It was about two weeks into what was supposed to be a month-long trip that I realized there was no way I was going to be able to keep up with the film crew. They were all less than half my age, in their late 20s, and I was a couple of weeks away from my 60th birthday; they were fit and active and outdoorsy, while I’d been behind a desk for far too long; and they were buoyed up by their enthusiasm for the French Kayakers film project. It was only in the last category that I could match them, but remember the old saying about the spirit being willing but the flesh being old and out of shape…or something like that.
Like any river, or any project that has a river at its heart, this endeavor had many different tributaries. Some of them started long ago and far away, like the original French kayakers voyage. In 1938, Bernard De Colmont, his young bride Genevieve De Colmont, and their friend Antoine De Seyne—showed up in Green River, Wyoming, with three folding kayaks; a couple of 16mm cameras and lots of film; and a large load of canned beer (because they didn’t trust the drinking water in America). Bernard was a film maker from the south of France and had long dreamed of a journey down the Green and Colorado Rivers, what he called “the most wonderful rivers in the world.” In September, 1938, as Europe teetered on the brink of war, he and his companions, who called themselves the “French Trio,” set out to fulfill that dream.
My own dream of a documentary about the French kayakers started in 1986, when I first learned about their remarkable journey. I was working on my first book, If We Had a Boat. Searching through old newspapers, I read about the French trio and saw something that caught my eye: an article in the Vernal Express noted that all three were keeping journals. “Hmmm,” I wondered, “what happened to those journals?” It took me about a year in those pre-internet days, but I finally tracked down Raymond De Seyne, son of Antoine, who told me that, sadly, that all three of the French trio had passed away, and that Bernard and Genevieve’s journals had not survived. But Raymond had his father’s journal; a long poem his father wrote about the voyage; and best of all, he had access to the original film. After that, I dreamed of using that film and somehow seeing a documentary made about them. I pigeonholed everyone I knew who had a video camera, asking them for advice and suggestions. But I never had any luck until one day I got a phone call out of the proverbial blue at my office at the University of Utah…
The caller was Ian McCluskey, a filmmaker from Portland, Oregon. Some years before, he had been driving through Wyoming and stopped at the Expedition Island National Historic Site in Green River, Wyoming. There he walked around the little island, reading the monuments about the many expeditions that had started from there. When he came to the one about the French Kayakers, however, something clicked inside him. He went away thinking about them, and was soon involved in other projects, but the story of the French trio swirled around in his head like a stick in an eddy, and one day he decided to find out more about it. After some searching he found an article in an old Utah Historical Quarterly titled “Les Voyageurs San Trace: The DeColmont-DeSeyne Kayak Party of 1938.” He called the University of Utah seeking a photocopy of the article, and was eventually transferred to my desk. When he asked for a photocopy, I said “I wrote that; what do you want to know?” After more conversation, it dawned on me that here was someone who was not only as intrigued about their story as I was, he was a film maker and might be the one to finally bring the dream of a documentary about their story to life.
Bernard, Genevieve, and Antoine arrived in Green River, Wyoming, in the early fall of 1938, and set up camp on the east bank of the Green a few miles out of town. They were a bit apprehensive not only about the drinking water in America, but about their lack of an official sanction for the trip. Bernard had written to Miner Tillotson, the superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park, about securing permission for the voyage, and Tillotson had replied that Bernard must post a $10,000 bond to pay for the cost of the rescue expedition that would surely have to come and save them. Undeterred, Bernard had decided to bootleg the trip, permit or not. They had sailed from France to New York; bought a V-12 Lincoln touring car, and driven across the U.S. to Wyoming. In their camp at Green River, they assembled their Berget folding kayaks—each about 16 feet long and made of a rubberized canvas hull stretched over a wooden frame—loaded them with provisions and gear, and set off on the shallow river. Genevieve, who had had only a little training in a boat back in France, nevertheless paddled her own kayak. After about a week, they entered the first of many canyons, and for the next three months, would see little more than a narrow slit of sky. In the bigger rapids, Bernard would run his boat through and then hike back up and paddle the others. This worked until Red Creek Rapid, at the end of Red Canyon on the Green, when Antoine lost control and his boat was broached on a mid-stream rock, the frame broken in half by the current. He managed to get to shore and Bernard set about gathering driftwood to rebuild the frame. About the same time, another river party pulled up and called out a greeting. Concerned about the warning from Miner Tillotson, the French trio was at first wary, but soon became friends with the other group, a wildlife survey led by Lee Kay of the Utah Department of Fish and Game. Genevieve, especially, was an instant hit, and the two parties traveled together for the next series of canyons, Lodore, Whirlpool, and Split Mountain. At the camp above Triplet Rapid, in Lodore, learning that it was Genevieve’s 22nd birthday, the Utah men baked her a dutch oven cake and held a celebration in her honor.
