Of the three
hundred people living in the island village of Kaktovik, my husband
and I are among a small white handful. A hundred miles from the nearest
road, and in an environment home to as many polar bears as people, we’re
a long way from the rest of the world. Considering that we’re
not “bush teachers,” heavy equipment operators, or missionaries,
our minority status seems stranger still. We’re filmmakers.
I met my
husband, Art Smith, one early October, during what I would come to know
as “polar bear season” on Alaska’s Barter Island.
Art first struck me as a gentle giant: strapping in stature, with a
long silver mane
of hair, a boyish smile, and a seeming imperviousness to the cold.
his binoculars bare-handed, he gestured as he handed them to me. “Look
at the water.” Between Barter Island and its seaward barrier spit,
a large, brackish lagoon was freezing before our eyes. Dusky peach light
spilled upon the matte surface of the lagoon. A few of the villagers’
boats were tied near shore—small, motorized craft used during
the recent whaling season, which had ended in mid-September with the
successful harvest of three bowhead whales. Today, the boats—like
the rest of the island—were beset by slush ice.
freezing up,” Art said. “This is how the season turns: all
in one day. If you’re not here to film it, you’re out of
luck.” Smiling, he knelt before the camera and adjusted his lens
to take in the lovely expanse-- a pastel wide shot framed on one side
by Kaktovik, on the other, by the Beaufort Sea.
hour, a polar bear had appeared on the lagoon from a nearby sand spit.
Art drew in closer, mounting a 500mm lens onto his Sony XDCAM. Over
the young, flexible ice, the bear seemed to be holding her breath. Sometimes
the ice supported her, and her paws slid like ice skates. Sometimes,
her steps punched through, and down she’d go—momentarily
submerged. When the bear hauled her great mass onto the ice,
a sunlit cloud of steam rose from her body, wafting away on the breeze.
As she shook the water from her thick, wet fur, she loosened a spray
of diamonds into the sunlight.
I learned that night, as Art and I reviewed the day’s footage
back in his village edit suite, means “slow motion.” Art
had filmed the entire lagoon scene—the glittering, backlit bear—at
sixty frames per second, thus slowing the motion down two-and-a-half
times. I sat spellbound before the display, realizing with each frame
that I was bearing witness to PolarArt: the graceful marriage
of the arctic and the artist.
By the time
Art stood his tripod the following week, the land-bound polar bears
he’d been filming since August were leaving Barter Island. They
were healthy and full-bellied from feeding on bowhead remains following
the whaling season. Now, with the ocean a traversable sheet of “annual
ice,” the bears were free again to roam, hunting seals over the
continental shelf, the pregnant sows returning to the coast to den in
and I sat bundled in parkas on the edge of the continent. Facing the
sea ice, we watched a ponderously large sow and her chubby cub shrink
into two dots on the northern horizon.
“I just picture them with little suitcases in each hand,”
Art laughed. “I call this ‘taking the big walk,’ but
they’ll be back. This place is a unique confluence of culture
and biology. Many of these bears were born here; the Beaufort coast
is a polar bear maternity ward,” he said. “They know it's
safe, and they know there’s food. As long as the Inupiat keep
whaling, and as long as there are seals to hunt offshore, the bears
will be back. That is, unless this place gets turned into an oilfield.”
happens then?” I asked, “Where would the bears go?”
and let my question vaporize into the cold: “Exactly.”
After five years in the making, Art's film about polar
bears on the edge, Ice
Bears of the Beaufort, was awarded "Best of Festival -
Documentary" by the Black Maria Film + Video Festival. The touring
festival will reach over 50 US venues—including
Gallery of Art in Washington, DC—between
February and June, 2009.
Bears... is non-narrated, featuring only an austere score by composer
Patrick O’Hearn, a profound on-screen message sets the stage:
of Alaska, in an offshore wilderness targeted for oil development,
the world’s healthiest polar bears thrive.
their wilderness home remains undeveloped,
these polar bears may survive climate change…
Bears of the Beaufort is the exclusive visual record of how polar
bears use the coastal and offshore habitat of the Beaufort Sea as a
de facto polar bear sanctuary. Amidst widespread industrial development
along Alaska’s arctic coast, the polar bears of the Beaufort Sea
face a threat even more dire than global warming: impending destruction
of their maternity ward.
Since Ice Bears… was created, the film’s location
has been leased for oil & gas development by the State of Alaska.
Meanwhile, the U.S. federal government has agreed to designate “critical
habitat” for polar bears, which were listed as “threatened”
under the Endangered Species Act in May, 2008.
is meant to raise a question—“What happens then? Where
would the bears go?”—which, geographically, has no
The film has a dedicated website, www.icebearsofthebeaufort.com.
The website also offers people concerned about the plight of the polar
bear to join an e-mail list which will keep them appraised of the federal
public process that, it is hoped, will result in the Beaufort Sea becoming
a polar bear sanctuary.
© 2009 Jennifer A. Smith. Photographs © 2008
Arthur C. Smith III/PolarArt Productions. All were taken from Alaska's
Barter Island, in the Arctic Ocean just north of the Arctic National
and her husband, filmmaker Art Smith, specialize in embedded natural
history and documentary productions for museums, theater, and broadcast.
For more information about their work, visit www.polarartproductions.com.