Paddling the Grand Canyon
Filmmaker Greg MacGillivray, Explorer Wade Davis, Dave Matthews Band Bassist Stefan Lessard, and Environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C.

Wake Them Up With a Splash

How to bring the world's freshwater woes into focus? Try 3-D. On one of the most ambitious Imax projects to date, 44 river warriors including Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Wade Davis go sloshing down the Grand Canyon—and try not to drop the million-dollar cameras into the drink.

Paddling the Grand Canyon

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He rafted the Grand Canyon lying on a mattress.

Greg MacGillivray, 62, had concluded that this was the only way he could make his movie. He was suffering from a herniated disk and unable to endure the spinal compression that comes with sitting upright while boinging down Class IV and V rapids. So the veteran Imax director went to Home Depot and bought a waterproof chaise lounge mattress designed for the rigors of outdoor barbecues and mounted it in the bow of a guided raft, adding straps for his arms and legs so he wouldn’t be bucked into the Colorado. On September 13, 2006, he put in to the river at Lees Ferry as the grinning figurehead of one of the largest expeditions in modern Grand Canyon history.

Forty-four team members in eight rafts, six kayaks, and two wooden dories started downriver that day. Led by guide Regan Dale, they were packing some 10,000 pounds of gear, including 20 cameras, 57 miles of 70mm film, 600 eggs, and 200 loaves of bread. Concealed in cameraman Doug Lavender’s lens case were bottles of Grey Goose and Johnnie Walker. MacGillivray’s four Imax cameras included two massive, boxy 3-D models, each worth a million dollars and weighing 350 pounds. It took at least four people to lift one.

The group included elite paddlers Steve Fisher, Anthony Yap, Rush Sturges, and other pros from the Teva Tribe (the shoe brand was a principal funder for the project), and a Park Service ranger who helped them avoid fragile areas. While they were granted a special permit to combine motorized and nonmotorized craft, they were forbidden to spend more than two nights at any campsite or to backtrack upriver, which meant they had to get their shots right the first time and move on. (Given that it costs $40 a second to shoot in 3-D, this wasn’t an entirely unwelcome situation.)

MacGillivray’s goal was to create an enthralling adventure story that would lure millions into those steep Imax theaters so he could terrify—and motivate—them with the stark realities of America’s growing water crisis. To boost the film’s pop appeal, he asked Dave Matthews Band bassist Stefan Lessard to compose the soundtrack (see “Rockin’ the Boat,” page 106) and signed up two charismatic environmental advocates: Waterkeeper Alliance chairman and NRDC senior attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and anthropologist-explorer-author Wade Davis. Both experienced river runners—Kennedy, a kayaker, has made first descents of several remote rivers in South America, and Davis is a licensed whitewater guide in his native British Columbia—they are known for their passionate defenses of wild places. Their role was to articulate the ominous challenges facing rivers across the West, but especially the Colorado, a once vibrant waterway tamed by massive dams and endangered by thirsty crops and sprawling development. To add character appeal to the story (or maybe to keep the guys’ orating habits in check), MacGillivray also invited their oldest daughters.

The result, Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk, rolls out in mid-March. In December, I sat down with MacGillivray, Kennedy, and Davis in Washington, D.C., to talk about the pleasure and pain of the trip, America’s scary freshwater problems, and the solutions that are within our grasp—if we can just commit to them.

If These Walls Could Talk

OUTSIDE: Rat on each other: Who fought on the river? Who was the crybaby?

DAVIS: It’s embarrassing to say, but everything went remarkably smoothly. On river expeditions, there’s generally a point when things begin to unravel. But in this case, it was almost effortless.

MACGillivray: There was that time Jack Tankard jumped into the fire.

OUTSIDE: !?!?!

MACGILLIVRAY: He was one of our trusted cameramen and that crazy guy everyone falls in love with. He’d write music and perform it at the drop of a hat—and he’s unique, let’s say. So, yeah, one night he fell into the campfire. It was out, but the coals were still warm. He didn’t really feel much pain. He’d, uh, had a few drinks.

