These modern-day kayakers followed a route from the past to make Voyagers Without Trace.

These modern-day kayakers followed a route from the past to make Voyagers Without Trace.

Courtesy of Ian McCluskey

Ian McCluskey didn’t go looking for the French Trio — they found him. While visiting a remote corner of Wyoming, he stumbled upon a historic marker bearing the faded photograph of three kayakers.

“They didn’t look like the rugged mountain men or explorers of the American West that I’d seen before on historic signs,” McCluskey said. “Instead, they seemed like they could have been my friends.”

The French Trio from Voyagers Without Trace

The French Trio from Voyagers Without Trace

Courtesy of Ian McCluskey

The photo inspired McCluskey, a filmmaker and the artistic director at NW Documentary in Portland, to dig deeper. He learned that the three people in the photo were newlyweds Genevieve and Bernard de Colmont and their friend, Antoine de Seynes. In 1938, these explorers, known as the “French Trio,” set out on an adventure to be the first to take kayaks down the mighty Green and Colorado rivers — a journey of 900 miles.  

The more McCluskey learned the more fascinated he became. Not only did these kayakers brave the unknown, they documented their travels on 16-millimeter film. In color. A year before Hollywood’s first color movie would hit theaters. As a filmmaker himself, how could he resist this story?  

“To go further on this search meant one unavoidable thing: I had to go down the river,” McCluskey said. “There was just one problem: I didn’t know how to kayak!”

Undaunted, he formed his own trio — enlisting the help of two seasoned kayakers — and followed the trail of the French kayakers through the rivers of the American West. Through whitewater rapids, unpredictable weather, and unforeseen challenges, McCluskey and his crew documented their journey, looking for evidence of the French Trio along the way.

The result of this endeavor is McCluskey’s documentary “Voyagers Without Trace,” which combines the French Trio’s pristine archival footage with visuals and insights from his present-day experiences.

“From my discoveries emerged a story more remarkable than I could have imagined,” McCluskey said. A story of history, adventure, and “the possibilities that free-spirited risk-taking offers to all.”

OPB is pleased to present “Voyagers Without Trace” as part of the 2016 Oregon Lens Film Festival, which showcases some of the best independent films in the Pacific Northwest.