When a routine after-school fistfight ended with another boy stabbing a three-inch blade into his shoulder, Scott Lindgren made his brother swear not to tell anyone—especially not their mother, who had enough to worry about raising two boys on her own. Years later, when doctors discovered a baseball sized-tumor wrapped around the carotid artery in his brain, Lindgren again kept it under wraps.
“I didn’t want anyone to know because I thought that people would think I was weak,” Lindgren said in an interview with Adventure Journal and filmmaker Rush Sturges, whose feature-length documentary The River Runner plumbs the depths of Lindgren’s extraordinary journey through illness and self-imposed isolation to return to the pinnacle of expedition kayaking.
Lindgren was a legendary figure during the sport’s golden age in the late 1990s and early aughts. With a single-minded sense of purpose, he and handful of collaborators redefined the limits of whitewater exploration. Lindgren made more than 50 first descents in his native California and around the world, culminating with the world’s deepest and most forbidding canyon, Tibet’s Upper Tsangpo Gorge. That expedition, led and organized by Lindgren, remains a crowning achievement of exploratory kayaking, but to Lindgren it was simply one piece of a larger ambition to run each of the four great Himalayan rivers rising from the sacred flanks of Mount Kailash.
The Tsangpo, in 2002, was the third of the quartet. Lindgren ran the fourth, the Indus, in 2017 at the age of 45, after confronting trauma, addiction, the brain tumor and an eight-year separation from the rivers that nurtured him. Sturges’ film chronicles Lindgren’s emotional journey and return to top kayaking form thanks to a new generation of paddlers who are taking the sport to new heights.
Running rivers, that was my escape my entire life. If shit was going bad or shit was going good, I would just run to the river. — Scott Lindgren
Sturges is a groundbreaking expedition kayaker in his own right. He joined Lindgren and those young guns on the 2017 Indus descent, but these days his boundary-stretching efforts are focused on filmmaking. His project “Chasing Niagara” took four years and redefined what a kayak film could be. “The River Runner,” also four years in the making, goes even deeper, distilling from Lindgren’s story of struggle and redemption an unvarnished assessment of adventure culture, and what is lost when ambition takes precedence over emotional wellbeing.
That storyline is a tough sell to sponsors and in the beginning Sturges financed the project himself. He later raised money through a partnership with First Descents, a nonprofit that uses kayaking and other outdoor sports to help young adults cope with cancer. Twenty-eight percent of the film’s proceeds will go to the group. The River Runner is now streaming on Netflix.
Adventure Journal: You had screenings in both your hometowns. What was it like to sit in the back of the theater as this story unfolded?
Scott Lindgren: The word that comes up for me is probably vulnerable.
You really put yourself out there.
Scott Lindgren: No doubt. I mean, initially it was meant to be kind of an endemic film for the kayaking community. And then we just shifted gears about halfway through and it became more about my personal journey. And at that point, I had become comfortable enough with Rush and Thayer and everybody else. It was just like, Okay, let’s just do this. And we shifted gears. I think kayaking is the vehicle and my story is the film.
That’s my personal take. I’d be curious as to your take if you thought it was a kayak film or if you thought it was more of a personal journey.
I thought it was the personal journey, but you can’t separate that from the kayaking. The film showed you as a kid discovering kayaking for the first time, and how in a way it saved you. And then it follows you through this stage where you lose that, and your struggle to find it again. It made me wonder, did you always know that was the answer? That you would have to come back to kayaking at some point?
Lindgren: I had pretty much come to the realization that I probably wasn’t going to get back in at that level again. And it was crazy because I was chasing a ghost. I didn’t know what was going on for a really long time. I was five years out of the kayak before I had my first knockout headache.
I had been tested for a bunch of things and nobody thought to take a picture of my head. My tumor was slow-growing, and so the changes were subtle. Your body just has this amazing way of adapting. You lose things over such a slow period of time that your awareness around it is not all that great. So it wasn’t until I started to heal on the other side that I realized how much I had really lost.
In the movie, there’s a shot where I’m basically saying something’s wrong, and I’m going to take three months off and try to figure out what’s going on. And that three months turned into eight long years.
Was that cold turkey?
Lindgren: I would get out a handful of times a year. If I had something memorized on the water, I could go and do that. But my reactionary kayaking was definitely gone. I was kayaking maybe five or 10 times a year, and that’s going from kayaking 200 or 300 days a year.
Was that enough? Having run the most challenging whitewater in the world, can you go on a much easier river and still get that spiritual fill up?
Lindgren: Oh, for sure. For sure. It doesn’t matter how hard it is. I still just enjoy being on the river. I have such a different relationship with the river at this point. It’s not my source of income and it’s not my ego. It’s my sanctuary. It always has been, but more so now more than ever.
