Darby McAdams and the Evolution of Passion


Halfway through high school, Darby McAdams was on the brink of something big. She had been kayaking for two years, and it consumed her free time. After school, she would paddle to Brennan’s Wave, Missoula’s human-made surf wave, from her house at the confluence of Rattlesnake Creek and the Clark Fork River. At the end of her session, she’d attain the river, paddling back upstream against the current, eddy-hopping her way toward home. In the spring, if the water was too high, she’d ride her bike with her kayak strapped to a little trailer her dad helped her build as a project for welding class. Alone after school, accompanied only by icebergs moving downstream, she practiced playboating tricks and built the foundation of her kayaking.

©American Whitewater

At five-foot-one-and-a-half, Darby’s muscle-to-mass ratio is advantageous in freestyle kayaking. Her parents, a dynamic duo of athleticism—her dad was a gymnast and her mom a bodybuilder—raised her in a town with a robust female kayaking community. The older generation of women paddlers in Missoula embraced Darby, inviting her to paddle the Alberton Gorge with them every Saturday. In addition to her father and coaches, she credits this constellation of river women for fostering a climate of confidence, social acceptance, and mutualism in kayaking.

Among the other influential women in her life was Darby’s high school film teacher, who sparked an ember of curiosity within her. In Ms. Cole’s class, Darby relished the process of storyboarding, analyzing films, and finding meaningful stories out in the world. She started paying attention to how films were made and who made them. As an independent study under Ms. Cole’s guidance, Darby created her first documentary, a short film about the push to build a second urban surf wave in Missoula’s Clark Fork River. Just as kayaking had hooked her when she was 14, she now had to make room for this emerging passion: telling stories that matter.

After a couple of years, Darby was paddling harder runs, playboating a lot, and competing in local events like the Bigfork Whitewater Festival on Montana’s class IV+ Swan River. Leading into her senior year, she received a partial scholarship with World Class Academy, a traveling high school for budding kayakers. After she graduated, Darby enjoyed two significant first-place finishes: Bigfork (though she says the timing was botched and that Nouria Newman should have won) and Unleashed in Quebec.

Despite the traction she was gaining as a competitive kayaker, Darby found herself still working to find her place in an established community of professional kayakers, and at times became skeptical of her ability to progress. “I had to get really good at surfing holes and dealing with mistakes before I could run class V smoothly,” she recalls.

Perhaps there should be a name for that space, that liminal zone between stalling and progressing. Progression isn’t linear, and the period when gains become increasingly hard-won is the toughest spot. Other paddlers offered Darby advice. Some suggested spending some time on class III, but to her, taking a step back wasn’t the answer. “In hindsight, I needed to think critically about my approach to kayaking,” she muses. “In the same way that every shot in a movie has intention and meaning, I needed to become more purposeful in my paddling. One way I did this was by learning how to teach kayaking. I was fortunate to have been mentored by a handful of phenomenal instructors, and that did wonders for my paddling.”

The key to moving into and through this period of more incremental improvements was to reflect on her skill set and return with a new perspective. To spend time where she felt competent and yet the challenge was real. And to find joy in doing hard things once again.

As she maneuvered through that space of doubt, Darby found that playboating offered a way to grow her skills without taking on quite as much risk. It was something she loved deeply and felt good doing. So, in December of 2017, she set out for Uganda to spend some time on the legendary surf waves of the White Nile.

For a kayaker, this was a crucial time to travel to Uganda. The construction of a new dam on the White Nile, a behemoth called Isimba, was nearing completion. The Ugandan river community was about to lose more of its fabled rapids to hydro development, including the iconic Nile Special surf wave. Darby became acutely aware of what big dams like Isimba mean for people living in the affected river corridor.

Two years before, while she was competing at the IFC World Championship on the Ottawa River, the Ugandan freestyle kayaking team had shared a film about the damming of the White Nile. Now, camped on the Hairy Lemon island in the middle of the White Nile, she thought back to that film. Darby didn’t have the proper gear to document what was happening in Uganda, and while she conducted some interviews with folks at the Hairy Lemon, those conversations didn’t give her nearly enough footage to make a film.

Isimba’s gates closed and the flooding of the White Nile began on November 2, 2018, ten months after Darby left Africa. The Hairy Lemon island, Nile Special, and all the rapids downstream of Itunda Falls are now buried beneath meters of stagnated water.

Upon her return from Uganda, Darby moved out to White Salmon, Washington, to work with Rush Sturges at his production company, River Roots. As a fully vetted kayaker, rejuvenated after her time on the Nile and recalibrated toward running difficult whitewater, she could join Rush on hard shoots. She was paddling more challenging rivers and steeper creeks. She began to paddle the Little White on breaks from editing. Her two passions were converging.

Between 2019 and 2023 Darby continued to podium in kayaking competitions like the Little White Race, the GoPro Mountain Games, and the North Fork Championship. At the same time, she worked with Rush to sharpen her skills as an editor and filmmaker.

