White-Water Writers

Four Unlikely Women Of Words Take A Televised Raft Ride Through The Grand Canyon.

AFTER SHE'D SUCCESSFULLY paddled through wild rapids on her first Grand Canyon rafting trip, writer Linda Ellerbee was asked by a Colorado River guide if she knew the difference between a fairy tale and a river story. She didn't. "Well," the guide said, "a fairy tale begins 'Once upon a time,' and a river story begins, 'No shit, there I was... .'"

Ever since one-armed John Wesley Powell led the first tumultuous ride down the Colorado in 1869, rafters have been opening conversations with "there I was." Powell's own journals describe him clinging to a boulder above a rapid, torn between keeping his grip on the rock face and releasing it to grab for rescue.

However grand the setting, it's one's self that gets the spotlight. Kathleen Jo Ryan counted on that when she produced her 1998 Grand Canyon photo/essay book Writing Down the River; she's distilled it for her public television documentary of the same name, airing at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, August 5, on KUAT-TV, channel 6.

Ryan's original project put 15 women writers of differing backgrounds, ages and regions on separate Grand Canyon raft trips, and assigned them to write about their experiences. Tucson Weekly reviewer Mari Wadsworth called the product "a[n] homage to two landscapes: the external beauty of river and canyon; and the internal quagmire of pain, love, memory and mortality." She found the text uneven at times, but extolled Ryan's photography.

A similar judgment can be made of the film.

For it, Ryan invited four of the writers to return to the river and raft it together. They were some of the most original voices in the book, and two are most unlikely adventurers. Each of them brings a bit of that John Wesley Powell one-armedness to the screen.

Linda Ellerbee, who recounted the river stories/fairy tales anecdote, at 52 is a former TV news journalist and the head of a television production company. She is a double-mastectomy cancer survivor.

Youngest of the crew, African-American painter and essayist Barbara Earl Thomas approaches the river imagining an admonition from her mother: "It's only fools and people with too much money who'd pay somebody to scare them to death if they don't drown them first." Thomas' parents both died in a boating accident.

Seventy-something Ruth Kirk, no tenderfoot, writer of nearly three dozen books on natural history and culture, has just been widowed.

Rounding out the group is middle-aged New Mexico fiction writer and actress Denise Chavez. Definitely out of her element ("camping out is room service at the Holiday Inn"), she brings a querulous trepidation to the canyon.

The result is a visually extraordinary "wherever you go, there you are" film that tempts the viewer to speculate as to who would be voted off the river.

As she did in the book, Ryan lets the production be led by the experiences and unscripted reactions of her writer-guests. In voice-over or to one another, they begin by reading from their original essays; as the trip unfolds, they offer responses in conversation, in their art or in monologue. Women of words, they have an abundance of them; women short of physical prowess, they fill the void with what they have.

The first day out, the river throws their physicality a curve, and they have plenty to talk about.

The engagement in this for the viewer is not about danger (it won't ruin the end to let you know that no one drowns), or even about who's able to articulate a worthwhile reflection about what she undergoes. It's in seeing who demonstrates the sanguine strength, sense of humor and resilience of character to benefit from what she's undergone.

The film's not going to grab the ESPN crowd. It's a sometimes discomfiting female expression, and those bodies don't move with quite the grace of the canyon bighorns. But that canyon'll get you every time. Again, the photography validates the production.

Ryan has captured the river as threatening, thrilling and sanctuary-offering. She's caught the canyon from the air, along its cliffs, into its clefts, though its undulating or faceted geological striations. And the water itself is exquisite: from heavy, gravity-bent falls, through roiling rapids the color of mocha, two-toned confluences; and slicing, cream-textured or pellucid wave edges; to rills, ripples and passive reflections. Gorgeous.

So, in the end, it's the canyon and the Colorado that are the story. As Ruth Kirk points out, nature doesn't give a hoot about the human "there I was... ."