The Race to Alaska is back, in theaters and on the water


the Race to Alaska – a 750-mile unpowered, unsupported boat race from Port Townsend, Wash., to Ketchikan – is back after a two-year hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic.

First place wins $10,000 in cash, which is nailed to a piece of wood in Ketchikan. Second place receives a set of steak knives. All other graduates get is a sense of accomplishment and great stories to tell.

There’s a new documentary called “The Race to Alaskawhich stitches together these stories to take the viewer on an epic journey, while also explaining what the race is all about.

Zach Carver directed “Race to Alaska,” which is hilarious at times and deadly serious at others. Carver says the duality is true to competitors and the race itself.

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Zack Carver: I mean, it’s an interesting thing, because if you took your time, the Inside Passage is very doable. People did it in a basic canoe. But the element of running makes it much more difficult. And when you remove the engine from the equation, it becomes quite a pain. There are huge tidal currents in the area that can run in some places at over 15, 16 miles per hour. There are places that look like a river, which changes direction, you know, with the tide. Cold water, hypothermia, remote areas, hitting rocks, going 24 hours a day. And then, like, if you’re a small boat, there’s bears on the shore if you have to camp and so on. So there is a lot to manage.

Casey’s Grove: Yeah, I’ll say. There’s a quote from one of the co-founders, who says winning is the least interesting thing in the race. What does he mean by that?

Zack Carver: Just watching people get up on this waterway is so mesmerizing. Like, there are just some amazing characters taking it and a lot of really unique methods of doing it. So if you said, “Oh, I have to drive a mile.” Well, the person who drives a mile in a car – that’s pretty doable. But the person who decides to somersault a mile is much more interesting. And so I think when you see people on, like, a small, small craft, and there’s a stand-up paddleboard that’s doing it, there’s people who have made their home pedals doing it by solo, it just starts to be more fascinating. For example, how do you approach this with different limitations?

Casey’s Grove: Yeah, absolutely. There’s, it seems, a lot of humor, in the editing and the stuff of the movie and finding that balance between the humor and the real serious aspects of it, where it’s like a life situation or dead there, probably, sometimes, how did you find that balance? Or how did you approach that?

Zack Carver: I mean, I really think it’s authentic to the event and the people involved in it to create that humor. A lot of our starting point was just the people themselves, the things they self-documented, the things they chose to point their own cameras at. There is often a lot of humor. And I think the organizers also have a very, like a real gallows humor about them, in a really, I think, positive way. And so we wanted, I wanted, to imbue the film with the same good-natured humor of the people involved in it. And I also think it’s related to that kind of adventure – where if you don’t have a sense of humor, you can’t get through the difficulty.

Casey’s Grove: I guess different competitors in the race had cameras with them. And how did you manage to, you know, shoot all this video to make this movie with people, like, in different years and with different people in different boats. How did it all work?

Zack Carver: It was a lot. I mean, you have your teams spread out over 750 miles of racetrack. And there are more than 40 teams every year. And there are only two checkpoints. So there are only two places where you predictably know someone is going to be. And so we strongly encourage people to shoot on whatever camera they have, you know, GoPros, cell phones, sometimes more sophisticated cameras. We had a sponsor for a year from a company called Intova which was like a competitor to GoPro. So we gave everyone an Intova camera for a year, which gave a lot of fun things because people weren’t expecting to have this camera. So I think that made them performative, which was pretty cool. But yeah, in general, that’s the challenge of that, as well as finding opportunities to film the context and go out with drone shots, or aerials, or documenting for other boats.

Casey’s Grove: So for the guy who just hit the streets and has never really been into boating, for someone who has never heard of this race and sees the film poster or whatever, what do you want them to know about it?

Zack Carver: I want them to know it’s going to be a fun ride. It may be a funnier film than the poster suggests. I know I had a funny time. We had our LA premiere last night. And some friends who hadn’t seen him said there was a really funny moment where at first they watched him say, ‘Oh my God, I could totally do that. I could be one of those people. I could do this race. And then about five or 10 minutes later, they see the gravity and the seriousness of it and they go, “Oh man, I have a lot to learn. I don’t think I can do this race. Hearing that they got swept up in it and they – I don’t know, I feel like this is a movie that you can get swept up in, and there’s just a lot to learn about that, that region , these people, this waterway . I don’t know, it’s not like take-out. But I think it’s a fun emotional ride that going through it really changes everyone who does it. Every runner who’s done this thing ends with a look at their face of change and accomplishment, and I hope the film conveys that, that it’s immersive, and that you can feel some of that transformational quality.

The 2022 race begins June 13.


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