Voyageurs Without A Trace

For the last few years, filmmaker Ian McCluskey has been on an epic journey to discover the story behind a photograph he found over 10 years ago on a historic marker. The photo of two handsome men and a gorgeous woman did not depict your typical rugged explorers, but rather an intriguing trio from Paris that became the first to kayak the wild rivers of the American West. The three Parisians sailed over to New York in 1938 and began a bootleg adventure cross country, boldly setting out to be the first to kayak the Green & Colorado rivers. They also captured their entire journey in color film, capturing a time when the Wild West was transitioning into the Modern West and rivers ran wild. In an attempt to piece together the story, McCluskey set off on a journey of his own that led him down the same river to find any trace they may have left behind.

French explorers capture their 1938 kayak adventure in color film

It was a series of amazing coincidences that led from one generous person to another. Once I started going down this adventure, doors started opening up to all these different stories and it just kept getting bigger and bigger

Our office is covered in maps! Maps of Utah. Maps of the River.Ben "Billy Goat" Canales sets up his shot before the modern trio comes around the bend!A solid first day of work in la France thanks to Gaumont Pathé Archives and Verlhac Editions. #documentary #paris #onassignment #film
The mystery behind these 3 French explorers captured the attention of other filmmakers and adventurers who wanted to be a part of the project. With the help of his good friend and filmmaker John Waller, he started tracking down clues and assembled a team. Searching the internet only yielded a reference to a short article published in the Utah History Quarterly in the 1980s. Ian cold called the general information number at the University of Utah’s special collections hoping to connect with a librarian who could possibly photocopy the article. Ian recalls, “by dumb luck, I had called and connected to the one and perhaps only expert on the French Trio. Roy Webb, the creator of the sign, and the author of the article I had been seeking, told me he’d known of the story since the early 80s, and for nearly 30 years had been hoping to get anyone and everyone interested in the story.”

Things continued falling into place and he started uncovering more and more stories that were all connected and far beyond anything he would have imagined.

Once the stories started coming together, Ian decided such an incredible journey could not be told through a mundane landscape of shots and a voiceover. He wanted to experience it, relive it and in some way reflect & celebrate the spirit of adventure that tied them.

The film ties back to the original spark, the ember that burned adventure and the child like yearning and curiosity that I felt when I came across the picture for the first time.

Like many adventures, it came with some challenges. First – and definitely a big first – Ian had never kayaked before. “When Ian first came to me with the lofty goal of learning to paddle for this film, it was the past he was in desperate search of. He needed to connect with the experiences of those three French kayakers back in 1938. To truly understand river people you must become one yourself; and to truly become a river person you must learn to travel between it’s banks”, says kayaker Paul Kuthe. Ian was all in. The original three had learned to kayak before their trip and so would he.

Unlike other films that he had worked on, McCluskey also faced the challenges that come with shooting in remote locations, trying to back up all of his media from the river, keeping all his equipment charged on solar power and trying to obtain permits for the 8 different areas they would be crossing on the river. Ian recalls, “we really had no idea what we would see and it was difficult to be filming and kayaking at the same time. It was a lot of just being open to doing lots of interviews and shooting things that came along the way.”

“This project made me think about what history is, what our trace will be once we’re gone, and how it might influence other people’s lives,” says editor Luz Carasa. Ian agrees. “It makes you wonder about what our own pictures and diaries might turn into one day and who might stumble upon our own adventures.”

Adventure inspires adventure. There are only 5 days left in the kickstarter campaign. Check it out, share the story, and join the adventure yourself.