In this beau­ti­ful short film, award-win­ning film­mak­er Pete McBride teamed up with O.A.R.S. to take us down the lit­tle known, but local­ly famous Navua Riv­er in Fiji. It’s been called the “Trop­i­cal Grand Canyon” for it flows through the jun­gle of the Cen­tral High­lands of Fiji and cuts a nar­row, yet deep gorge down the East­ern slope of Mount Gor­don. Water­falls cas­cade over the vol­canic canyon walls and jun­gle ferns take hold wher­ev­er soil holds.

Apart from the stun­ning scenery of the jun­gle riv­er, McBride’s sto­ry focus­es on how O.A.R.S. teamed up with locals to con­vince them that the long-term ben­e­fits of tourism and recre­ation out­weighed the short-term ben­e­fits of resource extrac­tion. The result is a mod­el for eco-tourism around the world.

Watch this incred­i­ble homage to a riv­er, and learn how a small group of peo­ple can pro­tect a land they love.

Joan Blaustein

Joan BlausteinThe mod­ern his­to­ry of the Grand Canyon is per­haps best embod­ied through the life’s work of pro­fes­sion­al pho­tog­ra­ph­er John Blaustein. Since his first trip down the Col­orado Riv­er aboard a decked-over dory in 1970, this anthro­pol­o­gy major from UC Berke­ley has built his career tak­ing pic­tures while indulging a per­son­al pas­sion for white­wa­ter adven­ture. First under the appren­tice­ship Joe Mon­roe, a free­lance pho­tog­ra­ph­er with cred­its in Life Mag­a­zine, Nation­al Geo­graph­ic, Time and For­tune, Blaustein learned the craft of pho­tog­ra­phy while build­ing his skills row­ing the mighty riv­er with vet­er­an guide Mar­tin Lit­ton. Com­bin­ing his exper­tise in both dis­ci­plines, he cre­at­ed the images for his sem­i­nal trea­tise called The Hid­den Canyon: A Riv­er Jour­ney in 1977. With text by the great essay­ist Edward Abbey, the book, though out of print, is still known as one of the best ever writ­ten on the Grand Canyon and set Blaustein’s long career now span­ning 40 years in motion.

 “I nev­er set out to do the book,” he told the Clymb “But it became the key­stone of my pho­tog­ra­phy. From there I kind of stum­bled from one thing to the next with­out a mas­ter plan.”

Blaustein’s work as pho­tog­ra­ph­er has appeared in pub­li­ca­tions that include Out­side, Sports Illus­trat­ed, Smith­son­ian and many oth­ers. With his book as a port­fo­lio of sorts, he was suc­cess­ful in secur­ing sev­er­al promi­nent cor­po­rate clients such as Apple Com­put­er, AT&T, New York Life and Unit­ed Air­lines. But tru­ly his great­est love has always been cap­tur­ing com­pelling images at water lev­el while on more than 85 trips through the Grand Canyon. It was dur­ing these ear­ly expe­ri­ences while row­ing the Col­orado Riv­er that Blaustein feels most for­tu­nate for hav­ing begun a pas­sion­ate obses­sion that inspires his life to this day.

“I had a lot of good luck. What I mean by that is stum­bling into the Grand Canyon when I did, meet­ing Mar­tin Lit­ton when I did, the fact that he would give me a chance,” Blaustein said. “If ever any­one was a fish out of water as boat­man in the Grand Canyon it was me.”

Now at the age of 66 Blaustein makes at least one plunge down the Col­orado every year. Thrilled by the prospects of dis­cov­er­ing more of its mys­ter­ies he pad­dles for­ward with his cam­era through the Canyon look­ing for that next excit­ing image around the bend.

The Clymb: What can you tell us about the inspi­ra­tion behind what can only described as icon­ic work tak­ing pho­tographs in one of the most spec­tac­u­lar nation­al parks in the country?

