A woman floats face up  in the middle of a large body of water with her arms outstretched in the water. A line of trees is in the background.
Almost Heaven Myka Hayden floats in the Cheat River in West Virginia. © Raymond Thompson Jr.

Magazine Articles

How The Water Shapes Us

A photo essay of the people and places within the Mississippi River basin

Rolaine Ossman Senior Photo Editor, Nature Conservancy magazine

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The Mississippi River flows straight through the heart of America. The river and its tributaries have carved the land, shaped ecosystems, built economies and influenced cultures in thirty one states across the country. Nature Conservancy magazine asked photographers within ten of those states to document how water influences life throughout this rich and varied river system.

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A man and a boy wearing camoflauge pull their canoe.
HEADWATERS HUNTING: Chad and Cole Trembath pull their canoe from Upper Rice Lake after a duck hunt in northern Minnesota. The state’s lakes and rivers are a major tourism and recreational draw. © Ackerman + Gruber

Photographs by: Ackerman + Gruber

MINNESOTA

Our photo coverage begins at the beginning: the Mississippi River headwaters in northern Minnesota. The river starts at Lake Itasca and forms an 18-foot-wide ribbon of water that flows through state parks, small towns and Minneapolis/St. Paul before winding its way to the border Minnesota shares with Wisconsin. Cabins are studded along the shor...

Our photo coverage begins at the beginning: the Mississippi River headwaters in northern Minnesota. The river starts at Lake Itasca and forms an 18-foot-wide ribbon of water that flows through state parks, small towns and Minneapolis/St. Paul before winding its way to the border Minnesota shares with Wisconsin. Cabins are studded along the shores of lakes and within forests near the headwaters. About one quarter of Minnesota drains into that waterway—a source of clean drinking water and rich biodiversity and an economic driver for the state’s residents. Many recreational activities such as camping, hiking, hunting, and fishing occur here as well as agricultural practices such as wild rice harvesting.

Find out more about how TNC is protecting this vital region here

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An aerial view of a green forested area with a thin river snaking through the center of a stand of pine trees and wetlands.
Origin Story The Mississippi River near its headwaters in Clearwater County, Minnesota. A drop of water takes nearly three months to travel the 2,350 miles from the start of the Mississippi at Lake Itasca, MN, to the Gulf of Mexico. © Ackerman + Gruber

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Sunlight illuminates white cliffs along a still river.
CENTRAL MONTANA: Rock formations and cliffs along the White Cliffs section of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument near Lewistown. © Louise Johns

Photographs by: Louise Johns

MONTANA

The westernmost reaches of the Mississippi River basin extend into Montana, where we find the Yellowstone and Missouri River tributaries. These waterways pass through dramatic landscapes that include mountains, prairies and rock formations such as the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. Water is in high demand in the west and Montana...

The westernmost reaches of the Mississippi River basin extend into Montana, where we find the Yellowstone and Missouri River tributaries. These waterways pass through dramatic landscapes that include mountains, prairies and rock formations such as the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. Water is in high demand in the west and Montana is no exception. The Missouri River has suffered from historically low water levels in recent years due to lower-than-average rain and snowfall in the region. It’s something that residents are keeping an eye on, especially farmers and ranchers in the region. Click here for more information about how TNC in Montana is working to protect freshwater throughout this state.

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Three generations of women stand within berry bushes at the edge of a creek. They are wearing brightly striped blankets and traditional Blackfeet tribal clothing.
Three Generations A portrait of Darnell Ridesatthedoor, her daughter, Mistee, and her granddaughter, Camee, amidst the berries that they pick alongside Badger Creek. The creek runs through Darnell's mother's land on the Blackfeet Reservation and is a tributary of the Missouri River. © Louise Johns

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A woman snorkles in a shallow creek near a fallen tree.
UP CLOSE: Madison Ball snorkels in a creek looking for invertebrates at the Left Fork of Clover Run in the Monongahela National Forest, near Morgantown, West Virginia. © Raymond Thompson Jr.

Photographs by: Raymond Thompson Jr.

