CULTURE Investigative journalist Scott Carney leads a group in a breathing exercise in the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in July of 2022. PHOTO BY SETH DAHL

Crafting Stories as a Tool of Impact

BY BELLA BUTLER

Scott Carney is a brilliant storyteller. Though a writer by trade, even in person he is captivating and animated, calculated in his delivery. His esteemed career shows the power of storytelling, and its ability to influence the way we engage with ourselves and the world.

Carney’s trick to a good story: begin with the most riveting part. He claims it’s a cheap hack he learned from watching Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, and one that he’s deployed in many of his own New York Times best-selling books—plant the climax at the beginning, and let the rest of the story pile on around that.

“I realized that you have to hook people. You have to realize what … people will want,” he said. “And then I feed them the information about why it was important.”

It’s what he did in his 2020 book The Wedge and his 2017 book What Doesn’t Kill Us, both in which he immediately launches into an account of his ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro wearing only a pair of shorts.

It only seems fitting that for a story about Carney himself, we’d start with such an anecdote.

“I’m a perfectly recognizable writer to a lot of people, and a nobody to most people. And I think that’s sort of where I fit into this overall ecosystem. Do I think I’m changing the world? No, but I think I’m changing some people’s lives.” – Scott Carney

It was June on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, and the early-season runoff gushed cool, blue and frigid through the remote Frank Church Wilderness of No Return in northern Idaho. It had been four days into the trip before an incident. After gaining a sense of comfort atop a raft rowed by guides through the Class II, III and IV rapids, Carney had taken a seat in the ducky, a single-person inflatable kayak. He had grown confident paddling a few intense sections on his own, and the summer sun cast a sense of ease.

Carney faced upstream, lining up the ducky to try and surf a small wave in the river. Within an instant, his play turned into peril as the river dumped him out of the kayak and into a hole of recirculating water. A guide downstream blew a whistle, signaling that someone had fallen in, just as others had already done on the trip. But unlike the other swimmers, Carney didn’t drift to the safety of another boat. Instead, the rest of us watched him tumble in the whirlpool over and over, his red helmet barely resurfacing above the water every several seconds before dipping back under again.

Eli Kretzmann, lead guide on the trip, snapped into rescue mode, launching out of his own raft to run up the bank toward Carney. After nearly a minute of being churned, the water released Carney back into the flow of the river, and Kretzmann threw him a rope and reeled him into shore.

Carney choked up a few mouthfuls of water before asking the guides to tell his wife, Laura Krantz, who was around the bend in another raft, that he was okay.

Though a terrifying accident, the incident fit squarely into the message that Carney was on the river to share: humans have the capability to be extremely resilient in the face of environmental stress.

Carney was among a cohort of guests on a Boundary Expeditions rafting voyage down the treasured Middle Fork, on a specially curated trip that combined the backcountry river experience with content centered on human resilience and connection to nature. Having just published two books under a similar umbrella, Carney had been invited to lecture and lead exercises on “environmental training, using the environment to change the way your biology and psychology works ,” or the ability to retrieve our own dormant biology to cultivate resilience in the face of stress.

“If you do not expose yourself to things that make you uncomfortable, you are not activating your biology,” Carney said during his first lecture of the trip. With the sound of the river rushing behind him, Carney preached to the group that our bodies are untapped vessels of powers that we’ve muted with buffers of comfort, from air conditioning to remote controls. But we have the capacity to bring them back online, he promised.

In his work as a writer, Carney has become somewhat of an expert on this topic, tracing back to a major inflection point both in his career and his personal life. After his initial start in long-form investigative journalism in the early 2000s, Carney caught somewhat of a break by becoming the first journalist to really put Wim Hof in the spotlight. Though Hof’s name has since become its own alternative wellness brand, as well as the proprietary tie to a widely practiced breathing method, when Carney met him in 2011 he was simply a little-known, arguably masochistic, Dutch man (he remains the latter two, but now has nearly 3 million Instagram followers).

Carney had caught wind of Hof’s claims that he could control parts of his body with his mind. After reporting on the slippery slope of spirituality, so-called enlightenment, and superhuman powers for the entirety of his journalism career, Carney was immediately skeptical. But being a journalist, he figured his duty was to give Hof a fair shake.

On assignment for Playboy, Carney flew to Poland for a training course in which Hof was teaching his methods. Carney was fully intending to emerge from the frosty depths of Poland with a story debunking the looney Dutch man. But he’s a devoted student by nature, and his receptiveness to Hof’s teachings soon converted him into a disciple of sorts. Carney went on to write What Doesn’t Kill Us, which Hof wrote the forward for, and The Wedge, both largely informed by Carney’s own exploration of Hof’s teachings.

Much of Carney’s programming on the Middle Fork was rooted in the concept Carney describes as “the wedge,” defined by the author as “the power that we all have inside us to change the way we react to environmental stress.” His teachings on the river included lectures on evolutionary biology and related topics that were then applied through breathing workouts and other exercises intended to create stress. In theory, Carney explained that these practices were intended to strengthen “the wedge.”

The Middle Fork trip was Carney’s first foray into leading trainings on his practices, but the experience fell entirely in line with much of his philosophy as a storyteller. A man of many musings, Carney’s process begins with curiosity. He’s learned to follow his nose to the questions he can immerse himself in.

“As a writer, I have two options,” Carney told the group one day on the river. “I can observe, I can come from the outside, look at a situation, and then write about it. That’s one great way to get information about the world. The other way is [I] can go in and [I] can try everything. And I am generally a tryer.”

It’s perhaps what makes his storytelling resonate and what allows him to deliver readers to a place of understanding and discovery on sometimes unconventional concepts like that of the wedge.

Carney said like many journalists when they first start out, he went into the field visualizing his work like a stone being cast into a lake, creating ripple effects for large-scale change. He doesn’t think that’s necessarily true anymore, but he has learned that he can use his storytelling for the betterment of people’s lives, he said.

“I’m a perfectly recognizable writer to a lot of people, and a nobody to most people. And I think that’s sort of where I fit into this overall ecosystem,” he said. “Do I think I’m changing the world? No, but I think I’m changing some people’s lives.”

Shortly after the Middle Fork trip, Carney recounted his whirlpool experience on his YouTube channel, telling it as well as any other story he’d written. “I wasn’t scared,” he said in the video. “Instead, I had the thought that this isn’t the end of my story.”

Whether an intentional trip to Poland or a tumble under the surface of the Middle Fork, Carney’s life is research. Like a throw bag, he tosses his stories to an audience floating down the choppy river of life, reeling them in to his experience, his understanding and his revelation.

Bella Butler is the managing editor of Mountain Outlaw.