Blaustein: I was there. I was cap­ti­vat­ed by the dories, by the riv­er. I feel like I picked up my cam­era and I react­ed to it. I just think the place is mag­i­cal and the con­nec­tion that I devel­oped with the riv­er by being a guide, row­ing those won­der­ful lit­tle wood­en boats and just open­ing my eyes and react­ing to it is just what hap­pened. I am not one of these pho­tog­ra­phers  who writes a lot of flow­ery lan­guage about my pic­tures. A lot of peo­ple do. I don’t, maybe because I’m not artic­u­late enough. I was lucky to be there through the 70s. I’ve done about 85 trips, plus or minus, down the riv­er includ­ing recent ones, any­where between 15 and 21 days. You can do the math. I spent a lot of time at the bot­tom of the Grand Canyon. In the ear­ly days I was a dory guide, which I did from ’70 through ’77 or ’78. In recent years I’ve rowed a bag­gage boat. I do that because I don’t have guide’s license. I don’t have any of the first aid cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, which I would need to row pay­ing pas­sen­gers in a dory. It’s not worth it to me to get all that do one trip a year. So I’m thrilled to do a bag­gage boat, a raft so I can go along on a dory trip. Dur­ing those years in the ‘70s we were just down there learn­ing to run the rapids, tak­ing peo­ple down the riv­er, hav­ing a great time. And oh yeah, I had my cam­era. I was already inter­est­ed in pho­tog­ra­phy. I just had the time of my life shoot­ing what­ev­er I want­ed to on the river. 

The Clymb: You might have adopt­ed any riv­er in North Amer­i­ca. What was it about the Col­orado that was so appeal­ing to you?

Blaustein: I’ll give you a one-sen­tence answer. There’s only one Grand Canyon. As luck would have it, that’s where I end­ed up. I didn’t look at a map and say, “Let’s see, which nation­al park should I go to?” When I grad­u­at­ed from col­lage with lit­er­al­ly noth­ing to do for the rest of my life, I had no idea what I want­ed to do as a career. I was inter­est­ed in pho­tog­ra­phy. But I didn’t have a clue of how to pur­sue that or what to do with it. And this guy named Dave Bohn, with whom I stud­ied pho­tog­ra­phy at Berke­ley, intro­duced me to a guy 15 min­utes from Berke­ley, Joe Mon­roe who was free­lance pho­tog­ra­ph­er. He did Life Mag­a­zine, and he knew Mar­tin Lit­ton through the Sier­ra Club. Dave said to me I’m sure he wouldn’t mind talk­ing to you. It was through Joe Mon­roe that I met Mar­tin, and Mar­tin invit­ed me to go down the riv­er to wash pots and pans as a cook’s assis­tant in 1970.

Short­ly before we left Mar­tin called me up and asked me what I was going to do after our riv­er trip?  I said, “I have noth­ing to do for the rest of my life, why?” So he says he’s think­ing about doing a sec­ond trip down the riv­er and he need­ed a boat­man and asked me to come along. I said, “Mar­tin, you’re crazy, I’ve nev­er been in a row boat!” So to answer your ques­tion, I didn’t pick the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon picked me.

The Clymb: You’ve been down through the Grand Canyon dozens of times in your life, but it doesn’t seem like it’s get­ting old to you. So now at the age of 66 in your mind is there a pic­ture in the Grand Canyon that you haven’t tak­en yet?

Blaustein: Sure. It’s fun­ny the guides that do this over and over again get asked that ques­tion a lot. I think if I weren’t row­ing I would nev­er say it’s going to be bor­ing. I think what keeps me com­ing back is the chal­lenge of the rapids, the white­wa­ter, being at the oars, and the great rela­tion­ship I have with the oth­er guides. I don’t think any­one would ever fin­ish pho­tograph­ing the Grand Canyon. I won’t ever feel that I’ve been there, done that.

Every time you go down the riv­er at any giv­en place, the light is always dif­fer­ent. You’re there at a dif­fer­ent time of day, because the pace of each trip is always slight­ly dif­fer­ent. There’s always going to be cer­tain places where I’ve seen it in board day­light, at high noon with no clouds. I’ll nev­er say that I’m fin­ished shoot­ing the Grand Canyon. I would say that hav­ing spent as much time as I have there and hav­ing shot as much as I have there I can be much more selec­tive than I was at the beginning.

