Hundreds of years ago in Costa Rican caves, druids toiled to turn metals into gold.
To keep the local villagers away from their secret ceremonies, the ancient sorcerers used fear; they told the locals that the caves were home to fire-breathing dragons.
So the locals stayed far away from the clandestine alchemic laboratories.
It’s a story Dan Gainsford heard while exploring the reaches and outposts of Central America a few years ago and the legend stuck in the Ottawa-based filmmaker’s head.
On the weekend, Gainsford and his sidekick-slash-ideas-man-slash-best-friend, Forbes Campbell, were in Dawson City preparing to chase modern dragons.
But these beasts are metaphorical. They take the form of ancient legends and traditional knowledge.
This week, the duo will turn their wheels north up the Dempster Highway to Inuvik where they’ll board a plane to Holman Island in the Northwest Territories.
There, the pair will begin a year-long pilgrimage of nearly 8,000 kilometres from the Arctic Circle to the Panama Canal.
They are philosophers at heart and they talk abstractly and excitedly about their upcoming spiritual journey as they sip coffee at a Dawson java joint.
Their goal is broad — to visit and document sacred places and collect stories from contemporary shamans.
“We’re looking for whomever wants to breathe fire for us, whomever wants to speak to us,” said Gainsford.
Along the way they’ll be seeking stories from people of every stripe — maybe it’s a First Nations elder, maybe a marine biologist, maybe a child or a worker on an oilrig.
But asking the right questions is not as important as listening.
“Whatever they want to give, that’s what we get,” said Gainsford. “You can’t take, you need to receive. You have to sit and listen and wait for the right moment.”
They’re searching for answers to a few questions like: How do North Americans connect to the natural world and ancient customs?
Do language and technology shape reality?
And what will happen if modern people lose touch with their roots?
In true pilgrim style the pair will travel with their “home on their backs,” said Campbell.
In this case their home is a long grey van crammed full of gear and fitted with a bed.
The warning “Caution: sexy filmmakers aboard” is scrawled in the dust that coats its bumper.
In the end, they’ll piece together the year’s worth of footage and stories into a feature film with the working title Searching for Dragons.
“The film project is the engine,” says Gainsford.
But it’s one project with many possible products — maybe a reality TV show about the voyage, maybe an installation of photographs of gas station attendants across the continent and maybe, five years down the road, a coffee table book on truckers.
En route they’ll be documenting everything and anything that captures their interest.
The world is an open book and the two modern vagabonds are embarking without a strict itinerary.
“So if something strikes us we can pull the van off to the side of the road and take our time there,” said Campbell.
“As you move through life doors open up and people take you in.”
For the most part they’ll bypass major cities sticking to the outskirts and rural areas, said Gainsford.
“It’s about being removed from the city and being removed from the larger picture.”
Gainsford is an emerging visual artist and filmmaker active in the Ottawa art community.
He owns and leads Windpath Films and has two movies and a handful of gallery shows and installations to his credit.
Campbell had just returned from teaching English in Korea, and was “gainfully unemployed” when Gainsford approached him with the idea to search for dragons.
The pair plans to pass back down the Dempster Highway and through Whitehorse in mid-May.
Meanwhile follow their trip online at www.windpathfilms.com.