All eyes on Alaska
August 22, 2006
Blue Post-it notes and sheets of paper cover nearly every available surface in R.A. Beattie’s Aspen office. A script for one of the budding entrepreneur’s films is meticulously – or chaotically, to the untrained eye – laid out on everything from a window pane to the drawers of file cabinets. It’s a crude storyboard, with multiple hours of footage arranged in sequence.”My system is kind of scattered,” said Beattie, who grew up fishing in the calm waters of Snowmass Creek. “But it’s the only way I can really visualize things. If I did it any other way, it would take me so much longer.”Beattie, a local fishing guide and an up-and-coming documentary filmmaker who also has a line of clothing in production, said last week that many of his projects have been moved down a few notches on his list of priorities. While Beattie is being pulled in multiple directions – he recently organized a fishing tournament to benefit local conservation groups and has a handful of films in some stage of development – his overriding focus these days is clear. The 23-year-old is planning a one-of-a-kind film chronicling his first descent of an unnamed tributary of Alaska’s Nushugak River.Beattie called the July trip the “single greatest outdoor experience of my life” – high praise considering this year alone he’s fished in the Amazon, the Seychelles and went in search of the elusive marble trout in Slovenia.”Alaska was incomparable to anything,” Beattie said.
While the storyboard for his latest trip has yet to be laid out, the memories of the excursion remain fresh in Beattie’s head. And 16 hours of footage of one of the world’s harshest environments will produce what he hopes is captivating cinema.After listening to Beattie describe his adventure, it’s clear he’s well on his way.The opportunity to take part in such a rare expedition came about by chance, Beattie said. Mark Rutherford, owner and head guide of Wild River Guides, Ltd., based in Washington state, watched Beattie’s “The Marbles of the Soca,” which he filmed in Slovenia. Rutherford contacted Beattie in February to gauge his interest in pursuing a project in Alaska. While Beattie’s parents were not keen on his spending more than a week in a remote locale with a man he had never met, Beattie signed on with little hesitation – after a background check. A few short months later, the two men met for the first time in the southwestern Alaskan town of Dillingham, loaded their rented single-engine bush plane with 550 pounds of gear and set off.They took their first looks at the tributary from the sky before touching down in a nearby small pond. Beattie soon realized that this nine-day trip was hardly a vacation, as his friends had intimated that it would be. In reality, it was the opposite. Beattie and Rutherford began the grueling task of portaging all their gear from the pond to the headwaters, one made more difficult because of a patch of impassable alders, which forced them to cut a new trail. Beattie and Rutherford had to contend with floating carpet, or thin tundra, that they often fell through up to their waists.
The duo fended off moose in close proximity with high-pitched yells. They were not quite as successful with the swarms of mosquitoes.”I think the record for swallowing [at one time] was three,” Beattie joked. “We were sucking them in all the time.”They made five trips to transport all their gear. On the last, they hauled their 150-pound raft, lightweight by traditional standards. It hardly felt that way after 12 hours of portaging, however, Beattie said, . They could’ve been done in half the time, but they continually had to position and reposition their cameras to capture their exploits, Beattie said. After the two reached the river, the struggles didn’t cease. Shortly after their arrival, a storm hit and they were relegated to their tent for more than 30 straight hours as they attempted to ward off hypothermia while keeping equipment dry. The time did allow for some well-earned recovery time. They made good progress until the fourth day, when the pair encountered their first logjam. They had to take out a saw and cut a small path, but passed successfully without having to take their boat apart. The same could not be said the next day.They had to remove everything from the raft in addition to clearing a 40-foot-long path through a logjam. The frame was taken off their boat in order to carry it up and over the large expanse of timbers. By the time they made it to camp some 4 miles down the river, they had put in a 16-hour work day.
Things would progress a bit more smoothly during the trip’s second half. Large meanders in the river, where water levels dropped considerably, were the only other major impediments as they made their 23-mile descent. Danger, however, was omnipresent.”There was only two of us, so we had to be very careful and think about every step,” Beattie said. “If one of us had sprained an ankle or injured ourselves, it would’ve been serious.”All danger and aches dissipated once Beattie and Rutherford had time to experience the fruits of their labor – the opportunity to fish in virgin waters. It was the perfect payoff. “The fishing was incredible,” Beattie said matter-of-factly. “Probably the best I’ve seen.” Different species of fish, from sockeye and king salmon to rainbow trout, char and grayling, abounded. Beattie caught some fish that measured two feet in length, plus a rare leopard-spotted rainbow that weighed nearly nine pounds. The environment provided the optimum chance to capture underwater footage. He placed a camcorder in a waterproof housing initially designed for ski helmet cams, then retrofitted it to a 15-foot collapsible pole. (Beattie first fabricated the device this winter and tested it in the Roaring Fork River.)
From a safe distance away, Beattie watched on an attached LCD screen as schools of fish spawned and ate. Curious bears roamed the banks but kept their distance.”I really work hard to capture the entire ecosystem,” Beattie said. “My goal was to make fly-fishing something everyone can appreciate. Even if you haven’t fished in your life, my hope is that you can sit down and watch something like this and be totally captivated.”Beattie is hoping that, like his experience, his latest film will stand out. He’s hoping it will trump “The Marbles of the Soca,” or his first film, “The Black Canyon.” The latter, which was created three years ago and chronicled a trip to Montrose, was sold sparingly by local fishing outfitters. Beattie is hoping his latest endeavor garners the attention of the Discovery and Travel Channels. He has plans to collaborate with Rutherford in the near future to determine the direction in which to proceed, and to team with a couple in California who have made multiple documentaries for the Discovery Channel. Beattie expects the process to take nearly a year.It’s a massive undertaking, Beattie admitted. But he’s ready to dive in.”I want to make fly-fishing exciting,” he said. “I’m hoping this film can be as successful as the descent itself.”Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org