Heavenly Hell Hollow

Back in 2018 I learned about a beautiful dragonfly called the Riffle Snaketail (Ophiogomphus carolus). I wrote about my first attempts to find it in my post called, “I Went to Hell and Back for This — Twice.” You can read that if you want a good laugh at my expense, but it also helps establish why this particular insect has become a favorite of mine. It’s about the bug, but also about the journey and the place.

I wasn’t able to return to Hell Hollow in 2019 or 2020; I did get over there last year and found a single Riffle Snaketail. Nobody else in Ohio reported finding this species last year, and I was feeling sad that they were so hard to find, and worried that they might be disappearing from our state. I really wanted to get over there again this year to reaffirm their presence and just be grateful for them. Call it a mindfulness quest, if you will.

The rustic and uneven stairs into Hell Hollow

Getting there requires driving about two and a half hours, so I always try to plan visits to a couple other spots while I’m over there in the northeast corner of the state. And, since my idea of fun isn’t climbing back up 262 steps on a hot day and then facing a long westward drive with the setting sun in my face, sometimes I spend the night so I can look for dragons in other parts of the area before heading back to Toledo. I make this point so you’ll understand that this is an experience that I plan for, not just any other day in the field looking at dragonflies. It’s special.

There’s a 102-mile river in northeast Ohio called the Grand River, a scenic tributary of Lake Erie, flanked by steep shale cliffs and dramatic views. And one of its tributaries is Paine Creek, which flows through the middle of Hell Hollow in a 100-foot deep gorge topped with hemlocks and beeches. The clean water runs cold and clear over smooth rocks, providing the exact type of habitat preferred by the snaketail. This dragonfly, a member of the clubtail family, has only been photographically documented by 11 people in the state of Ohio (according to records on iNaturalist).

Hell Hollow Wilderness Area is a bit isolated. That’s both why I like it and why I feel a little bit nervous when I go there alone. I love that I don’t see many people in the park, but I also struggle with being alone there, because it means that if a bad guy comes along, I’m out of luck. But at this point in my life I’ve decided not to allow fear to limit my enjoyment of nature. I take reasonable precautions for my safety, and try to focus on not being scared and enjoying the multi-sensory experience of the place.

So on this trip, I arrived to find one car in the parking lot, but never saw the owner during my two hours there. Heaven. I walked the ridge-top trail to the stairs and started down them quickly. I did this purposely so I wouldn’t have time to think about the return climb out of the ravine and change my mind. I was pleased to see that the water level was very low and easily navigable in my water sandals. That’s another pleasure of this place, the sensation of that cold water swirling over my feet as I slowly navigate the slippery river rocks, stopping to look ahead so I don’t inadvertently flush my quarry from his rock perch.

Black-throated green warbler (from my archives)

There’s also the sound of the water rippling over the rocks, soft in some places and louder in others. And lots of big spiders on the rocks. Every step I take causes much 8-legged scurrying. Oddly, I’ve never encountered a snake down here…I’d think they would love sunning on those rocks. There are birds singing; on this day there was a black-throated green warbler singing zee-zee-zee-zoo-zee!

On this day, I was able to explore about 100 yards of the creek, and spent nearly two hours looking for the snaketails. I saw dozens of another lovely dragonfly, the Eastern Least Clubtail (Stylogomphus albistylus).

Aren’t they pretty? Everywhere I turned there were more of these small least clubtails perched on rocks. But still no snaketail. Feeling my frustration slowly mounting, but determined not to let it get the best of me, I sat down on the rocks a couple times to just breathe and soak in the sunshine and fresh air. But finally it got to a point that I realized I might not find them, so I reluctantly started making my way through the creek toward the base of the staircase. The dreaded staircase. Imagine feeling dejected and still having to climb those stairs. It was brutal.

I spoke softly to the universe just then, expressing my desire to be reassured that they were still here. Maybe that’s weird, but I just needed to do it. And just then something landed on a rock about 20 feet ahead of me. I held my breath as I lifted the camera for a quick shot in case it flew away. And holy snaketails, Batman, it was him!! I had to restrain myself from jumping for joy.

Riffle Snaketail (Ophiogomphus carolus), 2022 edition!!

Even if you don’t care much for “bugs,” I hope you can appreciate this dragon for his beauty; we have many dragonflies with stunning blue and green eyes, but for overall color impact, this guy wins an uncontested gold medal among the Ohio dragonfly species. I spent about 20 minutes crouched down in the water taking as many photos as I could as he moved from rock to rock feeding on tiny flying insects. I took some video too, even though I have a hard time holding steady while I’m squatting on a rocky and wet surface. I hope you like it.

I feel relief that this special dragonfly is still living in this place, at least for now. Maybe I shouldn’t make such a big deal out of it, because I know there will come a day when they’re not there anymore and it will be sadder because I’ve celebrated them so much. But the experiences I’ve had with this emerald dragonfly have been frustrating, confusing, exciting, painful, suspenseful, and joyful. And each time I get to see one of them at Hell Hollow, I celebrate our mutual triumphs — mine for persevering and the snaketail’s for survival. My legs hurt for days afterward, but it’s so worth it! And that’s why I’ve renamed this place “Heavenly Hell Hollow.” I wonder if they’ll change the sign. 🙂

Riffle snaketail watching me watching him…amazingly cool!
Heavenly Hell Hollow

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