Adventurer reaches Tuktoyaktuk, calls North toughest stretch of 24,000-km journey

Dianne Whelan hiked and canoed across Canada, but she didn't fully realize how dangerous it is out there until she came North.

"There were a lot of extremes on this trip," she said. "Extreme fear, extreme nature, and extreme kindness as well." 

Whelan is a documentary filmmaker working on 500 Days in the Wild, a film about her journey across the Great Trail, which runs about 24,000 kilometres through 13 provinces and territories. 

She just finished a 3,500-kilometre stretch with her partner Louisa, paddling through Alberta and the Northwest Territories, before stopping for a rest in Tuktoyaktuk. 

"Since leaving Newfoundland in 2015, this was probably one of the more challenging parts of the journey," she said. 

"The Peace River, the Slave River, Great Slave Lake, the Mackenzie, also known as the Deh Cho — we're talking great bodies of water," she said. 

Though she's been on the road for a few years, and has escaped a few tough situations herself, Whelan says this was the first time she saw death close to her on the trail. 

In August, she was paddling on Great Slave Lake near Hay River, when she heard of a paddler, Thomas Destailleur, who drowned nearby. 

"It felt really close, it was a sobering thought," she said. "The waves at times looked like they were going to swamp us, but they didn't." 

A few weeks later, she was near Tulita when French composed Julien Gauthier was attacked and killed by a grizzly. 

"Here's another artist on the river, he was a composer collecting sounds to make music," she said. "It felt so close, because I'm on the same river, paddling to the same destination outside Tulita … you have to combat your fear." 

"This is the first time [I saw that] people died, doing exactly what I was doing," Whelan said. "It was very sobering." 

Bears were a constant presence along the Mackenzie River during Whelan's paddle. She often saw bear prints around her sites and spoke with people up and down the river who saw abnormal activity from bears. 

500 Days in the Wild

Whelen credits her cautious nature for keeping herself safe during her travels. If the weather looks bad, or the water looks too dangerous to paddle, she says she's happy to set up a fire and wait until things clear up. 

"I can always let nature be my boss," she said. "One of the dangers of taking on these big journeys is if you have to push yourself, because you have to be somewhere by a certain place or time.

"It makes you take chances you shouldn't take." 

But these physical and psychological challenges were balanced out by the generosity and welcome from northerners who helped her along the way. 

Often people would offer her directions, advice, even a place to stay or a bite to eat — despite being complete strangers, she said. 

From here, Whelan plans for a bit of rest and relaxation, including a visit home to her parents in B.C., before she continues on her journey to finish the trail, which could take at least another year.  

For now, she feels grateful knowing that at least she's passed through the Northwest Territories safely, and reached the Arctic Ocean.