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Documentary 'Three Rivers: The Bluestone, Gauley and New' from Huntington filmmaker Russ Barbour set to premiere on WV PBS

Mar. 03, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

HUNTINGTON -- Russ Barbour may live in Huntington but in the past few years the documentary filmmaker has been wandering like a kid, chasing stories he found floating along the New, Gauley and Bluestone rivers.

Fresh off of his coal-camp, Gorge-based documentary, "The Winding Gulf: Stories from West Virginia's Coalfield," Barbour, who has worked for West Virginia Public Broadcasting for more than 30 years, found himself immersed again in the stories flowing through the deep gorges of our ancient Appalachian Mountains.

Premiering at 8 p.m. today, March 3, is the 90-minute documentary, "Three Rivers: The Bluestone, Gauley and New," that was produced by West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with assistance from the National Park Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture, organizations charged with protecting portions of the New, Bluestone and Gauley and the lands through which they flow.

Barbour said the documentary was born out of projects that first ran in 2009 in conjunction with Ken Burns' "The National Parks; America's Best Idea."

Since PBS stations around the country had the chance to highlight some of their NPS sites during the Burns' high-profile run, Barbour turned a camera's eye to the Gorge for a couple half-hour documentary companion pieces, "Upheaval: The Story of the New River Gorge" and "Three Rivers."

While those films provided a solid overview of the area, Barbour said he knew there was an even deeper, broader story to tell, and many more angles to explore in the region, where sections of those three streams flow through the boulder-strewn heart of Southern West Virginia, make up more than 100 miles of stream, and create the largest federally protected system of rivers, east of the Mississippi.

"When it was said and done we had a lot of materials with no place for it and really we had not done anything yet with the Gauley and the Bluestone rivers," Barbour said. "We were shooting as a wide screen project and we were starting to accumulate all of this beautiful stuff and we had formed relationships with the National Park Service in 2009 so then in 2011 we were able to go back and shoot in earnest on those rivers and last summer we were able to finish it off."

Thanks to help from the NPS staff that assisted the WVPBS crew with rafting to hiking into the sometimes remote gorges, the film showcases fresh footage shot from such amazing places as Pillow Rock Rapid (the largest of more than 100 named whitewater rapids on the world-class Gauley River), to hiking and driving to get shots of the trout wrangling trips on the Bluestone River near Pipestem.

National Park Ranger Billy Strasser said in a release that teaming up with WVPBS has been fruitful.

"The meaningful partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting is helping park staff bring the stories of West Virginia's national parks to living rooms around the state and the nation," Strasser said. "Rangers worked side-by-side with PBS documentarians to create the films, floating down the wild Gauley and New rivers, as well as the tranquil Bluestone and hiking for miles over difficult terrain with heavy camera equipment to get the right shot."

Barbour also dug in and find some archival gems to help tell the story of the rivers. Some of that footage includes early 20th Century logging and coke production and, from 1970, mountaintop removal and an Earth Day parade.

Also featured are New River Gorge scenes depicting coal camp life, circa 1940, whitewater rafting in the 1970s and Hinton's West Virginia Water Festival in 1980, as well as 1940s construction of the Bluestone Dam, followed by the 1960 closing of its floodgates and news film, chronicling the groundbreaking, construction and dedication of Summersville Lake and Dam, featuring an address by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966.

Barbour said at times the archive footage spoke volumes in the focus of its narrative.

"There was a lot of film shot along the New River along 1939-1940," Barbour said. "The coal company shot the film and mostly to show their garden festival they had. A lot of the shots were of coal mining life and you don't see shots of the river. There is one shot looking over to Thurmond but that is mostly to showcase the railroad, but there is the river, just kind of getting in the way. That reflects the philosophy when coal mining and timbering was big, the river was seen as an impediment more than anything, so I think people are rediscovering it."

Barbour said he, too, rediscovered the rugged region which still in some ways is working out the tug of war between man and nature, though, efforts to improve the environment, have in recent times continued to render an ever-increasing new black gold - tourism.

In fact, a new study just came out this week stating that more than 1 million people came and poured some $53 million in tourism dollars supporting more than 700 jobs in areas surrounding the New River Gorge National River, Bluestone National Scenic River, and Gauley River National Recreation Area.

