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Virtual Voyages—Videotapes for Paddlers

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

July 23, 2002

Even the most ambitious paddler takes a day off now and again. And ambitious or not, most of us simply can't get away every time we'd like. Sometimes we find ourselves marooned in front of a TV set. That's not necessarily bad news, though. It is possible to get too much of a good thing—even paddling—and an evening spent watching the tube can sometimes yield unlooked-for treasures. In fact, I've recently come across three television productions that, while not equally good, more than repay the time spent watching them. All three originally aired on PBS, and all are available on tape.

Fittingly, the first of them is titled America's First River. It's a Bill Moyers' production, and for Moyers' many fans, that's recommendation enough. I needed a little more convincing, however. I'm not a Moyers fan. It's not that I don't like the man. It's simply that I find his painful earnestness a little hard to bear. In fact, I find him dull—a sort of wrinklies' Mr. Rogers, retailing cautionary homilies and comforting bromides in equal measure. On the rare occasions when I want to summon up an image of hell, I imagine myself seated next to Moyers on a long interstate bus trip, listening helplessly as the drone of his painfully earnest words mixes eerily with the rumble of the bus's diesel and the loud thrum of rubber on hot asphalt. Then I shudder, and I vow to go and sin no more.

It's a matter of taste, I suppose. Happily, though—and perhaps uncharacteristically—Moyers isn't the primary focus of his story this time around. The "first river" of the title is the Hudson, and if any river in the United States warrants a full-length biography, the Hudson's claim is better than most. And to give Moyers his due, he does his painful, earnest best to live up to his subject. The attempt falls short in the end, but his film is still worth watching.

Why does the attempt fall short? Perhaps Moyers simply had too much to work with: too much time—the film runs for four hours—and too much money. Perhaps this accounts for the rather rudderless quality of the production, which drifts up and down the river with the tide, a sort of Flying Dutchman in search of an anchorage. Or perhaps the problem lies elsewhere. Perhaps the Hudson simply has too much history to be captured in four hours. In either case, the difficulty is one of proportion. Whether Moyers wielded too broad a brush or worked on too narrow a canvas, the result is the same. His work lacks both completeness and detail.

That said, if you know nothing about the Hudson, America's First River is a good place to begin your own voyage of discovery. Even Farwell, who grew up within walking distance of the Port of Albany and who's returned to "his" river many times since, found something of interest in Moyers' discussion of the Hudson River School of American landscape painting. (It's not the last word, however. For a more comprehensive, and vastly more entertaining, introduction to Thomas Cole and his successors, Farwell recommends Robert Hughes' American Visions. I second his recommendation.)

What else can be said about First River? Well, it also embodies a morality play in modern dress. (What Moyers' film doesn't?) The theme is familiar: citizen activists against corporate polluters. David against Goliath. The little people, aroused and angry, take on the greedy suits, and to everyone's surprise, they win. The river is "saved." Ah, yes. It's an oft-repeated story, to be sure, and a comforting one, at that. Sadly, though, life usually isn't quite as clear-cut as this. The victories that Moyers celebrates, while real enough, were only holding actions, minor skirmishes, in fact, and the cost of victory was high. Shoreline subdivisions now sprawl along the river where factories once stood. The threat that these upmarket waterfront residences pose to the river, though less visible than the obvious discharge from factory outlet pipes, is no less real, and it may be even greater. So Goliath hasn't gone down for the count yet. He's just getting his second wind.

But Mr. Rogers isn't dismayed. It's a wonderful day in the neighborhood, and the little man has won a great battle, even if he did lose his livelihood (and his home) along the way. This is progress, Moyers' style.

OK. Enough about First River's shortcomings. Why should you give over four hours of your life to a flawed film? For the photography, for one thing. The film is a collage of striking images. Taken together they do much to capture the sweep and majesty of the lower river. (The upper Hudson is all but ignored, unfortunately.) And is that all? No. There's also Moyers' meandering, discursive tour of the river's history. As a biography of a waterway, First River is incomplete and unsatisfying, but it's a start. It's good enough to be going on with. I defy any canoeist or kayaker to watch this film and then not resolve immediately to paddle some (or all) of New York's great North River.

*   *   *

If First River is a PBS flagship, Then Again is a gunboat. A low-budget, low-tech film, it sets it sights low, too. But unlike Moyers' big gun, Then Again hits its target squarely. A production of Mountain Lake Public Television in Plattsburgh, New York, this one and one-half hour documentary captured my attention immediately and held it till the final credits rolled. From the opening sequence—a woodland chase reminiscent of the opening scene in the hit film Last of the Mohicans—to the closing peroration on the value of history, Then Again seldom strikes a false note.

The subject helps. It's Fort Ticonderoga, the eighteenth-century fortification that guarded the portage between Lakes George and Champlain. A lot of colonial history passed this way, and the fort saw its share of battles. Rebuilt early in the twentieth century, it's now a museum, but "Fort Ti" is much more than the usual run-of-the-mill tourist attraction. Indeed, it lures hundreds of battlefield reenactors every year, and Then Again is largely their story.

