Sonoma backpacker wins New York Film Award for Mount Thor documentary
Sonoma resident Steve Hall’s guide was failing mentally and physically in the final stretch of Auyuittuq National Park, and a helicopter was coming to airlift him to safety. That left Hall with a choice: Carry on through swampy bogs into the northernmost area where polar bears roam in the wild, or leave his journey unfinished and return home safely to his family.
It’s one of the final moments of Hall’s film “Baffin Island: An Arctic Adventure,” which was just awarded “Best Documentary Feature” at the New York International Film Awards, following his journey through the Nunavut territory of Canada. Mount Thor sits above the arctic circle. With a vertical cliff face that is 4,101 feet, it makes Yosemite’s El Capitan look like a little brother.
“I had been studying satellite imagery, and I came across this region and saw Mount Thor on the map and Mount Asgard and these these mountains that had these similar type names like Mount Odin,” Hall said. “It's like, what's this all about, to be something of this name?”
He added, “But it looked incredibly hard, too.”
While planning his trip, Hall learned he might be the first person to backpack through the remote region in nearly two years, which gave him extra drive to make the trek this summer.
Traveling from Sonoma to Mount Thor is not easy — even the parts when you’re not backpacking. It takes four flights, each one smaller than the last, to get to Baffin Island. Once on the island there’s a boat shuttle which brings travelers to the Inuit communities of Northern Canada.
Because he was traveling from the south to north, Hall paid for an Inuit guide to come on the trip and help protect him from territorial polar bears, which sometimes, but rarely, appear at the northern end of the park. Only local Inuit people are allowed to carry firearms in the park. And without anyone else on the journey, Hall decided for his own safety that a local guide was necessary.
“My trip was originally planned with four friends,” Hall said. But COVID had shut down the park and any entrance to Canada for a year.
“A couple of them got girlfriends, one went on another trip and one couldn't get out of his country,” Hall said. “So it was down to just me, and I was not about to hike solo and with a polar bear threat.”
While Hall’s guide was armed with a firearm, Hall was armed with 70-80 pounds of equipment and nonperishable food like Cliff Bars.
“There's so much more gear that's needed in the Arctic,” Hall said. “There's just a lot that you’ve got to carry.”
But all Hall’s preparation would not matter if the weather did not permit him and his guide to trek through the fjord.
“One thing about the about Nunavut and this whole area,” Hall said. “Weather dominates everything. Your schedule means nothing.”
The majestic peaks that Hall hiked through could be obscured by clouds or fog or, in the worst case scenario, a storm that not only hid the peaks but also stopped any forward progression.
“I've seen videos where people just pass through could barely see anything and it just rained down on them the whole time,” Hall said.
But Hall was fortunate. His journey’s goal, to visit the base of Mount Thor, occurred and the weather was hospitable.
“It's not just that you have that giant rock face in front of you,” Hall said. “Off to the left, you have two waterfalls that are coming down from a glacier.”
Hall said that viewing the film doesn’t do justice to the magnificence of Mount Thor.
“It'll give you the sense of of how small it makes you feel,” Hall said. “Good and insignificant at the same time.”
The whole story of his guide’s rescue off the mountain make the dramatic peak of the film. Hall is currently shopping “Baffin Island: An Arctic Adventure” at other film festivals, and is hopeful it will show locally at the Sonoma International Film Festival.