Canadian adventurer, filmmaker and environmentalist Frank Wolf talks about his most recent Arctic trip, followed by a screening of This Mountain Life, as part of the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival, Oct 17. 7:30 p.m. at Centennial Theatre. Tickets and info: vimff.org.
Frank Wolf’s last name is fitting – given his intense focus on the Canadian North and its inhabitants.
With North Vancouver as a home base, Wolf religiously makes tracks every year for untouched areas of the world. To date, the modern-day explorer’s exhilarating life has taken him from the frozen landscape of Nunavut’s Bylot Island to the steaming jungles of Indonesia.
“I kind of always find the most comfort in discomfort,” explains Wolf.
This Wednesday night audience members can live vicariously through Wolf’s epic adventures – picture: camping in polar bear country – from the comfort of the plush seats at Centennial Theatre.
In a visually stunning presentation, Wolf will share stories and images of two recent Arctic ski traverses, – interweaving adventure, Inuit culture and humour for an intimate glimpse into this rarely travelled world of rock and ice.
Last year, Wolf and a fellow explorer spent 12 days skiing across barren Bylot Island, located at the eastern entrance of the Northwest Passage. Bylot is one of the largest uninhabited islands in the world. Designated as a migratory bird sanctuary, the island harbours species that most of us will never see in person: thick-billed murres, black-legged kittiwakes and greater snow geese.
Wolf paints a poetic picture of Bylot Island – a place where mountains spring out of the ocean.
“It’s like something out of a Tolkien novel,” describes Wolf.
Wolf followed that trip up with another epic Arctic adventure, this past May. He formed part of a trio that embarked on 230-kilometre, frigid ski tour across the southern portion of Baffin Island. The trip took the team over the uninviting Penny Ice Cap, where strong winds are matched by sheer-faced mountains in this ice-age holdover.
Wolf offers austere descriptors of the glacier they conquered: cold, high winds, very stark. It was like stepping onto another planet.
The trio traversed the frozen wonderland that is Baffin Island, while towing sleds stocked with food and equipment to sustain them for two weeks. To help with the hauling, Wolf wore specialized skis: light, strong boards with a waxless base for efficient grip-and-glide travel over varied terrain.
“Ice, snow and rock is what you get,” says Wolf. “It’s very barren but a starkly beautiful mountain environment that very few people travel through.”
Setting up camp for the night is no picnic in the park for the spent explorers. They built an igloo-style snow-block wall to shelter them from the howling wind. Making water, not only for dinner but for their daily ration, is the most time-consuming part of camp life, according to Wolf.
For the sea-ice section of the journey, the human visitors needed extra protection. They set up a perimeter fence outfitted with a tripwire that could, but hopefully not, release blank shotgun shells to scare off hypercarnivorous polar bears – in case the plentiful seals in the area don’t satisfy their appetite.
Wolf has had rare and thrilling animal encounters in the Artic wild – coming face-to-face with, well, a wolf. In an unreal moment during an endurance-testing, 1,800-kilometre paddling trip on the Back River, which leads from the Northwest Territories to Nunavut, Wolf turned a corner and was convinced the hillside was moving. Instead, it was a herd of caribou covering every inch of the landscape.
Wolf is fascinated by a part of the world that is frozen in time.
“The glaciers have receded a little bit up there but it’s not as remarkable as, say, in the south,” attests Wolf.
Nunavut is a unique territory, he adds, because it’s only accessible by plane, boat or canoe, or skis. Wolf has always made his approach in the North on the path with most resistance.
Asked what people would be surprised to learn about Nunavut, Wolf is warmed by memories of time spent with the Inuit peoples.
“You don’t realize how recently the Inuit have caught up with the modern world,” says Wolf. “A lot of the elders didn’t come off the land into towns until the late ‘70s. So not too long ago they were living in igloos in the winter … living completely off the land.”
