Documentary Follows Blind Kayakers Through Grand Canyon
‘The Weight of Water’ chronicles the fear, and triumph, of remarkable journey
Like many river runners before him, Erik Weihenmayer had a healthy fear of rapids when he set out to kayak the length of the Colorado River through Grand Canyon. The experienced kayaker understood the hydraulics could be tricky, the eddy lines strong and the consequences dangerous.
But unlike the vast majority of people who have paddled the river, Weihenmayer did not go into his journey with the benefit of sight; he has been blind since he was a teenager.
Weihenmayer is no ordinary human — the internationally famous alpinist has climbed the world’s tallest peaks. Still, what unfolded in the depths of the canyon is a universal tale of humility, vulnerability and just what can be achieved through courage, trust and teamwork.
Weihenmayer’s journey is the subject of the documentary, The Weight of Water. The documentary, which has been garnering acclaim on the festival circuit in the past year, is now available to stream.
The film highlights the ineffable magic of the canyon, the excitement of whitewater and the daily rhythms of a river trip. But its story goes deeper than just high-fives, campfire songs and adrenaline-fueled rapids. Director Michael Brown said that was intentional — in The Weight of Water, he strove to tell a story that transcends the typical tropes of adventure film. The result, he said, seems to touch audiences of all walks of life.
“All of us have this Erik inside us, because we can’t see what’s coming in life,” Brown said. “This idea of kind of being able to get beyond your fear, or getting to the place where you can live with it, is something that resonates.”
Weihenmayer was diagnosed with a rare eye disease at the age of 4, and lost his sight slowly through his childhood until he was totally blind.
When he was a teenager, he took part in an outdoor program that introduced him to climbing. What he found there, he says, “was just full-on engagement.” He was hooked, and that was the start of a climbing career that led to him becoming the first blind person to climb Mount Everest and all of the Seven Summits. Weihenmayer also founded the nonprofit No Barriers, has lectured widely and written several books.
And somewhere along the line, he turned his focus to a new challenge: learning how to kayak. It became the next chapter in his quest for presence, independence and self-agency — all of which are difficult to achieve without sight. After a few years in a kayak, he set his sights on America’s most iconic river when he decided to attempt to paddle through Grand Canyon.
The 21-day trip took place in the spring of 2014. Weihenmayer was joined by fellow blind kayaker Lonnie Bedwell — an absolute inspiration in his own right — along with guides, a support crew and a film team.
Brown, who has known Weihenmayer since 2000 (and has made other films about his feats), was invited to lead that film team. What he encountered on the river, however, was not the typical adventure scenario of super-tough dudes conquering nature.
For one, Weihenmayer — a burly man, the visual epitome of strong — was scared. The fear was palpable on his face, and it grew with every river mile as he approached the river’s largest rapid, Lava Falls. It was a quality that made him undeniably human.
Then there were the personal stories of his trip mates; men who also confronted personal loss as they journeyed down the river. And perhaps most notable of all was the relationship Weihenmayer developed with his kayak guide, Harlan Taney, which was built on love, devotion and uncompromising trust.
“So rarely in today’s world can two men love each other in that way and it not be weird,” Brown said. “I think for adventure film in general there’s not nearly enough vulnerability. And that’s the beautiful thing about Erik, because he’s blind he embodies that vulnerability.”
With much anticipation, the group finally made it to Lava, and true to form, it claimed it casualties. But then the story took an unexpected twist. And what happened next was triumphant.
When Brown returned from the trip, the footage sat for a long time before he picked it up. There was a lot to it. But over the four years that passed, slowly and with the help of editors, he stripped away the excess plot threads until what was left was a story about confronting the loss and fear that are part of life, about the depth of friendships that can be forged in the outdoors and about the priceless lessons that places like Grand Canyon can unlock.
Brown said that among the film’s takeaways, the most important one for him is about outlook in the face of life’s inevitable pitfalls.
“It’s just life. It’s not supposed to go well,” Brown said. But here’s the lesson he has learned from Weihenmayer: “When things do go wrong, you can really turn that into wonderful things.”
Photos courtesy Serac Films/The Weight of Water