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Alaska documentary chronicles one family's remote cabin adventure

Dermot Cole
Jean Aspen and Tom Irons spent 14 months in the Brooks Range with their son, Lucas, when he was 6. From 90 hours of videotape, they released a documentary nearly two decades later, showing the life they lived. Courtesy of Jean Aspen

FAIRBANKS -- Jean Aspen and her husband, Tom Irons, who divide their time between Homer and the Brooks Range, created a documentary about a solitary life in the wilds of Alaska that differs from a lot of Alaska reality TV in one key way: It's real. 

Stopping in Fairbanks recently before heading to their cabin for the summer on the Chandalar River, Aspen and Irons showed their film, “Arctic Son: Fulfilling the Dream” to a full house in the auditorium at the Murie Building on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus.

What the film lacks in contrived controversy and overheated narration, it compensates for with a genuine portrayal of life in Alaska, unplugged. In 1992, they spent a summer building a cabin and stayed more than a year on that first trip, helped by their 6-year-old son, Luke.

The child is the life and blood of the movie, whether he is displaying his mastery of cribbage, dispensing philosophy or playing with a toy car. Irons said he fed Luke only one line to say on camera. As they neared the Yukon River Bridge, returning to civilization in their canoe, Luke announced that the bridge was in sight. The rest was all Luke. 

He expressed his appreciation for his dog, saying “She’s like a sister for me,” and celebrated when the family used up the last of its oatmeal, promising to never eat it again. He could hardly contain his enthusiasm after catching his first fish, or learning to read and write, with help from "Calvin and Hobbes." Luke wasn’t afraid to admit he was lonely at times or frustrated because no one would listen to him.

In addition to Luke and his parents, the Chandalar crew included a third adult, Laurie Schacht, whose presence made Jean and Tom feel safer about taking their son into the wild, in case one of them got injured. The group made every effort to capture the details of that time on camera, from hauling water out of the river to hunting.

“It was as much work as building the log cabin,” Irons said of their work on the film. “You can imagine, three adults and a child building a log cabin in one summer and at the same time, recording 90 hours of footage.”

They spent $12,500 in 1992 on camera equipment and taught themselves how to use it, inspired perhaps by the example of Aspen’s parents, Connie and Bud Helmericks. The Helmerickses had come to Alaska on their honeymoon in the 1940s, traveled by canoe, lived in cabins and recorded their experiences in documentaries and books including "We Live In Alaska," "Our Alaskan Winter" and others.

At 14, Aspen joined her mother and her 12-year-old sister on a 3,000-mile canoe trip on the Peace River and Mackenzie River systems, a trip recounted by her mother in “Down the Wild River North.”

Aspen grew up to become a nurse, artist and writer. She wrote "Arctic Daughter: A Wilderness Journey" about one of her first trips to the Brooks Range and in 1995 followed with  "Arctic Son," an account of the adventure with Tom, Luke and Laurie. 

The documentary that she and Irons envisioned more than 20 years ago remained a work in progress, but they pursued it. They finished in 2012.

All these years later, the film of their time on the Chandalar remains timely and moving, a personal portrait that records the passage of the seasons, the shifting sunlight, as well as the struggle to get a cabin finished and the challenge of life in close quarters. It is something like a home movie, but one with an interest for a general audience.

They peeled and lifted hundreds of logs, stuffed the cracks with moss and fashioned wooden pegs. Irons proved to be a master of improvisation, but he said the one modern tool he insisted on bringing was a chainsaw.

Preparing for the journey

At the Fairbanks showing, an audience member mentioned how prepared Aspen and Irons seemed for the tasks they undertook, adding that wilderness travelers who fail to prepare have become far more famous in Alaska.

“We live in a society that really likes to focus on the sensational,” Aspen said. “One of the reasons why Tom and I took 20 years to produce our documentary was we paid for it and did it ourselves, rather than turn it over to someone who wanted to make it into something that we wouldn’t feel happy about."

Irons said that everything in the movie, from their interactions with each other to the close encounter he had with a bear, was “as honest and as forthright as we could make it.”

Aspen said they lived on good will and shopped at Goodwill Industries.

"We really believe that money is a tool, that living your dreams is where it's at. Choose what draws your heart and then find a way to do it. That's our basic message to people," she said. "Life is short, as you can see, shorter often than you expect it to be."

Their movie has an unhurried pace, though there are moments of real suspense -- the race against winter to close in the cabin and their fear that a bush pilot who was weeks overdue on a supply flight had crashed.

The film has now appeared on public television stations in 24 states, with more to come. The film does have some repetition, though it's easy to understand why the people who lived the adventure thought that cutting 90 hours of footage to two-and-a-half hours was enough.

Aspen said one of the ironies of the situation is that she and Tom don’t have a TV, so while they have heard of the Alaska-themed TV shows, they’ve never seen one. And none of the Alaska TV shows has a character as lively as Luke Irons, who wielded an axe, a drill and a saw on the cabin.

As a teenager, Luke said he had lasting memories of that time in the woods and returned with his parents at age 14 for another long visit.

"I feel that it defines me,” he said as a young adult  about his time on the Chandalar.  “It’s given me gifts that nothing else could replace.”

Luke suffered from various health problems and in 2012, a month before what would have been his 26th birthday, he died in his sleep. His parents said he had lived a complete life and was loved.

In the trailer for their film, they included a 1993 scene in which Irons, just before leaving their cabin to head toward the Yukon River in their canoe, reflected on what the cabin and its surroundings had come to mean to them.

“I think we have too much of ourselves invested in this home to leave it forever and it will be here calling us,” Irons said shortly before pushing off at the end of their 14-month stay.

“I feel the same way,” said Luke, who leaned in from the side and kissed his father.