Thayer Walker discusses navigating the turbulent waters of the Grand Canyon, masculinity and mental health for a powerful new documentary.
From raging Himalayan rivers to navigating the Nile, Northern Californian Scott Lindgren has made headlines for his worldwide kayaking expeditions.
But it hasn’t been until more recently that he’s opened up about the personal physical and mental health challenges he’s faced alongside his journeys through some of the world’s most dangerous rivers — a story highlighted in the new Netflix documentary, “The River Runner” (2021). The film documents Lindgren’s quest to kayak the four rivers that begin at Mt. Kailash: the Indus, the Sutlej, the Karnali and the Tsangpo.
A big part of how Lindgren is telling his story has to do with the work of Thayer Walker, a longtime Outside Magazine correspondent, Bay Area resident and cofounder of the Half Moon Bay-based Ink Dwell Studio. (His wife is Jane Kim, a visual artist whose work we’ve featured in the past.)
Walker wrote and produced “The River Runner,” co-authored an article with Lindgren sharing his story in Outside Magazine, and is now co-authoring Lindgren’s memoir.
We caught up with him recently to learn more about his work.
(Editor’s Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.)
How did you get involved as writer and producer for “The River Runner,” and how has the process been for you?
This has been my first documentary, and it was such a fun process … I’ve certainly been aware of Scott for a long time. Scott’s a formative figure in the sport, kind of the Warren Miller/Laird Hamilton of whitewater kayaking. Several years ago I was on Instagram and wondering what Scott had gotten up to…The first post was this very vulnerable window into the journey that Scott had been going through up until that point.
I reached out to my editor at Outside Magazine and (connected with) Rush Sturges, the director of “The River Runner” and Scott (who) had been working on a film project.
[When Rush brought me on, they] had 70% or more of the raw material at that point, but turning this into a human story that a non-kayaker could appreciate was my biggest focus.
I feel like I kind of had the best job of anyone on the team, because Scott had to do all this hard work opening himself up and becoming really vulnerable. And Rush, as the director, basically everything falls on him. For me to be able to work with these two really talented people, and just help guide their process, was a real treat.
It’s very different than, say, writing a book or an article on your own. That’s a very solitary and sometimes painstaking experience. So having the ability to work with a creative team in this manner was really refreshing and a very energizing process.
Telling Scott Lindgren’s story has now become an endeavor that spans multiple mediums for you: a magazine article, a film documentary and now a book. What about Scott’s story is so inspiring to you that you go to these lengths to present it in these different formats?
There’s so many layers and levels to it.
First of all, it’s the personal and human journey that he’s on. I think it’s especially relevant today in 2021, as people are talking about topics like masculinity and vulnerability, and what do those things actually look like, versus the archetypes that we’ve created for ourselves.
Are those archetypes that we’ve created for ourselves healthy, or are there other ways to go about it?
I think Scott was very much an archetype of that alpha male kind of personality, and that really served him in the exploratory kayaking world, but that was not a particularly productive attitude to have off the river.
We’re starting to see, over the last five or 10 years or so, that athletes, and especially men, are starting to lean into and ask these questions about vulnerability and strength and what that means. So I think that’s part of it.
Certainly, I think that the sport of kayaking is also a sport that has not chronicled or documented itself particularly well. There’s really only been one or two books of any quality or note that have been written about the sport.
(With) Scott being such a formative figure within the sport, being able to then take that and tell a much larger story that has the ability, for decades to come, to be a foundational piece to a sport like this, is really exciting. It’s a small sport, but the opportunity to contribute to that in a meaningful way is certainly unique.
Then there’s this broader concept of river exploration. This niche, little sport of expedition kayaking is almost the evolutionary endpoint of a process that has guided human evolution and social evolution—the process of river exploration and river navigation, and harnessing rivers to advance societies. I mean, look at the Nile — it basically laid the foundation for much of the culture and science that we have today.
If you look at this country, and the way that its mythology and economy evolved, there was river travel. It was the Mississippi. It was the Columbia. It was Washington crossing the Delaware, one of the most legendary images in the birth of this country: someone crossing a river in a small boat. I think there’s a historical context here.
So when you add it all together, it’s the adventure component, which is off the charts. It’s one of the top exploration achievements of our time, for sure. You take the personal transformation, and that story, which I think is a really important story for us to tell, and then the broader context of the evolution of human civilization and how it’s tied to rivers. So, there’s a lot of ground to cover.
So what’s the timeline for the book project?
