“I love to showcase beautiful parts of our backyards,” says Hunter Nichols of his new film, River Dreams, which documents a 600-mile solo canoe trip he took from central Alabama to the Mobile-Tensaw Delta in Mississippi. “Like many, I can’t afford to plan a big trip overseas, but almost everybody has a backyard river that flows to the sea.”
In the summer of 2011, Nichols borrowed his father’s 16-foot Wenonah, packed it full of food and set out to explore his backyard river. The 27-year-old launched near his home in Birmingham, paddling 150 miles on the Cahaba River before following the Alabama River to the Gulf of Mexico. The trip lasted 44 days.
Over the next three years, Nichols, a freelance filmmaker and photographer, reworked footage from the trip in his spare time. He recorded journal-style narration, screened versions of the film to friends and family, and added an original score from his fiancee, Cat Porter. The result was a 72-minute meditative window into the joys and difficulties of a solo river adventure, from the long days of rich silence to the pressures of self-reliance in storms and among alligators.
“This was a personal project,” Nichols explains, “so I decided to make the film personal as well. I didn’t do any on-camera narration during the trip itself, but I wrote in my journal often and much of the voice-over grew out of those journals. When I left for the trip, I didn’t know what I’d find, and I tried to capture that in the film.”
Despite enduring countless chigger bites, water temperatures over 90 degrees, and pollution from several pulp mills that made the “river smell so bad that it was hard to enjoy it,” Nichols didn’t rush the voyage. “I was taking my time and circling back upstream often. When I got to the delta, I camped out and spent a week just exploring. Part of what draws me to a long paddling trip is the allure of the local.”
For Nichols, solo paddling is “a passion I can’t explain, but just have to do. I love to daydream and drift back in time.” But even if some of the takeaways from the journey can’t be “explained,” the film still manages to share his passion with the audience. It gives us a taste of of those daydreams and quietly urges us to take a journey of our own, which, after all, is Nichols’ goal: “The best compliment I get is when people ask me how they can get ahold of a canoe and float the river.”
—River Dreams is now available on DVD at riverdreamsfilm.com.