Browns Canyon on the Big Screen

After years of on-the-ground research and action that stretched all the way from the rapids of the Arkansas River to Washington D.C., the Friends of Browns Canyon (FOBC), a local nonprofit group, still needed an effective way to tout the landscape and allure of Browns Canyon, which lies between Buena Vista and Salida.

They’d made great progress on the effort, particularly with help of photographer John Fielder, who donated his time to create beautiful images of the proposed wilderness area. They also captured the attention of Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, who has visited the Browns Canyon area several times.

However, in today’s electronic world, nothing conveys a message to the masses as effectively as film. FOBC hired filmmaker Sam Bricker to create a short film that spoke to the beauty and magic of this area. Then Bricker partnered with Salida local Nathan Ward on the project. Over the space of two months, the filmmaking duo, aided by the editing of Claude DeMoss, crafted an ode to Browns Canyon that helps capture its essence.

Ward calls the film, The Spirit of Browns Canyon, and remarks “It was a journey of exploration. When we started this project, we’d only read about Browns Canyon. Once our eyes and ears were engaged, we realized that this area is unique to the valley. There really is nothing like it around here.”

The film mixes vibrant scenes of remote wilderness with rolling, twisting time-scapes and fleeting glimpses of bighorn sheep and deer, all shot with minimal camera movement and set to sublime cello music.

Nathan Ward photographs Colorado Senator Mark Udall while Friends of Browns Canyon member Michael Kunkel looks on. Photo by Susan Mayfield.
Nathan Ward photographs Colorado Senator Mark Udall while Friends of Browns Canyon member Michael Kunkel looks on. Photo by Susan Mayfield.

To minimize the impact on the landscape, Ward hiked and photographed throughout the area with minimal gear, a process he describes as “zero-impact filmmaking.” Rock pinnacles, wildflowers, moving water and wildlife mix starkly and colorfully, capturing the ruggedness and natural beauty of the area.

Ward and Bricker shot the film on Canon 7D Cameras in 1080 High Def during the fall, though they chose to use stock footage of the Arkansas River during spring runoff in past years. “We wanted to show the normal heart and roar of the river,” explained Bricker, “not a river in drought.”

The entire project was shot and edited in two months as a promotional piece for the Friends of Browns Canyon. Throughout the film, Ward and Bricker used the words of supporters as a subtle call to action. Interviews in the film include Sen. Udall, a proponent of national monument designation, and renowned nature photographer John Fielder, known for his vivid landscape photographs of Colorado’s mountains and parks. The film also includes the local perspectives of artist Susan Mayfield and third generation riverman Campy Campton.

Beyond images and words, music leads one through a film. The filmmakers approached renowned cellist Nick Takénobu Ogawa about using his music for the soundtrack, and the Atlanta-based performer agreed to donate use of his music to support the mission of the Friends of Browns Canyon.

The music weaves tightly through shots of raging whitewater and silent rock towers, providing a gentle soundtrack that conveys the solitude and remoteness of the Browns Canyon area.

The Spirit of Browns Canyon premiered to a capacity crowd at a fundraiser for Friends of Browns Canyon at Benson’s Tavern in Salida on Nov. 8. The event also featured a variety of environmental films from the Wild & Scenic Film Festival. The event raised nearly $3,000 for FOBC.

The Spirit of Browns Canyon Full from Grit & Thistle Film Company on Vimeo.

Ultimately, FOBC and the filmmakers will use the film as a visual tool to show the Browns Canyon area to people throughout the United States. They are currently embarking on a media campaign to get the word out to groups and businesses all the way from the Upper Arkansas River Valley, to the Front Range, to the halls of Congress of Washington.

Ward, who has worked on photography and writing projects in nearly 40 countries on six continents, reflected, “It was a special honor to be asked to make a film on Browns Canyon. I grew up here and had no idea that such a wild space existed literally out my back door.” While shooting in Browns Canyon, He saw only one other set of human footprints (and one mountain lion).

“I’m a fifth-generation Coloradan, and I know that here in the American West we so often take wild lands for granted. But open lands don’t exist like this throughout the world. It’s a real gift for us, the people of the Upper Arkansas Valley, to dictate the fate of an area that has remained virtually the same since before the time of humans. All we have to do is simply say, ‘Yes. We want to protect the wild lands around Browns Canyon’ and we can do it. It’s an easy way for all of us to show that we appreciate the spirit of this land.”