Women’s 3,500-km paddle ends four-month trek in Northwest Territories

Documentary aims to take “western science and traditional knowledge to take us through dangerous times into safety,” Dianne Whelan says

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Janne Robinson watched from the shore of Tuktoyaktuk as two exhausted paddlers appeared over the ocean’s horizon Thursday.

Filmmaker Dianne Whelan and her partner, Louisa, who is Janne’s mother, were making the final strokes of a 3500-kilometre journey that wove up the Slave River, into Great Slave Lake and the Mackenzie River before emerging in the open water of the Arctic Ocean. In a video made Thursday evening, Janne — who flew from San Diego, CA to surprise her “two favourite women” — hops on the beach, waving to the paddlers as they finish their journey.

While the NWT leg took four months, Whelan began this trip on Canada Day 2015, determined to be the first the traveller to cross the Trans Canada Trail by foot and water. That July, she set out to create documentary titled 500 Days in the Wild, which chronicles what she calls a “ecological and reconciliation pilgrimage.”

The central theme running through the project is melding western science and traditional knowledge to “take us through dangerous times into safety,” Whelan told Inuvik Drum. Its CBC companion series, The Beacon Project, which features exchanges between Whelan and Indigenous Elders along the journey, aired its first episode on Sept. 28.

Dianne Whelan stands on the beach of Tuktoyaktuk on Saturday afternoon.
Nick Pearce / NNSL Photo

When she began, Whelan had recently finished a film on Mount Everest, and was fresh off the loss of her dog of 18 years and a long-term relationship. Around this period, “the world stopped making sense to me,” she said. A long journey weaving through Canadian wilderness was appealing.

At the start, she gave up her home to travel full time, intending to make the journey in one continuous stretch. However, reality set in; that is, aging parents and a need for balance after enduring weeks of bush travel.

There have also been hardships since. In 2017 between Thunder Bay and Manitoba, she and her paddling partner at the time woke one morning to find the river frozen, leaving the pair to bushwhack out with their canoe in tow. There was no going back, and she took two months off before resuming her journey.

“When you … start this trail, part of you feels this responsibility to do it in such a way that you don’t kill yourself,” Whelan said. “That’s respecting nature and respecting your body and knowing when to go and knowing when to stop.”

Two years later, she’s travelling under different conditions. She chose a family in the Robinsons, and  her “healing has come from the kinship,” she said.

Setting out on the NWT, her and Louisa brushed with mortality again after two young men died paddling the same route this summer.

On Aug. 7, search and rescue teams pulled Thomas Destailleur, a 30 year-old French kayaker, from Great Slave Lake. He drowned three days behind the filmmaker on her quest down the Mackenzie. He was camping around the ghost town of Pine Point, which the pair had just left. “We were probably the last people, where he was, where he died,” Whelan said.

They felt connected to the story of his death, which they said “felt close.” Waiting out the weather in Hay River at the time, she notes that “you’re always making that call. They seem like such small decisions in the moment sometimes. Should we go, should we stay. They’re actually monumental decisions about life and death that you’re making.”

Also in August, a grizzly killed composer Julian Gauthier in his tent. Which brought on new considerations: “He was an artist: why him, not us?” Whelan said, admitting Louisa often spotting tracks around their camps. She said this meant “not letting the fear of his death and that circumstance break you in two. You’re sleeping in these tents at night.”

Through these hazards, the paddlers remember thanking fishers and hunters through chattering teeth for pulling alongside their boat and inviting them to dry off and warm up by their camp.

Whelan said these moments of kindness were part of the lesson of her journey, which saw her gain a family and speak with elders across the country to bring traditional knowledge to the fore. This will be captured in over 600 hours of film spanning years of footage that will have to be edited down to 90 minutes after she completes her journey in British Columbia.

“Sometimes we listen to the news it just feels like the whole world’s full of sociopaths, but it’s not, man. The world’s actually full of kindness,” Whelan said.

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