MANY people are familiar with Sheila Burnford’s classic novel The Incredible Journey. When my grandfather was sick and in the hospital prior to his passing, my sister would regularly read passages to him, as he loved the book. The novel, along with its cast of three furry, four-legged friends was further immortalized through not one but two Disney feature films. Fletcher Markle directed the 1963 original; 30 years later Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey Americanized the novel and added voice actors (Michael J. Fox, Sally Field and Don Ameche) to portray the three animals. The story of the book’s author and her journey is as remarkable as the journey depicted in her book, however.

In a new locally-produced documentary by filmmakers Kelly Saxberg, Dianne Brothers and Ron Harpelle, the life of author Sheila Burnford and her ties to Port Arthur are explored. Long Walk Home was co-directed by Saxberg and Brothers, the film was narrated by Burnford’s daughter Jonquil Covello Burnford and features additional voiceover from Barbara Saxberg, Isabel Piori and Joan Stone.

The film chronicles Sheila Burnford’s own incredible journey through history, where her love for the outdoors and walking took her from her home in Scotland, across Europe, through war-torn Spain and eventually into the arms of the man she would marry, Dr. David Burnford. While away at war, David gifted Sheila his beloved white bull terrier Bill, who would become Sheila’s closest friend and canine confidant, as well as guardian to Sheila’s three young children. Sheila’s journeys would eventually see her settle in Port Arthur, where David opened his medical practice.

Burnford would eventually come to write her most famous work as a means to deal with the grief she felt when Bill, at the age of 15, passed away. Anyone who has lost a pet knows how difficult it is to say goodbye. The book was her way of commemorating his life and sharing the joy he brought to her with millions of people around the world.

The novel was not based on a true story; it told of the fictional journey that Sheila’s three beloved pets shared from Whitefish Lake to Loon Lake. However, the majority of the ordeals the three friends find themselves on along their journey were indeed based on the real-life antics of her furry companions.

The film tells Sheila’s journey through archival footage of Port Arthur, an interview with Walt Disney and some very clever re-creations.

Long Walk Home will screen this Thursday, as part of the Bay Street Film Festival at 6:30 p.m. at the Festival’s new location: Trinity United Hall, 310 Park Avenue, across from the Armoury. The screening is $10.00 to attend. As an extra special addition to the screening of the film, all three of Sheila Burnford’s daughters will personally be in attendance. I highly recommend taking the time to attend this screening and see this film, as it presents a remarkable entry into the local history books.

Ryan Mackett is an artist and film enthusiast who resides in Thunder Bay. Email questions or comments to him at

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