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BACK ROADS BILL: Slow television on a heritage river

This week, Bill tells us about a new Earth Day documentary and a paddling destination

If you have never experienced the phenomena of slow television this is your chance to be memorized for three hours while you paddle a canoe from the bow seat of a red cedar strip canoe on the backwaters.


You won’t leave your chair but you will move with the water.

It is not binge-watching. Slow TV is a genre of extended coverage of an ordinary event. Its name is derived both from the length of the broadcast as well as from the natural pace of the program’s progress.

It was popularized by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation beginning with the release of an almost ten-hour train journey to the Arctic Circle in 2009.

You can get the picture by intermittently clicking on the slide bar track clicking; I like the train tunnel near the end and the expansive shots of the Saltfjellet mountain range upon exiting the near darkness. Have a look.

Apart from natural sounds, this almost silent documentary is a 110-kilometre backwater paddle on the first designated Canadian Heritage River which helped form Canada. It premieres on Earth Day, Sunday, April 21, at 8 p.m. ET on TVO, TVO Today and YouTube; it will be streamed continuously thereafter.

The non-fiction storyline is the French River. The mid Ontario, horizontal waterway is part of the hypothetical boundary between northern and southern Ontario. The trip takes you from Lake Nipissing to Georgian Bay. But the French River is much more than a canoe trip.

“Paddling the French River is both a step back in time and a way to see all the great flora and fauna that Ontario has to offer,” says Mitch Azaria, Executive Producer at Good Earth Productions. “I don’t believe there is another river in Ontario that has as much personality as the French. There are sections that feel like a lake, there are rapids, waterfalls, abandoned towns, soaring cliffs, historic lodges, and stunning narrow channels used by the voyageurs that are just barely wide enough for a canoe.”

Since 1991, Good Earth Productions (GEP) has been producing award-winning television documentaries. They have been recognized with several awards including a coveted Hot Doc. The company’s current documentary series, Tripping, is in its fifth season and continues to be very well received by TVO viewers. GEP has also produced acclaimed documentaries for CBC, National Geographic, Discovery Channel and History Television.

Behind-the-scenes questions

Mitch was interviewed for the Back Roads Bill podcast and this Village Media story. In 1982 he began his career as a reporter/anchorman at Global Television. Then in 1994, formed Good Earth Productions Inc., an independent production company, that has won numerous international awards. Mitch has overseen the production of more than two hundred documentary programs for broadcast. In that time GEP has won numerous awards including a prestigious, Hot Doc. GEP has also had eight Gemini nominations.

He had previously paddled the French some forty years ago.

BRB: What's your takeaway when the final product was edited?

“The actual string out of the edit is quite straightforward since it is a linear trip. The tricky part is pacing the edits to try and keep viewers in 'the tripping zone.' We spend a long time thinking of those edits and the incorporation of the over 100 information boards and 3D animations. When Tripping The French River was finished, I really liked the edit, I thought we captured the personality of this hugely varied river.”

He said there were about forty hours of digital footage to pare down and the digital camera mount on the canoe had its performance challenges in white water. In some instances, there were several takes.

“We like to really research the heck out of the waterway we are going to document and then let the people that live there be our storytellers. Since we don’t have interviews or any way for the locals to communicate, they tell the river story by bringing us to their favourite sections of the river and telling us stories that we then turn into Information Boards. Our First Nation guides on the river were mostly Dokis fishing guides who knew every nuance of their section of the river. I remember their enthusiasm when they’d take us to their favourite spots. It is an incredibly historic river.”

BRB: It was asked why the cedar strip was utilized. For aesthetics?

“We asked a number of experienced paddlers what canoe would be appropriate for the river. A craft that could accommodate some gear, two paddlers, fast water and smooth water. They all said a 16-foot Prospector. Then, yes, we found one that was aesthetically pleasing. It is the star of the documentary, and after all, stars must shine.”


You will come to appreciate there is no narration or music in this documentary, just visual transitional storyboards, so production stories were appreciated.

“We stayed at the Bears Den Lodge. A great historic, family-run fishing camp. We were talking to them about the remnants of an old logging depot called French River Village, about an hour away on the river. We were enchanted by this ghost town. Then, the lodge owner told us that the room we were talking in was being held up by beams from the old sawmill from the abandoned village. It was an aha moment, the river history is everywhere.”

“One morning, our Dokis guide, Bill, was taking us to the pictographs on Kennedy Island. It was early morning, the sun was just coming up. We got to the pictographs slightly hyped up on coffee, but when we saw them, we all went silent. I never asked the crew or our guide, but I think we were all imagining what it must have been like all those years ago on the river when these were drawn. This is a river with so much history and you feel it.” The pictographs cited are the Kennedy Island pictographs on the Upper French River-Lake Nipissing portion of the river. These same pictographs are graphically presented in the foyer of North Bay’s City Hall (1977).


What's next for Good Earth Productions? In the GEP company’s bio, I saw a pic with long-time and legendary broadcaster Peter Trueman.

“I miss Peter Trueman. He set the tone and brought integrity to our first series, Great Canadian Parks. We filmed 70 parks in Canada and he insisted he be on each shoot and see each park for himself. It was gruelling for him. But, for five years, he did exactly that.

“This year, our 6th installment of Tripping, we’re hoping to film onboard an electric 1952 Duke Playmate mahogany runabout in the the three Muskoka Lakes. There are terrific stories to tell there and great beauty too.”

In preparation, you can follow the previous GEP adventures of TRIPPING The Rideau Canal, TRIPPING The Niagara, TRIPPING The Bruce, and TRIPPING Train 185 here. You will see the various mediums used including a birds-eye view of a hawk above the Niagara River, underwater and above on Georgian Bay, a 1948 mahogany Shepard runabout along the Rideau and on a train (Sudbury to White River).

“The insightful and serene TRIPPING documentaries bring Ontarians closer to the land and our shared history,” says John Ferri, VP of Programming and Content at TVO. “In TRIPPING The French River, viewers will enjoy fascinating features of a unique and storied waterway that offers a window into Canada’s past.”

Online shorts about TRIPPING The French River will premiere alongside the documentary, highlighting the edible plants along the river, the history of the river’s cottages, and a story of a ghost town whose remnants can still be seen along the shoreline. Here’s a map with access highlights. One thing to keep in mind is that you have options for put in and take out access points all the way along the French therefore it can be done in segments.

Here's the trailer to get a sense of the moving landscape of this experiential documentary on the backwaters. The drone shots are incredible. Your planning imagination will be piqued. You will want to grab your paddle and a PFD.