Life on the land in Canada’s north is a tough existence. Whether winter or summer, it seems the luxuries of wanderlust are stripped and what remains are the hard truths of those gritty enough to preserve bitter cold and boggy swamps, smoky fires and bug infested shorelines. As a photographer often working to document people who interact with these environments, there’s elements of my life that have to work without thought or mindfulness. Gear needs to not only withstand torture, it needs to last through all which it might encounter.
Last year, I spent 200 days on the land documenting Canada’s modern voyageur, Mike Ranta, and his faithful canine companion, Spitzii. The duo were embarking on their third solo crossing of Canada by canoe. From coast-to-coast, west to east, Ranta had completed the formidable 5,000 mile journey twice already and held the record as the only person to travel in a single season across such vast landscape completely self supported. Having briefly photographed Ranta on his two journeys in 2014 and 2016, both which lasted in excess of 200 days, the idea of travelling with him for the duration of a expedition was tantalizing to my imagination. As a story teller, I had to go.
In 2017, on April 1st, equipped with my own canoe and gear to last seven months, we embarked from the Pacific Ocean at Bella Coola on the biggest portage I had never imagined possible. In the first 47 days, we crossed the continental divide, portaging 650 miles and paddling just 175. When we reached the eastern side of the Canadian Rockies at Lake Louise, it was all down hill for the next month. By the time we reached Lake Winnipeg, a sprawling body of water, we were behind schedule. Pitiless prairie wind, one tornado, and frequent ferocious storms had riddled our downhill portion of the trip. For the next thirty days, Lake Winnipeg battered us with squalls and ten foot waves, as well our second tornado of the trip. When we started up the Winnipeg River, heading towards the pristine Boundary Waters along the United States/Canada border, it was an all out mission, day and night, to reach Lake Superior before the fall time winds began. As luck would have it, we didn’t make the weather window on Lake Superior, arriving in Late September. On a trip marked by such extreme weather events, we were all but skeptical of the energy emitting from the biggest freshwater lake in the world, a body of water known to sink 700ft ships. To that point, as a storyteller I had managed my ethics by staying removed from Ranta’s decision making, doing my best to anticipate the steely traveler and avoid conflicting his difficult calculations of route and time. Lake Superior had other plans for us. After two harrowing weeks travelling a short distance of the northern shoreline, it was obvious what was happening around us. We were too late. Inescapable shorelines sprawl for miles, the water - frigid year round, and the weather, coupled with remote coastline, can mean being stranded for weeks, or worse, as winter sets into Canada’s north. To stay with Ranta meant jeopardizing my passive role as a storyteller and more prudent, I could no longer gamble with my life. I left Ranta in the first town we paddled into and received a drive around the north shore to Lake Huron. Two days later, 187 days after beginning on the west coast, Ranta admitted defeat, a decision which likely saved his life. I continued two weeks alone to my home on the Ottawa River and the time spent reflecting, paddling solo up rivers and portaging around falls, it was one of the deepest experiences of my life.
What I learned from such a vast undertaking was a sprawling base of life long knowledge. Ranta’s continued resilience in the face of adversity were lessons I hold with me every waking day. On October 5th, while alone paddling up the French River, I celebrated my twenty-fourth birthday and spent some time in the pre-dawn fog assessing my hands and gear, realizing the way both were reflecting the changes to my character and soul.
At the beginning of the journey, I had chosen a dialed-in kit that I knew would last through the trip. It was no surprise to find my legs covered for every minute of those few hundred days in Greenland Jeans. It might seem silly to relate gear as such a vital piece of my involvement on such a journey, but the truth lies in the subtitles of life's grand explorations. Across every heinous portage, during each hail storm, and through every swampy fire, I had clothes on that wouldn’t fail me. High collars and G-1000 ward of clouds of biting insects. I learned to trust my instincts on a level never understood, and in many a big way, it was because the gear I chose let me focus, not on technical difficulties, but instead on my role as a storyteller through the hurdles of adventure.
While I didn’t document my own experience often while with Ranta, I took some time when alone in those final weeks to assess the status of self. What these photographs reveal are the tested remnants of gear and grit, body and soul. As winter sets in once again in the north, I’ll be waxing the same pants and buttoning up the same shirts, because my Fjällräven gear doesn’t quit.
David Jackson is an assignment and editorial photographer based in Canada’s north west of Ontario. From Olympics to remote communities in Canada’s arctic, Jackson has taken Fjällräven gear to the seldom visited corners of the world in search of stories subtle to our collective history. To see more photographs of Mike Ranta’s 2017 trip, visit www.davidjacksonphoto.com.