Behind The Scenes: The North Shore

Chris Gallaway's new film about whitewater along the North Shore of Lake Superior

Chris Gallaway had never traveled outside the Southeast to go kayaking. “All my river running had occurred between the states of Alabama and North Carolina,” the Asheville, N.C. based professional videographer says. But in the spring of 2010 he was feeling “particularly antsy,” so he loaded up his car with paddling gear and camera equipment and headed towards a destination he’d only heard stories about: the North Shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota.

The result of that off-the-cuff road trip was The North Shore: A Guide To Getting Lost, a documentary about the lesser-known whitewater mecca of the the North Woods which will be airing exclusively here on the C&K website for 48 hours next Tuesday and Wednesday (May 8-9)…make sure you tune in for that.

The movie is one in a series of four short films called Coming Home produced by Rapid Transit Video and Horizonline Pictures. You can see the trailer for all four films, which cover the North Shore, The Grand Canyon, Morocco, South America, and North Carolina, HERE.

Can’t wait ’til the free online showing? Click HERE to buy the Coming Home DVD.

The question remains though: What’s it like making a documentary about paddling Class V whitewater with complete strangers in a part of the country where the average yearly temperature is 38 degrees Fahrenheit? C&K sat down with Gallaway for a quick Q&A to find out. —Dave Costello

CANOE & KAYAK: What’s the idea behind The North Shore?
CHRIS GALLAWAY: I couldn’t find anyone to make the trip with me; so I drove up alone and with only a minimal amount of information on the area. I had the guidebook and a phone number for North Shore local Tommy Norton, who had responded to my request on a web forum for beta about the paddling scene. I brought along the video camera to document the rivers I would run, and the whitewater I found up there was first rate; but the story of that journey became about the core, local community of river enthusiasts who took me in, showed me the ropes, and helped me in my travels on the North Shore. Local characters like John Alt, Tom Norton, Pete Gehrels and Rod Karhu showed me the way on classic runs, and they supplemented my poor supply of cold-weather paddling gear. It was humbling to arrive there and be so dependent on strangers to keep going day-to-day, but that scenario provided the soil for cultivating a handful of friendships that I will value forever. Those guys were not only generous in helping me, they were excellent boaters and adventurers. They renewed my love of river-running and exploring.

What was it like making the film?
It seemed like the pace on river never slowed down for the sake of “production value.” Many of the Midwestern boaters that I met were not very gung-ho about filming. They tended to be shy and reserved, focused on the river experience and reluctant to step before the camera. It took some persuasion to get interviews with guys like John Alt, and on several days I received gentle suggestions from the group that we should leave the camera behind altogether and just go kayaking. As a rule, I was scrambling to think ahead, find my angle, and get the shot before the group continued down river. The one time we did dedicate time and effort to a specific shot, it didn’t turn out well …

What was your favorite North Shore river?
I got to follow a small group of Canadian locals down some seldom-run gems on the northernmost point of Lake Superior. Pete Gehrels of Thunderbay opened up a new run that season on the Postagoni River outside of the town of Nipigon. It was a beautiful river, stacked with fun drops and boasting a middle gorge that had not been run. Over the course of two days our group completed the first full descent of the Postagani. The first day we ran “PG Falls” (named after Pete, who was the first to go over the perfect twelve-foot drop) and “PG-13,” a more challenging series of holes and slides leading into a melting 20-foot slide. We looked long and hard at the third drop in the gorge, a boxed-in triple drop with a vicious hole in the middle, but we gave respect to it that first day. I spent that night in camp obsessing about the un-run drop and running it over and over in my mind. The following day we returned to the Postagani, and with the support of the crew I ran the drop, which we named “Rated R” (or “Restricted,” as the Canadians term it). I was so fired up and busy fist-pumping at the bottom that I went under a tree sticking out from the bank and got knocked over. That was some of the best kayaking I did in my time on the North Shore, and a great group of friends to do it with.

What’s your opinion of the paddling along the North Shore? Any plans to go back?
The North Shore is a world-class paddling destination that’s just far enough out of the way to cut down on the crowds that are found in other paddling meccas. The season is short, and the weather cold, but for those who are willing to brave the challenges of the North Shore, it offers a bounty of river adventure. And it still feels very much like a wilderness, especially as you travel further north and into Canada. There is still a lot of unexplored territory up there. But I think the best part of the North Shore for me is the local community and the culture there. There is a core group of paddlers who are not very self-conscious or boastful in their approach to rivers. They’re out there for the challenge of whitewater, the beauty of the river, and the friendships that arise through sharing those experiences. I feel extremely luck to have gotten to share in that culture for a season, and I certainly hope to go back again in the future.

Most memorable day?
The day after returning from Canada I had no options for a river to get on on the North Shore and was preparing to spend my day in a coffee shop in Grand Marais when John Alt called and invited me to go check out the Devil’s Track Canyon. John was on some of the first descents of the Devil’s Track and had been running it for decades since, and as we put on that day he commented that it was higher than he’d ever run it. I was pretty gripped as we made our way into the narrow gorge. I was also in awe of the grace of John’s paddling style. This was a man in his 50s, still charging hard on challenging rivers and taking fewer paddle strokes while doing it. We made our way down the gorge at a leisurely and cautious pace. The rapids were about all the excitement I could handle, and the woods were beautiful, with mist rising out of the aspen and birch. Late in the afternoon we climbed high up on the gorge rim to scout the last series of slides. They looked beefy from several hundred feet up, so we decided to use our feet and keep the day safe. We finished the run floating out into the windswept, cold waters of Lake Superior. It was one of the finest days I’ve spent on the water, and I got to share it with a great man, a North Shore legend. That day alone would have been worth the 20-hour drive up from North Carolina.

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