This year’s Special Achiever, Dianne Whelan ‘83, made a special effort to be at York House to speak at both Founders’ Day and Alumnae Day to celebrate our 85th Anniversary. In fact, a bush pilot extracted her from a remote area along the Trans Canada trail where, since July 2015, she has hiked, biked, snowshoed, skied, and canoed across the country. As she passes through some 15,000 communities along the 24,000 kilometers of the trail, she’s filming her next adventure documentary, 500 Days in the Wild.
Former York House School Head Girl, Dianne Whelan ’83, an explorer, award-winning Canadian documentary filmmaker, author, and multimedia artist, is no stranger to extreme adventure. In 2007, Dianne was the first woman to travel as an embedded media person with a team of Canadian Rangers to a never patrolled route of the northwestern coast of Ellesmere Island, Nunavut. In the middle of winter, they traversed close to 2000 km in the Canadian High Arctic from Resolute to Alert, the most northerly human habitation in the world. Her film, This Land and first book, This Vanishing Land A Woman’s Journey to the Canadian Arctic, depicts her epic journey. In 2010, she filmed her award-winning film, 40 Days at Base Camp, which recounts her eye-opening experiences on the world’s highest mountain, Mt. Everest.
In support of her journey along the Trans Canada Trail, Dianne was recently honoured to receive an expedition grant from the Royal Canadian Geographic Society for the 2,300-km paddle of Lake Superior. With North America’s largest lake behind her, Dianne is continuing along “The Path of the Paddle”, a water route in Northwestern Ontario, which follows centuries-old traditional First Nations and Metis trails. Dianne received another honour earlier this year when her film, This Land, a National Film Board documentary, made the Celebrate Canada 150 list.
We were fortunate to be able to sit down with Dianne while she was here to talk about what her Trans Canada journey has shown her so far.
Before setting out, Dianne had titled the trip and pending film, 500 Days in the Wild. This was when she thought she would be travelling the longest trail in the world at a pace of 70 km per day. She lets out a good natured laugh when she thinks back on her ambition. By Day 3, after leaving Newfoundland, Dianne soon came to the realization that it was going to take her considerably more time. In fact, it will likely take her four years, or 1,460 days, to complete but she is no longer in a hurry. But now, more important than how hard or fast she goes, is her interactions with people along the trail.
Now, at the halfway mark, she has been particularly impressed with the kindness that people have shown her along the way. Their generosity has confirmed for her that people truly are good in a way that we often forget.
When asked about how her expectations have changed from the start of the trip, Dianne comments, “It has definitely been harder physically than I had expected. But I haven’t been sick or hurt. I thought I would be more fearful being a woman on my own but that fear is gone. Of course, what I thought would be one film has now become a trilogy (I hope to release part one in the fall of 2018).”
“One thing I really didn’t expect is the exchanges that I have had with indigenous people, particularly the women,” she continues. “First Nations culture teaches us to honour the earth and to honour the women. A Cree grandmother shared with me their collective belief that no decision should be made without thinking of seven generations ahead, which is why I believe that the answers for sustainability are with the First Nations.
Her time with indigenous women across the country has also shown her the importance of humility and having an open heart.
“For me, my goal is to make sure that every day is a sincere expression of myself. When I filmed at Everest, I had lost my balance and went into my ego. Now I know that you need to hang onto a certain amount of humility and grace. I think I have learned from my past mistakes.”
With so much time in isolation in nature, Dianne has had much time to reflect on the importance of following her heart. While here celebrating Founders’ Day with us, she reminded us all of the importance of not forgetting where we come from and how empowering our motto, Not for Ourselves Alone, truly is.
Dianne had come to York House School in Grade 9 as a shy and quiet student, but by Grade 12 she was Head Girl. “When I graduated from York House, I had the confidence that I could do anything I wanted; I left believing in myself. For me, York House is the foundation upon which I built my dreams. We need places like York House to breed strong women,” says Dianne.
Thinking back on her path after York House that has led her to this point, Dianne recalls the eight years at McGill University where she studied philosophy, political science, and religious studies. She was on her way to law school at Dalhousie University when she had decided to take a break and work for her father’s fashion company in Vancouver, Marquis of London, where she learned multiple facets of the business ranging from marketing to production.
The realization that she needed to follow a different path led her to Langara College where she studied journalism and Emily Carr where she studied multimedia including photography and film.
She now recognizes that everything that she has learned, whether at school or in life, has led her to this journey she is on now. This journey to see and to know, that we are not alone.
To read more about Dianne’s adventures visit http://500daysinthewild.com.