New Book Will Offer Birds-Eye View of Shenandoah River

A local photographer is looking at the Shenandoah River from a unique angle and hopes to create a book from the new view.

Beverly Pearce of Winchester, founder of Denizen Media, was contemplating a photographic book about the Shenandoah River. Pearce, who is widely known for her innovative and creative photography, said that she was researching inexpensive ways of making aerial photographs when she came across work being done by the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS).

“I was impressed with their ingenuity, their energy, and their openness—including their willingness to share knowledge, resources, and results,” Pearce said. “Denizen Media’s policy is also one of open-sourcing our photographs to anyone who wants to use them for non-commercial purposes, so there was a certain alignment of purpose.”

Balloon used to lift tethered camera – photo John Waugh

Pearce began to ponder how PLOTS research for using cameras and balloons to support environmental science might provide a new photographic angle for her river book. Pearce says that a weekend workshop that combined balloons, cameras and kayaks has helped her move the concept from theory to reality.

Balloons were controlled from kayaks on the Shenandoah River – photo John Waugh

“A grant from the Marion Park Lewis Foundation funded a mentorship for me to learn balloon mapping with Adam Griffith, one of the original developers of the technology,” Pearce explained. “PLOTS and Denizen Media coordinated a workshop over the weekend of July 21-22 to share the technology with others in the area. Thanks to the people at the Andy Guest Shenandoah River State Park in Warren County we had an incredible venue which enabled us to spend time both on the river practicing the ballooning—and inside working on laptops to ‘stitch’ the images together using software developed by PLOTS.”

Pearce and a dozen or so like-minded river lovers spent the past Saturday and Sunday in kayaks on the Shenandoah River hanging on to tethered balloon mounted cameras and learning how take aerial pictures when the photographer is on the ground (or on a kayak in this case.)

Pearce, who has practiced photography all of her life, said that the new photographic approach held some surprises even for her.

“The balloons are 5-1/2′ in diameter, so transporting them can be a challenge after they are inflated. We learned the hard way how sensitive they are to passing leaves and twigs when traveling in an open trailer,” Pearce said laughing. “Fortunately or unfortunately, there’s nothing that prepares you for having a balloon of that size blow up in your face, so it’s not a stretch to say that was the biggest surprise of the weekend! Fortunately we had plenty of back-up supplies and we were able to carry on.”

Pearce and the others who attended the weekend workshop used helium-filled balloons to launch cameras to an altitude of 500 to 1,000 feet. The digital photographs are then “stitched” together using image mapping software and can be used to show river features such as rapids, caves, ledges, and streamside riparian corridor. Cameras can be modified for infrared technology, which helps with mapping algae coverage and vegetation coverage. The balloon mapping technology was developed by ballooners who monitored the Gulf Oil Spill who later came together to pool resources and experience, and formed PLOTS, Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, a not-for-profit organization.

After spending a weekend gaining a new view of the river, Pearce says that she is ready to put the approach into practical use and hopes to somehow harness the spirit and love that others in the community have for the river through her book.

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“Our plans are to use the images in a photographic book,” Pearce said. “I think the river is stunning when viewed from above. Researchers can also use the technology to study the river over time, science teachers can use it to engage students in various types of projects, and farmers can use it to monitor their fields, for example quantifying areas where crops are stressed. Near infrared technology is helpful for some of these purposes. I’m also interested in how balloon mapping can be used by artists, and we have plans for future workshops focusing on some of these specific areas.”

The core PLOTS program is focused on “civic science” in which open source hardware and software tools and methods are used to generate knowledge and share data about community environmental health. PLOTS seeks to increase the ability of underserved communities to identify, redress, remediate, and create awareness and accountability around environmental concerns by providing online and offline training, education and support, and by focusing on locally-relevant outcomes that emphasize human capacity and understanding.

Pearce said that she plans to include all four seasons in her forthcoming pictorial of the Shenandoah even though doing so means that the book can’t be published for at least a year.

“I hope that we will have the project completed by fall 2013”

Learn more about PLOTS at

To see Beverly Pearce’s work visit Denizen Media at

Workshop participants “stitch” river separate river photos into a single photo – photo John Waugh




  1. Sam Card says:

    The picture book project seems marvelous. Last summer, I had the honor to talk to George Ohstrom at “River Fest ” in Front Royal. A free shuttle service allowed people to canoe a few miles of the South Branch of the Shenandoah River. Near Woodstock, VA, I have been amazed at the lookout tower view of the bends on the North Branch of the Shenandoah River. Enjoy “River Fest” on saturday August 11, 2012 at Andy Guest Shenandoah River State Park. Most recently, my amateur ornithologist friend, Ben Harrison, and I canoed a segment of the Shenandoah River and we saw bald eagle, blue heron, osprey and other birds. River Riders offers a guided river raft trip from Millville, West Viginia in Jefferson County to Harpers Ferry. Experience the thrill of Bull Falls on the Shenandoah River. After Harpers Ferry on the Potomac River, Wake Up Call, Mad Dog and White Horse Rapids are the grand finale. Around 2005, a mysterious fish kill eliminated up to 80 percent of smallmouth bass and sunfish populations. Before the 1970’s, there was a ridiculous plan to dam and flood the Shenandoah River in Clarke County. Now it is a state designated scenic river.