Born and raised along the Rogue River in southern Oregon, First Ascent kayaker Chris Korbulic has been on the river since before he could walk—and it shows. He’s now one of the most accomplished expedition kayakers in the world, walking the thin line at the limits of the sport and looking to go even further. With a life on the river and camera in hand, he has a unique ability to capture stunning whitewater images.
At Mountainfilm this year, Chris will present a photography exhibit and fellow First Ascent athlete and expedition partner Ben Stookesberry will present a short film. Both are dedicated to those who live their lives for adventure, document the kayak team’s Africa expedition last year, and pay tribute to African kayak guide Hendri Coetzee, who died tragically during that expedition.
Mountainfilm caught up with Chris and asked him a few questions.
Last year, you and Ben Stookesberry tackled a tough expedition to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). What inspired you to take on this kind of expedition?
CK: “Why” is definitely the most asked question of expeditions like these, but there is no answer in black and white. It’s one that must be asked though, one that I sometimes struggle to answer. Reasons for the DRC expedition were gray as any, but that doesn’t make them any less valid.
There are some definites about why to attempt a first descent in the DRC. The area has long been on the map of explorers, seeing attention from colonial era and style explorers like Stanley, Speke, Burton, and Livingston, of course. We traveled by kayak, paddling a mostly water route to achieve a first descent on the Lukuga River. This part of the Congo epitomizes “Wild Africa” and still abounds in mystery, not having garnered much modern attention or exploration. Hendri [Coetzee] had been on a 6-month solo trip through the DRC the year before and had nothing but the best things to say about the people, place, and experience. He couldn’t wait to go back. There had been little modern exploration of the area due to ongoing conflict, so having Hendri there was a great inspiration and changed our perspective of the region. And that’s what we tried to bring home.
Ultimately though, reason doesn’t fully support going on a trip that risks your life, so there has to be something more. Putting yourself up to the massive challenge of the unknown with as many factors at play as there are in the DRC represents an experience where you can learn about yourself and enhance your appreciation for life.
Your mission wasn’t only to run and document unexplored whitewater, but also to focus on the clean water crisis in Central Africa. How have you raised awareness about the challenges facing this region since your return?
CK: With the tragic end to our expedition, outside focus has been heavily focused on issues surrounding Hendri. However here at Mountainfilm, Ben Stookesberry’s film “Kadoma” and my photo exhibition includes a water crisis component that makes use of the unique nature of this expedition and our changing perspectives to raise awareness about water quality issues and call people to action.
How do you see adventurers and expeditions like this one as catalysts for change?
CK: Nothing can replace personal experience and the stories that come from expeditions to remote, but still affected places. Charts and graphs only take you so far, but an intimate story from the ground can bring you right there to where it’s happening and hopefully move people to action. The unique thing about river exploration is that we don’t always get away from everything like you might by climbing a snow-covered peak or crossing a desert. Rivers supply life-giving resources to so many people, and we get to see change and hear stories on an intimate level. This perspective can be a powerful tool in really bringing an issue home and moving people to action.
During this trip, a member of your expedition team, renowned African kayak guide Hendri Coetzee, died tragically. How do you take a loss like that and move forward? How have you turned your experience into something positive?
CK: I know many people deal with loss, but I can only speak for my experience. As someone who subsists on adventure and challenge, whose life revolves around a vision of what’s over the horizon, I now have to share that vision with another, terrifying vision of an unimaginable consequence. At the same time that my perspective on exploration potential and risk have changed immensely, I can’t imagine quitting.
It’s terribly difficult still, with this image that will never go away, and knowing that the worst can strike in the very best moments. The adventure is sometimes a terrifying thing to love, but when you do, there’s nothing that can replace it or push it out of your head. It’s the best remedy, inspiration, stimulation, and challenge that moves me towards learning the most about myself and the world.
It is a passion, and a life without it holds no appeal. I saw and heard that from Hendri the very first days I knew him, and it was reinforced every day until the last. This mentality kept Hendri going, and it will keep me moving forward, hopefully to share and inspire with his story.
Your photography exhibit at Mountainfilm is dedicated to those who live their lives for adventure. How do you see your exhibit as a movement to pay tribute to Hendri’s life and the lives of others?
CK: I hope these photos from our expedition bring viewers through the trip, through the best seven weeks of my life, the highs and lows from beginning to end. This was my first time anywhere in Africa, so these are views from virgin eyes being led by the experienced perspective of Hendri. None of these expreriences would have happened without Hendri, and all of them are from an adventure that was so much more than the high-action moments. They are about all the moments in between and the beauty to be found in each one. On expeditions, being 100 percent present and aware at all times is vital to success, enjoyment, and safety. You can’t lie to yourself, and if you do, nature is going to have its way with you. But sometimes it’s going to no matter what.
This exhibit is a remembrance of Hendri and what I think we would all call the best seven weeks of our lives. It’s a call to be present in whatever it is you are doing, to appreciate and enjoy each moment, not to merely go through the motions, but to live with passion.
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