I’d been thinking of the choreography all day, working out the moves in my mind as the hours in the canoe passed by. That evening I sketched out the sequence in my journal. All I had to do now was wait for the right moment (and the right setting) to put it all together.
I’m not exactly sure why I brought that spotted unitard along with me on that 46-day 2,000-kilometre canoe expedition from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, to Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, but I figured if I did, the reason would become obvious. I donned the form-fitting outfit about a week into the trip. My expedition partner Taku laughed and immediately gave a name to my new alter ego: “You’re the elusive Canadian Snow Leopard.”
As I was filming the journey, with a focus on all the big mammals of the area, the fictional Canadian Snow Leopard (CSL) fit in perfectly with the storyline alongside the Arctic wolf, muskox, moose and caribou. The character formed the bridge between humans and animals—showcasing our similarities and differences all at once.
The CSL would scamper across the tundra or scramble into the brush, only ever appearing for a few seconds before it realized it was being filmed and then dart away off screen. We had a blast filming those leopard scenes, with Taku sometimes barely able to control his laughter. Filming something so out of context on a challenging wilderness journey made it all the better.
Somehow it all worked, with the resulting film, Mammalian, going on to win numerous festival awards as well as being broadcast multiple times on CBC’s documentary channel. I’ve been randomly approached and recognized for playing the CSL character far more than for anything else I’ve done, and yet no production company would ever have green-lit that film— which is a great reason to do things on your own and have complete creative control.
The CSL could only have arisen on a long-distance wilderness journey, where the mind is uninhibited and inspired by the boundless possibility provided by the surrounding natural landscape. Stepping away from day-to-day routine and striking out into nature fires up creative juices that lie dormant in the structure of society. In the end, the film was a quirky, engaging and humorous piece that not only entertained people but also gave them a greater awareness of the landscape and some of the serious issues facing the people and animals of the region.
I premiered the film to a sold-out audience at the venerable Vancouver International Film Festival in 2010—the second biggest film festival in Canada behind only the TIFF. It seemed to hit with the audience at all the right marks… and I was pleasantly surprised at the rousing reception the CSL received throughout the film.
As the credits approached, the choreographed CSL scene I’d mulled over that entire day and sketched out that evening in my trip journal was about to be revealed.
On day 35 of the trip, the time to perform the scene arose while Taku and I were waiting out an afternoon wind for a couple of hours. I filmed it all by myself in front of the tripod, telling Taku I had to go do something important out on the barren plain and that he couldn’t watch. I had to be completely in CSL-mode, with no distractions. In front of an endless tundra backdrop I performed a weird and wily feline performance art piece that I’d determined would be the credits scene of the as-yet-to-be completed film. It took eight tries for me to nail the scene, but I think I did all right. There was something a bit mad in the air that summer and I think we captured it up there on that plain.
I was sitting at the back of the theater and as the final credits for the premiere were about to roll, a mother and her six-year-old child were slipping out the back past me. Suddenly the CSL crawled across the screen and the child grabbed his mother’s arm and exclaimed “Mommy, mommy! The Snow Leopard! Let’s stay and watch the Snow Leopard.”
And stay they did, transfixed by the performance of the CSL in the credits scene. The audience emitted a mix of laughter and gasps, and that mother and child stood wide-eyed and grinning. It wasn’t me up there on screen anymore, it was an actual Canadian Snow Leopard—the only one of its kind in the world. A creature of rare beauty and power that can only be found in the latter stages of a deep journey into wilderness.
Witness the CSL credits scene and judge for yourself.