WEST VIRGINIA

West Virginia contains some of the easternmost portions of the basin and includes the Monongahela and Ohio Rivers. The state is home to some of the most climate change resilient land in the U.S., from rolling hills to the Appalachian Mountains and plentiful freshwater throughout. There are numerous parks and preserves in the state including TNC’s Charlotte Ryde Preserve at Cheat Canyon

West Virginia contains some of the easternmost portions of the basin and includes the Monongahela and Ohio Rivers. The state is home to some of the most climate change resilient land in the U.S., from rolling hills to the Appalachian Mountains and plentiful freshwater throughout. There are numerous parks and preserves in the state including TNC’s Charlotte Ryde Preserve at Cheat Canyon, where the Cheat River (a whitewater-rafting destination and Ohio River tributary) can be found. For centuries, people have sought adventure, solace and creative inspiration in this wilderness and others like it. The COVID-19 pandemic has only increased that appreciation for this aspect of nature.  

West Virginia also has a history of mining and mineral extraction in some parts of the state. As it transitions out of some of these industries, TNC in West Virginia is working with local community members to create both a healthy economy and a healthy environment. Find out more here.

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Two children walk around the edge of a creek and are surrounded by green trees and vegetation that grow and consume the rest of the frame.
Little Laurel Run West Virginia contains some of the basin's easternmost range. The creek flows along Hemlock Trail, a short hiking loop near Morgantown. On this day, Raymond Thompson III and Simone Hall hiked with their parents. The COVID-19 pandemic has drawn many people to find solace in nature. © Raymond Thompson Jr.

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A thin stream runs through a dark forestbed.
SPHINX HEAD: The Sphinx Head rock formation and stream at Hocking Hills. © Alex Snyder/TNC

Photographs by: Alex Snyder

OHIO

The Ohio River, a major tributary of the Mississippi River, creates the southern border of the state of Ohio. Here, the river passes through many rural communities before making its way to Cincinnati. In the southeastern part of the state, forested areas containing rock formations carved from glacial retreat attract nature lovers from around th...

The Ohio River, a major tributary of the Mississippi River, creates the southern border of the state of Ohio. Here, the river passes through many rural communities before making its way to Cincinnati. In the southeastern part of the state, forested areas containing rock formations carved from glacial retreat attract nature lovers from around the region. Flat land, rich soil, and plentiful rainfall make for prime farmland as well. Large and small farms along creeks and streams that flow into the Ohio River rely on this water for their crops. To protect the Ohio River and its water quality, TNC is restoring streams and wetlands within the state and partnering with farmers to prevent nutrient runoff.

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A woman carries a black plastic crate through a crop row with green leaves and red peppers surrounding her.
Right Off the Vine Tabitha Blaney carries recently harvested eggplants and peppers grown on her family farm in Albany, Ohio. The family sells their produce at a local farmers market and also through their CSA. Like so many, the Blaney’s farm in the Hocking River Valley gets water from a tributary of the Ohio River. © Alex Snyder/TNC

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The silhouettes of five people in kayaks in a creek.
A DAY ON THE KAW: Kayakers paddle down the Wakarusa River, a tributary of the Kansas River. © Dan Videtich

Photographs by: Dan Videtich

KANSAS


The Kansas River, known to locals as the “Kaw,” is one of the longest prairie rivers in the world. It is largely undammed which makes its free-flowing, shallow waters a great place for canoeing, fishing and kayaking. Because of its high silt content there are also many sandbars that make for great camping spots. However, that same high level ...


The Kansas River, known to locals as the “Kaw,” is one of the longest prairie rivers in the world. It is largely undammed which makes its free-flowing, shallow waters a great place for canoeing, fishing and kayaking. Because of its high silt content there are also many sandbars that make for great camping spots. However, that same high level of silt attracts river dredging on the Kaw—a practice that can negatively affect water table levels and cause land erosion. There are many organizations founded to help raise awareness of the health of the Kaw, and their efforts include getting locals out onto the water for cleanups and recreation, further deepening the community’s connection to the river. 

TNC in Kansas helps to protect freshwater in the state through the David T. Beals III Healthy Streams for Kansas Initiative. Learn more here about their work on the Kansas River and other waterways.

