Bryan Smith has built a career out of living on the edge. The avid outdoorsman is as comfortable kayaking rough ocean waves and Class VI river rapids as he is climbing sheer rock faces and hiking and biking rugged mountain trails. Smith has turned his passion for risk-taking into a business, bringing his camera along for the ride to document his adventures for National Geographic, Discovery, Disney and many others. His work has taken him from the dangerously wild rivers of a Russian peninsula to frozen Niagara Falls to the extensive underwater caves of the Bahamas — and beyond. Smith will share stories and photos of his adventures in filmmaking in a special National Geographic Live! presentation at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza on Friday, Feb. 24. He spoke with VCReporter from his home in Squamish, British Columbia, about filming in extreme conditions, the thrill of uncertainty and keeping failure in perspective.

Were you always interested in “extreme” pursuits, or did you come to it later?

I grew up in Northern Michigan, which is pretty rural. I did a lot of windsurfing as a kid. But my dad raced cars. From an early age, I was exposed to that. I grew up around the race track and around fast cars, so there was a certain amount of adrenaline.

Which came first, filmmaking or adventure sports?

Definitely the extreme sports. I moved to Washington state in 1995 to go to college in Olympia. When I moved to the Pacific Northwest, I pretty much got hooked on the mountains. Skiing, kayaking, some rock climbing . . .

At what point did you become a filmmaker?

I was a professional kayaker for many years. Filmmaking was a natural progression from the sports. I was going to these beautiful, remote places, seeing them in a way most people didn’t get to see them [from a kayak], and it inspired me to pick up a camera.

How did you find your niche?

I learned pretty quickly that the world of white-water rafting and kayaking films was pretty saturated. But there was no one really doing sea kayaking. I was a professional sea kayaking guide [in the San Juan Islands], so I approached my sponsors [which included Kokatat, Werner Paddles and Kayak Journal] and said, “I want to make sea kayak films.” They helped fund the first films. . . . I made Pacific Horizons [in 2007] and Eastern Horizons [in 2008]. They were pretty successful — I sold lots of DVDs. And that was the start of my film company, Reel Water Productions.

How did you get involved with National Geographic?

In the quest to find that ultimate angle, Smith is pictured here using stilts to get off of the wall to shoot climbing. These techniques and others helped in capturing Dean Potter for the one hour special The Man Who Can Fly for National Geographic Channel.
Photo courtesy of Reel Water Productions.

Pacific Horizons and Eastern Horizons both made it to the Banff Mountain Film Festival, and that exposed me to so many people in the industry. Banff really was the birthplace for my career. There were all these people there — National Geographic has a big presence, Discovery usually has people there, varsity filmmakers . . . . It planted this seed: “I want to work for National Geographic.” It took several years to materialize, but after building relationships at Banff, eventually I started working for them.

What are some of your most memorable filmmaking experiences?

One of the first expeditions I did was The Kamchatka Project for National Geographic [in 2010]. Kamchatka is on the Siberian Peninsula [in far eastern Russia] and it’s known as one of the last wild places on Earth. It was really memorable to me because it really redefined what wilderness is for me. Before, I used to think of wilderness as national parks and protected land. But in Kamchatka, there are these huge swaths of totally unprotected land, but totally wild because no one goes there. No roads, no buildings, nothing. It opened my eyes to this idea that these totally wild places are left. . . . It was like a flashback in time.

Another project for National Geographic — and it was really a catapult for my career — The Man Who Could Fly, Dean Potter. Dean was the top adventure athlete of modern times. I had a year to work with him.

What was Dean Potter like?

As part of a National Geographic expedition to Kamchatka Russia in 2010, Smith led a team of kayakers on three first descents. They were the first team to ever take whitewater kayaks to this part of Russia, which is considered on of the last truly wild places on Earth. In addition to the first descents the team worked with Zeb Hogan to shoot a Monster Fish episode focusing on the salmon of Kamchatka. Photo courtesy of Reel Water Productions

All great characters are difficult to work with — they have their own ideas about how they want to do things. They’re very passionate and opinionated. Dean is no exception to that.

The ideas he wanted to execute are so on-the-edge of reality in climbing and wingsuit flying. It’s stressful because, if it works, it’ll be amazing — but you don’t know if it’s going to work until you try it. We take projects that are 75-80 percent certain to succeed. If it’s 100 percent certain, [the audiences] are not challenged. For adventure and explorer films, they’re watching it because it’s unknown.

