The 93-minute documentary features 100 sources of footage spanning 80 years of paddling history, containing as many twists and turns as the canyons its pioneers explored. From building boats in friends’ basements and bribing damkeepers to release water, The Call of the River brings tales from the world over together on film for the first time ever.
“It’s the first time anyone’s really ever presented the sport’s history this way,” says Ford, who was inducted into the International Whitewater Hall of Fame in 2008 and whose instructional videos have won numerous awards. “The story tells itself because there are so many interesting characters and milestones involved.”
Featuring vintage footage, in-depth interviews with eclectic pioneers and captivating narrative, the documentary takes a behind-the-scenes look at what inspires paddlers to answer the call of the river. The film chronicles the world of whitewater from its early beginnings in Europe through its position as a major outdoor sport in the world today. From the inaugural FIBArk race on Colorado’s Arkansas River, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, to Grumman Aviation entering the aluminum canoe business, the sport’s history is riddled with watershed moments, all of which have been documented by Ford.
Learn how paddling exploded in the 1970s, spurred by the movie Deliverance; slalom’s inclusion in the 1972 Augsburg Olympics; and the advent of plastic kayaks. Follow along as this cult-classic takes you from world champion defections from communist-occupied countries to the summer camps and clubs that fueled the sport’s growth and continue to do so today. From early explorations in fragile wood and canvas boats to today’s multi-manufacturer line-up of creek, play and river-running kayaks, the flick unveils the sport’s journey from obscurity to mainstream.
PL caught up with Ford and got him to shed a little more light on the making of the flick:
PL:What inspired you to make it?
Ford: Most other outdoor sports have historical documentary projects that inspire and provide perspective on those sports. I never appreciated skateboarding until seeing “Dogtown and Z Boys.” The history of the Tenth Mountain Division skiers captured in “Fire on the Mountain” showed how World War II combat veterans applied their hard-learned wisdom to starting companies (like Nike), creating ski areas (like Vail and Aspen), and helping non-profit organizations (like the Sierra Club and Outward Bound). More recently, “Klunkers” tracks early mountain biking, and Riding Giants tracks early surfing. I knew the stories that whitewater boating had to tell would be similarly inspiring.
PL: How hard was it to make?
Ford: This was a tough project three years in the making. Actually the first interviews were ten years ago, but the project was too ill-defined at that point to get any traction. So it took me seven years to re-start the production with a clearer vision. I knew of about fifteen pre-1980 film productions, so they provide the backbone of the footage in the project. Tracking footage and permissions from a hundred different sources was a nightmare.
What was the best thing about making it?
Ford: Gathering this collection of footage was an amazing honor. People entrusted me with family archives, personal films, and rights for their old productions, all in the spirit of capturing whitewater history. In 90 minutes the viewer is treated to a pretty amazing overview of how whitewater boating has unfolded in the U.S. It really is an amazing history, mixing the exploits of Walt Blackadar with the movie Deliverance. Wartime had its impact, too, prompting the development of Grumman Canoes, leading to the defection story of Milo Duffek, or Roger Paris reminiscing about the bridge in his town getting bombed in World War II and saying, “But it created beautiful rapids.” For me it was a great puzzle to fit it all together, and a pleasure to see complete. Nearly 16 million Americans participate in some form of whitewater paddling every year, and I think all of whom will benefit from this look upstream at where the sport’s been and where it’s still going.
1944 “Even World War II had its unintended bright side…a bridge was destroyed, but it created beautiful rapids.”
— French Kayaker Roger Paris
1958 “Those were the days when nobody wore lifejackets. I didn’t even know what one was.”
–Former Nantahala Outdoor Center President Bunny Johns
1964 “Whenever you saw someone on the river, you became fast friends–because just around the corner, you might need to be.”
–Whitewater pioneer Jimmy Holcombe
1968 “People said we were brainless… but it looked okay to us!”
— Early paddler Bert Hinkley
1976 “We all had long hair and none of us had two dimes to rub together.”
— Perception Kayaks founder Bill Masters
1984 “There were some long winters of eating Velveeta cheese and just hanging out with my boat after I stumbled into the three-dimensional aspect of paddling.”
— Squirt boat pioneer Jesse Whittemore