I met Ben Kraushaar at the 2019 edition of the Banff International Film and Book Festival after the showing of a film he'd made. The tall, amiable resident of Laramie, Wyoming had an easy way about him, and we ended up hanging out that night, walking into town for some beer and late night pizza. He's one of those guys with a perpetual, impish grin that just makes you happy to be around him. We got to talking about a project he was working on—an audacious film celebrating the 150th anniversary of John Wesley Powell's first descent of the Colorado River in 1869. Aptly named 'Powell 150,' a crew of rafters repeat Powell's feat a century and a half later in a film that combines adventure, history, culture and ecology into one wild and engaging package.
Ben's film was supposed to come out in 2020 but then, you know, Covid. So now it's been pushed back to 2021, and I'm here to tell you about it, and about Ben—an amazingly creative and adventurous guy who's put together an astonishingly heartfelt and relevant film. Here's a conversation I had with him about life, filmmaking and Powell 150. Enjoy!
What kind of a childhood did you have? Did it contribute to your love of the outdoors?
I grew up in Durango, Colorado, a small mountain town in southwest Colorado. I was lucky to have two parents who valued the outdoors and my childhood was spent adventuring outside. From the deserts of Utah to the high peaks in the Weminuche Wilderness, our family was always outdoors. Backpacking, hiking, skiing, canoeing, mountain biking, we did it all. My childhood played a major role in the trajectory of my life and instilled within me a deep connection to our natural world.
I ended up obtaining a B.S degree in Geology, primarily because I wanted a career that involved hiking around outside and after a stint working for the Forest Service, I moved to Wyoming to pursue a Master’s in Geography and Water Resources.
How did you get into adventure filmmaking and photography?
As a teenager I always took pictures on our adventures on a cheap point-and-shoot, but in 2014, I decided to do a solo thru-hike for 500 miles on the Colorado Trail from Denver to Durango. I purchased my first semi-nice camera and during my hike, I fly fished remote lakes and streams across Colorado. I ended up writing an article for the fly fishing magazine, The Drake. This was the first time I had any of my photos published and after that hike I planned more adventures and slowly published more work and transitioned into film making. As a scientist, I have seen firsthand the difficulties of communicating science to the general public and now I use adventure filmmaking as a means to effectively communicate science.
What inspired the Powell 150 expedition? How did you become a part of it?
The Powell 150 expedition was conceptualized in 2016 at the University of Wyoming by graduate student Johnathan Bowler and Geology professor, Dr. Thomas Minckley. Together, they wondered what it would take to do a modern-day expedition, 150 years after Powell’s first trip into uncharted territory. From there, the trip gained momentum, funds were raised and the tedious process of securing permits for 1,000 river miles commenced. We secured our last permit with only a couple months left before our launch.
I became involved with this trip while at the University of Wyoming. At the time, I was conducting research on alpine lakes in Wyoming but after my advisor left to take a job at the United States Geological Survey, I was left in an academic rut. I had heard about the Powell 150 expedition and approached Dr. Minckley about becoming involved. Dr. Minckley became my academic advisor and I transitioned all my efforts into helping plan the expedition. I became the “media guy” and my role was to document the journey. I quickly reached out to my right-hand man, Cody Perry, to help film the trip.
You spent 70 days in close quarters with a group of people, night and day. How were the team dynamics? Did everyone get along?
Going into this trip, group dynamics was my biggest concern but somehow, everyone got along great. Three of us did the entire trip, but we had over 60 people join us on the river at various points. I think the influx of new faces along the way made for an exciting and fresh dynamic. I honestly couldn’t believe how great the dynamics were. We became family.
John Wesley Powell led the first descent of the Colorado on 1869 and you had copies of his journal along for reference. How different was your experience on the river compared to his?
The entire basin has changed from when Powell’s first went on his expedition. Powell was able to travel through a continuous, natural riparian ecosystem. This experience is no longer possible, as the system is now separated into two basins, with three major dams, 15 management areas and over 20 significant laws governing the allocation of Colorado River water. When Powell did his expedition, the flows in the river were directly influenced by snowmelt and runoff. Our expedition experienced a system where flows are determined by dam releases. We had to cross hundreds of miles of reservoir and experienced only a few sections that behaved like a snowmelt driven system because they are so far below any major dam.
Powell and his men had no guidebooks, no GPS no modern-day technical equipment. They had no idea of what rapids were coming or if they would ever emerge from the canyon. Our crew had everything we needed. We had six 18-foot rafts packed with supplies and camera gear. We ate well, had satellite communication, knew what was coming and how long it would take to get there.
What did you discover about the Colorado River Basin that surprised you?
