Each year, the Canoe & Kayak Awards reveal amazing under-the-radar adventures completed by ordinary paddlers. The 2015 awards are no exception, with northern Minnesota-based photographer Gary Fiedler’s 221-day canoe trip in Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness being a case in point. For his amazing journey, Fiedler is nominated for the Spirit of Adventure award.
Fiedler saved up for five years for this journey. Then he quit his job and took off into the wilderness. “[It]was a leap of faith I was willing to take to fulfill this dream,” he says. We caught up with Fiedler to learn more about the trip.
CanoeKayak.com: What inspired your Inspired by Wilderness journey?
This adventure was one I had been dreaming about for many years. After surviving a near-fatal brain aneurysm in 2004, I realized the importance of reaching for one’s dreams, because tomorrows are not guaranteed. I’ve taken many canoe country trips over the past 25-plus years—with family and friends and solo. In 2009, I completed a six-week solo trip in Quetico and the BWCAW. It became a pivotal trip that propelled me into planning this grand adventure that would last the entire canoe season. This was not a trip of conquest, but rather a trip to experience the wilderness it in all of its moods, challenges, beauty, simplicity, and peacefulness.
Your trip coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. You must have had a lot of time to reflect on the importance of wild places while you were out there.
Yes, I had quality time and solitude for deep reflection. Being immersed in the wilderness and natural rhythms, connecting with subjects through photography, and reading my collection of Sigurd Olson books while in canoe country all helped to strengthen my desire to find ways to share my photography and writings to help preserve and protect the wilderness. I also hope to encourage others to unplug and explore the outdoors more.
The wilderness has the power to strengthen us, test us, and heal our broken spirits. Being immersed in the quiet simplicity while surrounded by beauty, allows our spirits to breathe. It allows us to shed the burdens of society like a spruce tree shedding its heavy burden of snow in the winter. With the heaviness absent, the spirit reaches for hope and acceptance. The wilderness does not judge, it embraces and teaches those who pause to listen. Wild places are critical to the long-term sanity and survival of the human race. It would be a foolish shame for humans to continue abusing and neglecting our incredible Earth.
What was it like to start a canoe trip before break-up and open water?
It was an incredible, new experience for me! The trip began on March 20, the first day of spring, with the intention of witnessing the transition of seasons. During the first several weeks, I experienced pretty harsh conditions. The lake country was still in the grip of winter with minus 20 degree Fahrenheit nights, bitter winds, and snowstorms. I had to wait 45 days for ice-out. I was very eager to get on open water to explore, so at times it seemed like an eternity. As the days increased in length and warmth, the migrating birds returned to fill the forest with cheerful song.
Did you fall into any sort of rhythm while you were out there? What was your typical day?
As on many previous adventures, my days were shaped by the weather as I flowed with the rhythms of nature. Following nature’s lead and my curiosity brought something new (and often unexpected) each day. It’s difficult to describe a typical day. I ate when hungry and rested when tired, but was not always on a regular schedule. I often began my days with a sunrise paddle and shoot, exploring until the conditions were unfavorable. Traveling solo meant all camp chores and maintenance were mine alone. I also had to manage my power supply, being mindful of which batteries needed charging (cameras, audio recorder, small laptop, headlamps, etc.) while considering whether conditions were optimal for charging with my portable solar panel.
Did this experience make you a better photographer?
Yes. I think the day-to-day challenge of seeking out high quality photographs on nature’s terms is a humbling and rewarding experience. I experience the thrill of the hunt as I search for photographic gems, making the best of the conditions and anticipating what might happen. It’s fulfilling to create photographs with the artistry that nature offers, instead of trying to force a preconceived idea in uncooperative conditions.
What was it like coming back to the “real” world?
After 221 days, I was relieved I had successfully completed my goal and could now start sharing my adventure with others. I also felt like I was leaving an old friend with whom I had shared so much, witnessed beautiful sights, and overcame challenges. It was bittersweet: I was torn between wanting to stay, and wanting to go. It was comforting to know that my trip came to an end on nature’s terms—due to the coming of winter. Having spent seven consecutive months immersed in nature, I found the “civilized” world to be very noisy, smelly, and fast-paced. It took many months to feel as if I had re-acclimated (reluctantly) to the pace and conditions.
I’m pretty certain every outdoor enthusiast has fantasized about doing what you did. What sort of insight can you offer to the dreamers?
I recommend that enthusiasts practice with smaller trips in order to gain confidence and work out challenges and weaknesses. If you intend to do a prolonged solo wilderness trip, perhaps try a six- or eight-week trip, and then evaluate whether you have the commitment, determination, and passion to complete it. Do you have a purpose to help you reach your dream? Will it be solely for self-fulfillment or could your trip be used for a greater purpose, such as delivering a message to raise public awareness? My trip began as one of self-fulfillment. With the encouragement and support of my wife, Dawn, the journey evolved a purpose and much greater meaning. Among the goals for my adventure and our photography is to educate and inspire people to learn about the importance and value of wilderness ecosystems, and develop a passion to protect wild places everywhere.
I’m still working my way through processing 40,000 photos, audio recordings, time-lapse photography, GoPro video footage, and journal entries. Finding sufficient free time has been a challenge since I needed to return to my regular day job earlier this year. As time allows, I plan to create a photography book with essays and creative writings related to my journey.
My wife, Dawn LaPointe, is also an accomplished photographer and experienced wilderness tripper. We are pondering future wilderness photo adventures together that will allow us to connect with nature and bring back more inspirations from nature to share with others. While my seven-month solo canoe trip was completely self-funded and unsponsored, Dawn and I would welcome funding and sponsor support for some of our future endeavors.
— Fiedler created a Facebook page dedicated to his Inspired by Wilderness canoe trip.
— Check out C&K‘s ‘Voices of Wilderness’ series.