DAVIS: In retrospect, this trip was quite a gamble. You take Bobby and his daughter Kick, myself and my daughter Tara, and put us all together, and none of us knew each other. If for some reason there had been a personality clash, it would have been impossible to hide. But Tara and Kick are now bosom buddies, and Bobby and I found out that it was almost a miracle that our lives haven’t intersected before.

KENNEDY: I had owned a whitewater company that did first descents all over Latin America, and I’d lived in Indian villages. When Wade and I started talking, we figured out that we had been in the same river valley in Colombia at the same time. We’d probably been the only two white people there at the time.

DAVIS: On this trip, part of the joy was the challenge of dealing with all the equipment. Carrying a 350-pound camera to the top of a 1,000-foot wall was certainly a bonding experience.

MACGILLIVRAY: That was remarkable. About eight people, including Wade and Bobby, lugged that thing for an hour and a half up switchbacks—with all the accessories, all the batteries, all the magazines of film. We strapped it to the cliff and left it there overnight, then went back up for another shot the next morning.

OUTSIDE: Wade, you’ve descended dozens of rivers, but this was your first run down the Colorado. How does it compare?

DAVIS: It’s so unrelenting—one cataract after another. My highlight was probably Lava Falls, which I’d been hearing about forever. When I floated the idea that I’d like to take a crack at rowing Lava, Greg lit up and said, “That’s cool—we can film it!” But I had no idea what he had in mind. I woke up the next morning and they were rigging this Rube Goldberg contraption for mounting the Imax 3-D camera right behind my head. There was another great moment when we were all at a spot called Redwall Cavern and suddenly this storm gathered. You study the geology of the canyon and you read Thoreau writing about the gentle movement of wind upon rock, and then you suddenly see a flash flood for the first time and you see that this is not about anything gentle.

KENNEDY: There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and it was pouring rain. Waterfalls started bursting off the sides of the canyon, but they were brown.

DAVIS: Brown and kicking off stones with these explosions. It was really wild.

That Sucking Sound

OUTSIDE: Bobby, you first ran the Colorado 40 years ago with your family. How different is the river today?

KENNEDY: When we took our trip in ’67, Lake Powell was just filling up, so the river was still turbid and warm. There were eight species of native fish—now there are only four. A lot of the mammals that lived near the river then, like the otter and the muskrat, are gone. We went down with a large group and camped on these giant sandbars, and now most of those are gone. The Colorado has been degraded from this monument to America’s heritage into a glorified plumbing system that connects these two big reservoirs. It’s lost a lot of its natural values. And it’s being sucked dry. What’s happening to the Colorado is a warning of what’s happening to the whole desert West.

DAVIS: There’s a historical genesis to all this. The entire western reach of this country was known as the Great American Desert, and many parts are still as dry as the Sahara. But as the frontier moved west, suddenly, instead of speaking about the “desert,” we were speaking about the “Great Basin.” We thought we could impose this Jeffersonian ideal of each man to a farm on the western landscape. That’s what John Wesley Powell found so ridiculous. And if you look at the Grand Canyon from space now, you’ll see the Painted Desert and the reservoirs on the river. What you won’t see is cultivated farmland. We’ve ruined every river in the arid West but have only managed to cultivate an area the size of Missouri.

OUTSIDE: And nobody is facing up to this problem?

KENNEDY: I don’t see any sign it’s being dealt with in ways that are commensurate with the crisis in the West, and particularly the Southwest. There’s new sprawl development everywhere.

DAVIS: With the Colorado, you’ve really got to deal with water rights. The annual flow estimates were made in the 1920s, and we now know that those were unseasonably wet years and that the flow was overestimated by at least three million acre feet when it was partitioned between the states. And now they’re all scrambling to maintain their share.

OUTSIDE: How does global warming affect the crisis?

DAVIS: Water is intricately linked to climate change. And all current climate models suggest that we are entering a period of profoundly lower flows in the Colorado. We are not in a drought—drought is a misnomer.

