Whitewater kayaking generates stunning imagery. The simple feat of descending waterfalls, surfing big waves, or drifting through remote canyons makes for spectacular photographs and videos. I think that’s part of the reason that whitewater films have, for the most part, lacked a deeper story element. It’s too easy to stick with the simple strategy of presenting the action and saying: “That was sick!” Sure there might be a bit of background about making a plan, accessing the river, and ultimately paddling it, but it’s often just a setup for turning out standard whitewater “paddling porn.”

Chasing Niagara instantly transcends this simple narrative when the opening sequence involves a drowning (or near drowning) in Mexico. We see real GoPro footage of Evan Garcia pounding on his friend Gerd Serrasolses’s chest and screaming his name in an effort to draw him back from death. The signal is clear: this is going to be a different kind of whitewater flick.

When filmmaker Rush Sturges and big drop junkie Rafa Ortiz set out to document Ortiz’s dream of running Niagara Falls, they needed to delve a bit deeper into the story and the characters involved. Chasing Niagara turned into a film that tracks Ortiz’s personal journey as well as the story of his teammates. It’s the story of their collective successes and failures.

Ortiz’s desire to run Niagara Falls puts his friends and him on a path that tests their limits in every respect. The quest is filled with epic adventure, close calls, and camaraderie as they travel to Mexico and the Pacific Northwest—including a descent of 189-ft Palouse Falls in Washington—to train for the big event.

Their multi-year journey raises questions that paddlers of all levels can relate to: Why am I doing this? Is it worth it? Am I ready for that next step? Watching Ortiz contend with these questions builds suspense as we wonder what continues to inspire him to work towards a Niagara descent.

The team’s mental and physical struggles will resonate with most boaters who’ve experienced the highs and lows of whitewater kayaking as a sport, even if that doesn’t involve running massive waterfalls in foreign countries.

I recommend that any paddler watch this movie. The cinematography is excellent and the film has enough action to keep our eyeballs glued to the screen, but the story focuses primarily on the characters involved in Ortiz’s quest to accomplish the impossible.

The pacing did feel slow at times and the run time is somewhat long. Ortiz did an admirable job of narrating, and Mark Anders’s writing is exellent, but the relative lack of in-the-moment sound bytes made the whole experience feel somewhat less immersive (with the notable exceptions of the extremely raw opening and closing sequences).

Director Rush Sturges undertook an ambitious project when he decided to make Chasing Niagara and it paid off with an award-winning, feature-length film that pushed the whitewater genre. Though not without its flaws, Chasing Niagara grants audiences authentic and worthy perspective into the lives of the world’s best kayakers as they chase a dream that stretches their capabilities as a team and, more importantly, as a whitewater family.

Chasing Niagara is available on iTunes, Amazon, and Netflix.

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