It’s kind of a loaded word, but is your relationship with the river now a little more pure?
Lindgren: You could say that. You could also say that my relationship with the river from my teenage years to my mid-twenties was pure. When we first started, there was no such thing really as sponsorship in kayaking. It was just in its infancy. And all of us had one thing in common. We just wanted to go kayaking every day. So if you don’t have money, how do you go kayaking every day? And what are you willing to do to go kayaking every day?
Sturges: For Scott it seemed like a combination of that, but also kayaking can only fulfill a certain part of your livelihood. You have these other emotions and these other things that you have to deal with as well. One of the aspects of the film that I really like a lot is Scott’s willingness to talk about vulnerability and getting up and sort of dealing with these other emotions that on the river are dealt with in a very different way than they are in your day to day life.
He’s really put in a lot of that work and even encouraged me to put in more work on that front, and I have no shame in saying that. I hope that’s a good message for others, not just kayakers but the adventure community at large, because a lot of us tend to sort of shove this stuff away. Whether it’s death in the mountains or on the river, or not addressing some of these emotionally weighted themes that are in our lives and in this culture.
There’s a real theme of emotional armor as well. The attitude of ‘harden the fuck up,’ was almost synonymous with the name Scott Lindgren in those years. That serves a purpose on tough, consequential whitewater. Is some element of that necessary when you’re out there pushing the limits in exploratory sport?
Sturges: I think so personally. Folks that tend to get kind of jumpy in the field or overly nervous–that’s a liability to the safety of the trip. And in this sport on a high-end level, those types of people don’t really stick around for very long. There just isn’t a place for it on the river if it’s jeopardizing your safety.
Lindgren: Rush nailed that perfectly.
And yet that attitude that serves you well on the river can be a liability in normal life.
Lindgren: It’s tricky because you’re getting accolades for your behavior on the river and you don’t have awareness on how to compartmentalize your behavior. I had no awareness around leaving that behavior on the river and not dragging it into everything else in my life. And when you have your intellect and your identity wrapped into just one single thing, you become one-dimensional and your ego kind of forces you to be all-in. It shuts down a lot of other things. It took a lot for me to actually realize that.
One of the most gut-wrenching parts of the film for me was watching you lose kayaking. You had one thing in your life that was everything, and suddenly it wasn’t in your life at all.
Lindgren: I even used to double-down on that. I’d just be like, ‘You could take everything away from me, but you can’t take the river away.’ And then when the river was taken away, you’re just alone. You’re lost.
Everyone deals with that differently, but what a lot of people do is they isolate. And that becomes a really scary place to be, right? Because in prison, if you act out, where do they put you? They put you in the hole, because they know, they’ve studied, that isolation in a hole is one of the most radical things you can do to a human. What’s more radical than to self-inflict that isolation?
You can still feel. You have freedom, you can go and do, but you can’t. And so many people that are dealing with those sorts of transitions or dealing with cancer. That’s something that came up with First Descents. I was down in South America with [First Descents founder and former pro kayaker] Brad Ludden, and he approached me after I told him my story. He’s like, ‘Look, we’re having trouble registering people for First Descents, particularly men. The ratio’s like 80 to 20.’ And I was like, I know why. Men don’t know how to ask for help. Men isolate when they get diagnosed. Men don’t want anyone to know.
So the system is brutal in the sense that you get diagnosed, you get treated, and then you basically get kicked to the curb. There’s not much on the back end, especially when you’re dealing with cancer and tumors and so forth. That’s what’s so amazing about First Descents. It’s basically people that are on the back end or in the middle, and you create a community where you can safely talk about that stuff. When I was first diagnosed, I didn’t want anyone to know. I didn’t want anyone to know because I thought that people would think I was weak.
What was it like to climb out of that hole? You were in this kind of self-imposed solitary confinement. What got you out?
Lindgren: I got lucky. I had a handful of things that happened, and I ended up with someone that was able to get through to me. And then I had a series of events that literally could not be scripted. It took a lot of time. I mean, several years, to move through everything. There wasn’t just therapy. There wasn’t just yoga. And it wasn’t just the river. And the amazing thing about the film is how Rush was able to take lot of very difficult subjects and blend them into a really amazing story. It’s a trip to see my story laid out the way that it is.
There’s so much depth to this story Rush, and I was really impressed with the way you were able to fit it into 90 minutes, in a way that speaks equally to core paddlers and people who know nothing about the sport.