And who are the "reenactors" who flock to the fort? Simply men (and women) devoted to reconstructing the weapons and tactics of eighteenth-century warfare. It's a demanding hobby, but these enthusiasts labor endlessly to get the details right. Nothing is too small to receive close scrutiny: thread counts are matched against swatches of two-hundred-year-old material, the pin fastenings on replica Tower ("Brown Bess") muskets are compared with those from museum pieces, and biscuits are painstakingly baked on open fires. This doesn't mean that everything is always spot on, of course. There's a glaringly out-of-place canoe is one scene, for example. (Can you spot it?)

Still, glitches such as this are very rare, and they never detract from the story line. Even for folks whose memories of war are painful ones, the reenactor's world is fascinating. Colonial warfare, though necessarily brutal and bloody, was at least war on a human scale, its excesses tempered by the limitations of the technology of the day. (The Brown Bess served the British army for more than 120 years, after all.) Narrator Derek Muirden helps, too. Where Moyers is always earnest and didactic, Muirden understands that his job is to be entertaining, as well. And he is. It's a low-key performance, to be sure, but the bearded Muirden has a schoolboy charm that's wonderfully ingratiating. A long bus trip with him would not be hell.

Why should paddlers take an interest in a documentary about historical reenactors? That's easy. Canoeing and kayaking are themselves essentially anachronistic. All paddlers are therefore reenactors in some degree, and many share military reenactors' fascination with the minutia of history. More to the point, Fort Ticonderoga formerly dominated one of the America's most important waterways, a waterway that should be visited by any canoeist or kayaker who gets the chance. To paddle north between Mounts Defiance and Independence early on a summer evening and not know something about the history of the fort that emerges slowly from the shadows would be a missed opportunity indeed!

*   *   *

And now for something completely different. If Moyers' First River disappoints the viewer and Muirden's Then Again surprises her, historian Michael Wood's The Search for Eldorado astonishes. In fact, if any river can lay claim to being the America's first river, that river is the Amazon, not the Hudson. (We "Americans" often forget that America continues south of the Rio Grande and north of the 49th Parallel.) In a breathtaking one-hour film, Michael Wood sets out in the wake of the first Europeans to follow this great river across South America, from its headwaters in the Andes to its mouth on the Atlantic Ocean.

It's a harrowing story. Early in 1541, Gonzalo Pizarro climbed up into the Andes, accompanied by a company of Spanish soldiery and Francisco Orellana, a cousin and boyhood friend. The two adventurers were looking for a legendary land ruled by a king who was rumored to be so rich that he covered himself in gold dust every morning, only to wash it off as night fell. This fabulously wealthy ruler was known as El Dorado, the Golden Man. Pizarro and Orellana weren't planning to pay a courtesy call on the king, though. They intended to conquer El Dorado's country and plunder it.

The expedition began badly. Pizarro's many Indian slaves were wholly dependent on "country meat" for their survival. But they found game scarce and starved instead. Pizarro then fed the starving Indians to his dogs. (Not long afterward, when he and his men also began to starve, they slaughtered and ate the dogs.) At last, after hacking their way through apparently endless forests, the remnants of Pizarro's company came to the banks of a river. It looked to them as if it flowed right into the heart of El Dorado's kingdom. Pizarro, whose men had long since eaten all of the dogs and most of their horses, lost no time in building a boat. The officers and the sick then drifted and sailed down the river, while the stronger soldiers straggled along the forested bank. Not surprisingly, they made slow progress. Soon everyone was starving.

At this point, Orellana asked his old friend if he could take the boat. "To search for food," he explained, promising to return in a few days. Pizarro grumbled, but consented. Orellana then headed downriver, and he never looked back. The Search for El Dorado is the story of his voyage.

Today, nearly five centuries later, Michael Wood retraces Orellana's route. Much of it is still just as it was when Orellana passed through, and the trip soon turns into an epic voyage in its own right. Wood and his companions, covered in mud and tormented by biting flies, alternately sweat in suffocating tropical air and pant with altitude. Fortunately, Wood is no Mr. Rogers. Whether he's traveling by balsa raft, canoe, or riverboat, he appears to be equal to any challenge. In one scene, he's deciphering ancient manuscripts in a scholar's wood-panelled library. In the next, he's trading bawdy jokes in Portuguese with a roomful of women in a mining town. ("Are there still Amazons here?" he asks one of the woman. "Amazons?" she replies, eyes flashing. "Do you mean dominant women?" And then, without a pause, she gives Wood the answer he's looking for: "Oh, yes, Senhor. Yes, indeed!")

It's a bravura performance, and even if Wood isn't the renaissance man he seems to be in the film, he's still a wonderful story-teller. Story-telling. It's been the essence of good history from Herodotus to Macaulay to Norman Davies, and Michael Wood belongs at the same high table. In this production, as in so many others before it, he frequently astounds the viewer. Perhaps more importantly, he never disappoints. See this film!

*   *   *

The Hudson. Lake Champlain. The Amazon. Three historic waterways. Three films. Each is different. All are worth seeing. So the next time that fate strands you high and dry in front of a television, don't despair. Just take a virtual voyage into the past. You won't regret it.


America's First River: Bill Moyers on the Hudson. Public Affairs Television Incorporated, 2002.

Then Again: Reliving History at Fort Ticonderoga. Mountain Lake Public Television, 2000.

Conquistadors: the Search for Eldorado. Maya Vision International, 2000.


Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

















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