Downhill

Kayaker Scott Lindgren has navigated some of the most challenging whitewater on the planet. He is the subject of a Netflix documentary. Photo courtesy Eric Parker

Coastside writer Thayer Walker has traveled the world as a correspondent for Outside magazine.

In the 15 years he has been writing for one of the premier outdoors publications, Walker has climbed the largest trees in the world in Sequoia National Park with scientists studying the effects of climate change. He spent 20 days on a desert island with nothing but a knife, a dive mask and the clothes on his back. And he spent two weeks walking a 250-pound seven-year-old alpha male jaguar on a leash through the jungle.

“I really only focus on stories that really resonate with me,” said Walker. “The writing process is pretty involved so I have to be really passionate about the subject in order to dive in.”

Walker’s history of long form, nature-based storytelling and his gift of finding humanity in adventure stories led him onto the set of the recently premiered documentary, “The River Runner.”

The film documents the story of Scott Lindgren and his quest to kayak the four rivers that begin at Mount Kailash: the Indus, the Sutlej, the Karnali and the Tsangpo. In the film Lindgren also opens up about his struggles with trauma, addiction and a life-threatening brain tumor.

“This whole thing really started 20 years ago,” said Walker.

After college Walker went to New Zealand to learn how to kayak at the New Zealand Kayak School on the South Island. Earlier that year, Lindgren and his team had completed the Tsangpo expedition. On Christmas Eve, two members of that expedition, Mike Abbot and Alan Elite, rolled into the tiny, 900-resident town in Murchison, New Zealand, where Walker was living on at the time to show him the movie they had made of the expedition.

“That was pretty significant to me,” said Walker. “Here you had two of the greatest athletes in the sport come in on Christmas Eve, in this small town in New Zealand and show this film of this incredible expedition, the likes of which the sport had never seen before or … since. Then the next day, I was out on the river kayaking with these guys.”

Years later, Walker was scrolling through Instagram and wondered what Lindgren was up to.

“It was the one time that doom scrolling has ever paid off,” said Walker. “I saw this very heartfelt post about the journey that he was on and it was very different in tone and content to what I understood and I think a lot of people understood Scott (Lindgren) to be.”

Walker reached out to Lindgren about a story for Outside magazine.

“I admittedly had had some terrible experiences with writers in the past,” said Lindgren. “In particular because they had taken things out of context. I have been burned by that and so I struggle to come to a space to give Thayer (Walker) that trust because I didn’t want to be taken out of context or manipulated.”

Lindgren agreed to work with Walker and the magazine if he were granted editorial control of the article, which Walker initially refused. But once they agreed, the pair embarked on the project.

“I was like OK, let’s do this,” said Lindgren. “That basically sparked the relationship and an incredible friendship and an incredible trust between the two of us.”

The resulting article is about more than a talented kayaker. The Outside magazine piece dives into Lindgren’s life, his accomplishments and his struggles, in an exploration of vulnerability and mental health in the high-stakes, dangerous world of adventure sports.

“I wasn’t particularly interested in telling a rah-rah adventure kayaking story and neither was Scott (Lindgren),” said Walker. “I think Scott over the last several years has kind of gone through his journey, this emotional journey and spiritual journey and really learning how to open his heart and understand the power that comes with being vulnerable. That was the story that he really wanted to tell.”

At the time, Lindgren was working with filmmaker Rush Sturges on a documentary about the four rivers. At the point that Walker was brought on they had most of the raw footage and Walker was influential in helping tell the human story.

“It was an incredible experience for me to be able to work with these two really talented people, and help guide their process,” said Walker.

“The River Runner,” can be streamed on Netflix. Walker and Lindgren are also working on Lindgren’s memoir, which is scheduled to be released in the fall of 2022.

“Thayer (Walker) definitely helped bring the project to the point that it is now,” said Sturges. “He really enabled the human story to shine through. I’m not a writer myself and having somebody that’s just really versed in storytelling was absolutely crucial for making the project what it is.”

