— The following originally ran in the March 2013 40-Year Anniversary issue of Canoe & Kayak.
Sorry Nanook, but any discussion of paddling on film has to start with the paddling movie: Deliverance. When Canoe magazine launched in the spring of 1973, the previous summer’s debut was still mixing feelings in the paddling community. The bottom line to Payson Kennedy, though, then setting roots in the Nantahala Gorge after stunt-paddling for actor Ned Beatty on the Chattooga, was that “it did a lot to popularize whitewater sport.” For better or worse, bad banjo and pig squealing jokes aside, Deliverance is a part of paddling.
And since paddlers are the ones capable of accessing and capturing footage from the deepest canyons and most remote landscapes, paddler-filmmakers have always been an integral part of paddling too—more so each year as bulky Super 8s and rooms of linear editing equipment have turned into everyman helmet cams shooting 1080p in HD and cut with off-the-shelf software more powerful than anything available to Hollywood a generation ago. And though most paddlers would never consider a major-studio venture like Deliverance a true paddling film, there’s but a few degrees that separate it from some of the best work that our sport has produced.
Let’s look ahead and start with what’s next: Rush Sturges is currently working on a 70-minute feature film for Red Bull Media House. “Basically it’s a project that focuses on Rafa Ortiz,” Sturges says. “He’s the protagonist, the central character. A lot of it is focused on waterfall running and the progression of that over the years. We’re doing stuff that hasn’t been done.” He’s not referring only to the whitewater, but also to technology such as the Cineflex stabilization device. “It’s the same device they use for Planet Earth so they can be far away from the subject and still get a good shot.”
Before Sturges began producing this Red Bull project, he worked with Steve Fisher on Congo: The Grand Inga Project, an 80-minute feature chronicling the first descent of the Congo River’s 1.6-million cfs Inga Rapids. Fisher directed the film, with fellow paddlers Sturges, Ben Marr and Tyler Bradt serving both as protagonists and, using small point-of-view cameras attached to their helmets and boats, as action cinematographers.
Fisher, then a noted South African freestyle paddler, made his name as a member of the 2002 Tsangpo Gorge expedition, the first and only crew to solve Tibet’s most-committing whitewater puzzle. The landmark expedition was organized and led by filmmaker and paddler Scott Lindgren, whose Into the Tsangpo Gorge became a classic of the genre.
Lindgren learned the craft from producer-cinematographer, Roger Brown, the godfather of expedition kayak filmmaking. “He’s the one brought kayaking to the screen, period. Nobody else really did more for kayaking in that realm than him,” says Lindgren, who was part of the 1993 team to paddle the first descent of Nepal’s Thule Bheri, where he shot river-level scenes for Brown. Lindgren made three films with Brown, including Bolivia: Andes to Amazon, for which he won an Emmy for cinematography.
Nearly 20 years earlier, Brown had taken kayak filmmaking to new heights, using a helicopter to film aerial footage of a 1976 team featuring Walt Blackadar and Rob Lesser on Devil’s Canyon of the Susitna for ABC’s Wild World of Sports.
“Roger wasn’t afraid to climb a peak, he wasn’t afraid to shoot a ski film, wasn’t afraid to shoot a kayak film,” Lindgren says. “He had a knack for finding talent that was out there doing the hardest, biggest shit, and if I learned anything from him, it would’ve been his ability to throw together an expedition or be a part of an expedition and go and film it. He was one of the only guys that got the money to go do it. Especially back in the day when they’d do those budgets—it was a big deal.”
One of those big deals was another ABC-Rob Lesser collaboration, this time for the network’s American Sportsman. The program documented the 1981 first descent of the Grand Canyon of the Stikine. The network provided the helicopter and the budget, but also called the shots: When the team of Lesser, Lars Holbek, Don Banducci, John Wasson and Rick Fernald finished the upper two-thirds of the canyon, producers decided they had plenty of footage, and called off the last few miles of the run.
Lesser, now 67 and five years removed from his last descent of the North Fork of the Payette, also was involved in the biggest Hollywood whitewater film since Deliverance. The movie was The River Wild, and Universal Studios needed a whole circus of whitewater experts to pull it off: safety kayakers, guides and a stunt-double who could show their stars how a professional interacts with whitewater. Producers also tapped noted expedition kayaker and raft guide Arlene Burns to coach their star, Meryl Streep, on the finer points of pushing rubber.
Burns had just finished a long stint in the Himalayas, starting in 1984, when she received a Telex—yes, a Telex—from Kennedy, the Deliverance stunt-double-turned owner of the Nantahala Outdoor Center, where Burns had learned to guide. Kennedy asked his former pupil to lead a 30-day-trip up to the Everest Base Camp and down the Sun Kosi. She led that trip and dozens more.
Years later, on another trip down the Sun Kosi she encountered a Nepali man washing an old fiberglass kayak (“crazy long for even our times”) at a camp downstream of the confluence with the Dudh Kosi. A group of Englishmen had come down the river many years before, and left one of their craft in the care of the old Nepali man. Burns bought the kayak on the spot, paddled it out and sent it back to its original owners: Members of the 1976 Mike Jones-led expedition to kayak from the base of Mount Everest, which resulted in expedition paddling’s landmark film, the BBC’s Dudh Kosi: Relentless River of Everest.
And as long as we’re talking about degrees of separation. In those Himalayan travels, Burns met and paddled with Tom Boice, who was The River Wild stunt-double for, you guessed it, Kevin Bacon.
Oh yeah, and as a teenager, Burns used to mow the lawn of James Dickey, who wrote Deliverance.