'Back Water' Takes You on a Canoe Trip Through a Most Unlikely Wilderness Area

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'Back Water' explores a wilderness area that's the literal backyard of millions of people — the Hackensack River and New Jersey Meadowlands. (Photo: Jon Cohrs, 'Back Water')

The new documentary "Back Water" asks a lot of questions, but it mostly leaves the answers to the viewer. It's those lingering questions that kept this quiet, even relaxing, viewing experience stuck in my mind for days afterwards.

Clocking in at a mere 72 minutes, "Back Water," seems at first like a simple environmental travel documentary, if set in a unusual locale for such a project.

Director Jon Cohrs wanted to take his skills and point of view as a former wilderness guide at Glacier National Park in Alaska and bring them to a place where they hadn't been applied before: The wetlands adjacent to the most densely populated area in the United States. He spent 10 days navigating the Hackensack River into the New Jersey Meadowlands.

But this isn't a man-alone-in-the-wilderness situation. Cohrs brings along a crew that includes Nicola Twilley, a contributing writer at The New Yorker who hosts Gastropod, a podcast about food science and history; the hunter and hairdresser Sara Jensen; the cook and writer Erin Tolman; the lawyer Gillian Cassell-Stiga, who was raised in New Jersey just a few miles from the wetlands; Derek Hallquist, the film's lead cameraman and director of "Denial,"a film about 2018 Vermont gubernatorial candidate Christine Hallquist; and the sound person, Patrick Southern of "Get Me Roger Stone."

What is wilderness?

Four members of the Back Water team walk into the light with their backs facing the viewer
While the seven-person team spent a lot of time on the water, they did step on dry land to make camp, pick up supplies, and sometimes, to explore. (Photo: Jon Cohrs, 'Back Water')

Why would a former Alaskan wilderness guide choose to lovingly document a journey down a river that's crisscrossed by busy highways and commuter train lines, and whose shores are home to abandoned factories? "I really wanted to look at our experience of wilderness," Cohrs said in a virtual panel discussion via the New York Hall of Science. "It was an opportunity to challenge our beliefs around this space as well as take on the naive idea of navigating down this river and camping like we would if we were at one of these famous wilderness areas."

Whenever the camera more closely focuses on the group's activities — packing up the boats, cooking meals over a camp stove, looking at an interesting plant, or in one case, a muskrat skull, you can forget they were often just a few thousand feet from a mall or big-box store. It does feel like a wilderness space, and when the camera pulls back to show the larger scene — maybe a shopping complex or multiple bridges in the distance, or in one shot, the lights of Manhattan at night — you are reminded this isn't the wilderness we're used to seeing.

But the Meadowlands is a wild place — as evidenced by fire, unexpected flooding, wetland creatures, and the sometimes uncomfortable situations all these things put the human visitors in.

An 'anti-adventure movie'

There are also plenty of people: The canoeing-and-camping team are harassed a number of times, for sitting too close to a pipeline while eating lunch, moving quietly though a private arm of the waterway, and camping in the wrong place. The FBI even checks on the travelers in several calls that provide the bookends of the film. "I realized I'm used to being in labelled spaces where you knew if you were trespassing or not," but in the Meadowlands it was never clear, said Nicola Twilley. "I kept thinking, should we even be here? Are we allowed? And then the interactions [with the law enforcement] — they seemed confused as to how we were interacting with this landscape."

Despite those brushes with the law, and running low on water at one point, the documentary is meant to be "sort of an anti-adventure movie," says Cohrs. Its meditative pace and lingering shots on long views of the water and wildlife, paired with the group's quiet conversations over a stove or campfire make it easy to start seeing this industrial area as a natural space, too. "It was the most un-GPSed moment but also unmoored moments of my life," says Twilley, of the mood of those days, which is exactly what most of us feel when we escape to the wilderness. The Meadowlands really does seem to qualify.

The film ultimately makes a strong case to me that natural places, especially waterways, can serve as spaces where city residents who might not be able to go hundreds of miles away to a lake or to the mountains can connect with their own environment, which has been cut off from them for so long. And once they cherish a place, or even just understand and respect how and why it works as a water filtration system, wildlife habitat, and storm-surge buffer, they might more likely to protect it.