She’s been swept out to sea and faced bears while on a 24,000-kilometre trek across Canada, but it took a flash freeze in Northwestern Ontario to stop Dianne Whelan cold in her tracks.
The B.C.-based writer and filmmaker has been on a two-and-a-half year-long journey to complete The Great Trail across Canada.
Last week, along with a friend, Whelan was completing a canoeing section near Atikokan — about 340 kilometres east of Kenora — when winter came early.
The pair woke up at their camp to find themselves stranded in the wilderness when the lake between them and the next part of the trail froze solid.
“The night before it was a beautiful moon and I was looking out over the water and I could see these thin, almost like pieces of Saran wrap, floating out on the water,” Whelan told CBC News. “And the next morning, not 10 hours later, and the whole thing was solid ice.
“It was unbelievable, it was absolutely unbelievable.”
‘We have to find another way’
The pair had just done a portage and were between Little Eye Lake and Eye Lake when the freeze-up happened. Whelan said it had snowed the night before, but she figured it was too early for the lake to freeze over.
The pair tried to cross the lake by chopping the ice ahead of their canoe — with a hatchet tied to the end of a ski pole — but quickly realized it was too thick.
“We got to the other side and went ‘Oh my God. This thing is totally frozen’,” she said.
“We realized at that point, once we hit land again, we have to find another way out of here.”
While they did have a GPS phone, they were so far into the bush they couldn’t get reception, Whelan said. So they set up a base camp and started hiking through deep, fresh snow.
“The maps showed a little road but it turns out that that road doesn’t exist any more,” she said.
‘I wouldn’t say I was ever really afraid’
Whelan and her friend started bushwhacking, making it about a kilometer in three days. She guessed the whole unplanned journey would take the pair about 10 days.
“I wouldn’t say I was ever really afraid — I was with another woman who is a really good friend of mine,” she said, adding they had about a month’s worth of food with them. “We had each other and we definitely had the resources to survive.”
After about four days of plowing through the snow and brush, the GPS phone miraculously sprang to life and Whelan quickly made a call to her cousin in Winnipeg.
“Next thing I know there’s chainsaws off in the distance and help was on the way,” she said. “I might have been stuck in northern Ontario but it was the Manitoba boys that came to my rescue.”
Dianne Whelan has been travelling on Canada’s Great Trail since 2015. (Dianne Whelan / 500 Days in the Wild)
Whelan’s cousin and a friend, along with their partners, drove from Winnipeg with chainsaws and an all-terrain vehicle.
Whelan is documenting her journey across Canada for a movie and her camera caught the moment when she first saw her rescuers cut through the bush ahead of her.
“Really love you, happy to see you,” she exclaimed in the video, as she rushes to give her cousin a big hug. “Did I tell you how much I love you today?”
Whelan, whose previous work has included films shot on Mount Everest and in the High Arctic, has been on the trail since 2015.
It’s a journey she’s previously told CBC News she embarked on as a form of personal reconciliation — both with the land and with Canada’s Indigenous People.
She estimates the journey will take her roughly four years to complete, and now that’s she’s out of the Northern Ontario wilderness, Whelan isn’t letting her unscheduled adventure slow her down — she plans on getting started on the Manitoba portion of the trail as soon as she can.
Once she gets her canoe and gear out of the bush, that is.
“I’ll go back and finish that section, but I won’t be able to do that paddle now until the spring,” she said.
“I’ve been faithful to every kilometer of this trail since I left Newfoundland two-and-a-half years ago and I intend to do every single one of them.”