Ever thought of kayaking over Niagara? Neither have we. But Rafa Ortiz has, and his exploits now come to the silver screen in Rush Sturges’s Chasing Niagara, which takes viewers from the rainforest rivers of Mexico to the waterfalls of the Northwest and eventually, Niagara itself. Director and athlete Rush Sturges chimes in on the making of the flick…
Featuring Rafa Ortiz, Rush Sturges, Evan Garcia, Gerd and Aniol Serrasolses, and directed by Rush Sturges, the film follows Ortiz as he pushes himself to the limit, daring the impossible – successfully descending Niagara Falls. To prepare, Ortiz enlists a team of fellow professional kayakers, including Sturges, Garcia, and Tyler Bradt, to help him train and document the process. Soon what started as one man’s epic quest evolves into an intense three-year journey of self-discovery and friendship that forces them to redefine their own definitions of bravery, purpose, and ambition.
“In the beginning, Chasing Niagara was a far simpler idea than what it turned into,” says Sturges. “Rafa wanted to kayak a big waterfall, and I was going to be there to film it. However, after digging deeper into the project, I began to realize the true magnitude of the undertaking.
“It’s a lot different than a typical Hollywood feature,” he adds. “These stories don’t create themselves in advance; they create themselves in real life. As much as you can plan and anticipate what could happen, there is always an ever-present undertone of uncertainty.
“As both director and a main athlete, I was in a constant battle to keep up to speed both creatively and physically. I had two serious concussions on waterfalls in this movie, a couple broken noses, and a few stitches. On the creative front, there was the constant challenge of figuring out how to tell a story with so many different directions, subplots and characters. Not to mention the pressure of close friends putting their life on the line. Ultimately, it was a major test on all levels. It challenged me, as it evolved into a creative burden that troubled me for years. All said and done, I’m glad that I took the time and stuck with it, because at times I didn’t know if it would ever come together. It was not the Film I set out to create, but in the end I hope it turned out to be a human story about adventure, passion, responsibility and true friendship.”
RUSH STURGES (DIRECTOR)
If there’s ever been someone who seemed destined to kayaking greatness, it is Rush Sturges. Raised in a tiny town on the banks of California’s Salmon River, Rush literally grew up at a kayak school. In the early 1980s, his parents founded the Otter Bar Lodge Kayak School, which is now considered one of the nation’s top paddling schools. Although Rush obviously learned how to kayak at a very early age, it wasn’t until 10 years old that he really became interested in the sport. Quickly building on his solid background of skills, Rush showed huge potential, and instead of going to a traditional high school, he opted to attend Adventure Quest, an innovative traveling kayaking program and high school. That experience further honed his skills and, by age 17, Rush earned a spot on the U.S. Junior Freestyle Kayaking Team. The following year, he won the 2003 Junior World Championship in Graz, Austria. From there, Rush shifted his focus to first descents and running highly technical steep creeks throughout California and Europe. Meanwhile he also pioneered the downriver freestyle movement, performing complex freestyle moves while going over waterfalls. In addition, Rush has been a member of several high profile expeditions, including the first full descent of the Congo River’s Inga Rapids, one of the largest and most dangerous rapids on the planet. Today, Rush is widely considered by his peers to be one of the world’s best all-around paddlers, equally competent at waterfall running, remote expedition paddling, freestyle and downriver racing. In addition to his highly successful professional kayaking career, Rush has also developed an equally successful career in action sports filmmaking. He first picked up a video camera as a young teenager, filming and editing (and selling) videos for guests paddling at Otter Bar. This morphed into filming and producing kayaking videos of his own extreme exploits as well as those of his fellow pro paddler friends and, eventually, the creation of River Roots, a well-respected action sports film production house based out of Rush’s adopted home of White Salmon, Washington. To date, Rush has made eight kayaking films, several of which have won awards including X-Dance Best Film as well as accolades at the Banff Mountain Film Festival.
