January/February 2012 by Pierre Dunnigan
It’s mid-July and the telltale signs of the early morning were pointing to a beautiful cloudless summer day. Any day the thermometer is predicted to top 20 Celsius up North, you can be assured that it is going to be “a hot one!” I’ve been told it has something to do with the intense strength of the Arctic summer sun’s rays relative to the thinner, clarified atmospheric layer hovering over the Earth above the 60th parallel. It is almost as if one is situated closer to the sun. That can make for a scorcher on the land, often exacerbated by the buzzing hoards of mosquitoes the high summer heat seems to awaken in the North. Lugging hundreds of pounds of film gear around is difficult enough without having to deal with the humbling effects wrought on the human condition while under attack by ravenous swarms of mosquitoes.
I was up North again. Every time I go I feel it is an adventure. This time my adventure is starting at Naujaat, Nunavut. On occasion I’d also be camped on a small island not far off the Hudson Bay coast. This year my visit would not be solely in my usual role as an assignment photographer. The summer of 2011 was going to be very different for me. I would be spending six glorious, educational weeks in a region I loved, catering to the voracious, sometimes demanding appetites of a hardworking feature film crew.
I had no false illusions that life would be relaxed and easy over the six weeks. Each new day in the wee hours I would have to roust up my body and fire up my enthusiasm well in advance of everyone else, to prep the day’s meals, starting with early morning breakfast. No problem, that’s why I was there. Willing and able to contribute and participate in my own small way in an adventure-filled summer.
A Long Hot Summer is the “working title” for a future big screen feature film being produced and directed by wildlife cinematographer and Arctic environmentalist Adam Ravetch and his company, Arctic Bear Productions. The final product, I expect, is going to be a feel-good, Disney-style cinematic treatment featuring a lone young polar bear. The main premise of the story is that a young polar bear’s difficult hunt for food during a long, hot Arctic summer is progressively becoming more challenging each subsequent summer, in large part due to climate change. Global warming trends (heightened in the North) are changing migratory patterns of the young bear’s usual food sources. Additional footage would also be shot for a future documentary.
The subject of climate change and how it is negatively impacting northern landscapes, coastal waters and wildlife habitats plays a significant and very timely supporting role in both projects. Global warming is changing the face of the Arctic. There is a growing, undeniable body of evidence that dramatic temperature increases make for longer, hotter summers in the Arctic.
But back to the film(s). The storyboard plan, simply put, was that the cameras would — in the most in-obtrusive and respectful manner possible — capture the habits of our chosen star and other Arctic wildlife calmly going about their business in their natural environs. Our polar bear’s arduous search for food would be documented on the land and water and below the sea’s surface.
What will make these two projects so special and engaging for audiences is that the final products will ultimately be viewed around the world in 3D! New methods, miniaturized remote control gear and advances in digital technology and gear in the hands of experienced filmmakers would show the way. But first things first. Our film star and supporting cast however would have to be located before any filming could begin.
On those days the shooting schedule called for a crew move from land to sea, there is a chorus of relief. The chance to escape from the of the heat and the mosquitoes is welcomed by all. Good fortune smiled often. Many a day the film shoot took us away from the mosquito infested coastline onto the refreshing swells of Hudson Bay. After breakfast and with clean-up done and all the paraphernalia and camera gear stowed on the boat, off we all went, cruising the coastal waters, bow to gusty wind and sea spray — in search of willing, hopefully cooperative film stars.
I’m sharing a berth with one of only a handful of cold water, sub-surface cinema – tographers in the world. Mario Cyr, from the Magdalen Islands, Quebec, has travelled and filmed in over 60 different countries. His return North this year after a long absence held significant personal meaning for him. He and Ravetch first met 25 years ago to work together on a film project in the Arctic. That collaboration brought the award-winning feature “doc” Toothwalkers: Giants of the Arctic Ice, to the big screen and earned them international recognition and kudos when it was named “Best Documentary” at the renowned Cannes Film Festival.
No stranger to Adam and Mario is Inuk Steve Mapsalak, from Naujaat. Ten years ago Steve had provided the vital guiding expertise and boat transportation services for the making of Toothwalker. It was no surprise then that again this year, Steve and friend, fellow Nunavummiut, Lawrence Kringayark chose to take their summer vacations so they could provide transportation support to Ravetch and his crew on this project.
A Long Hot Summer also featured other Arctic creatures. Later working further up along the coast we had our own little cruise ship all to ourselves. Joe Netser’s Natsiak was perfect. Big enough to hold many hundreds of pounds of camera gear, camping equipment and groceries for a few weeks. After a few days anchored safely in front of cliffs filled with nesting Arctic Murres, Joe put us ashore.
One day visiting the cliffs, a lone, quite skinny polar bear (as if scripted) was preying on eggs and newborn chicks. Sadly, they never seemed to satisfy his hunger.
Come late summer, walruses start migrating to an island in Hudson Bay, in search of slippery rocks onto which they will lounge for hours on end. These strange lumbering creatures look so awkward and out of place on land. They were unperturbed by our presence. These creatures are at their best in the water. They swim and dive effortlessly with a ballet-like grace.
The island was about one kilometre long and not more than 300 metres wide — a wild and rugged composite of tundra and jagged rock that in reality only takes about an hour to explore. There are other rewards.
The historic remnants of Thule tent rings on its small land surface are evidence of its significance to the Inuit nomads who carved out their existence in the Arctic over the centuries. It was fun to imagine what life might have been like for them. The island is now a regular stopover for many cruising tourists. They come to view the animals from the comforts from ship in relative safety.
For all its splendour the Arctic summer in terms of real time is short. For the animals that live there though, those that so depend on seasonal cycles and climate norms such as our polar bear and his co-stars, summers now must seem much longer than in the past — different and more difficult due to the changing weather patterns and shifts in nature’s natural rhythms, their rhythms. I suppose in a way they will speak to us through Ravetch’s films, in the hope that we all have a chance to better understand how climate change is affecting the Arctic — a place that I continue to love.