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A young boy stands in a docked canoe in front of a cooler. he has on a floppy hat and is wearing a face mask with the logo of NASA on the front. he is wearing a yellow life vest with blue fish design.
River Helpers Leo Pratt waits as his mother, Molly, prepares her canoe during a Friends of the Kaw "beginners' paddle event". This grassroots organization focuses on the protection and appreciation of the Kansas River, a tributary of the Missouri River. © Dan Videtich
Two individuals stand in grass in front of a body of water and watch as a train passes across a bridge across the water behind them.
By the Tracks Josh Gallet and his girlfriend, Marissa Vigil, both of Linwood, Kansas, fish for catfish at Stranger Creek (a tributary to the Kansas River). © Dan Videtich
× Two individuals stand in grass in front of a body of water and watch as a train passes across a bridge across the water behind them.
Silhouettes of three campers in fog and early morning light as they move around the campsite along a sandy bank of an island in the river.
Good, Clean Fun Friends of the Kaw members break down camp and prepare to kayak off on an island in the Kansas River. The crew spent the weekend paddling, camping, and cleaning up the water. © Dan Videtich
× Silhouettes of three campers in fog and early morning light as they move around the campsite along a sandy bank of an island in the river.
By the Tracks Josh Gallet and his girlfriend, Marissa Vigil, both of Linwood, Kansas, fish for catfish at Stranger Creek (a tributary to the Kansas River). © Dan Videtich
Good, Clean Fun Friends of the Kaw members break down camp and prepare to kayak off on an island in the Kansas River. The crew spent the weekend paddling, camping, and cleaning up the water. © Dan Videtich

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A puddle of water with farm buildings in background.
RURAL RELIEF: Old Channel Nishnabotna River and grain elevator near the L536 Levee Setback Project along the Missouri River bottomlands in Langdon, MO. © Dan Videtich

Photographs by: Dan Videtich

MISSOURI

“These flood waters are not receding,” read the testimony of Rhonda Wiley, Emergency Management Director for Atchison County, in a 2019 hearing regarding assessment of federal recovery efforts following recent disasters. For approximately 200 days that year, residents of Atchison and Holt County, Missouri, endured flooding as a result of levee ...

“These flood waters are not receding,” read the testimony of Rhonda Wiley, Emergency Management Director for Atchison County, in a 2019 hearing regarding assessment of federal recovery efforts following recent disasters. For approximately 200 days that year, residents of Atchison and Holt County, Missouri, endured flooding as a result of levee failures. High water breached more than 100 levees in the Missouri River that year, and more than one million acres containing farms, railroads and highways were damaged. The Atchison County Levee District worked with landowners (with assistance from TNC) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to make the case to reconstruct one levee further back from the main stem of the river to better protect lands against extreme flooding in the future. Construction began in 2020, offering peace of mind to those who live along this 60-mile stretch that borders the Missouri River.

Read more about TNC's work on this project here.

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A large farming machine with lights on moves through a field of soybeans to harvest them under a dark, pre-dawn sky.
Flood-Prone Farmland Ryan Ottmann harvests soybeans at the Missouri River bottomlands on his farm in Rock Port in Atchison County, Missouri. Ottmann and other local farmers pushed for a new levee system for this region. © Dan Videtich
A Man in yellow safety gear and hard hat walks away from heavy machinery in a large plot of land that has been leveled by the machinery.
Under Construction Riley Sutton takes GPS coordinates at the L536 Levee Setback Project site. Sand is being pumped from a dredge in the Missouri River via pipes for the construction. © Dan Videtich
× A Man in yellow safety gear and hard hat walks away from heavy machinery in a large plot of land that has been leveled by the machinery.
A man wears a baseball hat and t-shirt and stands to the left of his  red truck, his right elbow propped on the top of the cab. A long dirt road and fields of crops are behind him.
Peace of Mind Phil Graves of Rock Port with his soybean crops near the Missouri River levee, less than a mile south of the L536 Levee Setback Project that will help to protect his farm. © Dan Videtich
× A man wears a baseball hat and t-shirt and stands to the left of his  red truck, his right elbow propped on the top of the cab. A long dirt road and fields of crops are behind him.
Under Construction Riley Sutton takes GPS coordinates at the L536 Levee Setback Project site. Sand is being pumped from a dredge in the Missouri River via pipes for the construction. © Dan Videtich
Peace of Mind Phil Graves of Rock Port with his soybean crops near the Missouri River levee, less than a mile south of the L536 Levee Setback Project that will help to protect his farm. © Dan Videtich

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A line of horses and riders move up cliffs above water.
SINGLE FILE: The Buffalo River Back Country Horsemen participate in a group ride on the Buffalo National River. © Terra Fondriest

Photographs by: Terra Fondriest

ARKANSAS

The Buffalo National River in northern Arkansas is a tributary of the White River and the first designated national river in the country. Natural beauty abounds in this area of The Ozarks, where waterfalls, limestone bluffs, caves and natural springs can be seen. The Buffalo River is home to hundreds of species of fish and other aquatic life an...

