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Old May 21st, 2005, 03:37 PM   #1
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To The Arctic And Back

A few people here may know that two weeks ago I took a trip up to the Arctic circle to do a promotional video for a diamond mining company. Here is the story...
The day of my departure, I was wrapping up a short film competition. We finished at 7pm, and my flight departed at 9:30, I had two hours to rush out to my home in the suburbs from downtown, pack all my video gear, and rush an hour back to the airport, to get on the plane.
Packing under pressure has become one of my skills in the last few years. That, combined with excessive speeds in a borrowed mini-van, got me to the departure gates right on time. I met with one team member and co-videographer, who was also flying out of Vancouver that night as well. Two things began to relax me from a hellish day. First off, I did not realize they were flying us out to Edmonton business class/first class on Air Canada. That was a nice. Secondly, complimentary alcoholic beverages to business class. Beer should never be substituted for a meal, unless you haven't eaten since 10am.
With the time zone difference, we landed in Edmonton at around 1:30am, and I was considerably less stressed than four hours before. We made our way to the taxi roundup to get a ride to the hotel, but the taxi drivers decided that our fare wasn’t big enough, so they pointed us at the free shuttle. I’d rather have paid the taxi double and gotten there an extra 15 minutes early for some more sleep, but oh well…
Check in happened at 2am. I hoped to have a nice sleep in, followed by a swim in their indoor pool in the morning, but our flight to Yellowknife had a 6:30am departure. Which means we had to have a 5am wakeup call. Do the math, yes, 3 hours of sleep. The adventure in exhaustion begins.
Morning came in the blink of an eye, and we soldiered out to the shuttle launch site (Ok, the parking lot) with our gear and a bad hotel coffee. Here we met a few more members of our expedition team. Their suits and gold Rolexes contrasted nicely with our PortaBrace and Pelican cases and we loaded up into the shuttle bus for the hop to the airport.
Fuel came in the form of a lump of grease wrapped in paper, molded in the shape of a breakfast sandwich. Ok, I like Harvey’s burgers, but their breakfasts not so much. The rest of the airport fun went by quickly, and before I could fall asleep in an uncomfortable chair, we had boarded the plane and were in the air.
Canadian North provided our next flight, but alas, no business class on this bird. Still, the breakfast they served was the best I’d had on any flight ever. Quiche, perogies, and ham, with fruit salad and muffin on the side, but closer to restaurant quality than airplane quality. Good airplane food is always a nice surprise.
We landed in Yellowknife. They opened the door and we deplaned. This marked the last time I would use the word “warm” on the trip.
There were no fancy gates that took you right into the plane from the airport. We just walked down a ladder onto the tarmac, and then walked into the airport. This was a nice introduction to how cold it was. Now really, it was only –3 in Yellowknife. Now that’s not too cold, just that it was supposed to be +8 so it was a bit of a surprise. It would only get colder, and fast.
From the airport, we got a ride to Matrix Expeditions, who run the charter flights out to mining camps. We left the majority of our gear there, taking just the camera essentials. They provided us with any arctic gear we needed, although I had brought my snowboarding gear with me, so I took only a pair of boots, as well as grabbing some essential gear from my backpack.
We squeezed into a classic DeHavilland Turbo Beaver ski plane from a bygone era of aviation, and took off for the great white north. It was close to a two hour flight, and the terrain changed drastically, from forest and frozen lakes in Yellowknife, to absolute barren frozen tundra, with the only signs of man being oversized trucking roads plowed through frozen lakes. Landing in a ski plane on a frozen lake covered in snowdrifts in gusting wind was unlike anything else I’ve landed. It was more like racing a speedboat over crashing ocean surf. One second you are on the ground, the next back up in the air, the next plowing through snow, the next bouncing back up in the air. It really was more like a controlled crash than a landing. Still any one that you can walk away from…
Prying ourselves out of the Beaver yielded another level of cold. Not the Yellowknife “dang, it’s cold”, but a more serious –18, “wow, I’d better put my gloves on before my fingers freeze” cold. We trudged through the snow towards the camp, and I was immediately thankful for taking the arctic boots.

