Activism Through Adventure: Meet Freshwater Hero Pete McBride

Pete McBride - Grand Canyon Thru-Hike

Filmmaker and Photographer Pete McBride is a Crusader for Rivers

There is perhaps no storyteller — modern or otherwise — who has become as intimate with the Colorado River Basin as Pete McBride.

The photographer, writer and filmmaker has irrigated his family’s hayfields in central Colorado with its tributary waters; paddled from its source to the sea (a thousand-plus-mile journey that ended with a walk over a dried-up delta); and shot breathtaking aerials of its curves from airplanes. He has documented some of its fiercest advocates; paddleboarded a special pulse flow through the delta; and, most recently and remarkably, become one of only a handful of humans to hike the length of the Grand Canyon — an incredibly arduous journey of roughly 750 miles — in the unforgiving terrain between river and rim.

Parts of his relationship with the river have been glorious, others brutal (like the time he nearly died of hyponatremia hiking in its extreme heat). But nearly all of it has been for a cause: To raise awareness of the vital role the Colorado plays in the West.

Filmmaker and Photographer Pete McBride

“It’s a real lifeline of the Western U.S., and it needs more reporting,” McBride said.

“It’s been listed in the top 10 most threatened rivers multiple times, it doesn’t reach the sea, and yet people still think their water comes from the tap.”

The Colorado could be called McBride’s pet project, but he’s built a career on championing freshwater everywhere, working on projects that range from a source-to-sea film on the Ganges to a film about river conservation in Fiji. There’s good reason the National Geographic Society named him “a freshwater hero.”

Rivers, McBride says, “are vehicles to tell the stories I think are important.” Stories like food production, mining, pollution, urbanization and wilderness. “Rivers are the arteries of the planet and they are far more valuable than oil or gas,” he said. “You can’t live without freshwater, you can live without gas.”

Pete McBride - River of Eden

McBride’s relationship with rivers started at a young age. He grew up in old Snowmass on a cattle ranch his family still operates, irrigating fields with water from Capital Creek. Still, it would be several years before he recognized the magnitude of its significance. He went east for college, studying English and environmental studies at Dartmouth, where he also ski raced and played hockey.

After school, he got a writing internship at High Country News. One day, to accompany an essay about cattle branding, he took a series of photos at his family’s ranch. The magazine liked the pictures so much it ran a photo spread. That launched McBride into the world of photography, which, he said, “was a lot easier than writing.”

Following his internship, he coached ski racing for the University of Colorado before working for a nonprofit in California that helped nonviolent offenders work in urban gardens.  While he was there, he met a man who was working on a National Geographic story.

“I got to meet him and he said there might be another project,” McBride said. “I was totally enamored and starry-eyed and started helping out [at the magazine] anyway I could.”

It took two and a half years and a lot of work, but McBride eventually got published in National Geographic; his first big spread documented a 58-day flight in a WWI replica biplane from London to Cape Town.

From there, he was off and running as a world-traveling photographer, traveling from the Himalayas to Antarctica on assignment and completing a Knight Fellowship in photography at Stanford.

Pete McBride paddling Colorado River pulse flow

But it wasn’t until he took an ambitious National Geographic assignment in 2007 that McBride recognized the crucial nature of the Colorado River. The assignment: follow Jonathan Waterman on a 1,400-mile source-to-sea expedition to trace the river’s path.

They paddled from the Continental Divide, through roaring rapids and across glassy reservoirs. And after five months, they came to a place where the mighty Colorado dried up, giving way to salt-cracked delta.

“[The magnitude] hit me when the river died 90 miles short of the sea,” McBride said. “I realized that the story was much bigger. I realized, amazingly, that little to nothing was reported on it.”

That led him down a prolific path of Colorado River Basin-focused reporting that resulted in a book coauthored by Waterman as well as magazine articles and several short films, such as “I Am Red,” “Delta Dawn,” and “Martin’s Boat.”

Through these projects, McBride illuminates issues like the growing thirst of agriculture and urban centers, development proposals that surround the river and legendary river advocates like Martin Litton.

Most recently, McBride joined up with author Kevin Fedarko for the transect of the Grand Canyon. It was a brutal journey of several months, but one that highlighted threats like uranium mining, a gondola project and swarms of helicopters over the river.

True to form, McBride is now turning the journey into a documentary, so everyone can experience, and learn from, the adventure.


McBride, along with Fedarko, were named 2017 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year.