Need to see yourself in all your whitewater glory? A plucky fleet of pigeons will try its damnedest

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Dispatches, March 1998

Neither Rain, nor Sleet, nor Hungry Hawk ... Oops
Need to see yourself in all your whitewater glory? A plucky fleet of pigeons will try its damnedest

Forget liability woes and pricey river permits. It seems the biggest headache facing rafting companies these days is same-day film development. "When you tell a client you'll have their pictures ready," says David Costlow, co-owner of Colorado's Rocky Mountain Adventures,"they expect that. It's nerve-racking." So instead of rushing to get film from the Cache La Poudre River to the processing lab via a slow-going canyon road in time for day-trippers to splurge on eight-by-ten glossies of themselves, Costlow had a better idea: homing pigeons. "I'd heard they could find their way home fast, but I was a total novice when it came to bird handling," admits the 45-year-old river guide, who bought 15 pigeon chicks in February 1995 and began tinkering with ways to outfit them for film conveyance soon after. Seven months later, Costlow's lead bird — wearing a sleek spandex backpack just big enough for a roll of film — made its inaugural 25-mile flight from the river to the Fort Collins photography lab in a remarkable 30 minutes.

But being at the forefront of such an innovation does have its drawbacks. Backpack design, for example, has been trying. "We went through 17 versions before we got it right," acknowledges Costlow, who regretfully notes that his biggest misstep was one of color choice. "We made a red pack once, and we never saw the pigeon again. Hawks probably thought it was blood and...well..." Meanwhile, the surviving flock members require twice-daily feedings and frequent training flights — which may explain why, when preparations for the spring whitewater season gear up again this month, Costlow will begin selling the custom-made backpacks to competitors in hopes of recouping some $8,000 in pigeon-related expenses. Still, despite the outlay, Costlow revels in those giddy pioneering days of pigeon-film flight. "From the start," he says proudly, "our birds behaved like finely tuned athletes." — PAUL KVINTA

Photograph by Eric O'Connell

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