For most of her adult life, writer and filmmaker Jean Aspen has been recording her experiences in remote Alaska as well as in the more settled world. It’s a long habit she came to as the daughter of Arctic adventurers Constance and Harmon “Bud” Helmericks.
“I documented my whole life,” Aspen, 67, said in a phone interview last Thursday. “I put a good deal of time and attention in getting good pictures.”
Next month, the latest film installment of Aspen’s life, “Arctic Daughter: A Lifetime of Wilderness,” premieres at the Anchorage International Film Festival (AIFF) with a showing from noon-1:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 10, at the Alaska Experience Theatre.
Made with her husband, Tom Irons, and edited by Homer filmmaker Brian George Smith, “Arctic Daughter” follows their earlier “Arctic Son: Fulfilling the Dream,” first shown in 2010 at the Homer Theatre. Lindianne Sarno wrote some of the original score for the new film. It’s the second in a planned trilogy of films that will culminate with “Rewilding Kernwood,” about the final phase in the Aspen-Irons family’s life at Kernwood, a remote cabin on the Chandalar River in the Brooks Range.
The Anchorage premiere marks a first for the production team: a showing at the state’s biggest film festival. The 17th annual festival runs Dec. 1-10, with showings of 130 films from Alaska and around the world. “Arctic Daughter” is part of the Made in Alaska series, and the team had to compete with other films to be chosen.
“We are very proud of our film festival, having chosen countless films that will challenge, endear and entertain audiences with their style and depth,” said festival director Rebecca Pottebaum in a press release.
For more information on the festival, visit www.anchoragefilmfestival.org.
Aspen’s chronicle of her Arctic years first came out in book form, also titled “Arctic Daughter,” first published in 1988, about Aspen’s years in the wilderness from 1972-77 with her first husband, Phil Beisel. Aspen came back to the Arctic in 1992 with her second husband, Irons, and their then young son, Lucas, and a friend, Laurie Schacht. Lucas Irons died unexpectedly at age 25 in 2012. Another memoir by Aspen, “Trusting the River” (Epicenter Press, 2016), takes her story further. “Arctic Daughter,” the movie, includes some of the material from both books.
“It’s really the whole story of my life,” Aspen said. “It brings in ‘Arctic Son’ to some degree, building Kernwood, Luke’s death. … This probably follows the script of ‘Arctic Daughter’ for 40 minutes and then wanders off into ‘Trusting the River.’”
Aspen’s life story starts with her first two years in the wilderness living with her parents. 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 is working with the University of Alaska Fairbanks to archive her parents’ films and photos. Epicenter Press also will be republishing five of her parents’ books.
Aspen grew up in the Arctic, traveling by dog sled, canoe and kayak. She also went on the lecture circuit with her parents. After living Outside for several decades, Aspen came back to Alaska, settling in Homer, where she works as a part-time nurse at South Peninsula Hospital.
“Arctic Daughter” pulls together still and film footage from the Aspen-Irons archives — even images from her parents’ collection. Aspen credits Irons and Smith as major collaborators and others as contributors.
“I’m standing on the shoulders of other people,” she said. “My parents did a great deal in the ’40s and ’50s. … I would not be who I am without it.”
Aspen said she sees the film as not only a memoir.
“It’s less about me, wonderful me and all the great things I’ve done,” she said. “Tom and I are working to leave something for the next generation, to say ‘This is how people lived.’”
Like Henry David Thoreau, the family chose to live deliberately in the wilderness, but 600 miles from the nearest road and not a short horse ride to Concord, Massachusetts, as Thoreau did at Walden Pond.
“It’s quite miraculous how life opens to you when you’re open to it,” she said. “Just living in silence and respect — it opens layers and layers and depth in the landscape.”
They’ve wintered over at Kernwood but more recently have spent summers and part of the fall there.
“Our purpose is to share experiences. I feel like I have been gifted over my long lifetime with an amazing portion of beauty and space and wonder,” she said. “I feel like now is the time in my life to share that with people who may never step off the pavement and wonder why they may never feel happy.”
Aspens and Irons began filming in 1992 with Hi8 video cassette film equipment, and switched to a high definition or HD digital camera in 2012. That meant lugging around heavy cameras and tripods in remote wilderness, where the sound of the river fills much of the background.
“So technically it’s challenging, our equipment is heavy and we’re old,” Aspen said. “It’s not an easy gig.”
Aspen credits Irons, her partner for 36 years and husband for 34 years, with much of the work.
“Anytime you see me on film it’s Tom (shooting). Tom is humble and modest,” she said. “He tends to step in the background and stay quiet. He doesn’t look for the limelight. He has been an amazing partner.”
Irons logged all the video and scanned thousands of slides and negatives.
“I couldn’t do what I do without Tom and neither one of us could create this movie without Brian,” Aspen said.
Aspen and Irons’ next film continues their journey but also closes it. Aspen and Irons chose to dismantle their cabin for fear it would be turned into a trashed-out hunting camp. As they got older, the couple realized it would be hard to continue to live in the wilderness and also be fit enough to take apart their treasured log cabins and outbuildings.
“We have lived with a lot of consciousness in our buildings,” Aspen said. “We never had trash. We never had old snowmachines. Anything that wouldn’t have burned in the stove we’ve brought out.”
For the past few summers they’ve been taking Kernwood apart, pulling nails, ripping out flashing, and burning or setting adrift in the river logs. What couldn’t rot they’ve hauled back to civilization. Where the main cabin once stood they planted sod. They’re now down to a small 7-foot-by-10-foot log shelter. Next summer they make one final trip to Kernwood to finish returning the area to nature.
“When we get done, we’re going to get in our canoe and paddle down to the bridge,” a five-week trip, she said.
“It’s sort of a full-circle thing,” Aspen said of rewilding Kernwood. “I’m interested to see how it evolves. People ask, ‘What’s the script?’ I don’t have a script. It’s life. Life doesn’t have a script.”