Warm weather is rare in Nunavut, Canada; the land is fiercely hostile, and desolately remote. Nestled among this icy wilderness lies the fifth largest island in the world: Baffin Island. The island is one of the coldest and the most remote destinations on Earth.
Baffin Island is located between the mainland of Canada, and Greenland. It has a population of ~11,000. The islands’ topography is riddled with an exceptional backbone of jagged peaks measuring up to 2,147 meters (~7044 feet) in height. Many of the mountains are snow-capped all year round with ancient glaciers, while the rest of the landscape is home to deep valleys, massive fjords, and arctic wildlife of all kinds. With 75% of Canadians living within 200 kilometers (124 miles) of the US border, it’s no surprise that the general population in Canada doesn’t know much about its own northern regions: After all, it is the second largest country on Earth.
Jon Golden has great respect for these remote environments, especially during the winter season. When in an isolated and brutal environment nearly 100 kilometers (61 miles) away from any form of civilization, it is critical to be as prepared and respectful as possible. Jon has already taken three trips to the Arctic in Canada, visiting places like Baffin Island, Nunavik, and Northwest Territories. On one return trip, after hearing he had been on six jet flights to get to Toronto, an airport employee asked Jon where he was traveling from. When he responded, “Norman Wells,” she promptly replied, “where is that”?
“If you’re not fully prepared for the Arctic, you’re a liability… and not just to yourself but to your team, to the locals, and the Canadian Parks Services, too. There’s not a lot of margin for error up there”
Golden has created an extremely dynamic lifestyle for himself in the 25 years he has been a professional photographer. While living in Norway, he managed to barter his way onto a Norwegian military winter survival course (in exchange for photos). The course was to become an integral piece to the puzzle for his preparedness in the Arctic.
What are some tips or advice you might have for someone looking to get into photographing subjects in extreme cold temperatures like the Arctic?
For me, as someone that grew up in Virginia, USA, much more southern than Canada, I had zero experience with the kinds of cold that you experience in the Arctic. I would also venture to say that most Canadians also do not have experience with the kind of conditions you get in the Arctic. When I was living in Norway, I was fortunate enough to take a Norwegian Military winter survival course, and learn the basics of extreme cold weather survival… things that most Canadians might learn growing up, if they go north at all. The most important advice I would have would be to get some experience in extreme conditions: Arctic cold is NOT the same as normal winter cold. Go out and car/truck camp in conditions that are -35°C and windy. Test yourself, test your gear and have the car or a cabin nearby. Read up on or take a course on Arctic survival. Like Scuba Diving, you have to be 100% comfortable in your environment to be able to work at a high level. Preparation is everything when visiting sub-zero temperatures.
How did you end up photographing in these extreme environments?
I started getting involved with extreme environments when I met Ray Zahab (a Fellow of The Royal Geographical Society and the Founder of Impossible2Possible). All things extreme in my world, more less come back to Ray.
What are some of your biggest challenges when trying to “get the shot” in these Arctic environments?
Cold is the obvious one, it makes everything more difficult or more time consuming… anything metal must be handled in gloves… you cannot just sit around. If you do stop moving you need to be in a sleeping bag, you need to plot and plan your bathroom routine, you need to make your meal preparation is as easy as possible. The cold determines everything that you do and how you do it, so it’s critical that you pay attention to every detail, and address every problem before it becomes a problem. Everything that I do, I do intentionally to combat the elements. I pack my camera batteries in the chest pockets of my first layer. I pack my snacks for the day in my parka pockets, accessible even on the back of a snowmobile. To keep everything warm while sleeping, I put my batteries in a pouch that I keep with me in the sleeping bag. My sleeping bag provides insulation for me and my batteries, while my parka protects the cameras. Every single consideration is taken, and if it’s not, you risk missing your few opportunities to create an image. There aren’t many opportunities to capture the expedition athletes in action, as I have limited access to them. When I do have access to them, the conditions don’t always cooperate, so you have to make those rare opportunities count.
You’ve spent a lot of time in some of the harshest places on Earth, and you can only be so prepared, there are often factors completely outside of you control and elements you can’t totally prepare for, have you ever had a “close call”?
I have had the snowmobile roll on its side, a couple times, while I rode it, fortunately into snow. This is one reason you have to pack your cameras for riding: so that when something like this happens, they don’t get broken or beat you up.
