By Will Grandbois
Sopris Sun Staff Writer
Let’s get this out of the way to begin with: they didn’t beat the record.
And while it would have been a satisfying ending for the six world-class rafters to make it through the Grand Canyon in less than 34 hours, it’s not essential to the story of “The Time Travelers.”
Sponsored by Chaco and REI, the Gnarly Bay film is as much about the training process and the people waiting at the finish line as the 277 miles between Lees Ferry and Grand Wash Cliffs.
You can catch it as part of the Five Point Film Festival at 7 p.m. on April 21 at the Carbondale Rec Center or stream it from the comfort of your own home at vimeo.com/208176323.
“I would not be able to go and work on films that are just about high level athletes doing exciting things… I think there’s been a shift in the last 5 or 10 years where you can’t get away with just adventure porn. You have to have another element to it,” filmmaker Brenden Leonard explained. “If you can come to some greater truth, you have a much better product that we can all relate to… I hope we helped the guys dig a little deeper and think about what it meant in the broader scope of their lives. I think there’s some real characters who have some depth and perspective.”
Indeed, over the course of the 23-minute film, you’ll hear a number of attitudes you don’t expect from exceptional people doing exceptional things.
Indeed, about halfway through the 23-minute film, a voiceover from one of the rowers shares an attitude you don’t often hear from exceptional people doing exceptional things.
“It’s pretty insignificant to a canyon that’s millions of years old… Certainly the river doesn’t care if there’s six guys in a boat trying to row real fast down it,” he says. “The significance is more about our relationship with that place that is so old — to grow ourselves in an ancient cathedral, this magical place.”
It sounds like Seth Mason, a Carbondalian who happens to be a member of the U.S. Men’s Rafting Team. Most of the time, though, he’s a parent and owner of Lotic Hydrological.
“My whole world’s water,” he told The Sopris Sun.
He got into racing through his wife, who was on the Women’s Raft Team, but this speed record is different from what they’d experienced in competition.
“The team has been talking about this Grand Canyon speed record for years now – basically since ‘The Emerald Mile’ came out,” Mason said. “We were interested in the idea of getting six or eight people together to do something against a distance or a clock.”
It was a bit of a longshot, though, particularly after two separate kayaking attempts broke and rebroke the old 1983 record — which the aforementioned book chronicles — in early 2016. Hard bottomed boats have some significant advantages, particularly in the long stretch of flat water at the end of the canyon.
“They (the permitting authorities) were a little confused when we said we were taking one boat with eight people and no motor for two days,” he recalled.
The team booked a permit for mid January, when water staging out of Lake Powell provides relatively high flows with less wind and heat than during summer runoff. The custom boat came together from an array of odd sources, including a pair of 48 foot pontoons that had been serving duty in a wakeboard park.
“It was a compromise to build a raft that would go fast and stay safe,” Mason explained.
They also decided to add some extra muscle, which is where Ian Anderson, another Carbondalian, comes in. A partner at Backbone Media, he got into white water young despite growing up in Virginia, and it wasn’t hard to sell him on the idea.
“There a certain competitive nature about a lot of people in mountain communities that’s just baked in. It’s about seeing how hard you can push yourself and how deep you can go,” Anderson noted. “This was a chance to do something with a team. They’ll be friends for life.”
That’s not to say it was easy on the athletes or those around them.
“It took a lot of patience and understanding from our families,” Anderson told The Sun.
But that’s precisely what makes the film interesting — it’s not just a bunch of young guys with no responsibilities and nothing to lose. Still, it’s hard to resist the lure of one of Leonard’s driving questions: “Have you ever been the best at anything?”
“You get to your late 30s or 40s and you start thinking about what you’re doing with your life,” he said.
The quest to break the record wasn’t a one day affair. Even before the boat could be tested on other stretches of river, the crew was on a strict training schedule.
“I spend a lot of time watching TV while sitting on a rower,” Anderson said. “I caught up on Game of Thrones.”
When the time came to launch, they had a narrow window to get it done.
“We all had to be back at work on Monday,” Anderson said. “The hardest part of the whole trip was sleep deprivation. We had grand plans to get a lot of rest the day we were launching and it just didn’t happen.”
Put in took place at 11 p.m. — a calculated risk. Under an ideal schedule, it would give them a chance to run some of the most difficult section in daylight in exchange for getting used to the rhythm of the boat in the dark. Their first real test was House Rock Rapid at mile 12, which they traversed in a steady rain.
“That was a big wakeup call that maybe the boat was not as easy to steer as expected,” Anderson said. “It handled more like a 48 foot kayak. We were able to find a happy medium where things started to click, and we ran all the big drops pretty clean.”
Some floating repairs were required after Crystal Rapid, but it was Lava Falls, still downriver as the sun began to set, that really had them worried.
“From the minute you put in at Lee’s Ferry, you’re thinking about Lava,” Anderson said. “It just has this mythology. It’s a river wide horizon line. You can hear the rumbling from half a mile upstream.”
After rowing all night and day with just a few short, rotated rests, the crew discussed their options before decided to just keep rowing.
“You’ve got about 20 miles of fairly flat water before Lava, which gave us time to really think about what was ahead,” Mason said. “Rolling in there was the quietest park of the whole trip.”
What happened next depends on whether you ask Mason, who was facing downstream, or Anderson, who was facing backwards. The end result, though, was a four inch gash in one of the tubes and a two hour patch job in an eddie at Tequila Beach.
“It was evident we weren’t getting the record,” Mason said.
“We were on pace up to that point,” Anderson added. “Literally the last big hole in the last big rapid was the one that did us in.”
After that, it was 40 miles of dead water with the wind against them.
“That was more demoralizing than the boat popping,” Anderson said. “We just weren’t in the space to put up much of a fight.”
The final time: 39 hours 24 minutes. You won’t see much from the river itself in the film. Access and permits limited the filmmakers to some limited GoPro shots, which are interspersed artfully with time lapse and the echo of voices from the rim.
“It was a very collaborative effort,” Leonard explained. “It’s kind of trial and error. It’s like four or five people collectively sculpting. We tried several iterations before the final product. I think if we hadn’t had the deadline to finish it, we’d probably still be working on it.”
“The Time Travelers” ends with Mason expressing surprising satisfaction despite the disappointment. The ongoing conversation about doing it again, he notes, proves Team Captain John Mark Seelig’s observation that theirs is the sort of pain you endure for fun — not true pain.
“For me it was just a great adventure. It was something I’ll be able to tell my kids about — an opportunity to teach the lesson of setting a goal, committing to it and putting your best effort forward,” Mason said. “It’s also about how you don’t always succeed.”