Six buds, three canoes, two dogs, one paddler with zero experience, and a 63-day, 1,500 km journey through some of the most pristine waters in the world. If there is a better tagline for a film, we’ve yet to read it.
What began as an adventure between friends unabashedly morphed into a quest to shed light on a growing problem: the development of the North’s wild places.
After premiering at the Banff Mountain Film Festival, Paddle For the North will be headlining the MEC Canadian Adventure Night at this year’s Vancouver International Mountain Festival on Friday, February 19th. We sat down with director Simon Lucas to get the inside scoop. —Brian Peech
What can the audience expect from your film?
Well, first off, it’s an adventure. It’s a 1,500 km canoe trip that took us 2 months. The biggest challenge was the 5 km portage through a mosquito-infested swamp. I definitely don’t recommend that to anyone. And we had to paddle 130 km up a flooded Rat River and lost a bunch of paddles and had to overcome that. But there’s also a conservation message to the film about protecting pristine areas and the way of life of the First Nations in the area.
How did the idea first come about?
It all started with our teammate Gabriel Rivest, who grew up in Northern Quebec. He started to realize what could happen when industry is prioritized over the environment. One of his earliest memories growing up was putting limestone into a lake to neutralize the Ph because the lake had become too acidic from acid rain. When he was little he thought that was only natural to do to a lake; he didn’t realize it was because of the copper smelter hundreds of kilometres away. When he moved to the Yukon, he saw how incredibly pristine and untouched it was. And it’s on the verge of being discovered (by industry), so he could really see the parallels to how it was back in Quebec in the ’60s and ’70s, so that inspired him to try to protect it. At the same time, (developing) the Peel watershed came under debate, which is one of the largest undeveloped watersheds in the world. It’s been a huge debate in the Yukon for the last 30 years. So he really wanted to showcase what’s happening in that area, but also highlight what’s happening across the entire North.
Most people would be happy to just take the adventure, shoot some photos, and share on social media. But you guys went all in and made a full documentary.
A big motivation for us right from the start was the adventure; the conservation aspect sort of came after the fact. It was always a driving force for Gabriel, but for a lot of us, it was more about the adventure. And along the way we were inspired by the wilderness, but also the First Nations and the people we met along the way. So it was during the trip that the reason we were making a film solidified. In terms of really getting people inspired to protect the place, photos are powerful, but to really take someone there, video is the best way.
How does this differ from a lot of other conservation films?
A lot of conservation films are almost negatively focused, showing what’s destroyed and are quite serious. We wanted to create a film that shows something exciting and adventurous—like, you can be a conservationist in a positive way and really highlight what’s there, show people that while, yes, we should protect it, we should also go out and enjoy these areas for what they are.
Why do you think there’s not a lot of awareness of what’s going on in the North?
I think it’s out of sight, out of mind. It’s not in people’s back yards, so it doesn’t get the exposure that, say a Yellowstone or a Banff gets. So we felt that people would be inspired to protect it if they knew more about the area and could feel a connection to it. And that’s what we’re trying to do with the film.
What was the most challenging part of the trip?
Mentally, the long, swampy portage was the hardest—just for the fact that you have to go back on the same trail. You absolutely put in all your effort and you’re covered in mud, surrounded by mosquitoes and you’re right at your breaking point when you get to the other side, then you have to go all the way back and do it again. But physically, the Rat, where we had to go up river was probably a lot harder. It lasted 13 days, but because you’re always making new ground, it was mentally a lot easier to cope. And if you talk to any of the guys now, they’ll likely say the Rat was the highlight of the trip.
As a filmmaker, what were some of the challenges?
We were both the filmmakers and on camera as well, so trying to capture yourself was really difficult at times. And the other Kiwi (Scott Sinton) was the only one with any sort of background in film and photography, so there was a lot of pressure on him. And even more so that he had never been canoeing before, or any sort of wilderness camping.
OK, excuse me?
Yeah, he was definitely out of his comfort zone, and on top of that had to try to capture the scenery, the group dynamics and the entire trip. And coming from New Zealand, I mean we have wilderness, but most of the camping we do is out of the back of your car. And we don’t have any predators, or temperatures that get down to the negative like they do up North. It was definitely trial by fire, but he’s a very confident surfer and waterman, so we knew his swimming abilities were great. The rest of us were confident we could teach him the rest along the way. He definitely had the hardest trip. On top of having to film, he also got injured going up the Rat, and contracted Giardia on the second half of the trip. I think up here you guys call that Beaver Feaver. On the Yukon side, three of the teammates contracted it, not holding down meals, and just having a terrible time. It made the second half a lot harder, but also solidified our point about what happens when you have development along these rivers; one of the consequences is that you can’t drink the water any more.
How did the dogs take to the canoes?
They absolutely loved it. Zephyr, the wirehaired pointer, was only 10 months old. And Taiga was only about a year-and-a-half. And both of them absolutely loved it. We had so much gear that they were literally standing on top of the spray skirts the whole way. They slept on top of the canoes and ran every rapid except one. I think there was only one or two times as we were going up the Rat they actually fell off. Having the dogs around was incredible—one, for companionship and two, for a bit of safety. They are just so good at taking you out of the moment. When you’re knee deep in mud, surrounded by mosquitoes and hating life, and this dog comes running up to you happy as that he’s going for a walk. It helps you realize that life isn’t that bad.
Did you show this film at the Banff Festival as well?
That’s where we premiered it. We were absolutely stoked to be a part of the Banff Mountain Film Festival. We were always kinda joking, “Imagine if we go to Banff with this.” We never contemplated it becoming a reality until they accepted it. We were blown away, because now through the tour and the prestige of the festival, we’re getting so much more traction. For example the Vancouver Mountain Film Festival approached us because we were at Banff. It’s been surreal to be put alongside some of the films that have multi-million dollar budgets, and here we are side by side, which is pretty incredible.
Have you gone back to the North with the film?
We’ve done a mini screening tour; we did three showings in Whitehorse, one in Dawson, Mayo and in Marsh Lake? And we’re hoping to get back to all the communities went through. We also managed to get up to Inuvik, which is the very top of the Northwest Territories. It’s great to give it back to the people we’re trying to help promote. And to get up there and see them enjoy the film and agree with what we’re doing is a huge pat on the back.
What do you hope the viewers take from this film?
Just an appreciation for what’s around them. The Peel watershed is an incredible area and it’s worth protecting. And I really hope that people get inspired by that and, if it comes down to it, will help us protest development if it goes ahead. But in general, we hope to inspire people to really reconnect with the environment around them. This only one example, but it’s happening all around us. Wild habitats are being encroached on. So hopefully we inspire people to want to protect those areas, but also to go out and enjoy them.
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