From tarsands to the Pacific

Vancouver filmmaker tackles the route of a controversial oil pipeline.

Vancouver filmmaker tackles the route of a controversial oil pipeline.

By Matt Law
[media editor]

British Columbia is buzzing over the proposed Northern Gateway oil pipeline.

Few people, however, understand the landscape and communities the pipeline could impact.

In 2010, North Vancouver adventure-filmmaker Frank Wolf and friend Todd McGowan set out to get a first-hand look at what is at stake along the 1,170-kilometre route from Bruderheim, Alta. to Kitimat, B.C. The result: a 51-minute documentary (recently picked up by the CBC and will air in March) that follows their journey On the Line.

(Photo courtesy Frank Wolf)

“The film is the process of my education [about the pipeline] and the information from the people along the way,” said Wolf.

Armed with minimalist equipment and funding, the two men began their self-propelled journey in Fort McMurray, Alta. on a pair of $70 bikes purchased on Craigslist. Their route took them 450 km south to Bruderheim — the potential starting point of the Northern Gateway. Wolf and McGowan then followed the proposed route by foot, bike, raft and kayak, all the way to the Pacific Ocean, over two mountain ranges.

Wolf’s passion for the outdoors certainly shows in the films he makes.

In 2008, he produced his first independent film called Borealis which follows his 3,100-km canoe trip through Canada’s boreal forest. The film examines issues affecting a forest that ranges from Canada’s East Coast all the way to the Yukon.

“After a while you travel through these areas and you enjoy the adventure and the beauty of the area, but then you also begin to see degradation clawing away at these areas of natural beauty that are so valuable,” said Wolf.
Wolf states he is not in favour of the pipeline, but he did not set out to control the message of the film.

“I don’t like preachy environmental films. A lot of those can brow-beat you for an hour and a half and you just feel exhausted and depressed,” he said.

None of the interviews in On the Line were prearranged or scripted, Wolf allows the people he meets along the way to tell the story.

“The message naturally comes out of the narrative and the landscape as you move through it,” he says.

Over the 53-day journey, Wolf and McGowan trekked a total of 2,400 kms as they made their way to the coast. They made small detours to speak with people in communities who could be directly affected by the pipeline.

Wolf notes they saw a dramatic change in peoples’ views after they crossed the Rockies into B.C. Many of the Albertans, who have grown up with the oil industry and earn a living from it, are in favour of the project, while there is a much different sentiment in B.C.

“We just let them speak their mind. I don’t challenge people on what their opinion is I just let them say what they want. You get a natural transition of opinion as we move across from Alberta to B.C.,” he said.

Along the journey, Wolf and McGowan saw grizzly bears, wolves and humpback whales — but those encounters were not the most impactful for Wolf.

“We had a seminal moment when we were crossing through the Rockies where it is an absolutely pristine untouched wilderness, more pristine than any park just because people don’t go there. It’s not like it’s got trails or trail maps to it. It’s just this beautiful old-growth wilderness. Just the act of punching a hole through this area of the Rockies, even if there is never a spill, you have basically destroyed an area. That just made you think that this is kind of a crazy project,” he said.

But Paul Stanway, Communications Manager for Northern Gateway says that parts of Wolf’s film are misleading.

“There is one suggestions in there, for example, talking about going over a particular part of the Coast Mountains, and in fact we are putting tunnels through, we are not going over the top of this particular rugged piece of terrain that they photographed,” said Stanway.

He also states that the building of pipelines is not as intrusive as it once was and can be handled with minimal environmental impact.

On the Line will be playing at the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival on February, 15 at the Centennial Theatre in North Vancouver. Over 50 outdoor-focused films will be shown from Feb. 10-18 during the festival.

For more information, visit

VIMFF runs from Feb. 10-18 featuring 51 films with an outdoor bent.

Check out these other films examining the proposed Northern gateway Pipeline. The following films show at the Centennial Theatre in North Vancouver

The Pipedreams Projects
(Wednesday, Feb. 15) 25 minutes
Three kayakers embark on an epic two-month expedition along the length of the B.C. coast to see what impact oil tankers could have.

Tipping Barrels
(Wednesday, Feb. 15) 20 minutes
A unique combination of surfing and environmental journalism that follows surfers into the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest.

White Water Black Gold
(Wednesday, Feb. 15) 54 minutes
Follow David Lavallee on a three-year journey through western Canada in search of the truth about the impact of the world’s thirstiest oil industry.