It’s easy to take rivers for granted as they roll quietly through the landscape. But after watching “Hidden Rivers,” the new documentary from the Corvallis nonprofit Freshwaters Illustrated, you may never look at flowing water the same way again.
A decade in the making, the hourlong film explores the astoundingly rich — and largely overlooked — web of life nourished by the river systems of the southern Appalachia.
More than half of the 1,000 or so freshwater fish species in North America can be found in the rivers of Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia, but few Americans seem to be aware of this biological hotspot in their own country.
One of the people profiled in the film puts it this way:
“When most people think of biodiversity and the profusion of life on the planet, they think of the rainforest and they think of coral reefs. But right here in the Southeastern United States we have in our care some of the greatest biodiversity in freshwaters on the planet.”
Using a mix of stunning underwater photography, moving narration and revealing interviews with biologists, land managers, environmental activists and impassioned river lovers, “Hidden Rivers” takes the viewer on an intimate and eye-opening tour of this largely undiscovered realm.
Underwater denizens featured in the film include freshwater mussels that mimic crayfish, insects and other creatures to lure curious fish, which then become unwitting couriers that transport the mussels’ larvae to new locations; a small fish called the chub that painstakingly constructs nesting sites by building mounds of pebbles that in turn become nesting sites for stone rollers, shiners and other opportunistic fish; and the mysterious hellbender, a prehistoric-looking and rarely seen salamander that dwells on river bottoms and can grow up to 2 feet long.
The film also features a colorful cast of human characters, from an artist who finds inspiration by snorkeling the wild rivers near his home in the Smoky Mountains to government officials charged with managing state waterways to wildlife biologists devising new ways to keep struggling species alive in the face of challenges such as dams, habitat loss, pollution, sedimentation and rising water temperatures.
What ties them all together is a deep appreciation for these freshwater ecosystems — and a fierce determination to preserve them for the future.
One example is J.R. Shute of Conservation Fisheries Inc., a Tennessee nonprofit that propagates rare, threatened fish to restock waterways where they have either disappeared or are in danger of dying out.
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“I mean, I get choked up when I think about losing some of these things — and it doesn’t take much sometimes to wipe a whole stream out,” he says in the film. “These things are all part of our world, and to say we have the right to let them just go extinct is pretty arrogant in my book.”
While the film offers an unflinching look at the myriad threats to fragile freshwater ecosystems, it ends on a hopeful note, highlighting local efforts to restore healthy populations of aquatic organisms in rivers such as the Little Tennessee, the Tellico, the Clinch, the Cheoh and the French Broad.
“Hidden Rivers” was a passion project for Jeremy Monroe and David Herasimtschuk of Freshwaters Illustrated, who have spent years snorkeling the rivers of Appalachia with video cameras in hand to document this mysterious and fascinating underwater world.
“This is a place where you can show rivers as not only vibrant ecosystems but very colorful, very charismatic and worth protecting,” Monroe said.
“Our mission at Freshwaters Illustrated is to introduce people to these underwater ecosystems,” added Herasimtschuk. “The wow factor is that this isn’t someplace off in Africa or some other remote location, this is close to millions of people.”
Funded by grants and donations, “Hidden Rivers” was produced for under $250,000, which Monroe calls “pretty cheap for a documentary of this scale.” It’s the fourth feature-length film for Freshwaters Illustrated, whose previous efforts include “Riverwebs,” “The Lost Fish” and “Upriver,” as well as two or three dozen shorts.
“Hidden Rivers” is narrated by Suzanne Frank, with music by Humming House. Matthew Kellam was the sound engineer.
The film had its world premiere March 25 in Washington, D.C., at the Environmental Film Festival in the nation’s capital. Since then it’s been shown about three dozen times in some of the Appalachian communities where it was shot, and it recently screened at the Jackson Wild festival in Wyoming.
“Hidden Rivers” will have its first local screening on Oct. 17 at the Whiteside Theatre in Corvallis (see box with this story for details).