As she dove deeper into the craft of filmmaking, she noticed an evolution in storytelling, where writers, journalists, and filmmakers sought stories that have been sequestered, silenced, or suppressed. This movement has subsequently created tension around who’s entitled or properly equipped to tell stories of or from marginalized communities. Is it exploitative for people from outside a culture or community to tell the stories from within it? And how can storytellers from dominant cultures act responsibly and respectfully considering this tension? All of this is to say, the real work of a modern filmmaker began to come into focus for Darby.

On the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, another superlative stretch of African whitewater is threatened by dam construction. The Batoka Dam project on the Zambezi was proposed in 1972, yet the timeline for its completion remains fuzzy. As Uganda put the finishing touches on Isimba, the clock continued to tick at a less certain pace for the Zambezi.

The Batoka site lies 54 kilometers downstream of Victoria Falls and will create a reservoir of the same length, flooding all of the storied rapids of the Batoka Gorge. Rattled by what had just happened to the Nile, Darby saw an opening. There was an important story to tell here. She began plotting a trip to the Zambezi.

Darby shared her ideas with friends at home. Benny Marr suggested she track down a local man named Mukuma, a porter who used to work with South African legend Steve Fisher. He’s connected to the river community, Benny told her, and he kayaks. “Benny put me in touch with Mukuma, who felt negatively about the dam. Mukuma was concerned that the dam would hurt his businesses—carving nyami-nyamis and portering. After multiple phone calls, I asked Mukuma if he’d want to make a film together. Eventually, he told me he was excited to be my main character.”

As she once again found herself in that liminal zone, taking the step from editor to filmmaker, Darby battled the existential question of her entitlement to tell this story. But as she leaned into building a relationship with Mukuma and learning his culture, she understood her role not as the storyteller but as the platform to give the story a place.

She conceptualized her film as a portrayal of the plight of the Zambezi as told by members of the portering community, and she took time to learn about the carvings Mukuma created that paid homage to the nyami-nyami.

At first, Darby was unsure of how much of the nyami-nyami lore was packaged for tourists and foreign kayakers, and how much of it represents an actual cultural or spiritual connection to the river. “Many local people carve Nyami Nyamis to sell to tourists, and the lore is definitely used to attract the attention of tourists, but it has its roots in Tonga mythology, ” Darby confirms.

Nyami-nyami is a god who once dwelled in the river. When Kariba Dam was finished in the mid-1950s, the structure separated Nyami-nyami from his wife and he grew deeply, furiously wrathful.

Between 1956 and 1960, the Kariba Dam displaced 57,000 Tonga people. Of those displaced, some believe that the more than 80 deaths during Kariba Dam’s construction and the destructive flooding it caused were acts of the Nyami-nyami’s revenge. And the kayakers have a guiding narrative there, too. They believe the emblem, carved into stone or wood and worn as a necklace, will protect them on the river. “It’s part of the bigger picture of compelling things going on,” Darby said. “I thought, I can find a thread in here.” The nyami-nyami created a narrative portal.

Near the River is not a film about what kayakers on vacation will lose when the Zambezi is dammed again. Rather, Darby focuses on who stands to lose the most. From what Darby saw in Zambia in 2022, there was no consortium or party actively organizing against the dam. One wonders if by letting progress stall out, the entities in charge of construction are banking on affected communities becoming complacent. Darby wonders, too, if, given the nominal pace at which the project is progressing, there’s not as much actual urgency as her film, in the end, suggests.

In light of this ambiguity (or, some might argue, obfuscation), her call to action is not to write letters or protest in opposition to the dam. Instead, her objective is to convince kayakers who visit Zambia to support the local tourism industry, directing their business to local porters as opposed to white-owned South African fixing companies.

With the energy generated by her film, Darby wants to help Mukuma, Chrispine, and Henry start their own company offering fairly compensated portering work for locals, as well as create a network of support for burgeoning safety kayakers.

At the same time, Darby continues to control her own evolving narrative.

Near the River premiered at the 2023 Banff Mountain Film Festival. The premiere represented so many things for Darby. No longer was she just a PA. She was a filmmaker. It also presented new opportunities for her. While kayaking—and one beloved high school teacher—had brought her to filmmaking, she realized that her film career didn’t have to run parallel to kayaking. Darby made connections at Banff, including one that landed her a job on an all-women camera crew, a commercial shoot for Danner Boots.

As for what’s next? Darby says she’s ready to swing from building her brand as an athlete, toward advancing her skills as a filmmaker. She’ll continue to do things at the edge of her comfort zone, calling on the tenacity and focus she cultivated as a kid, kayaking alone in the wintertime Clark Fork. At only 25, Darby has all the time in the world to draft the next chapters in her story.


Editor’s Note: Near the River will release in Fall of 2024.