight penguin-like waddle. But my waders had pockets.
We had several sets of data to gather, and one of those was called Pebble Count. That sounded pretty boring at first – just gonna start counting pebbles, we’ll be here all day folks. But during Pebble Count we do not actually do any counting of pebbles. We measure rocks.
I reached into the water, hand stinging from the sudden cold, picked up a rock in front of my foot, and pulled a lime green ruler from the pocket of my waders. Daylight reflected off the wet rock. Wait, no, those shimmering striations were embedded in the piece of granite! I tilted the rock back and forth in my hands.
I held the ruler to the rock along its B axis – not its height or length, but width – to find its mediumest measurement.
“50 millimeters!” I yelled to my partner with a clipboard.
I pocketed the rock. When else was I going to find such a glittery rock? I took a step forward deeper into the river. My hand made the polar plunge again to retrieve a second rock. It too, sparkled. Looking up from my Pebble Count, the entire streambed was composed of these sparkle-ridden rocks, a river of treasure flowing through the mountains underneath the crystal clear waters.
We were measuring rocks (and water chemistry, and the width of the river) because Stream Team was tasked with collecting data on how the 2014 Lolo fires affected the watershed. The size of rocks in pebble count matters because it tells us the overall composition of the streambed. Are they mostly large, easy for critters to live under? Or does the river bed consist of small, ground down, powdery material? Fine grain sand contributes to turbidity, or cloudiness.
Turbidity has serious implications for aquatic creatures. Fish and insects breathe the same form of oxygen we do, O2. They pass water over their gills and filter out the oxygen dissolved in it. This oxygen enters the water from the air as the river burbles over rocks and moves through the landscape. After a fire, wind and rain loosen soil that tree roots and foliage previously protected. This loose soil, along with ash particles, washes into the river. These particles dissolve into the spaces between water molecules that would normally hold oxygen. The fish struggle to breathe the suspended soil underwater as we struggle on land to breathe the smoke.
Some insects, like caddisflies, are particularly sensitive to these changes. When picking up rocks for Pebble Count, or wading in a stream, finding caddisfly nymphs clinging to the underneaths of things indicates that the stream is relatively healthy.
When a caddisfly nymph hatches on a streambed, its instincts tell it all the ways a predator could crush its soft body. As a nymph, only its head, thorax, and legs have a protective exoskeleton, while its squishy abdomen stretches out behind it. Some species spin spider-like web-lairs for safety. Some choose to do nothing, content with their river maggot appearance. A few are gem-green, more akin to an aqueous inchworm. My favorite ones are like the hermit crabs of the river world: case-building caddisflies.
“Look for walking rocks,” I tell kids on WEN field trips, when we have emptied out a net of bugs into a tub of water. A case-building nymph uses its saliva-silk to bind pebbles together around its body. It uses whatever it can find to create its portable house. It might use grains of sand, pebbles of varying size artfully arranged, or perhaps even bits of twigs and stems for a boxy, striped look. Every so often I find lighter toned cases with glimmering rocks, as if the caddisflies were as enraptured with the sparkle as I was. If you don’t have pockets, incorporate the sparkle into your house!
The sparkly cases remind me of the French artist, Hubert Duprat, who kept caddisflies in captivity. He gave them only pearls, gold flakes, and turquoise. Those were the caddisflies of high fashion, crawling around with precious stone adornments.
Once the case is made, only the head and legs stick out, like black eyelashes, so it can crawl around and snag food. The caddisfly eats bits of plant and animal debris that collect on the bottom of the stream, like dust in our houses. Because of the black bodies, you can easily spot the half-inch-long caddisflies in a white tub. It’s the tiny ones that are tricky. That’s when my advice comes in handy. If you are patient enough to let the water settle, only the live insects will move. If you see tiny pebbles or grains of sand moving independently along the bottom, you’ve found a caddisfly!
When the caddisfly is old enough, they grow wings and move out, leaving the case behind. If you find one of these empty cases, you’ll see a tiny air hole on the back end. This tiny air hole is a perfect spot to string up the case on a bracelet or necklace. One WEN volunteer, Al, works at an insect taxonomy lab and brings us leftover cases to do just that.
“Where are these caddisfly cases from?” Deb asked during one of our jewelry-making sessions.
“King County,” Al said.
Seattle is in King County. They were from home.
In the spring of 2018, I heard word of a tree-planting operation in Lolo to reforest a woman’s property affected by fires. How do trees get planted? I wondered. Do we use seeds and hope for sprouts? Wait for saplings to reach several feet before planting them? I needed to return to Lolo to find out how to restore trees to the land that protects the water.
Going alone this time, I realized that Lolo was not in some far away, abstract part of Montana. I only had to point my compass south of Missoula and drive for half an hour. I found the woman’s house hidden from the road by trees. The lawn and trees were green, but as I hiked up the property, the lush undergrowth gave way to black spindly trunks erupting from the tawny ground. Volunteers who arrived before me were balanced on steep slopes among these trunks. Some jammed shovels into dry, rocky soil. The shovelers prepared the way for others who walked along with buckets of baby native trees, less than a foot high, to insert into the holes. The tiny needled fronds of larch and pine stuck out of the ground like decorative feathers.
“My land was hit hard by the fires. I bought up all the saplings available from the restoration companies,” the landowner told me. “So if anyone else wants them, they’ll have to wait ‘til next year.”
On the hillsides I could see many areas with small dabs of white poking out of the ground. These were the mesh grazing guards, stretched over the newly planted treelings like tiny fences to prevent animal nibbling while they were vulnerable. Deer would think any unguarded trees were a buffet planted just for them. The mesh breaks and disintegrates over time. As the tree grows taller and more resilient to grazing, it doesn’t need protection anymore, and the mesh would hinder its growth.