While exceedingly isolated, the Arctic territory has introduced modern conveniences. Snowmobiles have replaced sled-dog teams, for instance.
What has been preserved is the language. In many of the Inuit towns, Wolf witnessed the older generation speaking in Inuktitut to the grandkids.
Wolf has also indulged in the traditional cuisine while in the North, including fermented blubber, which he was hand-fed by his host after being told he wouldn’t get the smell off his fingers for two weeks.
“It did taste exactly like Limburger (a very stinky French cheese) times 10,” describes Wolf.
Wolf spends about quarter of the year in the wild. His sense of adventure can be traced back to his unbridled childhood in Ontario.
Wolf almost didn’t have the lungs to accomplish his breathtaking adventures. When he was two, Wolf wound up in the hospital for three months after swallowing a handful of reachable peanuts and inhaling them all the way into one of his lungs. The doctors talked about amputating the lung, but fortunately the kid pulled through intact.
Wolf made his way to B.C. in 1993, to take the Outdoor Recreation program at then-Capilano College, on the recommendation of a friend. Two years later he made Canadian history – by canoe, no less.
Wolf and fellow adventurer Roman Rockliffe became the first people to travel coast to coast across Canada by canoe in a single season – logging 8,000 kilometres in 171 days.
While trekking through downtown Montreal with a canoe in tow, the über Canadian duo attracted attention, including from Pierre Trudeau. The dishevelled explorers were invited to sit down for an extended chat in the pristine office of the former prime minister. Trudeau put them at ease with his shared enthusiasm for the outdoors.
“It was like talking to an old friend,” says Wolf.
After his epic traverse, Wolf traced the route with a red pencil right across a detailed map of Canada. It was a thing of beauty. He was hooked.
Wolf spends about quarter of the year in the wild, where he has one hard-and-fast rule: never retrace your steps. Pushing hard and goal-setting are what gets Wolf to the proverbial finish line – in his case, to go where few have gone before.
Wolf’s epic experiences jump off the pages of his thrilling new book, Lines on a Map, released this week.
Sandwiched between Wolf’s gripping tales from his self-propelled expeditions through North America, Asia, and Scandinavia are 77 images captured of the great wild, and maps – in case the reader feels inclined to retrace the steps of someone who has been named one of Canada’s top 100 explorers.
Curiously, there is no photo but instead a sketch of a scene in Indonesia featuring a man with a machine gun on a balcony.
In 2001, Wolf and fellow North Vancouverite and adventurer Kevin Vallely planned to bike to every 10,000-foot volcano on the volcano-dotted island of Java.
Sept. 11, 2001 dawned in the most-dense Muslim country in the world. Wolf and Vallely started their trip on Sept. 12, 2001. As the two only Westerners for miles approached Eastern Java on bike, the most fundamental part of the island, Wolf and Vallely didn’t receive a welcome reception.
“People were spitting as us," recalls Wolf. They were cursing at us. They were calling us Americans. We just threw our hands up and said: 'No, we’re Canadians.' But they didn’t know the difference. One guy kind of trained a gun at us.”
If you can get through the early days of extreme adventure relatively unscathed and undeterred, then the wilderness is your oyster, Wolf has learned.
“Nature has to slap you around a bit sometimes to make you respect it,” he says.
After Wolf’s inspiring talk, the Centennial audience will also take in a screening of This Mountain Life. From director Grant Baldwin, the film follows a mother-daughter trekking duo, Martina and Tania Haik, who embark on a half-year-long trek from Vancouver to Skagway, Alaska, through the bitter cold and relentless mountain wilderness.
Interspersed around the Haik’s journey on film are portraits of adventurous people who sacrifice everything – comfort, family, personal safety – for a life in the mountains. Shot in cinematic detail, This Mountain Life travels to some of the highest peaks in B.C. to find a group of nuns who inhabit a mountain retreat to be closer to God, and a couple who has been living off grid in the mountains for nearly 50 years.