I have the advan­tage of all my years of expe­ri­ence where I can antic­i­pate cer­tain parts of the Canyon that will look maybe bet­ter at cer­tain times of the day and that’s when I’ll be pay­ing more atten­tion. But I think any pho­tog­ra­ph­er will tell you, it’s all about the light and that’s chang­ing all the time. There always the oppor­tu­ni­ty that an area of the Canyon you’ve pho­tographed 5 times before the next time the light could be all that more spectacular.

 The Clymb: After all this time you prob­a­bly have a pret­ty good read on what you need to do a trip through the Grand Canyon suc­cess­ful­ly. What are the crit­i­cal pieces of equip­ment that are must-have items in your kit?

Blaustein: I guess num­ber one would be a life jack­et. You need fast dry­ing swim trunks and a long-sleeved shirt to keep as much of your body cov­ered from the sun as you can. And you need a great pair of riv­er shoes. We start­ed out in the 70s wear­ing Con­verse high-top All-Stars, a bas­ket­ball shoe. They were a joke because you’d have to wear cot­ton socks or the can­vas would rub holes in your feet, which were wet all day. Of course now there are Tevas and KEENS to give your feet a chance to air out a lit­tle bit. You have to pro­tect your feet while you’re mak­ing your way through the rapids and with the new high-tech san­dals; one pair of shoes is all you need.

The Clymb: What can you tell us about one of your most mem­o­rable moments in your career? 

Blaustein: I cer­tain­ly remem­ber flip­ping a dory in Lava Falls, get­ting too far out in the mid­dle and lit­er­al­ly going over the falls and going under long enough that I thought what the F*** is going on! It’s not like my life flashed before my eyes and I thought I was drown­ing, but I was feel­ing the rocks on the bot­tom of the riv­er and I was not pop­ping up the way one hopes to. That was cer­tain­ly mem­o­rable. But I can tell you, stand­ing above some of the rapids, notably Hance, Crys­tal, Lava Falls, when the water lev­el is not, I should say, advan­ta­geous, because as you know the riv­er fluc­tu­ates, it’s impres­sive. You look at in it and you say “Man! Do I real­ly have to do this?” But that’s part of the chal­lenge. That’s part of the adren­a­line rush. You get to bot­tom and you say, “I fooled’em again!”

Check out some of John’s incred­i­ble Grand Canyon pho­tog­ra­phy in our two-part fea­ture, The Gold­en Age of Guid­ing: Part One  |  Part Two       

Kevin-Fedarko-Credit-Kurt-Markus-featured

 

In 1983 a record snow yield in the Rocky Moun­tains cre­at­ed the high­est vol­ume of melt­wa­ter ever to surge through the Col­orado Riv­er. The mas­sive buildup of hydraulic pres­sure threat­ened to over­come the 710-foot bar­ri­er of the Glen Canyon Dam and sent a dev­as­tat­ing cur­rent of destruc­tion at incred­i­bly high speeds through the mile-deep gorge that winds its way through the Ari­zona desert.  The Grand Canyon was inun­dat­ed with a cat­a­stroph­ic wall of the dead­liest white­wa­ter seen in a gen­er­a­tion. And as the Nation­al Park Ser­vice con­duct­ed the most exten­sive heli­copter res­cues of trapped and injured boaters in its his­to­ry, a trio of inspired fools launched them­selves down the rapids in an open wood­en dory called the Emer­ald Mile. By the seat of their pants the three-man crew braved a 277-mile jour­ney in the fastest decent of the Canyon ever recorded.

In his first book, for­mer Out­side mag­a­zine senior edi­tor and Grand Canyon riv­er guide Kevin Fedarko tells the amaz­ing sto­ry of Ken­ton Grua who lead the seem­ing­ly sui­ci­dal mis­sion to row a boat through these treach­er­ous­ly tur­bu­lent waters of the Col­orado Riv­er. Named for the leg­endary dory, The Emer­ald Mile is also an excit­ing tale that illus­trates the his­to­ry and explo­ration of one of the most mys­te­ri­ous but lit­tle-known nat­ur­al fea­tures in North America.

