Filmmaker Greg Cairns and his camera take in a vista over the San Juan River.

Filmmaker Greg Cairns and his camera take in a vista over the San Juan River.

Current can be a good thing – especially when you're traveling more than 400 miles and descending some 10,000 feet down your favorite rivers.

That's the journey documented in The Current, a feature-length film shot and produced by two FLC students who wanted to find out what rivers mean to them, while at the same time seeing for themselves the condition of two of their favorite rivers – the Animas River, which flows past Fort Lewis College, and the San Juan River downstream of its confluence with the Animas.

The Current will premiere at 7 p.m., Wednesday, April 10, at the Backspace Theatre, 1120 Main Avenue, in Durango.

“We hope the film shows some of the problems related to water in the San Juan Basin, while giving a sense of what's happening with water in the Southwest in general,” says Stephen Witherspoon, a Sophomore Environmental Studies major from Telluride, Colorado. “The audience we're going for doesn't know much about the issues of water in the West. So we hope the adventure side of the story will draw in the folks who normally wouldn't care about the environmental water issues.”

That adventure undertaken by Witherspoon and fellow outdoorsman Greg Cairns, a Senior Humanities major from Wheaton, Illinois, was a 35-day trek in May and June 2012. The two traveled in kayaks and rafts from the headwaters of the Animas River, deep in the San Juan Mountains, down to the river's junction with the San Juan River, in New Mexico. They then floated down the San Juan into Utah, where it meets the Colorado River. Then even farther: Both the trip and the film culminate in the expedition's arrival at Glen Canyon Dam, which impounds the Colorado River in northern Arizona.

The expedition was outfitted by the FLC Outdoor Pursuits program, and was supported with an Undergraduate Research Grant from the Anthropology Department and a Sustainability Initiatives Grant from the Associated Students of Fort Lewis College. The project also had community support, ranging from a river company that donated a guided trip through the treacherous Upper Animas Gorge, to a raft manufacturer who supplied an experimental solar-powered motor system for traveling the flatwater of Lake Powell. Several companions, including Cairn's father, also joined the pair for various portions of the voyage.

The film puts on display both the beauty of the varied Four Corners landscape that the rivers flow through and the many uses and abuses the rivers face on their run downstream. There are also plenty of scenes of life on a long river journey, ranging from white water to wind storms, and from serene and scenic campsites to grueling and laborious portages.

“The hardest thing was portaging,” says Cairns. The group faced four portages, including around a waterfall on the San Juan River created by the rise and fall of the reservoir level on Lake Powell. The most difficult, though, says Cairns, was near the Navajo Generating Station, in northern New Mexico. “It was nearly 100 degrees out, and we had to carry the boats and all our gear in the middle of a sandstorm.”

But those challenges where rewarded with beauty, as their route brought Cairns and Witherspoon from alpine peaks to open desert to the canyon country of the Colorado Plateau.

“The coolest part was going where few boats go, like west of Shiprock, in northwestern New Mexico. I've never been in a place like that before,” says Cairns. “And the first ten miles of Lake Powell. It was beautiful, the water was clear, and no one was there.”

Watch Cairns and Witherspoon test the prototype solar motor system.


Visit The Current movie.

Learn about the Outdoor Pursuits program.