By Neil Fisher, Vancouver Aquarium videographer and photographer
Gjoa Haven, also known as Uqsuqtuuq (meaning “place of plenty blubber”), is situated on the southeast coast of King William Island, Nunavut. In 1903, while transiting the Northwest Passage, famed Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen wintered in Gjoa Haven, which he called “the finest little harbor in the world.” Gjoa Haven got its English name from Amundsen’s ship the Gjoa.
Last month, I travelled to Gjoa Haven with Eric Solomon, Vancouver Aquarium’s director of Arctic programs. We accompanied scientists from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and representatives of the Canadian Rangers on a unique data-gathering initiative known as the Canadian Rangers Ocean Watch program (CROW).
Here are a few photos that I captured along the way.
A snow-built inukshuk stands against the night sky as the aurora borealis, or northern lights, dance kilometres above. Gjoa Haven, Nunavut is far enough north that the auroras appear in the southern sky instead of the northern sky.
The LCD, or liquid crystal display, of the video camera freezes in -40°C weather. Cables become brittle and snap easily. Touching metal lenses and camera bodies is reminiscent of licking a flagpole.
A few local dogs from across the bay arrive to investigate our amassing sleds. They quickly make a chew toy out of a caribou fur in one sled and then turn their attention to a scary, black clicking box being pointed at them (my camera).
A CTD measures and records the conductivity, temperature, and depth of the water. Bill Williams, a Fisheries and Oceans Canada scientist, then interprets the data collected by the CTD. He is accompanied by Canadian Rangers (members of the Canadian Forces) who know the land well. They’re learning how to deploy a CTD so they can help gather scientific data on their patrols. They’re working together to determine important factors that affect productivity in these waters.
It’s easy to forget that the Arctic is pretty much a desert. In places, grass pokes through the snow, showing how animals like muskox and caribou are able to survive in such an unforgiving environment.
The inside of this igloo is essentially a classroom for traditional knowledge. Throughout the Arctic, treasured traditional knowledge is disappearing as community elders pass on. Younger generations are growing up with technologies non-existent 60 years ago, and they lack the traditional knowledge needed to understand and survive on the land. Obtaining three stars and all the golden eggs in Angry Birds isn’t going to teach you where the ice is thin or how to hunt seal and put food on your table.
The sun beating down… The sky so blue that Home Depot couldn’t colour-match it… It can all be rather deceiving. It’s so cold that the moisture between your eyelids becomes a glue, often resulting in awkward temporary blindness.
The wind is strong enough to take a temperature of -36°C and make it -50°C. It pushes snow across ice and rolling plains, creating huge snowdrifts. It takes snow that’s typically smooth and flat, and sculpts it, creating mind-blowing patterns and unimaginable textures. Walking across the ice is like watching clouds blow by. The snow comes alive with images of whales, trees, and cars that seem to be drawn in the snow by a talented artist – the wind.
After arriving home and visiting my parents, I discovered my father had printed this photo in black and white in an attempt to recreate a similar photo of the explorer Roald Amundsen. In the early 1900s, Amundsen wintered on King William Island while crossing the Northwest Passage and was taught valuable Arctic survival skills by the Nattilik people. Ultimately, these skills helped him become the first person to reach the South Pole.
Water and oil, for heating and cooking, arrive at these homes by truck. Sewage is also taken away by truck. The thing that impressed me most in Gjoa Haven was the recycling. Throughout the Arctic, the cost to transport anything south is astronomical, and as such, garbage dumps grow bigger by the day. However, in Gjoa Haven, there is a visible effort to recycle – bins for pop cans are commonplace in the local schools, hotels and co-ops.
What good is a car going to be in a town of just over a thousand people, situated on a very rugged island? ATVs and snowmobiles are the primary modes of transportation. They cost less and can go places that cars can’t.
This year’s ice is thinner than normal because a windy autumn kept the water and early forming ice moving. Though at roughly 160 cm, it still took some effort to drill through. The thicker the snow cover, the thinner the ice, as the snow provides the ice insulation from the cold air, causing it to freeze more slowly.
The noise is something truly unforgettable. The sounds made while walking across the snow and ice could be mistaken for a Halloween haunted house soundtrack. Dropping a hydrophone (underwater microphone) through our drilled hole in the ice provides an “ear to the underwater world” – letting us hear the sharp cracks from breaking ice.
Snowmobiles don’t grown on trees, and even if they did, there aren’t any trees here anyway. If you want one, there are a few snowmobiles for sale outside the Co-op, but other than that, you’d have to plan a year in advance. The Sea Lift, or cargo barge, arrives once a year to deliver large freight containers that carry everything from snowmobiles to corn flakes.
Photo credit for all photos in this post: Neil Fisher/Vancouver Aquarium.