.Banff Mountain Film Festival is an Annual Santa Cruz Tradition

The film festival’s 24 films showcase everything from extreme outdoor sports to environmental stewardship

The first thought that came to mind as I set up my tent alone on the Appalachian Trail was, “this might get creepy.” I was about four miles from any campsite and the sun had set. A frigid wind was blowing bits of snow around the dark woods.

A friend and I had set out to hike the trail’s Georgia section over spring break during our junior year of college. It meanders through the heavily wooded southern Appalachian Mountains for more than 78 miles, with about 19,000 feet of elevation gain.

After a few days of intense knee pain, though, my hiking buddy made the difficult choice to exit the trail at the only road crossing. I decided to continue for the next 60 miles, curious about the solo hike experience. 

On the first night, howling winds rattled my tent, and the unseasonable cold froze my water bottles solid. I rose at sunrise the following day, relieved that I hadn’t become frozen bear bait or the subject of a true crime podcast. That was enough to tint the rest of my trip with gratitude.

I returned from those 60 solo miles wild-haired, wind-chapped and loving the little things. A bit of “type-2 fun,” as outdoor enthusiasts often call mildly unpleasant experiences, can leave us feeling rejuvenated. 

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I’m reminded of this as a 1940s-style narrator chirps, “an expedition is the same thing as a vacation. It just depends on your attitude,” over footage of icy water and stormy clouds. The clip is a preview for A Baffin Vacation, one of 24 films showing during the Banff Mountain Film Festival.

The UCSC Adventure Recreation program brought the festival to Santa Cruz over 30 years ago, and it’s become an annual tradition. 

“We’ve been doing it long enough now that people who came as children are now coming [to the Banff Mountain Film Festival] as adults with their children,” Kathy Ferraro says. She’s helped organize the screenings for most of the 30 years it’s come to Santa Cruz.

The festival begins in Banff, Canada, where outdoor athletes, filmmakers and organizers gather to select which films will go to hundreds of communities on the annual world tour. The selections usually involve extreme outdoor sports, expeditions, environmental stewardship and other related subjects. 

This year, “it’s the gamut,” Ferraro says. “There’s something for everyone.”

BIG BACKYARD

A Baffin Vacation is one of Ferraro’s favorites. Sarah McNair-Landry’s and Erik Boomer’s 12-minute film documents their 45-day arctic expedition of kayaking and climbing around Baffin Island, Canada.

Baffin Island, known in Inuktitut as Qikiqtaaluk, is the fifth-largest island in the world but sparsely populated—probably because of the weather. It extends into the Arctic Circle and contains no shortage of glaciers, fjords and enormous peaks, including the tallest vertical cliff in the world. 

The intense landscape draws daring adventurers from around the world. But unlike most, McNair-Landry grew up there. She considers the glaciated peaks and iceberg-dotted seas her backyard.

“We live on Baffin Island, and we think it is one of the most beautiful places on the planet,” Boomer says.

He and McNair-Landry planned for this particular adventure for about a year, eventually deciding to make a film with the sole purpose of submitting it to Banff.

“We both grew up watching the festival and being inspired, and it certainly affected us in a huge way,” Boomer says.

As if 45 days in a row of kayaking and climbing through the arctic weren’t challenging enough, filming added a new set of difficulties. Limited battery power—made worse by colder temperatures—and heavy loads restricted the two’s ability to film.

“One of the biggest challenges was filming each other in the action while also being there for safety purposes,” Boomer continues. He and McNair-Landry have both been involved in outdoor adventure films before, but this was one of their first endeavors without the help of film crews.

The two consider the selection to be part of the international festival an honor and hope it inspires audiences to “push themselves and have a great adventure, but mostly that they are inspired to treat each other and expedition teammates really well,” Boomer says.

BENEFITING ADVENTURE REC

Human connection is a common thread that weaves throughout the festival. Spending time outdoors has a way of bringing people together and helping us appreciate the basic joys of life.

“It’s a perspective shift,” says Dustin Smucker, associate director of the Adventure Rec program at UCSC. “I’ve been taking groups out into the outdoors for about 25 years, and I continue to find it deeply meaningful.” 

Smucker watches students find health, friendships and discoveries about themselves and the world around them. 

“There’s something about the time in nature, particularly with a group that has a similar sort of intention that takes us from feeling like we’re a universe of one to recognizing we’re just part of one universe,” he explains.

The rec program offers kayaking trips, surf lessons, backpacking, climbing and all sorts of other outdoor adventures for a few thousand students every year. Proceeds from the Banff Mountain Film Festival lower the cost of those programs, making it easier for students to find community and adventure outside.

As one of the program’s largest fundraising events of the year, around $12,000 was raised in 2022. Ferraro expects a sellout this year.

Ferraro and Smucker predict that Santa Cruz audiences will particularly like the films about mountain biking. 

MUST-SEES

North Shore Betty follows Betty Birrell’s journey learning to mountain bike at age 45 and continuing to send three decades later.

In Balkan Express, freeskiers Max Kroneck and Jochen Mesle explore the Balkan Mountains by bike and skiing. 

For the surfers, Fabric: Heritage delves into Mainei Kinimaka’s embrace and preservation of her indigenous Hawaiian heritage.

A few films feature climbing, but one takes things even higher as Rafael Bridi attempts to slackline between two hot air balloons in Walking on Clouds.

Some films defy categorization, such as Eco-Hack!, a 17-minute examination of biologist Tim Shields’ unorthodox methods for saving desert tortoises from ravens in the Mojave Desert. 

Meanwhile, others focus on the outdoor industry, cleaning trash from Mount Everest and a group of New York City kids finding quiet on a weekend camping trip.

Banff inspires, whether planning a polar expedition or a 30-minute lunch break in a park. 

The Banff Mountain Film Festival runs Friday, Feb. 24 through Sunday, Feb. 26 (7-10pm each day) at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $23/day. ucsctickets.universitytickets.com

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