Letter from the lake: An update on matters at Wrighter Lake in northeastern Pennsylvania from the air, the water, and on the ground.

In the air. Over the years I listed many different aviary friends who have dropped by to visit. Not too much new to report in 2016. Our fertile mother robin, which managed to guide two sets of fledglings through a nest on top of a porch light last year, was successfully thwarted from using that perch this year. Instead she made a nest in a tree (imagine that) near the lake. The babies seemed to have successfully flown the coop.

We did not see (but neighbors did) the scarlet tanager that we spotted for the first time last year. We did see a black and white striped bird, smaller than a robin, that we suspect is a black-and-white warbler — a first sighting for us.

In the water. Before the advent of the standup paddleboard and its superior view of the water below, I never paid much attention to what was lurking beneath the surface of the water. Now it’s another matter. Earlier this year, as I reported in the last letter on July 6, I saw a massive (to me, at least) turtle hanging out on the sandy bottom.

And for the second straight year our little paddleboard community witnessed the presence of — no other word comes to mind — the aliens.

That’s right, aliens: blobs of white gelatinous material roughly the size of a human head, if you can imagine a human head without the skull surrounding it and without the face in front of it. Aliens is the word everyone uses to describe these creatures clinging to submerged trees or other objects two or three feet or more below the surface.

Last year we spotted one colony of a dozen or so creatures attached to a tree submerged around the cove from us. This year we spotted another colony of about the same population inhabiting a thicket of branches submerged on the other side of the lake. And then, just when we thought we knew where they were, a lone alien attached itself to — cue the scary music here — a leg of our aluminum dock.

At that point it was time to figure out if the aliens were friend or foe. Turns out the aliens are not dangerous and in fact are a 500-million-year-old form of life known as bryozoans. The creatures normally live in salt water, but some have adapted to freshwater.

Dana Campbell of the University of Maryland seems to be something of an expert on these alien-like creatures. “When starting a colony, an individual animal (called a zoid) hatches from a hard seedlike ‘statoblast’ and buds to form a small number of identical individuals,” Campbell writes in the Encyclopedia of Life (www.eol.org).

“This founding clump of zoids secrete a watery fluid that hardens to form a firm gelatinous core upon which the colony spreads as the zoids reproduce (first asexually and then sexually as the colony ages) into visible rosettes of 10-18 individuals across the surface. Before the gelatinous skeleton of a young colony hardens, colonies may fuse their masses together and form mosaic colonies from more than one genotype . . . An early study found that young colonies can propel themselves across the slippery surface of their gelatinous substrate by creating water currents with coordinated beating of the ciliated tentacles.” The biggest of the fresh water creatures are known as Pectinatella magnifica or magnificent bryozoans, which can form colonies more than two feet across — that seems to be what we have here at Wrighter Lake.

Campbell notes that “the magnificent bryozoan is native to North America, originally to calm, preferably shady lakes and reservoirs east of the Mississippi. . . There is some concern that this species is becoming more common in areas outside its range, for reasons yet unknown (Virginia Institute of Marine Science 2010).

“While P. magnifica does not impose great impact on humans, large masses of magnificent bryozoans can clog drains and waterpipes, and when washed up on land have a fishy smell. Because the individual zoids remove particles from the water, the immediate result of their greater occurrence in non-native waters is to increase water quality. A longer term effect, however, is that clearer waters may promote increase of algae which subsequently have access to more better conditions for photosynthesizing. This may restructure natural ecosystems throughout a body of water.”

On the land. In our July 6 letter we mentioned the turtle (tortoise, to some), who was diligently burying her eggs in a corner of soft soil in our front yard. I have to report that there has been no sign of any newly hatched turtles (OK, tortoises) making their way out of their six inches of earth covering.

But I can report some progress on my effort to create a drywell in the back of the house, to accommodate the run off from a substantial portion of the back roof to a single point at a large valley in the roof. During the great Polar Vortex winter of 2014-’15, when temperatures went down to zero and below for days on end up here, nearly 2,000 feet above sea level, water collected in that valley and formed an ice dam. The dam forced water above the rubberized ice shield that is now routinely installed in any new roof. The water leaked back into the newly reconstructed cottage, wreaking the usual havoc that water wreaks.

This year I had a “scupper” built to capture the water at the valley and divert it to a downspout that would lead the water away from the house. To keep ice from forming on the roof I had a thermostat-controlled heat tape installed on the roof and down the downspout to the ground. All good. But then, I wondered, what would happen to that water when it flowed away from the downspout on some span of successive sub-zero days? Sooner or later, I reasoned, it would turn to ice, and an ice dam, and the water would build up in the downspout, and then on the roof and eventually overwhelm the heat tape.

I decided to create a drywell under the downspout so that the water would drop down to a point below the frost line — 48 inches, more or less — and never get the chance to turn to ice. So, with the help of a hand-held electric jackhammer I started digging. Within a few hours spread out over several weekends, I got down to 42 inches and hit — literally — rock bottom.

At that point I called the man with the backhoe. He came in and did some digging — and hit the same rock bottom. He was able to extend the pit laterally, but go no deeper. So I had to work with what I had. I drilled holes in a half a dozen spackle buckets to create a chain of reservoirs across the bottom of the pit. I cut out the bottoms of three other spackle buckets to create a shaft 42 inches high leading up to ground level and centered under the downspout. Once all those waterworks were in place, the job came down to back-filling, first with rocks, then with dirt and more dirt. Basically several weekends of back-numbing labor.

Before winter comes I will create a little A-frame shelter that goes over the top of the shaft, so that drifting snow can’t clog the grate and impede the flow of water into the shaft. Since frost is caused by heat escaping from the earth, that A-frame will serve as a blanket, and decrease the depth of the frost line at that point.

So far it all seems to work. As I am writing this, an afternoon downpour of more than two inches of rain is falling. The water from a large area of roof has funneled into the new drywell. The water level rises by five inches. An hour after the rainstorm ends, the water in the pit will have subsided by three inches. The next morning it will be back to normal.

I find myself reviewing my drywell project, paying particular attention to what could have been done better:

First I would have prepared the work area better. A cheap sump pump could have cleared the pit of the standing water and made setting up the spackle buckets a lot easier.

And I would have called in the backhoe earlier. The backhoe in a half hour did what took me several weekends. Never send a boy to do a man’s job, as they say in pinochle.

Finally I would have had a few plastic shopping bags at the ready, to create instant and disposable coverings to use on my mud-caked shoes whenever I had to enter the cottage for a few minutes. That would have made a certain lakeside companion much happier.

I have vowed to never create another drywell. So why do I bother to review this job? I guess it’s what editors do, in the hope that such a critique will prepare one for the next story (or next task), even if it has nothing to do with the one just completed. The letter from the lake turns into a lesson from the lake.

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