“Let’s choose a route where we portage all the time and then paddle up river endlessly,” my brother Ted says.
He’s pissed…but he’s not wrong.
We’re on a 15-day, 130-mile canoe trip, filming our adventure for BeAlive. We’d just gotten into a pretty big blow up while using all the strength we had to drag around a log jam in Temagami’s Obabika River. The day started with a portage, followed by five miles of paddling, then a .9-mile portage with some treacherous sections of trail.
This was all before our 7-mile upriver paddle even started.
The current in the river is strong. We paddle hard just to inch along. The gear we have doesn’t make it any easier. Our canoe is heavily weighed down.
The close quarters we’re living in—mixed with the backbreaking labor, hunger, bugs and the fear of falling behind schedule— is enough to create tension between anyone. Add in the need to film everything and constantly charge batteries, record audio, and exchange batteries and memory cards…it’s lot of extra work to the already strenuous conditions.
And right now, it’s causing Ted and I to butt heads.
We’re supposed to be shooting with multiple cameras. Sometimes, Ted has a plan in his head on how to capture a specific situation, while I have another plan. Midway through the task at hand, we end up screwing up the other person’s plan, causing misunderstandings, more work, and wasted time.
A Man Named Alex
Ted and I didn’t just wake up overnight to a life of filming and adventure. Every encounter…every attempt…every lesson along the way…got us to the point.
One important meeting that changed my life? When I met a man named Alex…and a dog named Buck.
I first meet Alex Mathias just after Christmas 14 years ago. I have an all-wheel drive Chevy Astro Van with a locking rear differential. It can get through stuff pretty well, especially with the chains I had on the tires. I put them on after I stopped at a fishing lodge at the end of a snowy forest access road I’d driven on for two hours.
Knocking on the door of the lodge, the owners are surprised to have visitors. It is long closed for the season. I ask about a trail I saw on the map. They tell me it goes all the way up to “crazy old Alex’s place,” a native guy who lives in the bush.
“It’s just a snowmobile trail that is totally unmaintained,” they say. They suggest I stay off the trail, adding that the lake ice in the area isn’t safe to walk on yet either. I thank them, but I don’t listen. Three hours of terrified white knuckle driving later, and I see a faint light bleeding through the dark forest. I come to a stop.
All of a sudden, I see the long reaching shadows of over a dozen puppies emerge from the light, slowly moving toward me. For a brief second, I think there’s something supernatural going on.
A man—“crazy old Alex”—emerges out of the darkness. He leads us back to his piping hot cabin where he’s got the Leafs hockey game going on his satellite TV.
Alex tells us these pups are the offspring of a couple of his outdoor sled dogs: the descendants of the dogs he and his father used for transportation on their trap lines before the days of snowmobiles. He points out a few good camping spots on the map and shows us an old logging camp where there’s a cabin and a wood stove that still works.
Concerned, we ask him about the ice. He says it’s safe to walk on. “The people at the lodge, they’re pretty new around here” he says in their defense.
After a cold sleep in the van at -30 degrees that night, our party of three people and one dog head out on a five-day winter trek through a remote area of the Temagami backcountry. We follow wolf prints, hike the trails of a primordial forest and listen to wolf howls pierce the silence of the starlit winter nights.
A Dog Named Buck
It’s about nine years later the next time I talk to Alex. I’m living with my girlfriend. She wants us to get a dog. She keeps making suggestions on where to get one, posting images of rescue dogs up for adoption on my Facebook page. My name is Mittens, I need a home, blah blah blah.
Finally, I bit. The dog I’d brought to pull a sled on my first adventure to Alex’s place had died the year before. I told my girlfriend, “OK, if you really want a dog, I know a guy we should get one from.”
She didn’t care where we got a dog, just that we got one. I call up Alex on his satellite phone and ask him if he has any pups.
“I don’t have any pups, but I have a good well-tempered dog that could use a good home,” Alex explains through the broken signal. After deflecting a few warnings from family members on the potential problems that could surround owning an outdoor, northern breed sled dog, my girlfriend and I head to Alex’s the next day. It’s early summer this time, but it still takes eight hours to make it to Alex’s cabin. We have to drive at a snail’s pace on the final stretch of “road” into his homestead.
The next morning, we meet Buck.
He’s an outdoor dog, fresh off of making it through the coldest winter in 30 years. His fur is long. Thick. Alex tells us how he’s getting older, so he can’t take Buck for as many runs anymore. One of his other dogs is a fighter, so he’s had to leave them tied up and separated. This is why he wants to find Buck a new home.
After a chat with Alex, we head off to venture onto the same ancient forest trails that I’d snowshoed eight years earlier. Buck stays with us on the hike and definitely seems to know the bush.
Hungry partway through the walk, I stop to pick some blueberries. I look over at Buck. He’s helping himself to the tasty berries too, picking them off one by one right by my side.
