One girl, two guys, three kayaks, and the Colorado River.
These days, that sounds like the concept for a beer commercial, admitted filmmaker Ian McCluskey, the Portland, Ore.-based documentarian whose latest feature, “Voyagers Without Trace,” tells the story of those three French river-runners. In 1938, the trio became the first people ever to brave the Green and Colorado Rivers in kayaks.
“Basically, everything they did, today is what millions of people do: come West and enjoy the wild and scenic quality of whitewater river recreation,” McCluskey said in a July 28 interview. “It’s men and women, and people on their honeymoons do it. But back then, they were sort of the first, they were they leading vanguard of what was to come. It was kind of crazy. No one had really seen a coed party on the river like them ever before, especially not a young, beautiful French woman.”
That French woman was newlywed Genevieve de Colmont, 21, who would become the first woman to paddle her own boat along the Green and Colorado Rivers. She, her husband, Bernard, and their friend, Antoine de Seynes, made river-runner history, and “Voyagers Without Trace” follows McCluskey and his team of fellow filmmakers and researchers as they not only hunt for historical evidence of the kayakers’ journey but also recreate their trip, which began in Green River on Expedition Island and ended at Lees Ferry in Arizona.
On Thursday, Aug. 4, at 8 p.m., “Voyagers Without Trace” will screen outdoors on Expedition Island, in a free program sponsored by the Wyoming Humanities Council – Think WY, the Sweetwater County Historical Museum, the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum on Main Street, and Western Wyoming Community College. McCluskey will attend the screening, along with lead historical advisor Roy Webb, C.A., who is an author and expert on Western river history, and lead cinematographer John Waller, among others. The filmmakers will participate in a question-and-answer session beginning at 8 p.m., and the 80-minute film will begin at 9:30 p.m.
The film, which received a grant from the Wyoming Humanities Council, is the culminating event for Water/Ways, a Smithsonian Museums on Main Street traveling exhibit hosted by the museum and Western Wyoming Community College.
“’Voyagers’ captures the spirit of adventure that continues to entice so many to start their own journeys of discovery from Expedition Island,” said Brie Blasi, director of the Sweetwater County Historical Museum.
McCluskey said he first became aware of the French kayakers’ story as a college student, when he discovered a small historic marker on Expedition Island commemorating their journey. He made note of it at the time. Years later, with his career as a documentary filmmaker well underway, McCluskey decided the time was right to chronicle this little-known chapter in the Colorado River’s storied history of adventure.
The only problem was that there did not seem to be much available information about the trio or their journey. McCluskey did come across an obscure reference to an entry in the Utah Historical Quarterly from 1986. When he phoned the University of Utah Special Collections Department to request a copy of that article, his call was answered by Webb, an archivist, who had written the piece in question and who was also responsible for having the commemorative marker placed on Expedition Island. Webb is featured in the film and provides invaluable background and historical context to the kayakers’ story.
McCluskey’s hunt for evidence of the historic river trip also turned up a diary, one of the kayaks used by the trio, and, perhaps best of all, 16-millimeter color film footage the adventurers shot during their journey. Webb was in possession of a VHS transfer copy made in the 1980s, but McCluskey’s team was able to locate the original footage in France.
“That’s one of the most remarkable things about this story,” the director said. “They were sort of the first adventure filmmakers of their era, at least in the American West as far as going down rivers. They packed with them 16-millimeter movie cameras that were loaded with color film. And this was just before ‘The Wizard of Oz’ began shooting. So, historically, they were very cutting-edge. And we uncovered that footage.”
In today’s era of convenient travel, GoPro cameras and river guides and outfitters, the French trio’s achievements might not seem uncommon or especially noteworthy. In 1938, McCluskey said, what they did was nothing short of remarkable.
“Talk about going out of one’s comfort zone,” he said. “They went from their home country, where they spoke the language, to crossing the Atlantic to New York to get a used car, and then drove cross-country to Wyoming before there were interstates. A lot of it was gravel and dirt roads. And they showed up in Wyoming in 1938.
“To put it in perspective, that is the same time that John Steinbeck’s writing The Grapes of Wrath and Dorothea Lange is photographing people in bread lines in the Dust Bowl,” he continued. “America’s in the middle of the Great Depression, and here come three French people looking for adventure in kind of the way we understand adventure today: friends, cameras, kayaks, beer.”
To recreate their adventure, McCluskey found himself learning to kayak, something he’d never attempted before working on “Voyagers Without Trace.”
“I capsized twice on the trip, and was ejected out of my boat once. And once I rolled up successfully,” he said. “I was pretty happy about that. But we didn’t have any serious catastrophe. Even though I was a beginner kayaker, I had with me two expert kayakers, one of whom is a professional kayaker and a professional kayak instructor. I felt like I was in really good hands. We really made safety a priority. It wasn’t just a foolhardy filmmaker by himself.”
Despite their popularity at film festivals and on cable television and Netflix, documentaries are not big moneymakers, so funding is a constant concern. McCluskey said he’s still fundraising to help cover the film’s production costs, and so far those efforts have raised about $115,000. But “Voyagers Without Trace” has received considerable in-kind support from dozens of companies and organizations that have provided gear, services and supplies.
The crew members also volunteered their services. Lead cinematographer Waller donated 45 or 46 days of shooting time to the film, McCluskey said.
“This is a DIY documentary that was made with a lot of kindness and a lot of love,” the director said. “A lot of people came together to make sure that this untold story could get told.”