Virtual VoyagesVideotapes for Paddlers
By Tamia Nelson
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 thingeven paddlingand 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 dulla 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, thoughand perhaps
uncharacteristicallyMoyers 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 timethe film runs for four hoursand 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
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,
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
* * *
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
sequencea woodland chase reminiscent of the opening scene in the
hit film Last of the Mohicansto 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
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
Copyright © 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights