RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And now for a story about salmon and a biologist who loves them. She studied their anatomy, their courtship rituals, even their afterlife as nutrients for trees. Her greatest passion is taking their portraits underwater in the remote rivers of the Pacific Northwest. NPR senior correspondent Ketzel Levine has this profile of the floating photographer.
KETZEL LEVINE: She's an artist, a fish biologist, a cold water, dry suit junkie, but she is no fool. When Mary Edwards heads into the Oregon wilderness for a day alone on the river, she always lets someone know.
Ms. MARY EDWARDS (Fish Biologist; Photographer): Hey, Jeff. Come here. Listen, you're my call out today. If you don't hear back from me by six o'clock tonight... Yeah, the posse. OK. All right. Bye.
LEVINE: We're eating dust for breakfast as we drive into the Wallowa Mountains heading for the Lostine River. The two of us are dressed like matching turtles in our waterproof drab greens. Mary Edwards grabs her gear. We waddle through brush. And she yells, "Hey, Bear! Hey, Bear!" I listen to the rhythm, but am deaf to the meaning of her words.
Ms. EDWARDS: OK, putting the gloves on.
LEVINE: The sun skips along the water as we wade in for the first breathless moment of the day as Mary Edwards lowers her camera into the rushing river and prays its waterproof casing holds.
Ms. EDWARDS: That's 3,000 bucks. And we look good.
LEVINE: No bubbles. No nothing.
Ms. EDWARDS: No bubbles. No nothing.
LEVINE: Oh, boy. That water is cold.
Ms. EDWARDS: Come on. I want to see you get in there already.
LEVINE: Let me get my mask.
Ms. EDWARDS: Too much prep. Let's go.
LEVINE: We've got a robin's egg blue sky capped by mountains and conifers on this "pinch me, I must be dreaming" morning with the proverbial cinematic river running through it, all part of the alchemy now about to take place as a research biologist sheds all professional detachment to lose herself in cold water wonder.
Ms. EDWARDS: OK. I'm going in.
(Soundbite of splash of water)
LEVINE: The current is pretty swift, but she's holding on to some large stones to keep herself anchored. She's just showed me how big they are. They're pretty tiny.
Ms. EDWARDS: Little fish. They're chinook salmon. Big school, little fish. I want to see if there are more fish up around the bend.
LEVINE: Mary Edwards lives pretty close to here in Joseph, Oregon, where she works for the Nez Perce Fisheries. But I'm with a very different woman now, an artist who toys with the truth, who will use computer tools to tinker with today's underwater images, often pushing her photos to watercolor-like extremes.
Ms. EDWARDS: You know, there are some images that I'll look at, and they're beautiful in and of themselves, just as is. And I don't need to add to it. There are other images that are beautiful, and, I don't know, it's like I want to change it, maybe accent a particular energy that's in the image.
LEVINE: And this is the place to be for energy. It's salmon spawn time, those few magical weeks every year when salmon complete their impossible journey, traveling, in this case, from an ocean 650 miles east to the very gravel where they were born. And there they nest in what's called a redd.
Ms. EDWARDS: So right on the far bank over there is a redd. In fact, there's a fish on. There's a fish on. Oh, wow, that's hot. There's two. There's two. Can you see them?
LEVINE: As never before, a pair of courting chinook salmon.
Ms. EDWARDS: That's digging. That's digging. See how it flips on its side and does that motion with the tail? And working up to what I love to call "the moment." And that's when she'll actually let her eggs out, and he'll express milt at the same time.
LEVINE: She won't be shooting the moment. She'd never risk interfering. And since this could take hours, even days, we leave the couple in peace and head to another promising pool.
OK. This is great. I just came out of the water to grab the machine because Mary just spied a huge salmon. She really wanted to shoot big salmon today, so this could be it.
What do you think?
Ms. EDWARDS: Well, I don't know its sex. But it was a chinook salmon.
LEVINE: How big?
Ms. EDWARDS: Large.
LEVINE: Three feet long and about four years old.
Ms. EDWARDS: He's starting to look a little beat up. He's probably fighting with other males. Towards the end of spawn, they look terrible.
LEVINE: Left holding the microphone as she descends once more, I take a deep breath and a long view of the wilderness around us. And then it comes to me, unbidden, but clear as a bell. "Hey Bear! Hey Bear!" We are in bear country during happy hour! Is this worth it? Mary resurfaces, and I've got my answer. Passion. Risk. Reward.
Ms. EDWARDS: So because his head is tucked up under the log, I can't get a full frame. But what's nice about this is that his tail was dancing out into the light, so it'd be more kind of an abstract shot. We'll see how it looks when we pull it up at home.
LEVINE: Later at home, Mary Edwards will subtly manipulate the image of liquid light streaming through the chinook's ragged tail. She'll tweak the exposure, play with the black, punch minute details. A workmanlike process that belies her own awe during a day on the river watching the beat up bodies of near death salmon come home to spawn.
Ms. EDWARDS: All my science background says, well, it's governed by all these other things. But if I could take one-tenth of that determination and apply it to my life, what would I accomplish? What would all of us accomplish?
LEVINE: Ketzel Levine, NPR News.
Ms. EDWARDS: Hey, Jeffrey. It's Mary. Had a great day on the river. So we're A-OK.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: To see images by the floating photographer, and they include a few bears cavorting at happy hour, you can visit npr.org. This is Morning Edition from NPR news. I'm Renee Montagne.