Name: Frank Wolf
Vocation: Adventurer, Filmaker, Roadie
Hometown: Toronto, ON
Midwest Ties: Ann Arbor, MI
Work: Wild Ones
Years ago, a friend and I were on a mission to forage for stories and our target was men sporting facial hair. Beards were merely the gateway drug. Our conversation was sparked with two simple questions — which elicited extremely personal, individual, yet universal truths: “Why did you grow the beard and what’s your story?”
I was in love with that process — the stories kept racking up — but it wasn’t until we ran into a certain Canadian that we saw its true potential. We approached Frank Wolf, an environmentalist and adventure filmmaker from Vancouver, BC. A man who owns very little, but is beyond wealthy in experience. He chases adrenaline with the grit of a hard nosed Midwesterner.
Intrigued by our mission he offered to share a few photographs and a wild tale. Fast forward to today, the conversation has just reached platonic levels as it just so happens he had a few year layover right here in the Midwest. Wolf spent a short time here in the Midwest in his early twenties, but its impact had a resounding influence on who he is today. From finding his favorite canoe route in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota to a short stint at the University of Michigan, there is a certain charm he remembers about the Midwest. Time to crack open a bottle, Frank brings the heat…
MWG: How would ‘you’ define a Midwestern Gentleman?
Frank: I’d say a Midwestern Gentleman would be someone who could seamlessly step from a canoe after a two-month journey and into a fancy cocktail party – no mental transition required. No matter where he is, the Midwestern Gentleman is on trip.
How do you respond when people ask, “what do you do?”
My natural tendency is to have people talk about themselves as I already know everything about me- so I usually tell them “I work retail” (which is true- a couple days a week in the winters) and then ask what they do, which I find much more interesting. It’s what makes me an effective doc filmmaker- getting people to talk about themselves and minimizing what I do- unless of course they show a true interest or specifically ask me about it, like you guys are now.
Who motivates you?
I’m pretty self-motivated. The expeditions and films I create spring from my own mind and vision. It’s something i can’t really help. People ask me why I do what i do and I say “I have no choice- I’m compelled to do it.” It’s a sort of healthy (or unhealthy some would say) addiction. Creating a unique wilderness journey is like painting or dance- it’s a form of expression. It’s art. That being said, filmwise I’m inspired by director Werner Herzog, who utilizes ‘happy accidents’ that spring up in the course of making a film. And it’s true- all the best stuff is unscripted and comes out of left-field when you least expect it- you just have to make sure the camera is rolling when it happens. Those moments can’t be recaptured and will always make the final cut. Look at the final scene of Herzog’s ‘Aguirre the Wrath of God’ and you’ll know what i mean, that scene was a completely random interaction between man and nature and is the penultimate scene of the film. Of course, some creatures like the ‘Canadian Snow Leopard’ from my film ‘Mammalian’ are a combination of both art and accident.
What are a some of your go-to albums or bands?
A pretty eclectic mix…Gordon Lightfoot, Brian Jonestown Massacre, Band of Horses, Patrick Watson, Peirson Ross, Half Moon Run, Neil Young, The Avett Brothers, Gaga/Perry/Kesha-type stuff, anything from the 70’s a.m. radio genre, Billy Paul, Miles Davis, Fleet Foxes, good ‘ol midwestern Bon Iver, and so on. Lightfoot’s 1966 debut album ‘Lightfoot!” is the best for kicking back in a cabin in the woods with a snifter of peaty single malt or a good canadian whisky- the vintage vinyl version with accompanying crackle and hiss of the needle required.
Do you have a preffered spirit or drink to finish a day with?
The hoppiest IPA possible- something that’ll kick you right in the mouth with an explosion of citrus and cedar. Good IPAs out here are ‘Fat Tug’ by Driftwood Brewing and ‘Four Winds IPA’. On all my long expeditions, my go-to drink is ’40 Creek Barrel Select’ Canadian Whiskey, accompanied by a Djarum Special or Black clove cigarette. Nothing like sitting on a rock by the water after a long day of adventure, watching the sun set, passing the flask and smoke back and forth with your buddy as you savour the moment. In civilization, I like peaty single malts like Lagavulin or Laphroaig.
What about the Midwest helped define you?
