The River Runner

In this documentary, a kayaker sets out to become the first man to paddle the four great rivers that flow from Tibet's sacred Mount Kailash.

The story of Scott Lindgren’s 20-year quest to be the first person to paddle the four great rivers that originate from Tibet’s sacred Mount Kailash is more than a gripping whitewater flick. It is also an intimate chronicle of an emotionally stunted athlete who’s having a breakthrough after a life crisis. As a highly accomplished expedition kayaker and whitewater filmmaker, Lindgren always forbade any sign of emotional vulnerability on the river; he saw it as a weakness that might jeopardize the fortitude needed for extreme waters. It takes a life-changing diagnosis, followed by a dark night of the soul, for him to finally learn how to show up with an open heart.

Just now, Scott Lindgren is in the Szechwan province of China, in a kayak on the Salween River -- 75 treacherous miles never before done in its entirety. As if paddling weren't enough, he'll be filming it for a documentary. Before he left for China, Lindgren, who is 32, 5'11" and 155 pounds, spoke from his home in Meadow Vista, near Auburn.

What is your job description?

I'm a professional kayaker/filmmaker.

What is your niche?

What I'm known for is being an expedition kayaker, pulling off first ascents in and around the Himalayas.

Like what?

A couple of years ago I pulled off the Everest of rivers, the Tsangpo. It's the last major unexplored river in the world, and the deepest river canyon in the world. Seven of us were in kayaks supported by 93 other men. It took 45 days.

Where can your films be seen?

Through my Web site, The Tsangpo film, "Into the Tsangpo Gorge," was on NBC on prime time. I have an Emmy for cinematography in 1997 on a river I did in Bolivia. The film is called "Andes to Amazon." We climbed a 17,000-foot peak, walked back down and then put a kayak into a river and rode it down into the Amazon.

What was your first river?

When I was 12, I went on a family rafting trip on the Snake River in Wyoming. I was pretty young and clueless. It didn't really strike me as being entertaining until a couple of years later.

Where did you learn to kayak?

On the south fork of the American River. What got me into it was I started out as a raft guide. I went from baby-sitting a bunch of people in a raft to getting into my own vehicle. Plus it was the difference of rafting a bus and kayaking a Ferrari.

When did you become an international paddler?

I started traveling with my kayak when I was 18 and over time developed a knack for running super-difficult rivers in foreign places. I went to the Himalayas when I was 19.

Aren't the Himalayas for mountaineers?

It's not known to the public as a major kayaking destination, but a person with common sense knows that if there are big mountains, there are big rivers.

Are they as dangerous for kayakers?

I've had 12 close friends drown in the last four years. Most of them were professionals. A lot of people draw comparisons with mountaineering. It can be done safely for sure. However, when you are operating at the level I am, conditions are variable. The river is like what weather is to a mountaineer.

What's the worst you've seen?

I've seen a glof (glacial landslide outburst flood.) It's a massive flash flood on a catastrophic level. I've been on a river where it's happened. A tributary surged 30 feet, and turned the river I was on into a massive river in minutes. It took the flow up by times 20.

Have you paddled through any rebel-held lands?

No. There's dangerous places all over the world. I've never had any problems with local people. The people that live around them are some of the most incredible people you'll ever meet.

Where do you train?

All over the world. I go from one expedition to the next. It's like mountaineering. You have to go to the mountain to train. I kayak 250 days a year.

What do you recommend for beginners?

Go to California Canoe and Kayak in Berkeley. They have sea kayak, river running. They are a great resource for somebody who lives in the Bay Area and wants to get involved in kayaking.

What about rivers?

Most people don't go kayaking in the winter in California. They come to the Sierra in summer. The south fork of the American. It's safe. It's fun and there's lots of people there who can show you how to do it.

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