Polar Bears on the Edge

by Jennifer A. Smith

 

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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon

 

 

 

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.

Holding 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.

“It’s 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.

Within an 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.

“Overcranked,” 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 November.

Art 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.”

“What happens then?” I asked, “Where would the bears go?”

Art paused, 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 venuesincluding the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DCbetween February and June, 2009.

While Ice Bears... is non-narrated, featuring only an austere score by composer Patrick O’Hearn, a profound on-screen message sets the stage:

North of Alaska, in an offshore wilderness targeted for oil development,
the world’s healthiest polar bears thrive.

If their wilderness home remains undeveloped,
these polar bears may survive climate change…

Ice 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.

This film is meant to raise a question—“What happens then? Where would the bears go?”—which, geographically, has no answer.

 

*****


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.

Text © 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 Wildlife Refuge.

Jennifer 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.

 

 

 

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