Sturges: It was tough. There’s been a version of the film for really two years now, and I think my first cut was somewhere around 200 minutes. There was honestly a lot to kill, especially on the whitewater side of things. The original film that I wanted to make sort of encompassed the history of paddling in California specifically but also Scott’s legacy. It was originally titled Legacy, and changed to The River Runner. I think that that in the end, the human story definitely wins.
And I didn’t do it alone. Bringing Thayer [Walker] and Aidan [Haley] on was super helpful. I did the first cut of the film myself, and it was more of a whitewater kayaking biography, but it lacked some of the deeper messaging. It was tough for me as a core kayaker myself and somebody who enjoys and loves kayak action movies to step away from that and cut some of the really fun stuff. That’s part of storytelling. You have to kill your darlings, and we did a lot of that.
I listened to your interview on the Hammer Factor kayaking podcast and I was mesmerized by Scott’s description of how the 2002 Tsangpo expedition went down. It was just so good, probably 30 minutes of straight monologue about that pivotal event in the sport.
Lindgren: It was really cool, because the film, the book and the Hammer Factor are really the three times that I’ve really gone through the Tsangpo in depth. I haven’t really had the opportunity to tell that story, and it’s one of the things I’m looking forward to the most with the book, is diving in and really telling that story. Thayer and I sat down the other day and I told it to start to finish and it took me six and a half hours.
Catch us up on the book project.
Lindgren: Thayer and I are probably 40,000 words into a 120,000-word book with Penguin Random House. It’s going to encompass everything that’s in the film, but in more depth. Did you read the Outside piece?
I read it when it came out a couple of years ago. I knew the gist of your story through the grapevine and that Rush was years into the film project, but that piece was my first inkling of how deep it went.
Lindgren: Thayer did a super job. That piece was definitely one of many reasons we shifted directions even more so, to try to make a film that had a broader appeal.
That didn’t happen right away though, did it? You’ve spoken about an inherent distrust of writers.
Lindgren: You can stand in front of a video camera and protect yourself, but with writing you’re trusting somebody’s interpretation. The first article that Outside magazine ever did of me, they went to my childhood hero Lars Holbek and they took a quote out of context. Basically the quote was like, “If he lives to be 45, then I’ll say he knew what he was doing.”
So when Thayer initially came to me about a story for Outside, I said I’m interested but I want to have editorial control. And he’s like, ‘Dude, fuck off. It’s never going to happen.’ And then two weeks later, he called me back and he was like, ‘Hey, Outside’s going to give you editorial control and I’m okay with it.’ I told Thayer, I’m not trying to control how you write. I have complete faith in that. I just want to make sure that you get it right. So he let his ego get out of the way and we became really close through the project, and now we’re doing the book together.
Was it easier to find that trust with Rush, who’s been there with you on the river?
Lindgren: I didn’t really see this happening with anybody else. Rush and I have known each other for a really long time, and we’ve always been pretty close. It’s what gave me the trust to tell the whole thing from start to finish.
Rush, you have a bit of a habit of getting into a project and going really deep. Both Chasing Niagara and The River Runner took years to finish.
Sturges: They were both three-year projects, and then took it took another year to actually get them out so they were kind of four years apiece. I’m a really big fan of cinema and movies in general so I would like to think that I have a grasp on what works and what doesn’t. And to be just totally honest, this film really didn’t work for me for a very, very long time. Even now it’s hard for me to let it go. There’s always going to be things that I wish I could change or would have done differently. It’s that old cliché that art is never finished, only abandoned. I have to get it to a point where I’m comfortable with it being out in the world.
There are aspects that are important to me, like the music. That was a huge undertaking. It’s almost an entirely original soundtrack with a real orchestra, taking the deep dive with four different composers and writing some of the music, too. But to me it’s really important to bring the whole art form together.
You and Scott are pretty similar on paper. What was it like for you to go so deep into a profile of a person with a seemingly parallel life track?
Sturges: I think it’s important to distinguish that Scott has done a lot more than I have on the expedition side of things, although that’s been a passion of mine and I’ve been part of some big expeditions. I think the part that’s really interesting is that Scott really did lay the groundwork for being an adventure filmmaker and professional kayaker. That didn’t exist before him, period.
I took Scott’s road map and applied that to myself, and he always gave me advice and support. So it kind of just made sense to tackle that story, because even though it’s his story, there are aspects that are personal to me, too.
Still, there’s very little Rush Sturges in this film—on screen at least—even though you were part of the Indus expedition that completes the circle.
Sturges: The reason honestly is that on the Indus, I just wasn’t the boater that was pushing it the hardest. Benny [Marr] and Aniol [Serrasolses] were, period. Those guys are on another level with the big water stuff. And I’ve always, in my movies, really wanted to honor the people that are out there pushing it.
