The Far Fur Country Diaries

Discovering a long-lost Canadian film classic and bringing it back to audiences

19 mins read

The 35mm film snaps on the Steenbeck, interrupting a sequence of fur trapping in Canada shot in 1919. I look over at Chris, my brother and collaborator, and we both wince. We’re in the basement of the British Film Institute (BFI) in London, spending the week researching a collection of silent films. A reassuring technician splices the film together, and we are transported back to Northern Canada. The film is from The Romance of the Far Fur Country, footage that few have seen since it was released in 1920. This rare film and our search for living descendants of the people who appeared in it will form the basis of our next documentary.

In 1919, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) decided to make a film to commemorate their 250th anniversary and to attract attention to its growing chain of department stores. HBC partnered with Educational Pictures out of New York City to send cameraman Harold Wyckoff across its fur empire. Wyckoff had just returned from filming in Siberia; he could handle Canada. A second cameraman, Bill Derr, came along to film behind the scenes and as insurance, in case something happened on this six-month expedition. In July of that year, they sailed from Montreal on the icebreaker Nascopie, bound for Baffin Island.

People keep arriving at the local theatre in Iqaluit. We are showing highlights from the archival footage in hopes that someone in the crowd might recognize an ancestor. We are in Nunavut to retrace the route taken by the 1919 HBC expedition, looking for anything familiar that people may recognize. The response is electric, and we secure interviews with people with stories to tell. From Iqaluit, we take a prop plane over a mountain range to Kimmirut, formerly Lake Harbour, a small hamlet with deep HBC roots.

Wyckoff and Derr balanced with their cameras on large chunks of ice as the Nascopie made a pass through the ice. They were bound for Lake Harbour, a primary fur-trade post that would feature prominently in the film. An important sequence shot here became a film within the film called Reminiscences/Life Story of an Eskimo. The scenes hint at parallels between Far Fur Country and Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, both films born out of competing fur trade businesses. While the fur-trading company Revillon Frères sponsored Nanook, Wyckoff and Derr were working for HBC. Nanook was released in 1922 and was a worldwide hit. The Romance of the Far Fur Country was released two years earlier in 1920 and quickly forgotten.

The morning sun dips in and out of the clouds. There are children playing outside. We hike the hill above the hamlet for a view of Kimmirut’s harbour. After a screening of the footage at the local school, we meet Tommy Akavak, who encourages us to talk to his aunt. As Annie Ikkidluak watches the footage, she recognizes a man paddling a kayak as Muneapick, her grand-uncle. At night we climb the hill past the RCMP station to watch the northern lights over the harbour, seeing the same hills, harbour and sky of 1919.

The Nascopie stopped to replenish fur posts along the coast as it steamed into James Bay in mid-August. Wyckoff and Derr collected their gear, leaving the icebreaker for good. The journey for Wyckoff had been smooth so far; as he travelled, he reflected on where he should settle down to raise a family.

Eight Cree guides from Moose Factory, Ont., would escort the camera crew on the two-week canoe trip up the Abitibi River. They filmed epic shots of the rugged Canadian Shield, tracking through the same region that the Group of Seven would make famous in the same decade. The Cree men expertly poled and portaged the route. Of 14 days on the trip, it rained for 10.

It takes us 17 hours to drive from Winnipeg to Cochrane, Ont. It is raining as we shift equipment into various cases for the train north to reach Moose Factory. From the train we see the dams that have choked and drained the Abitibi River. I’ve been reading Wyckoff’s writings, provided by his family. He had recently married and was tortured by being away from his wife. I find myself thinking of my wife and kids at home in Winnipeg, too. Managing guilt is part of my filmmaking experience.

After the gruelling two weeks on the Abitibi River, Derr was elated to hear he was finished. Wyckoff would carry on as the solo cameraman. In mid-September, he reported to the HBC headquarters and captured scenes around Winnipeg, but nothing very compelling—not like the celebrations he would film the year after when he returned for Far Fur Country’s premiere at the Allen Theatre—the gala ceremony, documented in the 1920 Red River Pageant film, also shot around Winnipeg.

I consider myself lucky to be from Winnipeg and am content that most people fly over us on their way to important places to do important things. It keeps things quiet here, allowing for concentration, which appeals to the introvert in people like me. There is a peculiar density of arts organizations, archives and museums here. For an independent filmmaker, these institutions are a golden resource. It is in the Archives of Manitoba, which contains the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives (HBCA), and in Peter Geller’s book Northern Exposures where I discover the trail to this rare HBC footage. Recognizing that the time was right, the keeper of the HBC collection, Maureen Dolyniuk, made the official request to the BFI to have the footage returned to the collection in Winnipeg.

Captain Thomas O’Kelly was assigned as Wyckoff’s new fixer. They trained west, making a quick stop in HBC’s department store in Calgary for one of several commercial sequences that are likely reasons why the Far Fur Country didn’t live on like Nanook. Though the expedition was supposed to head north to begin a journey down the Athabasca River, the boat they were to use wasn’t ready. To avoid delays, they headed to B.C. first. The decision meant northern Alberta would be winter travelling for sure—something Wyckoff would always remember.

We are taking the ferry from Vancouver Island to the community of Alert Bay, B.C. Anthropologist Franz Boaz studied the First Nations here, and famed photographer Edward Curtis shot his first motion picture, In the Land of the War Canoes, in this same community in 1914. We hold a community screening at the U’mista Cultural Society, its museum full of dramatic potlatch (gift-giving feast) masks and carvings. We’ve wondered what the response will be like since the footage contains images of their sacred potlatch artefacts and shots of children being marched to the local industrial school, a forerunner to their residential school. But what surprises us, more than enthusiasm for the footage, is their eye for hidden details. In an example of glass-half-full-or-half-empty, one artist, Wayne Alfred, notices something I had never seen. In the shot of uniformed schoolgirls walking in formation, one of the girls, in an act of defiance, sticks her tongue out at the camera; an assertion of independence hidden in the frame emerges from the screen.

