Embracing the Unexpected: A Behind the Scenes Look at the Filming of North of Nightfall, an Epic Mountain Biking Expedition on Axel Heiberg Island
After countless hours of planning, hundreds of emails, phone calls, and heavy-lifting of equipment, we are finally ready to fly to one of the most remote places on Earth, Axel Heiberg Island. Some consider this island to be the heart of Pangea, the least-moved piece of land on our planet since the continents separated millions of years ago. What once was a semi-tropical environment with turtles, alligators and ancient rhinos roaming the wooded forests has evolved into an Arctic ecosystem supporting Peary caribou, muskox, Arctic hare and wolves.
Our project is to develop and implement a light weight, self-sufficient mobile camp for 22 people for four weeks on this isolated island in Canada’s High Arctic. This isn’t just any Arctic trip. With Arctic Kingdom leading the expedition, we would take a film crew and four iconic mountain bike free riders to the end of the earth to produce Red Bull Media House and Freeride Entertainment’s extreme mountain biking documentary, North of Nightfall. This would be the first film expedition of this kind in the High Arctic to follow professional athletes as they endure the isolation and giant features of this amazing, unique landscape.
The documentary follows Darren Berrecloth, Carson Storch, Cam Zink and Tom Van Steenbergen as they travel to the top of the world to explore this relatively unknown land. In doing so, they discover a changing environment steeped in history along with challenging terrain unlike anything anyone’s ridden to date. We knew an expedition like this wouldn’t be easy, but there was no way to predict both the challenges and the unbelievable wonder we would encounter. It was not only an expedition of firsts, it was an expedition of the unexpected.
Any person who has spent some time in the High Arctic knows the weather dictates your schedule and nature is in control. A delayed departure is not something unusual. What we didn’t expect was a week of fog and snow flurries that would keep us on the tarmac in Resolute Bay waiting for the call that said we were ready for takeoff. We finally find a hole in the sky and the weather at our destination is clear with calm winds, so we are off. The first stage of mobilization flights departed Resolute Bay early July 2017 and we had conquered our first of many unexpected challenges.
Crossing the southern portion of the island, we catch our first glimpses of our destination from the air. The lands are laden with snow and ice but as we continue north, the frozen ground gives way to a polar desert landscape of ancient beauty. These are the mountains our world-class riders have been dreaming of for years: the ultimate lines.
The second unexpected challenges come as soon as we land on an ancient glacier river bed near the coordinates we have planned. We finally arrive on the ground we have been visualizing for months. As we step out of the Twin Otter, it’s like entering a whole other world. It feels as if someone uncovered a magnificent painting, bursting with colour. My team at Arctic Kingdom and I have spent many years guiding all over Baffin Island, but we quickly realize this will be a very different expedition. We think, “this must be how it feels when you land on Mars!”.
It is more austere than any other place we have been before. We have dealt with snow, ice and water, but being in a desert surrounded by mountains close to 7,000 feet — this is new. The long weather delays allow us only two days to set up the camp before the rest of the team arrives. At least the days are endless at this time of year in the Arctic.
In such an untouched environment, with massive glaciers and ice caps, we never expect that gathering clean water will be a challenge. With a camp located at nearly 80° north, we must be resourceful. On the “warmer” days when the winds are calm and the sun is at its warmest, the increased melt from the ice caps stirs up silt-like sediment in the river near our camp. Our search for clear drinking water begins. After many days of searching, we finally find a small stream coming from the mountain that will provide for us. Hard to believe 45 million years ago this was a semi-tropical forest of 150-foot-tall trees.
Blizzards are almost a rite of passage for Arctic guides; those we are used to. Here though, it isn’t blizzards we have to deal with. Instead, we experience our first sand storm. On most Arctic expeditions we secure our tents by anchoring them to snowmobiles, using ice screws or shoveling snow. This time we use sandbags and any piece of equipment that has some weight to it. We watch a brown cloud approaching our camp, hoping our gear can handle it. Patience and resilience are one of the best skills the Arctic weather can teach you. It is conditions like this that make you realize how vulnerable you truly are. With no community on Axel Heiberg, we are on our own. We wait patiently, and the weather turns back in our favour. After dusting the sand off the film gear, the riders are ready to get into the mountains to ride their dream lines.
After 10 days of only seeing wildlife in the plateaus above our valley oasis, the residents finally start to show themselves around our camp and we have some unique visits. An Arctic wolf passes in the distance. Wandering alone in this endless landscape, he strangely looks like he knows where he is going, almost as if he is on a schedule, and not curious to come closer. We later start to see the last animal on our planet that remains the same as it was during the last ice age, the muskox. Maybe this is what the wolf is going after. As we near the end of our expedition, after living in this stark environment for weeks, we develop a strong appreciation and respect for these animals and how they have adapted to the environment. We wonder, would we adapt so well?
We often hear about the excitement and anticipation adventurers experience at the outset of an expedition. As an Expedition Leader, the end of a month-long expedition is sometimes as exciting as the start. Knowing my group has achieved their goals and everyone is safely on their way back to their families brings me a serene feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment. The flight that carries us back to civilization is a unique, almost ritualistic, time for reflection. Simultaneously exhausted and elated, we know very well this could be the last time we will ever see this truly awe-inspiring place. We leave behind the wilderness we so intensely interacted with and embraced for weeks. Most notably, we leave behind the unexpected challenges and take with us the bliss of unexpected beauty.
If you want to know more about the movie, North of Nightfall,