“The book was cer­tain­ly writ­ten to pro­vide more than just a tur­bo-charged adven­ture sto­ry,” Fedarko told The Clymb. “Indeed, the sto­ry of the speed run that’s at the heart of this book is hon­est­ly just a sub­ver­sive excuse to indulge in an extend­ed por­trait of and love let­ter to the dories, the riv­er, and the Canyon itself.”

We had a chance to talk with Kevin about his new book and what life is like for guides on the Colorado:

The Clymb: Your book The Emer­ald Mile details the sto­ry of the fastest descent of the Col­orado Riv­er through the Grand Canyon in an open dory in 1983. What inspired you to share this par­tic­u­lar tale of adventure?

Kevin Fedarko: I first heard about the sto­ry in 2003 when I start­ed work­ing as an appren­tice riv­er guide. This par­tic­u­lar sto­ry, both the speed run of the Emer­ald Mile and runoff of 1983 which made the speed run pos­si­ble, are part of the oral his­to­ry of the Grand Canyon. At night after din­ner has been pre­pared, what riv­er guides tend to do is sit around and tell sto­ries about their past trips. It’s pret­ty much impos­si­ble to get down the Canyon and not hear some­body tell a sto­ry of 1983 and the sto­ry of the Emer­ald Mile.

The rea­son why I was drawn to expand that into a ful­ly fledged book is that at a cer­tain point I came to the under­stand­ing that the sto­ry of the Emer­ald Mile, the sto­ry of the speed run, offered a com­mon thread upon which you could then hang the entire sto­ry of the  Canyon, the sto­ry of how it was dis­cov­ered, the peo­ple, the tra­di­tion of row­ing wood­en boats through the white­wa­ter, the very col­or­ful and inspir­ing sub­cul­ture of white­wa­ter guid­ing, which is a per­va­sive and secret world. And then of course there’s the sto­ry of the Glen Canyon Dam, which sits at the head of the Canyon, how it has effect­ed the envi­ron­ment and what hap­pens when two dif­fer­ent worlds that are fun­da­men­tal­ly opposed to one anoth­er, the world of engi­neer­ing and hydraulics and the world of white­wa­ter boat­ing, col­lid­ed at the crest of the largest flood that had descend­ed on the Canyon in a generation.

The Clymb: You are your­self a guide on the Col­orado Riv­er as well as a tal­ent­ed writer and jour­nal­ist. What moti­vates you to blend your appar­ent pas­sion for white­wa­ter pad­dling with a career writ­ing books?

Kevin Fedarko: I had no expe­ri­ence as a pad­dler. In fact it’s impos­si­ble to over­state the depth of my igno­rance about white­wa­ter in gen­er­al. It’s also impor­tant to note that I am not a licensed riv­er guide. I set out with the dream of work­ing my way through an appren­tice­ship that I had hoped at the time would cul­mi­nate in me being allowed to jump into the driver’s seat of a dory. But I proved to myself and to every­one else that I was so colos­sal­ly incom­pe­tent at oar­ing it became clear that the com­pa­ny I worked for had no inten­tion of ever let­ting get with­in spit­ting dis­tance of a dory. So I end­ed up spe­cial­iz­ing in the bag­gage boats, in par­tic­u­lar a boat called the Jack­ass, which is known as the “poo boat” that car­ried all the toi­lets and was also respon­si­ble for trans­port­ing all the raw sewage gen­er­at­ed through the course of a riv­er trip. And so I was the cap­tain of the Jackass!

The Clymb: Thanks for your can­dor, but from that posi­tion on the riv­er do you think you might have had a bet­ter per­spec­tive on how to tell this sto­ry as well as glean your appre­ci­a­tion for the work of being a pro­fes­sion­al riv­er guide that made this sto­ry possible?

