Nathan Dappen is a filmmaker and co-owner of Day’s Edge Productions. His most recent film, The Passage, chronicles parallel canoe trips up the Inside Passage, the first one his parents completed in 1974, and the second they completed as a family in 2017. Through these formative experiences, Dappen was able to explore the impact his parents’ stories had on his identity and the special bond that’s created when parents and children spend time together outdoors.
CANOE & KAYAK: There are quite a few predominant themes in the film, such as family, legacy and creating an identity. What is one of the biggest takeaways that you’d like to stick with the audience?
Nathan Dappen: For months, I agonized over how to integrate all the ways this story was important to me into a film. In the beginning, I thought The Passage was only about my parents getting older, as told through parallel canoe trips up the Inside Passage in 1974, at the beginning of their careers, and then in 2017 toward the end of their careers. But as I talked and thought more about the project, I realized that the 1974 canoe adventure, as experienced by my parents, held a very different meaning to them than the story of the same trip that I experienced as a child. Slowly, I realized that stories like this had a big impact on how my brother and I saw not only our parents, but ourselves. At that point, I realized that this film was also about identity and how stories and experiences can shape it.
Working on this project was a wonderful excuse for me to reflect on my past and think about my future. I would love for it to do the same for people who watch it. My hope is that viewers come away with a desire to reflect on the experiences and stories that shaped who they are now and a sense of urgency to create formative experiences – not to just let life happen to them— but to go out there do something that will shape who they become in a positive way. Of course, there's no better place to have those experiences than the outdoors. So I hope the film inspires others to get outside, take care of and appreciate this beautiful planet with the people they love.
CK: It took a wedding to bring your family together again and to ignite the spark to complete the passage. What was the ‘aha’ moment when you decided to go to the next level and produce a film as well? Was everyone instantly onboard?
ND: My parents' 1974 canoe trip is a story I've been telling to anyone who would listen since I was a kid. So when I became a documentary filmmaker, it was natural for me to want to make a film about it. But with our ever-busier lives, I didn't know if we would ever make it back to the Inside Passage together. The moment I knew I would make a film about the trip was the same moment I knew the trip was happening.
My uncle, Andy Dappen, was initially resistant to the idea of filming the trip. Andy has been an adventure journalist for the last 44 years and knows what filming/chasing a story can do to a trip. He was worried about the filming impacting the experience. Understandably, it was important to him that this important family journey did not become a full-time shoot. I assured him that it wouldn't and worked hard to make filming a passive part of the experience. I'm not sure whether I succeeded, but I think we all had a great time on the trip and I hope that filming didn't detract too much from anyone's experience.
CK: This film is obviously close to you, perhaps closer than any other project you've undertaken. Why are passion projects important for artists to do?
ND: Our team at Day's Edge gets to work on so many cool projects about inspiring individuals. Nevertheless, there is something special about telling your own stories. Most filmmakers—most storytellers actually—spend their days crafting the stories of others. It's rare that we tell our own stories. When I think back to before I was working professionally, virtually all of my photo/film projects were stories from my own life. I think that's a common starting point for many people who end up becoming professional storytellers.
Of course, not all passion projects are literally stories about yourself or your family, and those are just as important. There is something to be said about working on a story that you want to tell, without a client influencing your art/craft/messaging with their agenda (which isn't always bad!). Passion projects remind us why we got into this career in the first place and, at least for me, reinvigorated the inspiration that I remember feeling during my first few projects.
CK: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced during production? Mental, physical and emotional? Logistical?
ND: This trip was riddled with challenges. The first of which was simply finding a time when all four of us could take the time off of our busy work and family lives to take a trip this long. Thankfully, we all have supportive partners who understood the importance of this journey.
From a practical perspective, getting the boats ready for a trip like this was a challenge. The original boats were built in 1974. Since then, they have been up the Inside Passage, down the Yukon, south of the border to Mexico, driven across and used throughout the country and then seriously beat up in the Virginia Rivers by my brother and I. It took a full week of sanding, varnishing, glassing and replacing many parts to get them ready. Repairing the boats was a lot of work, but it was also fun to see them come out of the process looking so good. It felt good to make my mark, however small, on the history of these family canoes.
From a production perspective, this trip was challenging. Bringing enough equipment to keep the production value of this film high meant I needed to select equipment that was light and rugged, but high impact. Luckily, in the last five years, the industry has been making powerful lightweight cameras and motion support that makes it easier to bring high-quality techniques to remote locations. I brought a Sony FS5, Sony A7sii, Canon 5DIV, DJI OSMI Pro, DJI Mavic Pro, GoPro Hero 4and full set of Canon lenses. Since I knew I wouldn't have a chance to recharge, I brought every battery I had for each camera and had to be careful about how much I was shooting. I think I did a good job getting the most out of my power since I used my last battery on the last day of the trip! For support and motion I used a Cartoni Focus HD pan-tilt and Cartoni Carbon-fiber tripod along with a Rhino Slider Evo and Feather Jib. In total, it all weighed just under 150lbs, which is pretty darn light for such a diversity of tools. Taking photos from a canoe is easy, but filming is a nightmare. The canoe is always rocking, no mater how calm the water, and keeping your gear accessible isn't easy. I built a mount into the canoe with a 100mm bowl for my pan-tilt that allowed me to capture footage as we traveled, but the conditions meant that I missed a lot of great filming opportunities.
