Is it just me, or are any other outdoor enthusiasts watching the classic National Film Board movies more than binge-watching Netflix’s Derry Girls and The Tiger King?

Grab a bowl of GORP and fill your tin camp mug with a wee dram of whisky, and watch (or re-watch) NFB’s classic Bill Mason film Waterwalker (1984).



This is a must-watch for paddlers waiting for the spring ice to melt. To me, re-watching it is beyond a religious experience.

The film almost didn’t get produced. It was Mason’s final project after working with the NFB for 20 years. In 1979, he laid out his plans to the NFB to head out and paddle Lake Superior and its inland rivers for a couple of months of shooting. He then wanted to combine that footage with some old 16mm b-roll he had shot during his other paddling films. Mason’s concept was to create a feature film on his love of paddling and painting, touch on environmental concerns as well as his faith in God.

He got a lukewarm response. The success of his past films (The Rise and Fall of the Great Lakes, Paddle to the Sea, Cry of the Wild) were the only reason they let him head off to Superior with his camera man, Ken Buck. But only to shoot a one-hour television documentary, not a feature-length film.

Two months became two years, and what he had edited together just wasn’t working out. He needed it to be a full feature or nothing. Mason believed the main message should be on how wilderness is not a dangerous, chaotic place. Wilderness is majestic and a place of solace. 

One of the best lines in the film that pretty much sums it all up is: “So, there’s no wolf attacks, I don’t get ravaged by wild mountain men or robbed by bandits. In fact, there’s no bad guys at all. Just you and me, paddling the biggest and most spectacular lake in the world—Lake Superior.”

NFB said no.

Mason then went looking for a co-producer to help with the cost and found IMAGO, a non-profit organization that helps artists work on “spiritual” projects. He gathered some money and went back to Superior to paddle and film again.

The Mason FamilyThe Mason Family

When Mason returned the editing was still slow—until Bruce Cockburn became interested. He and musician Hugh Marsh created an impeccable and haunting score that finally started putting everything in place. Adding to that was Mason narrating the film himself. His soft, gentle tone matched the production beautifully and added a closeness to the audience. Interestingly enough, NFB didn’t want Mason to be the narrator. They thought it would sound too conceited. Thankfully, they changed their minds.

Mason finished shooting for Waterwalker and resigned from NFB in 1983. He wanted to spend more time painting. Waterwalker was released on August 25, 1984. It got less than a modest response. NFB quickly went to sell it off to television. Mason convinced IMAGO to buy the rights and keep Waterwalker in theatres. The film was showcased again, this time at the Rideau Centre in Ottawa. The audience loved it! Waterwalker played there for six weeks to sold out crowds made up of paddlers and nature lovers.

Due to the film’s popularity, it was sold to Creswin Films in the fall of 1986. It was then released it in theatres across Canada. Its popularity grew, and it was even nominated for best feature documentary at the Genie Awards.

Waterwalker’s fame spread across the world, showing in the United States, China and Iran. And now it’s free to watch on the NFB YouTube channel. So, skip Netflix tonight and enjoy one of Canada’s most notable outdoor films.