Stories from the River

Behind the lens with Currents TV producer Mike McKay

Mike McKay, behind the lens, interviewing Costa Rican Olympic slalom kayaker Roger Madrigal. Photo: Eric Clement

By Conor Mihell

Five2Nine Productions’ Currents series of online videos came full circle last month when Ottawa-based videographer Mike McKay returned to Hood River, Ore., for the third time to shoot whitewater paddling on the White Salmon, Little White and other Class V creeks. McKay and his Vancouver-based friend, Steve Arns, traveled to Hood River on a whim in December 2009.

“At the time I didn’t really have an idea what I wanted to do, other than go to different places and tell stories,” recalls McKay, who works as a financial planner and whose monthly seven- to 10-minute documentaries now garner 3,500 to 4,000 full views on Vimeo. “But I was so impressed with the river, not just as a paddling area but all around—there are some really cool breweries, amazing pizza and great taco places. I knew there was something special there.”

On their initial visit, McKay and Arns were oblivious to the fact that Hood River was ground zero for the second largest dam removal project in the U.S.—a plan to pull the 125-foot plug on the White Salmon River known as the Condit Dam, which has been blocking salmon spawning grounds and flooding out epic whitewater for nearly a century. After spending more than a year chronicling the often-depressing world of at-risk rivers from Canada to Thailand, McKay teamed up with C&K and returned to Hood River this June to complete his documentary on the inspiring efforts of the Columbia Riverkeeper, American Whitewater, American Rivers, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, and the Freshwater Trust, in freeing the White Salmon of its concrete shackles.

» Tune in to CanoeKayak.com tomorrow morning for the exclusive debut of the episode ».

And so McKay, Arns and Currents TV return to their beginning with a compelling harbinger of hope for the future. Notably, in the upcoming August episode of Currents TV, set in California, McKay used solar power exclusively to film, log and edit footage. McKay says innovative ideas like this represent the future of his work. “A unique spin where we can say, ‘Hey, this actually worked,’” he says. “It’s just one of the little things we can do.”

Canoe & Kayak: The latest episode feels like a good news story compared to most of the other river advocacy issues you’ve covered. Is it that way for you?

Mike McKay: In many ways the story of Condit Dam served as a way to conclude a longer story that was running throughout all of the episodes that I have done up to this point. Since there has been so much on the subject of dams in Currents, I felt that for a number of reasons the Condit story really brought a lot of the episodes together and it is really great to do so with a positive note. However, I didn’t want to spin it like I was “covering” the story by any means. There are some great groups doing that already (American Whitewater for example). Instead, I really like the idea of highlighting the involvement of the paddling community and the energy behind the removal. I think that is what makes this so special.

The Condit is the one story I’ve covered that has a real ending. That will happen in October when we see the river flowing as it should be. It is exciting to share a small part of that.

What’s the significance of the dam removal from a whitewater paddler’s standpoint? Well, first of all I would state the obvious and that would be the flow of the river. It’s going to be special to see the White Salmon River flowing naturally. After all I have learned along this project it is such an amazing thing to see the power of a river and its ecosystem. That needs to be connected and here we will see that. It is an amazing thing. Secondly, I think the most significant outcome is knowing that these successes can really happen. Paddlers had a voice in this from the ground up. That gives hope to all the other people fighting for their rivers around the world.

Filmmaker Mike McKay ... is also a paddler: Here, the Jackson Kayak team paddler surfs the High Tension wave on Quebec’s Gatineau River. Photo Steve Arns / liquidlore.com

How important is this ecologically? I think you will see a revived river a lot sooner than many would expect. Rivers can heal themselves quickly when put in a connected state. Once the sediment is cleared from upstream and the river is flowing in it’s natural state life will begin to thrive again. Salmon will spawn in that section of the White Salmon again, minerals and sediment will flow continuously, and the ecosystem will come back to life. I can’t wait to see what happens!

What’s the significance of attempting to produce upcoming episodes using only solar power? Are you trying to prove something? Doing a clip from start to finish with solar power really represents “the power we don’t use.” It’s easy to get this discouraged feeling that every area has the same problem and is struggling with the question: What is green energy? People don’t have good things to say about wind, solar is expensive and hydroelectricity is obviously not green. … So I got to thinking that the greenest energy is the energy you don’t use at all.

There is a real disconnect between where you get your power and how you use it. This is really evident the more remote the rivers are. I was shooting on the Romaine River [in northern Quebec] when I realized that people needed to be aware of where their power comes from. I am sure that people in New York City don’t think of the ecosystems in Quebec that were destroyed to charge their iPhones. Another example is the rivers being dammed in Costa Rica to power air conditioning in resorts. The resorts are defined as “eco-tourism” but they are destroying the areas that supported their resorts in the first place. It doesn’t make sense.

I really hate to say that it feels like, as paddlers, we are in a losing battle as a small demographic standing up for waterways. I had put some thought into the idea of what is it that people can do to reduce the need for all these rivers to be dammed. Long story short, I wanted to move more toward not just making people aware of the threats but ways that we could start to fight the demand in little ways.

What are you learning from the solar experiment? I expected to have some glitches. I figured it would make it entertaining from a documentary point of view to see some things fail. But in the end I’ve learned that this technology is legit. It went super-smooth and there were no problems at all. The Goal Zero products work really well and it is something I am now using at home to power my small devices. Solar is a real-deal technology that is only getting better and should be incorporated into the home.

Do you have a story that should be told in Currents? If so, contact McKay at info@five2nine.ca. Check out the two latest Currents episodes below, the first on the recent Whitewater Grand Prix and Hell or High Water events and the second on the fragile ecology of Turrialba, Costa Rica.

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