Floating down the Yukon River on a 48-foot raft, Brett Rogers expected an adventure or two. He got more than he bargained for that summer in 2006.
A crew member smashed his foot, necessitating a helicopter airlift to hospital. Another crew member jumped ship, literally, asking to be let off the raft seven days into the expedition. Battling fast waters, the remaining crew crashed the raft along the river’s edge to let the disgruntled adventurer go.
On one day, the changeable river would strand the homemade raft; the next day it would hurl it into low-hanging branches along the shore. And late one night, the crew discovered a body under the raft.
Challenging? Sure was, says Rogers, an adventurer, environmentalist and river rat extraordinaire. But on top of that, try making a documentary about the expedition — now that was daunting, he says.
On this particular day, Rogers, 28, who has led expeditions down the Mackenzie, Yukon and Mississippi rivers — all of them made without using a single tank of gasoline — is sounding relieved as he celebrates the completion of his Yukon documentary, called 100 Days.
“It’s like having a gift and you’re waiting to give it away,” says Rogers, a 2006 University of Waterloo geography graduate, in an interview from his home office in Lowville, Ont., north of Burlington.
Five years after Rogers and eight crew members set out on their 3,000-kilometre trip down the Yukon River, he is ready to premiere 100 Days at the Princess Twin cinema in Waterloo on March 31 and April 7.
Rogers will be there in person to introduce the documentary and to answer questions.
“Waterloo has always been a very supportive and interested community in what I’ve done in the past,” says Rogers, who teaches a post-graduate TV documentary course at Conestoga College in Kitchener one day a week.
“You only have a short amount of time on this planet, and I have things I want to share,” he says.
He wants to show people how incredible the natural world is.
“I want to make people aware of what is at stake. . . . We do want to keep some wilderness left in North America.”
The documentary will also air in May on the Outdoor Life Network.
Rogers is hitting his stride. He was recently made a member of The Explorers Club, a U.S.-based professional society started in 1904. It’s an honour he shares with U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, and Wade Davis of Canada, an ethnographer, writer and filmmaker who is also Rogers’ friend.
In 2005, Rogers premiered his first documentary, Into the Midnight Sun, at both the University of Waterloo and the Princess Twin cinemas.
That movie described a 29-day trip down the Mackenzie River on a 32-foot raft in 2004. He struggled with the making of 100 Days, but in the end, it’s a more sophisticated movie, he says.
Two years after the Yukon expedition, Rogers, feeling overwhelmed, still hadn’t produced the compelling movie he felt was possible.
It was buried somewhere in the 90 hours of video he’d shot while leading a crew of eight down the Yukon River on a raft kept afloat by 40 oil drums. Giant sweeper oars were their only power.
It was during a contract stint with the advocacy group Waterkeeper that Rogers got his enthusiasm back. He took a stab at editing the footage, then showed the results to Les Stroud, filmmaker, survival expert and creator and host of the TV series, Survivorman.
Stroud offered to “take it to the next level” and recut the movie through his own production company. Stroud became executive producer and narrator of 100 Days and Max Attwood, who had edited Survivorman, became its editor.
The result is 44 minutes of pure adventure, Rogers says.
“The things that happen, you could never have predicted,” he says.
“My philosophy is that human beings have an innate connection to adventure. We all come from somewhere else . . . It’s this drive to keep exploring and see what’s out there.”
The 3,000 km journey started at Whitehorse in Yukon and ended at Emmonak in Alaska, where the Yukon River flows into the Bering Sea.
Along the way, Rogers saw moose, caribou and a grizzly bear. He saw remote First Nations communities, wooded islands, mountains and even relics of steamers that had worked the river at the height of the Klondike Gold Rush early in the 20th century.
In Fort Yukon, a community 13 km north of the Arctic Circle, the crew witnessed a funeral for a traditional Gwich’in chief — a man who had been a passionate opponent of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
They helped dig the chief’s grave and watched as a baby bald eagle circled the ceremony three times and flew away.
“Everyone was crying and cheering,” Rogers says. “It was the most moving experience of my life.”
That special moment was followed by the disturbing discovery of a body beneath the raft. Sometime earlier, the crew had spotted a smashed canoe on shore near a sharp, treacherous turn in the river called Devil’s Elbow. The body was later identified as that of a missing 19-year-old local man who had stolen the canoe, Rogers says.
In addition to 100 Days, Rogers is working on another movie, to be called Old Man River. That documentary will tell the story of his 2009 expedition down the Mississippi River aboard a homemade York boat, the same kind of sturdy wooden boat that 18th-century Canadian fur traders used.
It ended up being the last full river expedition before the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, he says.
In the meantime, Rogers has refined his moviemaking skills while working in Antarctica, Peru and other locations with Survivorman as well as Les Stroud’s Beyond Survival, Megaworld, Mighty Ships and Top Chef Canada.
Rogers says his dream hasn’t changed since he graduated, but it’s now tempered by experience. Living rent-free with his “super supportive” dad while he works on moviemaking, he isn’t so inclined to leap into another river without first securing adequate funding and an experienced crew.
“I’m working with Les (Stroud) to find a way to make these expeditions financially sustainable,” he says.
“I’m not trying to go down the 10 greatest rivers,” he says. “I’m going river by river. The dream is to continue doing freshwater expeditions and telling stories and . . . inspiring people to care about the planet.”
Rogers says he hears frequently that his adventures are inspiring.
“That doesn’t put money in the bank account, but it does feel like I’m doing the right thing,” he says.
100 Days will be screened at the Princess Twin cinema in Waterloo at 7 p.m. on March 31 and again on April 7. Rogers will attend both evenings. Tickets are $12 at the theatre. Fifty tickets for each night are also available through sponsor Royal LePage Wolle Realty, 842 Victoria St. N., Kitchener.)
By Barbara Aggerholm, Record staff
Fri Mar 18 2011