When Dianne Whelan arrived in Fort Smith, she was already around 16,000 km into her 24,000-km “ecological and reconciliation pilgrimage” following The Great Trail across Canada.
Since July 1, 2015, documentary filmmaker Whelan has been spending her time canoeing, hiking, and cycling the route – formerly known as the Trans Canada Trail – that connects the country from coast to coast to coast.
The Northwest Territories leg of her trip will take her down the Slave River, along Great Slave Lake, and down the Mackenzie River until she reaches the Arctic Ocean in Tuktoyaktuk.
When she finishes her entire journey, in the Salish Sea in British Columbia, she’ll face another challenge: editing around 700 hours of footage down into a 90-minute feature film called 500 Days in the Wild. (While the trek has taken her much longer than that, she doesn’t plan to change the name.)
“I know that [Indigenous] people have lived here for 11,000 years or more. Archaeology is just starting to catch up with what the First Nations people have been saying for a long time,” she said, explaining she had originally planned to complete the trek by Canada’s 150th birthday.
She was not comfortable celebrating the milestone and was in the process of looking for another story to tell. The idea of travelling the trail and paying her respects to the ancestors spoke to her.
Relaxing into the journey
“The first two years, I stayed out like 12 months of the year trying to move through winter. And my third winter I got frozen in … one morning, I woke up and I was paddling and water turned to ice,’ she described, saying now she usually spends December and January resting and visiting family.
Her schedule had gone out the window on day three of the trip, in Newfoundland, when she was scheduled to be 150 km down the trail.
Instead, she said, “I think I was at 30 km and so grossly unprepared. I was definitely left a bit of a fool on the trail. And so I realized, what is really important here? What is it that I’m trying to achieve?
“I’m an artist trying to have an experience, a search for understanding, and look for a more inclusive story.”
As the trip progressed, she said she has “relaxed into it.”
“I don’t even know how many days I’ve been out here, because I’ve surrendered to the journey until it’s over,” Whelan told Cabin Radio on arrival in the NWT.
“I spend time with various Indigenous communities along the way and I’ve met many wise grandmothers and grandfathers. One of the grandmothers I met wrote me and said, ‘You know, Dianne, you say you’re out there trying to learn the old way – and we didn’t travel in that weather. That’s the time to do some writing and to rest. You won’t accomplish this journey by trying to conquer nature, you’re going to need to work with her.'”
Whelan has enjoyed filming and writing every day, comparing the task to working on a massive sculpture that takes years to complete.
“I don’t know how many of these I could make in my career but I’m really, really enjoying the creative process of this one,” she said.
The Beacon Project
In addition to the feature film, Whelan is collaborating with Indigenous communities and other artists to create The Beacon Project – three half-hour TV episodes scheduled to air on CBC.
The third episode will be filmed in Fort Smith this October after Whelan has made it to the Arctic Ocean.
“I realized that I was having these profound exchanges in some of the communities that I’ve gone to,” she explained. “They deserved a lot more than a four-minute scene in a feature film.”
The short series will look at asking what has been forgotten, and what needs to be remembered.
“It was really important to me to have the North represented in the series,” she said. “Fort Smith really spoke to me. It has a long and old story here in terms of the ancestors of the land, but it also has a settler history.
“The idea is we’re trying to weave and find a way of working together and living together, and I thought Fort Smith lent itself to that really well.”
Having spent a few days in the community backing up her video footage and waiting for a new tent to arrive, Whelan now feels even more strongly that Fort Smith is the right community to feature this fall.