There's a scene in "North of Known," where Gavin McClurg emerges from a thicket of bushes. He’s been hiking for hours through unforgiving ground, his clothes are shredded and he’s literally battling starvation. There’s a look of sheer desperation on his face.
He might not have gone paw-to-paw with a bear, but it’s a "Revenant" moment and he looks every bit as wild and unhinged as Leonardo DiCaprio in the Hollywood epic. The only difference is that McClurg’s was a story of battling against the odds during a bid to cross the Alaska Range by paraglider.
Watch Gavin McClurg fly through the clouds
Another scene sees him flying through the teeth of a storm. His whole face and sunglasses are iced up. It looks desperate.
“I don’t know of a more committing line that’s ever been flown in the world,” the 45-year-old Sun Valley, Idaho, native said.
The goal was a simple one — to make a complete west to east traverse of the Alaska Range past the iconic mountains of Denali, Foraker and Hunter, by both paraglider and foot. But the reality was far from simple.
Most people I knew just said, "you’re an idiot, there’s no way it can be done."
“It had never been done. It was the most remote paragliding line that’s ever been flown,” said McClurg. Yes, he knows that’s a bold claim, but points out they had zero knowledge about the feasibility of flying in the area before going.
North of Known GoPro vid
And that was one of the attractions for his expedition partner Dave Turner, himself a noted alpinist, paraglider pilot and all-round backcountry outdoorsman from Mammoth Lakes, California.
Turner’s survival skills would prove a lifesaver during the expedition. One of the biggest challenges was the logistical problem of how to take enough food. In the end, they settled on placing food caches along the way. But that plan meant going hungry if they fell behind schedule, which they did ... rather spectacularly.
“We’d been five days in a tent, then three days of going nowhere and we were basically out of food, but we were still doing these monster days,” recalled McClurg. “The biggest day we covered 12,000 feet of vertical gain on foot in 18 hours and each of us had just one of those instant packets of oatmeal worth 120 calories. We didn’t even cook it — we just poured it in our mouths. We were starving.”
At one point Turner was able to fish for some trout and, in the show, you can really see how desperately hungry the pair were as they devour the fish.
Following the pair was a three-man film crew from Reelwater Productions who caught up with them where possible. In reality, that meant long stretches on their own, but when they did connect it often meant McClurg and Turner had to watch them eat gorgeous home-cooked meals while they stuck to their meager rations.
“For authenticity, it’s important that when people see the suffering they see it’s real,” McClurg said.
Other times, the filming was just McClurg confiding to a GoPro. One evening after a particularly brutal day he opens his heart and says the whole thing sucks and they have no chance of making it.
“I love that in a film," he said. "It takes people on a true journey of what actually happened.”
And what happened next is that the pair battled on, at first together, then McClurg alone, to finish what he’d started planning six years before.
As an aside, McClurg now laughs that it was just as well he didn’t have a Revenant moment. “I discovered that my bear spray would do absolutely nothing — I’d bought a pepper spray that was only good for stopping Dave getting too close to me in the night.”