About The Film

“We’re dead.”

The words from my partner, Will, reached me a split second before I was ejected from our canoe, and any ability to contemplate their finality was driven from my mind by the shock of ice-cold, frothing water. I fought to the surface of the river and gasped for air as I flailed around for the canoe’s rescue rope.

The capsized boat’s overloaded hull was a parachute in the current, and it was heading swiftly downstream toward a sheer rock wall at the bend of the roaring river, just a few hundred yards away. I grabbed the canoe’s rescue rope just as Will did, and together we took our first strokes toward shore. Despite our pulling, the canoe barely budged in the current.

Story

Exactly a week earlier, I had endured another roar, that of a single-engine de Havilland Beaver as it flew us deep into the wilderness of the Yukon. Cramped in the seat in front of me, Will O’Brien watched the roadless forest unfold below the wings.

Will and I had grown up together on the lakes and rivers of rural Ontario. Frustrated by the lack of true wilderness in our home province, we had long dreamt of a trip like this, a canoe hunt into the most remote reaches of the Yukon.

All of our plans to hunt together fell through. Life kept getting in the way. Will moved to the Yukon. I got busy with work. But then tragedy struck back home. Andrew Brose, a lifelong mutual friend, died suddenly. His death rattled both me and Will, and as we each looked for a way to honor Andrew’s memory with an epic journey, we both realized the risk was in the deferral of adventure, not in the danger that came with it.

But now, as the airplane droned above the spruce, I questioned the wisdom of the trip. While we had a second boat—a raft for the photographer and cinematographer documenting the trip—we would be unguided, and none of us had ever been to where we were headed: the McNeil River.

The choice of destination was a bold one, but it achieved our twin goals. The first was hunting, and I felt responsible for the outcome. I had introduced Will to hunting and fishing in high school. Birds had fallen to his gun, but he had never killed a big-game animal. We hoped to change that by hunting moose upstream of whitewater rapids big and mean enough to deter less adventurous hunters.

Navigating the river was Will’s responsibility. Will had introduced me to whitewater; we spent many a summer in our youth kayaking the Ottawa River. While my paddling skills are rudimentary, Will is an expert. It would be up to him to guide our boats to safety, and in a wilderness with no margin for error, this was a daunting task. If I were to fail to find game, we would go home empty-handed. If Will were to fail, we might not get home at all.

Clouds parted around the plane, and for the first time we saw the river, cascading down a stone sluice. The treed banks offered no room for portaging. Will’s voice crackled with enthusiasm over the headset. I rolled a single shotgun shell in my pocket for comfort.

Behind The Scenes

With the boat loaded for our final paddle out and our rendezvous point with the floatplane an easy day’s journey ahead of us, I reached into my pocket for the shotgun shell I’d carried the entire trip. I slid it into the shotgun, pointed it skyward, and pulled the trigger.

As gunsmoke hung in the air, Andrew’s ashes landed on the water of the river that he inspired Will and me to paddle. Pushing the boat off from the gravel bar, we continued downstream.

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