Lindgren was introduced to the river at a young age and built a career on the water, traveling to the Himalayas, creating films and organizing expeditions like which the world have never seen before during a time that would eventually be known as the Golden Age of white water kayaking. Lindgren became a household name over the years as he took on pursuits that no one else had attempted before reaching more than 50 first descents in the dangerous canyons in his native California and deep rapids around the world.

Lindgren struggled with the deaths of many friends claimed by the rapids. When his best friend Chuck Kern died in 1997 on the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado, Lingren threw himself into kayaking with a new goal, to be the first to paddle all four rivers of Mount Kailash which run in four cardinal directions.

By 2002 Lingren had descended three of the rivers, the Karnali, Sutlej and Tsangpo.

His dream of running all four was cut short, when after an expedition on Uganda's Murchison Falls section of the White Nile, Lindgren decided he needed a break. He wasn’t feeling mentally or physically himself on the expedition, a very dangerous thing in the high stakes environment of paddling the rapids and decided to take three months off of the water to recharge. Lindgren didn’t get back on the water for 10 years.

“As you can imagine, like with any athlete, when their identity is associated with something that’s been a part of their life, for a majority of their life, there’s a withdrawal because you’ve put so much time and energy into one thing,” said Lindgren. “When it got taken away, it hurt. It felt like a piece of me was stripped and taken away. I felt like I had been wronged for something and then when that occurred, it was self inflicted. I didn’t know what was going on with my brain tumor at that time.”

Lindgren was plagued by fatigue and blurry vision before a piercing headache forced him into the emergency room where a scan revealed a brain tumor the size of a small baseball. In a surgery in the weeks following, surgeons were able to remove the majority of the tumor but not the entirety, meaning it could grow back.

Lindgren fell back into addiction and seven months after his surgery, was arrested for his second DUI.

When Lindgren received a call from Gerry Moffatt, an old friend with a request to join him on an expedition, Lindgren agreed and began the long process of getting back into kayaking.

“My relationship with the river towards the end was much different that where it started at the beginning,” said Lindgren. “At the beginning, it was something that fed me, that fed my soul. Then as I progressed through my career, it became more like a job. Then when I got back in the kayak, the relationship was more like it was in the beginning.”

Soon after, Aniol Serrasolses reached out with the opportunity Lindgren had been waiting for, a trip to run the Indus, the final of the four rivers. Lindgren spent the next 12 months training.

“My number one priority was to get in a space where I knew that with almost certainty that I was going to be able to go over and successfully do it without killing myself or anyone else,” said Lindgren.

In the spring of 2017 he got a call saying his tumor had grown and the treatment would prevent him from going on the Indus expedition.

“I felt like I was healing when I was on the river,” said Lindgren. “I felt like radiation and surgery were just going to drain me and potentially take everything away from me. So, if I had to weigh the risk of running the Indus taking everything away from me or having the tumor take everything away from me. I would have preferred the river.”

Lindgren cancelled all future appointments and plowed ahead with training and planning for the Indus.

“I knew I was only going to have one more chance,” said Lindgren. “I knew that I probably wasn’t going to get another chance to be able to go to the Indus and in my heart it felt like the right thing to do. I was willing to pay the price on the back end to be able to go and experience a river trip like that again, at that level, one last time.”

In November 2017, Lindgren wept when the expedition reached the confluence of the Gilgit River safely and Lindgren became the first person to paddle the four rivers of Mount Kailash.

“Everybody on the trip, we were all aware of the four rivers and how much paddling the Indus meant to him and all of the trials and tribulations that he’s been through so I think for all of us, it felt like a win for him to get down the river safely and to get to the confluence of the Gilgit,” said Sturges. “I think that comes through in the film and it was definitely cool to see it happening in real time.”

“I never thought I’d get back in a kayak,” said Lindgren. “I never thought I’d run the Indus. I never thought there was going to be a YouTube video. I never thought there was going to be a movie. I never thought there was going to be an Outside Magazine article. I never thought there was going to be a book. Then it just slowly sort of started to unfold, and here we are.”

Emma Spaeth is a staff writer for the Half Moon Bay Review covering community, arts and sports. Emma grew up in Half Moon Bay before earning a bachelor’s degree in public relations from the University of Oregon.

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