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ON ASSIGNMENT: Floods, Fish & Pedaling

09.07.2011

A scene from a pow-wow on the Ft. Peck Indian Reservation.

Greetings from Montana.

Although video has occupied most of my time this summer, I was still able to keep the Nikon from gathering dust while on assignment for the New York Times.

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   The old joke is that driving distances in the West are measured in six packs.  In Montana, kegs would be more appropriate.

Northeast Montana, a place you’ll never see in a travel brochure and a long, long way from anywhere, was where I caught up with NYT writer Bruce Weber in August, who was writing and cycling across the U.S. from Oregon to New York City.

For two days, I followed Bruce as he made his way in slow motion from Wolf Point, on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, to Glendive, not far from the North Dakota border.  We went from cowboys and Indians to dinosaurs.

Following cyclists across the U.S. was familiar ground.  In 1994, I documented one of the teams racing across the country in the Bicycle Race Across America.  I spent almost as much time with Bruce as I did documenting that race.  In 1994, the coast-to-coast race was covered in five days, ten hours, and 15 minutes, at the time an American record.  Bruce should see the Atlantic around mid-October!

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The first night I met-up with Bruce, we were lucky enough to catch a pow-wow on the “rez”, a very bright moment for those who struggle with life far from the mainstream.

Storyblog and gallery links.

 At Yellowstone Lake in Yellowstone National Park, I joined long-time NYT reporter Kirk Johnson, who was writing about how the National Park Service was killing one fish to save another.

The invasive lake trout had found its way into the lake in the early 1990’s, and since then, they have been trying to eradicate it in an effort to save the native Yellowstone cutthroat trout.  Lake trout like eating cutthroat trout.

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The Park Service predicts they will kill nearly 250,000 lake trout this summer in their effort, using mostly gill nets to capture the villains, which are then killed and thrown back into the lake.

We went out on a boat that was also netting fish, but instead of killing them, crews were inserting sonic transmitters that would lead them to more fish, especially spawning beds.  They were calling these fish “Judas Fish”.

On my drive out of the park, I took the long way, where I ran into buffalo, elk, osprey, and Yellowstone’s infamous wildlife-induced traffic jams.  In his story, Kirk posed a very thought-provoking question.  Can a system be called natural if humans must remain at the helm to make it work?  Natural or not, Yellowstone is always a great place to visit and photograph.

Story and gallery links.

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 The people of North Dakota might be some of the friendliest, and most humble, people I’ve met to date.

On my first day in Minot, N.D., where I was sent to cover the tragic flooding there in June, I met a local who took me in for three days, feeding me, guiding me around the city, and sharing his internet connection.  I’ve never been treated so well on such a sad assignment.  We check in with each other often.

Once the emergency levees gave way to the rising Souris River, quickly flooding the town, the result was hard to watch.  I remember on my second day of flying over flooded areas, where rising waters were starting to touch roofs, a dark cloud of sadness swept through me.

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Watching from afar, as most of us do, via the internet, newspapers, or television, is not the same.  When you’re there, you can’t help but be moved by it all.  I have covered more than my share of disasters over the past 30 years, and it doesn’t get any easier.  In fact, it continues to get harder and more emotional.

After three days of watching this tragedy slowly unfold, I left town, heading back to Montana.

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As I was driving out of town, I got a call from NYT reporter A.J. Sulzberger, who said the local radio station was giving thanks and that they included me for my photograph of a woman praying for her friends and family on a bridge above the river, inches away from overtaking its banks.  The voice on the radio said “thanks” for showing the world how much we care.  Since then, several locals have told me that picture has become one of the iconic images from their historic flood.

Links to stories on city braces, no flood insurance, and zoo animals escape to higher ground.

 Fall is in the air around here.  Soon the elk will be bugling.  Ah September!

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