The other production challenge was keeping all that gear dry. Southern Alaska is one of the rainiest places on the planet. It rained about an inch a day during the trip and capturing the journal was a real task with all that moisture! For example, we had some truly amazing wildlife encounters that I simply couldn't shoot without ruining my gear. Miraculously, all the camera equipment survived the trip and I managed to capture enough footage to make a film.
On an emotional level, I struggled with the story. This project was so close to me that it was difficult to distinguish between what was interesting/important to me versus what was entertaining/relatable to audiences. Luckily, I had a huge amount of help from my business partner, Neil Losin, who helped shape my rough vision into a story we're both proud of. The other emotional challenge was asking my parents about aging. I deeply admire my folks and it was uncomfortable to force them into the vulnerable position of confronting their mortality in front of their children and to let them know that I was acutely aware of it. I don't think they expected those questions and it almost felt like I blindsided them. That feeling continued all the way up to when I first showed them the rough cut. I was so nervous for them to see it – more nervous than I've ever been to show anyone anything – but when I heard them laugh and watched them smile and cry, I knew that it was worth it.
CK: The Inside Passage sometimes looks very tranquil in the film, but we know the reality is something quite different. What do’s and don’ts would you tell people looking to retrace your route on their own?
ND: You are right! Most of the time, the Inside Passage is remarkably pleasant and easy to navigate in a canoe, but that tranquil weather can transform rapidly into a dangerous situation. Wind changes quickly, waves get big, tidal shifts can be huge, the water is freezing and the temperature can be dangerous if you're not dry. This was my first visit to the Inside Passage, but my uncle Andy Dappen has spent a lot of time out there and gave us good advice for staying safe.
Like all outdoor adventures, planning ahead of time is the best way to ensure a safe journey. Bring a good nautical map with enough detail to know where it's possible to get the boats off the water. A lot of the coastline is lined with cliffs that make it impossible to pull out. If the weather looks bad, stick around your campsite until you know that you have the time to arrive at a location that is easy to pull out. On that note, stay close to the coastline. When the weather changes, you want to be able to get out of the water as quickly as possible. It only takes a small wave to swamp a canoe. So, get a spray-deck for the canoe or use a kayak. There are legends of massive whirlpools sinking big boats in parts of the journey. I don't know the veracity of these stories, but it is important to bring a tide chart. Tidal shifts can create serious currents and even significant rapids in narrow channels.
The fishing we experienced was remarkable, but I would bring enough food to survive without catching anything. On my parent's original trip, they went for several long stretches without a bite. I didn't get into this in the film, by my uncle's journal from their 1974 journey is filled with stories of hungry college students!
It is worth bringing bear spray and important to follow safe food practices. Don't clean fish or leave leftovers near camp that might attract hungry bears. It's bad for them and bad for you.
Staying dry is a constant battle. Most lightweight rain gear is decent around camp, but after a few hours of paddling, even the most expensive rain gear lets water through. I was completely soaked in my high-end raincoat, while Andy and my dad were dry and cozy in their cheap, rubberized fisherman gear. It’s a trade-off between breathability and water-resistance – usually, the more breathable the material, the less waterproof it is. For a trip with this much rain, I'd suggest prioritizing the waterproof gear over breathability. A few companies, like NRS, make truly waterproof gear that is also lightweight. I know what I'm buying for the next canoe trip!
CK: Among many other things, the film also beckons the audience with a call to action. Did this trip spawn any future family adventures that are in the works? What's next?
ND: In terms of what's next for our family, our major goal is always to spend more time together – around the dinner table or in the outdoors. We all live in different states and if I'm honest, we're all workaholics. Who knows when my folks will retire, but when they do, my wife and I have a not-so-secret plan to manipulate them into moving to San Diego (where we live), buying a compound with us near the ocean, and living happily ever after fishing, surfing and exploring the wilderness of the southwest. In the meantime, we are raising our daughter, Juniper. It's important to us that she develops a love and appreciation of the outdoors. So, as many parents before us, we'll try to foster the same kind of outdoor experiences that were important to us, without being too overbearing.
In terms of what's next for our film projects: Neil and I have a lot of cool stories in the pipeline. We're working on a big bird migration project for National Geographic. Our latest broadcast film, about lizards, will air this fall on the Smithsonian Channel. We just finished an interactive project with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute about the gene-editing technology, CRISPR, and we're always working on a few advocacy films for the World Wildlife Fund. We also have a number of outdoor adventure stories we're trying to get off the ground. Fingers crossed we make the time to work on another passion project sometime in the next year!
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