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Guelph-based documentarian explores significance of Grand River

Local documentary explores the diversity of Cambridge's own Canadian Heritage River
Tom Ostapchuk paddles down the Grand River in his new film, The Grand

The Grand River watershed is known as an integral part the local landscape; a place of endless natural beauty and a natural resource that's treasured by city residents throughout the year.

It was a source of inspiration for Tom Ostapchuk, a filmmaker living in Guelph, who embarked on the journey of a lifetime and traversed the Grand's 280 kms over eight days, from the Dufferin Highlands to the mouth of Lake Erie, to shoot his first film The Grand. 

"I think this film is a new way of looking at the Grand River from the eyes of back country style adventure and my hope with the film is that it will expose this new perspective of this wilderness in our backyard while inspiring people to get out on the river," Ostapchuk said. 


Having lived in Vancouver for a few years, Ostapchuk and his then fiancee would constantly be outdoors, embracing the wilderness that British Columbia has to offer. Surfing, mountain climbing and multi-day back country trips were the norm for them, but when they moved back to Ontario, those activities stayed out west. 

British Columbia was in his mind, "a version of the greatest outdoors Canada has to offer."

He wasn't convinced anything in Ontario could come close to measuring up to that vast wilderness of the west coast, until he was browsing the internet looking for things to do.  

"It was hard to find something like that to do in Ontario without going all the way up north," Ostapchuk said. "So, I was on Google one day and I was looking at how long the Grand River was and I thought, I wonder if anyone has ever travelled the whole thing?"

Over the next few weeks Ostapchuk figured out everything he would need for the trip and where to start.

Creating a documentary was always a dream of his so he saw this as a perfect opportunity to grab his camera, throw his gear in his kayak and hit the water. 


Due to COVID-19 lockdowns, the trip had to take place in June, a notoriously dry season for the river.

And after travelling 11 hours on foot with his boat, putting hole after hole in the bottom, it looked like the end of his goal to traverse the length of the Grand. 

"I was unable to complete it the first time," he said. "It was a hellish experience to have to walk all the way to the Elora Gorge, I had to pack up and go home." 

Another year went by and Ostapchuk's determination to complete his journey was rising with the spring flows, so he planned to go out again in the beginning of April when the river had the highest water level to ensure we wouldn't get stuck again. 

On his journey, he finally experienced the natural beauty that is the Grand River. He was amazed that such a beautiful serene space would be running adjacent to Highway 401.

When he set out from Dufferin, he had the goal in mind to make an epic story about his accomplishment. Then a few days on the water changed his perspective and gave his voyage a whole new meaning. 

"I started to feel this sense of protection of the river," he said. "You would go from seeing a family of deer crossing the river and hearing coyotes, to very quickly the sound of jackhammers ripping up concrete and construction vehicles." 

"I completely forgot about the epic adventure I set out for and it became something bigger than myself." 

Along the way, Ostapchuk met with guides who he would interview and learn from their experiences on the water.

He did white water rafting in Elora with Laura Silverthorne, a Canadian freestyle kayaker, and learned about the cultural and spiritual significance of the river for Indigenous peoples from Ellie Joseph, of Six Nations of the Grand River.

​"We met in Chiefs Woods Park and as we paddled down, we talked about not only the beauty of the river but its healing qualities," said Ostapchuk. "The river acts as so many things from a recreation perspective, but is also a large part of Indigenous culture and heritage." ​​​

Creating the film has taught Ostapchuk many things about the river, but also about himself.

On the journey he found an inner sense of environmental activism and felt the need to help protect the river that gave him so much. 

The film highlights many of the ways humans are negatively impacting the river and its waterways; from climate change to construction, the Grand is at risk for permanent change, Ostapchuk said. 

"If people take away one thing from this film it's that there is such an amazing resource in your backyard. I would love to see more people on the water getting to see another angle of their city or town, and to just enjoy nature." 

The Grand is set to have its premier at the Paddling Film Festival World Tour at Princess Cinemas in Waterloo on March 23. 


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Joe McGinty

About the Author: Joe McGinty

Joe McGinty is a multimedia journalist who covers local news in the Cambridge area. He is a graduate of Conestoga College and began his career as a freelance journalist at CambridgeToday before joining full time.
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