In Focus at the Top of the World


    Filming with the Canadian Rangers
    By Maureen Marovitch

    The office of Picture This Productions looks a bit like base camp for explorer Roald Amundsen’s Northwest Passage trip… one century on. Every available space in the television production company’s office is laid out with organized piles. There are giant plastic bins sealed with duct tape and neatly labelled “fragile,” tightly rolled bedding, crisp new sheets and pillowcases, bags of cough drops, crates of lights and tripod stands, boxes of hard drives, piles of batteries, and Ziploc bags stuffed with cooking supplies.

    David Finch, series director of APTN’s new series Watchers of the North, weaves his way through the makeshift aisles carrying two large shopping bags and drops them onto a table. “We cleaned out the entire supply of hand warmers at Mountain Equipment Co-op,” he says. “Where are we going to find 200 more hand warmers at the end of April?”

    This isn’t a question a television show producer typically finds himself asking three days before a film crew takes off to spend seven weeks filming in April to early June. But then, most producers aren’t sending their crews to spend 50 days in the northernmost community on Canada’s mainland. It takes careful preparation to pull it off if the team is to come back with exquisite footage and fingers and toes intact.

    The piles of cargo being prepared are for the crew of Watchers of the North, a new docu-adventure series set to premiere on APTN’s airwaves starting September 5. The series follows the on and off-duty adventures of Canadian Forces reservists called the Canadian Rangers. If you live in a big or even medium-sized Canadian city, or anywhere below the 60th parallel, you’ve probably never seen a Canadian Ranger, wearing the iconic red hoody and baseball cap and carrying a 1940s-era Lee Enfield rifle.

    Back in Montreal, the TV crew heads to Montreal’s Pierre Elliot Trudeau airport for its own first test: an itinerary that will take two days, flying from Montreal to Toronto, Toronto to Calgary, Calgary to Yellowknife, then Yellowknife to the fly-in community of Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, population 1,300. It’s a distance of 5,565 km as the crow flies. They’ll spend two weeks filming the Rangers there, then board another small plane and head 165 km northeast to the fly-in community of Taloyoak, Nunavut, population 850. There another three-person TV crew will meet the original four and together they’ll capture the stories of Taloyoak’s larger Canadian Ranger and Junior Ranger patrols. From following a tense search and rescue exercise to seeing if the newest eager recruits have what it takes, the theme of Watchers of the North is to get to know the Rangers and their communities while weaving an adventure story at the same time.

    Cinematographer Paul Rickard and soundman Nick Huard have packed a strippeddown camera kit as carry-on bags in advance, knowing that they’ll need to hit the ground ready to shoot as soon as they arrive. The tripod, extra batteries and lighting equipment will have to wait for the next flight, not an unusual occurrence in the North.

    There, passenger and cargo loads and weight factors are especially critical. But then, as the last equipment package finally arrives, it’s discovered that there’s one more missing piece: a mistakenly left-behind camera filter. This unassuming piece of glass, the size of a chocolate chip cookie, reduces the amount of light going into a camera lens — essential for managing the intensely bright glare that bounces off the expanses of endless snow in the North. Without it, Rickard knows he’ll have a tough time giving texture and form to the endless expanses of snow and sky. If the crew had been shooting in Calgary or Halifax, the filter would be in his hands in hours. With the nearest camera supply shop thousands of kilometres away, there’s no choice but to ship a tiny box to Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, from Montreal. Even an overnight courier service will take nearly a week to get it there and will require a personal escort in Yellowknife to make sure it gets on the plane.

    “We felt like we were sending shipments to the International Space Station,” series director and producer David Finch recalls. “Every time the crew needed some supplies or replacement equipment, or we had to receive the material they had shot, we had to deal with complex flights and connections, scheduling, unpredictable weather that would mix things up, and finally, arranging for the shipments to meet the crews where they were at any given moment. We definitely learned as we went along — as far as we were aware, no one had filmed a live-action TV series in this particular region before.”