And that area's tourism industry is only going to rapidly grow as this doc premieres just months before the nation's eyes turn to the 10,600-acre Summit Bechtel Reserve, the new permanent site of the Boy Scouts of America's National Jamboree. That event will bring more than 40,000 scouts, Venturers, volunteers and staff from around the country from July 15-24.

"The documentary is to some degree a travelogue as well as a historical documentary with kind of a journalistic element to it," Barbour said. "I learn a lot when I do productions like this and you always meet interesting people and there is one gentlemen, Jim Phillips, a naturalist at Pipestem and in a lot of ways I feel the documentary revolves around him because of his philosophy on the outdoors and on preservation on life in that region. Even if we are talking about something completely different I think his philosophy really influences the directions we went, and that is very neat to find people who themselves, define the place where they live."

Along with members of the National Park Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, West Virginia Division of Natural Resources and Department of Agriculture, "Three Rivers" features interviews with area residents as well as U.S. Congressman Nick Rahall, Joseph Shimel, superintendent of New River State Park in North Carolina and author Austin Boyd.

Barbour said he shared some amazing moments with the people and animals that make the gorges their home.

He turned his cameras on at the gorgeous panoramic cliffs at Grandview where Wendy Perrone, who coordinates the New River Gorge Peregrine Restoration Project with the NPS, was releasing chicks as part of the project which is considered one of the most successful in the East. That program is trying to get the native falcons back to healthy numbers after the near extinction following the decades use of DDT (an insecticide) in the U.S.

He also interviewed folks in the Lilly family, who've been scratching out a living in the Gorge since Robert Lilly and his family settled along the Bluestone River, near the start of the 19th Century. He filmed at the Bluestone River town of Lilly now deserted after the government cleared the town to make way for the dam.

And the documentary makes its way to Flat Top, W.Va., where in 2009, the Guinness Book of World Records recognized the annual Lilly Reunion at Flat Top, in Mercer County, as the largest family reunion on the planet.

Since he didn't feel one voice could speak for the three diverse rivers, Carol Brodtrick, Danielle Adkins and Josh Taylor, respectively, give voice to the New, Gauley and Bluestone rivers. Dwight Mays is the narrator at the films' beginning and end.

"I wanted different narrators to give it a different feel as we jumped from this river to the next river," Barbour said.

"The Bluestone, Gauley and New rivers are as familiar as the mountains surrounding my Richwood home," said Brodtrick, former manager at WPBY. "We knew the Bluestone as a quiet place to go for the best fishing holes, the Gauley as an exciting river with flashing rapids and amazing waterfalls and the New River as the most beautiful with its deep gorges and winding streams."

A thread that runs through the film is how people's love and tie to the rivers created a groundswell of grassroot efforts to improve those river environments while also promoting economic growth through tourism.

"I think this documentary has a major environmental element," Barbour said. "I tend to try and refrain from being preachy but I think the story reveals itself... Really the story is in a nutshell the relationship between these environments and the beings that live there whether it's humans or black bears or smallmouth bass. It is about that ever-evolving relationship and where that is headed."

The rivers that run through it

WHAT: "Three Rivers: The Bluestone, Gauley and New," is a 90-minute documentary, produced by West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with assistance from the National Park Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture, organizations charged with protecting portions of the New, Bluestone and Gauley and the lands through which they flow.

WHEN: Premiere is at 8 p.m. Sunday, March 3, and repeat at 11 p.m.


ABOUT THE FILMMAKER: A 30-year veteran of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, Huntington resident Russ Barbour has worked on dozens of films and TV segments. Recently, he co-produced "Ken Hechler: In Pursuit of Justice," in 2008, and the next year produced "Reconstructing Bill: The Story of Governor William C. Marland," named Best Documentary Feature during the 2009 West Virginia Filmmakers Festival.

SEE HIS OTHER WORK: Barbour also co-produced "The Winding Gulf: Stories from West Virginia's Coalfields" in 2011, which is scheduled to air at 10 p.m. Sunday, March 3, following "Three Rivers: The Bluestone, Gauley and New."

On WV PBS.2 part two of "Ken Hechler: In Pursuit of Justice" will air at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 7. Also March 7, "Reconstructing Bill: The Story of Governor William Marland" will air at 10 p.m. on WV PBS.2.