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The Living Edens: Arctic Oasis

An Arctic Oasis by Sarah Robertson 1 | 2

ARCTIC OASIS writer and producer Sarah Robertson.
Southampton Island

Along the Arctic Circle sits Southampton Island, a cold, ragged, barren island at the north end of Canada's Hudson Bay. It's a 500-mile stretch of flat gravel and polar desert with low mountains on the northeast shores. Despite its barren appearance the island's lowlands are home to 100,000 geese that return annually to nest. Its mountains house the largest population of polar bears in North America, and the shallows around the island are feeding grounds for walrus, as well as bowhead and beluga whales.

This is the island where my husband, Adam Ravetch and I spent a year shooting our documentary, ARCTIC OASIS. We learned about Southampton Island several years ago while looking for walrus to film for TOOTHWALKERS: GIANTS OF THE ARCTIC ICE. After several seasons of exploring the area we realized the place was a haven not only for the animals but also for the people who lived there. Astounded and fascinated by the Inuit people and culture, Adam and I started to find ways to portray their story; widespread ignorance exists in the world as to who the Inuit people are and how they live. Adam and I wanted to do our small part in helping to educate people about the north.


Since there are few roads anywhere in the eastern Arctic the only access to Southampton Island is by air. The journey can only be made on a clear day. The airport is not equipped with any technological devices, so when a plane requests to land the airport officials determine safety conditions the old fashioned way: A weather balloon is cast up into the air, and if it can be seen half a mile up then a plane will be allowed to land. If the balloon, however, disappears into the fog, the plane must turn around. It took five days of waiting in hotels for our first crew to get into location. Patience is the first thing to learn when working in the Arctic!

We only had 6 months in the field to shoot ARCTIC OASIS which is an extremely short schedule for filming in the Arctic. Because of bad weather, typically only 4 days out of 10 are suitable shooting days; the other days are spent worrying inside a tent.

The obstacles against a camera crew in the Arctic are never-ending. You can't control the weather or ice conditions. Adam and I have learned that making a film in the Arctic is like guerrilla warfare. The crews have to be small and self-sufficient. There is no room for camera assistants. Our 16mm camera gear had to be durable and able to withstand constant pounding and intense cold and moisture variability. Planning a schedule is almost impossible. Plans radically change by the hour. We have to be totally spontaneous, ready to depart the tent, or change directions at a moment's notice. Often we are at "plan D" by 10am.

The Crew

Finding the right crew to help us out with this project was difficult. Our candidates had to be self-sustaining, patient, and prepared to work solo in difficult living conditions. They had to have experience in the Arctic working with Inuit guides and, had to be prepared to eat unusual foods. Finally, they must be affordable. Cameramen in the north typically spend months in the field to capture shots, and the cost to retain people on weekly salaries is steep.

We put together a crew that included: Alain Saint Hilaire, Richard Lerner Rob Gerrard, Adam Ravetch, and myself. We were all on Southampton Island shooting different things at the same time. So harsh is the weather in the island that at one point, the crew teams were entirely isolated from each other for weeks at a time.


With only Inuit guides to help look for animals, Adam works with as many as four cameras at a time: the surface 16mm camera, a camera attached to a pole, an underwater unit and a still camera. Since he must be prepared to jump in the water to do underwater coverage at any time, he is also equipped with dive gear, compressors, and air tanks. Just getting Adam to the airport requires a van or a truck.

Adam Ravetch was able to get some exciting underwater shots of a bear swimming. In the spring he was swarmed with bears north of Duke of York Bay. But in the Arctic, he had to earn everything. At first he went out by skidoo but after 100 miles, in the middle of nowhere, the machine started breaking down. Adam and his guide spent 4 days trying to repair it; finally they abandoned it and got a ride back to town with a passing hunting party.

A skidoo on average lasts two winters in the north. All equipment takes a horrible beating and there are no service stations to rely on. All fixes are by hand and with whatever materials and parts that happen to be around. When Adam finally switched to traveling by boat he was able to use his pole camera and got wonderful close-up pictures of polar bear swimming.

Eco Explorer
Go on adventure to the Arctic.

Arctic Adventure
Discover the animals of the region.

Filming Arctic Oasis
Go behind the scenes with the producer.

For Teachers
Students will learn about the Inuit.

Find out more about the Arctic.