Photo Essay

On top of the world

On top of the world

I've always wanted to be on top of the world. And I don't mean metaphorically, I mean literally. I wanted to travel to a place where I was standing on top of the planet. There are several ways to know you are there, but in short, you should be able to stand and see the sun go all the way around you in the horizon and come back to the same point. That means a 24 hour day, which if you think about it, should happen on the June solstice. Anyway, that's exactly what the Arctic Circle is. According to wikipedia "The Arctic Circle is the southernmost latitude in the Northern Hemisphere at which the sun can remain continuously above or below the horizon for 24 hours (at the June solstice and December solstice respectively)."

That dream came true not too long ago. I had the chance to go to Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, Canada. Here's what happened:

Before the trip.

I have the fortune to travel a lot, but this was definitely a trip I wasn't ready for. With temperatures under -50C, I had to get winter boots and a better jacket (I had good snow pants already and some thermal base layers). I did some research, and the 2 top options for jackets (parkas) were Canada Goose and The North Face. First thing I had to understand was the fill power, or "insulation" to make it simple. It's measured in cm³/g, but I'm not going to get in too much detail about it. Only to tell you that Canada Goose has several models, it's made in Canada and it's fill power is 625 cm³/g. They are the preferred parka for the arctic; However, they retail for more than $700 CAD. So, the other option is The North Face, which doesn't have as much selection for this purpose, but it has one parka that competes with Canada Goose, the Vostok. With 700 cm³/g retails for $500 CAD. So, despite the fact that I would've loved to own a Canada Goose parka, the North Face's Vostok was definitely the way to go.

I also bought winter boots. A lot less choices available in the city. Different suppliers will rate them at different temperatures, but the ones that I found to be the best were the Baffin Endurance, rated for -100C. On top of boots and parka, I took with me a couple of thermal base layers, wool socks, a fleece as mid layer, goggles, a full face mask, liners, mitts and of course my camera with a couple of lenses to cover from 20-200mm. If you think about it, there's no "travel light" for the Arctic.

Feb 10, 2013.

Early flight to Yellowknife, North West Territories. A beautiful sunrise to start the adventure.

Once in Yellowknife, the weather wasn't that good. Overcast with strong winds and blowing snow made visibility limited. Still, we took off on time towards Cambridge Bay.

As we made our final approach, the clouds and the snowed in the ground blended to make it really difficult to see anything. There was no sense of altitude or distance, there was no horizon. We touched ground and you can barely see the difference between ground and sky.

Once settled in my hotel, I grabbed my camera and headed out. I wanted to see the town first, and find out how I was going to make my way to photograph some wild life. Being Sunday, the visitor centre was closed. They told me about another place where I could get a guide, Outfitters, but it was closed too. So I just walked around town and took some photos.

Feb 11, 2013.

The sky opened up and we could see some blue. After seeing white everywhere, this is quite a nice thing to see. I stayed at the Arctic Islands Lodge (Inns North). And I have to say, the service was one of the best parts. All the staff were really nice and approachable. I would totally recommend staying here. Plus they have the only restaurant in town.

I went to the visitor centre to try one more time, but again, it was closed. So I headed back to Outfitters and found a guide that would take me the day after to look for wildlife. Now, it's only a matter of waiting. So I went to take some more photos in town. I went to the Co-Op store, which sells everything from food to stationary, tools and parkas, but everything is a lot more expensive. Easy to understand when you think about it. Getting stuff here is not as simple. I paid $40 for an ok dinner that day.

The temperature was about -48C with windchill. I saw all the locals walking around with no masks, so originally I tried it, but my cheeks started to freeze in less than a block, so I decided to wear the mask.

Feb 12, 2013.

Finally, I had the chance to go out of town to look for wildlife to photograph. I grabbed my camera, a long lens, bundled up with all my winter clothes and headed out in this sled pulled by an skidoo. The temperature was -55C with windchill in town. Going north, with wind, on a topless sled, I'm pretty sure the temperature dropped to around -70C or less. We also needed to de-fog the goggles from time to time. The skidoo has an opening to the engine where you can place them and they will warm up.

The first stop was at a true Canadian inukshuk, around 5 km north of town.

George was my guide. He was attacked by a grizzly bear and even though he still has both eyes, he has to wear a patch on one of them. He's a hunter. He made his mitts with the fur of a wolf that he hunted. He sells them for $300 if you are interested, and of course they are really warm.

After we stopped at the inukshuk, we traveled another 20 km north. At the beginning, I was expecting the landscape to change, but all you can see is ice and snow. At the distance... a hill, and pass that, more ice, for as far as you can see. Anyway, apparently there are muskox and wolf around, but we couldn't find any. On our next stop, I tried to take some photos, but the camera was frozen. Let me say that it was inside my backpack, covered with a neck warmer and at the bottom of the sled. It made no difference.

Being 25 km north of town, with only one more person, under -55C and all you can see is ice, really makes you understand how small we are. So, if you are planning to go, be prepared. The Arctic doesn't forgive any mistakes.

So we decided to come back to town. We went to the hotel to let the camera unfreeze and then came out again to take some more photos. Including an igloo! I'm pretty sure it was there only for show, but it was real after all.

Feb 13, 2013.

Last day in the arctic. Temperature was still -55C. But I wanted to take a couple of shots of the arctic sea before coming back.

On the way back, the first stop was Kugluktuk, then Yellowknife and then Edmonton.

There are 2 airlines that fly to these places, Canadian North and First Air. The front half of the planes is for cargo, and the back for passengers. Canadian North travels to the bigger airports, and First Air also goes to the smaller communities.

It was a great experience after all. Another check mark on my bucket list.

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