I got together with good friend and film producer, Kip Spidell, last week. Over a couple of pints, we went dished out a plan for a new paddling/film project (details to be announced soon). We also reminisced over past projects. A couple of decades ago, we visited Wendell Beckwith’s hermitage in Wabakimi, retraced David Thompson’s route down the Madawaska River and paddled up the Aubinadong River to witness one of the oldest stands of white pine in the country.
They were all amazing times spent in the wild. However, the most classic had to be when we canoed across Quetico Park. We titled the film Wilderness Quest.
It has the standard scenes of loons, sunsets, nasty portages, bugs, scary thunderstorms, beautiful landscapes and moonlight paddles. It also has a comic element with a lost cooking pot—reminiscent of the film Paddle to the Sea—following me through the park. But it was the grab bag of paddlers sharing their reasons why they love wilderness that made the project worthwhile.
There were two chicks showing off the biceps they gained while portaging; an interior maintenance crew boss who paralleled his feelings of wilderness travel with quotes from Thoreau; a minister from Germany, wearing lederhosen, who recounted pure moments of spiritual utopia; a slothful teenager conveying how he had his best nap ever while canoeing in Quetico; a deep-thinking philosopher who wished for the simpler life of being a tree or a bird; and a retired dentist who, like me, loathed seeing anyone while out on trip—especially a film crew!
The most awesome interview was with a middle-aged couple whom we met at the end of long a portage. The two paddlers, Collin McAdam and Joy Simmons (and their dog, Toby) were from Toronto. After we acknowledged one another by saying hello and chatting about the weather, the couple gave us the basic premise of their trip. It seemed Joy had gone canoeing for five weeks here when she was a teenager and had wanted to return. That was over thirty years ago, and Collin, her husband of twenty-seven years, had never been on a wilderness canoe trip in his life. Joy decided it was time to take him on one. Their story was so inspiring we thought it would be a great idea to interview them for our film. They agreed, and as Kip prepared everything for the camera dialogue, I paid Joy and Collin’s kindness back by portaging their first load.
What we got back in return was amazing. These two paddlers exemplified so many people’s reasons for travelling this park. I’m so glad we captured the conversation on film. Collins began by sharing his romantic view of Quetico, stating:
Being in the wilderness is like a clean page… no distortion, no crap, there’s just this beautiful randomness; every corner is different, every glance is different, the sun makes the same place different, depending on where it’s at. But there is a constant, which is myself, my wife, and even Toby. There is a richness that just rains down on you. Back home it was rare to spend twenty-four hours together; our time out here is so precious.
Joy also had romantic views of time spent in the wilderness — glorifying the peacefulness, the extraordinary silence of it all, the meditative value of paddling across a lake — but she also connected these values to something very important to her life:
Looking at rocks that have been here for billions of years, it gives you a sense of your place in the longer scheme of things. I guess for me, having been a survivor of breast cancer, and just gone through a recent scare, there’s something about that, just feeling that this earth will just keep going, and I’ve had a wonderful life, and that my place in it is temporary, it’s passing through. It makes me feel very alive to be out here.
Kip and I couldn’t have asked for anything better. They had given us the perfect interview and the push we needed to continue with our minimal-budget film. The humorous part about the encounter was that Collin and Joy were thanking us for helping them out, calling us angels in disguise. It was they who were the angels.
Our good fortune in stumbling upon canoeists who perfectly represented why Quetico is so special continued just as we entered Fern Lake. There we met a group of volunteers who were on their way back from doing maintenance on the portage leading to a chain of portages to the south. Seconds into the conversation Kip asked for an interview; they all gladly agreed.
It was getting late, so we planned to do the interview in the morning, back on the portage. The volunteers chose the centre island to camp on and we picked a rock point to the southwest. I think they got the best site. Ours had seen little use, and, with a wasp nest situated directly beside the fire ring, we were forced to cook our dinner on a camp stove and pitch our tents well back in the bush.
I guess our tents were a little too far back in the bush. The morning sun, which usually wakes us up bright and early, didn’t hit the sides of our tents until after eight, and all three of us were still snug in our bags when a couple of the volunteers paddled over to offer us freshly brewed coffee and toasted cinnamon bannock. We were a little embarrassed about sleeping in but were able to return their hospitality with a splash of Baileys Irish Cream for the coffee (for the older campers). The underage group got fresh oranges to split.
By 9:30 a.m., Kip had the camera set up at the section of trail where the volunteers were cutting and placing logs across a giant swamp. It was an excellent backdrop for the group deliberating the reasons for being here and working for free. Russ James, a counselor who had been with Camp Kooch-i-ching since he was ten, started it off by stating:
It was just time to pay back all the others who worked on the portages before me. Back at camp we have a saying above our mantel — chop your own wood and it will warm you twice.
James Cleary of New Jersey added:
I wanted to see the natural beauty of the world and what you get out if it; it’s just going to stick with you the rest of your life.
Megan Fairburn of Atikokan said:
It’s an experience of a lifetime to work in Quetico; it’s beautiful, tranquil, a place all to its own.
Robin Hughes, from North Wales in Britain, followed with:
The job is unique in the fact you go to complete wilderness to meet like-minded people — everyone out here enjoys the same thing, and everyone out here takes care of their surroundings more than any other place I’ve been.
All their statements reiterated the idea of how precious and unique Quetico is. Each discourse was special and all perfect for the film. But the statement made by counselor Matt Brown from Kentucky blew me away. This young man was so well spoken, and I will always cherish what he had to say:
Preserving a place like this really allows us all that experience, that contact with nature that’s slipping away from our modern society. These kids could be at home playing Nintendo or doing whatever, and they all say after the trip, “Ya know that’s what I wanted to be doing, and my friends, they’re getting cheated by not having it.” I hope my own kids enjoy Quetico, and I hope they remember what Henry David Thoreau said: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."
I’m not sure what impressed me the most about Matt: his ideas about the time spent in Quetico, or the fact that he could ramble off Thoreau’s famous quote without a second thought. If Matt symbolizes our next generations, wilderness protection surely does have a positive future.
I think all paddlers suffer from the inability to describe their true feelings about spending time in the wilderness. I know I do. My values are intrinsic, a benefit that makes it difficult to put them into words at times. But the comments the paddlers made on film did a good job of replicating my own—and those of anyone else who has ever spent quality time canoeing in wild places. And for that reason, I’m glad I met so many people out there while we paddled and filmed Quetico Provincial Park.