By Naomi Klouda
Tom Irons and wife Jean Aspen believe people are meant to identify and then follow their dreams.
That attitude helped them set out 20 years ago to build a cabin in the Brooks Range. Thereby beginning a journey of quiet self-sufficiency, raising son Luke and growing “amazingly close” as a family.
Homer audiences will be able to visualize the Arctic wonders and horrors, the achievements and close-calls experienced by the family in “Arctic Son: Fulfilling the Dream,” which premiers Feb. 7 at the Homer Theatre. An Alaskan story in the tradition of Dick Proenneke’s “One Man’s Wilderness.”
The film, like the book by Aspen called “Arctic Son,” published in 1995, details their life in a cabin 100 miles from the nearest people on the middle fork of the Chandalar River in the Brooks Range. The first year, 1993, the family and a friend, Laurie Schacht work on building the wilderness cabin. Schacht came along to help care for Luke, 4, for part of that first year. He is the “Arctic son” of the story, filmed as he speaks his thoughts on the experience and ventures into his snowy winter world on family outings meant to help him learn an appreciation for wilderness and the quietude that can nurture a growing child.
A lot of major things could have gone wrong but didn’t. Minor incidents like Luke’s dog turned out to be too wild and bit him before running off. Times were lonely for the boy, but when visitors came they generously gave their companionship. Through it all, Luke thrived in a close relationship with his parents. Later, in a PBS interview, he would talk about how it made him different from his Arizona peers in school.
And, due to careful planning and research, very few wilderness mishaps occurred in the seasons and sometimes entire years spent at Kernwood, as they called their wilderness cabin.
“We were lucky. A bear charged me. We’re using axes, we’re using chain saws, we’re felling trees – any of those actions could have caused a real thorn in our side so to speak. As it was, we got wet and cold and that was it. When you go on an adventure, there are risks,” Irons reasons. “Do your research, and then go with an open heart.”
And research they did, though Aspen possessed a wealth of knowledge from her own family back ground in the Arctic. She lived the first two years of her life in a remote cabin with her parents, Constance and Harmon “Bud” Helmericks. Classic stories now of nostalgic Alaskana adventure, the Helmericks wrote “We Live in Alaska,” a 1947 best seller; Constance Helmericks’ “Down the Wild River North,” and “We Live in Alaska,” and Harmon Helmericks’ “The Last of the Bush Pilots.” After her parents divorced, Aspen was raised in Tuscan, Ariz., but frequently spent summers in Alaska.
Then, at 22, Aspen went back with a friend and together they built a cabin on the middle fork of Chandalar River, 50 miles down from their present cabin. That was in 1972.
Continually in her life, Aspen is called back to the Arctic.
“Being in touch with wild is my stability. It’s necessary for me to go back to ‘the planet’ and be renewed – I have felt this all my life,” Aspen said. “Wilderness is home for all of us – where the quiet places that are not filled with a particular agenda or noise speak profoundly to us. It takes spending time in nature. It’s nothing you can get on your snowmachine on a weekend.”
By the time Irons and Aspen decided to live in the Arctic, the couple had spent three summers together hiking in the Brooks Range, including packing Luke as a baby.
“Jean remembered it all clearly,” Irons said, speaking of survivalist knowledge for living in the north. “I wasn’t aware of specifics, but I knew the generalities.”
Their research for that first year amounted to what true perfectionists would call prodigious. Their packing list was a hand-written treatise 12-15 feet long on the old computer printing paper that came connected.
“We had departments: one was listing all the items in the medical kit. Another category was weapons and ammunition. Then we had tools and hardware. And clothing for all four seasons, listed,” Irons explains. Every food item was listed out. Every item required.
Irons built a special extra-long trailer for packing most of the goods, including bulk foods like whole bread mixes Aspen had made up, and drove it from their Tucson home up the Alcan to Fairbanks. Jean and Luke flew later to meet him in Fairbanks.
The film shows their preparation and the stages of getting a cabin built quickly before snowfall. They built a picturesque cabin, a smoke house and, later, a spare storage cabin that could be used as shelter in case of a fire.
Each year since that first winter, they have returned, only missing one year in 2005. They moved to Homer in 2006 after another prodigious project seeking their perfect town. Aspen, a nurse in high risk obstetrics, was hired at South Peninsula Hospital, where she continues to work.
Now, after 20 years of filming their expeditions, the couple has created a second, more polished edition of their original film, “Arctic Son,” that was produced three years ago. The help of local filmmaker Brian George Smith at both stages of these productions, prepared it for broad distribution, including PBS.
Smith started with 90 hours of tape. “By the time I received the project for finishing, it was a very long six-and-a-half hour cut,” Smith said. “From that we pulled a still long 2:43 version in 2009, and have just recently parred Arctic Son down to slightly under two hours.”
Given today’s saturation of reality TV, Smith said audiences will be enamored with this family’s honest and authentic experience in the wilderness, “living by their ingenuity and by their wits.”
The film contains several layers – the Arctic Daughter’s story told by Aspen, the family story as they together live out a remarkable journey logging a home for themselves in the wilderness. And the story of an Arctic son, who lives the majority of his life shaped by Kernwood and Chandalar wilderness.
It is a story whose ending won’t be spoiled in a news account, but be forewarned – viewers will love this family before the end of the film. Their sorrows and happiness will be carried home with you, along with ideas for how to follow your own dreams.
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