The Arctic Ocean in March is basically an ocean of ice. Almost the entire thing is covered from October to June in an icepack that only partially disappears in the summer and is still very solid in March.
Why would anyone in their right mind volunteer to spend a month to a month in a half in temperatures that usually don’t exceed -10 degrees Fahrenheit or -23 degrees Celsius? In the case of the roughly two dozen souls who work either for the British, Canadian and United States Navy or the Arctic Physics Laboratory Ice Station, it is because there is work to be done.
And the first piece of work is to physically build the camp. To do this, firstly a piece of “multi-year” ice must be found, that means that it is thick enough (theoretically) that it won’t split in half and will support the weight of a camp while having enough room for an airplane runway and helicopter landing pad. Next, these folks need to load an antique airplane with enough plywood and nails to build a half a dozen un-insulated boxes to live in, this usually takes about 3 days as the workers must fly back to their base at Prudhoe Bay each evening to avoid the -30 to -50 degree temperatures until they build enough shelters to house them all.
Over the course of roughly a week the camp actually morphs into something of an oasis of civility surrounded by an ocean of ice that is continuously floating around on the Arctic Ocean as it is driven by the prevailing wind of the day. The huts are heated by jet fuel and become quite cozy while a large tent is erected for cooking and eating. All this to support a command center that communicates with two nuclear submarines below the ice. The camp is a support base for the U.S. Navy and exists to understand how best submarines, sonar systems, and underwater communications can work in such a harsh environment.
We were approached by Navy and research center to come up and do a story about this camp and the work they do with U.S. Navy submarines. When I was asked if this was something I would be interested in, I of course said yes. Who wouldn’t like to go to the Arctic, sleep in a plywood hutch, and go underneath the ice in a nuclear submarine? Thus began the mad rush to prepare for a trip into some of the most extreme conditions I have ever worked in. It was a rush to organize all of the base layers, fleece layers, wool socks, jackets, insulated pants, and other assorted necessaries before sitting down to pack the equipment I would need. Camera-wise I wanted to be prepared for anything; from wide angle images of the ice-pack to photographing a polar bear from a comfortable distance (in the off-chance that I actually saw one, they are rare to see this time of year.) I sat down and assembled the kit into my backpack, including three cameras, five lenses and assorted batteries, memory cards and chargers.