My two years spent in Ann Arbor were pivotal in steering me in my current direction. I came in from Toronto a pretty square guy and departed the progressive halls of Michigan a liberated man. I became environmentally quite aware and involved, even subscribing to the radical ‘Earth First Journal’ at the time. I went there as an athlete on the track and cross country running teams but by my last semester I’d quit the team and became a total beardo, rocking the first significant facial growth of my young life (this was 1991). I said goodbye to U of M and got a job that summer as a canoe trip guide in Northern Ontario…the rest is history.
“I think the Midwest is special in that it draws from all parts of North America- it’s geographically central and therefore culturally central. It’s like the centre of a bowl, where the ideas from all corners and coasts of the continent collect and meld together. With this built-in cultural versatility and awareness, Midwesterners are comfortable anywhere they go- they are the chameleons of the continent.”
As a documentarian and expedition seeker, is it more about being a part of the story / adventure or making the documentary?
I always prioritize the adventure- if I lose the camera gear down a river, I’d keep going. The experience of the journey is greater than anything else. When I commit to filming though, it becomes an extension of the trip. I shoot efficiently in rhythm with the journey so the filming has little impact on the experience- but also maximizes my ability to bring the viewer intimately along with us on the journey.
Do you have a favorite place to canoe in the Midwest?
Yes indeed- when I canoed across Canada I did the length of the Boundary Waters canoeing area along the Minnesota border. Beautiful country!
What, if anything, has surprised you the most out in the wild?
I always find I’m most at home when I’m on an extended wilderness journey- be it by canoe, kayak, foot or bike- so I’m very comfortable out there. Every day on trip is different, every day engaging, as we work our way through the ever-changing landscape, using our wits, skill and experience to keep moving forward. I don’t use guide books and generally don’t travel through areas that have them. It’s travel like in the days of yore, where you stay in the moment and never really know what’s around the next corner- the uncertainty is the joy. There’s nothing more mind-numbingly miserable and boring than a predictable, comfortable situation. Staying hungry and hunted is key to my happiness.
Surprises on trip are the norm, not the exception. As an example, a memorable surprise was is in the summer of 2014 as I was finishing up a 25-day, 1300 km canoe trip up to Fort Severn on Hudson Bay. I usually travel with a shotgun in polar bear country, though I had yet to see one despite extensive trips through the Northwest Passage and Labrador. On this journey, there was a slim chance we’d see a polar bear as they only wander a little-ways upriver from the Bay at the end of August. For that reason, our last camp was 90 km from our finishing town and we paddled that distance out the last day. In the middle of having a discussion about polar bears, we rounded a corner of the river and there she was- a big, fat polar bear ambling along the shore of the island we were passing by. It was incredible. The bear was healthy and paused to look us over from 50 feet away as we peacefully drifted by. It stretched its mouth out in a big, toothy yawn and continued to amble on upriver. It was a serene, beautiful moment.
Faced with the actual presence of one of the more feared creatures on the planet, I found myself struck with a deep feeling of peace, awe, and respect. We were merely two of earth’s mammals acknowledging each other’s presence and place in the landscape before we moved on in our respective ways.
Outside of your film expeditions, what’s your escape?
I live at the base of a mountain here in North Vancouver. I could literally walk out my back door and into the wilderness without bumping into a single town until I popped out on the arctic ocean 3,000 km later. The trails here go for 100’s of kilometres in all directions and it’s the birthplace of modern mountain biking so a truly world class riding destination that I take full advantage of. I also trail run, winning the legendary Knee Knackering 50 km trail race back in the day. That race has 16,000 feet of elevation change as it travels across all three north shore mountains. There are also three rivers, grades II- V, that flow out of the mountains so I whitewater kayak too. You can trail run, mountain bike and kayak on the lower half of the mountains all year-round. In the winters, the upper half of the mountains are snow-covered so I mix in backcountry skiing and skate skiing during that season too. If I want world-class food and nightlife, the city of Vancouver is 20 minutes away.
Lastly, You just finished the feature Wild Ones where you were the canoe co-pilot, lone roadie and filmmaker of the canoe only tour of musician Peirson Ross. What can people expect from this film?
The film follows Peirson Ross on a tour to support his most recent album- entitled ‘Wild Ones’. Wild Ones is a celebration of Canadian wilderness and the oddballs of society- so instead of travelling to the venues with a touring van, we decided to do the 750 km journey by canoe alone, doing every inch by paddle and portage. The canoe is one of the stronger symbols of Canadian national identity as our country was established by the canoe through our interconnected waterways.