Trent Ernst, Editor
It’s nearly ten in the morning on a perfect fall day when Brandon Braam, aka Above Tumbler Ridge, finds a clearing next to the Wolverine Forest Service Road. From here, it is a 2 km bushwhack into the newly-discovered, or rather, newly popularized Triple-Jump Falls, a waterfall in three separate cascades that Charles Helm has described as possibly the most beautiful in the Tumbler Ridge area.
Shouldering the pack and checking the GPS, he heads off into the bushes. He’s not following a trail, as there has quite possibly only been one other group this way in the last year, maybe more. The bush is thick and nearly impenetrable in places, but he is able to climb over fallen trees and avoid the thickest of the bush to make it to the Wolverine River, where he wades across the knee-high water.
The pack that he carries makes it look like he should be doing a week long trek to Hobi’s Cabin along the Monkman pass trail, not a 2 km bushwhack, but that oversized pack holds his DJI Phantom 2 that has been the source of his recent fame on the internet.
“It isn’t heavy, but it is bulky to pack around,” says Braam. “It’s hard to take it on overnight trips and when you’re going out on overnight trips you already have so much stuff, but it is possible. I went to the Cascades this summer. I had to attach the drone to the outside of the pack. I put it in a garbage bag and used ropes to carry it.”
More often, though, he packs it in the original box, which is bulky but protects the drone. While not fragile, the drone does contain sensitive electronics that he would prefer not to have damaged. On the aforementioned trip to the Cascades, Braam accidentally clipped a tree with the drone. The ensuing crash put it out of commission for the better part of a month before he could get it repaired.
The Phantom 2 is a drone, a four-bladed mini-helicopter that operates as a stable camera platform for a tiny video camera that shoots some of the most impressive video footage ever seen of the Tumbler Ridge area.
The Phantom 2 is a remote control helicopter. While the idea is not new—the earliest drones were used in the early 1900s, and the first Remote Piloted vehicles were developed in 1935—the implementation is. With the advent of smartphones, it is now possible for people to pilot drones to get video and still shots that would have previously required a helicopter and thousands of dollars of specialized equipment.
And the four rotor design helps solve many of the issues of a conventional helicopter design, eliminating the need for a tail rotor and allowing for a more stable shooting platform.
The drone is controlled with a conventional two joystick controller, with one stick controlling up and down and rotation, and the other controlling left, right, forward and reverse.
Braam says that, over Christmas, he started watching YouTube videos that had been shot by people with drones. “It piqued my interest,” he says. “So I looked into it and bought a drone of my own.”
As a member of the Wolverine Nordic and Mountain Society, Braam loves the nature that surrounds town, which has been the subject of most of his videos. “We live in a beautiful area and I thought I could show the Internets the area that we have.”
When he received the package in the mail, he took it out for a few test flights around town. “I posted some pictures on the internet and got a very positive response, so I kept making videos and posting pictures on Facebook. Since I started posting these on YouTube, I have had 12,500-ish views from 79 countries. It’s not Gangham Style numbers, but it’s good. I’m happy with it.”
Once across the river, we find an old trail, possibly an old pack or hunting trail, and follow that for about a km before once again heading into the bush to make our way to the unnamed creek that Triple Jump Falls is located on. In places the bush is nigh-impenetrable, and it takes the better part of an hour just to make it the last 500 m.
Once there, though, all the effort is worth it. A narrow stream of water flows into dark alcove-like gap carved into the rock. This is the bottom-most of the three cascades that make up Triple jump falls. We eagerly scramble up the slopes on the side of the falls, past the second cascade and to the top-most of the three falls.
Here Braam takes off his pack, pulls out the quadcopter and the controller, and makes his way carefully down to the base of the falls. Holding the drone, he starts the engines, lets them warm up, then, holding the drone in one hand, slowly pushes up on the stick with the other. The engines begin to whine, and the drone leaves his hands gracefully and begins to hover.
