Sneak Peek: Freshwaters Illustrated’s Hidden Rivers

Our Own Little Amazon

Freshwaters Illustrated’s Hidden Rivers Premieres at Whiteside

A chub nest during mating season.

“Our own little Amazon.” That’s how Freshwaters Illustrated founder Jeremy Monroe described the subject of his upcoming film, Hidden Rivers of Southern Appalachia. Premiering at the Whiteside Theatre on October 17, the film provides a fascinating look into the water fauna of the Southeastern United States. Monroe was kind enough to grant us an advance screening and an interview.

Monroe says he was first drawn to Southern Appalachia as it is “a hotspot of aquatic biodiversity.”

“When I first visited these rivers in 2003 and saw all these diverse and colorful animals and their behaviors with my own eyes, I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “How has nobody made a film about this? I came away with this burning need to share it, and so I spent years trying to build a project.”

The hard work of him and his team more than paid off. According to Monroe, “A lot of the behaviors we captured for the film weren’t always well known or documented in the biology community.”

Six species are focused on throughout the film: sturgeon, suckers, mussels, darters, hellbenders (giant salamanders), and minnows. Special emphasis is placed on their breeding habits, and their mating displays make for excellent cinema. Monroe’s favorites are the chubs, a species of minnow that “work so hard to build these massive streambed nesting mounds, stone by stone, and then these mounds become irresistible spawning areas for all of these other fishes that show up with all their spirit and spawning colors.”

On the technical side, the film is gorgeous to look at. The cool greens of the Appalachian forests nicely complement the murky browns of the river, with overhead and tracking shots that emphasize and accentuate the flow of the river. The soundtrack by Humming House demonstrates the sheer flexibility of Appalachia’s distinctive musical style, at times sounding joyous, rowdy, or melancholy. With soothing narration by Suzanne Frank, the overall impression one gets is of a relaxing voyage downriver.

This makes it all the more jarring to see the peril that local species are in. According to Monroe, merely finding locations suitable for wildlife photography proved a challenge. “The Southeast can have enormous and intense rain storms, and so any rivers near towns or farmlands would get extremely muddy from soil erosion — and that mud is essentially poison for the aquatic ecosystem.” He and his team were mostly restricted to shooting in Appalachia’s National Parks and Forests, where clear water could be easily found.

Conservationists face an uphill battle in the region. Local wildlife populations can be devastated by disruptions to a few key streams in regions rife with dams and sediment runoff. Likewise, many of the native species are relatively unstudied, meaning preservation efforts have to be developed from the ground up.

“It’s really stressful, where you’re holding the last individuals we’ve been able to find of a population under one roof,” said Rachel Hoch of NC Wildlife Resources. “This is kind of like the Hail Mary of conservation.”

Nevertheless, it is an upward trend that the film illustrates. “In general, the rivers on or near public lands, like National Forests, are getting healthier, and that has effects far downstream of those public lands,” says Monroe.

However, a new threat looms on the horizon, as the federal government has repealed the Waters of the United States rule of 2015. Monroe had this to say on the subject: “We’re really lucky to have the Clean Water Act as a law of the land, and of all places, it’s probably done the most good in Eastern rivers that saw the most abuse over the last couple centuries. The Waters of the US Rule really helped ensure that small streams and wetlands had adequate protection under the Act since they are essentially the headwaters, or roots, of larger rivers and lakes that they feed. So, the attempt that we’re now seeing to weaken that Rule really goes against the shared value we all have for healthy freshwater ecosystems, and what we’ve learned and seen as a society over the last few hundred years.”

In closing, Monroe says that “Hidden Rivers is our best example yet of why we do what we do — showing that freshwater ecosystems are beautiful, full of life and wonder, and that they deserve all the care and protection we can give them.”

Freshwaters Illustrated is a Corvallis-based film-making company that illustrates the beauty, wonder, and value of freshwater ecosystems. Learn more at https://www.freshwatersillustrated.org/.

By Brandon Urey