Film Review: Nurpu

nurpu kayaking film

It all started in the Crazy Mountains northeast of Bozeman in the spring of 1999. It was here that Pro kayaker Ben Selznick and MSU film school graduate Arden Oksanen first teamed up as athlete and cinematographer. Oksanen got the first-descent footage that afternoon and called his fellow MTA alumni Trask McFarland with a proposal to start making kayaking movies. Both cinematographers were solid kayakers themselves, able to hold their own on the river, and more importantly were in the physical condition to scramble up riverbanks, along cliffs, and narrow thorny paths or whatever else to “get the shot.” McFarland put in his two weeks’ notice at the Colorado country club where he was a tennis pro, and Bridger Bowl poster boy Oksanen resigned himself to the fact that he wouldn’t be getting in anymore turns that spring.

The first official trip was financed by Oksanen’s Visa card, which continued to be a major fund-provider over the next few years. The destination was Nepal and the crew consisted of Ben Selznick, Seth Warren, Alex Allen, and a fleet of kayakers who had relocated to Bozeman from Park City. Known as the NRPW (New Riders of the Perfect Wave), this crew’s presence had been made known to Bozeman by the scent of river-water-soaked poly-pro, a penchant for couch surfing, a trail of empty domestic beer cans, and stories of impressive moves on the rivers and creeks of Montana. The NRPW also included Brett Ferre, Adam Olsen, Nick Turner, Matt Wilson, and a half dozen other guys who are introduced by a different nickname every time you meet them.

In Nepal, the crew came through with impressive footage of huge waterfall drops, big-water boating, and the first documentation of the new sport of “canyaking” (a mix of canyoneering’s rope skills and kayaking through extremely narrow gorges) by Ben Selznick and Seth Warren. Oksanen was able to convince Jackson Hole’s renowned Teton Gravity Research (TGR) producers that they could pull through with enough footage for a feature-length kayak film. The rest of the filming for the movie that was to become Nurpu (named after an obscure Tibetan deity of safe travel over mountains and rivers and also chosen because of its curious similarity to NRPW) was in Montana’s play spots like the Stillwater, Big Timber Creek, and Craetan’s Hole on the Yellowstone. In the late summer they gathered footage in Spain, France, Austria, and Italy and threw in a little ocean surfing in Bali to top it all off. Oksanen and McFarland set up shop that winter in TGR’s editing bay at the base of Jackson Hole Resort—not a bad place for ski addicts to be holed up for a winter.

Nurpu premiered in the spring of 2001 to a sold-out house of over 1,200 Jackson locals. Thirty more premiers throughout the U.S. followed. The movie was honored and promoted by the Banff Film Festival as a “Breakthrough Film,” and according to McFarland, “We’ve been broke ever since.” Work started on the next film, Valhalla, on the rivers of war-torn Bosnia and Croatia, as well as Norway, Alaska, Reunion Island off the coast of Madagascar, and Iceland. Trouble came quick in Iceland—Nick Turner broke his hand and Seth Warren smashed an ankle that nearly had to be amputated. They recovered, and in the spring of 2002 Valhalla—named with a nod to Iceland’s Viking mythology—was released. It too earned accolades; this time, at the International Festival of Adventure and Adrenaline Films (FAAF).

This winter Oksanen and McFarland are editing the last film in their TGR kayak trilogy, which features new footage from Norway, Iceland, both coasts of Canada, Montana, and the Box Canyon in Wyoming, which is the movie’s namesake. Weyakin (pronounced why-yackin’) is named after a Nez Perce guiding spirit that provides safe travel and alludes to Chief Joseph’s historic escape from the U.S. cavalry through the Box Canyon on the Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone.

With three successful movies under their belts, a cover shot of Oksanen in “work-mode” on the September/October 2001 Issue of Paddler Magazine, several international film festival awards, and three fun-filled years of worldwide adventures, where are they headed now? Bozeman, that’s where.

McFarland recently sat down with the crystal ball at his parents’ house on the west side of the Bridgers and filled me in on the end of their relationship with TGR, their new business venture, and what’s in it for Bozeman. According to McFarland, he and Oksanen will be parting ways with TGR on good terms after this editing season, and they will be moving their world headquarters back home to Bozeman to form a company called New Rider Productions (NRP). Local photographer Dan Armstrong and local graphic designer and co-author of Montana Whitewater Russ Fry, as well as two more cinematographers, Lauren Molten and Taylor Hood, will be gathered under the NRP umbrella. The movies will be edited locally and work on the three new productions is already underway. This, according to McFarland, “is the really big news.”

The first project will be another kayak film out of the same mold as the TGR trilogy featuring a heap of local athletes and, as you might have guessed, more exotic locations. It’s tentatively titled Riders of the Perfect Wave.

The second is a television project involving another trip to Iceland to remake a National Geographic documentary released in the early eighties called Iceland River Challenge. The crew will be following the same route across the Vatnajokull Glacier onto the Jokulså River. The Jokulsa runs under the glacier and is fed by a hot spring. That’s right, under a glacier.

The third and most ambitious project involves 54 countries, six of the world’s best kayakers, seven months abroad, and a budget of just over three million dollars. The athletes already committed to this project include the absolute best in the world including Outside Magazine coverboy Brad Ludden, Samantha Gehring, John Grossman, Norwegian creekboating/waterfall expert Mariam Saether, Alex Nicks, and Ben Selznick. According to McFarland, “This will be the biggest exposure opportunity that these athletes have ever had.” It shouldn’t hurt the reputation of NRP either. Sports Illustrated has committed to covering the trip editorially and Gillette World Sports has committed to airing international update segments on Fox Sports. The Journey, as it is being called, is slated to start in August, which, according to McFarland, is the only way to hit the water levels right. The trip will take the crew 2,610 miles from the source of the Mekong River near Tibet to the South China Sea and onto every continent except Antarctica. McFarland says the focus of the project is only partially on the kayaking; it is also about the strong personalities and personal growth experiences of the kayakers. It’s being billed as “A global exploration into the life of six adventurers as they use their kayaks to find rarely seen lands and dangers, all for the sake of choosing to live life and experience change.”

It’s yet to be determined if every truck and Subaru with a kayak rack on it in Bozeman will sport a mandatory NRP sticker, or if we can expect the cool-guy party scene that TGR has spawned in Jackson to follow. We can only hope. Like Nick Turner’s stinky old flip-flops that keep popping up in the eddies of the Sweetwater, these guys aren’t going away anytime soon. The next big thing in kayaking just moved to Bozeman.

The tentative date of the Bozeman premier of Weyakin is April 4th.