Creative Conversations: Jumbo Wild Director Nick Waggoner Explores The True Meaning of Wilderness

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Deep in the heart of British Columbia, an epic controversy stirs. Jumbo Wild, a recent documentary by Patagonia and Sweetgrass Productions, traces the history and uncertain future of the Jumbo Glacier Resort, a year-round ski resort proposed for construction in Jumbo Valley, the center of B.C.’s Purcell Mountains.Located in the traditional territory of the Ktunaxa Nation (and a significant Grizzly bear corridor!), the future of the land has been a source of turmoil for almost 25 years. Sweetgrass Productions Director Nick Waggoner and his crew spent a year deep in the wilderness of British Columbia making a controversial film that melds the hard hitting environmental journalism Patagonia is becoming known for with the beautiful cinematography we’ve come to expect from Sweetgrass.

We recently had a chance to chat with Nick about the meaning of wilderness, filmmaking in the backcountry, and the future of Jumbo Valley.

Q. Could you tell us about your overall role in the making of Jumbo Wild?

A. I directed Jumbo Wild, which means something different from directing a Hollywood film or even what it meant 10 years ago.

My work began with spearheading the project, creating the initial vision for the story, the look and how the film would feel. Then I assembled the best and the brightest folks I know to help support that vision, challenge that vision, and break that vision down to rebuild it and turn the film into what you ultimately see on the screen. I can’t say enough about the folks that I got to collaborate with on this film, from my producer Laura Yale to Jason Mannings behind the lens and Jordan Manley and Nic Teichrob coming in to edit and shape the film. The contributions of Jordan and his creative confidant, Daniel Irvine. are massive and also cannot be understated.

My day to day role took many forms, from operating a camera in deep mountain snow to scriptwriting, as well as editing the film and coordinating with Patagonia to keep them informed.

Q. Jumbo Wild raises a lot of questions about wilderness spaces and how we utilize them. As someone who has based their career around the beauty of the outdoors and outdoor sports, has making this film changed how you personally define wilderness?

A. I think I’ve always felt wilderness in my heart, but this film has definitely challenged me to articulate why. It’s inherent in my motivations to spend as much time as I do in the interior of British Columbia, where, to me, the mountains retain a wildness that we’ve lost in Europe, and largely, in the continental U.S. It’s also challenged me to see wilderness through other perspectives and cultures. When I move through those spaces now, I hear the different voices of the film, from the First Nations and developers to the iconic hunter-trapper perspective. From that viewpoint, I can better appreciate how other people value those same places.

Q. Watching the documentary, we found ourselves torn between the desire to utilize this amazing space and the urge to protect it. Was it difficult to be objective while filming some of the more passionate points of view on this issue?

A. It was really important for us to present as balanced a story as we could in order to really give the audience the facts and allow them to make up their minds for themselves. The world is not black and white, it’s actually a myriad of gray tones, and it felt as though we’d be misrepresenting the issue and doing a disservice to all other issues of land management throughout the world if we just said, “Here’s the bad guy. Let’s send him to the gallows.”

We wanted to give the audience the full complexity of the Jumbo Valley issue, so that when they are faced with such complexities in their backyard, they feel they have the tools to sift through the issue to make informed decisions. It was also key to develop empathy for all the characters in the film, to depersonalize the issue, and like I said before, move away from the typical good vs. evil perspective. Ultimately, that asks the audience to better understand their own value systems, and hopefully, feel the need to take action and become more involved in Jumbo and other issues.

Q. You and your crew spent a LOT of time in British Columbia making Jumbo Wild. What is your most memorable experience from filming?

A. There are so many memorable experiences being up at Jumbo. When you spend that much time meditating on the meaning of a place, it’s as though your heartbeat starts to move in sync with the expression of that place, from the movement of seasons to the ebbs and flows of the weather.

It gave me a lens to hyper-analyze the grand scale of Jumbo’s peaks all the way down to the minutiae, the individual Larch needles turning green, orange and yellow throughout the year. I remember a trip in April when I woke up, got out of the tent, and walked around through the snow in the middle of the night. The full moon was up, the sky was cold and clear, and all the light was reflecting on the massive peaks and glaciers. When you make those kinds of connections with wild places, it’s pretty easy to want to protect them so that other people can continue to have that experience.

Q. Is your part of the story over? Where do we go from here?

A. Our work is far from done. Sweetgrass and Patagonia will continue to see this issue through, and we’ll keep collecting signed petitions and sending them to B.C. Premier Christy Clark. Patagonia has been supporting the local grassroots organization Wildsight for years in their fight to keep Jumbo Wild, and that work will continue for many years to come. As Wildsight, the Ktunaxa First Nation, backcountry skiers, boarders and other land users start to define exactly what permanent protection looks like for Jumbo, we’ll continue to champion the issue and be the megaphone for the place and its people.

Images by Garrett Grove, Steve Ogle and Christian Pondella, courtesy of Patagonia.