Kevin Fedarko: Well I nev­er got to row a dory. But what I did get to do, by virtue of being at the helm of the Jack­ass, which was invari­ably the last boat in the run­ning order, was that I got to fol­low behind the dories. I spent hour and days and weeks and months of accu­mu­lat­ed time row­ing behind those gor­geous wood­en boats. I watched them and obsessed over them. I was seduced by them. I got to see them under every set of con­di­tions imag­in­able at all hours of the day and night from one end of the riv­er sea­son to the next. I also got to par­tic­i­pate in and be part of a dory riv­er crew. In some ways the fact that I was rel­e­gat­ed to the poo-boat, the bag­gage boat car­ry­ing toi­lets was in some ways total­ly appro­pri­ate because as a writer you’re nev­er real­ly part of the scene that forms and frames your sub­ject. My role in the back of the flotil­la, watch­ing and think­ing and mak­ing notes and observ­ing was I think a reflec­tion of the larg­er role I was play­ing as a writer.

The Clymb: You’ve ded­i­cat­ed much of your pro­fes­sion­al life to shar­ing sto­ries about adven­ture through one of the most excit­ing bod­ies of fast mov­ing water in the world. What do you do to train or pre­pare your­self to work and play in this very high ener­gy and (some­times) dan­ger­ous environment?

Kevin Fedarko: In the Grand Canyon, on the Col­orado you large­ly learn by doing. I start­ed out my first trip as a swamp rat. I was not at the oars. I was serv­ing as an assis­tant to a bag­gage boat­man. But by my sec­ond trip I had my own boat and I was respon­si­ble for rig­ging it and get­ting it down­stream intact and if pos­si­ble not flip­ping it upside down—every night de-rig­ging it and re-rig­ging it every morn­ing. There’s no instruc­tion man­u­al for the Grand Canyon. Your col­leagues become your friends and then your fam­i­ly metaphor­i­cal­ly. They teach you how not only to do your job but how to behave in the Canyon.

It’s a for­mi­da­ble thing to row a 400-pound wood­en dory with four pas­sen­gers safe­ly through the Canyon. It’s also a for­mi­da­ble thing to row a one-and-half-ton bag­gage boat filled with not just sim­ply the com­po­nents of an entire toi­let sys­tem but also a huge part of the gear and equip­ment, the infra­struc­ture that’s respon­si­ble for sup­port­ing 22 peo­ple for 21 days at the bot­tom of the Canyon. It’s not some­thing that you would ever want to flip upside down and if you do you bet­ter hope that you rigged it prop­er­ly. My boat by the way was the only boat that got heav­ier. That threw in it’s own set of com­pli­ca­tions as well.

The Clymb: When you ven­ture out into these chal­leng­ing white­wa­ter sit­u­a­tions what’s your most mis­sion-crit­i­cal piece of equip­ment? What is the must-have gear in your kit?

Kevin Fedarko: The absolute­ly essen­tial piece of gear that no guide would be with­out is a riv­er map. There are two, both pub­lished by dif­fer­ent authors but they pro­vide you with a blue­print of the bot­tom of the Canyon and the riv­er and the rapids you’ll encounter. What every­one does is fill their riv­er map like a flip chart. Much like a reporter’s note­book you fill it with notes, warn­ings, obser­va­tions, curs­es, admo­ni­tions, res­o­lu­tions not to ever, ever do that same mis­take you did at that par­tic­u­lar point again. You aug­ment the maps with a diary of your own expe­ri­ences and out of that comes a blue­print that resides inside your head, even­tu­al­ly to the point where the real­ly great guides rarely refer to their maps. They have every inch of the riv­er mem­o­rized along with every sin­gle run.

The Clymb: In writ­ing the book the Emer­ald Mile you made quite a few trips down the Col­orado Riv­er. What can you tell us about one of your most mem­o­rable moments?

Kevin Fedarko: It would have to be the night I dis­cov­ered that there are two rivers in the Canyon, not just one. There’s very lit­tle arti­fi­cial light on the either the north or south rim of the Grand Canyon , so when you are down at the bot­tom of a mile-deep gorge lying on the deck of your boat in your sleep­ing bag, drift­ing off to sleep and star­ing up, you’re star­ing up at a rib­bon of sky framed by the north and south rims of the Canyon whose con­tours per­fect­ly mir­ror the con­tours of the riv­er itself. That rib­bon of sky is pitch black but filled with stars. So there’s a riv­er of stars above the Col­orado Riv­er  that is a reflec­tion of the riv­er that carved the Canyon. When I first real­ized that it was a mag­i­cal moment.

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