Dreams to Reality: A Beginner’s Guide to Pulling Off a Wilderness Paddling Expedition

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Camp on Alberta's Peace River.Dianne Whelan

There’s no better time than now to dream about your next wilderness expedition. But dreaming is easy; making the leap to reality is a bigger challenge. Two recent northern journeys reveal totally different strategies to execute the trip of your dreams. 

Vancouver-based filmmaker Dianne Whelan’s ongoing project is trekking Canada’s Great Trail, a 15,000-mile epic that includes several lengthy paddling sections, as well as hiking and cycling. The artist Whelan, whose previous Mount Everest Base Camp project headlined the prestigious Banff Film Festival, simply put her life on hold—for five years—to journey under her own power from coast to coast to coast. Meanwhile, Halifax, Nova Scotia-based adventurer and YouTuber Noah Booth, joined three friends—all under 35 years old and tied down by professional careers—in saving and negotiating vacation time to complete an ambitious five-week canoe expedition across Labrador last summer. Both adventurers offer tried and true tips to live by in turning dreams to reality. 

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Courtesy Dianne Whelan

FIND YOUR INSPIRATION 

After her award-winning Everest project, Whelan was looking for something closer to home to reignite her creative vision. She found it in embarking on a cross-Canada journey, with an overarching theme emerging as she juxtaposed her experiences with those of indigenous Canadians along the way. When she departed St. John’s, Newfoundland in 2015, Whelan’s initial timeline was reflected in the title of her project: 500 Days in the Wild. Now, as she prepares to enter her fifth year on the trail, Whelan admits, “Honestly, I’ve lost track of the days.” 

Meanwhile, Booth and his childhood friend, Alex Traynor, have been challenging themselves with longer and harder wilderness canoe trips since they launched their Northern Scavenger social platform in 2016. Labrador was the next big step. “It has the feel of a lost world,” says Booth, 28. “It’s one of the last untouched places in Canada.” They recruited veteran 34-year-old northern traveler Dave Greene and Chris Giard, 24. In scouring the journals of the late Canadian solo tripper Herb Pohl the team targeted the little known Mistastin River in a 525-mile transit of the Labrador peninsula, ending on the North Atlantic. 

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Alex Traynor and crew, deep in Labrador

MAKE IT HAPPEN

Being a professional independent filmmaker grants Whelan plenty of free time, but it also makes her reliant on arts funding to support her work—an endless effort that consumes much of her downtime, and requires her to complete short documentary projects along the way. Such are the realities of a full-time artist. For Booth, a geologist with a full-time job, Nova Scotia, a five-week canoe trip demanded a different sort of sacrifice. “I realized that the older I get, the less ability I will have to make something like this happen,” he says. “I’m in a serious relationship, we’re going to buy a house soon and there’s the possibility of kids. I made the canoe trip a priority and carved out the time to make it happen.”

DEAL WITH THE CHALLENGES

Booth’s team quickly learned that the north takes no prisoners. Constant rain and cold temperatures dominated the first three weeks of the Labrador journey. Meanwhile, other hardships included a bout of dysentery, a chipped tooth and nearly losing a canoe on the rock-studded upper Mistastin River. “I thought we would have to be evacuated three times!” Booth laughs. Wilderness travel demands patience and caution. “When faced with anything sketchy, you could significantly decrease the risk if you just practice patience,” advises Booth. “That means waiting out a storm, scouting rapids, watching your footing on the portage are absolute necessities.”

Whelan is the first to admit she’s no outdoor athlete, and so she is “constantly making decisions to err on the side of caution,” trusting her intuition to listen to the land. “The journey has taught me a lot about surrendering and finding the calm in accepting adverse circumstances,” she says. “When you face a difficult moment you don’t go to that place of panic. You just stay calm.”

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GEARING UP

Whelan invested in a Kokatat Meridian drysuit and insists that it’s a key margin of safety on cold northern waters—particularly because many of her paddling miles have been made in the shoulder seasons, and she’s often traveling alone. The Labrador team faced more portages—a mixed bag of rugged, amphibious terrain that challenges even the most durable apparel. The settled on Kotatat Hydrus 3 Tempest pants as a happy medium—protecting the lower body while allowing more mobility for overland travel. Booth also alludes to a second secret weapon. “We had a meal rotation with each guy supplying nine days of food,” he says. “Dave was the only one who packed two chocolate bars per person. Turns out those were always the best days of the trip.”

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Whelan, enjoying nothing but time alone on the Northwest Territories’ Great Slave Lake. Courtesy Dianne Whelan

EMBRACE THE FREEDOM

Whenever Whelan takes a break from the Great Trail and returns to the city, she’s struck by the stark disconnection she feels from the natural world. The feeling was most profound last December, when she returned home for the winter after canoeing 3,000 miles in the wild Mackenzie River watershed in Canada’s far north. “There’s just something about living that way,” she says. “Having that kind of freedom, being responsible, leaving in the morning and not knowing where your campsite will be …You’re always looking at the ground, at the water and at the clouds. There’s a real connection with the physical environment and it activates a very ancient part of who we are.”

Booth’s greatest revelation came after his team endured all the cold rain, relentless insects, health problems and close calls, and made it to Mistastin Lake, the headwaters of his mystical river. “There was this amazing sunset,” he recalls. “All of the hardships evaporated that very moment. It was surreal.”  

TAKE TIME TO REFLECT

Booth and Traynor have spent the winter reliving their epic Labrador trip by reviewing and editing countless hours of video footage. “There’s no doubt we captured some of our best footage and this is by far the best story and wildest experience,” says Booth. “It’s like I’m back there, reliving it every morning, evening and weekend.” The pair split up the editing roles, with Traynor working on a documentary feature that will launch at the Toronto Outdoor Adventure Show on Feb. 21 (and be available for pay-per-view on Vimeo) and Booth producing a multi-episode YouTube series to debut in early March. 

Whelan faces an even larger creative task—one she insists will begin with a month or two of down time. “The impulse is to keep up the momentum of the trip and jump right into post-production,” she says. “But I will tame that the best I can. There needs to be some time of reflection. I’ll need to spend some time with the footage, relive it in some ways, then move forward and see what gets born.”

Of course, for any adventurer, then comes the powerful urge to do it again. “There’s going to be a sense of being lost, after so many years of having this focus,” admits Whelan. “I’m lucky as an artist to have a back end to it. That makes me excited, but I know when I finally finish the trail it will be a bag of mixed feelings.” 

Follow Northern Scavenger on Instagram and Facebook; and follow Dianne Whelan on Instagram and Facebook 

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