The river runner: How expedition kayaker Scott Lindgren balances a brain tumor, his mental health and tackling tough waters
Expedition kayaker is keynote speaker for The Longevity Project event Sept. 29
Scott Lindgren didn’t set out to make a documentary about himself.
Though the world-class kayaker is no stranger to being in front of and behind the camera, having produced numerous kayaking films and winning an Emmy for cinematography, this time he wanted to make a broader film about the history of the sport.
Like how “Dogtown and Z-Boys” captured skateboarding in Southern California, “The River Runner” originally aimed to tell the story of expedition kayaking via multiple athletes and characters. It wasn’t until years into the editing process that director Rush Sturges pivoted and made the narrative about Lindgren and his journey with a brain tumor.
Lindgren was diagnosed with a pituitary adenoma in February 2015. The size of a small baseball in the back of his head, the tumor wrapped around his right carotid artery and pressed on his optic nerves. The kayaker had fought rapids all over the world, including the Yarlung Tsangpo River in Tibet, but he was now headed into uncharted territory.
The diagnosis and subsequent hourslong brain surgery happened before work on the documentary even started, and he was hesitant to be in the spotlight. Opening up wasn’t natural for him. Lindgren said he initially wanted to just get back out on the water and finally mark the Indus River off his checklist without cameras.
The change of heart happened when Lindgren was in South America with Brad Ludden, founder of Denver-based nonprofit First Descents. The organization provides outdoor adventure opportunities — such as kayaking, rock climbing and surfing — for young adults impacted by cancer and other health conditions.
Lindgren experienced an outpouring of support once he disclosed his diagnoses, and he eventually came to the conclusion that maybe there was a greater message worth sharing.
“The River Runner” was the closing night movie at the 40th anniversary of Breck Film Fest last September. It won awards in the Best Adventure, Best Cinematography and Director’s Choice categories at the festival.
The film focuses on Lindgren’s 20-year quest to be the first person to kayak the four rivers that originate from Tibet’s sacred Mount Kailash in each cardinal direction, including the Tsangpo and the Indus.
The other main topic featured in the film is the toughen-up mentality commonly found in extreme sports. Lindgren said kayakers often can’t show weakness because it could jeopardize the safety of expedition. This creates a negative, self-isolating pattern where athletes use the dangerous, adrenaline-pumping sport to escape and then turn to coping mechanisms like alcohol when out of the water.
“It creates a behavior, and if you can’t compartmentalize it, then you drag that behavior into all of the other facets of your life,” Lindgren said.
Ludden told Lindgren that not many men apply for First Descents programs, and Lindgren immediately understood that it was because of a fear of vulnerability.
“Men, when they get diagnosed, they typically don’t know how to ask for help,” Lindgren said. “They typically isolate. Genetically, I think, it’s perceived as a weakness, and men don’t like to be perceived as weak.”
Finding an outlet
The outdoors have also provided a boon to Lindgren. He didn’t have the smoothest childhood, and he frequently got into fights growing up in Southern California. It wasn’t until his mother moved him and his brother to Rocklin, near Sacramento, that the outlook started to improve. Neighbors introduced the young Lindgren to rafting, and he found himself with a new passion.
The sport naturally gave way to kayaking, and Lindgren said one of the only things he had respect for as a kid was the river and recognizing how formidable nature is.
“Maybe that’s because I lost so many people that were close to me,” Lindgren said. “Maybe that was because when you’re on a super powerful river, it’s a force that is overwhelmingly strong. … It wasn’t until I got to experience the outdoors that I realized there was something other than … getting in trouble.”
Kayaking is also an arrow in Lindgren’s quiver that has been assisting him with the brain tumor. Before his descent on the Indus in 2017, Lindgren was told that the tumor was growing back. He had to decide whether treatment could wait a year because he knew it would take a lot of effort to get in the right space physically and mentally to take on daily kayaking and more ahead of the expedition.
He chose the river. Lindgren said doctors were convinced that running the hard river was going to tax his body, exasperate the tumor and make it grow faster.
“As it turned out, it did the opposite,” Lindgren said. “It actually seemed to slow it down a bit.”
Lindgren then participated in a study that included monitoring blood work, cortisol levels, heart rate and more. He’d run a difficult river, and results showed his biometrics were only slightly elevated.
Since the release of the film, Lindgren still kayaks and travels as much as possible, and he and his girlfriend have been tending to the Consumnes River Ranch, a campground and wedding venue with recreational opportunities in Northern California.
Lindgren is also working on his memoir with Thayer Walker, one of the screenwriters of “The River Runner” and an Outside Magazine correspondent.
It has been almost eight years since Lindgren’s diagnosis and, though the tumor’s growth has slowed to a snail’s pace, he’s looking at another surgery in six months to reduce its size once again. Treatments for people will naturally vary by case, but Lindgren’s main piece of advice to other patients is to open up.
“Vulnerability is strength,” Lindgren said.
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