The man in the floppy hat deftly guiding his canoe through foaming rapids is already familiar to thousands of canoeing enthusiasts. In several previous films and in his best-selling instructional book, Path of the Paddle, Bill Mason has done more than any other Canadian to popularize the art of paddling through the wilderness. Now, in a new documentary—currently in cross-country release in commercial theatres—Mason offers what he says is his “last movie.” Waterwalker follows Mason on a solo canoe trip through the stunning country north of Lake Superior. With a moody musical score by Bruce Cockburn and Hugh Marsh, wraparound Dolby sound, and superb camera work by Ken Buck, the film is a lush, idyllic—and at times self-indulgent-portrait of a man and the land he loves.
Almost entirely lacking in conventional drama, the slow-moving Waterwalker does, however, have structure.
The first half of the film follows Mason as he arduously poles, paddles and carries his red wood-and-canvas canoe up a steep river to its source. Then, Buck’s camera tracks his speedier return down another river to the Lake Superior shore. Along the way, there is spectacular scenery, a nearly disastrous spill in icy water and a generous portion of philosophizing about the relationship between man and nature, much of it inspired by native Canadians, Mason’s mentors in such matters. Indeed, Waterwalker features several shots of Indian rock paintings, accompanied by the noble Indian voice of Ojibwa musician Wilfred Pelletier, who intones, “We saw the spirit at work in everything.” Despite the pomposity, Mason’s plea for a more intimate bond with the natural world is genuine and convincing.
Waterwalker contains far too many scenes of Mason working on his romantic landscape paintings. In fact, now that Mason plans to make a fulltime living from his art, much of the film resembles a promotional brochure for his new career. But despite its faults, Mason’s final movie is ultimately satisfying. Waterwalker is like a canoe trip where one’s critical faculties are laid to rest in the simple enjoyment of the land’s beauty.
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