Armed with two pieces of wire, 5,000 Americans are searching for water, missing children ... and bodies. David Usborne meets Bruce Irwin, king of the dowsers. Photographs by David Gamble
On an early autumn day this year Charlie Wallace, his newspaper round completed, agreed to go out with his father, Jim, and another friend to hunt deer. Several times, he had seen a small white- tail buck near to his home and felt certain they would be able to find it. When, after several hours, they had seen nothing, they repaired, disappointed, to the home of Charlie's friend, Bruce Irwin.

Charlie was hoping for a peek at the detailed Ordnance Survey maps of the area, deep in New York's Adirondack Mountains, that he knew Bruce owned. Bruce, after all, was a dowser, who earned his living by the centuries- old art of divining water with nothing more than a Y-shaped twig (or, in Bruce's case, a pair of coat hangers) for farmers and new home owners looking for the right spot to dig their wells.

It was only as a joke that Charlie wondered out loud if Bruce might turn his skills to locating the elusive buck. Bruce instantly obliged. Standing on the edge of the forest, divining rod in hand, he told the party they would find the animal, with six antler points, bedded down 700 yards away on a bearing of 240 degrees. Ten minutes later, Charlie's father arrived at the location where he shot and killed the young buck.

As it happened, the benighted beast had only four points to his antlers. Even so, Charlie was shocked. Who wouldn't be? Had Bruce just got lucky or could it be that there was something to what he had been claiming for years: that his divining powers allowed him to find much more than just flowing water?

A lanky man with a Wing Commander moustache and a penchant for cowboy hats, Irwin lives in what was once a simple metal trailer home in the tiny hamlet of Athol, not far from Lake George. The trailer has evidently gone through many mutations. A sunroom has pushed out from its south-facing side and right now, Irwin, 59, is installing a small indoor pool alongside it. The trailer's wood- clad interior is decorated with numerous skins and pelts from animals he has himself tracked - he identifies beavers, a bobcat, a fox and even what was once a rattlesnake. Hanging on the walls also are several antique maps.

A farmer's son myself, I arrived more or less prepared to believe in the water aspect of Irwin's divining. Even so, he felt compelled to escort me outside for a demonstration. Even this, however, was baffling. Not only does Irwin use coat hangers instead of a willow twig - "People aren't so spooked if I use something that is familiar to them," he explains - but he actually talks to them.

So it is that a little later we find ourselves in an open stretch of land I have randomly chosen some miles from his home. Is there a vein of water anywhere here? he asks the coat hangers, each held vertically in his hands, hooks facing forwards. They rotate 90 degrees inwards in a positive response. What direction is the vein from where I am standing? he asks, shuffling through 360 degrees. Suddenly they rotate. Over there, he points. How many paces away is the vein? Ten paces? Nothing. Twenty paces? Nothing. Twenty five paces? A twitch. He ascertains that the vein is at a distance of 22 paces directly away from the road. Irwin hands the hangers to me, teaches me how to hold them loosely in my outstretched hands. I duly start walking and, hey presto, at 22 paces, the hangers rotate. I am impressed; a little unnerved even.

Neither fully explained nor fully dismissed by scientists, water divining at least has a degree of respectability. Irwin, who belongs to the 5,000- member American Society of Dowsers, headquartered in Vermont across the state line, believes it has to do with an interaction between the electro-magnetic fields created by the moving water under the earth and the blood moving in our bodies. For sure, his brand of dowsing crosses into the weird when he asks questions of his hangers. Where it becomes decidedly bizarre - and in no way explainable - is when he uses dowsing to find objects, animate and inanimate.

The first clue comes with his business card. It names "Parasearch Inc" but not Irwin itself. Among the services advertised: dowsing for "missing objects, boundary markers, missing persons and pets." What the card does not explain is that in order to locate such items, Irwin may not even stir from his home. He will search for them with just these tools: a map, a pendulum, a pencil and a ruler. Nor does it say that amongst the clients he has served have been the state police and local forest rangers.

Back in the trailer, Irwin senses my scepticism and offers another demonstration. With windows closed to eliminate drafts, he balances a small rectangle of paper, creased lengthwise down the middle, on top of a pin stuck vertically into an eraser. He cups his right palm inwards, to one side of the paper and asks me to cup mine on the other side. As we slowly bring our two palms inwards towards the paper, it begins to spin on the pin. It spins in the other directions when we switch to using our left palms. "There is a relationship between you and I that is making something happen, just as there is a relationship between me and the water outside and there is a relationship between me and other objects," he says.

Irwin first came to the attention of the police in 1985, when a local man named Bruce Droms had gone missing, apparently in a local forest. The car Droms had been driving had been found abandoned beside Route 28, but extensive searches by police, rangers and dogs had turned up nothing. It was one of the rangers who suggested to the family that they contact a celebrated local dowser named Ted Kaufmann for help. Kaufmann, who died a few weeks ago, took Irwin, his dowsing protege at the time, to the site. Equipped with divining rods, they found the body in a thick copse, hanging by an undershirt from a tree. According to local newspaper clippings, it took Kaufmann and Irwin just two hours to find Droms.

Three years later, Irwin had another stunning success when a mother from Long Island asked for his assistance in finding her runaway daughter. This time, he relied on remote dowsing, with maps and pendulum. The procedure for map dowsing is simple. With a pendulum swinging either in a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction to indicate a positive or negative response, Irwin seeks answers to a series of questions to ascertain whether his quarry is, or is not, located within the area represented by whatever map he has before him. Once a general area has been identified - say part of a state - he narrows the location down further by continuing to ask for yes or no responses as he graphs the map with his pencil and ruler.

In the case of the missing girl, Irwin eventually settled on a single intersection in lower Manhattan. He then gave the location to the mother, who sent a detective to investigate. "The detective was astounded," she was to write in a letter of thanks to Irwin later. Although her daughter was not in the area, she had been there a very short time earlier. It took just a few more days finally to track her down.

Irwin cannot say how remote dowsing works. "I have no explanation and I don't want an explanation," he insists. "But obviously there is some higher intelligence out there." He abides, meanwhile, by one rigid rule - he never, ever, uses his pendulum to try to find out about events in the future.

Not that he has always had success. For several years now, he has made an autumn pilgrimage to a forested region far to the north near the Canadian border in search of the remains of a small girl called Sara. Police believe she was a victim of a serial rapist and murderer who is already serving a life sentence for other crimes. Irwin is motivated in part, he confesses, by a $100,000 reward for the person who finds her.

These days he is involved in another mission. With another man who telephoned him out of the blue just a month ago, he is trying to solve the two-year-old mystery of two pilots missing since their private Lear jet vanished from radar screens on Christmas Eve 1996 as it approached the airport in Lebanon, southern New Hampshire. On the day of my visit, he believes he has found the spot where wreckage should lie by dowsing with maps of New England. He prefers not to tell me the location he has chosen and plans the next day to fly over it in a Cessna aircraft to attempt to find the crash site visually.

By this stage, it is impossible not to ask the obvious question. Aren't most of us going to consider him a crackpot? Only once, he says, has he been directly challenged about his work. He was giving a talk at a local Rotary Club meeting, when a woman suddenly got to her feet at the back of the room and shouted: "You are doing the work of the Devil." "Madam," he replied, "if finding water for folks who need it and finding missing people to give peace to those who have lost them means I am working for the Devil then I will happily add it to my resume right now"

`Natural Mystery', featuring Bruce Irwin, will be shown on Channel 5, autumn 1999