http://i6.photobucket.com/albums/y20...MG_3552asm.jpg
Base came was fantastic, right out of a movie. The entrance was a small gate adorned with a pair of antlers, with electric fencing to keep bears and wolves out. One of the dozen or so people that work there told me a grizzly bear got into camp the day before, so apparently it isn’t that effective. I didn’t test it out.


http://i6.photobucket.com/albums/y20...MG_3641asm.jpg

The camp itself consisted of two 40’ long corrugated steel barns, one for storage, one for the mess hall. There were about a dozen prospector tents, which are large 20’x20’ tarp tents with plywood walls. Each ran its own continuous diesel burner to keep heated. To make our way to the mess hall, we had to climb down into a series of trenches dug into the snow, that ran between buildings. I had a wonderful flashback to the battle on the planet Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back.

http://i6.photobucket.com/albums/y20...MG_3630asm.jpg

http://i6.photobucket.com/albums/y20...MG_3597asm.jpg

The mess hall had a cheery “café” sign above the door and we entered. It was dark and moody, lit with a strip of fluorescent shop lights along the ceiling. The smell of stew made my mouth water instantly. Mining camps (technically, this was an expedition drilling camp, since they were only looking for diamonds) are well known for having excellent foods. The pilot explained to me on the way up that morale is completely dependent on good food, so the camp managers try to bring in the best chefs and best food they can. I was eager to see if this was the truth, and wasn’t disappointed. The stew was perhaps the best I’d had, and beyond that they put out a buffet spread, with several salads, meats, cheeses, and homemade pies and cookies. More than a few cookies made it into my bag, but didn’t make it home.

http://i6.photobucket.com/albums/y20...MG_3604asm.jpg
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Old May 21st, 2005, 03:37 PM   #2
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After lunch, we began planning our trip out to the drilling rig, what we had actually come to shoot. Space was a premium on the chopper, so we trimmed down to just the cameras, and what we could put in our pockets. I knew it would be considerably colder, so I put on my extra pair of gloves. A worker there loaned me a balaclava.
The helicopter pilot took us through a safety lesson on the helicopter. Only about 30 seconds were about not getting diced to pieces by the rotors. The rest was about where the survival gear was located. GPS, emergency beacons, first aid, emergency rations, sleeping bags… He told us he didn’t like the taste of the emergency rations, so he packed a second pot filled with good food, which we could also use to make tea if we were stranded. I really wanted to ask why how often he needed to use it, but part of me decided I’d be happier not knowing. As far as survival gear goes, this guy was set up for anything.
The ride up to the drilling rig was a little adventure in its own, as we were much closer to the ground than when in the plane. I spotted a wolf chasing something, and several herds of cariboo. The terrain changed again during this flight. The base camp was located in a tundra area, with shale hills poking out here and there, and the occasional brush. We landed at the drilling site, in an absolute stretch of icy snow as far as your eyes could see. This was it. A helicopter, a drilling site, us, snow and sky. If anything happened, you would die here, and no one would ever find you.
It was a new level of cold. I could feel my lips freezing, and put the balaclava on. I wanted to get the arial shots of the drilling rig done first, as the light was good. The pilot offered me two choices; one I could shoot out the small side window of the helicopter, or two, he could pull the side door right off the chopper and I could hang off the side strapped in with the safety harness. Getting the shot was what I was there for, so I told him taking the door off was the only way to go. He came back in a few minutes, saying he had the door off, but he didn’t have the safety harness. I asked him if I could just wear the normal 4 point seatbelt and loosen it so I could sit out the side. He said it would be OK, as long as he duct taped the belt closed so I couldn’t accidentally release it. (Oh duct tape, you save my life again…) Ten minutes later, I was sitting out the side of a helicopter, camera in hand, full battery, my life in trust of duct tape, two pairs of gloves on, ready to shoot.

