Backcountry Film Festival captures the power of humans - and winter


WILLIAMSTOWN — Fat bikes swerve through snow mounds. A surfboard glides around ice chunks. Ice-climbing boots claw a frozen waterfall.

On Friday, Jan. 11, the free Williamstown edition of the 14th annual Winter Wildlands Alliance's Backcountry Film Festival will demonstrate that winter backcountry recreation isn't limited to skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing. While those athletic endeavors are still well-represented in the festival's 10 short films, "Blue," "Surfer Dan" and "Searching for Christmas Tree" capture different forms of frosty fun. All document human-powered experiences, an important unifying factor to the nonprofit that helms the touring festival, as well as the Williams Outing Club and Bennington Area Trail System (BATS), the groups hosting the event at Williams College's Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall.

"Backcountry recreation really is about planning a trip where you are not using a motor. A lot of these places might be in a designated wilderness or in an area where using your own power and energy is the only option," said Silvia Cassano, a BATS board member.

Along with the aforementioned films, this year's crop includes a festival cut version of "Ode to Muir," "Ski the Wild West," "The Abbey," "Human Power: The Backcountry Snowsports Initiative," "Abandoned: Berthoud Pass" (festival cut), "I Am Here" and "Westward: Brennan Lagasse." Backcountry Film Festival Manager Melinda Quick said the organization aims to show films that are 15 minutes or less. One of her personal favorites, Aly Nicklas' "Blue," is just over four minutes. It documents women who ride fat-tired bikes through wintry landscapes.

"That really resonated with me, and I left feeling pretty inspired," Quick said.

Perhaps the festival's most genre-bending depiction of backcountry recreation, Camp4 Collective's "Surfer Dan," edges past seven minutes. It follows a resident of Michigan's Upper Peninsula who has taken to surfing in Lake Superior's icy waters.

"It's dangerous. It's not like some ocean clean, perfect wave you just stand up and come out of. There's ice chunks falling on my head and water going up in my hoodie and suit. It freezes my brain," Dan Schetter says in the film.

But surfing is therapeutic for Schetter. For instance, it encouraged him to quit drinking.

"Surfing saved my life," he said.

A narrator in Lie Feng's "Searching for Christmas Tree" expresses a similar affection for ice climbing.

"To transcend yourself through climbing, this is my highest spiritual need," He Chuan says at one point.

In 2018, BATS helped lead Backcountry Film Festival at Bennington College, one of the 2017-2018 event's 98 locations, according to Quick. None were otherwise close to Bennington.

"Why not try to host something in our area?" Cassano thought.

The festival annually debuts in Boise, Idaho, where Winter Wildlands Alliance is based. The nonprofit is an alliance of more than 100 grassroots environmental organizations and backcountry partners across the U.S. It is "dedicated to promoting and preserving winter wildlands and a quality human-powered snowsports experience on public lands through education, outreach and advocacy," according to its website; the alliance's film festival raises money for local groups "working on advocacy, snow safety and outdoor education programs."

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After last year's event in Bennington, Cassano wanted to find a venue that was more conveniently located for groups in and around the Berkshires. She reached out to David Ackerson, the assistant director of the Williams Outing Club. He contacted the student-run organization's board to see if this year's members were interested in hosting. They were.

"They saw the trailer — just beautiful films of people doing cool stuff in really cool places," Ackerson recalled.

Along with BATS, the club helped attract groups, such as the Thunderbolt Ski Runners, to attend the event. Though the screening is free, a raffle at intermission will help support local organizations dedicated to recreation and conservation. Last year's festival raised roughly $200,000 for organizations across the country, according to Quick.

In addition to this fundraising, providing spaces for backcountry enthusiasts around the U.S. to build networks is a major reason why the festival travels. Ackerson believes Williams Outing Club members occupying the insular "Purple Bubble" can benefit from connecting with other Berkshire and Vermont groups.

"It's a way for them to expand their horizons," he said.

Ackerson has attended many mountain film festivals, including the Banff Centre Mountain Film Festival that Lenox's Arcadian Shop presents annually as part of the festival's world tour. Both Ackerson and Cassano are supporters of the event, which will be held on Feb. 15 and 16 this year at Lenox Memorial High School. It has a broader scope than Backcountry Film Festival.

"That's much more of a generalist thing," Ackerson said, adding that "there's usually a film from every major outdoor activity."

Backcountry Film Festival focuses solely on human-powered experiences.

"Skiing up to ski down," Ackerson cited as an example, calling this "earning your turns."

The films represent a mix of cinematic and less traditional (such as iPhone or GoPro) lens work. Quick wants audience members to walk away feeling motivated not only to try these activities but also to document their own experiences, creating potential submissions for future festivals.

"We need more East Coast films," she said.

For Cassano, the opportunity to recruit more volunteers to look after nearby lands is also enticing.

"We need to take care of our spaces," she said.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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