I was continuously amazed by the sections of river that are rarely floated. There are many iconic sections of the river (Gates of Lodore, Desolation Canyon, Grand Canyon, etc…) that attract boaters and media attention but there are also long stretches of river that few people visit. I was amazed at the beauty of these in between places. After floating for 70 days, I came away with an appreciation for the basin as a whole. I don’t think that there is any reason why some sections should be considered sacrificial or not important just because they are not as iconic as some of the famous stretches.
What was the most significant moment of the journey for you personally?
Personally, the most significant moment was successfully moving past the last rapids of consequence in the Grand Canyon. After we successfully navigated Lava Falls, we knew that we were close to the finish line and our camera equipment and hard drives would likely survive. Shooting for 70 days in remote and unforgiving conditions is hard work and we were beyond relieved to make it through everything unscathed.
Did you or anyone on the team have any close calls along the way?
Yes. We had one of the most intense and dangerous experiences I have had in my entire life. It was July 4th, and we were in Cataract Canyon. Cataract Canyon is a section of river that starts right after the Green River Confluences with the Colorado. It is known for its unforgiving whitewater and deadly features. Some of the rapids in Cataract Canyon are considered the most dangerous white water in the United States, especially at high water. If your boat flips in Cataract Canyon at high water, the chance of drowning is real. Cataract Canyon at high water makes the Grand Canyon seem like child’s play.
Basically, we had a boat flip very early in the run, and we were forced to run all the biggest rapids completely blind. We were planning on pulling out to camp and scout the most consequential rapids, but it quickly became apparent that we were running everything. When you have a flipped boat, and people swimming you can’t just quit and pull over. We had to try to catch our comrades before they drowned. Somehow, no more boats flipped, and no one died. We were very lucky that day.
Why is the environmental health of the Colorado River ecosystem today?
The environmental health of the Colorado is of serious concern and humans are to blame. The many dams and diversions on the Colorado and Green Rivers allow for regulation of stream flows and water allocation but threatens wildlife in the basin. Native plants and animals in the basin evolved in system of natural flow driven by spring runoff. Historically, the river was characterized by high flow and flood events that transported nutrient rich sediment throughout the basin. Now all that sediment is trapped behind dams, slowly filling the reservoirs. Many native fish require flood plain inundation to spawn but because of the dams these crucial floodplains are less likely to be activated. Every single drop of water in the system is accounted for. The water is over allocated and unfortunately, water managers have prioritized human needs over environmental needs.
All of the current environmental issues are compounded by the aridification of the west and climate change. Scientists predict that climate change will reduce flows from the Colorado River by 20 per cent by mid-century. The future of the basin will be one defined by sacrifice.
Why is the Colorado River such an important watercourse?
It is difficult to articulate the shear importance of the water in the Colorado River system. The Colorado River is the lifeblood of the American Southwest, supporting over 40 million people, 29 federally recognized tribal nations, robust agricultural enterprises, recreational economies and ecosystems. It is literally the most important resource in the western United States.
What do you hope people will come away with after seeing your film?
I hope this film can wake people up to the realities of water in the West while taking the viewer on a once in a lifetime river journey. Additionally, I hope this film will elevate the voices of underrepresented cultures and communities. When the Green and Colorado Rivers were dammed, manipulated and distributed, water managers failed to include or consult Native American tribes and inequity continues to run rampant. Today, water managers are predominately white males, and despite holding rights to over 20 per cent of the water, the 29 Colorado River Basin tribes are still fighting for an equitable future. Our film aims to provide an outlet for tribal and underrepresented voices to be heard. It is essential that we revisit water policies and ensure that we can reconcile the past to pave way for an inclusive future.
When and where will people be able to see your film?
We are hoping to premiere the film sometime in 2021. Hopefully, this film will premiere at Banff or Mountain Film. Eventually the film will be made available online, but only after it does a film tour circuit. We still have a lot of work to do and we are working hard to secure funds to see this film through post production. If you want to help play a part in this historic expedition and story, please donate to our Indiegogo campaign. We have some great perks! To stay up to date on our progress, follow us on Instagram and Facebook.
Any golden nugget of advice for aspiring adventure filmmakers and photographers?
You've got to just keep pushing and pitching stories that matter. The outdoor industry is saturated with privileged adventures and there is an overgrowing need for stories of substance. Adventures and outdoor recreation are a great platform to talk about issues that matter. Find a good mentor and never underestimate the power of networking.
What's your next project?
Completing this Powell 150 film is the only project that I can really focus on in 2020. I also work as a cinematographer on a hunting TV show so that will take up a good bit of my upcoming schedule. Besides that, 2020 will primary consist of smaller trips, lots of fly fishing, some rafting adventures and lots of hours locked up in my editing cave. Hopefully I can cook up another big adventure in 2021.