I collected some of the biodegradable mesh from a pile on the trail and embarked on a scavenger hunt for treelings missing protection. The landowner directed me to a mess of wood bits on a hillside. Logs and branches littered the ground, leaving the sky wide open. Remnants of a slide. A previous group had already planted there, but finding the living wood of exposed treelings among the scattered dead wood was challenging. While the wood debris protected the baby trees from the sun, it hid them from my gaze, too.
Once I was certain I had found all the trees in the woodslide, I moved to the blackened trunks and trees that survived. Here the needles of the treelings stood out against the smooth dirt. I didn’t find very many, but I did find mushrooms. They were brown with vertical wrinkles, shaped like a shriveled nose sniffing the air. Were these the morels I had heard about? I glanced at my charcoal-smudged palms and clothes. Of course. Morels grow in burn sites. The fire stresses the underground organism, called mycelium, triggering mushroom sprouts. Beneath the morels, the soil glinted.
I caught up with the landowner when we finished scouting for missed trees.
“Why are the rocks and dirt sparkly here?” I asked her. Quartz is a crystal common in Washington’s grey granite, but it doesn’t have such gleaming intensity as the Lolo rocks.
“Mica,” she said.
Mica! Why didn’t I think of that?
I felt like a mystery had been answered, a mystery that had driven so much exploration of beauty that I was let down. If I understood the answer, maybe it wasn’t special. Yet, I am delighted to scoop up caddisflies from mulch or watch them cluster on the shore like dropped beads no matter how many times I’ve seen them before, no matter I am not an expert on their lives. I can marvel at a sparkling stream bed or glinting burn site for its beauty, and the sheer shock that such beauty can exist.
Later in 2018 I joined a WEN field trip with students in Ronan, northeast of Missoula. Near Flathead Lake, I added it to my mental map. On the drive we admired the Mission Mountains through thin haze of smoke. Wildfire season had started somewhere. I thought of the trees burning, the morels and foliage that would sprout afterward. We passed through Arlee, where the freeway splits around the town. “Huckleberry pies and shakes!” a sign announced.
“Oh, I love huckleberries,” Deb said. “Have you ever been huckleberry picking?”
“No,” I said. I don’t like huckleberries. They taste too much like blueberries. I don’t like to reveal this in Montana, just as I keep my dislike of seafood quiet when I’m in Seattle.
“We have to pick huckleberries from nature,” Deb continued. “We can’t grow them. No one’s figured out how to farm them yet. People have tried all sorts of things – planting seeds, transplanting bushes from the wild, changing soil chemistry, burning the area first – nothing works.”
One possible reason for this difficulty is that huckleberries can grow via rhizomes, which are underground, root-like stems that extend from the original structure. Sprouts grow off these sideways stems, appearing to be a new plant. Since they aren’t real roots, a cut and transplanted piece of rhizome won’t sprout, disconnected from its main plant body. In addition to proper planting from root or seed, huckleberries require a unique combination of pH, moisture, nutrients and climate provided naturally in mountainous regions prone to wildfires. Once a bush is established, it takes several years to produce the berries. All of these difficulties don’t mean it’s impossible to grow huckleberries commercially someday, but for now they remain wild.
Until then, we’re must collect all of our huckleberries from the woods, filling buckets like technologically advanced bears. Some people harvest with rakes to reduce the time and tedium. This method gathers more berries faster than handpicking one by one, but the bushes are left damaged.
“I don’t know why anyone would want to damage the bushes, we only have so many and just have to hope they grow back the next year,” Deb complained. She got so caught up in talking about huckleberries, we forgot to stop for shakes.
The “Montana huckleberry” isn’t the only variety. There’s another that I found on a visit home, hiking up Wallace Falls with my family. It takes root along streamsides and in rainy forests of western Washington, fanning its leaves over nurse logs, stems tipped with delicate pink berries.
The trail to Wallace Falls starts below buzzing power lines, but as you walk farther into the forest all human noise fades away. Moss and underbrush muffle sound, the rush of the river filtering through the foliage even when you can’t see it. We stopped at a bench near an informational sign. My siblings and I sang the information to each other, creating its story for ourselves in a joyous lingering moment.
My parents identified the red huckleberry plant. Eating one releases a crisp burst of cool tartness, none of the silky blueberry tones that bother me in the Montana variety. I imagined other creatures that met here, birds and chipmunks, all taking a piece for their needs and carrying on. My stepsister could not get enough. Each berry gave a brighter gleeful gleam to her eyes.
“Save some for the bears,” we told her finally. Bears might not come to this particular bush on the trail, but plenty of other bushes in the state park likely see regular bear visitors. In less human-touched areas, bears even fight over huckleberry territory.
Moving to Montana was my first foray into full-scale independence. Responsible for feeding myself. No family, no friends. When the people and city were unfamiliar, I met the details of Montana’s landscape. The mountains and evergreen forests reminded me of Washington. Montana huckleberries used to feel foreign and wild, a reminder of how far from home I was, but knowing this little sour red huckleberry existed in the place I had left made me feel like a rhizome that had tunneled from the Puget Sound to Missoula, sprouting and growing in a new direction.
Like a caddisfly in a stream or my child self on the beach, I built a home from pieces of the world around me – the mica-rich rocks, swathes of color-changing larch, fire-forged morels and huckleberries, even a red crayfish who eyed me from a stone dropped long ago by a valley-carving glacier. And like caddisflies and huckleberries, I can make my home in both Washington and Montana.