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Filmmaker follows in family’s footsteps a century later

Submitted photo/Reinette SenumA trapper's cabin Reinette Senum encountered during her Alaskan odyssey.
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

Reinette Senum just can’t stand still. Even in high school, she had difficulty doing so at Nevada Union; and two decades later, she can still chuckle about how she drove her teachers crazy.

Just talking to Senum can be simultaneously exhausting and vicarious thrilling.

How many other area residents can say they skied 600 miles and then traveled in a handmade canoe 900 miles alone across Alaska’s Yukon River? She was only 27 at the time.



Senum was told by National Geographic Society representatives, who lent her video and photo equipment for her Alaskan expedition in 1994, that she was probably the first woman to trek solo through Alaska. Her trip footage is still aired on National Geographic’s “Explorer Journal.”

“I did it because I wanted to test myself and see what I could do,” Senum reminisces. “My biggest fear was breaking through the ice. I did positive affirmations, visualizing myself getting out; and I also learned how to read the river by talking to trappers and local natives along the way.”




During the last 16 years, Senum, 36, has climbed mountains, hitchhiked and trekked through 40 countries.

“It’s when I’m at my happiest, when I feel the most alive,” said Senum, even though during those adventures she had one-on-one encounters with angry lions, baboons, wolves and a gorilla.

In more recent years, the feisty Senum embarked on an urban adventure based on writing, producing and directing a comedy screenplay about her own quirky experiences encountered while trying to sell “A Stone’s Throw.” The coming-of-age screenplay about a 40-year-old woman in Africa was written in the late ’90s and based on her own experiences.

Senum left Nevada County for Los Angeles seven years ago to learn filmmaking to promote “A Stone’s Throw.” But Nevada City remains home to Senum, who frequently returns here. She admits that last year, only four months were spent in Los Angeles. “Have paintbrush, will travel,” explained Senum, who supplements her escapades by painting houses.

After listening to nonstop excuses by agents and production companies about why they ultimately couldn’t commit to “A Stone’s Throw,” Senum decided it was time to take direct action herself.

So, straight from a house-painting job two years ago, with paint particles still stuck in her hair and on her face, Senum snuck past a studio guard two years ago to solicit Allison Janney at her trailer on “The West Wing” set. Senum had never met the actress before but thought Janney was perfect for the leading role in “A Stone’s Throw.”

Senum returned to Janney’s trailer three more times to see if the actress was interested in the script but never received an answer. “Reaching Allison” was conceptualized when the hometown girl decided to produce a campy, low-budget film about just what it takes to get an answer from all the various sources she had contacted on getting her script made.

Originally the film was to be about wannabe filmmaker Tommi Thomas’ extreme attempts to leave her 12-step support group, Struggling Screenwriters and Fledgling Filmmakers, Enough, and present her just-completed

screenplay, “Flying Huevos,” to Janney.

Senum had a staged reading for “Reaching Allison” exactly a year ago at the Center for the Arts in Grass Valley. That’s when she decided the script needed a massive overhaul.

“Reaching Allison” metamorphosed from a 90-minute digital feature film to a 15-minute, 35-millimeter short.

“I saw it wasn’t going to be full enough for a feature film,” explained Senum, who then rewrote the story about three misfits who don’t receive an answer from Janney so they arrange a guerrilla-style, FedEx delivery to obtain an answer.

Three days have already been shot; two more days are needed. Senum hopes to enter “Reaching Allison” in film festivals next summer.

“Even in Hollywood, it never goes the way you expect, so you always have to adapt,” Senum pointed out. “That, to me, is the thing that will keep you alive in Hollywood.”

Which explains why she’s not now in Australia, painting an avocado farm and sheep shearing as planned four months ago.

“I have to put Australia on

hold so I can finish this short. I’m telling my actors ‘don’t get fat, don’t get skinny, don’t lose your hair,’ ” Senum laughed.

This philosophy of adapting is how she’s lived her life, whether alone in a canoe on the Yukon River or talking to production company heads.

It also helps her embrace unexpected turns of events, as will be evidenced by her “Crossing Alaska” sequel debuting in Grass Valley Saturday and running through March 2.

The original two-hour “Crossing Alaska” show that focused solely on her Alaskan 1,500-mile journey was presented at the Nevada Theatre in 1995. The sequel incorporates the National Geographic footage and narration with new stories about her amazing family history, which Senum uncovered only six years ago.

“An odyssey, it was,” Senum said. “I had no idea that my crossing Alaska journey had actually started exactly a century before.”

It was two years after her 1995 Nevada Theatre appearance that Senum, who was adopted as a 3-month-old, discovered her birth name and birth family by personal research.

First, she learned her great-great-great-great-uncle was none other than legendary

P>frontiersman Daniel Boone.

“That’s where I get the adventure bug,” Senum thought, until reading about her maternal great-grandfather; the Brigadier General Frederick Funston in a Smithsonian Magazine dated May 1989.

Reading that magazine article provided a jolt for the typically adrenaline-driven Senum.

The article described her ancestor’s solo crossing of Alaska in 1894, paddled a canoe 1,500 miles down the Yukon River, just as his great-granddaughter would do exactly 100 years later and at the same age. Both canoes were 18 feet long and made of birch wood.

“The ironic thing is his trip started on April 10, the day I was born and the day my dog Diamond was hit and killed,” said Senum, who is working on a documentary, “The Accidental Life,” exploring in depth three generations of Funstons and their Alaskan connection.

All proceeds from the Grass Valley presentations will go toward the documentary.

“Everything that happened has to have meaning; there has to be more than one answer, there’s genetic, spiritual, almost a family-type of karma,” Senum said.

As if Senum’s tale doesn’t have enough color, there’s more.

Her story has been amended to include her late birth mother, Jane Funston, who was a counter-culture artist.

Although they never met, her mother’s words in the form of a poem about Senum’s conception influences the daughter today.

Entitled “The Accidental Life,” the poem tells Senum not to be angry with her and “to live life, move on and don’t live in the past.”

Senum takes those words to heart.

When she approached producers and agents about bringing her family story to film, they weren’t interested. Instead of giving up, though, Senum decided once again to take the matter into her own hands, hence the documentary-in-the-works.

The documentary is one of the most scary endeavors she’s attempted, Senum said, because it’s so personal.

But as she discovers archival information – from her mother’s paintings and poetry, old photographs of her great-grandfather and video re-enactments of her great-grandfather taken in the 1920s (and stored at the Library of Congress), she also feels the sense of adventure.

“As long as you don’t give up, doors will keep opening. My approach is not to knock on doors but to build my own,” Senum said.

KNOW & GO

WHAT: Reinette Senum1s 3Alaska Revisited² presentation

WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday through March 2. Also a 2 p.m. matinee on March 2

WHERE: Center for the Arts, 314 W. Main St., Grass Valley

ADMISSION: $10 in advance, $12 at the door. Tickets sold for first night only at BriarPatch, Book Seller and Herb Shop Records. Hors d1oeuvres will be served first night.

INFORMATION: 274-8384 or 470-0816


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