Canoe: Icon of the North

Jason Eke’s new documentary captures the lore of Canadian canoeing

For Jason Eke, canoeing is a "crazy obsession." Every day, Eke is thinking about paddling: Appraising waterways at every bridge, staring thoughtfully at each passing car with a canoe on its roof and dreaming about the new places to paddle and portage. As an upstart filmmaker, Eke stokes his passion in ‘Canoe: Icon of the North,’ a new documentary released this month. We caught up with Eke to learn more about the production.

Where did you get the idea to produce Canoe: Icon of the North?
Jason Eke: I've been building cedar-strip canoes for around a decade as a hobby, usually a boat or two a year. Several years ago I started making YouTube videos on the building process. I didn't pay much attention to the view count, just made the videos and posted them. Then one day for some reason I checked my account and discovered that I was getting around 10,000 views per month (and truthfully, the videos really sucked). I figured I had a few fans, or at least people interested in what I was doing, so bought a better camera and a mic and made a few better videos. The count jumped to around 15,000 and then 20,000. That's when I thought I should put some effort into making videos or better yet a film for the people who enjoyed what I love, canoeing.

Canoe: Icon of the North, Jason Eke

How did you select people to interview?
Most people do paddling films about a place to paddle, but not many tell a story about why they paddle. I believe that paddlers are unique sub-culture, and we all do it for very similar reasons. Being out in our natural landscape, travelling quietly… you know what I mean.

So, probably like you, I have a lot of books on my shelf and I had a look at them and thought it would be the time of my life to go around and meet these people who are as passionate as I am about paddling while documenting their points of view. Once finished, I could share that experience with the world the same way I've shared how to build a canoe. I think I've shown people how to build their boat and now with ‘Icon of the North’ I've shown why people should do it, why they should get out on the water. Don't get me wrong, I don't feel like I'm an expert. That's why it was important to do those interviews. In my opinion, the people I've interviewed are the icons of the north, the canoe is their topic. I just put it together and shared it.

Canoe Icon of the North, Jason Eke

What’s your favorite quotation from your interviews?
That's tough. Everyone was great. I'm a builder and so it was really neat to meet other builders and I think I related to them the most. Ted Moores talked about how he's had a good life, not getting rich but meeting a lot of really nice people and seeing a lot of really nice boats. I think it sums up what the experience is like being out on the trail: You paddle all day, do a portage, meet people, secretly eye up their gear and canoe to see what they're using and paddling.

Hugh Stewart's quote that I used in the trailer is also priceless. I tailored it for the trailer. In the film he credits his friend Rod Crawley for saying it, which was really a nice way for Hugh to remember a friend who recently passed away. Crawley was a filmmaker himself and worked with Bill Mason.

Did producing this film change the way you think about canoes?
I don't think making the film changed the way I think about canoes, and I also don't think the film tells my story or how I feel about them. I think that's good. I didn't set out to tell my point of view. One thing the film did is gave me more experience. I sat down with the people and asked a ton of questions. It was a private lesson in canoe culture. As paddlers we really do have a common interest. During the interview stage I also worked on a side project, a short film called Sprint: Canoe and Kayak Racing. In addition to interviewing Olympians Mark Oldershaw and Adam vanKoeverden, I interviewed a bunch of great athletes from the Canadian Sprint Canoe and Kayak team. It's a similar type of film, focused on the culture not the activity. So to listen to those high performance athletes talk about their passion for their sport and what they love about it… yeah, there's definitely a bridge between recreational and sport paddling.

What's next?
That's a secret! Here's what I can share: I have a few plans, I'm working on a cedar strip canoe building film right now for the people who have been watching my YouTube videos. It'll also be an inexpensive film that will bring all of the main points of building into one program. I also have a few other plans, but they're much larger budget so I'll need to see how Icon and Sprint do. I have a great, personally rewarding career that I love and I can't see leaving it. But I love canoes and working with cameras. I hope that I can generate enough income from the films to just keep making better films and sharing them. I produced Icon and Sprint with a very low budget and I think they turned out pretty good. I'm pretty confident that with a larger budget I'd be able to really wow people. The big thing for me is I also really like meeting like-minded people, so most of my projects will be people stories. If I could spend my down time traveling, paddling and filming then I'd be a very satisfied canoeman.

— Check out another film that gets to the roots of canoe-tripping, David Hartman’s NINE RIVERS, documenting four friends’ journey into Ontario and Manitoba’s Little North.

— Check out more recent canoe videos, including: The Phantom of the Opera goes Freestyle Canoeing, Self-Rescue in a Self-Bailing Canoe, Canine Canoe Surfing, and How to make an 8-pound Canoe.