At 11 p.m. on January 13th, I watched a group of eight guys push a 48-foot-long boat into the Colorado River at Lee’s Ferry, and I ran to a rented SUV and drove down the road away from the boat ramp with two friends holding cameras out the window. I slammed the gas pedal and thought, “Well, here goes nothing.”
When I was asked in April 2016 to help make a film about a group of guys trying to break the Grand Canyon speed record, my first thought was: how do we tell a good story even if they don’t break the record?
I said yes to the project because it was my friend Forest Woodward asking and I trusted him. Seven or eight guys from the U.S. Men’s Rafting Team would attempt a speed run in January 2017, and Forest and I and our friends from Gnarly Bay would make a short film about it. There were plenty of unanswered questions—the raft team was designing a custom boat, for instance, and they hadn’t yet decided if they’d use oars or paddles. They hadn’t decided how many people would be in the boat, or which people. We didn’t know how the logistics of trying to film a speed run would or could work, or if we could film them at all on the actual speed run (we couldn’t).
I haven’t been much of a sports guy for a while now. I kind of abandoned the us vs. them, win/lose binary for pushing myself according to my own goals when I started to get into the outdoors over a decade ago. Although I think I gained a lot of drive and grit from losing, not being the best, and not getting trophies as a kid, I’ve mostly avoided trying to measure myself against other people as an adult. So the idea of these guys putting everything they had into trying to break a speed record gave me anxiety. They’re nice people. I like them. I hoped they could do it. But I worried about all the things that could go wrong, too.
When we talked about the story, we all agreed that the film had to work no matter what happened in January. So we grilled the team on other things besides speed: Why are you really doing this? Have you ever been the best at anything? Is this a mid-life crisis thing? Do you think your kids will learn something from you? Isn’t it funny trying to speed through the Grand Canyon, a place most of us want to spend as much time as possible?
Right up until the put-in, neither the team nor the film crew had any idea how we were going to pull off our respective jobs. But as the guys pushed the boat in at 11 p.m. on January 13th, a funny thing happened: I became a sports fan again for a couple days, rooting for the guys in the boat. We watched their GPS track obsessively as we drove through the night from Lee’s Ferry to the Desert View Watchtower, where we hoped to see the lit-up boat coming down the river but instead got 40-foot visibility in a blizzard up on the south rim. We never really knew what was happening, but I told myself, as long as they get to the takeout without needing a helicopter rescue, we can still make a movie.
I won’t spoil the ending, but they didn’t need a helicopter rescue, so we got to make a movie. And I hope it’s about way more than a speed record, or sports. It was a privilege for me to get invited to work with Forest, Dan, Shawn, Drew, and Jordan, and to watch Seth, John Mark, Ian, Kurt, Matt, Robbie, Jeremiah, and Marty pull off a real adventure. A huge thanks to Josh and the folks at Chaco and REI for making this all happen.
Photos by Forest Woodward