Tragedy Into Strength: Inside Steve Fisher’s Dreamy New Paddling Film

Pat Keller paddling the Green River Narrows, North Carolina. Photo: Steve Fisher.
Pat Keller on the river. Photo: Steve Fisher.

It started with some off-hand eddy talk.

In 2013, Steve Fisher was learning the lines down North Carolina’s storied Green River Narrows from local legend Pat Keller. While the pair of pros discussed the next rapid, someone in the group joked, “Pat knows the Green so well, he could do the whole thing blindfolded.”

Fisher’s ears perked up. He turned to Keller and said, “If you ever do that, I want to film it.”

Not long after, Fisher turned the joke into a storyboard. He took his camera down to Asheville’s Merrill Lynch offices where Keller was then working full-time in finance as a client advisor. Fisher wanted to make a film about a post-work kayak run where Keller would leave his office desk and head off to the Green. He’d use his tie as a blindfold on the river, symbolizing the way in which we take our work to the water with us. “We had this shot where he came running out of the office, tore off his tie and was ready for the river,” Fisher remembers. “It was great.”

A blindfolded Pat Keller emerging from the bottom of Gorilla. Photo: Steve Fisher.
A blindfolded Pat Keller emerging from the bottom of Gorilla. Photo: Steve Fisher.

Then tragedy struck. Fisher was setting up to film 23-year-old kayaker Shannon Christy who was taking a practice lap before the Great Falls Race near Washington D.C. Christy swam from her kayak in the rapid and was fatally pinned beneath an undercut rock. It took Fisher and a team of kayakers three hours of dangerous rope work to recover her body. “I personally didn’t kayak for six months,” Fisher says now. “I certainly wasn’t running around filming Pat paddling stuff blindfolded.”

After the accident, Keller repeatedly reached out to Fisher, inviting him to paddle but also respecting Fisher’s decision to take some time away from the sport. “He was the only one who asked me to go paddling out of the thousands of people I know,” Fisher says.

Keller could relate to what Fisher was going through. In 2003, Keller was paddling British Columbia’s Rutherford Creek with his close friend Matt Sheridan. After a seal launch in the middle of the run, the river sucked Sheridan into a cave and knocked him unconscious. Keller put his own life on the line to rescue his friend, but slipped into the river and lost his boat. There was nothing he could do but call in a helicopter. “Matt was the person I had run more difficult stuff with than anyone else,” Keller wrote in an accident report for American Whitewater. “He was one of my best friends and I thought of him as a big brother.” Both were rising stars in the whitewater community at the time; Sheridan, the older of the two boys, was 18. Keller all but quit the extreme paddling scene for several years.

Keller on the lip of Sahale Falls in Oregon. Photo: Steve Fisher.
Keller on the lip of Sahale Falls in Oregon. Photo: Steve Fisher.

When Keller returned to kayaking in his early 20s, he went on to etch his name as one of the world’s best whitewater paddlers. He put up first descents around the globe and won numerous extreme paddling events, including the Green Race three times, as well as the Rey Del Rio World Waterfall Championships in 2014. A decade after Sheridan’s death, Keller would help Steve Fisher, the well-known South African kayaker who is almost 10 years Keller’s senior, come to terms with the accident at Great Falls. The two became regular paddling partners. In 2014, Fisher and Keller set out on a whirlwind tour of exploratory whitewater missions from the Hanging Spear project in New York’s Adirondack Mountains to the Merced River in Yosemite National Park.

Eventually, Fisher found himself wanting to complete that film he’d started three years earlier at the Merrill Lynch building. He’d changed since then and his vision for the project had also expanded. No longer did he want to make light work-to-river movie with some blind whitewater thrown in; he wanted show Keller going into an alternate reality on the river. Keller, who has earned the nickname Positive Pat, exhibits such devotion for paddling that Fisher says it’s easy to think Keller lives in some kind of fantasyland. But at the same time, dealing with loss remains integral to the way both men approach whitewater. “We’ve both have some pretty bad experiences on the river that plays into your mindset as you move forward,” Fisher says. “I know it does with Pat. He deals with his experiences every single time he goes kayaking.” In the new version of the film, Fisher wanted to capture both sides of the spectrum. It was to be a tribute both to his friendship with Keller and to the companions they’d lost on the river.

Fisher on set.
Fisher on set.

The idea was artistically ambitious in a way that’s rare for most kayaking movies, which tend to stick to a documentary format. Fisher wasn’t sure how he’d portray the trip through the mind of a whitewater paddler until a friend told him about a troupe of performers in Asheville who play the role of fairies in photo shoots and theaters. He hired the crew and spliced together their performance with footage he’d gathered of Keller.

Now Fisher just needed a narrative. He showed the rough cut of the film to his friend, a Denver-based poet named Holly Coddington, and three days later she sent back a poem she’d written based on the video and the tragedies both Fisher and Keller had experienced on the river. It referenced Sheridan’s death in 2003 (“On the portage, a moment misjudged…Where there once there was a person, simply not.”) as well as Keller’s decision to come back to the cutting edge of the sport. The pieces fell into place, and Fisher completed the film, entitled With You, just before the deadline for the REDirect Explore film contest where it’s being judged alongside seven other outdoor adventure entries.

Keller encounters a fairy in the forest. Photo: Steve Fisher.
Keller encounters a fairy in the forest. Photo: Steve Fisher.

For Fisher, the film is about overcoming our demons and going on to pursue our dreams, but he’s enjoyed hearing the many interpretations his psychedelic short has generated. “We wanted the project to be very obscure and poetic,” Fisher says. “I think each person can take away what they want.” His main priority was to make sure that Keller liked the final product. “This was something I wanted to make for Pat.” Keller approved and the film was dedicated to his friend, Matt Sheridan.

But beyond the heavy undertones, moving poetry and surreal scenes, one question has surfaced for many viewers of With You: Did Keller really paddle the Green blindfolded? The film appears to show him dropping into Gorilla, the Class V crux of the run, with a tie covering his eyes. “Pat 100 percent ran Gorilla blindfolded four times,” confirms Fisher. The first time he tried it with his eyes closed to make sure he could pull it off. After he wasn’t tempted to peek mid-way through, he returned to the top of the rapid and put on the blindfold. Someone sat at the lip of the drop banging a kayak so Keller would have a reference point.

[WATCH an exclusive behind-the-scenes video of Keller’s blindfolded runs here]

“It’s impossible to describe how well Pat knows the Green,” Fisher says. When Fisher was filming, he asked Keller to run the same rapid multiple times so he could film from various angles. Fisher noticed that the shots were lining up perfectly with one another; it was as if a single run had been shot with multiple cameras. Keller was taking the exact same stroke at the exact same point in each rapid. “He even had the same expression on his face,” Fisher laughs. “You kind of have to be on the river with Pat to realize just how ‘on it’ he is. He has learned to turn the loss he’s experienced into strength.”

Watch the full film:

— You can see all the REDirect films here and vote for your favorite by liking the film on YouTube. Likes count as votes.

Watch Pat Keller Take Four Blindfolded Laps Down Gorilla

–Read about Steve Fisher’s next film project, an instructional video called Dreamline

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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