Toward the Source (2018)

Toward the Source (2018)
Dir. Norton Smith

Filmed in the Northwest Territories of Canada, Toward the Source is an unconventional account of film-maker Norton Smith’s 55-day canoe trip up the Yellowknife River. The documentary starts with an overview of the journey he plans to make, and the contents he takes with him. Those include a foldable canoe, enough quinoa for his journey and film gear. Utilizing drones, iPads and GoPros, he brings us on his adventure with him and showcases the gorgeous wilderness of the Yellowknife River.

As he ventures through the Coppermine River, he recounts the travels of John Franklin, who travelled overland from Hudson Bay to the mouth of the Coppermine River. He remises that 11 of the 20 crew fell to starvation and the survivors attempted to eat the leather in their boots. This earned Franklin the nickname “The Man Who Ate His Boots.”

It is the very act of confronting uncertainty, discomfort and fatigue that opens me to experience a deep peace

The perils of his travels unfold largely during portages (carrying a boat on land) or lining (dragging a boat through water). The incidences included a water-damaged iPad that operated his GPS and maps, the loss of his pocket knife that he details as similar to losing a close friend, and his canoe’s frame suffering irreparable damage. He takes all these in stride and refuses to turn back – spending two days improvising his frame a la McGuyver. He never gives in to his frustrations and accepts these as repercussions of his own negligence or thoughtlessness. The film becomes similar to Man vs Nature when the wildlife begin to create chaos on his journey: a black bear loots his canoe, and the black flies keep him contained in a bug jacket through his sails.

The journey for him becomes spiritual as he communes with the Spirit of the River. He identifies it as playful and cites the strange rocks he comes across as important landmarks – be it to set up camp there or make a certain turn. He’s not eager to reach his goal or stick to his itinerary (though he does remiss he has to make sure he doesn’t run out of food) – the journey itself is the destination.

On the film, Smith says, “It is the very act of confronting uncertainty, discomfort and fatigue that opens me to experience a deep peace, finding balance between the will to push through to reach a goal and surrender to the experience of the full beauty of the moment.”

This is a short documentary clocking in at about 62 minutes – but even so, those whom have no interest in this kind of thing might be left bored. For wilderness documentary enthusiasts that enjoyed Alone in the Wilderness (2004), The Call of the Wild (2007), or Surviving Alaska (2008) will find this not only greatly informative but revel in the small victories, creative solutions, and breathtaking scenery.