The Buffalo National River in northern Arkansas is a tributary of the White River and the first designated national river in the country. Natural beauty abounds in this area of The Ozarks, where waterfalls, limestone bluffs, caves and natural springs can be seen. The Buffalo River is home to hundreds of species of fish and other aquatic life and the surrounding land is home to the state’s only elk herd. The river attracts many types of visitors, be they on horseback or boat, and for recreational to religious purposes. 

Find out how TNC in Arkansas helps to protect the Buffalo National River here.

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A young boy swims in dark water. His back is visible and a bit of his arms and his neck is visible as he submerges his face into the water. The top of a red snorkel is visible.
Waterworld Henry Fondriest, son of the photographer, looks beneath the river’s surface. “He and his sister both have a love for the frogs, tadpoles, fish and any other critter they find in the water or on the shore,” their mother says. “It’s always an adventure when they go to the river.” © Terra Fondriest

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A smooth river of water winds through fields and trees.
OUTSKIRTS: An aerial view of the Mississippi River just outside the city of Memphis on the border between Tennessee and Arkansas. © Rory Doyle

Photographs by: Rory Doyle

TENNESSEE

Cities dot the water's edge throughout the Mississippi River basin. They developed there often for industrial purposes or proximity to water-based transportation. Founded in 1819, Memphis sits at a relatively high location above the river, making it less prone to floods and a desirable place to live. It became a major trade and transportation c...

Cities dot the water's edge throughout the Mississippi River basin. They developed there often for industrial purposes or proximity to water-based transportation. Founded in 1819, Memphis sits at a relatively high location above the river, making it less prone to floods and a desirable place to live. It became a major trade and transportation center. Today, the International Port of Memphis is the fifth largest inland port in the country. Meanwhile, the city has been able to take advantage of its waterfront property, where residents can enjoy the green space and pedestrian paths at the newly constructed Tom Lee Park. 

Its central location and access also made Memphis a cultural hub in the 20th century. Blues musicians throughout the Mississippi Delta gathered there and exported their sound to cities and towns throughout America. During the Civil Rights Movement, Memphis was a central spot for many events within the movement, including the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers’ strike and the tragic assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. The city created the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, the site of the assassination, to honor the work that continues to this day.

The Nature Conservancy in Tennessee works throughout the state on freshwater initiatives, including efforts to preserve the biodiversity of the Tennessee River, the largest tributary of the Ohio River and part of the Mississippi River basin. Find out more info here.

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Three teenage girls ride their electric scooters on a paved pedestrian path as the sun sets. Their faces are partly in shadow and light from the angle of the sun.
Space to Enjoy Girls on scooters make their way down Riverside Drive next to Tom Lee Park on the banks of the Mississippi River in Memphis. Human control of the river through engineering projects have helped to alleviate flooding burdens along the banks of cities like Memphis, allowing for recreational use. © Rory Doyle

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A man and a girl hold an oar on dry land.
RIVER/TEACHER: Mark “River” Peoples teaches a student to paddle. © Rory Doyle

Photographs by: Rory Doyle

MISSISSIPPI

By the time the Mississippi River reaches the state of Mississippi, it has become a meandering and changeable force. This portion of the river is scattered with oxbow lakes, which serve as ghosts of the water’s change of course. It is also carrying with it much of the 500 million tons of sediment that eventually spills into the Gulf of Mexico e...

By the time the Mississippi River reaches the state of Mississippi, it has become a meandering and changeable force. This portion of the river is scattered with oxbow lakes, which serve as ghosts of the water’s change of course. It is also carrying with it much of the 500 million tons of sediment that eventually spills into the Gulf of Mexico each year and gives the Lower Mississippi its muddy hue. Much of this region’s bottomland hardwood forests have been removed to create room for agriculture, and the river is heavily used for commercial transport. But, there is also wild beauty to be found in this part of the river and individuals who are making it their life’s mission to restore local residents’ connections to the beauty of the Mississippi. While engineering and nature-based solutions have helped to control this river, humans have always respected the might and whims of its borders.