In open areas, the drone can be flown in satellite assist mode, which means that when you take your hands off the joysticks, the drone hovers in a fixed position. But in the tight confines of the canyon, the GPS in the drone doesn’t work, which means Braam has to fly the drone manually. As he edges the drone towards the falls, his eyes never leave it, his body tense and ready to spring forward.
He makes a slow pass than brings the drone back to where he is. He catches the drone with one hand, and his body sags as the tension is released. The worst thing that could happen is to crash the drone where it could fall into the water, and there are very few dry spots here.
“Confined spaces are an issue,” he explains. “There’s a lot of GPS technology built into the drone, but that doesn’t work in tight spaces or indoors or in caves, at which point in time there’s another mode I can switch the drone into, but it’s a little more difficult to fly in that mode. Weather is another huge challenge. It’s certainly not waterproof, and stronger winds affect whether I can fly the drones or not.”
Fortunately, it isn’t windy here in the canyon, and Braam makes another few flights before scrambling back up to get shots of the middle falls.
This one is much harder to access, and while it may be possible to scramble down into the gorge without a rope, he doesn’t want to risk it, so he flies the drone in to get a shot of the middle falls from the best vantage point he can find. When the drone returns safely, and with some impressive footage, Braam body nearly quivers with excitement and the rush of released tension.
He captures similar footage of the lowest falls, then sends the drone high into the air for an overview shot. While this is the last shot of the day, it will become the first shot of the video, which can be seen at youtube.com/AboveTumblerRidge, along with nearly two dozen other videos that he’s shot over the summer.
“I’ve had people stop me in the grocery store and say they have family out of town that haven’t come to TR and can’t come here, but now they can show them what the TR area looks like,” he says. “Pictures are impressive, but videos are even more impressive.”
In amidst videos of Kinuseo Falls and Quality Falls, there are a few videos from elsewhere around the Peace. “I’ve done a video shoot at Kiskatinaw Curved Bridge, and one at the Rochfort Trestle bridge near Mayerthorpe, AB. But there’s so much to see around Tumbler Ridge, and I still have a lot of places to visit with the drone. I do want to go back to some of the places I went to in summer and shoot in winter.”
While he has had some people ask him to shoot videos for them commercially, Braam said he just wants to continue this as a hobby. “Next year I want to do another trip into the cascades and not crash it. The cascades is an absolutely incredible area. Some people aren’t able to make the trip out there, and I’d like to make a great video to show people what the area looks like. Tunnel Mountain would be cool. Kevin Sharman put a bug in my ear to take it up there and fly it through tunnel.”
Of all the videos he’s shot, one of his favourite moments comes from one of his earliest shoots. “One of the first videos I posted on YouTube was flying over the townsite itself. I did a shot flying around the big shovel near town hall. On screen it looked really impressive, but when I took it back home and looked at it on the computer….it made the investment worthwhile.”
Another favourite moment: Bergeron Falls. “ There is a shot where I am flying along one of the cliffs, and the cliff drops away and the amphitheatre of the falls opens up…It’s a very dramatic shot.”
Speaking of investment, isn’t it expensive? “Compared to snowmobiling or quadding? It’s not that expensive of a hobby.”
Braam says he sometimes knows what he’s going to shoot before heading out, but a lot of shots are generated on the fly, no pun intended. “While I’m shooting my first few shots, I start getting ideas for other shots I want to do. When you’re hiking, you get one angle on things, but when you’re flying around with a drone, it’s a completely different perspective.”
While the tight confines today make the flying difficult, that is not always the case. “A lot of time you can stare at the screen and you’re not worried about the drone flying into things. They both have their advantages. Flying around those cliffs today, I was shaking, but when the drone got back and I caught it, it was amazing. When there are wide open areas you can concentrate more on the shot, and you don’t have to pay as close attention to the drone.”
He puts the drone back into its box, which in turn goes into the pack. As he starts back down to the car, he can’t stop enthusing about how beautiful the falls were and what a great day it was. He turns around for one last look at the falls, already mostly hidden in their tight-walled canyons, already assembling the video in his mind.