Forest Woodward sat on the bow of the boat and looked back to his father who was steering them toward toward Hermit, one of the major rapids on the lower section of the Colorado River. They shared a grin and turned back to the raging torrent. Roughly 37 thousand cubic feet of water per second (CFS) pushed them forward, a large jump from the usual winter release of 5-8 thousand CFS, and there was no turning back. They were one of only a hand full of groups to ever to navigate the river during a high flow release.
“Dad rowed a perfect line through Hermit. He ran the river back in 1970 in a homemade kayak that he built in his basement back in Maryland,” commented Woodward. “He was one of the first (possibly the first) to run every major rapid on the river in a kayak. Getting to see him back in there in that element, at 77 years of age, on a river that was so transformative for him then and still had the power to revitalize him now… well that was incredible.”
An unpowered float trip through the lower Colorado takes 28 days. After putting in at Lees Ferry river life begins. Coolers full of food and dry bags stuffed with essentials are all packed neatly and lashed down in case of capsizing. Latrines even have their place in the raft. Every morning and night follow a routine of packing and unpacking, making and breaking camp. The 281 miles of river dictate life until the party pulls aground at Pierce Ferry.
Adventuring is a part of Forest’s life and livelihood. He has quickly become a recognizable source for some of the best photography in the outdoor industry. We recently had the chance to catch up with him and have him tell us a little bit about his trip.
Tell us a little bit about yourself
I often get funny looks when I tell folks I’m an “adventure photographer based in Brooklyn”. For me, living in a big city is an experience I never had growing up. I moved here 2 years ago, drawn by the novelty of it and stayed for the friends and inspiration I found in the diverse, talented, passionate folks who live here. But part of the deal I made with myself when I moved here was to not lose sight of the mountains, rivers and trails that shaped me as a child. Balancing my love for the outdoors with life in the city has been one of the most difficult but also rewarding chapters of my life thus far. I am thankful to have the support of GOAL ZERO and so many other good folks who celebrate and encourage exploration and adventure.
Who put the trip together and how did you end up on it?
My old friend and photography mentor David Marx organized the trip. David and my friendship began with a shared love for photography, and also for the wild rivers of this country – this trip was a logical step to celebrate both of those.
Do you have previous river experience?
Yes. Growing up in the mountains of Western North Carolina (where my folks had moved to start a rafting and wilderness education company in the early 80’s) all of us kids learned to kayak in old holoform or fiberglass boats around the same time we could walk. Some of my earliest memories are of kayaking. My parents were (and are) both skilled whitewater boaters, and the fact that we were raised within an hours drive of some of the best rivers in the country (the Nantahalla, Ocoee, Chattooga, Tallulah to name a few) was no coincidence.
How long did it take to stop hearing phantom phone calls?
It was a surprisingly quick adjustment once the boats were actually on the water. The pace of the river and camp life keeps your mind occupied and present. The difficult part was the last week leading up to the trip trying to ensure everything was in order for me to essentially go incommunicado for 28 days. I was also fortunate to have 28 hand written letters from my girlfriend Jess stashed in my dry bag – so my most essential communication felt like it was there with me.
What was the hardest thing to get used to?
Life on the river emulates the waters on which we float – calm and steady for the most part, with enough moments of chaos and turbulence sprinkled in to keep things interesting. The hardest thing to get used to was the darkness. We had some of the shortest days of the year while we were in the canyon, and if you combine that with the fact that we were at times a mile deep in a giant ditch…well, you get the picture. Not much light.
What was your favorite part about living on the river for almost a month?
River family and my dad. There is a special bond that develops when you spend that much time with a crew of people (15 of us total) looking out for each other on the water, cooking for one another and spending long hours around the campfire you really get to know people in a special way. Beyond that though was getting to spend 28 days on the same raft as my dad – usually just the two of us – getting to know each other in a way that I think is very rare in this scattered world we live in – and that was incredibly special for me.
Any sketchy moments?
We found out a couple weeks before our trip that on the day we launched the NPS would be releasing the river at around 37k CFS (cubic feet per second). This is quite a jump from the usual winter release 5-8k CFS. The day we launched the water began to rise quickly with the high flow release, and an already powerful and intimidating river turned from a slow green serpent to a brown thundering bull. We pulled out early that day, and camped as high above the rising water as we could. Through the night we watched as the water rose some 8 feet, and we took turns pulling the boats up and dragging them higher up the banks so as not to awake to find them tied to a submerged tree out in the main channel.
What were some of the logistical obstacles to shooting on a river for that many days?
Besides the obvious need to protect the gear from water and sand (thanks Pelican Case/ NRS!) we also had to think about battery life, memory usage for the cameras, and the amount of film (yes, film!) to bring. If something breaks down there you can’t exactly go to the camera shop around the corner like you can back here in Brooklyn; so we took extra precautions with our gear, and brought a hearty supply of memory cards and film. Thanks to our Goal Zero arsenal we were also able to keep half a dozen DSLR cameras, a smattering of go-pros and point and shoots, as well as an aerial drone for filming fully charged. Quite a feat considering how short the days were and how little light we would get.
What GZ gear were you using?
How did you keep it dry?
Overall impressions of GZ gear?
Essential for the level of filming and shooting we did on this trip. I’m not sure we could have done it any other way. If I can make a nerdy reference; being on the river for that long is somewhat reminiscent of the old computer game Oregon Trail. I mean that in the sense that when you encounter other parties on the river (which is rare) there is always a shouted conversation between rafts as groups trade supplies that they have a surplus of for essential goods that you are running low on (in our case it was usually toilet paper and Bailey’s that we needed more of). We were the only party that was able to offer up a “surplus” of power as one of our trade goods – which I think we managed to exchange for 4 very essential rolls of TP.