Filmmaker Hunter Weeks on Where the Yellowstone Goes
Boulder-based filmmaker Hunter Weeks is bringing his new film, Where the Yellowstone Goes, to the Denver FilmCenter tonight at 7 p.m.; the screening will be followed by a Q&A session. Weeks and his crew -- including his wife, Sarah Hall, and Denver-based filmmaker Mike Dion, a frequent collaborator -- spent thirty days floating in drift boats along the Yellowstone, an undammed river that flows freely for more than 600 miles.
We recently caught up with Weeks to talk about the history of the river and why it is worth protecting. (Weeks is donating 25 percent of tonight's proceeds to the Greenbacks, a project of Trout Unlimited, and its work to protect fisheries and waterways.)
Westword: Last year Pete McBride's film Chasing Water, about the Colorado River, ended up being a big winner at Banff and some of the other film festivals, with a really depressing depiction of a once-mighty river that's all dammed up now and dwindles down to nothing at the end. The Colorado doesn't even make it to the ocean anymore. Can you contrast that portrait with what you found on the Yellowstone and what you got into on your adventure?
Hunter Weeks: A lot of times when you're looking to tell a conservation story, it is depressing, and it can be really frustrating; there are a lot of negative viewpoints that can come across. But when you look at the Yellowstone River, it's a river that has a lot of positive stories around it. It's somewhat untouched and unspoiled, compared to the Colorado or almost any other river in the United States. There is quite a bit of development around the river in some spots, and there have been some serious threats to the river in the past, including a proposed dam back in the '70s, and the demands on those water resources could present challenges to this river in the future, so it's had some of the same risks that the Colorado River and most of our nation's rivers have been subjected to. But the differences do make for a good contrast, and they make it an important river to protect against those cautionary tales we've learned from some of the other rivers.
How did those differences shape the story you wanted to tell?
I think the thing about this story is realizing that we have this river that's well over 600 miles long that's undammed, so you can still travel on it as a free-flowing system the way that we did. For us, it was just one amazing story after another that we discovered as we floated.
What surprised you most once you got out there, and how different is the finished film from the film you set out to make?
Just floating out there and spending time in nature on this river, you come face to face with how much we're taking for granted. There's going to come a point in time where we're going to have to face the fact that we're asking too much from our resources.
When I first set out to do this, I knew it would be a fun-filled journey, getting to spend thirty days floating and camping on this amazing river. But as soon as you start talking to people along the river, you realize that it really is hanging in a delicate balance and that, while it's been safe so far, there have definitely been some challenges the river has faced, and there are potentially a lot of challenges it will face in the future as we ask more and more of it.
Along with that realization, I think I was also hit by the bigger picture of the reality of what we've done to the world and to the West here in the United States specifically. You think back to what we've done to the landscape, and to the rivers, in the 200-plus years since Lewis and Clark crossed the Yellowstone and opened up the West with their expedition, realizing it's hard to even imagine what the next 200 years is going to bring, with us always wanting more and more from these rivers that sustain us.
During the float we went through an area where there had been an Exxon Mobil oil spill a few months before. It was a really high, intense water flow last year, almost a record-setting year in some places, so this pipeline rupturing made an even more dramatic mess than it might have in any other year, and everyone we met in that area was spending a lot of time and energy cleaning up the spill. When you see a real-world example like that, you realize that there are tens of thousands of these pipelines crisscrossing our rivers, and that the potential for spills is always going to be there. We've made a real mess of things, even on the Yellowstone.