Those are the words the 33-year-old native of Denver, Colo., chose to describe his first encounter with a whitewater kayak, but the phrase just as easily applies to his increasingly refined eye for beauty through the lens and his evolving knack to spin a good yarn.

Both kayak and camera, it turns out, are mechanisms for exploration.

“I want people to leave their desk or wherever they’re watching and get lost in some other place,” Armstrong said. “I want people to feel and experience the same emotions I do when I go out and do those things.”

By many measures, his recent work succeeds. With critical help from Co-Director Ryan Bailey of McCall, Idaho, a four-part series focusing on the seasons of kayaking in the Pacific Northwest is taking shape.

In October 2010 “Fall” became the series’ first. Shot on the White Salmon River in southern Washington state, it features local resident Kate Wagner hiking and paddling through the seasonal transition. The film won best short film at the 2011 Reel Paddling Film Festival in Toronto and at the National Paddling Film Festival in Frankfort, Ky. It also won best film at the Portland Whitewater film festival in 2010. The second in the series, “Winter,” was released in February 2011 and promises to be equally acclaimed.

“Winter” features Boise kayaker Brian Ward, whose evocative narrative about the darkness of the season offers inspiration and motivation to those who might feel suffocated by the cold, gray tunnel of the ice-encrusted months.

“But even in the darkest season of the year there’s a lot of lightness to be found; you just have to go get it,” Ward says as footage rolls of him paddling through a serene sheen of reflected silvery light.

Skip Armstrong in Hells Canyon
Skip Armstrong behind the lens. Photo (c) Greg Stahl.
“I was feeling down about winter, and I brought it up with Brian when we were recording,” Armstrong said. “I decided to put it in the film. Winter’s dark. It’s not traditionally the time you get out and do these sports, but you can. And it’s actually really rewarding when you do.

The narrative style of filmmaking is something new for Armstrong, who until the last three years focused on what he called “adventure chronology.” Now, with new vision, an unfailingly positive attitude and an ever mounting supply of ambition, the idea is to emphasize places and stories more than stunts or overwhelming grandeur. The irony is that in pulling this off, the result is more impressive than any grand stunt could be.

“I think what I want to do is relay all the little teeny things that make these adventures so fun,” Armstrong said. “What’s it like to walk to the put-in? What do you do when you park in an eddy and look around? What goes on in your head all day long? When you go out and do the activity, it’s so much more rich than the typical adventure film captures.”

With two more films in the series yet to be directed, shot and edited, Armstrong doesn’t want to give too much away. Spring, though, will focus on predictable iconic elements such as rebirth. Summer, the most active paddling season, will feature the idea of community. What’s more, if everything goes as planned, completion of the summer film will feed swiftly into one of the most exciting opportunities of the young filmmaker’s career.

Last year, when Idaho’s North Fork of the Payette River flowed at record-high levels, Armstrong helped shoot footage for a film by award-winning videographer Anson Fogel of Forge Motion Pictures. Called “Wildwater,” the film has been acclaimed at festivals across North America.

This August that chance meeting will pay off when Armstrong joins a team of kayakers and filmmakers, including Fogel and Squamish, British Columbia filmmaker Bryan Smith of Reel Water Productions, who will paddle the world-renowned Stikine River with Idaho whitewater legend Rob Lesser. Long considered the Everest of North American rivers, the Stikine flows for 45 miles through a deep and remote canyon where rescue would be impossible and early exit improbable. Lesser first explored it in 1981 and then returned in 1985 with a team to complete the first full and self-supported run. From 1985 to 2006 only 15 teams completed the run successfully.

As with Armstrong’s seasons-of-kayaking-series, the 60- to 90-minute film will be much more than an adventure chronicle. It will be the story of an aging world-class explorer and what significance that has.

The project website at lesserfilm.com puts it this way:

“Now, in 2011, at age 65, Rob is returning with his heirs to the river that shaped so much of his life. This is a story about a quiet hero in a deafening place of almost incomprehensible power. It is an exploration of essential human questions about purpose, perspective, will and mortality against the backdrop of one of the most powerful, yet little known, places in the world.”

Lesser has no children and has never been married. And at the same time he’s accomplished the incredible—to many, the impossible. “He’s looked fear in the eye and pushed it aside,” Armstrong said. “This will be his story, the evolution of one of America’s great unsung explorers, told in the setting of one of the places he explored.”

From working with two of the most respected filmmakers in the genre to paddling a remote full-throttle river with the legend who explored it, this summer’s project is the culmination of goals and dreams for Armstrong and an opportunity for which he expressed deep gratitude.

Still, if he were asked back in 1997, the year he was introduced to both filmmaking and kayaking in Durango, Colo., if these two tangents might someday converge, he’d have scratched his head. Even today, now that they have come together, it can be difficult to imagine that the combination could supply an income. After all, they’re both activities Armstrong pursued for fun.

“I thought there was no way to make a living doing what you loved, “he said. “There are tradeoffs. There’s a ton of uncertainty. But it seems to always work out. You just have to go for a walk and let it out of your mind when it seems like it’s not going to work.”

And while he doesn’t aspire to direct Hollywood films (maybe work on a set once or twice), he hopes to continue toting his camera into wild places and returning with inspirational scenes he can share.

“I am who I am today because I got to wander around in open fields, climb mountains and paddle rivers,” he said. “I got to know myself, push myself and be myself outdoors. I want everyone to have that opportunity, and wild land is at the center of it. One of the ways to show the value of wild spaces is to bring it back to people.”

And that goal, in many ways, is the perfect melding of Armstrong’s original fascination with the whitewater kayak. It’s the pursuit of intangible values like quality, reverence and stillness of mind shared with known quantities like learned skills and experience.

A combination, in short, of the unknown and the doable.

© Greg Stahl