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Headwaters Down: five friends, thirteen days and one big adventure on the James

Headwaters Down
Writer and filmmaker Will Gemma narrates the 13-day journey down the James.

Headwaters Down is a documentary made by five friends from college who paddled canoes 250 miles to Richmond. The EPA says 50% of the James River is polluted, but the journey begins where the water runs clean according to co-director, writer and narrator Will Gemma.

“This is the clear water of the Cowpasture River, and this water belongs to the Jackson.," he says, showing footage from each. "One is free of industry The other is the dumping ground for one of the largest paper mills in the world. These two river make up the headwaters of the James River. It’s almost fitting that it begins this way – emblematic of a river that has been abused for as long as any in America, and yet also considered a major success story -- an example of a river’s incredible resilience.”

Justin black
Headwaters Down
Musician Justin Black composed and recorded the film's soundtracik.

He and co-directors Justin Black and Dietrich Teischner delighted in amazing scenery and the soothing sounds of the James.

“If you don’t see the river or the mountains every day, it’s easy to forget what actually being there feels like and how special it is – at least until your butt starts to itch," he jokes, adding in a deep and worried voice: Hour four – disaster strikes – chafed cheeks!

The 13-day trip will treat them to sightings of eagles, egrets and butterflies, the warmth of many campfires and the joy of catching fish.

Stephen Kuester.jpeg
Headwaters Down
In a moment of high drama, Stephen Kuester fulfilled a long-time goal in life -- catching a musky.

“Whoa! Oh my God, boys. Oh my God! It’s a musky. I’ve never caught one before!" he says. "I’ve been after one forever. If I don’t catch another fish on the trip it’ll be alright.”

But they will also witness an incredible array of trash.

“Old cans, newer bottles here, a lawn chair," Gemma says, cataloging what they found. "There are so many tires, and the clash with the natural environment, the beautify of the river, the beauty of the mountains and the parks around here is painful to see.”

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Headwaters Down
Naturalist and arborist Andrew Murray kept campfires burning and helped identify plants and creatures the filmmakers saw on their trip.

And co-director Will Gemma says there’s plenty of unseen waste in the water.

“Lynchburg and Richmond both have Civil War-era sewage systems that any time in rains heavily they go wide open, right into the James, unfiltered.”

Life, like the river, may carry other unpleasant surprises – like the angry encounter with an armed man at one of their campsites. He ordered the party to leave, and the guys departed quickly with a new understanding of camp etiquette. It turns out many little islands in the James have been sold. Some people don’t like trespassers, they don’t like to share, and the beauty of the world is marred by people with a bad attitude

Headwaters Down
Actor Dietrich Teschner played himself in this movie.

Next they brave rapids, endure a long hunt for one lost canoe and warn of future environmental dangers, but they also celebrate the survival of the river and hope to encourage others to discover for themselves what an amazing place it its.

Headwaters Down is available on Prime.

Still to come, a sequel, in which our intrepid Virginia travelers take kayaks from Richmond to the sea.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief