Story and portrait by David Jackson
There exists an old belief in the ruffled world of canoe lore which is understood to be the law of love and tripping. While not all forays into wilderness are alike, it is true that if you want to test your relationship, a hearty canoe trip will express what time is bound to reveal. At the moment when a prop-engine looms into sight and you've reached the literal end of your journey, the willingness to plan a second trip begins to underscore your current affairs. For Chris and John Lepard, the whine of a float plane signifies the end of another experience, where their love for canoeing in deep wild is rivaled only by their shared admiration for one another. Their recent trip into the Peel watershed of Northern Yukon was no different.
"Our canoe trips, that's where we're the best," declares Chris Lepard as she shoots a smiling glance at John, her partner of 35 years. "People joke about how when you're in a canoe you're going to get a divorce, well our canoe trips are when we are our absolute best as a couple. We're a really good team." And having traveled in excess of 9,000 miles on various canoe trips, there's no better proof of the law of love and tripping than the Lepards. Most recently, Chris and John spent four weeks navigating the Hart River through the Peel watershed. "The Hart River,” Chris explained, “is one of the less traveled rivers and we wanted to do something different." The route, obscure by the standards of veteran canoeists, offered a visceral experience as they treaded lightly on the intimidating line between fall and winter, the time of year which so often reveals nature’s rawness. Their late season trip exposed the desirable, often dramatic, changing of seasons in Canada's north.
As a photographer, the trip was a dream for Chris. "Being in the wilderness is what inspires me," she explained through a beaming smile. "If I can't go canoeing, I don't have my inner peace." This sentiment pours out of her images, where she's often, very evidently, waited on the light to reveal what beauty she's observed. Seemingly never distant from the ephemeral moments in nature’s drama, one could get the impression that Chris is busy capturing fleeting moments, while John does all the work, though he speaks to the contrary. "She's a heavy lifter." he notes through a muffled laugh. Chris attributes her ability to satisfy the responsibilities as a team member, while still creating her art, largely to the transition into digital photography. Her mirror-less system is light and demands the use of a tripod less often, which means she can scurry up a ridge lighter, faster, and often times, ahead of John.
"I would like people to understand how spectacular and how important it is, that if we're not in touch with the natural world,” Chris explains, “then we’re not going to ever be in touch with ourselves." The path to self is often synonymous with time spent both in canoes and wilderness, though it is in their unrelenting teamwork where the Lepards excel. Expeditions are about more than experiencing nature, they are about experiencing each other and growing as humans to better understand their perch in a fragile, often challenged environment. Through photography, Chris has found a way to highlight this feeling, noting that "all these wild places and wild animals, they are really worth protecting and I think unless people are actually in the wilderness, they have no understanding of what wilderness is." While every paddler is not cut from the northern cloth of remote travel, Lepard’s photography is a breath of fresh air for those who want to share in a journey to wild rivers.
There is still truth in the ruffled lore of love and tripping. The realities aren't always that of idyllic light and an artists composition; often they provide the true test of relationships. When the days of rain whip into a flurry of snow, when rapid after rapid must be lined in frigid waters, relationships, both in friendship and love, experience stress levels never tapped in day-to-day life. Out on the land, you can't just turn off your phone to ignore a grumpy partner. Through that stress a bond emerges of shared thirst of adventure and zest for places unknown. Speaking through pensive eyes, Chris’s smile briefly slides into a determined smirk. She adds that "as soon as I put my boat in the water, I know that anything can happen. Life is suddenly filled with possibilities and when I'm outside.
“I know I'm going to see something interesting every day. When I'm tripping, I know I'm going to have a lot of amazing experiences."
— Watch Chris’s presentation below from the 2017 Wilderness & Canoe Symposium.