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Back from the edge

There’s a moment about 18 minutes into “Toward the Source,” Norton Smith’s documentary about his 55-day solo canoe trip up the Yellowknife River in Canada, when he looks at the camera and tries to explain what it’s all about, “it” being his struggle up the river and also life itself.

By that point, the viewer should understand that Smith’s trip was, for him, much more than an opportunity to marvel at pretty sunsets and conquer an untamed wilderness. But it still may come as a surprise when tears well up as Smith, a fit and vigorous 71-year-old at the time the film was shot in 2017, searches for the words to describe what he’s feeling.

“But today it feels like I’m getting in touch with my true purpose in being here,” he says. “I don’t know quite what it is yet, but it’s more about the pleasure, the joy of this wild and open land. Just looking out at the horizon now I sort of feel it, like there’s a freedom. But I don’t know what that means yet.

“Even the guy at the power plant, he was inspired and inspiring. People back home say, ‘Why do you do this?’ They had no question. They knew. They knew there was something magical here. Brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it. But I can’t quite grasp it.”

Yes, Smith, who lives in Talent when he’s not blazing trails, goes deep, then a little deeper, but it’s a credit to both him and fellow editors Carol Carlson and Anna Celestino that “Toward the Source” remains watchable even for those viewers perhaps less interested in the duality of man and that mischievous river spirit than, say, the sheer will required to even attempt such a journey. The list of obstacles Smith overcame during his month-and-a-half trek north is long and includes a gaffe that led to a swamped boat, the constant onslaught of mosquitoes and miles upon miles hacking trails through brush whenever the river proved impassable.

Somehow, using a camera, a drone and a mic, he was able to document all of it, and the resulting hour-long film will make its Southern Oregon debut when it airs on Southern Oregon PBS at 8 p.m. Sept. 2. The broadcast will include clips of Norton in the PBS studio discussing his journey.

Norton realized during the planning process that, like his other excursions, the trip would stretch his mind as well as his body, but was surprised when his spiritual awakening — documented mostly through face-to-camera diary entries — turned out to be the film’s most prominent theme.

“It turned into much more of an exploration of my own process of internal growth and awakening,” he says. “It certainly wasn’t planned that way. I know that every time I do a trip like this it has an element of being a vision quest, but this was much more dramatic and that was a much greater part of the trip than I had expected. So I like the film. I think it portrays that well, and when I put it out there, I thought it would have a very small audience because of its emphasis on spiritual values and spiritual growth. But what I find is that it’s getting a lot more viewing than I thought it would, so that’s good.”

“Toward the Source,” Norton says, has already aired on other PBS stations around the country, showings which have led to film orders and direct feedback from curious viewers.

“So far,” Smith says, “it’s been quite positive.”

Smith’s spiritual journey isn’t the only theme in “Toward the Source.” Also played up is the impact of climate change, which he was able to document quite clearly by following the same path British explorer Sir John Franklin mapped out in his journal during his own 1820 journey. It says something about Smith that he would read a journal written by a man who earned the nickname “the man who ate his boots,” and be struck by the urge to follow in those bootsteps.

What he discovers to that end may alarm some. Crossing a rocky section Franklin mistook for an icy glacier 200 years ago, Smith explains that it must have been overflowing with ice from water forced up through the rocks, creating the sheet of ice Franklin described in his journal. Smith used a drone to give viewers a bird’s eye view of what it looks like now.

“For me,” he says, “it was an all-day trudge in 80-degree weather.”

Later, standing in another bed of rocks through which ankle-deep water flows, a more heavily bearded Smith explains, then shows a formerly passable portion of the Yellowknife River that now has “hardly enough water to float a duck, much less a canoe.” Then, when confronting a view Franklin described in detail while overlooking the “barren country,” Smith is struck by two major differences: one, the tree line has clearly moved farther north; and two, “I’m enjoying blueberries six weeks earlier than Franklin.”

Beyond the soul searching and climate preaching — Smith is disgusted when, even in the middle of nowhere, he discovers a trash-strewn camp left as is — “Toward the Source” is also an adventure film that documents an almost incomprehensible physical feat for a man living through his eighth decade. Smith trudges through head-high brush, hauls his fold-up canoe upriver like a floating kite, relies on paper maps and a compass after his iPad takes a swim and makes much of the journey while covered head to toe in a mosquito-proof suit.

After nearly losing the canoe and all his equipment while scouting a fast-moving section of the river, Smith, camera in hand, assesses the damage. The busted-up boat looks like a lost cause, but Smith proves to be industrious and determined.

“At first, I thought I might have to abandon the trip,” he says, “but I was just too angry at my carelessness to quit. I set about straightening the frames and stringers and rebuilding the stem with epoxy and fiberglass cloth. The birch trees turned into my best ally, providing the leverage I needed to straighten the stringers and frames. When it was done, I decided it was seaworthy.”

Near the end of his journey, Smith comes upon a shelter at just the right moment, spotting it tucked in a cove he likely would have missed if not for a detour past the airport. He recognizes the twist as not a coincidence, but a sort of validation.

“Over the course of the next days,” he says, “I realized that that same perfection, that same guidance that operated throughout my life, every success and failure, every obstruction, had been essential to guide me to this moment. More than guided. I was just a witness to the evolution of this body, this mind, toward the source. Toward wholeness.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Talent resident Norton Smith, 74, filmed his 55-mile solo canoe trip up the Yellowknife River in Canada. Courtesy photo