When most kids were exploring their local neighborhoods on bicycles, Sterling Noren was exploring the family blueberry farm and nearby rural areas in Western Michigan on a little Honda 50. He was eight at the time. As he tells it, his aunt and his mother are to blame.
“A friend of ours had a mini bike and my brother Eris and I just loved riding it. My aunt took notice and suggested to my mom that she buy us one. So on my eighth birthday they totally surprised me with my own brand new yellow Honda mini-bike. I just rode and rode that bike and probably went farther than my mother ever knew. My adventures back then were getting chased by dogs, nearly getting hit by cars, and seeing an occasional scary stranger.”
(Not Sterling's little Honda, but this is what it looked like.)
That’s a long way from the life Sterling lives now as the owner of Noren Films, but it’s hard to imagine that life today would have ever happened without that little Honda. He’s now a well-known motorcycle adventure film maker and has traveled across multiple countries and continents to get there. But his road to now, like most, was a circuitous one – both in riding and film making.
As he got older, his taste in motorcycles got bigger. The little 50 got replaced with a Yamaha Enduro 360. Obviously, way more bike than the first one, but Sterling said it got him through the early years of high school until he finally got a driver’s license and work demanded a more substantial means of transportation. Those were years where he went without a bike.
But those were also years he started getting involved in filmmaking including through his local high school and then college. His first real job as a filmmaker is one you couldn’t make up if you tried.
“I worked for a local dairy farmer who ran a video production business on the side. He’d do weddings, industrial videos about dairy farming, and fishing shows. I’d go out on the boats in all kinds of weather, film them fishing, then go back and edit the same day. That experience taught me that most of filmmaking is editing and I learned how to shoot in all kinds of different conditions – rain, heat, cold – you name it. I can’t tell you how often that’s come in handy since.”
Eventually Sterling found his way to Seattle via the hard way, so to speak. He and a buddy had been traveling around the country, rock climbing wherever they could. When the money ran out, Sterling decided to head up to Alaska to work as a carpenter. He joined his dad who had been working for several years there on the pipeline. The cold, dark winters made Sterling realize it wasn’t where he wanted to be any longer, so he took the money he’d saved, bought a ticket to Seattle where he’s been since 1993.
But an earlier trip to see his dad, also started him thinking about adventure travel and sparked a particular interest in BMWs.
“It was 1987 and my dad had invited me up to Anchorage to get his old pickup. I happened to see this BMW with manmade panniers and it was just rugged and beat up and had all these stickers on it. That was before it was common to see any bike like that. And I just remember thinking how cool it would be to do whatever that guy had done.”
Sterling never met that guy, but the image stayed with him and lit the initial flame of interest in adventure riding. He also blames a relative for the BMW fascination.
“I had a cousin who used to show up to our home in Michigan on his BMW. He was really into the bikes and whole culture of it. Once I started looking for another bike, I couldn’t help but think about getting a similar bike.”
That bike for Sterling was eventually a 1972 BMW R50/5. It had been listed in the newspaper and Sterling’s predilection for Beemers had evidently set off the alarm in his head that screamed for him to buy it. So he did. But about a month later one of the valves got bent, which forced him to learn one more thing that would be important to an adventure film maker – how to wrench.
“I found an older guy in the Seattle area who could work on things on the bike that I couldn’t. I paid him to be my mechanic, but also told him I wanted to learn from him so I could fix the bike myself. Before he taught me to do much of anything, he told me to go buy a children’s book on internal combustion engines. I had to start with the basics.”
Those basics eventually landed Sterling a job at Microsoft where he was a full-time but temporary videographer. While there he said he worked on everything from computer games to software. But then in 1996, he got a plumb job any burgeoning adventure film maker would have died for. He created stories for Mungo Park, an adventure site created by Microsoft to showcase a different adventure once a month.
“My first assignment was the launch of the space shuttle. Then I went to Costa Rica with Shari Belafonte (model, singer, and daughter of the famed singer Harry Belafonte). I’d film and edit right in the field, then post the story to the site. This was at a time when Internet speeds weren’t even close to what they are now. We were really pushing the envelope.”
Then Microsoft shut down the site and Sterling got laid off. Too bad. His next assignment would have been following Lyle Lovett on a motorcycle in Chile.
Two weeks later, Sterling’s dad passed away. Time to think hard about what to do next. This is when Sterling decided to commit to being a travel documentary filmmaker. He looked for and enrolled in a class on documentary production because the discipline of meeting deadlines and an assignment would ensure he would get it done.
“The first thing I had to do was to find a subject. I thought I’d do it about motorcycling. Risks, motivations and all that kind of stuff. In doing research, I saw this slide show about Helge Pedersen who had lived and traveled for 10 years on a motorcycle. I thought, ‘I need to do a movie about this guy.’ He lived in Seattle, I proposed it, and he agreed. I rode with him and filmed him for three days and took 10 days to complete the piece. Helge has been my mentor ever since.”
That piece on Helge Pedersen was really the linchpin in a career that has since taken Sterling to Africa, Asia, South America, Mexico and throughout the United States on projects of his own and for companies like Touratech, Globeriders, Rawhyde Adventures and BMW. The last one landed him a free Beemer.
While he still has the R50, he eventually bought a 650 GS once he started doing more adventure travel. He admitted he’s not the kind of rider who has to get a new bike every couple of years. So he basically “rode the shit” out of that 650 until he did a project for BMW and got a free F 800 GS in return. They’ve since promised him a new 1200 GS in exchange for another project.
Not a bad deal if you can get it…and Sterling knows it. In fact, you can’t help but get the impression that he feels pretty fortunate to be leading a life many a filmmaker or adventure rider would give a front brake to emulate. Despite being aware of this, he’s still humble enough to be able to quickly name other filmmakers who still inspire him.
“Bruce Brown and Warren Miller have created films that invite you in. You’re not only amazed at what you’re seeing people do, but you feel like you’d like to be with them. I want to create that feeling with my work.”
Considering his own work and career, what advice would he give aspiring adventure filmmakers today?
“Do it because you want to do it. Don’t wait for someone’s permission. Follow your passion because that’s the only thing that’s going to carry you through. At least you’ll still have that. Because it’s going to be hard to get there without it.”
And as for what’s next for Sterling Noren. Well, he admits he hasn’t needed a plan the last 15 years, so he’s not too concerned about what that might be.
It’s not too much of a stretch to say it’s probably been that way since he kicked a little yellow Honda into gear and rode through the blueberry fields and neighborhoods in western Michigan, and eventually across the deserts of Mongolia and down the length of South America. What’s next for Sterling is more likely wherever the life he’s chosen will take him. Now that sounds like a plan.
(Cover photo courtesy Alfonse Palaima.)