Finding salmon spawning in clear water is not easy on the Columbia, where the water is murky. But a fish biologist helped me locate some in the Middle Fork of the John Day River, a tributary in central Oregon. Its a little streamno more than 15 feet (5 meters) acrosswith a few inches of brisk water flowing over; just the right kind of rocky bottom for spawning.
With a tiny video camera rigged to my camera and enclosed in an underwater housingan invaluable device developed by National Geographics equipment departmentI could sit on the shore and watch what was happening in the water on a video screen.
At one point a female salmon swam up and put her eye right on the lens. She got so used to the camera that when I waded into the stream she stuck very close to it and me. I was amazed not only by how close she got but also because I knew she had come through three dams and 300 miles (480 kilometers) of river to get there. It was one of those moments when I felt privileged to see something thatin the scheme of lifewas very special.
At the end of a story I always have this bittersweet feeling about finding unexpected photo opportunities but, at the same time, missing others I had hoped for. For example, I knew for a fact that there were people who actually go snorkeling with salmon. What a great picture possibility! I spent days trying to find them, but I couldnt. When I returned home I couldnt help but lament the shots I missed. Its a common and recurring regret. The story always ends before you can get every possible picture that would make the article the best it could be.
I was at the mouth of the Columbia River and had hired a small plane to take aerial photographs. An older silver-haired gentleman got out of the Cessna and introduced himself as my pilot. I was thinking he was probably one of the older pilots I had ever flown with, but he had experience and knew what he was doing so I was OK with it.
We took off, and as we went along we talked about where we were going and what I wanted to shoot. As time passed his own story started coming out. He had flown for the Navy and taught Navy pilots. Then he went overseas to fly and ended up piloting a 727 for a Middle Eastern royal family. He finally retired in Washington and flies Cessnas once in a while for whoever needs it. So I asked him when he got started, back in the Korean era?
Yeah, I didnt fly in Korea, but I did train pilots, he said. Then he told me he had a classmate who went on to some fame. Who was that? I asked. He answered matter-of-factly, Gus Grissom.