|IN JULY 1997, AQUA MAGAZINE commissioned a Diving Across America story. My assistant Sebastian, the writer Jim and I travelled 4000 miles in nine days in a motorhome from Long Island, New York to Los Angeles, California. It was a gloriously mad, intense shoot and Ive never been more exhausted after a job. |
For example, in one day I photographed the Sheriff of Santa Rosa, New Mexico, went diving in the nearby Blue Hole and adjacent creek, and then drove 900 miles to Las Vegas, Nevada.
We arrived in Vegas at 1am and were up and moving by 6am. Then we drove to the Colorado River, went diving in an 8-10 knot current, and afterwards flogged on all the way to Santa Barbara, California. I feel tired just thinking about it.
The results demonstrated how extraordinarily diverse underwater images could be. There was an impressionistic image of a cottonwood tree from New Mexico, an antique dentists chair from Indiana, and an ore cart from a flooded mine in Missouri.
I began to think about what else I might find on a lengthy trip around the country and how it might make a unique collection of images - a portrait of America from a fishs point of view, or a crocodiles, or a turtles eye in a desert spring.
It would be an enormous challenge to capture images expressive of American waters from coast to coast - a feat no one had ever attempted before...
Any body of water was fair game, so the quest for images led to diving and snorkelling in the most bizarre places, especially when it came to fresh water. Rivers, creeks, streams, lakes, springs, marshlands, caves, swamps, and wetlands were all explored.
The expedition went to the source of the Mississippi River in Minnesota, and I even lay in a puddle in New York City. In Massachusetts at harvest time,
I jumped into a flooded cranberry bog - cranberries being one of the few truly native fruits in the USA - to the great bewilderment of the farmers.
For Kansas, when the time came to photograph cattle in some aquatic situation, I spoke to my friend Rob, the only person I knew from the Heartland State, the geographical centre of the contiguous United States.
Robs father put me in contact with a rancher, whose foreman didnt think my notion too far-fetched - until I asked to jump into the cows water tank.
In the vast swamplands of the south, I slipped into murky waters knowing there were alligators around and imagining them whenever my leg brushed up against a submerged tree trunk. But you force yourself to control those thoughts; you have to, in order to concentrate on the task at hand.
Somewhere in the Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana, I broke this mental barrier, and sharing the water with lurking near-relatives of the dinosaurs became less of an anxious experience and more of an exhilarating one.
In a search to locate an image depicting Lewis and Clarks 1804-06 expedition, which mainly followed water routes from St Louis across the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific coast, I found myself snorkelling the Missouri River on more than one occasion. Jim, a self-proclaimed water rat and a Huckleberry Finn-like character, kindly gave us a tour of the Big Muddy, where its course forms the borderline between Nebraska and South Dakota.
Huckleberry Jim pointed out snow geese and the Russian olive trees, which, as he noted off the cuff, were introduced in 1936 as windbreakers.
At times, the river became very shallow with accumulated sand - crushed Rockies, Jim called it.
Eventually we came to Bow Creek, where Lewis and Clark camped on 26 August, 1804. The crick that day was a rich chocolate colour due to the tornadoes that had bulled through a few days earlier, and the mud was the thickest I ever had to trudge through.
The slog was for nothing, as it turned out. I couldnt see a worthy shot.
So we searched on. In Montana, a new guide, Gary, born and bred in the Big Sky State, drove us across his farmland before dawn to the White Cliffs mentioned in Lewis and Clarks journals. Today, that part of the 160-mile stretch of the Missouri is officially designated Wild and Scenic.
It certainly seemed unspoilt and peaceful - until I hopped in with a snorkel and was almost swept away by the stronger-than-expected current.
I finally got the situation under control and shot the cliffs, but still wasnt satisfied.
Eventually I found what I was looking for, further up the 2341-mile-long river, at Sacagaweas Sulphur Spring. To reach this historic site, you hike a couple of miles beside the river over lovely rolling hills. Just watch out for the rattlesnakes.
From the beginning of the journey, one of the greatest challenges was what could be created in Nevada, the driest state in the union. Research had turned up Stillwater Marsh, where you can see the occasional sand dune from the waters edge. However, a five-year drought had all but dried out the shallow marshland. Instead, we found copious amounts of buffalo carp bones lying where those fish had gasped their last breaths.
We spent the entire morning driving around in search of an acceptable body of water and almost ran out of fuel - a near-disaster that made us think again about those fish bones.
By that point, Pyramid Lake in the Paiute Tribe Reservation seemed my best chance, and the most I expected was a split-level image of Pyramid Rock.
Instead, a fortuitous meeting with a fisherman led us to some dramatic underwater tufa formations, and four days later we left the desert with Nevada in the bag, much to my surprise and delight.
In Florida, there are many cave systems, but they have been well-documented. So I chose to look elsewhere, beginning in Arkansas, where we visited a couple of huge caverns. Spectacular, indeed, but not quite right for my purpose.
As we left Arkansass Hurricane River Cave, where Jesse James supposedly hid from the law, I came across a pamphlet for the National Cave Association showing the Lily Pad Room in the Onondaga Cave, Missouri.
The Lily Pad Room turned out to be simply remarkable for photography.
After all that time underground, our thoughts turned to those peculiar waters that fly into the sky - the geysers of Yellowstone, and the superheated pools that launch them.
Perhaps some of the most unique water in America can be found in Yellowstone National Park, the worlds first national park, founded in 1872.
Yellowstone is home to some 10,000 hot springs and geysers, including Old Faithful, possibly the most famous fountain in the world. Now you cant just jump into these areas - you arent allowed - and even if you were, youd find yourself being boiled by the worlds biggest Bunsen burner, the Yellowstone Caldera, the giant volcano that lurks beneath the parkland.
There was another option, however, and one that was both very cold and very hot: Yellowstone Lake.
Protected from the snow-melt chill by a drysuit, you can dive down to bubbling geothermal vents where there are also clusters of spires, and some very odd growths of green algae the size of 1960s beanbags.
My dives in the high-altitude lake, where I felt the Earth shake with subterranean thunder, were unforgettable, and humbling. To dive in such unusual places, where few if any had been before, was one of the greatest joys of the journey.
Alex Kirkbrides American Waters is a unique book containing an exceptional collection of underwater photographs.
It features aquatic images from every one of the 50 US states: from coastal waters to rivers, lakes, creeks and man-made bodies of water.
Published in hardback by David & Charles (ISBN 9780715327517), the book retails for 18.99 - but DIVER readers can order it at the special price of £16.99 with free p&p (UK only).
Call the David & Charles hotline, 0870 990 8222, or email firstname.lastname@example.org, quoting code A0106.
An exhibition of Alex Kirkbrides work can be seen at the Plus One Gallery, Pimlico in London from 5 December to 5 January 2008 (www.plusonegallery.com).
|Alex Kirkbrides |
|Atlantic sand tiger shark on the Papoose wreck, North Carolina. |
|The cranberry bogs in Massachusetts was the strangest shoot of the project. |
|This 1930s dentists chair used to be at the Shelby County jail in Indiana. |
|This 20-year-old blind catfish in San Marcos, Texas, is one of the last survivors from when its lake was part of an amusement park. |
|A rare glimpse of spotted gar in the San Marcos River, Texas. |
|The last shot from the last state - a rain pond in Connecticut. |