Meet Matt Szczepanski, filmmaker. He’s fresh out of high school, and he’s taking a year off to “figure it all out,” before attending university. He’s planning a backpacking trip through Poland later this year. He’s a Students On Ice alumnus. And he’s headed back to the Arctic. Again.
Matt has seen more of Canada in his eighteen years than most people do in a lifetime. The Mississauga native has always had a penchant for film, but it was during a Students On Ice expedition aboard the Ocean Endeavour last summer that his ideas really began to coalesce.
“I started in elementary school,” Matt tells me over the phone as he gears up for this summer’s trip, Adventure Canada’s Out of the Northwest Passage expedition. “I would always make films for school projects. Little random things, like a Shakespeare play, or a science project. They always seemed to end up as films.” Now, a decade later, Matt’s lens is honing in on work in the Arctic. “I’ve started doing my own projects for the sake of doing them,” he says, “I love the idea of adventure film. Documentary filmmaking. Right now, I want to stay behind the camera … but that’s because I don’t really have anyone to work with! I do it all. I film, I edit, I direct. And I like being in front of the camera, too.”
The call of the Arctic is heard by many, and so it was with Matt and the friends he made aboard the Students On Ice expedition in 2014. In May, he and his friend Justin Fisch, a Montrealer, went to Naujaat (Repulse Bay), NU to meet up with Edmund Bruce, a third SOI alumnus, who lives there. Together, they planned to snowmobile into the recently established Ukkusiksalik National Park—in fact, they planned to be the first to visit. They planned to document the whole operation as an examination of how young people interact with these kinds of spaces. But alas—their film project documenting the adventure, Hello Ukkusiksalik, was put on hold due to inhospitable weather.
“Total white-out, seventy-kilometre-an-hour winds, constant snow,” Matt laughs. “We had it all. We waited out two weeks in Naujaat, but it wasn’t to be. We ran out of supplies and had to head home.”
I comment that this is exactly how expedition travel tends to happen, and we talk about deviation from the plan. Matt agrees: “Of course! And now the story isn’t about visiting the park so much as it’s about how we failed to visit the park. But the good news is we got more funding. And we’ll be heading back in April!”
Matt is excited to be back aboard the Ocean Endeavour and back travelling to new and exciting places in the Arctic. The jumpstart that Students On Ice provided has certainly done wonders for the young filmmaker, who will be using his time aboard the Adventure Canada voyage to hone his technique and build his portfolio. He’s looking forward to being back among the amazing people in the north: “Kids here always asked me, ‘are you a boy or a girl?’ — My long hair was very misleading for them!” He’ll be working alongside an elite team of resource staff, all experts in the area, all of whom—like him—have dedicated their lives to answering that strange call when it is heard.
And, like most who venture through the storied Northwest Passage, he’ll never be the same.
All images by Justin Fisch.