AK: “Walk to Fisterra”: A Fairbanks musician’s pilgrimage through Spain

“Walk to Fisterra” is a new documentary film showing tonight in Fairbanks featuring Alaskan born cellist Dane Johansen walking over 500 miles carrying his cello on his back, playing the Bach Cello Suites along the Spanish pilgrimage to Carmino de Santiago. Johansen is the son of Fairbanks School of Talent Education founder and current Fairbanks Suzuki Institute Music Director Gail Johansen so learning a string instrument was almost a given in the Johansen household. Johansen picked up the cello when he was just 4 and as he grew in talent and stature, so did the weight and size of the cello which posed a few challenges as he trekked with tens of thousands of other pilgrims on the walk to Fisterra.

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Dane Johansen (Courtesy of Walk to Fisterra)
Dane Johansen (Courtesy of Walk to Fisterra)

Carrying the cello for almost 600 miles was actually not as much of a challenge as Johansen thought it was going to be.

“The size of it and the shape of the case made it a little more challenging than a backpack would’ve been in that it wasn’t really tied to my back,” Johansen said. “It was blowing in the wind a little more freely than a backpack might. But overall, the experience was not physically so difficult. I was actually probably under the same amount of weight as anyone else walking that route with a fairly well packed backpack.”

Johansen describes himself as a Fairbanks kid and loves the outdoors and spending time in nature.

“I always kind of felt this pull in two different directions between music and my love for paying the cello and adventure and the outdoors and all the things I like to do away from music,” Johansen said. “I couldn’t ever find a way to put those two things together.”

Then this project helped him do that.

“So that was a really nice thing,” Johansen said. “To finally realize, combining those two different areas of my life.”

The pilgrimage from the Great Perenees in the South of France across Spain to the most northwestern corner of Spain took Johansen and his documentary film crew 40 days. Johansen performed 36 evenings along the journey at different venues from town squares to ancient churches. Every performance included at least 3 of the 6 Bach Suites for Solo Cello. The inspiration for the adventure developed over time.

Camino de Santiago (Courtesy of Walk to Fisterra)
Camino de Santiago (Courtesy of Walk to Fisterra)

“It was inspired by a friend of mine, a composer, who had walked the Appalachian Trail here in the United States, and he had written 81 movements for string quartet along the way about his experience on the Appalachian Trail,” Johansen said.

Johansen got really inspired and thought that he could do something like that, maybe with his cello. He got started looking for a venue and he knew the Appalachian Trail wasn’t going to work because there’s just not that many people on it.

“So I needed a place with a lot of people, a lot of traffic,” Johansen said. “So I found the Carmino de Santiago and it seemed like a good fit for this idea, carrying my Cello and the music of Bach with me. It kind of snowballed from there. I told a friend of mine about it who’s an audio engineer and he said, ‘Oh, well you have to record the music in all those churches along the way’ and I thought I could probably figure out how to do that. And then a filmmaker friend of mine said, ‘You should really think about making a documentary film about it.”

Dane Johansen performing in the KUAC studios (Photo by KUAC)
Dane Johansen performing in the KUAC studios (Photo by KUAC)


It happens to be the documentary film showing in Fairbanks that drew Johansen up here this week and he follows in Gail Johansen’s footsteps and just like his mom teaches at the Fairbanks Suzuki Institute.

When asked about whether his students knew of Johansen’s “rockstar” status, one of his students replied, “Oh yes.” Johansen’s mother would often talk about him, and the student knew Johansen for a long time.

“I do love coming back to this community whenever I get a chance. It’s just home, and the people are wonderful. I don’t find people like this everywhere in the world so it’s really special to come back and get to experience this beautiful place.”

Johansen’s Walk to Fisterra, shows at UAF’s at 7 p.m. Friday night in Fairbanks.

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Lori Neufeld is with KUAC in Fairbanks.