Photographing in the Canadian Arctic - June 12-22, 2010

"I am sitting on six feet of ice on the Arctic Ocean. To my south and east is Baffin Island. To my west is Bylot Island. And to my north, too far for my eyes to see, is Greenland. Welcome to the Canadian Arctic. Welcome to the ice floe edge."

Journal entry, June 14th, 2010 from 72 kilometres northeast of Pond Inlet, Nunavut

View the entire Canadian Arctic Photo Gallery here

My first trip to the Canadian high arctic was fraught with adventure, joy, and disappointment. We saw polar bears, watched Inuit hunters kill narwhals, marveled at the size of towering icebergs, and kept vigil throughout the day/night at the ice floe edge, waiting...and waiting...and waiting.

Our small group of photographers was comprised of John and Sherrill Knight, friends of mine from Calgary, Alberta, and John Lowman, a friend from Vancouver, all three excellent amateur photographers, along with full-time professional nature photographers Bernd Roemmelt and Florian Schulz, two superb young photographers from Germany working on books on the Arctic region.

Five of us, excluding Florian, met up in Ottawa on June 11th and embarked for Iqaluit and the first leg of our northern journey on the morning of June 12th. For an entry point to the Canadian Arctic, Iqaluit can best be described as being dismal. Flat, boring, and dirty could also be added to the list of adjectives to paint an accurate picture of one of Canada's most troubled locales, where a simple flat of beer (24 beer) costs a whopping $105, yet doesn't seem to quell the town's insatiable thirst for alcohol and drugs.

After a brief tour of the town, we were all glad to leave and continue northward across Baffin Island on a smaller jet bound for Clyde River and Pond Inlet, our final destination by air on the northern coast of the island, some three hours by plane from Iqaluit (from the southeast tip of Baffin Island to the northwest tip is almost the same distance as flying from Vancouver to Toronto!).

We got our first true glimpse of the glory that awaited us on our adventure about 100 kilometres out of Pond Inlet, when the clouds began to melt away beneath the northern sun and John, John, and I suddenly noticed a spectacular glaciated landscape unfolding far below us. Towering snow-capped mountain peaks glistened in the afternoon sun, framing glaciers and frozen lakes that snaked and twirled across our windowed views.

We arrived in Pond Inlet at 8:30 pm under brilliant sunlight, not a cloud in the sky. And while the town itself was not much cleaner than Iqaluit, the setting couldn't have been more magical. Every direction we looked were mountains and snow and ice, exactly what I imagined the arctic would look like.

And so, like good sensible people about to embark on the ice for nine days of 24-hour sunlight on the adventure of our lives, we all went to bed early and got a good night's rest. Or maybe not quite...ha-ha! Bernd spun off in one direction, John and Sherill in another, and John Lowman and I bumped off into the tundra in a rickety old truck we'd borrowed from our guide. By 4 a.m., John and I had completely exhausted ourselves and limped back to the only hotel in town for a quick nap before our final packing and departure onto the ice.

We left Pond Inlet at 2 p.m. on the 13th aboard qamutiks (pronounced 'coma-ticks'), flexible wooden sleds, pulled by snow machines, and at 30 km/hour, fired off down the inlet towards Baffin Bay and our temporary tent camp on the arctic ice floe edge, 72 kilometres distant.

Arrival at the ice edge was a bit of a shock on two counts: one, it was stunningly beautiful, with mountains on our left and right and behind us, and the pack ice and open ocean just 100 feet in front of us. And two, we weren't the only ones there. While I had been warned and had warned the others on the trip that we may see Inuit hunters in action, I hadn't realized they would be camping all around us and that in fact our area was a bit of a tent city, full of tourists and hunters alike, with more than 25 people along the ice floe edge.

That first evening we were treated to our first sights of narwhals and their unique unicorn-like tusks, as well as to a host of seabirds, including common murres, northern fulmars, snow geese, common eiders, king eiders, and glaucous gulls.

