Saturday, January 17, 2009

Filmmaker's Journal: stalking the arctic muskox

Last summer I had the opportunity to travel with InMER on its Summer Reconnaissance Expedition to the Northwest Passage, documenting the effects of climate change. There was a wide range of filming to do, from important interviews with Inuit tribal elders to government officials, capturing the stark but majestic arctic tundra - and then there's the "fun stuff" like stalking a herd of muskox.

Looking like prehistoric buffalo, the muskox is actually more closely related to goats. With a heavy coat of fur and a pair of curved horns, they are an odd sight - looking like something from one of those 1950's caveman movies where they throw a worn rug over an elephant and call it a mammoth!

Telling the expedition leader, Ed Cassano, CEO of InMER, that I needed close-up footage of a herd of muskox (well, "need" is a bit strong; more like "wanted" to be honest), we set out to scan the horizon from atop Mt. Pelly, a low, local mountain near Cambridge Bay, Nanuvut, in search of muskox. It didn't take long for us to spot a small herd moving across the tundra below. With that we traveled back down the mountain and tried to position ourselves out of sight and scent of our quarry.

Ever tried to sneak up on a 600+ pound muskox on the open tundra? Let me tell you, it's not easy. Tundra is made up of spongy mosses and lichens and stubby grasses, with the occasional basketball-size boulder. I felt like an ol' Saturday morning cartoon character as I slowly zigzagged from a rock to an indentation in the ground (making like a pancake!) to another rock, and so on - hoping all the while that I was moving unseen.

Well, not likely, oh great hunter with a camera. While the rest of the expedition team was safely over the next ridge, I initially found myself upwind of these hairy beasts. They knew I was there and would occasionally take off in a brief stampede. My team mates would hear this and imagine me being trampled like a rag doll. So for several hours I crawled on my belly as the herd would move about until I finally found myself down wind. Now I could close in, I thought.

As I slowly approached, some of the herd paid no attention and grazed peacefully or sat down on the tundra to rest. But others would sense something from time to time and slowly form a group with their rear ends together, forming the horned spokes of a wheel - a very common defensive action against wolves and bears.

So there I was, within 50 to 75 yards, filming these amazing animals found only well above the Arctic Circle. But before I became too full of myself, I spied a lone male standing on a nearby ridge. This was the herd's "alpha male" or dominant bull and from his perch he knew exactly what was going on. "You think I don't see you, you little pipsqueak?" he was probably thinking.

He simply watched, probably confident that if he felt the herd was truly threatened by my presence, he could stomp my sorry little rear end into the ground. So, when he would finally get bored with me, he would nonchalantly saunter over the back side of the ridge and wait for the eventual result. "Ohmygosh, Harriet! Bruno's gone! Come along everyone, chop chop! The boss is on the move!" And the subsequent stampede would follow until they were in eyesight of their fearless leader.

This went on for several hours: stalk, shoot, stalk, shoot. And there's only one word that can describe the experience - it was fun! This is one of the joys of nature filming: depending on patience, stealth, and luck - lots of luck.

The attached video is just a little collage of footage taken from that day. I wonder what Bruno thought of me in the end? Probably, "Geez, what a tourist!

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