The burning torch on Dog Island would let us know the show was
Having to look for a beacon in the twilight may have given the
event a speak-easy vibe, but it was as necessary as it was romantic.
Paddling out into the middle of Great Slave Lake is a bit of an
undertaking, so it was imperative that we know the event was a go
before pushing off. By the time we had carried our borrowed
canoe down our dirt road, through the squatter's shacks at the
lake's edge and dipped it into the cold September water, a crowd
had already formed around the island and the torch was indeed
burning. The Dog Island Floating Film Festival was a go.
The lake was glassy and quiet as we set out towards the island, a
modest 10-minute paddle from where we put in. The sun had
gone down but visibility was not a problem in the nine o'clock
dusk. The films had already started as we approached, and when
we were within a few meters I whispered to Sarah that she could
stop paddling. My parallel parking expertise might be hit and
miss, but my dormant canoeing skills from summers on the
Miramichi River came back quickly as I wove our way amidst
the other boats and towards a desirable vantage point.
Dog Island is a one-night festival with an inimitable Northern
aesthetic that makes the films themselves rather secondary. The
movies are projected on a screen set up on the tiny Island (and by
"tiny" I mean the size of a suburban lawn), while locals converge
in canoes, kayaks and silenced motor boats, dropping anchor or
rafting together to take in regional fare from the comfort of their
After a few minutes of manoeuvring and the realization that we
needed to raft up with others lest I spend the whole night working
to keep us in place, we made our way over to a row of other
canoes and tied on to them. The neighbour we met at a party the
week before tipped her beer to us as we slid past her boat. It was
the fourth time - in three different places - that I had seen her that
The films may be secondary to the experience, but that is not to
say they are second-rate films. The content was mostly local,
and entirely from North of 60 (the line of latitude, that is). They
all came in under the ten minute mark, and ranged from
contemporary music videos to animated Aboriginal legends to an
art house piece that I don't think I understood. Or maybe that was
the point. Anyway, there was a mix of the silly, the serious and the
sublime, but while some of the films took place in the bush, there
wasn't one that could be described as bush league.
I pulled on my toque as dusk gave way to dark. Other canoes
joined our flotilla, and at one point we were in the midst of a
group nine-wide. Some people were holding on to other boats,
some were tied to each other, while others were simply wedged
into the middle. We were mostly silent, save for chuckles,
applause and the occasional shout-out to a friend on the screen
The torch on the island continued to burn.
While some were transfixed on the films, others lay down in their
boats and cast their gazes skyward, as with this being a clear
Yellowknife night in the Fall, there was another show going on.
While the aurora were not at their brightest or most active, the
muted-yet-glowing streak they cut across a black screen of their
own made for an appealing side-show. Star power, indeed.
There must have been at least sixty boats assembled before all
was said and done, but my counting abilities were hampered by
the darkness. The lake was just beginning to move in the
midnight breeze and water lapped at the gunwales as we turned
and headed back to shore, glowing and gliding with the peaceful
headlamp navy headed in all directions. Houseboat dwellers had
the shortest commute.
Rugged exterior notwithstanding, this town is long on culture; we
had to decide which of two gallery openings to attend before the
festival. That said, things happen here on the town's own terms,
with climate and isolation often factoring in. And so Dog Island
was not Toronto or Cannes, but then again nobody wanted it to be.
This town does red canoes better than it does red carpets, and those
who embrace Yellowknife for what it is seem to reap its finest