Hidden Rivers: The Freshwater Biodiversity of the Southern Appalachia

Story and Photography by David Herasimtschuk

Bright orange Tennessee shiners surround a stoneroller on a chub nest in the West Fork of the Pigeon River in Smoky Mountain National Park. Both species take advantage of nests built by chubs, and use them to deposit their eggs in. © David Herasimtschuk

Bright orange Tennessee shiners surround a stoneroller on a chub nest in the West Fork of the Pigeon River in Smoky Mountain National Park. Both species take advantage of nests built by chubs, and use them to deposit their eggs in. © David Herasimtschuk

 

I awkwardly clamber up the cobble and bedrock of a swift Southern Appalachian River. My senses and thoughts are continually captivated by the life that call these forests home. Small slimy salamanders scurry along the bank as the heavy buzz of cicadas flood the sweet Southern air, all a pleasant reminder of the unique diversity that is supported by these ecosystems. However, to truly understand how special Southern Appalachia is you have to look below the water’s surface.

As I hike up river, occasionally looking for glimpses of what might be lurking in the small rapids and pools, all I see from above are fleeting dark shadows that seem to blend in with the patterns of the water. From the surface, these rivers can appear as lifeless bands of bedrock and boulders, as if that’s where the forest’s life stops. But looks can be deceiving, and as every photographer knows, perspective is everything. Hidden beneath the surface of Southern Appalachia’s rivers and streams lives one of the greatest assemblages of freshwater life found anywhere on this planet.

With one hand gripping the river bed and the other clinched tightly to my camera I slowly duck my head below the surface and am instantly greeted with a celebration of life. Springtime in these rivers spark festivals of spawning fish, with colors and behaviors that would be more easily imagined over coral reefs than riverbeds. From the craftsman-like river chub, who carry stones and build gravel nests so immaculate they trigger large aggregations of fishes to spawn, to the vibrant darters who flash flamboyant colors as they battle over territory and the chance to mate. These river environments support the world’s richest temperate fish fauna, and are home to the highest diversity of freshwater mussels, snails, crayfish, and salamanders on the planet.

Once extirpated from Southern Appalachia, lake sturgeon are now making a comeback due to efforts to reestablish the species. Eggs and milt collected from adult fish in Wisconsin are now being reared in hatcheries to help restore this ancient fish back into its native Southern waters. © David Herasimtschuk

Once extirpated from Southern Appalachia, lake sturgeon are now making a comeback due to efforts to reestablish the species. Eggs and milt collected from adult fish in Wisconsin are now being reared in hatcheries to help restore this ancient fish back into its native Southern waters. © David Herasimtschuk

Many of the most biologically rich rivers in the world can also be found in Southern Appalachia, but unfortunately most occur in some of the most human dominated landscapes in the US. Tragically, these waters are hotspots for some of the North Americas dirtiest extractive mining and some of its worst environmental disasters. From coal ash spills and mountain top removal to dams and steep slope development, the threat of extinction is real and imminent for many of these species, yet very few people actually realize what’s being lost.

For the passionate individuals working to conserve this great diversity, the toughest part is often the lack of awareness – nobody knows it exists. As the demand on these rivers continues to grow, imagery of the environments and species affected will play a critical role in visually connecting freshwater ecosystems to their would-be stewards. With the potential of helping to build a growing community of river stewards, creek cleaners and fish watchers, Hidden Rivers was created to provide an immersive look into some of these seldom seen worlds, and encourage the long term benefits of having healthy freshwater ecosystems.

In partnership with Freshwaters Illustrated, a non-profit that uses film and photography to educate the public about the importance of freshwater, this project has begun to boost public understanding and support through educational media that illustrates the life that exists in these environments, and does so strategically through grass roots organizations and educational centers that work to conserve these rivers. Photography and films produced so far have had great success in engaging local and global audiences, connecting thousands with these incredible underwater worlds and educating them on ways to become more river friendly and responsible.

These ecosystems and the species that inhabit them are among the most imperiled on the planet; however what many don’t realize is that much of what is being lost is often right in our own backyard. With the help of NANPA Foundation’s Philip Hyde Environmental Grant a traveling educational exhibit is now being created to help engage local audiences, celebrating the uniqueness of their aquatic neighbors and bringing to light the vulnerability of these ecosystems. Freshwaters Illustrated is also in the production stages of a feature length documentary film that will highlight this irreplaceable assemblage of aquatic life and the individuals who are working to conserve it.

By creating a large media campaign that combines both photography and video we hope to facilitate in the foundation of a public that has a more appreciative perspective toward freshwater conservation and an increased respect for these environments. The rivers and streams of Southern Appalachia support one of the greatest freshwater ecosystems that few have ever seen, for a glimpse into these hidden underwater worlds check out the short films below, and to learn more about the project and stay updated on its progress visit www.hiddenrivers.org.

Hidden Rivers – Preview – https://vimeo.com/66103145

The Last Dragons – Protecting Appalachia’s Hellbenders – https://vimeo.com/108512185

Bringing Back the Brooks – A Revival of the South’s Trout – https://vimeo.com/89307424

A Deeper Creek – The Watchable Waters of Appalachia – https://vimeo.com/103358996

 

David Herasimtschuk is the 2014 Recipient of the NANPA Foundation Philip Hyde Environmental Grant. Applications are now available for NANPA’s 2015 Philip Hyde Environmental grant, a $2,500 award given annually to an individual NANPA member actively pursuing completion of a peer-reviewed environmental project featuring natural photography as a medium of communication, nature appreciation and environmental protection. Application deadline is October 30, 2015 at midnight PDT. Apply online here.