Documenting Wild: An All-Women’s Throwback Canoe Expedition

Moose crossing
Traffic jam on the Eastmain. Photo by Hannah Maia

British filmmaker Hannah Maia had never experienced the humility and responsibility of reaching out to the world to crowdfund her latest documentary project last spring. Then again, barely a year ago she’d also never imagined setting off on a summer of wilderness canoeing in northern Canada with a cadre of young women, aiming to document the transformational effects of a long-distance journey in a rugged landscape of big lakes, cascading rivers and diabolical bugs, with the legendary Camp Keewaydin.

A women's canoe trip with Camp Keewayding
Bound for the Bay. Photo by Hannah Maia

After acting on the suggestion from a random stranger and discovering a unique girls’ canoe-tripping program involving multi-week expeditions with wood-and-canvas canoes, traditional wannigan grub boxes, duffel bags and tumplines, traversing an immense wilderness to Hudson Bay, Maia had “built up a most wondrous picture” in her mind. All she needed was the funding to cover a labyrinth of logistical hurdles, including floatplanes and bush roads, far from her UK home. 

“It was so nerve-wracking because [Kickstarter] is based on an all-or-nothing basis. You raise the whole amount or you don’t get anything,” says Maia, who requested nearly $32,000 and credits the support of corporate supporters, including NRS, for lending critical momentum to the campaign. “We pulled it off! We received 112 percent of our ask, all of which went to support our summer production needs.”

With Camp Keewaydin
Mealtime with Camp Keewaydin. Photo by Hannah Maia

With the Keewaydin girls embarking on a six-week, 400-mile trip in northern Quebec, Maia and a partner joined the crew for their departure, recorded the initial four days and flew out by floatplane. Then Maia returned alone with the expedition’s resupply, and tagged along for the entire second half of the trip. She dealt with the usual uncertainties of a long, remote trip: Injuries, schedule changes and an exhausting, mosquito-swarmed vehicle shuttle on a rough bush road into the remote taiga, just to face more variables in chartering a floatplane. 

Maia learned to “embrace the reality that embodies this type of expedition,” she recalls. “You show up each day with whatever is presented, and adjust according.” It was the perfect mindset for dropping in and dealing with the challenges of wilderness filmmaking. Still, despite keeping an open mind, “it was pretty intense,” she adds.

Moose crossing
Traffic jam on the Eastmain. Photo by Hannah Maia

Maia admits she didn’t get to do as many field interviews as she wished. “I remember trying to do that on our half-day off,” she says. “I ended up having to abandon my camera to hide from huge rainstorms. Cameras don’t like water and I ruined at least one lens.”

On the water, she experienced the historic Eastmain River—once a central waterway in the Canadian fur trade—and the hardships of upstream work to access Lac Mistassini. The group had hit their stride in time for the route’s greatest challenge—an eight-mile crossing of Mistassini’s mid-section, with a thunderstorm looming on the horizon.  

Little details of the expedition stood out for Maia, reflecting the personal challenges and growth experience on a long canoe trip. “I remember bushwhacking a campsite at the start of a portage,” she says. “It was so dank and buggy! I found a hummock with a spot just big enough between two mossy rocks. As I pitched my tent I wondered what was the point of it all. I was close to throwing a tantrum. ‘Where’s all the fun?’ and ‘Why are these teenagers here?’ I asked myself.

From the air
An aerial view of a watery wilderness — Northern Quebec. Photo by Hannah Maia

“Then through the bushes I heard one of the girls exclaim, ‘It’s perfect!’ In that moment I realized two things. First, the camp spot they had found was anything but perfect; and second, it’s all about perspective. I really began to admire these girls for their cheerful optimism.”

Later on in the journey, Maia describes spotting a wolf along the shoreline. “We all felt very privileged to witness it,” she says. “Someone said, ‘That is literals the best thing I have ever seen. Ever!’ I agreed that pretty much summed it up.”

In capturing footage, Maia says she focused on ensuring the campers “felt like it was their trip” and were able to be themselves and enjoy the experience with their friends. “I realize I was asking a lot from these teenagers just being there,” she admits. “It can be a vulnerable experience being out there.” 

To avoid interrupting the flow of the trip and working solo, Maia did much of her shooting “on the go.” “Some shots will be compromised,” she says, “but I believe that will be balanced by my understanding of the story and the relationship I was able to build with the rest of the group.”

Maia anticipates releasing the full-length documentary in the spring of 2020, with placement in NRS’s Just Add Water circuit of films. Beyond “The Bay” film, Maia says the Keewaydin experience has made her hungry for more canoe trips—and especially introducing her own toddler son to the outdoors. “One of the best bits about this was witnessing the fun, laughter and lightness that occurs when young people get together far from the stresses of everyday life,” she says. “We were doing it. All proud and happy to be using our bodies for strength. To be sweaty and muddy was expected. It was incredibly empowering.” 

More at CanoeKayak.com

— Read our first dispatch, previewing Hannah Maia’s Beyond the Bay project

Super 8 on the Salmon: A retro look at a western classic

— Photojournalist David Jackson’s canoe country ode to fall

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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