In Jensen, the French trio was met by Bus Hatch, pioneer Utah riverman, who took them under his wing, brought them to Vernal to stay in his house—his sons Don and Ted remembered being moved out of their bedrooms so that the French trio could stay there—and helped them with supplies and shuttles. His friend Mandy Campbell loaned them an outboard motor for the long flat stretch through the Uintah Basin, over a hundred miles of calm water. After a stop in Ouray, Utah, to see the Ute Indian Reservation, they plunged into Desolation and Gray Canyons. The easy rapids in those canyons gave them no trouble, but the weather had begun to turn and they faced severe windstorms and ever colder conditions. After a re-supply stop in Green River, Utah, where they met Norman Nevills, who had heard about their trip and driven up from his home in Mexican Hat, Utah, to meet them, they floated through the “exquisite charm” of Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons to the confluence with the Colorado. Below there, in Cataract Canyon, they faced their biggest challenge yet. Not only were these the most fearsome rapids they had ever seen, the river was beginning to freeze over at night. Scenes in the film show them chopping their boats out of ice along the shore, and the harsh conditions were beginning to tell on them. Glen Canyon, though cold, was a welcome respite of peaceful paddling, and they reached Lees Ferry, at the end of Glen Canyon, in December. Their original plan was to continue through the Grand Canyon, but by the time they reached Lees Ferry, the river had frozen over as it sometimes did in those pre-dam days, and after waiting several weeks for conditions to improve, they finally gave up and started on their return journey.
Less than a year after they returned to France, where Bernard edited the film and showed it to interested groups, France was plunged into war. Living in the south of France, the French trio was not directly affected until November 1942, when the Germans took control of the whole country after the Allied invasion of North Africa. Bernard and a companion, not wanting to become prisoners, took one of the kayaks and paddled out to sea, then turned parallel to the coast until they could come ashore in Spain. After the war, Antoine settled in Paris, while Bernard and Genevieve returned to the south of France where they had a beach house on Pampelonne beach near St. Tropez. In 1955, film director Roger Vadim arrived to film …And God Created Woman, and Bernard and Genevieve provided meals and a place to relax for the cast—including Bridgette Bardot—and crew. The film was a success, and the two former explorers opened a beach club that catered to Parisians seeking relief from the summer heat. Today, during the Cannes Film Festival, Le Club 55 is known for “bumper-to-bumper Bentleys and open-top Ferraris,” as well as a haunt of celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Brad Pitt. Patrice, the son of Bernard and Genevieve, still manages the club and still reveres his adventurous parents. Raymond lives in a 17th century chateau south of Paris.
Which brings us back to the dream shared by Ian and myself. Ian went on to other projects, starting Northwest Documentaries, becoming a leading mentor for local film makers, and winning a couple of national Emmy awards for other films, until one day the time came to act on the idea of a documentary on the French kayakers. Ian wanted to do follow in the wakes of the French trio, by going all the way down the river in kayaks and film the voyage. He recruited Paul Kuthe, an experienced kayak instructor; Paul’s fiancé, Kate Ross, also an experienced boater; and for the third member of the party, in the role of Antoine De Seyne, he chose…himself. Ian had boated before but never kayaked, so he enrolled in a kayak school and started learning the basics, with just a few months before he would put his new skills to the test. For the film crew he chose professionals that he’d worked with before, including Uncage the Soul Productions; a professional sound engineer; a producer; and other office and support staff. To help fund the expedition Ian turned to local sponsors, so they showed up at my house on September 1, 2012, with a full van of cast and crew, and a trailer packed to the roof with donated kayaks and equipment, cameras and photography setups that cost more than my truck, 30 pounds of coffee, supplies and camp outfits, and case after case of craft beer, just like the original French kayakers. We filmed for a couple of days around Green River, Wyoming, interviewing locals and matching photographs and locations from the original trio. It was a thrill to stand in a river bottom and look up at the surrounding hills and realize that you were on the exact spot that the French trio camped at the start of their voyage.
