National Geographic photographer, filmmaker, and writer Peter McBride recently trekked nearly 700 miles through the Grand Canyon to document the hidden wilderness between the rim and the river. Yet this water warrior has been the Lorax of the wilderness for decades, traveling to far-flung locales in search of water and play. In this exclusive photo essay, McBride captures the transcendental power of the world’s most majestic arteries, which ultimately connect us all.
Wilderness is not a luxury, it is a necessity to the human spirit,” stated Edward Abbey decades ago. Since the passing of this famous western American rabble-rouser, I’d add “survival” to the end of his line, which is touted among conservationists. The reason is simple. Those wild places on the map, the far-flung locales that often look black from outer space because the web of lights and roads haven’t infiltrated them yet, frequently create and sustain the magic ingredient for our survival: water.
Having recently walked hundreds of miles through one of America’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Grand Canyon, while on assignment for National Geographic, I’ve forged a new appreciation for the lifeblood that shapes our world and our bodies: water. And fresh water, particularly in the West, is most readily seen, enjoyed, and exploited in our rivers. They are the arteries of our planet, yet so often ignored. The Colorado River, as one example, no longer reaches the sea. Period. It dries up 100 miles north at the U.S.-Mexican border. Amazingly, this architect of the Grand Canyon ends in a whimper today—long before it kisses the sea—a beautiful dance it had previously claimed for more than five million years.
The Colorado “Running 1,450 miles across seven states and two countries, the Colorado River sustains not only nine national parks—those wild places adored by millions—but it also sources America’s salad bowl and is the foundation to a $26 billion recreation economy (named ‘the hardest working river in America’ on the Forbes Top 200 list). While many say this river, dubbed the American Nile, is the most loved, it is also the most litigated, thus forcing it to run dry before the ocean.” -raisetheriver.org; grandcanyontrust.org
Having witnessed this shocking reality firsthand, I’ve become enamored by wild places around the globe and the water sources that feed them. My expeditions, assignments, and curiosity have taken me from my backyard in Colorado to Africa’s Nile, India’s Ganges and even to our majestic frozen desert of the south, Antarctica, which stores the vast majority of the planet’s fresh water.
Antarctic Peninsula “The frozen world at the bottom of our globe is a kaleidoscope of hues, where you can glimpse every shade of white. It’s also our home’s cistern, storing over 60 percent of the world’s freshwater supply, neatly locked in the world’s largest ice sheet. As water shortages creep through more corners of the world, many are looking to Antarctica for solutions (some even proposing dragging icebergs north), but the logistical hurdles always point to a better solution: conserving what we have already, in our lakes and rivers.” -asoc.org; nationalgeographic.com
Unfortunately, the wild places around these flowing arteries are changing as rapidly as the rivers themselves. So the next you happen upon a river while traveling—whether in the wild or crossing one while motoring along a freeway—remember to slow down, take a look, and perhaps think about how we can tackle this issue together. As Abbey reminds us, your spirit could use a healthy view. That lifeline is critical to survival.
The Ganges “Considered a fluid representation of the divine by one billion Hindu, the Ganges is the world’s most sacred river. Yet it’s also one of the most contaminated, as 500 million people depend on it for survival and prayer. As more look to this 1,500-mile-long river—one that plummets four vertical miles across northern India, draining much of the Himalaya—for sustenance and spirituality, it may require more than prayer to endure what is asked of it.” -moef.nic.in; cseindia.org
Africa’s Botswana + Okavango Delta “From the arid hills of Kenya to the sprawling Okavango Delta in Botswana, water continues to shape cultures, wildlife, and landscapes. Yet its patterns are changing. For centuries, Mt. Kenya’s glaciers have naturally stored and released water supplies for Kenyan tribes, but nearly all 16 glaciers have receded and vanished, creating unpredictable flood and drought patterns downstream. The same ripple affects are appearing in other countries like Botswana, disrupting wildlife patterns and wilderness regions on many levels.” –lewa.org