The HBC fixer O’Kelly had a background in B.C. He knew there would be good stuff to get in Alert Bay. Assimilation efforts were heightened in this region with a potlatch ban, and Indian agents paid close attention to community gatherings. O’Kelly pushed for shots of traditional cultural dress and potlatch regalia because audiences were fascinated by the romance of people from the frontier. Within a few years of the expedition filming here, the largest potlatch on record would trigger a crackdown; 45 would be arrested and potlatch materials would be confiscated.

We are splitting up our weeks of shooting to work around my teaching schedule. Summers and winter breaks give windows to shoot in remote communities across the North. Our documentary, On the Trail of the Far Fur Country, takes nearly five years to complete: several years in development and fundraising, with support coming from arts grants and crowd funding. Shooting is spread over two and a half years.

The scow was finally built, and the expedition left Athabasca Landing in mid-October. Travel north on the Athabasca River was slow going because water levels were at record lows. The early freeze-up forced them to abandon their boat, continuing by horses, dog sled and on foot to reach Fort McMurray four weeks later. Wyckoff, exhausted from the journey, recognized that this would only make the film better.

It is mid-January. We’re on Route 63, known to the locals as the Highway to Hell, north from Edmonton to the oil sands of Fort McMurray. There is more and more traffic on the roads as we approach Fort McMurray. It is cold, and Ryan has just changed planes from a shoot in Africa, going from plus-30 to minus-30.

At a community film screening at the local museum, Joe Gauthier, a trapper, invites us out on his trap line. Finding an extra Ski-Doo, we join him the next day. The temperatures are harsh, mid-minus-30s, but mercifully, no wind. The camera eats batteries, but we have plenty ready. There are periodic memory-card errors from the cold, but rebooting the camera allows us to continue. At Joe’s cabin, which is just as cold inside as out until the stove begins to thaw the small room, he talks about the reality of trapping and the importance of jobs in the oil patch. We perform the delicate task of gradually warming the camera, from outside temperatures to inside, while trying not to miss this moment.

In the 1920 HBC short film Trials and Tribulations of a Cameraman, Wyckoff demonstrated how to prevent condensation on a cold camera, by wrapping the camera in a blanket and letting it acclimatize. This behind-the-scenes footage includes some of the most iconic images in the Far Fur Country collection, that of a cameraman in a parka hand-cranking his 35mm camera and reloading the camera in the cold. It is hard not to wince as fingers touch the metal parts of the camera with bare hands at minus-40. Damn cold.

At 5 a.m., we hit bumper-to-bumper traffic heading north out of Fort McMurray for the oil patch. The views are predictably apocalyptic. I make a note to myself to tell my son that it seems like Mordor from the Tolkien book he is reading. We start on the ice road to Fort Chipewyan for another local screening. There we meet Charlie Cardinal, who agrees to take us ice fishing. He picks us up in front of our B & B the next day in his Ski-Doo. Ryan rides behind and I hold on for dear life in the sled as Charlie races across the lake to his fishing spot. His technique is remarkably similar to that of 1919, using a net beneath the ice. Ryan is getting this all on camera, positioning himself by the hole in the ice to get the fish coming up on the net, when a huge fish flops out of the icy water, splashing the camera. This is one of those rare moments when shooting in the minus-30s is an asset. The water froze quickly on the cold camera, and with quick attention, Ryan got the camera back up and running while I covered the scene with our B-camera.

Despite the coldest winter on record in 1919, the show must go on. Wyckoff had clearly suffered from the rugged trek of 50 miles a day just to arrive here. Fort Chipewyan was the climactic end of the journey. Here they filmed the trapping of furs for trade with the HBC, but an additional scene of tremendous significance was also captured. An interview with Chief Laviolette would prove prescient as he “sends a message to the King by way of the camera,” demanding that their treaty rights be respected.

The lights come up in Fort Chipewyan after screening the highlights of the archival footage. The audience is eager to talk about seeing their community on-screen, and offer their thoughts about the history of the HBC and the colonial past of Canada. These collective conversations have been my favourite part of the project. For many in the audience, they are reminders of the complex relations between North and South. This community knows the story well; they are downstream from Fort McMurray, where the shadow of a fur company has been replaced by interest in oil.

The Romance of the Far Fur Country was released in May 1920. The feature film was distributed across the country, then cut down to a 90-minute U.K. version and reconstituted into additional short films. The HBC did not keep a copy of the original feature; they just sent what was left to London, eventually to be preserved by the BFI. Perhaps because of the cold, Wyckoff decided to leave filmmaking to become a farmer in California.

Back in Winnipeg, the curatorial editing of the Far Fur Country film from the surviving digitized reels that were brought back there is like cinematic archeology. The textual records from the HBCA confirm the chronology and geography of the journey, but the reels were mixed up in the versioning, so we now have to make decisions about how sequences fit within the journey story. Without the aid of the HBC Archives/Archives of Manitoba to request the return of the footage and cover the digitization, I could not have made my documentary, nor begun the reconstruction of the original Far Fur Country film. This footage gives a unique window into Canadian history, opening up exciting opportunities for storytelling and teaching for future generations. My experience after retracing the route of the 1919 expedition has taught me a great deal. Whether intentional or not, this archival footage has reminded me that our past is deeply connected to the First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples, and that our dependence on resource exploitation and industry is just as much a reality today as it was in 1919.

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