Kevin Callan’s Wilderness Quest

Canadian canoe guru’s documentary explores wild Quetico

Kevin Callan

By Conor Mihell

It’s a harsh reality that, by and large, we’ll never have any more wild places than we have on the planet today. The destiny of wilderness, it seems, is to disappear. For Canadian canoeist, author and popular trade show personality Kevin Callan, Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park is a happy exception. The elimination of logging, mining, hunting and trapping in the park has created a sanctuary, the sort of place that’s inspired the brightest lights in the conservation movement including pioneering ecologist Aldo Leopold, writer and conservationist Sigurd Olson, and legendary filmmaker Bill Mason.

In shooting Wilderness Quest, Callan set out to document how the lakes, rivers and portages of the Quetico and neighboring Boundary Waters Canoe Area influence its visitors. Here, Callan talks about the finer points of a film that attracted standing room-only crowds at the recent Canoecopia show in Madison, Wis.

CANOE & KAYAK: Where did you get the idea for the movie?
Kevin Callan: We were hired by an organization to create a film about Quetico Provincial Park’s 100th anniversary. So we got paid to canoe around for two summers. I saw a chance to do a good news story about wilderness that still exists and people who care about it. Then funding to produce the film ran out and 25 hours of high-def film sat for five years. I didn’t want the story to die, so I taught myself how to edit and spent a lot of long nights drinking Sambuca and editing the film.

What’s you’re definition of wilderness?
It’s the places that we’ve all come from. That’s why we connect to it so much. Every human culture emerged from wilderness so everyone can connect to it. That’s why you get goose bumps when you hear a loon call.

What are your feelings for wilderness?
My feelings are all the ones that the interview subjects said in my film. I feel really calm out there. I actually feel safer out there than I do on a highway in Toronto. You need at least five days to feel that … and once you do, you’ll never want to go back home.

What’s the story behind the cooking pot that follows you around in the film?
We were bored one day and were joking around. The producer [Kip Spidell] grabbed a pot said it’s going to follow you. After four weeks on the water Smokey the Pot became a running joke. At the end Kip said, ‘hey, let’s film you losing and finding the pot.’ I put it in the film at the last minute on the recommendation of a friend who said it reminded him of Paddle to the Sea. To my relief the audiences have loved it. I had to get Kip to dig Smokey the Pot out of his basement.

Do popular canoe areas like Quetico and the Boundary Waters qualify as wilderness?
Quetico does. At one point we didn’t see anyone for five days and we were actually searching for people to interview. The reservation system works in that it only allows so many people in. But in one day in the Boundary Waters we saw 200 canoes. Over 90 percent of the paddlers in Quetico are American. It got to the point where we were shocked to meet Canadians. The Americans know Quetico better than we do.

Why is wilderness important today?
Because we would live in such a chaotic and stale environment that it would be impossible to live there. Do we really want concrete, crime and stress beyond belief? It sounds funny, but if we get rid of wilderness we are actually getting rid of our mother. Wilderness is our womb.

What was the most inspiring part of making this film?
The simple answer is that we were able to paddle everyday. We also met some amazing people out there. It was interesting, with people who had been out nine or 10 days, the interviews were magical. The interviews with people who were out for one or two days were garbage. It shows the way wilderness travel still affects us.

We do you keep trying to promote this awareness?
Kirk Wipper once told me, ‘Kevin, you’re too hyper. Choose one thing and your life and do it.’ If I can get people to go out there, they’ll notice how nice it is and they’ll want to protect it. If I can just get people to go canoe tripping, I’ve done my job.


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  • http://www.boundarywaters.com John Schiefelbein

    VERY MISLEADING comments. We have been outfitting in the Boundary Waters AND Quetico Park for 28 years. I have read Mr. Callan’s book. As in the above interview, his comments are skewed, and in some in some cases just hard to believe. An example would be his above comment about passing 200 canoes in one day. In his book, the day he traveled through the Boundary Waters he paddled from the busiest (by far) landing in the BWCA to Prairie Portage. Those 200 canoes would all have had to be coming back to the US landing, as I’m sure he didn’t paddle faster than people heading in the same direction. Those canoes would equate to about 400 people. With the BWCA average party size being slightly more than four people, this would be just short of 100 parties. The quota at that landing is 27 per day. Hummm? Well, we can add in the 15 parties per day going into Quetico through Prairie Portage … that’s over one third of the traffic he supposedly saw. In multiple locations, the BWCA has entry quotas of one party per day. This is 7% of the quota where he entered Quetico Park.

    BOTH areas are protected. BOTH are wilderness areas. BOTH are special. Let’s treat BOTH areas accurately.

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