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Get ready to go behind the scenes of Life Below Zero Canada. The recipe is simple. Take the remote North, add some extreme weather and near-24-hour winter darkness, toss in a few nerve-racking experiences and a splash or two of danger…and you’ll serve up some good TV. Life Below Zero Canada follows five Canadians in Northern Ontario, the Yukon, and the Northwest Territories. They hunt, trap, fish, and earn a living in some of the toughest-to-handle (and toughest-to-film) locations in the country. “It’s a very, very unforgiving environment,” says Paul Kilback, one of the show’s directors. “Out there, everything is stripped down. It’s cold and it’s hard.” But, as he points out, “that’s what makes it worth it.”
Behind the scenes
Director Paul Kilback spent time on the set of the original U.S. version of the show—a BBC Worldwide production filmed in Alaska—in November of 2018, before the LBZ Canada production team began searching for cast members. They used social media. Happily, “there’s one degree of separation in the North,” says Kilback, “and there are only so many dog mushers and trappers.” Then, with phone and Skype interviews, the team whittled down the pool of potentials from 12 maybes to five yeses—“We needed the right mix of stories, and the right mix of locations,” says Kilback—before shooting each star’s pilot, beginning in February 2019. The LBZ Canada film crew was a lean one (usually only Kilback and two others). Sometimes, they hired local help—a river guide; a cook. “We didn’t want to bring in someone else when someone local could do it,” he says. Plus, “the safest place to be anywhere is with local people. They know when the situation is serious, and when it’s nothing to worry about,” says Kilback. “I only ever got worried when they got worried.”
Float plane travel means big trouble
Getting to remote shooting locations—especially float plane–access Silent Lake, Yukon, for the Kim and Pierre storylines—was “a gamble every time,” says Kilback. The planes, even when they used two for the trip, could carry a maximum of 1,600 lbs, and film gear plus crew body weight ate up almost all of that. “Each trip, we’d spend at least two hours just deciding what we could take. It was, like, ‘Are we bringing all of the wine? Do I really need my toothbrush?’ ” And snow squalls, storms, or wind sometimes made flying impossible. Even mild weather was a problem. “If the lake wasn’t frozen enough,” says Kilback, “the floats could get stuck in the slush.”
The cold is really cold
One of the challenges of shooting outdoors in winter is, well, winter. Often, the set of LBZ Canada was even colder than it had been in Alaska, says Paul Kilback. “It felt like minus 50 with the wind chill. At some point, electronics just don’t want to play anymore.” The crew built fires off-camera beside their shoot locations, and put hand warmers against the backs of camera view screens to keep them functional. “Everything freezes here. Batteries, liquid crystal screens, people’s fingers…”
Meet the stars
Bentley Kakekayash: A 26-year-old bush pilot (plus trapper, angler, and hunter) living in the remote Cree community of Weagamow Lake, Ont.
1. Out there, spring can be more dangerous than winter. Why?
The warm days and cold nights play tricks on hunters and fishermen. Ice is very unstable and can change daily—hard as cement one hour and soft like a sponge the next. One spring when I was a young boy, maybe nine years old, I was walking over the ice, dragging a boat. And I remember the ice starting to feel different, and the next thing I knew, I was in the water. It felt as if my skin was burning and my body was shutting down. That’s how it really feels when you fall through the ice.
2. What skills are your kids learning these days?
My wife and I are teaching all three to provide for themselves. Someday, if they hit hard times, they won’t have to worry. My family tradition is to harvest a moose at age eight. My daughter, who is seven, is set to get one next year. She’s already training for it.
3. A lot of young people in your community move away and look for jobs elsewhere. Why did you stay?
Hunting, trapping, fishing, flying airplanes…that’s what I love. I’m walking the same trails my great-grandfather, and possibly his father, have walked. I wanna enjoy it while I’m young.
Becky Broderick: Recently relocated from Whitehorse, she works in the field of mental health and wellness in Lutselk’e, NWT.
1. Why did you and your husband, Dene, move back to Lutselk’e?
We wanted to spend time with Dene’s grandparents—they’re elders, and we want our daughter, Thi, to know them and learn from them. And we felt like we were becoming disconnected from the land, living in Whitehorse. Here, there is no separation between you and the wild. The wild comes at you, whether you want it to or not, whether you’re ready or not.
2. What’s been one of the hardest things that you’ve had to learn?
I was very afraid of the dark, growing up in Orillia, Ont. But in the North, it’s dark all the time. So I had to learn to do everything in the dark. Get water in the dark. Chop wood in the dark. Travel in the dark.
3. What do you use your dog team for?
We use them to get wood, haul water, go hunting, run the trapline. They’re not the same breed as racing dogs. They need to do different things than racing dogs do. Their minds are different. They’ll look back at me if I’m not running up a hill, and I swear they’re telling me, “Get off your ass, lady.”
“Pike” Mike Harrison: An expert angler, originally from Calgary, who now spends most of the year solo at Blackstone Estate, his off-grid homestead near the Lower Liard River, NWT.
1. What’s the most important skill to have for someone living in your situation?
There are so many. It’s difficult to choose one. And personality characteristics are just as crucial. A mindset that makes you capable of living off the land: thinking on your feet at all times, and having a will to survive. But, this afternoon, it’s the skills of bucking and splitting firewood, and gathering water, that are most important!
2. You work as a fishing guide in the summer. Does it feel strange to be around people when you spend so much time alone?
I try to adapt to whatever environment I’m in. I was once a bartender seven nights a week at a hopping pub; I was in a band, playing sold-out rooms for four years; now, I’m no less fortunate to have a log lodge, hand-hewed out of the forest. I value the grounding that comes from alone time, but I like a balance of solitary and social time. I think everyone would do well to have that balance.
3. Where does your nickname come from?
Pike Mike? My old fishing pals used to call me Spike, but Pike was easier to say, so I dropped the “S” to lighten the load. I also go by Poisson Jacquard. Or Panther Martin. Call me whatever you like.
Pierre-Yves Duc & Kim Pasche: Swiss-born, they now work a trapline together in Silent Lake, Yukon, and are building a new cabin—for themselves and their families—after the original burned down in a 2017 forest fire.
1. What is it about living off-grid—and somewhere so remote—that appeals to each of you?
Pierre: I was always attracted to nature. I like the challenge and feel my best and healthiest when I’m in the bush. I like people, but not too many.
Kim: That’s always a struggle to explain. I’m very social. I studied archaeology and specialized in the last period of the Upper Paleolithic. My trapline isn’t a place to fulfill a simple lifestyle, it’s more like a laboratory for me. A place where we can still experiment with the lost ways to be human.
2. Describe the scariest situation that you’ve ever been in.
Pierre: Once, while hiking, I found myself between two black bears: a female in heat and an aggressive boar. And the boar did not like me being there. I managed to scare her away, and he followed.
Kim: Really, the bush doesn’t scare me. It can be easy, it can be hard…but it’s absolutely straightforward, all of the time.
3. If you had advice for someone who wanted to pursue the same kind of life as yours, what would it be?
Kim: Don’t do this to escape the modern world. Stay part of the world, and show the people you care for that it is possible to be happier than what our modern society promises us. There’s a saying among the First Nations who I get a chance to spend time with: Don’t move things. Let things move you.
Pierre: Don’t do it! Ha ha. Stay home and watch Life Below Zero Canada.