An arctic adventure
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.
I managed to cram all of this into one daypack, one larger backpack, and a carrying case for the 500mm so that I only had to check one bag and all of my equipment would be carry-on so if anything was lost en-route I would still be able to work. The plan was for a reporter and I to fly to Prudhoe Bay on the northern coast of Alaska, meet up with the people who deal with the logistics for this operation then fly on a small plane to the camp itself which is located about 100 miles north of Prudhoe Bay. When meeting the logistics folks we were given our “Arctic Gear” which consisted of large insulated bib pants, massive jackets with fur lined hoods, heavily insulated boots, more wool socks, another base layer, more fleece layers, gloves, glove liners, and oodles of hand warmers and toe warmers.
On the flight to the camp I was amazed how there can be nothing for hundreds and hundreds of miles but sheets of ice only rarely punctuated by cracks where seawater can be seen steaming through into the frigid air. The only thing that broke up the monotone landscape was the camp and as we approached I saw for the first time the small collection of wooden huts and a couple of tents that this band of souls were calling home for a little over a month. I had entered another world. I have spent a lot of time in the snow and in cold weather but little had prepared me for this place.
Flat and white, the ice stretched out in every direction as far as the eye can see, the camp was as foreign to me as anything I have ever seen. It was difficult for me to process what to even photograph and how to get images that even began to show what life was like here. I couldn’t seem to fit the immenseness of the place into my camera’s frame no matter how hard I tried. I photographed the hutches, mess tent (complete with outdoor, open air freezer), researchers working, and a trip to “mine” ice for fresh water but none of them seemed to capture what the place was like; it was frustrating.
I was working my butt off and exhausted as much from running around and photographing everything I could as from the freezing cold and multiple layers that I had to work with. My breath froze to my beard and the back of my cameras were colder than ice and had formed a sheet of ice that my nose stuck to when I brought the camera to my eye. I also came to realize that at a certain point, after a few hours outside, my 5DMKII’s auto focus would stop working due to the cold.
The worst issues though were that if I went inside a tent my cameras would instantly fog up due to condensation that would get on the lens, inside the lens, and all over the back of the camera. I had to make sure that if I was going inside for less than 30 minutes or so I had to leave my cameras outside in the cold or place them inside my bag zipped up near a heater until they were the same temperature as the room. I also had to place chemical feet warmers on the batteries of my camera to keep them a little warmer because without some warmth they would die in 30 minutes to an hour. I placed 3 to 4 hand warmers in one of my pockets with the extra batteries so that they would be fresh when the ones in the camera died.
It was a challenging environment but it was also beautiful and after looking back on the photos a couple of times I realized that when I was just taking a photo for myself of the flatness or immensity I was actually capturing a good slice of what it is like. I looked through all of my take and found roughly a dozen of these frames that I had ignored earlier and put them together to make a collection of landscapes that I felt actually did a good job of showing that the only thing discerning in this landscape is the subtle variations of the wind on the snow or the different shapes of ice chunks forced up when giant ice sheets grind together.
On day two we were flown via helicopter to watch the Seawolf class submarine USS Connecticut force it’s way through 3-4ft of ice to pick up the Secretary of the Navy and a congressional delegation that had flown up to inspect the Arctic project. We waited for several hours on an ice sheet and then it happened so quickly it was almost an anti-climax until you remember that you are staring at the sail of a nuclear submarine that has just pushed its way through three feet of solid ice.
The APLIS crew quickly began to use chainsaws to cut through the ice in order to open the hatch that the congressional delegation would enter through. Shortly after the surfacing we were flown to another submarine that had surfaced in shallower ice for our overnight trip. The USS New Hampshire is a Virginia class submarine, the newest class in the US Navy. I was immediately surprised at how much room is in these boats. I didn’t have to duck down too much and although the halls are narrow it is possible to pass by people in them. I had been told I would be crawling everywhere. The dive away from the ice was quite exciting as the boat went down at a very steep angle. I have spent a lot of time on boats and the feeling of sinking was one that I am wholly unused to. Other than the descent it was difficult to discern that we were even in the ocean since the ride was so smooth. An amazing dinner in the wardroom with the ship’s captain, CDR John McGunnigle, and a tour around the ship followed by several hours of wandering with an escort to photograph the different parts of the ship and some editing and it was bedtime at 3am!
The last day was a blur. In that one day we surfaced the submarine in a very narrow bit of open water (since the newer submarines have more delicate equipment they tend to not go through several feet of ice). Flew in a helicopter back to the ice camp, and flew in a small plane back to Prudhoe Bay. In roughly 60 hours on the ice I had slept a total of about 8-10 hours and taken a few thousand photographs of things that I will probably never see again. I had been warm most of the time (except my face), seen one small case of frostbite on someone else, seen 0 animals, and was told that at one point the spot I was laying on while on top of a submarine was exactly where the nuclear reactor was (I moved.) I met dozens of amazing people both at the ice camp and in the submarine. As I sit in my apartment now writing this it seems like a strange dream that this had actually happened, luckily I have my pictures to prove it.