Come for the fish, stay for the people

Filmmaker floats 550-mile stretch of Yellowstone River

Elizabeth Miller | Boulder Weekly

Before setting off in August 2011 to float for 31 days down the longest undammed river in the lower 48, filmmaker Hunter Weeks had spent just a little time rafting the Arkansas. It had been 10 years since he’d caught a fish.

 It’s 550 miles from the first place you can put a boat into the Yellowstone River — just outside Yellowstone National Park in Montana and beyond two waterfalls — to North Dakota, where the Yellowstone River joins the Missouri River.

Along the way, Weeks would meet sheepherders and “the cake ladies,” temporarily lose a raft and catch brown trout, sunnies, bass and carp. He’d pass by the site of an oil spill, where an Exxon Mobil pipeline burst under the Yellowstone River and emptied 42,000 gallons of crude oil into the water. The mark of the spill was still visible in the water and, even 100 miles downstream, in the mud.

While his shoes may have finally dried out, Weeks says his filmmaking may never be the same, and nor will his perspective on our world and the way humans use it.

“I think the thing that did for me was to make me more aware of resources, how much of our natural resources we’re using and we need to continue to sustain our lifestyle,” he says. “As I go everywhere now, I see how much we consume, how much we use, and how much of our natural resources are being dedicated to allow us to be comfortable, and being in the middle of an oil spill cleanup like that sort of brought that to my attention.”

Of course, a month spent on the water every day and camping every night is enough to change a person. And that kind of transformative trip is the stuff of good films — which Weeks says he recognized when he first heard the idea of floating that stretch of the river from Montana fly fishing guide and photographer Robert Hawkins. So Weeks, whose previous film credits include Ride the Divide and 10 MPH, packed up Hawkins’ drift boat and brought along another 14-foot raft, guided by Shannon Ongaro, and his father-in-law, John Hall, as camp cook, and set out on the trip that would become Where the Yellowstone Goes. They were assisted by an on-land crew of two or three people who met them along the way to provide recharged batteries and transfer the hours of video off the cameras. Mike Dion, executive producer of Ride the Divide and director of its follow-up, Reveal the Path, worked with that road crew, which captured scenic shots of the two boats together working their way down a slow-moving river.

“For me, it was definitely fun to be really embedded in the experience, to really fish, float on a river and camp every night,” Weeks says. “I take each project as it comes. I just know for me, it’s worked really well to create this immersive experience and to just go with it and shoot it, and capture the players.”

Of course, being a film about a Montana river, there was a necessary amount of fishing. Over their days on the river, what they’re fishing for changes from cold-water trout to the bass and walleye that live in the river at its warmer lower elevations.

“I think the fishing was such a natural part of being on a river, especially in a place like Montana, and I think Colorado’s very similar. you have quite a few avid fishers,” Weeks says. “Fishing’s definitely one of those things that goes way, way back all the way to the beginning of time. … It’s always had sort of a special kind of vibe.”

Looking out over the landscape, which evolves from the crisp, clear mountains in western Montana to an increasingly dry and brown landscape approaching North Dakota, they talked over previous visitors on the land, from dinosaurs to the Lewis and Clark expedition.

“We definitely had a lot of long conversations about life and thinking about what this land was like,” Weeks says.

But the film isn’t so much a story of the land, or the river, as it is a story of the people who live on and by them.

“I feel like, as I was journeying on that trip, I was trying to understand what to take from that experience, and the people I met were pretty key,” Weeks says.

“This became really a river-of-life story.”

Axioms drift up through the film to preview the lessons ahead: “You’re not too small” prefaces the story of a man who worked on a way to save fish that were dying in irrigation ditches from being sucked into those diversions, and “Honor loved ones” precedes the story of a woman who manages a herd of sheep alone, a herd that she once shared with her husband.

“You really see these people who have these amazing qualities that live along the river. ” Weeks says. “They helped define the river and the river helped define them.”

A river of life theme showed up in the lifecycle of the river, bugs and people living and dying. And there’s just the suggestion of worry about the death of the river itself.

“There’s a lot of concerns about the fish in a place like the Yellowstone River,” Weeks says. “That’s such a massive river, and it being the longest undammed river in the lower 48, you get a sense that there’s a lot of species, but a lot of strain, too.”

Fisheries are facing problems, and the “Fishing Bridge” in Yellowstone National Park no longer permits fishing in hopes that the cutthroat trout population that once thrived there will rebound.

“There’s a huge concern about how that will affect the chain all the way down the river,” Weeks says.

And of the 60,000 dams in the United States, not one of them has managed to pin down the Yellowstone, reshaping it and affecting what species of fish live there.

“It’ll be interesting to see what happens to the Yellowstone River over the years; there’s definitely threats and going to be continued pressure,” he says.

The film played to a sold-out 450 seat venue in Bozeman, Mont., May 19 and was warmly received there, Weeks reports. It was a relief, he says, after some worry about what Montanans would make of an outsider’s perspective on their river. He lived in Montana for just a year, and recently moved to Boulder.

“I think everybody just loved the way the story was captured, they really felt like it truly represented the river,” Weeks says. “It’s such a special river, and that’s important when you try to tell the story, especially if you’re sort of an outsider. You want to do the best job you can, and people felt it was really spot on.”

Where the Yellowstone Goes will be screening at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 24, at the Boulder Theater. Weeks will attend, along with his wife and one of the film’s producers, Sarah Hall, as well as raft guide Ongaro. The screening will be preceded by a get-together at 5:30 p.m. at the Lazy Dog. More information is available at