With Dean, I think it was really challenging because the success ratio in his mind was 100 percent, and in our mind it was more like 50 percent.

So if you’re working on projects with an 80 percent success rate, that means you must have faced some failures.

Most good projects have failures along the way. There was a massive failure towards the end [of The Man Who Could Fly] that we solved. His dream goal was to wingsuit fly off Mount Bute in British Columbia. So we get to the top of the mountain, and it’s simply not possible to jump off it. So we built this crazy ramp to allow him to jump off. Did he achieve his goal? No. But we overcame the barrier . . . and our Plan B was just as powerful.

In any adventure documentary you’re not sure what the outcome will be. And usually there’s success in the failure, somewhere. Something doesn’t work out how you want it to, so it moves in a different direction. Everyone’s looking for the hero, but it’s never a perfect success story. It’s a human drama the athlete is living.

Tell us about some of the crazy stunts you’ve attempted in your filmmaking.

Remember when Nik Wallenda walked across the Grand Canyon [on a tightrope]? It was a massive production. It was live television. We rigged a cable cam 2,000 feet across the canyon! It took us a week to rig. We climbed up and down the canyon walls to rig the camera system to get those up-close and personal shots. And the camera was only used for 30 minutes. The director . . . he just would look at what we were doing and say, “I have no idea what you’re doing, but I guess I’m going to trust that it will work out.”

Doing things in a cinematic way in an environment that requires skills most people don’t have, or want to do — that’s our specialty. We had to operate in Helmcken [Falls] in British Columbia in -30 degrees for a month. It was an entirely outdoor shoot. These are the kinds of things I live for! Challenges others say are totally impossible — but you figure out what you need to do it and pull it off. 

You must have a pretty hard-core crew at Reel Water Productions.

We’re a tight crew. The majority of people have come out of the adventure world. You can’t just go trolling through Hollywood for a good cameraman. He needs to hang from a rope in -30 degrees and be happy about that.

Do you see parallels between what you do as a filmmaker and what you do as an adventurer and extreme sports enthusiast?

I grew up in my kayaking era as someone who liked to take risks — and benefit from the rewards of taking risks! That’s the same thing in filmmaking. These projects are adventures and there’s something that feels really good about coming out the end of that. Unknown outcomes — people usually don’t like that. People like certainty. But when you engage in these unknown outcomes and succeed . . . there’s just an amazing feeling.

What about when you don’t succeed?

We’ve never had a huge accident, but . . . there have been situations where we had to walk away.

We were going to do a canyoning project in New Zealand. We did a test shoot in Hawaii, and realized it wasn’t going to work. And we were already deep into the project, had spent a lot of time and money on it. So we told the client that we couldn’t do it. They were very upset.

Another one was a river in Peru. We got halfway down the river, and pulled the plug. We walked away because it just became unsafe.

So those are failures. But you have to be willing to accept that. Not completing it, but walking away alive — I’ll take that any day of the week. In fact, one of my mottoes is, “We’re always successful as long as no one is killed.” The minute someone is injured, that’s the ultimate failure. When you know it’s not right, you have to walk away.

Tell us about your most recent work.

North of Known is our latest film. That’s another paragliding story, about Gavin McClurg and Dave Turner, who traversed the entire length of the Alaskan Range. That was a two-month shoot in Alaska. It was probably the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, just because it’s so wild up there. The entire 800-kilometer traverse, we never saw another person.

It’s difficult to film paragliders and to do it out in someplace so remote. But the film’s got great characters, stunning cinematography, man versus nature with a totally unknown outcome. Unlike my usual projects, this was really more of a 50-50 outcome. The threshold for failure was high, but Gavin just doesn’t give up. If anyone’s going to pull it off, it’s Gavin.

Do you still do extreme adventures yourself?

For me, the adventure is filmmaking now. We’re having the adventure with these athletes. I get drug up mountains and across landscapes I would never have gone to, except that these athletes bring us along for the ride.

The most important thing for me in my spare time is my family. We ski a lot, we ride bikes. I have a 7-year-old boy, who’s at the height of curiosity and wonder, so that’s what I look forward to the most.

See “Bryan Smith — The Lens of Adventure” on Friday, Feb. 24, 8 p.m., at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd. For tickets and more information, call 449-2787 or visit www.civicartsplaza.com.

