I spent about two and a half months in the Arctic and in Alaska working on “On Thin Ice.” It’s tough to condense how amazing it was to be in the environment, and what it meant to drive on a frozen river, or spend hours out on the frozen Arctic Ocean on a snowmobile.

Breathtaking, unforgettable, other-worldly, cold. Really cold.

Behind the scenes of 'On Thin Ice'

Behind the scenes of 'On Thin Ice'

Go behind the scenes for a glipse at how 'On Thin Ice: The People of the North' was made.
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We started in Canada’s Northwest Territories in the town of Inuvik. We had so many people help us along the way, but Peggy Jay and Patrice Stuart really stand out – they work for the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation. It is just tiring, working outside in conditions where the high for the day is 17-degrees below zero (Celsius).

“You may want to slow down a bit,” as we headed into a bend going about 100km per hour. “Don’t pump the brakes, just ease off the gas.”

Peggy and Patrice knew everyone. Without their assistance, what we captured there in a couple of weeks would have taken forever. I have to thank Patrice for the driving lesson the first time I was on the “Ice Road,” a long frozen stretch of the Mackenzie River from Inuvik to the small town of Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Ocean.

A simple, “You may want to slow down a bit,” as we headed into a bend going about 100km per hour. “Don’t pump the brakes, just ease off the gas.” It was enough where we had an exciting fishtail, but not enough to send us into the snowbank.

An Eskimo dance in Inuvik. Photo: Sean Callebs.
An Eskimo dance in Inuvik. Photo: Sean Callebs.

Peggy and Patrice worked tirelessly to connect us with so many locals, including Inuvialuit taking part in the “Drum Dance.” It was a great experience, and you can tell what it means to the indigenous population. Dances come with names like “Polar Bear,” where the men stomp in an aggressive fashion, or “airplane” where women extend their arms as if they’re flying.

My favorite was “Selfie.” Women dance in traditional outfits made of wolverine, fox, polar bear – and at one point reach inside their coats to pull out a phone and take a selfie. One way today’s world is inching into tradition centuries old.

Maureen Pokiak
Maureen Pokiak

We also met James and Maureen Pokiak. James is Inuvialuit, Maureen is from southern Canada, and they have been married 38 years. I rode on a sled of theirs as James zipped along a frozen lake in his skidoo (the Canadian name for a snowmobile). It was the single coldest ride of the trip, period. We went out to a frozen creek, where the Pokiak’s carve out chunks of ice that they take back home, and put in a big drum for drinking water.

James Pokiak
James Pokiak

Photographer Andrew Smith wanted me to stay out of the picture, but I felt so bad watching the couple struggle in the frozen outdoors – with poor Maureen lifting a 15-kilo chunk of ice out and putting it in the sled while I sat there.

Maureen also prepared a real taste of local cuisine. Caribou, Beluga whale, Bipsy (salted fish). She warned me to go easy on the whale — which was not a problem.

Traveling was entertaining. We chartered a plane from Inuvik to Point Hope, Alaska. A long flight that ended on a frozen chunk of permafrost that served as a runway.

Point Hope is a small town of about 900 people. What I remember most about the village is my friendship with Steve (Stevie) Oomittuk, an Inuit who has lived there most of his life.

Steve really captured what’s at stake in villages like Point Hope. Native Alaskans hold their traditions dear: whaling, hunting, and Eskimo dances. But they need cash to survive in a modern world. So like it or not, they have grown to depend on the oil industry for revenue sharing. One big spill could mean the end of their way of life.

Steve Oomittuk

Andrew and I traveled to Point Hope with four Mandarin colleagues. We all shared a small house with four bedrooms – and one bathroom. People ask, “What did you eat?” Well, we brought some things, power bars, peanut butter. But to our surprise there was a Chinese restaurant in Point Hope. Their unofficial slogan: “If the door is open, we are open.” Yes, we ate there a lot. Warm flavorful food after a long day of working in really cold weather is a nice end to the day.


The Chinese restaurant in Point Hope. The door's open, so, as the saying goes, they're open. Photo: Sean Callebs.

There is so much I could write about, but I really enjoyed watching the sunsets as we took time lapse images. In the Lower 48 the sun sets quickly. In the Arctic in early spring, it takes HOURS. As the sun sets, it basically mirrors the horizon for a long time.

Being there, in that stark region, staring out at ice ridges in the frozen Arctic Ocean was amazing. To top it off, on more than one occasion the Northern Lights came out. And if you haven’t seen that, it is something to embrace.

I could keep writing about the differences in communities, the similarities.I hope you get to watch “On Thin Ice,” but please feel free to pose questions and we will answer as many as we can!

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The sunset in Inuvik. Photo: Sean Callebs.