With Gone Paddling, Jesse Hieb doesn’t want to stop at changing how we think about the Wisconsin River. He’s out to change how nature documentaries talk about conservation.
In 2014, Jesse Hieb set out to cross Lake Michigan on a paddleboard — and record himself doing it. He made it halfway before the conditions became too treacherous, and both Hieb and his small filmmaking crew were forced to turn back.
A more rational person would have seen a near-death experience as a sign to dial things back, but Hieb doesn’t fit that bill. He’s been called a “crazy motherfucker” whenever he tells people about Gone Paddling. A positive spin on the nature documentary — a subgenre too often dismayed over conservationist negativity — Gone Paddling features Hieb paddleboarding once again, this time down the Wisconsin River. And Hieb’s audacious production all manages to fit on his standup board, GoPro camera and all, for a film he hopes will draw attention to the massive facelift the Wisconsin River has undergone in the last three decades. He wants to do the exact opposite of the Inconvenient Truths of the world: make us feel good about the earth. And if he becomes the first to reach the Mississippi River on a paddleboard, all the better.
When I spoke to Hieb over the phone, he was approaching Lake DuBay and 200 miles out of the river’s 430 total. And yes, he was paddleboarding at the same time:
How’s it going?
I’m about a day behind in my mileage. I had hoped to hit 200 miles yesterday which will probably happen today instead. But that’s okay. This was never about setting a record. It was about experiencing everything the Wisconsin River has to offer. I’ve been stopped a few times and got stuck chatting for a half hour, 45 minutes here and there, and that’s okay. It gives me a chance to tell people about all the cool stuff that’s going on with the river, and that’s really cool. I’ve got plenty of time.
What’s that conversation like when you tell people what you’re doing?
The common reaction I get is that people have no idea that the Wisconsin River used to be polluted. They’ll ask, “When was that, a couple hundred years ago?” and I say “No, try 40.” When I tell them about all that’s been done, like decreasing pollution by 93%, they’re just as amazed as I am. We talk about how incredible it is that thousands of people over the last 30 years agreed to make a difference to revitalize this river. There have been times when people who live on the river tell me they remember those days, and remember how disgusting the river was. They just don’t realize it took billions of dollars and companies and towns getting their act together.
You attempted something similar two years ago, across Lake Michigan.
I had my eyes set on crossing Lake Michigan, and I wanted to do it at the widest and most difficult spot, from Milwaukee to Muskegon. I made it 48 when the weather turned on a dime in the middle of the night. Me and my four-man crew fought for like 5 hours on our support boat. For a while I don’t think any of us besides the captain thought we were going to survive.
You thought you were going to die?
Yeah. Big water is not something to mess with, and I knew that going into it. Most people don’t realize Lake Michigan is enormous and dangerous. It’s got more shipwrecks on it than the Bermuda Triangle, but a lot of people, especially non-Midwesterners, don’t realize that water can turn on you in a heartbeat if it wants to.
Comparatively, the Wisconsin River isn’t as intense?
No, but this is definitely sharpening my mental game a lot more. I paddle anywhere from 8 to 10 hours a day on this river. My mental game has to be a lot stronger.
I have to imagine Gone Paddling was influenced in some way by your Lake Michigan experience.
Definitely. I’ve been paddling for almost 10 years on kayaks, but I just started paddleboarding two years ago, a couple months before I did Lake Michigan [laughs]. Even after Lake Michigan, I wanted to try it again, I just didn’t have time to train, so about six months ago, I began looking for something that would get me away from my phone and put me out in nature to experience God’s creation. I had been on the Wisconsin River a few times already and thought this would be great. It’s the longest river in Wisconsin, it stays in Wisconsin, and I could potentially be away from the city for like three weeks. When I was debating what kind of watercraft I would take, I decided on the paddleboard because it’s easier for me to bring my gear on this than a kayak. It’s easier to portage, too, and I’ve come to love paddleboarding and how it gets me on the water, which is how this started. The awareness about the river came later. I was originally planning on doing this and not telling anyone about it, just putting a gone notice on my email and that would be it [laughs]. Things change pretty quickly
I read that you experience more than a few Zen moments while paddleboarding. Are you getting that out of this, too?
It’s less about the paddleboarding and more about being on the water. It’s a time when nobody can bother me. I feel okay turning my phone off, and in the case of the Wisconsin River, it’s been amazing. Even when I’m getting tired, I’ll come around the corner and have the most spectacular views. You smile and realize that God created this, and it’s incredible.
Speaking of spectacular views, Gone Paddling‘s Facebook page has a number of them to share. I assume you’re remotely managing that, too?
I have a couple friends helping me out because there are times when I can’t reach out and get back to people right away. So they keep an eye on it for me. I started out by doing most of the live Facebook videos through my personal page, and I’m slowly trying to transfer that stuff over.
Do you know of any films similar to what you’re attempting?
I’ve seen a couple documentaries about freshwater issues, but Gone Paddling is unique because it’s all about celebrating the accomplishments of conservationists. Most of the time, we get films telling us how bad everything is. Yeah, there’s still work to be done on the Wisconsin River but the change is incredible. This is really about telling a story that inspires others dealing with dirty rivers to say “Hey, it’s really possible. I wonder if we can do that, too.” Wisconsin has completely revitalized its river and now has thousands of dollars added to its industries, not including tourism. Oh, and they have a freshwater resource again.
Your’e chatting. You’re portaging. You’re updating social media. How do you find time to make a movie in all that?[laughs] That’s a good point. I’m documenting everything with GoPro and some time lapses. I do about a time lapse per day, which doesn’t take long. And then I meet up with people, like [Godfather of the Wisconsin River] Bob Martini. I met with Bob maybe five days ago, and after talking with him for 15 minutes for our Facebook page, I decided I had to come up two weeks later with a crew and expand on that. We’re going to spend another week and a half with conservationists.
So Gone Paddling will be a combination of forms, GoPro and all.
My original vision wanted to be a combination of different forms. Time lapses, GoPro, even some of my Facebook live videos. Every night I also do a video journal in my tent talking about the day and the different interviews I’ve had. It’s important to be open about changing your initial plan. My goal is to think of all the unique ways to show how incredible the river is and how best to show my experience going down it.
What’s the extent of your filmmaking team? How much help do you have?
I used to work with a company, so I have a number of different editors I work with. Some of them do more corproate stuff. Some do longer films. There’s probably 20 or so people I work with and trust really well, everyone from colorists to editors, to people who specialize in audio and can fix the terrible stuff I shot. When i go back up [to Milwaukee] in Oct, I’ll grab people I know that have a passion for the outdoors and work with them.
You seem like you’re in great spirits but how tired are you right now?
Dude, I’m exhausted. Originally, I had this brilliant plan where when I got done paddling in the evening, I was going to fish or learn a few songs on my tin whistle. No way. I get done and I don’t even want to make dinner. [laughs]
- You can follow Jesse’s progress down the Wisconsin River, as well as the progress on the film, at Gone Paddling‘s Facebook page