Plunging into the Unknown: Steve Fisher & The Grand Inga Project

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Steve Fisher, iconic kayaker and 2013 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, was in Chattanooga recently for the screening of his “The Grand Inga Project” film at the Lookout Film Festival. The Inga rapids are located on a section of the Congo, the world’s second largest river, where it drops 315 feet in 9.3 miles. This might not sound impressive, but the water rushes at 31 miles per hour—almost 50 times the average flow of the Grand Canyon's steepest section. Waves almost 30 feet tall are not uncommon.

White Nile in Uganda
White Nile in Uganda

RootsRated: In your TED talk, you say “We all live always at the edge of uncharted waters. Whether it is something meaningless like kayaking down a rapid or meaningful like changing the world, the principle is always the same. We need to buck up and add our piece to the puzzle.” When did you understand that paddling and adventures were vehicles that could help you inspire others?

Fisher: Last year I was in a bit of trouble for running a waterfall in Oregon and I had to hire a good lawyer. When I went to see him rain was hitting the window in his office and the lawyer said, “I love waking up in the morning and coming to this office and watching the rain hit the window while I try to figure out a difficult case.” In that moment, I was thinking of all the action sports movies where the people act like we’re better than you because we don’t have a nine-to-five job, but it’s like that guy, my lawyer, is loving his life as much as I do and he was so good at what he does I was actually appalled. If I wasn’t on the receiving end of that case, I would have been very unhappy. If others can impress and inspire me through their music or legal work, why can’t my work inspire others? That isn’t my purpose, but I realized on the way that people are moved. Every decision I make, everything I do, I don’t scale down, I scale up.

Congo Inga Project Whirlpool
Congo Inga Project Whirlpool

RR: What was the best part of your adventure on the Congo? What was the worst?

Fisher: The worst part was the time leading into the trip. We had so many doors shut in our faces, and permits and various other obstacles that came our way. We put years and years into it and we were just right there wanting to take our kayaks and get on the river, but we couldn’t. So sometimes we hit some pretty low moments in the adventure, but we pushed through and made it happen.

The best part was finishing. When I originally set out to run these rapids--it was many years to make the move to run them--but had I known how difficult and dangerous they would be, I probably wouldn’t have started so I’m glad I didn’t know that. I wouldn’t have started and I would have spent the rest of my life wondering if I should have.

Congo Inga Project Sunset
Congo Inga Project Sunset

RR: Did you encounter any second thoughts about running the Inga?

Fisher: I spent a lot of time and money going there, walking the bank, but even then, the river is so big and the rapids so fast that because we had never seen anything on that scale, we had nothing to measure them to and we thought, Okay, that will be fine. We can ferry out there and do that, but of course when we got into it, we realized there was no way. But after scouting, we realized we had gotten into way more than we could chew and we had to reconsider how we planned things. So in a sense we were quite over our heads and we had to come together as a group and decide whether we were doing it or not.

The rapids are really linked together, so we couldn’t walk around them and our goal was to run them with an unbroken line with the understanding that if it was unrunnable, okay. We’d get out. But we knew if we walked around the first, we’d have to walk around the one after that and if we walked around that one we’d walk around the next. If we were going to take that approach we shouldn’t start. We we’re either doing it or not. We had to buck up. We all found ourselves taking a much bigger risk than we wanted to and we were quite terrified a lot of the time. You see that in the film. We didn’t try to hide it. That’s the best part.

We didn’t come out at the end feeling victorious and joyful. We came out feeling relieved and humbled and of course we’re proud of our accomplishment, but we didn’t see it as us conquering the river. Instead, we saw that we had somehow been allowed to pass through.

A flat section of the Congo River
A flat section of the Congo River Julien Harneis

 . . .

If you missed a chance to view this inspiring, terrifying, breathtaking and uplifting film, you can purchase it here .

You can also check out this short trailer to get an idea of what to expect.

In addition to Steve’s film, you can check out his TED talk here.


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