An Arctic Oasis by Sarah Robertson
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.
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.
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.