Photographer Paul Johnson recently set out to document the rising waters of Devils Lake, North Dakota. Here’s what he had to say about the experience.
Tell us about Devils Lake, North Dakota.
Devils Lake is located in a closed basin without an outlet. It’s been slowly rising for two decades due to recent climate shifts, which have resulted in much higher rainfall in the area. The lake has risen 35 feet and flooded hundreds of farms and partially flooded two small towns along with many square miles of farmland. The area is incredibly flat so even a modest rise in the lake level floods thousands of acres, like pouring water on a tabletop. The result has been a lake that is many times larger and the formation of a kind of high plains version of the everglades.
What has this meant for the surrounding community, both the individuals who are there and the ones who aren’t any longer?
It’s caused a lot of hardship. In terms of lost livelihoods and property, it’s been a major natural disaster but because of the slow motion nature of the event, media attention and response has been pretty negligible compared to other floods. Many farmers who’ve lost land to the lake have not received any compensation or emergency assistance whatsoever and are still paying property taxes on land that’s under water. Some were able to move their houses to higher ground and adapt to farming fewer acres but a great many had to sell out completely. Rural roads have been continually built up to keep them above lake level and the town of Devils Lake constructed a massive levee around it to keep it from flooding. The flip side of this event is that the lake has become a very popular fishing destination due to the increase in rich underwater habitat and that has helped the local economy.
What brought you to Devils Lake? How did you first hear about it?
I grew up on a farm in North Dakota and remember being fascinated by stories of the continually rising lake as a kid. More recently, I took Amtrak through the area and was amazed to see that what was once farmland was now miles of open water and wetlands with only an occasional grain bin or cluster of dead trees where a farm once stood breaking the horizon. This is the scene that planted the seed to take a trip to explore and photograph the remaining farms and the ongoing change to the landscape in the area.
Since you grew up on a farm in ND, did you feel you had a particularly strong reaction to Devils Lake, or was it more of a curiosity?
Definitely. I used to imagine what it would’ve been like to have water slowly encroach on our farm and how strange and incredibly hard it would’ve been to lose that connection with the land. I’ve also had a longstanding interest in climate science and I think these types of record breaking events are incredibly interesting. I wanted to see and capture one firsthand.
What did you expect to find there? How did your experience match or subvert your expectations?
Before visiting, I printed satellite photos of farms that were completely inundated by water with the intent to kayak out to and photograph as many as possible before they disappear into the lake. What I found was that a great many of these buildings no longer existed. Although the satellite images were only a couple years old, these farms had already been completely erased by the lake.
Could you see remnants of these buildings? Were they washed away, or present beneath the water’s surface?
There’s no trace of most of the farms that used to exist where the lake is now. Sometimes a steel grain bin or an old windmill would be the only remaining sign. I think most of the buildings were probably damaged by shifting winter ice, then collapsed and floated away during summer storms.
Describe the climate and the energy of the place.
Abandoned places hold a wistful appeal to me and I think to many of us. They are the final chapters of unknown stories where we’re left to ponder the details. Their quiet stillness can spur thoughts about the nature of time and the processes of decay and reclamation. In the case of Devil’s Lake, there’s the added element of these places being completely out of their original context. You just don’t expect to see a house or barn sitting in the middle of an enormous shallow lake and the experience is pretty surreal. The loss of so many farms and livelihoods gives the area a melancholy feel as well.
Walk us through the most challenging moment of this experience–emotionally, mentally, physically, and/or spiritually.
Weather-wise, I lucked out. North Dakota is a windy place with harsh winters but I had a still morning to kayak and a fairly mild winter day to walk across the ice on the second trip. I was disappointed that most of the flooded farms I planed to visit were already gone and it was a bit of a challenge to find the remaining ones but with enough exploring, everything came together pretty well in the end. The main hurdle was finding the time to get up there.
Why did you think Devils Lake might be a good place to photograph?
I think there’s something pretty unique about the large scale transformation of the landscape in this area. These types of geographic and ecological changes usually take thousands of years to occur but it happened in less than two decades here. The result of this was something I wanted to document in a distinctive way. Showing the area in two seasons was something I wanted to do from the start to illustrate the long duration and slow motion nature of the lake’s rise.
What were some of the rewards and challenges of documenting this place?
Turning project ideas into reality is always satisfying but especially when it’s out in the elements where wildlife and all the processes of the natural world are on full display. On top of that, exploring of any kind is its own reward for me. Finding access to these photo locations was tough. I didn’t have time to kayak the many miles between farms so I’d drive and park along county roads, sometimes carrying my kayak across fields to get to the water. I suppose I could’ve rented a fishing boat, but where’s the fun in that?!
What do you hope your photographs accomplish?
A couple things. Aesthetically, I hope these diametrically opposed subjects of formerly prosperous farms sitting in the middle of a lake makes people feel something on a deeper level; whether it’s wonder, sadness, bewilderment or curiosity, I don’t really care as long as it’s something. I also wanted to document for documentation’s sake. These farms are rapidly being claimed by the lake. Waves are undermining foundations and shifting ice is crushing through walls. Having a record of such a unique event was important to me.
Why should people care about what’s happening in Devil’s Lake?
I guess I’m not advocating for people to care about Devil’s Lake in particular but I hope it serves as a reminder of the place this event has in the larger story of increasingly intense climate shifts around the world and their repercussions. Whether it’s the disappearing Aral Sea, the southward migration of the Sahara or a rising lake in North Dakota, I think it’s important that these changes are seen.
Interesting to hear that you don’t consider yourself as advocating for people to care about this place. Do you think that what photographers choose to focus their lens on is a form of caring? You turn your attention to it, capture it, so that you might in turn also bring it to the attention of others. What are your thoughts on that?
That’s a good question. I think the story of the rise of Devils Lake is fascinating and thought provoking in it’s own right and I certainly feel a strong sense of connection to the area and those affected. I actually have relatives in the Devils Lake Basin who are a couple branches over on the family tree that I’d like to reconnect with and talk about how they were affected by the lake. I’m going to do that on a future trip to broaden the scope of this project, but for this particular set of photos, the focus was more about capturing aesthetically intriguing images of a potent subject matter that might stir something in people. I don’t want to force what that something is.
Why is travel important to you?
Oh man, so many reasons but mostly because it always stirs up a fresh sense of curiosity about the world around me.
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