Crossing the canyon: an interview with photographer and filmmaker Peter McBride

Photographer and filmmaker Peter McBride.

Peter McBride’s foray into photography began when hewas reporting a story for the High Country News in Paonia, Colo. When his editors showed enthusiasm for images he had shot, his storytelling expanded into photographs and films.

He’s since worked as an award-winning freelance photojournalist for National Geographic, Esquire, Outside, Men’s Journal, The Washington Post magazine and Smithsonian. His assignments have taken him to locales across the globe, from Mount Everest to Cuba, Africa and Antarctica, and he spent more than two years exploring every inch of the 1,500-mile-long Colorado River.

This past year, with former Outside editor and writer Kevin Fedarko, McBride journeyed through 7,000 miles of the Grand Canyon on foot to document the threat it faces. On June 5, McBride and Fedarko will relive their experience atthe Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in a National Geographic Live! event that begins at 7:30 p.m.

Kansas City Spaces: What made you and Kevin decide to explore the Grand Canyon on foot?
Peter McBride: It was actually my idea. I had done a lot of work on the Colorado River, which runs through the Grand Canyon. I started hearing about a lot of the challenges the national park itself was facing. We thought that walking through it would be an interesting way to not only highlight the most iconic national park in America, but also understand and learn about the challenges it’s facing.

KCS: What did you bring with you?
PM: We brought the bare necessities. I photographed the entire thing on one camera, with one lens. There’s no cell service, no electricity, very little water. I relied onsolar power and following wildlife tracks. And I tried to learn how to listen to the landscape and figure out where to find water.

KCS: What shocked you, once you started crossing the canyon?
PM: How big it is—it’s scale. Obviously it’s immense. When you walk the length of it, it takes on another level of enormity. It’s much bigger and harder than I ever anticipated.

KCS: Were you ever concerned about your survival?
PM: Every minute of every day. You forget what it feels like to be thirsty, and what it truly feels like to be hungry. I’ve done expeditions around the world for two decades now, but this was ten times harder than anything I’d ever experienced. Most of it was psychological, but then you’re of course drowning in incredible natural beauty all the time, so it’s an interesting juxtaposition.

Kevin Fedarko, left, and Peter McBride.

KCS: Was it a challenge to only have one camera?
PM: It was very hard and it was limiting because you don’t always have the lens you want. The Grand Canyon is notorious for eating electronics. Every time you go in there, you’re hiking 5,000 vertical feet down, so if you break your camera and you’re on a job for National Geographic, it’s a really long hike out. So that part was nerve-wracking. But the reality was we couldn’t move through that landscape if I was carrying so much camera equipment.

KCS: You use a lot of aerial footage of the park. What was it like to see it from above verses on foot?
PM: Being above is great, because it gives a great idea of its scale, but my preference is to be immersed in it. Being in its silence and all of the wildlife is really remarkable. Most people don’t realize how rich in wildlife it is, but it has the largest range of biodiversity in all of our natural parks. We encountered a lot of spiders and rattlesnakes a lot of different birds—a remarkable number of birds. There’s deer, elk, (mountain) lion, sheep, beaver, endangered species of fish, and a lot of frogs and bats. You can get woken up by the rush of bat wings in the morning and go to bed to the croak of frogs at night.

KCS: What can people expect from the National Geographic Live! event?
PM: They’ll get to have a very unique journey through the Grand Canyon, one that they don’t have to ever replicate. But they’ll also get a very entertaining, humor-filled adventure with an odd couple duo. It’s a great evening, because it combines old-fashioned storytelling with a modern-day adventure in an ancient landscape. And my cohort Kevin is incredibly funny and incredibly articulate and gifted as a writer. It’s an entertaining evening that’s also informative.

KCS: What do you hope the audience takes away from the evening?
PM: I hope people realize how lucky we are to have such a natural treasure, anatural wonder, and that they realize it takes the public, each generation’s energy and effort, to pass it forward to the next generation as it is. I think that’s why we have national parks, to remind us of our place in this world—that we depend on nature, we don’t control nature.

There’s a huge push to turn the Grand Canyon’s beauty into cash, and people can get involved with the group we partner with, The Grand Canyon Trust. That helps people better understand the complexities of the issues around it. But also to just go and at some point visit it, and try to visit it in a way that you get away from the motorized version. You can actually do that despite your physical ability in many ways.

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