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Extreme kayaking film makes Asheville premier

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11/29/2012 - Extreme kayaking film makes Asheville premier
by Karen Chavez - Asheville Citizen Times

ASHEVILLE -- Steve Fisher spent a childhood in South Africa hearing deadly tales about the mighty Congo River. For a boy who started kayaking at age 6, the stories were terrifying, yet intriguing.

"I remember hearing about the French expedition in 1985, where eight guys died," said Fisher, 36, professional kayaker and filmmaker. "I considered the Congo impossible to run."

The Inga Rapids on the Congo River are the biggest on the planet -- 100 times mightier than the Colorado River as it runs through the Grand Canyon. Rapids so enormous, they had never been successfully run by humans -- at least none who had ever lived to tell the tale. Until last year.

That's when Fisher and his elite expedition team survived the seemingly insurmountable to not only paddle through the Inga Rapids, but also to film the adventure, which turned into the 80-minute documentary "Congo - The Grand Inga Project."

The film, which chronicles the historic first descent of a 50-mile section of the Congo River, earlier this month won Best Film at the X-Dance Film Festival in Salt Lake City, the world's premiere action sports film festival.

Fisher, who now lives in Seattle, will present the only showing of the film tonight in Asheville at Highland Brewing Co., and will discuss the myriad struggles the team faced in making the film. It started in 2007 with a scouting expedition, which included Fisher's old friend and Asheville videographer, John Grace.

Grace, 36, is the longtime director of the infamous Green River Narrows Race, which lures kayakers from around the world in early November to race the class 5 rapids of the Polk County river.

Although the Green is known as one of the most extreme kayak races in the world, it's practically a puddle compared to running the Congo.

"The Green River at normal flow is 250 cfs (cubic feet per second). At high flow it would be 500 cfs," Grace said. "The Congo is 1.6 million cfs. The rapids are certainly class 6 (the highest class). The only way to really to understand them is to watch this movie. You can't grasp how deep and how much volume of water it has."

Even though the Amazon River has a higher volume of water, the Congo has the bigger rapids, since the river has a much steeper gradient over a shorter stretch to its mouth, Grace said.

Grace, who met Fisher while filming for an IMAX film on the Colorado River in the 1990s, spent a terrifying month with him in 1997 in the civil war-torn Congo - without ever getting into a kayak. They met with local government officials and tribal chiefs to try to ensure the kayakers' safe passage down the river.

"We needed to be able to walk around on the banks, move around freely, have a helicopter, without getting shot," said Grace, who runs AMONGSTiT.TV.

"We were there to look at rapids. We chartered a plane and got an idea of significant points on the river and established contact with all different people in the Congolese government. Then war broke out and it all went to crap. Not only are the rapids daunting, but the political landscape is as bad as anywhere in the world."

The team had to wait four more years to run the river until the fighting danger died down. Although Grace was not able to join the team last summer because he was getting married, Fisher called Grace one of the expedition's early key players.

"In 2002, when I started work as professional kayaker, I was invited on a first descent of the Yarlung Tsangpo River in Tibet," Fisher said. "That was a river considered, until then, impossible, and we did it. That's when I got attached to doing things that seemed impossible. I thought we should have another look at the Congo."

He started pitching to potential sponsors, and after the 2007 reconnaissance trip, armed with photos and permits, Red Bull signed on as the project's main sponsor. Fisher and the team paddled Liquid Logic kayaks, which fittingly were products of the Green River.

"I became so desperate to do the Congo that I couldn't focus on anything else. I'm very relieved I got to achieve a goal I wanted to do for so long," Fisher said. "We were very relieved to make it out to the other side. There were a lot of close calls. We definitely questioned whether it was the smart thing to be doing. We may have survived these rapids, but somehow we feel more humbled than proud."

Grace said that while in this case we know the movie's ending &md ash; Fisher makes it out alive -- it is a must see. "The kayak savvy crowd that will be blown away," Grace said, but it is also for "anyone who has ever been interested in an adventure."

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