River Runner: How Scout Lindgren, Expeditionary Kayak Maker, Balances a Brain Tumor, His Mental Health, and Tough Water Treatment

Kayaker Scott Lindgren stands looking out over the Indus River. Lindgren’s athletic and wellness journey is the focus of the documentary “The River Runner,” and he will be the keynote speaker at The Longevity Project event.
Mike Dawson / Image Courtesy

Scott Lindgren did not set out to make a documentary about himself.

Although the global kayak maker is no stranger to being in front of and behind the camera, having made several kayaking movies and winning an Emmy for Cinematography, this time around he wanted to make a broader movie about the history of the sport.

Like how “Dogtown and Z-Boys” took over the ski game in Southern California, “The River Runner” was originally intended to tell the story of kayaking across many athletes and characters. Within years of the editing process, director Rush Sturges centered and made the narration about Lindgren and his journey with a brain tumor.

Lindgren was diagnosed with a pituitary adenoma in February 2015. The size of a small baseball at the back of his head, the tumor wraps around his right carotid artery and compresses his optic nerves. The boat has battled rapids all over the world, including the Yarlung Tsangpo River in Tibet, but is now heading into uncharted territory.

The diagnosis and subsequent brain surgery that lasted for hours was made before work began on the documentary, and he was reluctant to be in the spotlight. Opening up was not natural to him. Lindgren said he initially wanted to get out into the water and finally get the Indus off his checklist without cameras.

The change of heart occurred when Lindgren was in South America with Brad Lowden, founder of a Denver-based non-profit organization. The first descendant. The organization provides opportunities for outdoor adventures—such as kayaking, rock climbing, and surfing—for young people affected by cancer and other health conditions.

Lindgren experienced an outpouring of support once his diagnosis was revealed, and he eventually came to the conclusion that perhaps there was a greater message worth sharing.

“River Runner” was last night’s closing film on the 40th anniversary of the BRIC Film Festival last September. He. She Prizes won Within the categories of Best Adventure, Best Cinematography, and Director’s Choice at the Festival.

The film centers on Lindgren’s 20-year quest to be the first person to kayak the four rivers that originate from Tibet’s sacred Mount Kailash in every major direction, including the Tsangpo and Indus.

Another major theme featured in the movie is the hard-core mentality common in extreme sports. Lindgren said kayak makers often don’t show weakness because it could jeopardize the safety of an expedition. This creates a negative self-isolation pattern in which athletes use extreme adrenaline-inducing sports for a run and then turn to coping mechanisms such as alcohol when they are out of the water.

“It creates a behavior, and if you can’t compartmentalize it, you drag that behavior into all other aspects of your life,” Lindgren said.

Luden told Lindgren that not many men apply for First Descendant programs, and Lindgren immediately understood that it was out of fear of weakness.

“Men, when they are diagnosed, usually don’t know how to seek help,” Lindgren said. “They usually isolate. Genetically, I think, it’s seen as a weakness, and men don’t like to be seen as weak.”

Scott Lindgren is photographed at the Royal Gorge on the North Fork of the American River. The California native has kayaked around the world, navigating some of the toughest waters and brain tumors all at once.
Eric Parker / Image Courtesy

Finding an outlet

The outdoors also provided a boon to Lindgren. He did not have a smooth childhood, and he often got into fights growing up in Southern California. Outlook only began to improve after his mother and brother moved him to Rocklin, near Sacramento. The neighbors introduced young Lindgren to rafting, and he found himself having a new passion.

Sports naturally gave way to kayaking, and one of the only things he respected as a child, Lindgren said, was the river and realizing how wonderful nature is.

“Maybe it’s because I’ve lost so many people close to me,” Lindgren said. “Maybe it was because when you are on a very powerful river, that power is so powerful. … I didn’t realize that there was nothing other than … getting into trouble.”

Rowing is also an arrow in Lindgren’s quiver, which has been helping him treat a brain tumor. Before landing in the Indus River in 2017, Lindgren was told that the tumor was growing again. He had to decide if the treatment could wait a year because he knew it would take a lot of effort to get to the right place both physically and mentally to do daily kayaking and more before the expedition.

He chose the river. Lindgren said that doctors were convinced that running in the hard river would overburden his body, exasperate the tumor and make it grow faster.

“As it turns out, I did the opposite,” Lindgren said. “It actually seemed to slow it down a bit.”

Lindgren then took part in a study that included monitoring blood work, cortisol levels, heart rate, and more. He was running in a difficult river, and the results showed that his biometrics were only slightly elevated.

Since the movie’s release, Lindgren still kayaks and travels as much as possible, and he and his girlfriend have been looking after the River Consumer Ranch, a camping and wedding venue with recreational opportunities in Northern California.

Lindgren is also working on his memoirs with Thayer Walker, one of the screenwriters for “The River Runner” and one of the Journal reporter outside.

It’s been nearly eight years since Lindgren’s diagnosis, and although the tumor’s growth has slowed to snail’s pace, he’s looking at another surgery in six months to reduce its size again. Treatments for people naturally vary by condition, but Lindgren’s main advice for other patients is to be open.

“Weakness is strength,” said Lindgren.

Scott Lindgren kayak during an expedition on the Yarlung Tsangpo River, one of the Four Great Rivers at the sacred Mount Kailash in Tibet. Lindgren is the only person to have completed the descent of the four.
Andrew Shepherd / Image courtesy

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