Moab River Rendezvous

To see the story of the French Trio told in documentary form has been a dream of Roy Webb’s for more than 25 years. That dream was finally realized.

Director Ian McCluskey had promised Roy a special rough cut screening at the Moab River Rendezvous. Roy shares his experience:

Any good river story starts with “there I was…” So, there I was, in Moab, Utah’s Star Hall, eagerly awaiting my first viewing of the long-awaited and much-anticipated documentary Les Voyageurs Sans Trace. When I say “long-awaited,” I really mean it; I first learned about the 1938 color film made by Bernard de Colmont on his journey down the Green and Colorado Rivers with his young bride Genevieve and their friend Antoine de Seynes in 1986. As soon as I saw a grainy videotape copy of it, I knew this would make a wonderful documentary.

So like the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes, who carried a lantern searching for an honest man, I corralled everyone I saw with a video camera and asked them if they would be interested in making a documentary. I never got any takers, though, and had just about given up, when one day my phone rang in my office at the University of Utah. On the other end was Ian McCluskey of NW Documentary, who was, if not that honest man (ha ha!) was a documentary filmmaker and was interested in the story of the French Trio.

Many things led to others, and as Ian said in his opening remarks at the Sneak Preview, there was a harmonic convergence of time, talent, willing sponsors, and experts in various documentary film arts that came together in September 2012 to re-create the French Trio’s epic journey and shoot footage for Ian’s proposed documentary.

I was lucky enough to get to share part of that voyage, even though the energy of the film crew just about did me in, being twice their age and too long eddied out behind a desk in the University library to keep up with them. Other harmonies brought Ian and a crew to France to track down the descendants of the original French kayakers, and to find one of their fragile wood and canvas kayaks which had somehow survived not only the rigors of the journey down the wild Green and Colorado, but being used to escape from Nazi-occupied France in World War II and become a venerated relic of French Special Forces Commandos!

So as I sat in the darkened Star Hall with a large audience of local residents, river runners, and attendees at the 6th Annual Moab River Rendezvous, I felt about like you feel at the top of a big rapid. You’re sure it will turn out OK but there’s always a lingering doubt; what if there’s an unexpected lateral wave or a gust of wind? And despite my constant hints, badgering, pleadings, Ian had not let me see an advance copy of the film; I had waited this long, he said, so I could wait a while longer.

You know how sometimes in movies you find yourself sneaking covert looks at your watch or your phone, wondering how much longer this thing is going to go on? Did. Not. Happen. At all. Ninety minutes later, all doubts were totally erased. We, I, all of us, were transported by the story unfolding on the screen. I found myself misting up at a couple of spots, feeling emotional at the travails, the courage, the determination of the French Trio and enthralled at the artistry of Ian’s story-telling.

The audience of river runners, locals, and tourists, sat for a second or two in stunned silence as the lights came up, and then broke into loud and sustained applause. As the audience filed out, everyone was talking excitedly about the movie, about how totally involved they were in the story, how much they loved the shooting, how well the original story was woven into the re-creation of the journey.

Me, my first reaction was, ”I want to see it again!” I would totally sit right back down and watch the whole thing again. And then again, it was that compelling.

Every good river story starts with “There I was…” and, as the old joke goes, ends with “and that’s no shit!” Les Voyageurs Sans Trace is a story that will not only enthrall river runners, but anyone who has ever felt the urge to set out on a great adventure. And that’s no shit.

–Roy Webb