On the second expedition, my Inuk guide, Billy, and I, plus one more Inuk (they always travel with 2 snowmobiles) left the team on Day 3 to go back to Pangnirtung. We rode all day in increasingly worse weather, and when we left the Auyuittuq National Park (~5pm) we drove straight into whiteout conditions. We bounced around (sort of lost) for 4 hours in wind that Billy said was gusting up to 100mph/160kph. At least one gust moved me and the snowmobile ½ m (2 ft) sideways with me while sitting on it!
When we stopped at one point and I told him since it was 9pm, I felt we should either make a snow shelter, or I could press the OK button on my Spot device, call his wife on the SAT Phone and ask her to tell us where we were. She would be able to look up our location on my website, which has a the GPS location from the Spot.
I was hungry (we had not had much lunch or any dinner, snacking on macadamia nuts [high in calories/won’t freeze]), and tired from sitting on a snowmobile for 12 hours, at this point, BUT I was warm, and generally not uncomfortable, and I was with Billy. Billy was born in an igloo, and naturally, he has forgotten more about these conditions than I could ever learn…
Billy had left his GPS at home, as he felt it was unnecessary to drive to “Pang” (I would agree with him 100% of the time, except for whiteout conditions).
Anyway, he used his experience and knowledge of the fjord and of the Parks rescue hut system and we eventually got into a hut. (We went to “Pang” the next morning.)
Close calls are always a possibility in the Arctic, and you can never take anything for granted. You just have plan and be prepared as much as possible for the contingencies and then react to the situations as they happen… But being prepared means most importantly not panicking.
The Gear Jon Uses on Expedition
What camera gear do you use and why?
Cameras are tools, I try to use the best tools for the job. I currently use Canon 5D4, but have dabbled with Sony. They loaned me a camera (R7II & 24-70 2.8) for the last expedition, and when it was working it was great, but it had huge issues with batteries (which was a known issue for this camera in normal conditions).
The biggest problem was when the batteries died, the camera did a factory reset. Considering what you must do to get it back up to speed, I neither had the time nor the ability in gloves to fool with it during the day. When the batteries died, it got packed away, out of service, until I could deal with it. The Canon just wants new batteries and is back in business. A couple times, I have noticed my 16-35mm would not autofocus when it got super cold… I think the grease got cold. I think Nikons are even better in the cold based on observation of Billy’s camera – I think their batteries handle cold better.
You also need to visit all the settings and turn off LCD screens (they will turn black anyway from cold) and set the power settings to be as minimal as possible to save energy. You also need to figure out how to carry the gear on a snowmobile so to be quickly accessible, but not loose.
If you could only manage to bring one camera and one lens, or were recommending photography in harsh conditions to someone is just starting out, what would you use/recommend?
I would recommend going with a solid camera body like the Canon 5D4 and then picking a dynamic lens like the 24/70mm or 24/105mm. I normally carry two lenses, on 2 bodies: a 16-35mm and a 70-200mm and then I would leave the 24/70mm or 24/105mm at home. This is because you can typically use your other lenses to cover that focal range by “zooming” with your feet and working a little harder. If you can only mange one lens, you don’t have that option, and it’s an important and dynamic focal coverage to have.
How might you pack differently for an arctic shoot versus a typical shoot elsewhere?
You need to plan your battery situation. Since we typically have no recharge capability, you need to have enough batteries to cover your time in the field. You also need to plan for fully charged batteries to only be at 50% because of degradation of cold.
What are some items you’ve found to be invaluable specific to shooting in the arctic?
The clothing you need for Arctic specific protection is invaluable. Gloves are the most critical. I use Heat3 Gloves, which I’ve found after trying 4 different kinds of gloves on previous expeditions. None of those gloves that worked properly like Heat3 Gloves. The conundrum is you need enough insulation to keep your hands warm when handling the cameras, which may have cooled down to -30C, but still being able to have tactile control of the buttons. Heat3 Gloves give you both. But, while the Heat3 Gloves are great for shooting with, in super cold situations they were not warm enough for long runs on the snow mobile. This brand does have a new outer layer I can add that might correct this. I will try this next time. Previously, I swapped my right hand for a thicker mitten. My left hand was already in the thicker mitten as I really do not need it for anything. A few more key pieces of gear included in my arsenal are Rudy Project goggles, and Fenix flashlights, and the Spot device, which is an emergency EPIRB.
All photos by Jon Golden and used with permission.