Photographer Sam Starr on navigating life's turbulent currents
After graduating from rehabilitation boarding school in 2013, I was ready to apply what I’d learned at rehab to the real world. Before healing, I fell victim to many lies in my head that became self-fulfilling prophecy-type stuff. I was depressed, using drugs, and drinking, and I had a bad relationship with my parents; I was only 15. One of the best parts about the recovery center was the emphasis on fun. You don't have to get high or drunk to have fun; there’s so much more out there. They introduced us to rock climbing, mountain biking, skateboarding, and many other fun outside activities. I found my identity no longer rooted in the lies of my head, and I found a ton of healthy outlets through the outdoors.
After spending eight months away, I graduated and got to come back home. It was summer, and my uncle called me asking if I wanted to go down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. I’d never heard of her, but it sounded pretty epic. My uncle was the person to go with, too. With years of NOLS, fly-fish guiding, ski patrolling, and river-running under his belt, I trusted it would be pretty epic. The trip came at a perfect time when I was trying to figure out the trajectory of my life. I now know how much of an influence it had on what I do today.
Fast forward to our launch date: It was a crisp, cool morning in Idaho as we rigged our boats and sent them down the boat ramp, which is more of a massive boat-sized slide. Over the next week, I fell in love with boating and everything that came with it: waking up in the cool mornings; coffee and fantastic breakfasts; the hot springs in the rainy weather; the dry-fly fishing that was good the whole trip; setting up a new camp and finding the best spot for my tent and hammock. I was hooked, and I wanted more.
A year passed before my uncle Tim was diagnosed with brain cancer. During this time, I had moved to southern Missouri, dropped out of college, worked lawn care, got into canoeing, and pursued photography on the weekends, capturing any outdoor adventure my friends had. It was devastating news to our family as it was all so unclear what would happen. Ultimately, the whole family was brought closer because of it, and my uncle was miraculously healed of his cancer.
We’ve picked up right where we left off before his diagnosis. He joined me at my bachelor party as we floated down the Eleven Point River in southern Missouri and, more recently, down the Tatshenshini River up north. The river trip starts in the Yukon Territory up in Canada, meanders through British Columbia, into Alaska, and finally reaches the Pacific Ocean through Dry Bay, Alaska.
We got to spend a ton of time together on this trip. We floated one hundred and thirty miles over thirteen nights. The river is glacial-fed, so it’s murky, and the flows range widely based on glacial activity and weather. We meandered our way down and talked about life and the hard things. You get close fast when you spend 13 days in the wilderness without distractions from the everyday hustle and bustle. We rafted past giant glaciers that hung from mountains taller than the sky. We watched huge icebergs unwillingly choose their lines through the rapids, and we camped in the thick brush of the mountains and near giant drainages of glacial runoff. We laughed, ate fantastic food, played games, and talked about rocks. We rested and spent time together.
Of all the beauty and amazing things we saw on the trip, my uncle and I decided the people were even more beautiful. The stories we have all lived and the hardships we have all been through have formed us into the people we are, much like the glaciers that feed the Tatshenshini that are constantly changing the landscape and trajectory of the river. No matter how much the river changes or how many unexpected turns it makes, it always finds the ocean. No matter what life throws at us or what hardships we endure, we have each other, and that is one of the greatest gifts of all time.