When the Currents Stop

Closing the door on one of the first web TV series of whitewater paddling.

Airing his last episode airing in April, TV producer Mike McKay is ending Currents, the web TV documentary series that both illuminates the risks threatening the world’s rivers and highlights the intrinsic value of preserving rivers in their natural state. Currents episodes have won several awards, including its latest episode The Ottawa River, which won Best Accomplished Documentary at the National Paddling Film Festival last month.

Canoe & Kayak magazine: Tell me about Currents.Mike McKay: The concept came along in 2009 after I had a little experience with shooting video. The idea was to connect the world of whitewater through the issues that surrounded the rivers in a complete documentary. I first went to Hood River to shoot video and I quickly realized this wasn’t going to work; there were too many issues to contain in one documentary. I realized I had to break it down into a web TV series.

All I had was a camera and a little mic and was just going to places and letting the stories unfold in front of me. In the beginning everything was focused around conservation. The first 12 episodes fell into that, whether it be dam issues, pollution or resource extraction.

Later on I just wanted to tell cool stories in and around the rivers I love.

How did Currents change over the years?
Currents evolved episode by episode, and I think it got better with each episode. When we did the Romaine River in Quebec I felt that the project really began to hit a stride. The Romaine now has four dams, and a lot of boreal forest has been flooded. We wound up being the second to last people to run the whole river. That was the one that wasn’t “just let’s see what happens.” We knew we wanted to document this trip. While it didn’t come off completely that way in Currents, it was the first time there were specific sponsors. We got Federation of Quebec and Goal Zero to sponsor it. People wanted to attach themselves to it, and more people were watching. After that video, there was momentum behind Currents. It really started turning into something more than what I ever expected it to be.

Why are you ending Currents?
I think the time has come. With so many online webTV projects in whitewater, I feel it is starting to get buried in the mix. That is how I knew it was time to move on to a new project. The 20th episode is just a good excuse to do that. I don’t want to stop telling stories in and around whitewater, and I don’t plan to.

Tell me about the 20th episode.
I’m pretty fired up about the last episode. It’ll be my sixth time going to Mexico, and I’ve made a lot of friends there. It has a lot of rock-star paddlers from around the world, but not a lot of local guys get in the videos. For my video I want to make sure those locals get on the screen as much as possible. There will still be lots of big names. The Jackson crew were down there for the first round of shooting and provided me with some awesome footage.

Really, the last two episodes, the Ottawa and Alseseca, are destination pieces, and to me they present the two sides of rivers that I love. One’s big waves, big freestyle, the river that got me into paddling and is my home river (Ottawa). On the flip side is river running and creeking, and I think most people would agree that not a lot of places offer as many different styles in one river as the Alseseca (Mexico). These last two episodes made a cool way to represent what I feel about kayaking.

What’s it feel like watching those first videos?
For the first few, I feel like the stories are still there. That’s what fascinates me. While the quality of the videos might be a little rough and the editing was all brand new, these stories are still happening. If you take the first one, Ecuador, they’re still having major issues with illegal mining. Take the New York stuff; you can watch those 10 years from now, and they will still be relevant. I think no matter what, the stories are still important.

Any breakthroughs in filming during Currents?
Halfway through the first season, I signed up for a documentary course and learned about crafting a story, and I think it started pushing things forward. Personally, I think that’s the most evident in the two New York stories how those guys redefined American Whitewater and how river conservation to this day is done in the United States. That was the moment where the story became so important. I really enjoy going back to people and talking about the history. I feel that any of these little 5-10 minute videos could be two-hour documentaries.

What do you think looking back?
For me it’s been a real awesome ride. I was trying to think of all the hundreds of people I’ve met because of this project and the doors it’s opened for me, it’s really cool. I’m just this guy who likes to kayak and travel. I don’t know if I’d jump into a project like Currents today; it seems ridiculous, but it’s opened me for all sorts of experiences. I’ve gone to so many amazing places and met so many great people. I’ve also had a lot of help along the way. I couldn’t have asked for anything else.

Stay tuned for the release of McKay’s final episode, coming out in April. All the Currents videos can be found at www.five2nine.ca.

Paddling in Norway. Photo credit: Steve Arns

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