We headed south to film around Flaming Gorge Dam; we couldn’t follow the exact route of course, since the river was filled in by the reservoir, but finally, a few days in, we met the river outfitter and set off down the A section of the Green below the dam. For me, it was like coming home; that stretch of river is where I got my start, and once again I remembered how beautiful it was. One thing I quickly came to realize about being on a film trip is that everything—everything—takes longer because of the need to chase the light. But at the same time, it was a liberating experience. Instead of going along with the flow of the river, we would tuck into a micro-eddy and be there an hour while the crew clambered up the cliffs with their cameras and booms and tripods. That gave those of us not on the shooting schedule time to sit and watch the river and the wildlife; I saw things on the river that I had passed by dozens of times without noticing them.
Their first big test was Red Creek Rapid, and Ian was understandably nervous; he had only started kayaking a few months before and Red Creek had been the scene of Antoine’s near-disaster. After much study, he and the others sailed through it, and we re-grouped at the Jarvie Ranch and then at the Gates of Lodore. There I was impressed by the film crew’s dedication; they would run a mile up a trail to find the perfect spot to catch the perfect shot, and get up, or stay up, any hour to make sure they had the “golden light.” Lodore was another big test for Ian and Kate, with rapids such as Disaster Falls, Triplet, and Hells Half Mile, but they ran through all of them with hardly a problem. We spent a few days in Vernal, filming the Hatch house where the kayakers stayed, getting shots of Kate and Paul on horseback at the Chew ranch; Kate looking much like Genevieve did when she rode a horse in Ouray. Then there was an interlude to drive to Carbondale, Colorado, to interview Roger Paris, a French kayaker himself, who was winning kayak championships in Europe before even I was born. While he was learning to kayak, he had heard of the French trio and Ian wanted to get his impressions on record.
And that was what finally did me in. The drive from Vernal to Carbondale and back the same day was just too much. I never sleep well on the ground anyway, and getting up at 4AM to chase the light and staying up until all hours talking about the project, finally wore me out. I had planned to go on through Desolation Canyon with them, but instead called my wife to pick me up the next day. Ian and the crew went on to great adventures in the next few weeks, running Desolation, interviewing the Melon Days Queen in Green River, Utah, where they almost got thrown out of the Powell Museum, running Cataract Canyon with a crew that brought an Octocopter, a remotely-controlled helicopter that mounted a camera, and out onto Lake Powell. They capped their adventure with a trip from Glen Canyon dam down to Lees Ferry, to recreate the final scene in the original film, of the trio carrying their boats away from the river. That winter, Ian, one of the film crew, and the sound engineer went to France, where they interviewed the descendants of the original French trio, and were able to talk their way into a French Special Forces installation, where a small military museum held the original boat that Bernard had used to escape the occupation.
I talked to Ian the other day, and he is plugging away at transcribing the interviews, cutting them into soundbites and plugging them into sequences, reviewing film clips, meeting with musicians for a soundtrack; all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into making a documentary. It’s a slow process but it takes time to make a quality film, and there’s no doubt this will be a quality film. The projected completion date is the Spring of 2014, when he plans to have premieres in Portland, Salt Lake City, and perhaps Moab. So finally, the different tributaries of the story of the French Kayakers will come together and fulfill everyone’s dreams.
In the meantime, you can follow their progress on frenchkayakfilm.com, or like them on Facebook at LesVoyageursSansTrace, to get updates and advance notice of screenings.