    The camera crew had plenty of experience filming in northern climes, but every shoot day brought a new challenge. Paul Rickard, who grew up in Moose Factory in a Cree community in Northern Ontario, had been on countless hunting trips out on the land. He knew how to layer his clothes to keep warm, and his past Arctic filming experiences had helped him develop ingenious ways to keep camera lenses from becoming uselessly fogged up when going from -45 C outdoors to the warmth of indoor interviews. What he couldn’t master was the vastness of the Arctic landscape, and how long it took to get to deceptively close-appearing places.

    “I grew up with trees and rivers that we use to estimate distance,” says Rickard. “But people in Gjoa Haven talk about hills or rocks or valleys. In episode three, we had to snowmobile from Gjoa Haven to “CAM B,” he says, mentioning a radar station that the Rangers were maintaining as part of maintaining the Northern Warning System air defence system. “You can see it from miles away, but we were snowmobiling for hours and it never seemed to be getting any closer.”

    Episode director Dennis Allen had no trouble with assessing the landscape. He grew up in Inuvik, in the Western Arctic. Inupiat on his father’s side, and Gwich’in on his mother’s, Allen had spent long hours on a snowmobile and camping out on the land. But he’d never had to do it pulling a qamutik (wooden sled) loaded with 1,200 kg of camera gear, tents, gas — his cameraman and soundman perched on top.

    “It’s like trying to control a runaway train,” Allen recalls. “You have a 20-foot line between the snowmobile and the trailing sled. So you go down the hills fast to keep it under control and from catching up and smashing into the back of the snowmobile. Then suddenly, I spot a big boulder in the way, and I’m thinking, if we crash into that rock, my guys will have broken bones.” He pauses, “I had to learn quickly to overcome my fear, and learn to trust that if I am going a certain speed, I can control that snowmobile.”

    Keeping the sled moving was one important skill Allen had to master. Bringing it to a stop was another. “You can’t suddenly stop,” he warns. “As soon as the snowmobile stops, what you are towing, all 2,000 to 3,000 lbs of gear just keeps coming and you have no control over it.”

    A hard stop can have deadly results. In February 2013, Canadian Ranger Donald Anguyoak of Gjoa Haven died tragically during a Ranger exercise when his sled hit him in the back after a sudden stop. It was a stark reminder that being safe on the land in the North is never to be taken for granted.

    The Rangers in Taloyoak not only made sure the TV crews were safe on shoot, they also took to engineering special sleds for them to get great footage. Master Corporal Sam Tulurialik designed and built a special qamutik for the crew so they could film while travelling without being buffeted in the wind. Allen nicknamed it “The Cadillac Qamutik” but like its moniker, the ‘luxury’ sled wasn’t ideal for all situations.

    “We were going to film at the Annual Fishing Derby and there were really strong winds that day,” says Allen. “The thing was like a house. We didn’t know the winds would pick it up and blow it around like a big sail. We couldn’t travel more than 10 miles and we had to go back and get a smaller sled.”

    Cameraman Rickard lost his protected vantage point inside the “Cadillac,” ending up riding on the back of Allen’s snowmobile for more than 35 miles. “It was bloody cold,” says Allen, “But he never complained. To me, our camera guys had the toughest job.”

    For cameraperson and series researcher Stephanie Weimar, the physical challenge was something she relished. She’d already spent three years working for the Inuvialuit Communications Society as a director, cameraperson and editor. But the sheer physicality of working on Watchers of the North took her northern experience to a new level.

    “It was extremely challenging,” says Weimar of the times she and 2nd unit sound recordist Christopher Yapp spent shooting the Taloyoak Canadian Ranger patrol. In a docu-adventure series, a cameraperson never wants to miss out on what could be the next big moment — even if you have no idea when that could be. “The Rangers would just stop anywhere. They would get excited about something and from where we were, we didn’t know what it was,” says Stephanie. “So we’d jump off our skidoo in the blowing wind, unbuckle everything, get out our equipment cases from underneath everything, hook up the camera and the sound gear and then run across the ice.”

