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17 Nov 2019 20:15
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  •   Home > News > International

    Behind the scenes of Foreign Correspondent's epic assignment filming polar bears in Alaska

    Producer/cameraman Matt Davis shares what happened behind the scenes while filming polar bears, a caribou hunt and Indigenous way of life in one of the most remote and untouched places on Earth.

    At Foreign Correspondent, we spend a lot of time and effort getting into hard-to-get-to places — Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Myanmar to name a few — and we are always dealing with difficult filming permissions.

    But getting access to film in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, also known as ANWR, was overwhelmingly the most difficult permit process I have ever encountered.

    Fellow producer Anne Worthington spent six months doing paperwork and getting permits in advance of the trip.

    She even had to incorporate the ABC in Alaska, despite the fact that we have a bureau in Washington DC, which took another month to complete.

    And then there was the actual assignment — daily flights in tiny planes, driving around in beat-up trucks and quadbikes, watching polar bears from boats in the town of Kaktovik, filming a caribou hunt with the Gwich'in community in Arctic Village, and capturing pictures of breathtaking landscapes.

    It is a special and truly unique part of the world.

    When does our plane land? When you hear it in the sky

    ANWR is the largest protected wilderness in the United States.

    For decades it's been protected from oil exploration, but President Donald Trump plans to open it up.

    This is real frontier country.

    Journalist Zoe Daniel, cameraman Niall Lenihan and I were on the ground for a couple of weeks, so it was a fairly long shoot.

    We are often on a much tighter schedule when shooting a Foreign Correspondent story — the last one I worked on was pill testing in the UK and it was shot in five days — but nothing happens fast in Alaska and it's so massive just getting from A to B might take a day or two.

    We'd be waiting for a flight and would ask what time our plane was going to land, and the reply would be: "When you hear it in the sky"!

    Most of our trip was spent in the Inupiat and Gwich'in communities, who live in and around the refuge, capturing their differing views on oil exploration.

    For many, the idea of pursuing oil and gas here is complex as the Arctic is experiencing some of the most profound impacts of climate change.

    The sea ice that used to come to the Alaskan mainland now sits more than 100 kilometres offshore, threatening the very existence of these communities.

    Polar bears look cute, but don't get too close

    The town of Kaktovik is the only town located inside the refuge.

    It is home to about 200 people, mostly Inupiat.

    This community is very under-resourced and neglected and many reluctantly support drilling as a way of gaining some economic advantage.

    It's a very divisive issue.

    To add to this, they are now dealing with the problem of large numbers of polar bears that are losing their habitat and lingering around town, searching for food.

    Polar bears look cute, but they are dangerous, particularly for kids walking to school, so the town has a 24/7 polar bear patrol of people on quadbikes and armed with pellet guns to scare them out of town.

    From a boat, we captured some great pictures of the bears on an island just across from the village.

    We were given a VERY thorough briefing from Fish and Wildlife officers about staying a safe distance away.

    The general rule is you're not allowed to be within 30 feet of a polar bear and if they were somehow disturbed by our presence we were told to leave immediately.

    If a bear swam towards our boat, we had to manoeuvre away.

    It was a delicate balance, ensuring our boat guide didn't compromise our filming arrangement by getting too close but also wanting to be in position to get the best shots.

    Bless Niall's long lens.

    The arrival of the bears has brought another problem for the locals: an influx of tourists.

    More than 2,000 tourists arrived last year to see the bears and there's little infrastructure in town to accommodate them.

    Also, not a lot of money is going to the local community as a lot of the trips are organised by outsiders operating tour companies.

    And that's fuelling tensions.

    Filming a caribou hunt

    On the other side of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are the Gwich'in people, who are overwhelmingly against drilling.

    Their culture revolves around subsistence hunting of the caribou herds, which they fear will be threatened by oil exploration.

    To get out to the refuge where the Caribou give birth, Zoe Daniel and I flew through on a tiny four-seater plane flown by the most famous pilot in Alaska, Kirk Sweetsir.

    He's been flying up there for decades and got us into some of the most remote parts of the Alaskan wilderness.

    As we were flying across the Brooks mountain range (the highest in the Arctic circle) he pointed out where a colleague or two had crashed and not made it out, which was a little unnerving, but Kirk is the king and the flight was seamless.

    When we arrived in Arctic Village, everyone was getting ready to bunker down for winter, which is long and very dark.

    They were busy hunting and butchering caribou and smoking meat in huts.

    One evening we joined them on a hunt, bouncing around (poor back, poor camera) on the backs of quadbikes.

    These are by no means trophy hunters; this is pure subsistence hunting.

    Every single part of the animal was collected, brought back and divided up among the community.

    In pursuit of the shot, I had to get up close to the butchering of the carcass with all the smells that come with it.

    You have to be invited into their community and they've previously found US media to be very antagonistic and polarising.

    So, to be invited to join and film a hunt was really special.

    After an exhausting evening, we returned to town with one caribou to share amongst the community.

    A sleeping bag on the school floor never felt so amazing.

    There was nothing easy about this shoot.

    It was physically demanding — out on boats in freezing conditions, lugging gear up and down over mountains and in and out of planes — but every day there were extraordinary moments we shared as a crew that made the shoot seem seamless.

    One night, as the sun was setting across the Beaufort Sea, we were filming polar bears at the village's edge against an epic sunset, as good as it gets.

    But it was somewhat melancholy.

    We were watching a really beautiful yet tragic scene, with the bears on the outskirts of town and a long way from the big ice.

    Then the weather turned

    For the last two days of our Kaktovik shoot, the weather turned, and flights were being cancelled due to zero visibility.

    As we wrapped our final morning, we found out our scheduled flight had been cancelled and we were looking at a few more days sitting at the edge of the world in horrible weather.

    But, then … we could hear the dull hum of a plane in the thick clouds.

    As we stepped ashore from our last freezing boat shoot, out of the dense fog burst our Hawaiian hotel manager, in his shorts.

    "I have a plane of food landing now and there are three seats on it, leaving now," he yelled from the water's edge.

    Needless to say, we helped unload his lettuce, cheese and tomatoes (Taco night) and jumped on that cargo flight before the weather closed in again.

    Next stop, Fairbanks with an epic Foreign Correspondent story in the can.

    It is a special part of the world.

    Watch At The Edge of the Earth on Foreign Correspondent on iview

    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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