Written by director, Andrew Gregg

The way it used to be, getting anywhere in the Eastern Arctic from the south would take days: a flight from Ottawa to Frobisher Bay (as it was known before Iqaluit); then over night in one of only three hotels. Travel day #2 might get you to where you were going on milk-run turboprop, weather permitting. If it was a hamlet up the Baffin Coast or somewhere in the mid-Arctic islands you’d be lucky to land by day #3.

These days you can wake up in Toronto and be pulling your boat ashore on a remote point of granite and tundra by late afternoon. Nunavut is abuzz with business—people coming and going from all over. Connecting flights around Nunavut come and go like busses. But there are still millions of quiet corners, abuzz with only mosquitoes, where mysteries can reveal themselves. That’s what Dr. Pat Sutherland has at Cape Tanfield, near the Inuit town of Kimmirut (or for those who still follow the old maps, Lake Habour).

I had first met Pat and her husband Dr. Bob McGhee (himself a renowned Arctic archeologist) in the late 1990s while working on Canada: A People’s History for CBC. I knew Pat’s work was special—it held an intrigue for me that only got more intense as the years passed and her work revealed more about the Norse in Arctic Canada.

So after we agreed to do a film together, and as we were pulling our boat ashore, I was thrilled to be back in the North for ten days of Arctic summer.

Pat Sutherland at the excavation site

Pat laid down the law early—she required us to bring up an electric fence that would warn us if polar bears were encroaching. And her dig site at Nanook was watched over by Donny the bear monitor—a sentinel on the hilltops with his scope and rifle. No one went anywhere out of Donny’s sight.  Bears had been here before—a member of Pat’s crew on an earlier dig had to shoot one. The grief of the kill was bad, but the government red tape over a dead polar bear was worse. Pat was adamant—no bear run-ins this season.

That first evening the crew of Mike Grippo, Mike Josselyn and I were left alone to settle in, which meant figuring out tents and stoves and food. Hot coffee in my kitchen that morning; a granola bar and a deep sleeping bag that rainy night.

Over the ensuing days the challenge was filming a hole in the ground and making it make sense. The Nanook dig site looked like nothing more than an open shallow pit of black muck. It had been raining torrentially, so a pump was churning, trying to drain enough water to make the excavations workable. It was like a swamp—a soup. And it was a breeding ground for mosquitoes. The single worse place for bugs was right where we all needed to be, in the sodden Nanook dig site.

The discovery of an ancient strand of cord

Pat Sutherland has a singular vision—to her that pit was a revelation. And as we stood and watched and filmed and listened it gradually revealed itself to us—the remains of old stone walls, piles of butchered animals bones, stone artifacts and bits of woven string. I had had an idea that I would use animation to help the audience understand what this site might have looked like when it was in use a thousand years ago so I sat and looked and imagined.

By the time we were ready to leave I wasn’t sure if we had gotten what we came for. The hole in the tundra made sense to me—but would it make sense to anyone who watches our film? We knew there was more shooting to do—Pat had urged us to come with her to the Outer Hebrides in Scotland, to see what the old Norse stone houses looked like. Once we did that, all the pieces fell into place and the Nanook site became real in our minds.

Pat Sutherland at the excavation site

Documentary filmmaking is a process and the films are made by teams. We went north not entirely sure what we were going to get, and the Hebrides was not in the original cards. The Mikes and I spent evenings talking through ideas and possibilities, and back home in the suite editor Geoff Matheson and I worked through a narrative line that carefully laid out a complicated story. It was like building a case in a courtroom—first this bit of evidence, then this, then this. Artist Brad Goodspeed caught on right away and filled in the narrative gaps with killer animations. And Nanook came to life.

It was an amazing experience.

The Wild Canadian Year

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