For the next eight days, we settled into northern camp life on the ice floe edge under a variety of weather conditions, with 'night' trips in search of icebergs and polar bears, and late, late nights spent waiting for narwhals to appear at the ice edge. We had brilliant sunshine for the first four days/nights, then a cold, damp fog settled in that didn't lift until an hour before we left four days later! Even though average temperatures for those final four days weren't much below zero celsius, we all slowly began to get colder and colder as our gear got damper and damper and as our bodies slowly cooled from sitting outside and travelling in the qamutiks. I think everyone was VERY happy to see the sun on our final day for the long trip out.

In total we travelled about 600 kilometres on snow machines with our qamutiks both to and from camp and in search of bears and new terrain. We also hiked around a fair bit in our bulky parkas carting our gear along with us in search of great landscape images and on the occasional 'sneak' on a polar bear in an attempt to get closer to it.

The trip was a raging success in two of three categories: landscape photography and a plain ol' adventure. It doesn't get much better than photographing icebergs with mountains behind them at midnight in the sunshine on the arctic ice. It was truly a spectacle that will stay with me the rest of my life.

Similarly, as far as adventure goes, other than climbing Everest or doing a solo backpack for a month, this rated right up there with anything I had ever done (neither of which includes Everest OR backpacking for a month!). Bombing out onto the arctic ice with an Inuit guide and then stalking polar bears on foot is again, about as good as it gets in my book.

Where the trip did let me down, though, was in the wildlife photography. You could literally see the potential there, for there were indeed lots of polar bears (see below and in the Canadian Arctic Photo Gallery I put together) and lots of narwhals and there certainly must have once been lots of arctic fox and so on at one time.

But the Inuit culture is vastly different from our own, and they tend to shoot everything in sight, edible or not. So there are vast stretches of the arctic, particularly surrounding towns, almost completely devoid of wildlife, as they've shot it all.

This makes wildlife photography in these areas particularly difficult. It's extremely hard to sneak up on a polar bear that gets hunted ruthlessly from October to May by snow machines and high-powered long-range rifles. So for most of our bear photography, we were too far away to get useable shots.

And it's almost impossible to photograph narwhals when each time they come up to breath they are shot at, whether or not it's a good opportunity for a kill. In total, we witnessed at least 9 narwhals get shot, yet just 2 were recovered. The other 7 were injured or killed, never to be recovered (National Geographic photographer and writer Paul Nicklen, a friend of mine, covered this story in depth in the August 2007 issue of National Geographic).

It was a complete shock to see how this hunter-gatherer society had such a lack of respect for nature in general, at least from the viewpoint of someone like myself that values wildlife as more than just a food source. Every time we came to land, we constantly found carcasses of birds and foxes laying about -- uneaten and untouched -- obviously target practice for someone. And the Inuit towns are littered with garbage. It's everywhere you look, even though in Pond Inlet there is a garbage dump just three kilometres away. I think for myself, it deromanticized the notion that the Inuit had lived for thousands of years in harmony with nature. The harsh reality of it is that, just like us southerners, when given the opportunity, they rape and pillage the environment just as we do elsewhere in Canada, just in a different way.

I was also shocked how little respect was shown for visitors to the north. On one occasion, three hunters entered our camp and came up beside me and shot the whale we were trying to photograph. Needless to say, the intelligent whales were soon figuring out to stay away from our area of the ice edge and we went days without even seeing narwhals.

It was an eye-opening experience and immediately cast into doubt, in my mind, the Inuit's recent calls to government to expand the polar bear hunt in Baffin Bay due to their own personal accounts that there are more bears than ever.

So all in all, it was a grand adventure and a spectacular landscape photography trip, but a very tough and frustrating wildlife photography experience.

Would I go back? Yes and no. If I knew that things were going to be different and we were going to be afforded some room on the ice floe edge to do our photography and if I knew the guides were not going to be Inuit hunters, but rather actual guides skilled at finding and viewing wildlife, then yes, I would go back in a heartbeat. But otherwise, I can't say that I would.

View the entire Canadian Arctic Photo Gallery here

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