We’re about a third of the way into it. This last year and a half has been a bit of a challenge because we’ve been pinned down. …So much of this book and Scott’s life is tied to a sense of place and to exploration. When we were first developing the outline for this a lot of it involved me and Scott revisiting some of these places and paddling some of these rivers. As a travel writer myself there’s no way to replace actually going and seeing a place. So some of these places I know pretty well, and I’m comfortable with, but, for instance, Mt. Kailash, we are hoping that Scott and I will be able to get out there and do a circumnavigation. That will help the central part of the book, which revolves around Kailash.
We’re going to Costa Rica next month for a couple of weeks to do some paddling down there, where he first learned how to kayak.
I’m hoping by the middle of 2022 is when we have the manuscript done, and and then I think the book would potentially come out later that year. That’s really up to our publishers.
What is the collaboration process like with Scott?
For every type of co-authored book, I think it’s always different. This one in particular has been really smooth.
First of all, Scott and I both understand each other, which is important if you’re going to do a project this personal for both sides. In terms of how the story actually gets cranked out, Scott and I’ll sit down and we have many, many conversations about the journey of his life and how we get from point A to point B.
Then it’s my job to pick out the formative events that are really going to shape the story — and in an article, there’s far fewer than in a movie or than in the book.
Scott’s biggest focus was making sure that the message was conveyed accurately in the story that he wanted to tell. And the story that he wanted to tell was not a story of “Scott Lindgren, the chest-thumping expedition kayaker,” or “‘Look at how cool I am.’”
He wants to tell this story about personal healing, [that] you can find that strength and vulnerability. And if he had known these things sooner, what that would have meant. I think for Scott, the most important thing is that we nail the themes right.
Obviously, it’s his story — he’s so close to it — and I think that he’s been appreciative of the fact that I can offer some distance and some perspective to it, and then lead into a bigger conceptual geography and take these bigger themes and weave it in ways that he wouldn’t have necessarily gravitated to.
It’s a pretty collaborative process, but it’s also one where there’s a lot of trust.
What’s been one of your coolest river adventures?
I’ve basically had the opportunity to spend two years following the stern of one of the world’s great expedition kayakers, so selfishly, there’s a component to this story that was undeniably attractive and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. My paddling has significantly improved since I started this story. We just got back from two weeks in the Grand Canyon. In the middle of June, we went we went down there … and Scott and I kayaked the whole thing.
I tell people that it’s both your right and obligation as an American to go and and do the Grand Canyon. And by doing, I mean go rafting down that river and spend two weeks down there and see it. It’s a dynamic, life-changing, spectacular experience.
Closer to home, there’s a section of the North Fork of the American River called Giant Gap. It was actually the first whitewater experience Scott ever had. He rafted it back in the late ‘80s and with the rafters who pioneered that run. It’s a full-on, one-day expedition. It’s a 14-mile river canyon with a 2,000-foot vertical hike in, down switchback trails. It’s a solid Class IV or V run, depending on the flows.
In addition to COVID-19, one of the challenges has been that it’s been so dry that rivers haven’t really been been running the way they typically do. For Giant Gap, we got one of the few days this year that it actually ran and that was an absolutely spectacular experience.
I literally drove there from San Francisco, woke up early and then was in the bottom of this river canyon. By 11 a.m., I could have been on the dark side of the moon. Knowing that this stuff is out there and still relatively accessible is a beautiful thing and one of the reasons why I still live in this corner of the world.(Trailer via Youtube)
Why should people watch “The River Runner”?
First and foremost, this journey to kayak these four great rivers of Mt. Kailash is a superlative adventure quest. The Tsangpo itself was considered one of the greatest expeditions of the 20th century. And then you layer on these three other (expeditions) and the mountain on top. It’s an absolutely phenomenal achievement. There’s still so much spiritualism and mysticism around it with Mt. Kailash being this holy place.
Then there’s the fact that this feat will never be duplicated — Scott is the only person that has done it, because some of these rivers are in the process of getting dammed up, like a section of the Sutlej River. The Tsangpo River has been sort of an endangered species for some time. No other expedition has been there ever since. From that perspective, it’s an incredible adventure that anyone who is interested in exploration of the natural world will appreciate.
Beyond that, from a human level, there is this story of a hard man learning how to open his heart, and learning that the only way that he’s ever going to achieve this incredible 20-year quest is by being vulnerable and embracing vulnerability, and … shedding the protective armor that I think we all wear to a certain degree every day.
It’s ultimately a story about the strength that can be found in vulnerability, and opening yourself up to the people around you. And that is a really transcendent story. That’s something that I think all of us can appreciate. The kayaking and the adventure component is aspirational, certainly, but the human journey is inspirational, and it’s something that I think we can all understand in our own ways.
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