The Arctic videographer’s wildest card: the weather

Our plan: a two-day video shoot to Cape Alitak on Kodiak Island in May 2010 to document the petroglyphs under study by the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Preserve. We had the best possible guides–the head researcher studying the rock art, anthropologist Sven Haakanson and his museum crew–to help us complete the scripted story we wanted to capture. What could go wrong?

Our budget permitted two days to videotape with two days of travel. But filming in the Arctic is fraught with Mother Nature’s surprises and challenges posed by wilderness. Imagine no electrical outlets to recharge batteries, no hotel to retreat to, no car or even a road to walk on, no store to replenish food or forgotten items.

Even with recon the Defense Department could envy, the wild card is the weather in the Alaska backcountry.

The weather was toying with us before we even arrived at Cape Alitak. A blowing storm front from the west set in as our flight was scheduled to leave Anchorage’s Ted Stevens International Airport. After many hours waiting for a break in the clouds, we got word that Alaska Airlines, the jet carrier, would not be making an attempt to land on Kodiak Island. We knew then our ERA twin prop wouldn’t be going anywhere either, and we spent our first night not on the shore of the Gulf of Alaska, but at the Anchorage Inlet Towers.

As we boarded the ten-passenger plane the next day, the pilot told us, “We’re going to TRY to land on Kodiak, but there’s no assurance that we will. It all depends on the cloud coverage. And if the ceiling’s too low we’ll fly to Juneau.” For most of the hour flight we were IN a cloud. About fifteen minutes from Kodiak, we finally saw some sky. The clouds seemed low to me, but I was not in the cockpit.

Our able pilot did indeed find a window of clear sky, landing us at the Kodiak airport, and putting us within two hours by float plane of Cape Alitak. Now came a new delay: waiting for the seaplane pilot to return from picking up storm-stranded bear hunters from the previous day. And we had things to do; weighing gear and loading a small aircraft, especially a float plane, is part of the safety and art of flying. It was 4:30 p.m. before the four of us, including pilot Roland Ruis from Sea Hawk Air, were on our way to Cape Alitak.

May in Kodiak is not yet springtime. The grasses are yellow, the alder bushes and trees are leafless, the hills patched with snow. Called the Emerald Isle, Kodiak was not green. Yet the terrain we were flying over was undulating and pleasing to the eye. Our route took us over small settlements close to the water, including Old Harbor and the first Russian settlement, Three Saints Bay, now abandoned.


The float plane landed close to the camp using a high tide flooded inlet which was not always accessible. We were greeted by the Alutiiq museum crew of archaeologists and museum specialists Sven Haakanson, Patrick Saltonstall, Jill Lipka and Mark Rusk. Since we arrived late our immediate activity was setting up our tents to the specifications of the crew who had just weathered a horrendous storm the night before. Visit FrontierScientists’ project on Cape Alitak Petroglyphs.

Patrick, the self-designated cook, was busy making dinner and abiding by the current cuisine cry of “go local.” On the menu: nettles picked fresh at the nearby 400-year-old house sites that were part of our scripted stories to be videotaped. (WATCH: This Sod House ) Our appetites keen, we dined on delicious greens that might have been part of the diet of the long-vanished Alutiiq inhabitants. Cozy in the central teepee, we remained for awhile chatting with our new camp companions, as the rain tapped lightly on the sides of the tent.

Although we had lost a day of videotaping we woke up to an incredible sunny day. Words don’t do justice to how gorgeous the place is.


We wasted no time getting into the field to cover the stories, and as we were guided we discovered more material than we had anticipated. We were particularly delighted to capture Patrick uncovering a stone whale lance blank as he was showing us one of the sod house middens (pre-historic trash dumps). It was an unusual find for an archaeologist, and his excitement hard to contain.

We wanted to surprise the rest of the crew with it, and capture the moment for our vodcast. Though it was hard for Patrick to hold back from immediately spreading the word via walkie talkie, he showed admirable restraint and we got the shot of Patrick surprising Sven, Jill and Mark as he revealed the lance. WATCH: They Hunt Whales with Poison Spears


The unsung heroes of wilderness filming are the technical folks. By the end of the day our production crew was beginning to feel the fatigue of carrying around a big camera, a heavy tripod, a bulky audio deck, and all the accompanying supplies. We had walked to several petroglyph sites on each side of the Cape, and up and down the hills to three separate sod house locations. Diana Wilmar, Fox Wilmar Productions, was asked a lot of, with all the camera set-ups she accomplished in a single day. Her efforts for all the best angles and her rock-steady handheld shots show the imprint of the most seasoned cameramen. Spence Palermo, the audio expert, had the heaviest carrying load, but kept up without complaint.

The next day the weather had changed again, as a steady rain came down. As we waited for the plane to pick us up, we shot our last interviews, while trying to stay dry in the fickle weather.

We said goodbye to the Alutiiq Museum crew who were continuing with their survey of Cape Alitak, come gales, rain or sun. And the buzz of the float plane gave us time to reflect on what we had learned about what took place on Cape Alitak over 400 years ago.

Liz O’Connell 2011

Frontier Scientists: presenting scientific discovery in the Arctic and beyond

Weather in Alaska project