Buck swims beside us as we paddle across a lake in a small canoe we found in the bush. His temperament is friendly, but not high-strung. When we get back to Alex’s place with a fresh catch of fish and a full day’s worth of stories, Alex says that Buck seems to take well to us. He explains that the last person who was supposed to take Buck turned back somewhere along his road and called Alex to say that he was crazy for living at the end of a road like that. We stay up late that night chatting and listening to Alex’s amazing stories of a full life lived close to nature.
We take Buck home.
Man’s Best Friend
Fast forward five years later. My girlfriend is now my wife.
Buck has accompanied us on multi-week canoe trips in Northern Saskatchewan, Northern Quebec, and the Northwest Territories. He’s backpacked 100 miles through the Canadian Rockies with us and has ventured into the Arctic wilderness to complete a 36-day winter crossing of the Ungava Peninsula with me. He is by my side for an 18-day trek on Baffin Island, where we crossed the Arctic Circle and appeared on both the Discovery Channel and History Channel.
Buck’s sled hauling ability and comfort in the outdoors is a big asset. I couldn’t have raised him so well myself.
He knows how to hunt for his own food. He likes to sleep outside.
He’s not bothered by cold temperatures or bugs.
He chased away a bear. He eats raw fish and meat. He gets along with other dogs, hasn’t eaten the cat and is great with kids and adults alike.
He’s an awesome dog…and an even better companion.
About a year after getting Buck, I go into being a full-time adventurer, trying to make ends meet mostly through creating content. When I make the plunge, I have bills piling up. I’m about 30k in debt with no idea how I’ll make the end of the month.
I remember being literally at the end of the road after a hardcore wilderness trip with a 30-hour drive home in front of me. I held just enough cash to pay for gas, hoping there would be a check waiting in the mailbox when I rolled into my driveway on fumes.
I get through a few years by the skin of my teeth.
My experience, tenacity, and deep passion for wilderness and adventure fuel me forward. Things start to build. My bush experience, mixed with my heightened filmmaking skills, helped land me and my brother Ted a spot on History Channel’s self-shot survival series Alone.
We go on to win the show.
The victory rounds out five months I’d spent camping, traveling, and surviving in remote areas that year. The win comes with a significant cash prize, exposure and additional evidence of our outdoor abilities and filmmaking skills. We’re going to be OK.
A New Chapter
It’s late August 2018, about a year and a half since my brother Ted and I win Alone. Ted and I are loading my truck with gear and preparing for another adventure. My wife Tori is standing outside holding our one-month-old baby boy, Wesley.
Buck is already in the front seat. He knows we’re going camping. He doesn’t want to be left behind. What Buck doesn’t know yet is that we’re heading back to Temagami to venture on a 15-day canoe trip. We’re going to visit Alex at his place and spend a few days with him exploring his traditional family territory.
It’s Day Five of this adventure when Ted tells me he’s upset with the route I’ve chosen. We get into a fight. Buck looks at us sheepishly as we scream back and forth at each other. Ted and I seem to get over things relatively quickly…but this one gets pretty heated. We get over it, like we always do. Buck’s by our side, like he always is.
The following day, Buck definitely recognizes the landscape. It’s easy to tell he’s been to the places we’re treading before. On the evening of Day Seven, we meet up with Alex. Though Buck has seen Alex a couple times in the past five years, Buck was clearly excited to be reunited with his old homestead, Alex and his family.
“Buck won the lottery with you,” Alex says. I can see how proud he is that he found a good home for Buck and that Buck is doing so well.
Again I enter the Ancient Forest, only this time, my brother is with me for his first visit. It’s the most interesting of my three visits to the forest. Alex accompanies us to share his knowledge and experience.
Over the next couple days, we visit ancient pictographs (pictures on rock) and petroglyphs (carvings into rock). Alex shows us some traditional skills, like how to make a birch bark moose call and how to set a snare for rabbit. He teaches us some words in Anishnabe, his first language.
Soon, we push on and make our way through 70 more miles of backcountry lakes, rivers and portages to complete our journey where we’d started, finishing with about 2.5 terabytes of footage in hand. It sure isn’t an easy trip and the effort the production adds is significant to say the least. But on the drive home, Ted and I agree: this is our dream job.
Back home after the adventure is over, I hold my baby boy. My amazing wife has been caring for him, mostly by herself, at our rural home. My eyes glaze over when I hold my son and see how much he’s grown since I left.
Soon after, Ted jumps in his truck to head home. I congratulate him again for a great trip. I walk out onto the porch and lean up against the railing to gaze down at the river. Without a doubt, I feel like something has come full circle, as if all these events are connected in some way.
As human beings, we are prone to look for meaning in coincidence. No one is consciously in touch with all of their influences… but I feel that this chain of events can only be explained by the choice I made when I allowed myself to follow the path that I feel is right for me while feeding the good wolf, and always answering the call of the wild. After all, Buck got his name from the main character of the Jack London novel.
I was born for a life of adventure…and so was he.