Rounding a bend in the slow, meandering river in the heart of Woodland Caribou Provincial Park, a gusty south wind grabs the bow of my canoe and spins me sideways, pushing me into the grassy shoreline and catching me off-guard. Suddenly, not 20 feet away, two tiny bear cubs leap onto a huge jack pine and clamber up through the branches, no doubt startled by my unexpected intrusion into their remote wilderness home. They peer back at me, eyes wide, as I reach for my cameras. I hit the record button on the GoPro mounted to the thwart of my canoe and I pick up my DSLR and start filming this rare experience.
Fortunately, both cameras were at my fingertips and not buried in a dry bag at the bottom of my portage pack as is often the case. Filming and photographing from a canoe is very challenging, and perhaps the most difficult part is setting up in such a way that you can access your equipment quickly for those spontaneous, once in a lifetime opportunities like the above scenario that my friend Joe and I experienced this past spring. We had similar encounters with moose, and I’m pleased with what I was able to capture considering the challenging circumstances.
The Right Equipment
Regardless of the weather, you and your equipment are going to get wet when paddling a canoe or kayak. When it’s not actually raining, spray and drips from your paddle will slowly fill the bottom of your boat with water, soaking your pack from below. Water droplets will shower your camera gear from above. Robust and water resistant equipment is essential for these conditions, including a weather-sealed, metal body DSLR. Anything less and your cameras will be stored away out of reach when that picture of a lifetime appears before you. I use a Canon 80D and a Canon 5D Mark III for photographs and video. Both have stood up to the abuse that is inherent on a backcountry canoe trip.
Because I have faith in my equipment, my Canon 80D remains mounted on a Cameron carbon tripod that is gear-tied to the center thwart while underway. If it starts raining or there is a lot of spray from high waves coming aboard, I slip a dry bag or Ziploc freezer bag over top and continue on my way. Because the camera is always within reach, I can switch it on and swivel it towards my subject, or I can quickly remove it from the tripod for handheld shots. With the convenient flip screen on the 80D, I turn the camera towards me for monologues and selfie photos with trophy fish. Once ashore, I carry the camera, still mounted on the tripod, in my hands so that I can film and photograph the portage trail and anything interesting I find along the way.
Canoeing is a perfect time and place for an action camera such as a GoPro. It’s waterproof, easy to use and with it’s built-in stabilization, is excellent for filming from a watercraft that is constantly moving one way or another. My favourite action camera is a GoPro Hero5. Not only does it take high quality video and photographs, the voice control allows me to mount it to the bow or stern of my canoe, out of reach, and turn it on and off on command. Filming at 60 frames per second, 2.7K resolution ensures blur-free video on high-speed activities like fish jumping and birds flying, and also produces clear screenshots of video for use on social media.
There are several mounts for action cams that are suitable for canoes. I have used a Gorilla Pod for a while now and like that I can wrap it around a thwart, set it on top of my portage packs or place it on the ground or on a branch for those paddling away shots. However, my new favourite mount is the 12” articulating jaws flex clamp. With it, the camera is held high above the gear, and when mounted to the gunwale, can be bent down low to the water for cool perspective footage. It’s easy to carry in my hand, but I can also leave it attached to the canoe while portaging.
Having the right equipment is just part of the secret to great videos and photographs. If I had just one recommendation for success, it would be to get in the habit of getting up early and staying up late. It is no secret that the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset are prime times. Too often, aspiring photographers are in bed or otherwise occupied with camp chores during these times. Not only are the lighting conditions optimal, wildlife is more active, the wind is usually calmer and other people are less likely to be present to ruin those serene moments. Great content can be captured during midday too, but it will often be blown out or have too much contrast between light and shadows to be attractive.
Once you get home with SD cards full of amazing media, it is time to make them pop with processing. It is a mistake to think that processing pictures and video using quality software is cheating. It’s where the art of photography and videography separates the amateurs from the professionals, and it has always been this way – it just involved a lot more work processing in a dark room or on the cutting floor before the advent of digital photography. For my wife and me, pushing the limit during the editing process is our art, and comments such as “unreal” and “looks like a painting” are compliments rather than insults. Sure we won’t win any media competitions for technical competency, but when we inspire someone to get outside to see with their own eyes what we have captured, that’s what matters to us.
Article and Photographs by Shawn James, Owner of My Self Reliance. Visit his website to learn more about Shawn.