Imagine the heaviest load you’ve ever carried in a backpack. Now double it or maybe even triple it, and you’ll inch a bit closer to the hundred pounds each that Forest Woodward and his buddy Tommy Penick hauled up and over Mount Aniakchak, a volcanic mass located inside its namesake national monument on Alaska’s remote Aleutian Peninsula.
They weren’t just schlepping backpacking gear; the filmmakers also shouldered camera equipment, along with packrafts that would carry them along the Aniakchak River from its source at Surprise Lake, a blue pool tucked deep inside the vast caldera, out to the Pacific Ocean. As for how they managed under the weight, Woodward explains that it involved “a lot of snack breaks, a lot of just moving really slowly—and lots of chiropractor work after the fact.”
It was a backbreaking slog, for sure, but there was a point to all that sweat equity. Woodward and Penick were rolling along as third and fourth wheel, filming adventurous husband-and-wife duo Graham Zimmerman and Shannon McDowell during their own expedition for what would eventually become Aniakchak, A Wild Love Story (co-directed by Zimmerman — watch it below the post), a tender documentary that’s as much about the couple’s relationship as it is about their time in Alaska.
While he didn’t know exactly how things would play out on the peninsula, Woodward had a general goal in mind: film a “sequel” of sorts to Zimmerman and McDowell’s previous film, Engaging the Curve, which depicted their experience during a bikepacking trip. Despite their pro status in other disciplines (Zimmerman, alpinism; McDowell, ultimate Frisbee), the two had been completely new to mountain biking—and so it was again with watersports. As an avid paddler, Woodward invited them to his home in North Carolina for some whitewater lessons. Together with his brother, Canyon, and Penick, Woodward reviewed the basic tenets of paddling, with deeper lessons in paddling ethos and safety. “Once you get it, it can be really fun,” he says. “And then things can go wrong pretty quickly.”
While Zimmerman and McDowell continued paddling after the North Carolina trip, nothing could prepare anyone for what the Aniakchak had in store. The area is incredibly remote (in some years, visitation is in the single digits), and planning information is hard to come by. On top of that, once the group arrived, the weather forecast turned bleak, with only a single hour of sun predicted for the whole week; as it turns out, that hour was eventually reduced to a scant three minutes. And when they arrived at the river’s source a few days into the trip, they discovered it swollen by rain—and impassable.
Safety, not filmmaking, had become Woodward’s priority. The group hauled their gear until they found a better launch point, drenched to the core and hiking in cumbersome dry suits at times. “We pretty much just became swamp creatures,” he laughs. Their gear also suffered in the grueling conditions, with fogged lenses and fried sensors the daily norm. In fact, the trip’s finale was shot on an iPhone, since the rest of their equipment was shot. “Cameras and rain don’t mix,” says Woodward. “I think we ended up ruining five cameras on that trip.”
But for all the hardship, there was plenty of magic. You see it on screen for Zimmerman and McDowell, who found plenty of affirmation in their relationship, but what you don’t see is that the trip affected the filmmakers just as much. Woodward was stunned by the environment, and at the scope of solitude in such a place. “It’s one thing to kind of look at a map and imagine what might be there, but then to step into true wilderness—I’ve never experienced anything like that,” he says. “We didn’t see any signs of human passage from the time that we left the ATV track on the first day outside of Port Heiden until we got to the ocean. No footprints, no fire rings, no trail, no cairns. It was like stepping back in time.”
But maybe more than the beauty of it all, Woodward was grateful for the reminder that going alone is not always the best or most memorable way to experience these stunning landscapes; that it can be even more powerful to share the good, the bad—and yes, sometimes the absolutely miserable—with the people who are important to you.
“I think we are in a time when we’re really inundated by this sort of ‘conquest’ of adventure that often feels very solo and self-serving,” he says. “I hope what people take away is a desire to go out and explore wild places with loved ones and enjoy that not just for the achievement of a peak or the accomplishment of completing a trail or river, but for all those little moments along that way that are shared between people.”
Below is a gallery of Woodward’s photos of the trip.
See more from Forest Woodward here.