“WE GOT A FLIPPED BOAT!” Cody yelled over the roar of crashing waves and boiling rapids.
I looked downstream. Amid the most violent and unforgiving whitewater I have ever seen, a tiny blue speck was bobbing in and out of sight. My heart sank. I was petrified. Our most experienced oarsman and his passenger (a 70-year-old woman) were in the water, fighting for their lives in one of the deadliest sections of river in the United States. We were 41 days into a 70-day river journey - deep in the bowels of Cataract Canyon more formitably known as the Graveyard of the Colorado. The river was raging at 54,000 cfs and we were undeniably at the whim of mother nature. We were riding a fine line between life and death; glory and chaos.
We were in what everyone called, “the media boat”, part of a multidisciplinary river expedition led by the United States Geological Survey and the University of Wyoming. This year marks the 150th anniversary of John Wesley Powell’s 1869 Expedition down the Green and Colorado rivers. In recognition of Powell’s legacy, a collaboration of scientists, writers, artists and voices from the Colorado River Basin embarked on a 70-day, 1000-mile trip down the same rivers to revisit Powell’s legacy and re-envision the future. As filmmakers, it was our goal to document this journey and help tell the modern-day story of the Colorado River Basin.
Filming on a river for tireless months was no easy feat. Safeguarding our production equipment from the elements was top priority. If we ruined gear, our production would be over. No more filming. No more story. All our hard work and years of planning would be for nothing. This can be a game of chance when running Class V water. Even the most experienced oarsmen are not immune to flips and there are situations on the river that are literally out of your control.
We had a full production house onboard our 18-ft raft. Laptops, hard drives, gimbels, microphones, and 10 cameras, some of which were more valuable than a new car. For power, we utilized four Yeti 1000’s and four Nomad 100 panels. A gas generator wasn’t a sustainable option for this production. There was not enough room. A generator would be too noisy and we didn’t want to run the risk of spilling toxic gasoline into the water. We relied entirely on the sun to keep our cameras rolling. Our power system still contained electrical components and were vulnerable to extreme heat and water - a daunting task considering the nature of our journey.
One of the Yeti 1000 power stations was rigged within the boat that flipped in Cataract Canyon. As we watched the capsized boat get churned in waves and bounce off rocks, we hoped that the dry boxes remained watertight. The last thing we wanted was an electrical fire on a boat floating down an unforgiving river in the middle of nowhere.
After a multitude of near flips, two lost oars, and nearly a half hour of the most chaotic and exhausting rowing, we confirmed that our swimmers had been rescued by another boat. We eventually caught up to the flipped rig that had come to rest in an eddy packed full of driftwood, debris and swirling foam and our expedition regrouped under the blazing desert sun. After hugs, tears, and some celebratory beers, we set up a z drag (a rope and pulley system used to flip boats) to right the 2000-lb raft. This would be the moment of truth. Did our power station survive the flip and the journey in the water? What kind of mess would we find in the drybox? To our immense relief and surprise, the dry box actually stayed dry. Not one single drop of water punched through the rubber seal.
Everyone we consulted about filming in remote and rugged conditions told us a solar system wouldn’t support our power needs. Filming everyday, for 70 days, rain or shine, people said there would be no way to pull that off without a gas generator. We proved them wrong. Our set up worked flawlessly and the Goal Zero system was a critical component of our daily routine. We successfully shot for 70 straight days, backed up footage, and kept a constant rotation of camera batteries charging. Day after day, from Wyoming to Nevada on the Green and Colorado River, Goal Zero kept powered our production.
To learn more about our voyage and to keep tabs on the progress of the film, you can follow Ben, Cody and Powell150 on Instagram or check out the trip website.