Any kayaker who’s worth his or her weight in noseplugs knows of Rush Sturges, an accomplished filmmaker and expedition kayaker who grew up on the banks of the Salmon River in California at his dad Peter’s Otter Bar Kayak School.
Under his production company River Roots, his most recent film (after his acclaimed “Chasing Niagara”) is “The River Runner,” which premiered at this year’s Telluride Mountainfilm Festival to rave reviews, and is now streaming on Netflix.
While the film is the story of longtime friend and fellow expedition kayaker Scott Lindgren’s 20-year quest to be the first person to paddle the four great rivers that originate from Tibet’s sacred Mount Kailash, its scope is far more than a gripping whitewater flick; it’s also an intimate chronicle of an emotionally stunted athlete who’s having a breakthrough after a life crisis. And it’s one of the best kayaking flicks to come out in a long time, with a far bigger storyline than simply running the gnar.
As a highly accomplished expedition kayaker and whitewater filmmaker as well, Lindgren, perhaps most well-known for leading a first descent down the Tsangpo River and producing a film on it more than two decades ago, always forbade any sign of emotional vulnerability on the river; he saw it as a weakness that might jeopardize the fortitude needed for extreme waters. “Harden the fuck up,” he’d tell anyone not up to snuff. It takes a life-changing brain tumor diagnosis, followed by a dark night of the soul, for him to finally learn how to show up with an open heart.
Read on for the Director’s Statement from Sturges.
“I did not intend to make this film. What started out as a documentary about the history of kayaking turned into an intimate portrait of one of my childhood heroes, Scott Lindgren. Scott was a legend to all kayakers of my generation. Not only did he pioneer a new genre of whitewater kayaking films, but he was also pushing the boundaries of the sport in front of the camera. I had posters of his movies on my bedroom wall.
But like all heroes, Scott has his flaws. As I grew older and became a professional kayaker and filmmaker myself, I learned Scott was notorious for his sharp edges. On the river, his unsentimental attitude allowed him the fortitude to take bigger risks and paddle whitewater no one else dared to. But off the river, he struggled with the same challenges many adventurers face: trauma, addiction, and toxic relationship patterns.
As I spent more time with Scott, and saw him battle with the diagnosis of a brain tumor and his own mortality, I witnessed him soften. It was then that I realized there was a more important story here than the history of kayaking. It was a challenge for me to move beyond a story structure and genre I was used to in order to explore a more valuable message that I felt had an opportunity to connect with a broader audience.
The story of white men going out and “conquering” rivers or mountains has been told 1,000 times. I wanted to move beyond the dominant, individualistic mentality that is so pervasive in the traditional adventure narrative. So how do you do this while still making a film about a white man going on self-imposed dangerous endeavors? How do you dig deeper?
I think Scott, in all of his sharing, really helped us break down barriers and see some of the roots of our societal issues through a more self-aware lens. In the process of making this film, I even started to better understand my own emotional layers. It helped me look in the mirror. And I hope that anyone who sees this can also self-reflect upon how we can walk through this world with more empathy and awareness of the ripple effect of our actions. I hope people feel a deep, profound connection towards Scott’s story, and more importantly, to their own stories.
My hope is that the audience feels the weight of Scott’s personal journey and the lengths he went to become the person he is now. It’s never too late to change, and it’s never too late to follow your dreams in a way that honors yourself and those around you.