Tim Coates climbing in Joshua Tree National Park. Photo courtesy of Tim Coates.

Extreme VC

Locals exploring the wild side

Extreme adventurers may also be found closer to home. Christy Madden is a HUD program manager for Ventura County. Tim Coates is the co-owner (with his wife, Ashley) of Real Cheap Sports, a retailer store selling outdoor clothing and equipment. But both have a love for wild adventures that they indulge in their spare time.

Coates has been rock climbing since an early age. “I got on my first rock route by 15 years old,” he recalls. “By 17 I climbed my first big wall route in Yosemite.” For the uninitiated, a “big wall” refers to a route that takes more than a day, requiring climbers to haul up their water, food and camping gear. Think of it as vertical backpacking.

He’s also done long routes in record time, scaling El Capitan’s The Nose and The Salathe Wall — routes that typically take three to five days to complete — in a single day. “Hiking to the base and looking up at the top, knowing that I am committing to climbing it with no extra supplies . . . was pretty out-there for me,” he says.

“I’m a pretty outdoorsy person,” Madden says. “Cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, spinning (stationary cycling), weight training, hiking, backpacking have all been pretty regular activities in my adulthood.” She was also an avid gymnast throughout elementary school, and joined the diving team in high school.

Madden with daughter Kim at Stella Point, at 18,200 feet and 30-40 minutes from Uhuru Peak (Kilimanjaro’s highest point) just after sunrise. Photo courtesy of Christy Madden.

Many of her adventures have been in California (sometimes with her kids in tow). “I have climbed Mount Whitney twice,” Madden says. “and our family also climbed Half Dome three years before we scaled Mount Whitney. My daughter was 8!”

But her work with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (her father is a stem-cell transplant survivor) has dramatically expanded her horizons. Her first marathon was an LLS fundraiser in Alaska in 2005. And more recently, she and a team of 13 (including her daughter, Kim) took on Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania for the cause. “Climbing the highest free-standing mountain in the world . . . and the opportunity to share the experience with a two-time stem-cell transplant survivor — I knew I had to be a part of the experience,” Madden says.

The team faced sub-freezing temperatures and 30 m.p.h. winds on the 10-day trek to the Kilimanjaro summit. And while she admits that it was one of the most challenging experiences in which she’s ever participated (not least because she broke her foot on the hike down), she’s eager to “test” herself again — possibly with her fellow climbing partners, many of whom have become good friends. “Future events might be hiking Machu Picchu, for example, or it might be doing the Tour du Mont Blanc [in the Alps],” she says.

So what’s the appeal of these “extreme” adventures? “I think it depends upon the individual,” Madden replies. “For many it’s the adrenaline rush,but for me it’s more personal. Interestingly, I realized that each and every half marathon that I’ve completed since I started . . . has been faster than the race before. Not by design, really, although I am prone to pushing myself physically and striving to improve. So as I get older, I’ve been improving. Ironically, I viewed Kili as one of those challenges to push myself harder, bag a 19K peak, etc. But it turned into so much more for me!”

Coates finds a Zen-like peace in his adventures. “Climbing takes total concentration,” he says. “You don’t think about anything else, so it’s a great reset to a busy life. A satisfying part of climbing is keeping the adrenaline in check and managing the fear.”

When asked if taking on risky or intense experiences spills into other areas of her life, Madden thinks that it might. “I guess I do tend to gravitate toward challenging problems and enjoy questioning the status quo,” she says, noting her work with the county, implementing programs aimed at recycling and the homeless. “I’ve worked for Ventura County for 30+ years and I have a reputation for taking on unpopular and challenging programs.”

Coates sees himself as the opposite of a risk taker in many ways. “I consider myself rather conservative — but that makes me prepare properly for the big days out in the mountains,” he says. “Once I am out there, sometimes an extra gear kicks in and I leave all the doubt and hesitation behind. That’s very satisfying.”

There’s something to be said as well about the joy extreme adventurers find in taking the path less traveled – even, in many cases, a path the average person might go out of their way to avoid. “Last year I was climbing in Utah and got caught in a hail and thunderstorm where we had to take cover in a cave for about 45 minutes to let the lightning pass,” says Coates, describing one of his favorite trips. “We rappelled the wall in the pouring rain and hail and hiked out soaking wet.” Coates pauses, remembering. “That was a good day out.”