Broad Run

Pictured is a ripple on the surface of Broad Run at the Bear Valley Picnic Area.

Editor’s Note: This is a column on area watersheds by Blyden Potts and guest columnists to spread awareness of the area’s tributaries and the efforts of area volunteers to keep them clean.


In general usage, the word riffle refers to a quick, often casual search through something, or the act of making such a search, e.g. “after a riffle through papers on his desk,” or “she riffled through the book.”

One might describe my columns as riffles in riparian themes. In the riparian context, a riffle is a rocky or gravelly shoal, a shallow section of the stream, where current runs over, and down, a bed of gravel or rocks. Riffles create a disturbed, choppy pattern of small waves, or at least ripples, on the water surface, caused by the myriad rocks.

Often riffles can also be detected by sound, a pleasant “white noise” that is so relaxing it is sold as a sleep aid. I wonder if the sounds made by different riffles are each nearly unique, like they say is true of fingerprints and the shapes of snowflake crystals? I recall times I lazed in my boat basking in the warm sun and enjoying the sound and sparkle of a nearby riffle.

Ironically, relaxing sound comes from agitated water. Agitation oxygenates the water, increasing the dissolved oxygen most aquatic organisms require to survive, and helping the water stay cold, two reasons Brook Trout, Hellbenders, and many aquatic macroinvertebrates are found in rapid-flowing, shallow rocky streams. Also part of why the downstream side of riffles can be a good place to fish. A few years ago, I met an algae-encrusted snapping turtle near a riffle. We were both there for the fish.

Perhaps the only downside of riffles is for paddlers. Shallow water may require getting out and walking your boat. Worse, when water levels are very low, you may have to carry or drag it! When a guidebook says you need x feet in height or z cubic feet per second (cfs) at a given USGS gauge to run a certain stream, riffles are one of the main problems they are helping you avoid.

Disturbance of the water surface is probably where the word riffle comes from. It is likely a linguistic cognate of ruffle and ripple. Riffles both ruffle and ripple the water surface.

Any small disturbance of the water, from small waves to the subtle rise of water caused by a large fish submarining just below the surface can be a “ripple,” but the classic image has concentric circles of tiny undulations radiating outward. A thrown stone, drop of rain, leaping fish, or other object breaks the surface, and the energy from the event radiates outward from the point of impact, until it dissipates.

Ripples have a mesmerizing quality. They also represent energy, and change.

We have various metaphors for transmission of energy or impact. Domino effect for linear or branching chains. Snowball effect if it gains momentum or magnitude as it progresses. Butterfly effect for a chain of events that begins tiny in which each event is a catalyst for something larger, like that guy, Kyle

MacDonald, who traded a red paperclip for a house, in 14 trades, by always exchanging for something more valuable than what he was offering. When an impact spreads contagiously we say it went viral. We use “ripple effect” when the effect radiates outward, with widening scope, covering more area, reaching more people.

Each of us generates a ripple, a manifestation of our energy on those around us. The ripple of a frog jumping from a lily pad into a still lake radiates outward with no interference, but our lake is filled with other ripples. The vibrations collide, amplifying when they are in harmony, canceling when we are out of sync. Achieving wide impact, a true ripple effect, requires people on a similar wavelength. It happens infrequently, but there is always that potential, if the waves we make align with those made by others, and conditions in our environment allow. Ripple outwards.

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