A metropolis like Mexico City may not seem like a typical breeding ground for a waterfall-running superstar, but Rafa Ortiz is anything but typical. The 28-year-old had a rather inauspicious introduction to the sport of whitewater kayaking. Rafa and his older sister share the same birthday, and when he turned 14, their father took the kids to a sporting goods store to pick out gifts. There they found a pair of whitewater kayaks hanging on the wall on sale for 60 percent off, so Rafa’s father decided these would be their gifts. No one in the family knew the first thing about kayaking, but they decided to figure it out together – trial by fire. Although Rafa and his sister were raised in the urban jungle of Mexico City, the family also owned a small coffee plantation in the rainforests of Veracruz near the Filobobos River. This is where the family began learning to paddle. Rafa showed immediate promise and progressed quickly. However, without any fellow kayakers to paddle with and emulate, he essentially learned to paddle in a vacuum, developing his own raw style and technique. Eventually Rafa began watching how-to-kayak videos. His favorite was filmed on Canada’s Ottawa River so in 2001 he convinced his family to take a trip to Canada so he could take paddling lessons on the Ottawa, as well as visit tourist sites, including Niagara Falls. Rafa returned to the Ottawa River every summer for several years, continuing to boost his skills while befriending a handful of pro kayakers. In 2005, he even became the first Mexican ever to compete at the World Freestyle Kayak Championships. A year later, a group of pros he’d met from the U.S. traveled to Veracruz to explore the rivers near his home. As Rafa showed the pros around, he realized that his real interest was in running challenging creeks and, most of all, waterfalls. Slowly he worked his way up to taller and taller falls and, in 2010, garnered quite a bit of attention worldwide by becoming the first ever to successfully drop Mexico’s 128-foot Big Banana Falls (42 meters). Rafa set his sights on the waterfalls of all waterfalls: Niagara.Reconnecting with U.S. pros Rush Sturges and Evan Garcia in White Salmon, Washington, Rafa dramatically stepped up his waterfall training, eventually becoming only the second person ever to paddle over Washington State’s 189-foot Palouse Falls (57.6 meters), the current world record drop. As top international kayaker in waterfall, Rafa was the star of Red Bull Chasing Waterfalls, a two-year project designed to discover unknown routes, rivers and of course waterfalls.Fellow pros credit Rafa’s driven and fearless nature as reasons why he’s among one of the best waterfall specialists in the world.
A legitimate superstar within the kayaking world, Evan is famous for his silky smooth paddling style and knack for cleanly nailing nearly every drop he runs. The lanky 27-year-old makes even the most difficult and dangerous technical drops and waterfalls look easy. Growing up in Bozeman, Montana, he started paddling at 10 years old and quickly established himself as one of the best young kayakers in the U.S. Besides being one of the youngest paddlers ever to run some of the nation’s most challenging rivers, Evan (aka E.G.) also excelled in freestyle kayaking. In 2007, he was crowned the Junior World Freestyle Champion on Canada’s Ottawa River. Despite his obvious prowess in competitions, steep technical creeks and waterfalls have become E.G.’s focus. One of the most dedicated and passionate paddlers in the sport, he has inked first descents of rivers around the world, from the U.S. to South America and Europe. These days, E.G. makes his home base in White Salmon, Washington, where he can train on the Little White River year-round – that is, when he’s not on the road searching for whitewater. In 2013, E.G. won the Canoe & Kayak Magazine Paddler of the Year Award. And although competitions are not E.G.’s sole focus, he’s ridiculously successful at downriver extreme racing and is a three-time winner of the prestigious Little White Salmon Race (2012-14). When it comes to big waterfalls, E.G. blends his natural athleticism and smooth style with well-calculated decisions and his widely considered by his fellow pros to be the best waterfall runner on the planet. With the experience E.G. gained as professional waterfall runner, he is the ideal team member to support Rafa on his mission to paddle over Niagara Falls.
27-year-old Gerd Serrasolses from Catalonia, Spain first started kayaking at age 13. Though at the time he was a competitive swimmer and water polo player, the river is what really captured Gerd’s attention. One day, riding his bicycle along the banks of the River Ter in his hometown, he saw some kayakers paddling – and that was it. Gerd promptly joined the local kayak club and slowly began developing his paddling skills. By 18, he was completely hooked and spent an entire winter season in Chile paddling the region’s best whitewater. From there, he returned to Spain where he spent four ‘long’ years at the University of Girona (far from the river) earning his Industrial Design Engineering degree. However, once he had the diploma in hand, Gerd hightailed it back to the river and has never looked back. Training and paddling full-time while traveling to the world’s best rivers, Gerd’s skills developed quickly. With a solid background of slalom kayak technique, a committed training regime, and a relentless competitive spirit, Gerd stormed onto the extreme whitewater scene in 2007. He first made a name for himself by running some of the most gnarly rapids on the planet, including a lethal run in Chile now known as “The Dirty Gerd.” From running steep creeks and waterfalls he eventually transitioned into downriver extreme racing and has since racked up many wins over the past few seasons. To date, 2015 has been Gerd’s biggest year winning the North Fork Race and the Little White Salmon Race, both considered among the most prestigious creeking titles in the sport, and topping it off with the Canoe & Kayak Magazine Paddler of the Year award. A soft-spoken man, Gerd lets his paddling do the talking and continues to be the man to beat in extreme whitewater racing.
The younger brother of Gerd Serrasolses, 25-year-old Aniol is a top-flight paddler in his own right. Following his brother, Aniol began paddling as a young boy on the River Ter. In the winter of 2009, traveled to Chile and Argentina for five months, where he headed to the Noguera Pallaresa River to hone his skills in creeking and freestyle paddling. Aniol is famous for his fearless paddling, especially in tight creeks and towering waterfalls. In particular, he continues to push the limits of the downriver freestyle movement—pulling off complex freestyle maneuvers while descending serious rapids and waterfalls.