FILM AND PHOTOS BY WILL STAUFFER-NORRIS

C&K: So how did you get involved with this cultural exchange?
WILL STAUFFER-NORRIS: I first went on a Last Descents River Expeditions trip in 2013. Travis Winn brought a group of Chinese over to run a Grand Canyon trip with Arizona Raft Adventures, and he invited me along.

Travis’s goal was to show these Chinese clients how America does river recreation. In the Grand Canyon, the river has been protected from development in order to facilitate more of a wilderness experience through float trips, a model that China hasn’t fully developed yet.

Photo: Will-Stauffer-Norris

Photo: Will-Stauffer-Norris

What aspect were you trying to showcase?
Many of the Chinese people on the trip were high-powered executives or entrepreneurs, but quite a few were dissatisfied with their quality of life in the big cities on China’s eastern coast: Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong. The hope was that a two-week river trip could rekindle some of the excitement of life that’s missing in a relentlessly urban environment.

Photo: Will-Stauffer-Norris

Photo: Will-Stauffer-Norris

What were your impressions of Chinese citizens’ relationship with nature?
In big Chinese cities, people are often very disconnected from nature, mountains, and waterways. The scale of urban sprawl is mind-boggling, and environmental protections in China are often very weak. For several of the people on the trip, this was their first time camping, let alone rafting. Among the urban population, there is definitely not the culture of just going out and camping. In rural areas it can be quite different, where people working close to the land are much more connected with it. But the overall population is rapidly urbanizing.

And China is changing fast accordingly. There are a growing number of outdoor sport enthusiasts in China, and Last Descents and other outfitters are taking people down a number of rivers in China.

Photo: Will-Stauffer-Norris

Photo: Will-Stauffer-Norris

What have you learned from observing and documenting their experiences?
On the river, many of the titles and merits accumulated in civilization are stripped away. A billionaire investor or high powered executive can rub shoulders with a guide who lives in a truck, and both gain something from the experience. This egalitarianism of the wilderness is one of my favorite things about remote float trips.

Photo: Will-Stauffer-Norris

Photo: Will-Stauffer-Norris

What was your biggest challenge in production?
Lack of batteries for sure! It’s hard to get juice down in the bottom of the Grand Canyon on a 14-day trip, so a big battery and solar panels are super important.

Another overlooked challenge is finding a quiet place to do interviews. It’s actually rarely quiet when there’s even a small amount of moving water near camp, so I often had to hike up side-canyons to find a good spot to capture audio.

Photo: Will-Stauffer-Norris

Photo: Will-Stauffer-Norris

What film projects are you working on now?
I’m currently working on a project with Last Descents about a rafting trip in summer 2015. We spent nine days with a Tibetan monk, floating down the upper Mekong River. We’re putting together a short film about the experience.

Travis Winn and I also just finished up a project about his experience on the Salween River, called “Salween Spring,” that is currently traveling on the Banff Mountain Film Festival Tour and will be coming out online in the spring.

Photo: Will-Stauffer-Norris

Photo: Will-Stauffer-Norris

— Read about the Salween River on our list of Paddling’s Most Threatened Classics.

— Saving China’s Salween River, One Trip at a Time (from C&K August 2014)

— See more of Stauffer-Norris’s work in The Tale of Two Rivers: from two Colorado River sources down to the sea.

— 5 Ways a Paddling Exchange can Create Change