Ontario’s French River is not aptly named. It’s more of a chain of lakes with connected sections of rapids and moving water. Spattered with a myriad of rugged islands and rocky outcrops, the French is the fabled highway of the Voyageurs whose bark canoes plied its waters from the 18thto the early 19thcentury. Though a single fur brigade rarely spent much time on the river, they routinely paddled all 107 kilometres of it from Lake Nipissing to the Georgian Bay in a single, 18-hour day.
In the middle of a mighty channel on the French, I look to shore to see the vibrant fall colours of late-October. I’m sitting in a 35-foot Canot Du Maître along with 10 other pseudo-Voyageurs. This big boat is a replicated fur trade-era canoe. The measurements, look and weight mirror the birch-bark canoes that were once so common on the French. Much of the landscape of rugged, tree covered islands, rolling hills and rocky outcrops I’m gazing upon remain the same as they did when the Voyageurs passed this way. As we travel in their proverbial wake, our surroundings, mixed with the words of our steersman Alex Strachan, trigger a deep feeling of nostalgia in me, brought on by a connection to Canadian history and a longing for a time when the land was wilder.
Alex is the owner of The Lodge at Pine Cove near Noelville, Ontario. It’sa charming lodge consisting of a large common building adjacent to a gathering of quaint, rustic cabins where I’d stayed the night before, after an evening hike and some powerboating. As our paddles bite the water in unison, Alex swings the bow towards the lodge where lunch is waiting for us and then tells us a little bit about what Voyageurs ate.
Six pounds of bison-hair-laden pemmican per day each rounded out their diet. If the bison hair doesn’t sound bad enough, the pemmican was usually rancid. The bison hair was intentionally added for fiber we learned as, next to hernias, constipation was their largest concern.
It would take the average Voyageur’s gut two years to adjust to the rancid pemmican, so before that they ate salt pork. The problem with salt pork though was that the owners didn’t like it because it took up too much space in the canoe. Back at the lodge, our experience thankfully becomes less authentic as we chow fresh soup and sandwiches.
Some would call me an influencer, the other quasi-Voyageurs around me are a mixture of editors, influencers and content creators from various realms of the outdoor and travel media spaces. I’d never met any of them before. You see, this is not your average tour group or planned canoe trip. It’s actually a Toyota PR event and next on our agenda is a Q&A regarding the 2019 line of Toyota TRD Pro off-road vehicles, followed by a test drive on a rugged off-roading course. I’m excited, it’s my first time being invited to an event like this and coming into it, I didn’t know what to expect.
I imagine my modest social media following, media partners and the notoriety I’d gained from winning History Channel’s self-shot, survival series Alone has everything to do with why I got the invite. From what I can see, the idea behind the event is to show content creators the new line of Toyota vehicles in a setting that will allow an interesting, outdoors-related story to develop around them. Influencers are lured to the event by the festivities, accommodations and content creation opportunities, yet are under no obligation. The end goal is to create a win-win collaboration between the brand and media people in order to spread the word about their vehicles through various types of engaging media and content.
Put it in “crawl mode” they told me. I’m at the top of the steepest hill I’ve ever considered descending in a vehicle and the ground below me is a muddy quagmire of slippery tire ruts. A short distance from the lodge, we’re now in the midst of the off-road course. I reach up to initiate crawl mode in the Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro that I’ve coaxed to the edge of the drop. I take my foot off the brake and the vehicle starts moving on its own as I hear the sound of the ABS working to control our speed and slippage as we move down the steep hill. I’m sitting beside photographer Roland Bast who instinctively braces his hands against the dash, it’s a little scary at first but before we know it, we’re safely down the hill and onto the next obstacle. Over a corduroy of logs, through a deep ditch, over boulders and down another steep, uneven hill we go. We were a little nervous on our first time through but soon, we start having good old-fashioned fun as we test the Tacoma and the Tundra 2019 TRD Pro vehicles on the course as well. Compared to what serious off-road enthusiasts take their vehicles through, I’m sure this course is fairly light. But I don’t think I’ve personally ever been on such a spirited off-road adventure before.
Now, what do I do as an influencer who wants to create compelling and engaging content for my followers while at the same time share some info on the TRDs? I know as outdoors-people, many of them will be interested in the vehicles, as well as the French River, and though I like to work with brands I use and trust, I don’t want to run ads on my social media channels. It was out of this demand for authenticity that content marketing was born in the first place. With more and more people going online to research products, it’s no surprise that authentic social influencers became a key source for trusted advice. The landscape is ever evolving, however. At the dawn of influencer marketing, influencers were free to create whatever content they desired. Now, in the current market, brands have realized the strong persuasion influencers have and have heavily commissioned many of them, which has generated a transfer of creative freedoms from influencer to brand in many cases.
Additionally, because of the opportunity to monetize, there is a massive, ongoing flood of outdoor content creators and influencers. Though some may be good with a camera, many are lacking the real experience they might appear to have, yet many are still gaining followers and ultimately pushing products. There are also “outdoors” feeds with large followings that gain traction through “exposed skin” rather than pushing quality content with true outdoor capability. On the flipside of the coin, there are influencers out there that buy fake followers to create the appearance they can provide substantial reach into the outdoor market in hopes to lure brands into supplying them with free gear and cash. It appears that it can be hard for influencers, brands and outdoor enthusiasts alike to cut through the climate of fog and saturation and make connections that really matter.
In my position, as a person who travels to the remote corners of the continent for expeditionary trips, I can’t afford to bring gear items that will not perform, or attempt to reach my starting point in a sub-par vehicle. Doing so could easily leave me in trouble. For real outdoors-people doing real and often hazardous things in remote areas, it’s hard to fake it because the skills you tote and the gear you use can be a matter of life and death. On the same token, that’s why as outdoor influencers, the safety of others often relies on our advice, which means that remaining authentic should be a responsibility.
It is no surprise though that despite all the actions and reactions that exist in this digital realm, the most important part of the equation has never changed, and that is trust. The good news is that trustworthy connections are there to be found in a larger way than ever, they just take more scrutiny and research to find. When these connections are made, it can create more synergies than ever before.
And if there’s a silver lining, it’s that the general flurry of outdoors-related content, for better or for worse, will boost overall interest in the outdoors and subsequently grow the industry, ultimately playing a role in protecting the wild places we all cherish.