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The Living Edens: Arctic Oasis

An Arctic Oasis by Sarah Robertson 1 | 2

Surprise Encounters

To get photos of mother polar bears with cubs we traveled 2,000 miles on skidoo and sled over 3 weeks. At first we couldn't find bears in the daytime but at night, while we were sleeping, they came to us. We woke up in our tent to sounds of snuffling outside. The indentation of a little bear's head and nose could be seen on the fabric of our tent. A mother and her cubs were sniffing us out. Inside we sat up and reached for our rifles, exposing our upper bodies to the -20° F temperatures. We sat there in the darkness, shivering quietly, waiting to see what would happen. My fear was that the cubs would get caught up in our tent lines, sending the mother into frenzy. Already the tent was shaking as the little bears tripped over the wires. We heard the mother bear growl a warning to the cubs. The sound made my hair stand on end. She was angry, trying to get the cubs away from the tent. Finally her cubs obeyed and ran away, but we were all finished with sleeping for that night.

Getting the Shots

In the north, seeing an animal or observing animal behavior is a rare opportunity. Cameraman Alain Saint Hilaire, who captured a polar bear hunting a walrus, knew this better then anyone. To get the shot Alain sat on an island for a month with his restless guide waiting for a polar bear to kill a walrus. From dawn to dusk he had to wait and watch. Boredom and island fever sets in rapidly. Alain's Inuit guide was off for hours at a time leaving him alone, waiting for a bear to arrive. The guide came back with news that a bear was hunting in a bird colony several miles away and encouraged Alain to film it. Alain decided to stick with his plan -- if he moved, he figured, he would miss both behaviors, so he stayed where he was. Finally on the fifteenth day Alain saw a bear swimming to the island and got the shot using a 600mm zoom lens. Alain's patience and good judgment paid off.

Richard Learner, who is quite new to the Arctic, filmed much of the spring ice hunting sequences of Noah and Logan. He and I with our crew spent eight weeks at Duke of York Bay in terrible weather. The experience was incredible but the working conditions difficult. We depended on "living off the land" almost entirely, which meant eating the wild meat which Noah and our other Inuit guide hunted. Richard was introduced to eating seal intestine, caribou marrow, and fish heads. He was a trouper and tried everything and liked most of it. To make matters even more interesting, I had my five-year-old son, Cooper, with me and was four months pregnant. Richard and my crew had our work cut out for us.

It was a challenge for Richard to photograph the hunting sequences without disturbing the hunt. Hunting and photography are diametrically opposed to each other. We are after the same animals but for an entirely different reason. Noah and our other guide love to hunt and sometimes it was hard to have them slow down so that we could set up camera angles. Repetitive takes done over and over would quickly frustrate our Inuit crew and so Richard had to work fast to get what he could from them. Even more challenging would be the almost instant change in environmental conditions. On day's hunt would look entirely different from the next day's hunt. The sea ice was melting fast -- one day it was solid, the next it was all puddles. Once or twice, our skidoo and sleds fell into deep puddles where the ice was rotting. Richard's perseverance got us some lovely shots with Noah and Logan as they looked and hunted for seals on the ice.

Rob Gerrard's challenges involved squeezing his tall frame, a camera, and tripod through a series of low, narrow, and tarp-covered tunnels that had been set up by biologists to get to various observation blinds. Rob had to stay in the tiny blinds, without moving, for six-hour stretches to film specific bird behavior. Restricted to a single focal length and angle for an entire day, his frustrations mounted. Moving daily to different blinds, slowly he was able to shoot enough different angles to capture some interesting bird sequences that were, unfortunately, never able to get into the picture.

After the grueling first location had come to an end, we only had two more shoots scheduled, a short winter sequence and then an early spring sequence. During the winter sequence it was all up to Adam. I was at home waiting for our new baby to arrive. While Adam was filming the ice fishing sequences I gave birth to my daughter, Rosie, alone at home. A home birth was not my intention. My Inuit friends say that my baby arrived so easily because I had been so active filming ARCTIC OASIS a few months before.

The last remaining weeks of shooting in the early spring was spent looking for polar bear mothers and cubs and walrus bashing. After a long search and with the determination of our Inuit guides, Noah Kadlak and Pukak Komanik, we were able to film both sequences with success. With much trial and tribulation, the Arctic had once again unlocked some of her treasures and enabled us to film some remarkable sequences. Even after ten years in the north we still experience very unusual things that challenge us in every way. We hope that some of those challenges show through on screen and that the viewers will be compelled by them, just as we are.

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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.

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