By MiChelle Jones, NPT
On Labor Day 2016, while others spent the day grilling and relaxing, photographer John Guider set off on what would be a two-month, 1,000-mile journey along Tennessee’s waterways. His goal was to follow, as closely as possible, Col. John Donelson’s 1779 journey from Virginia to what would become Nashville. Guider’s voyage was chronicled by The Tennessean and is now the subject of an NPT original documentary, Voyage of Adventure: Retracing Donelson’s Journey, premiering Thursday, July 26, at 8 p.m. on NPT.
Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Kathy Mattea narrates the one-hour program, which was produced by NPT’s Will Pedigo. Voyage of Adventure includes stunning river footage, excerpts from Donelson’s journal and images shot by Guider during his autumn excursion. “By being on the river, just a few feet above the waterline, I get to view nature in a very unique way,” Guider says in the documentary. “I’m on the water looking up at nature. And I’m looking up in celebration, and in awe, and reverence.”
This was Guider’s third river project. The first was traveling the length of the Mississippi River, a nearly 2,500-mile journey over three years. Next came his “Great Loop” project, 6,500 miles over seven years that included waterways from the Gulf of Mexico, up the East Coast and across the Great Lakes. The idea to follow Donelson’s route came during that project when Guider came across a commemorative marker, a chance encounter that also solved a conundrum. After spending two-and-a-half years with his craft, Guider says it became so personal that he couldn’t name it (his wife declined to have it named after her).
“I named my boat the Adventure II in honor of his [boat],” Guider said. Guider continued traveling the Great Loop, but he kept coming back to Donelson. “I just couldn’t get his story out of my mind, so I decided this was going to be my next adventure: retracing Donelson’s journey and using it as a comparison, not as a reenactment. I had his journal and I knew the locations of where he was speaking…and that’s where it all began.”
Though Guider spends weeks at a time on the river, he says the trips themselves are somewhat spontaneous without a lot of planning. “I talked about it for two to three months,” he says of the Donelson project. “The boat was fairly ready, it just needed to be reconditioned and repainted.” As for his own condition, Guider tries to stay in fairly good shape, but until this year didn’t have a rigorous exercise program. “I knew if I go out on a journey, if the first day I can only row three or four hours, it’s no big deal.”
That, Guider says, is the advantage of traveling alone. “As you’re doing it at your own pace, it’s not that hard. In the morning when I wake up, I’m kind of tired and groggy, it’s just like any other morning no matter where I am,” he says. “But then I get out in the water and start rowing and the endorphins kick in. Within a few minutes, a big, broad grin is stretching across my face and I know I’m alive again and all is well.” He travels without a chase vehicle, which may seem especially adventurous, but Guider brushes it off. “Curiously enough this journey, no matter where I am, I’m only four hour’s drive from home, even though it’s a 1,000-mile water course.”
For Guider, this trip was a balance between photography mission and curiosity about Donelson’s voyage. “I wanted to learn more about Donelson and why the heck he did this. People think what I’m doing is kind of insane, but what he did was not only insane, but he corralled his whole family,” Guider says. “The other thing is my love for Tennessee; part of my mission is to educate and illuminate and make people aware of how precious this landscape is.”
Additional broadcast times for Voyage of Adventure: Retracing Donelson’s Journey are below; the documentary will also be available for online viewing at wnpt.org/voyage-of-adventure/.
- Monday, July 30, at 8 a.m. on NPT2
- Tuesday, July 31, at 1 p.m. on NPT2
- Wednesday, Aug. 22, at 8:30 p.m. on NPT
- Friday, Aug. 24, at 8:30 a.m. on NPT2
- Saturday, Aug. 25, 10:30 p.m. on NPT
This NPT original production is in partnership with The Tennessean. Major funding for Voyage of Adventure was provided by The Anne Potter Wilson Foundation, Bank of America, N.A. Trustee; Martin S. Brown Jr. and the MSB Cockayne Fund; Gilbert S. Merritt; and Dell. Additional support was provided by Eileen Beehan; Sally Pack Farms; Karen Dunn Cochran; Julie Davis; Rachel Stockley Donelson Chapter, DAR; Sally L. Dunn; Andrew Donelson Dunn; Calvin and Marilyn Lehew; and Ophelia Paine.