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The Blue Ridge Snorkel Trail offers an immersive nature experience

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

When you think about snorkeling, you probably think of it as a more tropical sea activity - right? - or maybe something you do in an ocean. But how about a river in the southern Appalachian Mountains? Paul Garber of member station WFDD takes us on a not-so-deep dive along the Blue Ridge Snorkel Trail.

(SOUNDBITE OF RIVER FLOWING)

PAUL GARBER, BYLINE: On the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains is a small waterway called the Roaring River. It's actually pretty calm. Andrea Leslie is looking across its surface.

ANDREA LESLIE: There are a whole mess of fishes and salamanders and turtles who live under there.

GARBER: Leslie is an aquatic biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. She wants people to strap on the snorkel gear and look under the surface to see...

LESLIE: Little minnows, shiners, darters, trout, salamanders, crayfish.

GARBER: The natural history of the Appalachians has made this a region of extraordinary biodiversity. There are more species of salamanders and freshwater mussels here than anywhere else on the planet. And to find them, Leslie helped create the official Blue Ridge Snorkel Trail.

LESLIE: With a set of 10 pilot sites that are all publicly accessible. And they're scattered across Western North Carolina.

GARBER: Leslie says snorkeling is a chance to learn about the fantastic world underneath the water's surface safely.

LESLIE: It's just a way, I think, for people to appreciate that and maybe think about how they can help, how they can be better stewards of streams and rivers.

GARBER: And so it's time to hit the water.

(SOUNDBITE OF RIVER FLOWING)

LESLIE: OK. Here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

GARBER: The mountain rivers provide a continuous soundscape of rushing, rippling water as our snorkel gets underway.

LESLIE: I saw a cluster of fish. So I got my head under the water to see who they were and, lo and behold, it's a magical place. It's called a chub nest.

GARBER: These small fish, called bluehead chubs, pick up pebbles in their mouths to make gravel mounds that they use to lay eggs. Leslie snorkels as part of her job in habitat conservation. But for her, it's not just about science.

LESLIE: To me, putting my head under the water is just this really peaceful experience. I'm only there. I'm only in that moment.

GARBER: Of course, snorkeling these waters is a lot different than a dive at your favorite coral reef. The fish are not as brightly hued. The water is colder and shallower. But still, there's a lot to see as colors flash against the gray and brown rocks that cover the river bottom like shards of wet pottery.

For NPR News, I'm Paul Garber in Wilkes County, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Paul Garber