Were there things you learned on the expedition that influenced the way you made the film?
Sturges: There was. One thing that was interesting for me is that after I came home from that trip for some reason I had a really hard time. Part of it was just transitioning, career-wise. I realized that on the Indus being with Aniol, who’s just on such a such another level right now, or Benny. It’s really next-level the rapids that they’re running. I paddled a lot of the rapids too, but it was still hard to come to terms with the idea that I’m not going to be at the forefront of this anymore.
I’m definitely shifting more towards documenting the sport. And also right after that is when I tore my labrum, and then I tore my other labrum. I had all this shoulder drama and went through a little bit of a dark chapter while I was making The River Runner, where I was having my own kind of identity crisis within the sport.
Scott, we watch you make the same transition in the film, from leading perhaps the most significant expedition in the history of kayaking, to following Aniol’s lines to get your mojo back. How did that come about?
Lindgren: I raised three generations of kayakers how to stunt in front of the camera, and I know that you don’t get to that level until you start paddling with people that are at that level. So it was just a matter of me reaching out, and then also the kids just allowing me to sit behind them. That’s a gift.
That’s a great way to describe it. A gift. Did you also learn some life lessons from these kids?
Lindgren: I think that that was what I had to offer. I came in with no judgment and a huge amount of respect, and I was able to give insight on the emotional side of stuff. I’ve been through all this stuff that they’re going through in so many different ways, and so that was something that I was able to to give back. I’ve always said my closest relationships have come from the river, but now you add this newfound component and it even creates a stronger bond, because you’re just so much more real and vulnerable.
In the past when I was running expeditions I struggled to talk about things that were difficult to talk about. I just held it in. So having a safe space where you can have a real conversation and not just have it be surface—you know, we all have a lot of the same characteristics. It’s pretty unbelievable. The circle at that level is super small. We all have a lot of things in common and a lot of behavior traits in common. I’ve been through the whole gamut of emotions, and so just being able to communicate all those components is huge. That’s something that wasn’t done in the past. And I think it just created a stronger bond.
In the film you said something that was really revealing. You said that Aniol invited you to join the Indus expedition, and that is something that in your day you never would have done if the roles were reversed.
Lindgren: I would have looked at myself as a vulnerability. And when you’re operating at that top level, especially when you’ve had a drowning or two, you really start to circle in on who you go kayaking with.
Has there been a generational shift in the way that elite kayaking crews operate in that regard?
Lindgren: There is for sure. The kids today are so much more supportive. Even in Rush’s generation, just one or two generations below me, that change had already started to happen. It was so deeply ingrained in the 80s and early 90s. There was a lot of ego involved in the sport.
Sturges: There’s definitely better a better emotional awareness, and just broadly speaking, more cultural inclusivity. There’s still a lot of work work to be done, but it does feel like our generation’s approach is a little different, a bit more open.
Can you build a stronger team that way?
Sturges: Scott may be able to speak to this better, but this has actually been brought up quite a bit lately. If you’ve watched The Last Dance with Michael Jordan, who is on the extreme end of the spectrum of super-rigorous, super-disciplined, super-hard on his teammates, but also it can be a very effective way to lead. I honestly think the jury is out a little bit in terms of the best way. But that being said, I personally feel there is another way. Excellence can be achieved while still being empathetic and kind to one another.
When you were on the Indus, what did you see Scott adding to the team?
Sturges: I should start by saying we all grew up watching Scott, so there’s that component of the bridging of the generations. We all knew how much this meant to him, and as we traveled down the river as a group Scott talked a lot about his story and about his tumor. That was also at a very stressful time for him in terms of getting the news about needing radiation. So there was a lot of uncertainty and just kind of a heaviness for Scott. But to see him persevere through that and maintain a positive attitude, it felt like we were all on the trip together but we also were seeing this 20-year dream of Scott’s come to fruition. So I think what we all learned from Scott was to not give up on your dreams and to see them through to the finish even and in the face of such adversity.
Scott I understand that you joined a medical study, so there will be a clinical analysis of this, but from your perspective of living it, how has the river helped you to cope with the tumor?
Lindgren: Well you could speculate and it’s actually speculated in the film. And that’s what First Descents does, you know they offer an outdoor experience, and across the board with the studies that they’ve done and and even with my situation, I definitely think it had an effect.
That year, I basically went kayaking every day. And so there’s this theme in the film that nature heals. I think that really helped me a lot, and I do believe that really is a difference maker if you can change your environment and put it out in nature. If you can do that often, you feel better. And I know that just from rivers. Running rivers, that was my escape my entire life. If shit was going bad or shit was going good, I would just run to the river.