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'500 Days in the Wild': Filmmaker spent 6 years travelling the longest trail network in the world, the Trans Canada Trail

"For a film that was supposed to be all about being alone, it's a film that's all about connection," Dianne Whelan said

Award-winning filmmaker, Dianne Whelan, has made movies on Mount Everest and in the high Arctic, but in her most recent film, 500 Days in the Wild, she took on the impressive challenge of documenting her journey across Canada, along the Trans Canada Trail, the longest trail network in the world.

In July 2015, Whelan took off from St. John’s, hiking, biking, canoeing and cross-country skiing across the trail, totalling 27,000 kilometres, completing her journey in Victoria, B.C., on August 1, 2021.

"On a more personal level, my marriage had ended, my dog had died, and the life that I had been living was over, and I was full of anger and really sad," Whelan told Yahoo Canada about what inspired her to set off on this journey. "I knew I needed a reset, so I needed to check out to check in, as I like to say."

"So I thought, well I can go make my next film, I don't need a lot of money, ... this is doable and someone's going to want to buy this film, because it's the longest trail in the world. ... I wanted to get off the wheel where everything is just about having to make the bills that month, and so this was the only way I could see doing it."

Elevation Pictures

Watch 500 Days in the Wild on Paramount+ with 7 days free, then plans start from $9.99/month

$10 at Paramount+

Moving away from 'romanticizing individualism'

Watching Whelan's journey is incredibly captivating, from her bike "Merlin," to the trials and tribulations of trying to put up a tent, and have it last, and learning about the unique Indigenous territories. It's a beautiful and person experience to watch.

But while the initial desire for this experience was very much about Whelan herself, human connection is such a core part of 500 Days in the Wild.

"For a film that was supposed to be all about being alone, it's a film that's all about connection," Whelan stressed. "Connection to self, connection to water, connection to land, connection to each other."

"I'm an introvert, but I definitely know the importance of that connection. ... It's that idea of like, romanticizing individualism, which I've done for so many decades of my life, and just that realization that it's a sickness. Change that narrative. We need each other. It's good to be together. It's great to have personal time, but it's really important that we also connect, and to remember, too, that we don't have to focus just on what makes us different. We have a lot in common, let's just start with the fact that we're all living on the same planet, in a galaxy full of dead planets, and move forward from there."

500 Days in the Wild (Elevation Pictures)
500 Days in the Wild (Elevation Pictures)

'There is way more human kindness out there than there is a shadow'

As we see in the film, different people give Whelan assistance and/or supplies throughout the journey, right from the start.

"That was the healing part of the journey," she said. "It's easy to lose your faith in humanity when all we hear about are wars and conflict, and strife and what divides us."

"Being out on the trail, what's so beautiful, once you step outside into nature and you meet people out there, ... it doesn't matter what your politics are, it doesn't even come up in conversation. What you're talking about is what you share. If you're meeting someone out there, they're out there too, even if they're on their own ATV or side-by-side, or whatever, they're drawn to leave their whatever and come out into nature. ... In six years I never met a mean person. Never. ... There is way more human kindness out there than there is a shadow. I forgot that, this journey reminded me of that, and I lived it."

But there is a moment in the film when Whelan opens up about initially feeling fearful about being a woman alone in the woods, sleeping in a tent, a particularly "vulnerable" scenario. But that fear quickly subsided.

"Fear needs to be fed, it's like, what you feed in your life grows, what you stop feeding goes away," Whelan said. "So of course when I left I was feeding that fear ,I was like, 'Oh, my god I'm so afraid,' but then night after night, after night, after day, after day after day, nothing happened."

"So the fear stopped getting fed. If things had happened, the fear would have continued to be fed, but nothing did. Lots of things happen, but nothing that would feed that fear. Through the process of time, that fear went away and that's like any fear in life. When we confront it, eventually that fear will go away."

Dianne Whelan in 500 Days in the Wild (Elevation Pictures)
Dianne Whelan in 500 Days in the Wild (Elevation Pictures)

'I'm going to document the things that touched me'

Whelan had an impressive 800 hours of footage to sift through for this film, which was done with the help of editor Tanya Maryniak, in particular, who also co-wrote the documentary.

"The most important creative decision you make is who is going to edit your film, and I got really lucky, I had access to a lot of amazing editors who all helped in the assemblies," Whelan said. "Unlike other filmmakers, when I make a film I don't just say, set up a shoot date and show up, I roll myself and ... when I'm filming other people, I'm with them 24 hours a day on Everest, I'm there 40 days on the mountain.

"Same with this film, because I've made other films and it worked, I trusted my intuitive, creative process. Creatively, go where my lens wanted to go. ... I like to tell people that we get taught certain formulas and they work for a lot of people, but you've got to do it the way that you can do it. For me, I don't want to impose a story on something, I want to find it, I want to let it reveal itself. I'm going on a journey, I'm going to document this journey, I'm going to document the things that touched me, that affect me, that are influencing me, and I'm going to trust in that process, and it worked."

Elevation Pictures

Watch 500 Days in the Wild on Paramount+ with 7 days free, then plans start from $9.99/month

$10 at Paramount+

While Whelan did say that it was "hard" to come home and reintegrate into life, including obligations like making money and paying bills, the filmmaker said her heart was "cracked wide open" on this journey.

"Some profound changes in, I would almost call them paradigm shifts, occur in my relationship to the natural world," she said. "Even though I'm told the words, it takes a few years, but I shift from being on the water, to with the water, and I shift from being on the earth, to with the earth"