    The term ‘running’ may be an overstatement. “In photos, the ice looks like a flat lake,” says Weimar, “But when you’re there, you’re wading through jumbled drifts of knee-deep snow.” After their gear-laden sprints, Weimar and Yapp found that eight times out of 10 there was nothing to film — maybe a sea ledge that had disappeared or a hunting opportunity didn’t materialize. So they’d race back to their snowmobile, pack everything up and climb back on, repeating the whole process several times over the next eight hours.

    Trying to keep up with the Rangers and not fall over as they bumped over challenging terrain kept them wide-awake — most of the time. Weimar recalls one afternoon when her soundman stopped their snowmobile because he noticed she was tilted over precariously on the seat behind him. He discovered the reason for the unusual position — the exhausted cameraperson had fallen asleep. Despite the physical exertion, Weimar is quick to point out how nourishing she found the emotional experience. She was awed by how welcoming the communities were and how they treated her and the teams more like guests than camera-toting strangers.

    “They were really taking care of us, really embracing us and making sure we had everything we needed,” enthuses Weimar. “Once you start thinking, these people have done this all their lives, and their grandparents did this in much harsher conditions with less resources, you realize, ‘Wow this is amazing!’ Just the amount of stuff you need to know to be safe there. You realize you wouldn’t know how to survive for three hours without them.”

    The Canadian Rangers were equally enthused about having a TV crew documenting their lives and work. Says Taloyoak patrol Sergeant Abel Aqqaq, “ We were pretty excited about it. We voted among ourselves and picked out of a hat about who would go on each patrol and exercise. We had to — there were too many who wanted to do it.”

    The crew was rewarded with spectacular filming opportunities: like the night of the super moon. “Going out at 1 am and seeing this enormous disk ring over the landscape — it was like we were on another beautiful planet,” recalls production coordinator Tobi Elliott.

    Elliott also notes that their long stay in the communities allowed them to capture a side of the North most southerners don’t often get to see: the general happiness level of these communities. “We are used to hearing down in the South that Native communities have a reputation for depression, high suicide rates, and alcohol abuse. Certainly these issues weren’t entirely absent in the communities we visited. But we found a lot of joy in these towns. When a hunter came back with fish and seal, 30 people would be invited over to share. There were feasts, house concerts…we had a ball,” chuckles Elliott, who had her first try of fresh seal meat in Gjoa Haven.

    “There are a lot of films and documentaries and TV series that are made about the Arctic that paint romantically quaint notions of the Arctic, and the people who live there, “ says Weimar. “These shows conveniently gloss over the supermarkets and satellite
    dishes.” Weimar thinks Watchers of the North avoids that trap by focusing on the work and lives of the Rangers — with the cooperation of the Rangers themselves.

    “This was a chance to work on something together with the people who live there, one that shows what its like in the North with all its facets,” says Weimar. “I think the series doesn’t hide the rough spots, but it also shows the fun, the wisdom and the light-heartedness.”

    “It was a lot of just trying to capture things as they happen,” adds Rickard, “We weren’t making things go the way we thought they should be. We were capturing how life really is for Rangers in these communities.”

    Sergeant Aqqaq adds. “I hope that APTN viewers will have a good time watching it and hopefully learn from it, too, how life really is up North.” To find out more about the series, its schedule and where to view it online, visit and

    The Canadian Rangers were originally called the Pacific Coast Rangers. They were established in 1942 during World War II and based in coastal communities in British Columbia and the Yukon. The 15,000 men who signed on performed surveillance and were ready to defend against Japanese invasion on the home front. Although they were disbanded at the end of the Second World War, the launch of the Cold War saw them reformed less than two years later and renamed the Canadian Rangers. Today there are nearly 5,000 male and female Canadian Rangers. Many are Aboriginal, spread across Canada’s most remote communities; nearly 1,800 patrol the icy waters and tundra of Canada’s North. The Rangers help maintain a military presence in the Arctic, where the sea ice is melting at an alarming rate and bordering nations eagerly eye the resource riches that lie beneath. But aside from maintaining Arctic sovereignty, in a place where the nearest RCMP office or Coast Guard ship can be hundreds or even thousands of kilometres away, the Rangers’ first responder and search and rescue skills are put to the test as volunteers, and in official capacity, several times a year.

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