For more information about the work throughout the Mississippi River basin, click here

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Early morning light illuminates a grassy mound of land surrounded by flat, grassy land. A few trees are surrounding this mount of earth. In the background is a similar, but flat-topped, mound of earth
First Riverside Residents First light falls at the Winterville Mounds site where the Plaquemine culture constructed these formations. The "Mound Builders" consisted of numerous Native American cultures who lived throughout the uncontrolled waters of the Mississippi River Basin for over 5,000 years. © Rory Doyle

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A faded sign for the Bayou Bait shop.
BAYOU SUPPLIES: A bait shop sign in the Atchafalaya River basin. © Rory Doyle

Photographs by: Rory Doyle

LOUISIANA: THE ATCHAFALAYA

The Atchafalaya River basin is home to a blend of cultures and people, all of whom had to adjust to their swampy surroundings upon arrival in a place where boats are a travel necessity. The terrain shaped residents' lives and generated bits of culture unique to the region. Creole and Cajun language, music and food all have roots in the Atchafal...

The Atchafalaya River basin is home to a blend of cultures and people, all of whom had to adjust to their swampy surroundings upon arrival in a place where boats are a travel necessity. The terrain shaped residents' lives and generated bits of culture unique to the region. Creole and Cajun language, music and food all have roots in the Atchafalaya. The Atchafalaya River is a western distributary for the Mississippi River, and the water that flows within it eventually spills into the Gulf of Mexico. Throughout the Atchafalaya, low-lying swamps, forests and wetlands abound. The Chitimacha tribe, who still reside in the basin today, were some of the earliest hunters, fishers, loggers and farmers in this region. Many modern-day residents still use the natural resources of the basin for sustenance and for income, and tourists now visit the Atchafalaya for its natural beauty and recreational opportunities such as bird-watching and boating.

To find out about how TNC is working with the community in this region, click here.

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A man stands in a motor boat and holds the steering wheel with a blurry swamp behind him, indicating the speed he is traveling.
Speeding Along Gerard Perrone boats through swampy terrain near Belle River, Louisiana. Boating is a major form of transportation in the Atchafalaya Basin, the biggest wetland and swamp in the the United States. © Rory Doyle

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A man holds a trumpet for his young daughter to play.
FAMILIAR SOUNDS: Raynard Tassin comes to A.L. Davis park to play trumpet with his daughter Ryleigh because it reminds him of where he grew up. © Akasha Rabut

Photographs by: Akasha Rabut

LOUISIANA: NEW ORLEANS

New Orleans is the last urban stop for the Mississippi River before it spills into the Gulf of Mexico. The equivalent of 166 semi-trailers worth of water flows past the Big Easy each second. Tucked alongside the Mississippi and surrounded by lakes and wetlands that fade into the Gulf of Mexico, half the city lies below sea level and is sinking ...

New Orleans is the last urban stop for the Mississippi River before it spills into the Gulf of Mexico. The equivalent of 166 semi-trailers worth of water flows past the Big Easy each second. Tucked alongside the Mississippi and surrounded by lakes and wetlands that fade into the Gulf of Mexico, half the city lies below sea level and is sinking at roughly one centimeter per year. About one football field’s worth of coastal Louisiana’s wetlands, which help to absorb some of a storm's impact before it reaches the city, is lost every one and a half hours, making New Orleans’ very existence an unlikely phenomenon. In spite of—or perhaps because of—the fragile existence of the city, its residents have created a culture that seems to embrace every moment and the beauty within it. From the music and dance of the Second Line tradition to Mardi Gras celebrations, a rich history of “letting the good times roll” is the beating heart of New Orleans. But as storms increase and land becomes more precious, cascading side effects from climate change arise, including gentrification in places like the Central City neighborhood.

TNC is working throughout the Gulf Coast to fortify shorelines via natural climate solutions. Find out how this work is being done here

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A woman is in the frame from torso up. she is wearing a black tank top and gold hoop earrings. She is in profile but her arm is raised and her hand is touching the back of her head, obscuring her face
Central City Neighborhood Rere Brown loves her neighborhood, but it is changing: Its relatively high ground (at sea level) has made it prime real estate for gentrification since Hurricane Katrina flooded the city in 2005. © Akasha Rabut

Rolaine Ossman is a senior photo editor for The Nature Conservancy producing photographic stories around the world for TNC's magazine, annual reports, and marketing projects.