KENNEDY: The hotter it gets, the larger the water crisis is going to become. When you ask people who are promoting development how we can go on, they think we’ll end up getting water from Canada, that these huge engineering projects are going to rescue us. That just isn’t realistic. If you had to go to Las Vegas and place a bet that we can rely on the Canadians to save us—well, it’s not a good bet.

MACGillivray: Some people might not really wake up to change until the water company says, “Folks, you’ve got to use half as much water, and guess what? We’re going to double the cost.”

KENNEDY: Or until the water dries up at the Bellagio.

Liquid Logic

OUTSIDE: Tell me some good news.

KENNEDY: In some specific areas things have gotten better. The discharge of raw sewage has largely stopped. And if you look at the technologies that are available today, it’s really exciting. Right now in New York City, you’ve got 50 buildings costing $25 million each being constructed, and all of them are green. We can preserve the countryside by having the municipalities grow upward, not outward, and we can preserve existing water supplies and even accommodate a lot more people than we have today.

DAVIS: Like all great issues, water will find its moment. It took us years to get to a point where people recognized that climate change existed and was a serious challenge. Social change happens that way. Al Gore could have easily released An Inconvenient Truth four years ago and just provoked more Al Gore jokes.

KENNEDY: The people of our country want to be mobilized. They want to feel they’re participating in something greater than themselves. We have extraordinary opportunities to do that right now just by making a few tiny changes in how the market functions. New York City only installed water metering in the nineties. For 150 years, if you left your water running all day, you didn’t get charged. Now the city’s saved hundreds of millions of dollars because there’s less water going into the sewers.

DAVIS: If we manage to green the economy, you’re going to see a level of wealth that will make the dot-com thing look like a blip. It’s going to be a total transformation of the urban-rural landscape. Every single thing we engage in is going to be replaced. That’s our great hope: American ingenuity, entrepreneurial energy, greed—whatever you want to call it.

KENNEDY: Just let people make money doing good things. Stop subsidizing the most wasteful resource users and give renewables an even shot. We have the scientific capacity to avert the most catastrophic effects of global warming. The question is, do we have the political will?

MACGILLIVRAY: That’s why the big important message at the end of the film is to vote. Don’t just sit on the side and be pessimistic about government and your choices. Actually try to effect change.

Working on the Big, Big Screen

In a career spanning 40-plus years, director Greg MacGillivray has worked on 34 giant-screen projects and taken Imax cameras to the top of Everest and hundreds of feet below the surface of the South Pacific. For Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk, he spent about $8 million (roughly 1/25 the cost of The Golden Compass) and followed a proven method to success.

1. Bring Two of Everything

That includes the 350-pound Imax 3-D cameras. MacGillivray didn’t ever plan to use both at once, but he wanted an extra just in case. The film team packed the million-dollar machines in watertight plastic boxes, and when it was time for an action shot they simply fastened one to a raft and hoped for the best. Neither camera got hurt, though one lens suffered $12,000 of damage.

2. Hire Multitaskers

MacGillivray’s film crew consisted of just ten people. His assistant director, Brad Ohlund, was also the director of photography. “It’s better to work with a small, talented crew for a longer time than rush things with a giant team,” he says.

3. Know the Flow

Two years before the trip, the director and his wife, Barbara, ran the Colorado on their own, scouting and taping locations. “You have to work out every move ahead of time,” he says. “You can’t waste a setup.”

4. But Don’t Plan It All

“It’s a documentary—you don’t really know where you’ll get your best stuff,” says MacGillivray. He planned 50 percent of his shooting locations—the rest of the time, he reacted to conditions.

5. Think Fast, Move Slow

Every morning on the river, MacGillivray and lead guide Regan Dale, from Angels Camp, California–based outfitter OARS, went over hazards. Safety is a big concern for the filmmaker, who in 1976 saw his business partner Jim Freeman die in a helicopter crash on location. “If you move slowly and cautiously, you can avoid injuries. On this trip, we didn’t have any.”

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