Homer Alaska - Arts

Story last updated at 6:55 PM on Wednesday, April 14, 2010

'Arctic Son' shows family's wilderness adventure



Photo provided

Jean Aspen homeschools her son Luke.

First, Jeanie Aspen, Tom Irons and their son Luke Irons lived for 14 months in the arctic with their friend Laurie Schacht, filming more than 90 hours of footage from that time.

Then, Aspen, author of "Arctic Daughter," wrote "Arctic Son," a book about their adventure in a cabin 100 miles from the nearest people on the Chandalar River in the Brooks Range.

Now, after 17 years of trying to get their film produced, with the help of local filmmaker Brian George Smith the husband-and-wife team have finally created the movie they intended to make when they set out into the wilderness in June of 1992.

This Saturday at 6 p.m. at the Homer Theatre, Aspen and Irons show that film, "Arctic Son: Fulfilling the Dream." Admission is a suggested donation of $5, with all proceeds benefiting Hospice of Homer and Homer Animal Friends.

The dream began decades ago when Aspen first went into the Arctic wilderness. "Conceived in the Brooks Range," as Aspen put it, she spent the first two years of her life living in a remote cabin with her parents, Constance and Harmon "Bud" Helmericks. The Helmericks individually and together wrote a bookshelf of Alaskana, including "We Live in Alaska," a 1947 best seller; Constance Helmericks' "Down the Wild River North," and Harmon Helmericks' "The Last of the Bush Pilots."

Aspen, 60, grew up in the Arctic, traveling by dog sled, canoe and kayak. She also went on the lecture circuit with her parents.

"I was born as a prop," Aspen said, joking.

After her parents divorced, Aspen lived in Tucson with her mother, occasionally spending summers with her father in Alaska. She also did adventures with her mother, like canoeing the Peace and MacKenzie rivers when she was 12 and her sister was 14. At 22, Aspen came back to Alaska, the first time she went to the Chandalar River. Out of that time came "Arctic Daughter," published in 1988 and also illustrated by Aspen.


Photo provide

Jean Aspen, Luke Irons, Tom Irons and Laurie Schacht outside the cabin the built during the filming of "Arctic Son."

"Arctic Son" builds on that experience. With their son Luke, then 4, Aspen and Irons went back to the Chandalar. Originally another filmmaker had planned to make a film about the family in the Arctic, but quit after discovering he couldn't handle the wilderness. Aspen and Irons decided to make their own film.

It's a classic wilderness adventure: going into remote Alaska, building a cabin before winter, overwintering and then canoeing 600 miles back to civilization. Schacht came along as a nanny to help care for Luke.

"It's an exploration of life, too," Irons said. "It's family dynamics, a boy growing up."

"In the course of the movie you can see the growth," Aspen said. "He matured into a young sentient being."

It's a film about daily life in a rugged land, too — but not too rugged.

"No one gets eaten by a bear," Aspen said. "No one drowns."

After their adventure, the family went back to Arizona. Aspen wrote and had published her book. Irons and Aspen continued building their thriving art business, making custom stained glass. They shopped their film around, getting nibbles from companies like Disney Films. When that didn't work out, they got help from Aspen's cousin, Bert Cutler Jr., a professor at Scottsdale Community College in Arizona, and his film students. Over the years the students edited over 90 hours of footage into about eight hours of rough draft.

It was in Homer that Aspen and Irons found help in making the film's latest cut — filmmaker and editor Brian George Smith. They had been traveling around the United States looking for a place to settle. The couple spends their summers back on the Chandalar River.

"We have been looking for a place to settle," Aspen said. "Every place we stopped, it was too far from Alaska."

They eventually found Homer, first renting and then buying a modest home in the Forest Glen subdivision. Aspen, a registered nurse, had been a travel nurse. Irons is retired and Aspen works part-time as a nurse at South Peninsula Hospital.

"Homer was welcoming. Homer can be proud of itself," Irons said.

Smith worked about nine months with Aspen and Irons to edit the film.

"I tried not to fix it if it wasn't broken," Smith said. "There were some great scenes and there were some big holes."

"We found Brian and he stepped up. He did some really nice work," Irons said.

All artists in either film, glass or writing, the three of them understood the artistic process, Aspen said.

"None of us were attached to our voices," she said. "Brian said, 'Kill your darlings.'"

Smith also brought an objective view to the project.

"My job as much as anything was to find out what they wanted," Smith said. "I was trying to distill what they liked about it, what the real story was. Was it Jeanie's narrative? Was it a travelogue? They felt the most important thing was their family in the wilderness."

For amateur filmmakers, Smith said Aspen and Irons did a great job filming.

"They went out there with the equivalent of about two weeks of film school and shot this thing," he said. "I was never at a loss for shots. It was an amazing job for total neophytes."

Aspen and Irons said they hope to sell "Arctic Son" to somebody like National Geographic. They also plan to enter the film in documentary film festivals or contests. Aspen is working on another book about her Arctic experiences, "Dance With the River."

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong.@homernews.com.