In 1970, Forest Woodward’s father, Doug Woodward, led a trip down the Colorado River because water had always given him “a sense of wonder.” When Forest was born in 1986, Doug wrote his son a poem with the words “you always remember the path that leads you back to the important places.” In this short film by production company Gnarly Bay, Forest attempts to re-create his father’s original trip down the river. By observing his father back in this important place, he hopes to learn some of life’s lessons. Seeing him “not just alive but living again,” Forest finds that “there is a hell of a lot more to come down the river” and that “the joy is in the journey.” I spoke with Forest about some of his important places.
You talk about being raised near the water. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the western tip of North Carolina—the heart of Appalachia and [with] arguably some of the best white-water boating on the East Coast. There are photos from the pond below our house of Mom and Dad teaching me to swim, pushing my little white baby butt back and forth in the water between them at a couple months old. At age four they had me kayaking the Little Tennessee River that runs a mile or so from the house, and over the years the sweeping bends and roaring shoals of that river helped to sketch the cartography of my youth. In the summers Dad would stand in the pond up to his chest as we paddled kayaks around him like drunk ducklings, learning the strokes, how to wet exit, and eventually [how to] roll our boats. As a result I have always found that being in the water is both comfortable and comforting—whether it’s surfing or kayaking or just swimming … there is something deeply rejuvenating and meditative in that suspended space of floating.
Had you seen the footage of your father in the Grand Canyon before you took the return trip with him?
No. I had Dad mail me his old 8mm spool with the footage a few months before our trip together and got it digitized in NYC but waited to watch it with him. The night before we headed to the river to launch on our trip I played the footage for him from my laptop. He was excited to see it but exhausted from the buildup for our coming trip, and he fell asleep about five minutes into it. I watched the rest of it, no sound, a flickering spool of rich visions, fiberglass boats and orange PFD’s, vestiges of the hippy movement laced with the hardened suntanned grins of river rats, glimpses of Dad in his homemade kayak, strong and far from sleeping in the churning chocolate thunder of the Colorado.
What was it like to be on the Colorado River for the first time?
Humbling. The sheer magnitude of the canyon, the power of the river—you cannot help but realize your own smallness, and in that the beauty of human existence in this place. The isolation from the distractions of the modern world set against the unavoidable connection to nature create a uniquely rejuvenating space where the mind is allowed a certain separation from the usual stimuli of the modern world, encouraging an investigation [into] and connection [with] a much older form of existence.
Do you feel like you were successfully able to build the time machine you mention in the film?
I found some pieces for the time machine down there certainly; Dad gave me some and so did the canyon, and in certain moments, like when Dad rowed us through Hermit rapid, the strength and muscle memory in his arms and the joy and laughter in his eyes allowed me stolen glimpses of another time. That said, I know I’ll never finish the time machine with time left to use it; rather, it’s the investigation [of] time and of growing older, of nostalgia and of connection, of heritage and inheritance … questions that building the metaphorical machine has excited me to examine more deeply … Those are things that transcend the end goal of ever truly being able to travel back to know a time that was not mine, and this whole investigation of time is really only valuable insomuch as it informs my love and appreciation of who Dad is today. Knowing the mistakes he made at 34 won’t save me from making my own, and by the same token, knowing his successes and joys does not mean that I inherit them. That said, by exploring the idea of time as something which is not perhaps as linear as I once thought, and embracing the realization that to know what was ‘then’ does not require a time machine to travel back there but rather is accessed by creating a space in the present in which we acknowledge the richness of the past in a symbiotic rather than tangential relationship to the present … that is as close as I suppose I’ll ever get to having a time machine.
Which places are the most important to you?
That’s tough! I suppose it goes without saying, but certainly the Grand Canyon and beyond that pretty much the entire western half of Montana, Cumberland Island, northern Patagonia, the Sacred Valley in Peru … All have been recurring and important places in my life, places where I have drawn a lot of inspiration for my art and love of nature. Home on the mountain in North Carolina—where my folks still live and where my brothers and sisters and I were raised and all congregate a few times a year—will forever stand as the root of the important places for me. And while places in and of themselves are important, it is the confluence of the important people in life with those places and the experiences we share in those confluences of time and space that make them particularly significant.
What’s the next part of your journey?
This project ignited a desire to continue helping to encourage folks to reconnect with their important places in a way that honors them and helps to conserve them for future generations. It reminded me that there are paths that we can take in life that can lead us very far afield from the heart of our existence. With that realization in mind I am trying to explore the literal side of what “finding the path back” means.
Following the currents that our trip and the making of this film have stirred in me, I have a number of different projects which I’m working on that loosely are tied to the inspiration that this trip with Dad gave me. The project that is most closely tied to “The Important Places,” and is really a continuation of sorts, is about seeking out other stories of people who hold a deep connection to their own important places and telling those stories through their eyes, with their voices coming to bear on the importance of conservation through the lens of celebrating land and heritage and supporting a lasting grassroots backyard movement supporting individuals to rally the important people in their lives and take a stand as stewards of the important places.
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