By Gabe Licht
Since fifth grade, Colton Smith and Jack Steward have been exploring and filming nature together.
Smith, a 2007 Delano High School graduate, and Steward are still exploring, but now someone else captures the adventures on camera for the “Rock the Park” series airing at 11:30 a.m. each Saturday on the CW network.
“‘Rock the Park’ focuses on the national parks, the majesty and beauty of these places, and how awe-inspiring they can be,” Smith said. “What we try to show is these places are for everybody. You don’t need to be an expert to find adventure in these places.”
Smith said he has always had a sense of adventure, something he had in common with Steward, who he met in second grade.
“We bonded over our urge to explore, like a lot of kids do,” Smith said.
The two began filming a “Cabin By the Lake” series in fifth grade, which now has eight episodes.
For Smith, filming their escapades was just a hobby.
He wasn’t introduced to national parks until after high school.
“I got a call from Jack. He said, ‘You just had your second knee surgery and you’ve been cooped up. Do you want to go on a road trip?’ I said, ‘Sure,’” Smith recalled.
The two went to Montana, where Steward was enrolled at the University of Montana. Once Smith saw the Rocky Mountains, it was an easy decision to join Steward there.
“Going to Montana and seeing the Rocky Mountains for the first time, I immediately found the captivation I was looking for,” Smith said. “I saw an endless world of things that needed to be explored.”
Though Smith and Steward took different paths in college, they always made time to explore area national parks together. Steward spent his senior year filming a documentary about grizzly bears and Smith went along to help. In addition to the bear footage, the two captured behind-the-scenes footage of them exploring.
They didn’t think much of it and prepared to go in different directions after Smith graduated, but not before one last trip to Zion National Park.
That trip was documented on film and Steward’s mom, Tremendous! Entertainment CEO Colleen Needles Steward, saw it.
“She took a look at it and passed it around,” Smith said. “Without being 100 percent sure, she said, ‘There could be something here.’”
That vote of confidence inspired Smith and Steward to go back out to a park to film and create a six-minute fizzle reel of what a potential show would be.
Litton Entertainment, which produces educational programming for networks like ABC, CBS and the CW, took notice.
“They looked at us and said, ‘This is great. We want this because it will be a wholesome show,’” Smith said.
One unique aspect of the show is that Smith and Steward are not experts.
“We know our stuff and had done a lot of backpacking and hiking but, before the show, I had never rock-climbed, gone mountaineering, or caving,” Smith said.
The show is pushing him to try new things and conquer fears along the way.
His most intense experience to date was climbing Sahale Peak in North Cascades National Park.
“We started at 3:30 a.m. and were tired and hungry but dug deep to make it to the top,” Smith said. “We got to this first ridge and, basically, were on top of the mountain and could finally look down. I got this wave when I looked down at a 3,000-foot drop and thought, ‘Oh man, I was not prepared for this at all.’”
Prepared or not, the two still had a ways to go.
“I took a deep breath, said a prayer, and said, ‘I’m not looking down,’” Smith said.
The final summit was a 70-foot climb.
“It was legitimate rock climbing with us harnessed in with chunks of ice crashing down and dropping thousands of feet,” Smith said. “We just kept going. We knew we had to do it. We got to the summit and I had this whirlpool of emotions because I had just conquered such a huge fear.”
Another one of Smith’s fears is claustrophobia, which he met head-on while exploring Mammoth Cave National Park.
“I had to put one arm behind my back because, if it was in front of me, I wouldn’t have fit,” Smith said.
Something different stands out at each place Smith and Steward visit.
“There are some adventures I’ll put at the top, but there isn’t a single episode we did or place we went that didn’t leave me with an amazing memory that was spectacular in its own way,” Smith said.
Steward and Smith filmed 26 episodes at about 20 different parks between July and January. They’ve covered parks from Alaska to Florida to their home state of Minnesota. But, with a goal of visiting all 400 national parks, they are just at the tip of the iceberg.
“There’s so much more to explore,” Smith said. “That’s what we plan to do.”
They’re aided in their explorations by a production team.
“They go through and talk with the parks and do a lot of the planning, which they’re tremendous at,” Smith said. “. . . At the end of the day, they know how to push us a bit more than what we might write down. They push us to go above and beyond and it makes the experiences that much more rewarding.”
Their crew is also pushing themselves in the process.
“People forget if we climbed a mountain, someone else climbed it, too, with a camera,” Smith said. “It’s a testament for how amazing our crew is.”
When Smith learns where he’ll be and what he’ll be doing for each episode, he gives his parents a heads-up.
“I’ll call them and tell them, ‘Tomorrow, we’ll climb a mountain and it should be fun. I’m excited, but I don’t know what awaits me,’” Smith said. “Two days later, I’ll call and say, ‘Mom, Dad, you’re not going to believe what we just did.’”
To learn more about Smith and Steward, follow the link to their new website at www.delanoheraldjournal.com.
“It’s going to give people a better sense of who Jack and I are,” Smith said.
It includes a community page, where fans can share photos and stories about their own adventures.
Smith and Steward encourage everyone to explore nature, even if that nature is limited to the backyard.
“If I could sum it up in one nutshell, I’d say, ‘Follow your passion, never settle for less and never stop exploring,’” Smith said.