My Dodge Durango is a four wheel drive. It's got, you know... ground clearance. In my mind it's invincible. It should be able to go anywhere. But yesterday up on Donner Summit I began to question my own mind.
I was filming a new line of backpacks with my client/talent for the day, Jason Hairston, founder and CEO of Kuiu
(Pronounced "koo-you" and named after an Alaskan Island). They make hunting gear. And I'm not talking about the stuff you might buy in Walmart. Kuiu makes envy-wear. Everything about what Jason designs wreaks quality. Jason's a hunter. He's been doing it for a long time, and his kind of hunting, with his kind of gear... well let's just say it's like one of those movies where people do things that should kill them, but they never seem to die.
"Yeah I remember our first photo shoot with the last company I started..." Jason told me as my Durango eased up over this berm, something grinding, rolling and groaning earthquake-like under my feet. "We were in the middle of nowhere to film at golden hour (end of the day) and the four wheel drive we were in sunk up to the doors in the mud..." He went on to tell me that they found some good-ol-boy who claimed he could pull anything out of anywhere for "four hundert bucks". And at 2am they were on their way.
I think that's when the questions started to form.
I know for sure, that's when I put the Durango in LOW LOCK, and started watching more closely for mud.
The road was not technically a dirt road. It's better described as a "boulder road". The years of rain that have rutted this thing had moved most of the dirt away and left rocks. Big rocks. The kind that make you think of Fred Flintstone's bowling ball.
It looked like it was going to be a perfect day for filming envy-wear in the wild. There was drizzling rain, fog and, snow above the tree line where we were heading. It's May and there's snow. Ever since flying the Phantom quadcopter in Central America, I have thought of it as the ultimate production tool for extreme conditions. So yesterday, I hired a Phantom pilot, a guy named Syris, to accompany us. At the base of the boulder road, I invited Syris to abandon his Prius and climb in with us. He preferred to drive. Behind us.
My berm grinding exposed new obstacles for Syris, so eventually he found a cozy little bramble just off the road and rode the rest of the way up with us.
I just checked Google Earth and found that we stopped at around 7,300'. The wet snow still falling, fog in the distance, and to my relief, no mud. The slope of this particular part of the sierras was spotted here and there with pine trees. There was new growth of short grasses under the snow that had just fallen that night. And then... buck brush, which looks like an Acacia carpet. Thorns about an inch long and a tangle of branches all between ankle and chest level.
The footage from the air was spectacular. The Phantom flew in the snow flurries with only an occasional lens-glob. I am a big believer in Rain-X and so it tended to clear quickly with the wind from the props. Both Syris and I were impressed at how quickly we burned through batteries. The cold could possibly have had something to do with it, but I think also, the thinner air up there got us less bang for the buck, the props spinning harder with less to push against. Note to self: more batteries, and the ability to charge them from the cigarette lighter.
The last shot of the day was going to be along a ridge near the summit of that particular crag, with the only visible trail leading to what seemed to be nowhere. So we bushwhacked it up the ridge. Every step was a battle as I carried tripod and camera and hung up on thorns hidden by the new snow. My pants were soaked. My boots (a new pair of Keens) performed flawlessly. Syris and I took a brutal lower route while Jason headed straight up the ridge.
I found a spot that had some line of sight to the patch of snow where Jason would hike across while we prepared to film, first from the Phantom, then the old fashioned way, with the sticks and lens. Because there was no landing spot, Syris fired up the drone in one hand while holding the controller in the other, a trick I'd only pondered but never tried. Up the Phantom went. I prepared to cue Jason with a wild gesture from about 200 yards away. The drone closed the gap between us. It's shot was to be flown above the thickest tangle of buck brush from the halfway point between Syris and Jason.
Suddenly the Phantom began to spin and wobble. As it went around I could see the telltale red light that indicates a low battery. Syris toggled wildly on the controls. We were both waist deep in snow and thorns and branches. I could only think, "He's GOT to get that thing back here or it's lost..." And that was about the time the battery gave up and it dropped itself into the buck brush with the sound of a weed whacker, and all became silent.
Poor Syris, slugged it out that whole way, it seems for a lovely walk through some brutal terrain. He never complained once, I'd hire him any time. He did recover the Phantom with its custom wood props, which I now see make for a very smooth image, and it appears to be in perfect condition. It survived to fly another day.
I peeled off the final shot, and a few others as we walked down to the Durango and loaded up. The snow turned to drizzle, the fog pulled back to reveal massive peaks all around us and Donner Lake below us. I was soaked to the bone. I looked over at Jason in his enviably dry Kuiu, high tech fabric clothes. All moisture magically wicked into thin air. He looked fresh and perky after carrying a fully loaded Kuiu pack (that hangs from a carbon fiber frame and weighs almost nothing). I guess that's what you learn after doing things like sinking your vehicle up to the doors in mud. This is a guy that believes in what he makes... and I suppose makes what he believes. He explained later that's why he does it, the rush of designing stuff that works and hearing about it from customers.
Reviewing the shots, and it was all worth it. I got exactly what I was looking for in the footage. There are no sweeping scenics in this one, it's gritty and close and feels authentically adventuresome. Tomorrow I'll be in the studio with the line of packs and one of the best apparel photographers in the country with brilliant stylists. The contrast of the two shoots should make for a really interesting piece. Which is the idea, after all.
More than anything today as I clean up my gear and prep for tomorrow, I realize what it is to have clients like Jason who relish the journey as much, maybe more, than the destination. Once we're wrapped, I'll throw the link from the Kuiu site up here to make public the final piece.