The River Runner: How Expedition Kayaker Scott Lindgren Balances a Brain Tumor, His Mental Health, and Tackles Tough Waters

The River Runner: How Expedition Kayaker Scott Lindgren Balances a Brain Tumor, His Mental Health, and Tackles Tough Waters

Kayaker Scott Lindgren looks out over the Indus River. Lindgren’s fitness and health journey is the focus of the documentary “The River Runner,” and he will be the keynote speaker at The Longevity Project event.
Mike Dawson/Courtesy Photo

Scott Lindgren had no intention of making a documentary about himself.

Although the world-class kayaker is used to being in front of and behind the camera, having produced numerous kayaking films and winning an Emmy for cinematography, this time he wanted to make a larger film about the history of the sport.

Like how “Dogtown and Z-Boys” captured skateboarding in Southern California, “The River Runner” originally aimed to tell the story of expedition kayaking through multiple athletes and characters. It wasn’t until years into the editing process that director Rush Sturges pivoted and told the story of Lindgren and his journey with a brain tumor.



Lindgren was diagnosed with a pituitary adenoma in February 2015. The size of a small baseball in the back of her head, the tumor wrapped around her right carotid artery and pressed on her optic nerves. . The kayaker had fought rapids all over the world, including the Yarlung Tsangpo River in Tibet, but he was now heading into uncharted territory.

The diagnosis and the hour-long brain surgery that followed took place before work on the documentary even began, and he was reluctant to be in the spotlight. The opening was not natural for him. Lindgren said he initially just wanted to get back on the water and finally mark the Indus River off his checklist without cameras.



The change of heart came when Lindgren was in South America with Brad Ludden, founder of First Descents, a Denver-based nonprofit.. The organization provides opportunities for outdoor adventures – such as kayaking, rock climbing and surfing – for young adults affected by cancer and other health issues.

Lindgren experienced an outpouring of support once he disclosed his diagnoses, and he eventually came to the conclusion that there might be a bigger message to share.

“The River Runner” was the closing film of the 40th anniversary of the Breck Film Fest last September. It won awards in the Best Adventure, Best Cinematography and Director’s Choice categories at the festival.

The film focuses 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 each cardinal direction, including the Tsangpo and the Indus.

The other main subject presented in the film is the hardened mentality commonly found in extreme sports. Lindgren said kayakers often cannot show weakness because it could compromise the safety of the expedition. This creates a negative pattern of self-isolation where athletes use the dangerous, adrenaline-pumping sport to escape, then turn to coping mechanisms like alcohol when out of the water. .

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

Ludden told Lindgren that few men applied to First Descents programs, and Lindgren immediately understood it was out of fear of vulnerability.

“Men, when diagnosed, usually don’t know how to ask for 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 pictured at the Royal Gorge of the North Fork of the American River. The California native has kayaked all over the world, navigating some of the toughest waters and a brain tumor simultaneously.
Eric Parker/Courtesy Photo

Find a plug

The outdoors has also been a boon for Lindgren. He didn’t have the sweetest childhood and he often fought in Southern California. It wasn’t until his mother moved him and his brother to Rocklin, near Sacramento, that the outlook began to improve. Neighbors introduced young Lindgren to rafting and he found himself with a new passion.

The sport naturally gave way to kayaking, and Lindgren said one of the only things he had respect for as a kid was the river and he recognizes how great nature is.

“Maybe it’s because I lost so many people who were close to me,” Lindgren said. “Maybe it’s because when you’re on a super powerful river, it’s an extremely powerful force. … It wasn’t until I discovered the outdoors that I realized there was anything other than… getting in trouble.

The kayak is also an arrow in Lindgren’s quiver that helped him with the brain tumor. Before his descent on the Indus in 2017, Lindgren learned that the tumor was growing back. He had to decide if treatment could wait a year because he knew it would take a lot of effort to get into the right space physically and mentally to tackle the daily kayaking and more before the expedition.

He chose the river. Lindgren said doctors were confident running the river hard would tax his body, exasperate the tumor and cause it to grow faster.

“It turned out it did the opposite,” Lindgren said. “It actually seemed to slow him down a bit.”

Lindgren then participated in a study that included monitoring blood tests, cortisol levels, heart rate and more. He had run a rough river and the results showed his biometrics were only slightly elevated.

Since the film’s release, Lindgren has continued to kayak and travel as much as possible, and he and his girlfriend tend Consumnes River Ranch, a campground and wedding venue providing recreational opportunities in northern California.

Lindgren is also working on her memoir with Thayer Walker, one of the screenwriters of “The River Runner” and correspondent for Outside Magazine.

Almost eight years have passed since Lindgren’s diagnosis, and although the growth of the tumor has slowed to a snail’s pace, he is planning another surgery in six months to reduce its size again. Treatments for people naturally vary from case to case, but Lindgren’s main advice to other patients is to open up.

“Vulnerability is strength,” Lindgren said.

Scott Lindgren kayaks during an expedition on the Yarlung Tsangpo River, one of the four great rivers of Tibet’s sacred Mount Kailash. Lindgren is the only person to have completed a descent of all four.
Andrew Sheppard/Courtesy Photo


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