Published DateCONWAY — Sometimes the last degree can be the hardest.
That's what local filmmaker and cinematographer Jim Surette learned earlier this month when he joined a team of Greenpeace activists skiing from the 89th parallel to the North Pole as part of an effort to get the region declared a global sanctuary. The team of 16 spent five days dragging sleds weighing more than 100 pounds across snow and ice. They brought with them a "flag of the future," containing 2.7 million signatures from supporters of their cause, which they planted on the seafloor beneath.
And Surette was along to capture it all.
"It was really cold," he said on Wednesday, back in the warmth of his North Conway home. The temperatures hovered between 4 and 22 below zero, he said, but that wasn't the only problem. "If the wind kicked up that'd be a big factor," he said.
"About half the team had no skiing, winter camping or polar experience," Surette, who has been on dozens of expeditions to remote locations, said.
One member of the team, Ezra Miller, is an actor, according to a statement from Greenpeace. Another team member, Josefina Skerk, is a 26-year-old Indigenous activist and a member of Sweden's Sami Parliament.
The lead guide, polar veteran Eric Philips, was tasked with shepherding the ambassadors over the ice, according to Surette. "It worked out way better than I would have thought," he said. Philips showed them tricks like preparing soup in a thermos for lunch while still in the warmth of the tent, but storing the hot water for the soup in another thermos. When lunchtime came they would pour one thermos into the other, he said, so they could eat right away. They were never stopping for more than half an hour while outside.
There were problems, however. The sleds they brought for dragging gear were made of a new, untested material, Surette said, and before the first day was over "they were just disintegrating." He has footage of sleds with cracks and holes, the material buckling. The group had to rearrange loads to deal with the busted sleds, he said, and when the terrain got rough team members were at times forced to carry them. "Everybody just sucked it up and dug deep," he said.
The stark landscape of snow and ice at times lent itself to brisk progress, Surette said, at least when the ice was flat. At those times skiing went quick. But in places, the ice was less consistent, pushing up into jumbles of blocks, he said, "pressure ridges [that] seem like they go on forever."
Those were the real test, he said, where progress ground to a crawl.
And the trip was not without risk. "One of our guides did punch through," Surette said. It was sometimes difficult to tell whether the ice was solid or not. Philips, the lead guide, went out onto one questionable section and jumped up and down to test it, and the team watched the ice beneath him wobble and wave. "It looked like Jello," Surette said.
And the whole time, despite the cold, despite the wind, despite the risk, Surette was filming. He has a special insulated box that he kept his camera in, along with heat packs, but that only did so much. "I couldn't tell if the heat packs were working or not," he said.
"I just shot pretty much documentary style," he said. It was too cold for the team to wait for him to get into place, so he would just start at the front of the pack and work his way backward, shooting as he went.
"It was really too cold to set stuff up," he said. "Luckily I have a lot of experience shooting in the cold."
And he wasn't just shooting — as a member of the team he still had to drag his own sled. "I wasn't burdened with an insane load," he said, but he still was in charge of dragging all his gear.
The camera created other problems as well. Most team members wore full face masks, but because of the humidity the mask caused Surette's lens to fog, so he went without it. And while everyone else wore thick mittens, Surette stuck with liner gloves to ensure he could operate the camera controls.
This was not his first time filming in cold conditions, however, so he took such measures in stride. He's spent time behind the camera on Everest, in Antarctica and on Mount Washington in winter, he said. "I've just kind of learned you can get away with it."
"It's hard enough just trying to keep the cameras running," he said. The key is "just keep it simple and nail the basics."
But while Surette knows cold weather filming, what he hadn't experienced was the terrain he and the team were working to cross moving against them.
The group would ski between five and 10 kilometers a day, Surette said, but "quite often we'd drift back at night more than we'd pushed on."
The ice was moving them away from the pole. It was ski, drift, ski, drift, ski, drift, Surette said, and by day five they were further from the North Pole than when they started. "We moved enough distance over the ice that we would have made it if it wasn't drifting," he said, but it just so happened things were moving against them. It was just as likely that the drifting sea ice could have sped their journey, he said, but it didn't work that way this trip. Such things are the luck of the draw, he said.
Team members opted to call in a helicopter eventually when it was clear they weren't going to make the trip by foot-power alone. They flew the pole, drilled a hole in the ice and lowered a flag and time capsule with 2.7 million signatures calling for the protection of the Arctic to the seafloor, the same spot where a submarine planted a Russian flag claiming the Arctic for Moscow.
"The week-long expedition to the Pole is part of a global campaign to protect the Arctic, under threat from climate change, oil companies, industrial fishing and shipping," a statement from Greenpeace said. "As global warming melts the sea ice, companies such as Shell, Gazprom and Statoil are moving in to exploit the region's oil as nation states lay claim to areas previously covered by ice."
Surette said on Wednesday he is pleased to be part of such an expedition. This was about more than just the trip, he said. "I believe in their mission. Climate change is a real thing. It's a big problem."
"I was looking for work that was more meaningful," he said, "and this definitely fills that niche."
He now has 20 hours of footage he's combing through to edit down to a half-hour film. Over the next few weeks, he said, sections will be getting out into circulation. The BBC is interested in some, and Greenpeace is hoping use the material quite a bit.
In the meantime, Surette said, he's looking forward to working with the organization again, and his next cold weather expedition, but his next job filming is in the Caribbean.