http://i6.photobucket.com/albums/y20...MG_3616asm.jpg

http://i6.photobucket.com/albums/y20...MG_3620asm.jpg

The next 10 minutes of my life redefined everything I knew about cold. The gloves did nothing. As soon as the helicopter was moving, the wind cut through both pairs like I had just sank my hands in ice water. With my headset on, I asked the pilot to circle the rig at a distance so I could get a wider shot. He took it up and out, and as soon as he gained speed, I felt my hands go numb. After five minutes I had gotten half of what I needed, and I knew my hands were in serious trouble. I was squeezing them hard against the camera and releasing them, trying to get warm blood into the tips. Every time I squeezed, I could feel the blood moving out, and fresh blood flowing slowly back in. It was not pleasant. Even though they were numb, they still hurt like hell. We flew some more, and I had nearly completed my mental shot list, when the battery on the camera died. As you know batteries are very susceptible to cold. My 1-2 hour battery completely died in less than 10 minutes. I didn’t have the dexterity left in my hands to change the batteries, so I passed the whole rig to my partner, less freezing (see, I still didn’t use “warm”) in the sheltered side of the chopper, to change them for me. As he did, I looked down at my hands and remembered all those Arctic survival stories I read as a kid. I had funny visions of the base camp chef having to amputate the blackened tips of my fingers, and adding them to the next stew. Then I realized they weren’t so funny, and the possibility of me having serious frostbite was real. I tried to remember the wind chill conversion factor, and guesstimated somewhere around –60 degrees out the side of the moving chopper (I checked when I got home, it would have been –80 to –90 degrees while moving). I began to really worry, as frostbite sets in in in less than five minutes at -40. The camera was handed back to me, and I got my hands in the straps on it. We made the last few shots I needed and I called for the pilot to set it down. I passed the camera off, and tried to get out, but I was still duct taped in. The pilot handed me his knife, which I had to pinch between the base of my thumb and palm in order to hold, because I couldn’t get any feeling from my fingers. I dabbed the blade into the duct tape, fearing slipping and stabbing myself. After a few sad attempts, I called for a little help and they cut me out.
I made a beeline for the stove inside the drilling rig to defrost my digits, but one of the workers directed me towards the large diesel motor, which was blowing a lot of heat. The thawing process was quite painful in a reassuring way, but it did the trick, and about fifteen painful minutes later, my fingers were rosy pink again.

http://i6.photobucket.com/albums/y20...SC_0095asm.jpg

We shot some interviews, some footage of the drill in operation, some still photos, and flew back to base camp. From there we had an hour to shoot more footage around the camp and a few more interviews before the ski plane had to depart for Yellowknife.
Again, I used my “I can shoot some stuff out of the front” line to get the shotgun seat on the way home. The takeoff from the snow was again like taking a jet boat through breaking surf.
We passed over two massive diamond mines on the way back, both apparently the largest in Canada. They were really just massive holes in the ground, on a Grand Canyon scale of massive. We couldn’t even see the bottom of the pit until we were almost directly over it. It had roads spiraling up the sides so trucks could drive out. Several hundred workers support these massive mines, and their camps are more like small villages, complete with most of the luxuries you’d find at home.
Two hours later, we were back in Yellowknife, transporting our gear to I think the top hotel in town. This was my first close-up view of Yellowknife, a town of about 20,000, whose main function is to serve as a transportation, hospital, and government outpost for all civilization in the Arctic north of Canada. As far as architecture, I can’t blame them for not being state of the art, and I’ll just leave it at that.
We had an hour in our room to reorganize our camera gear and get batteries on chargers, before meeting up with the rest of the team in the lobby to hit a French restaurant called L’Heritage. It turned out to be an excellent place. The main part of my meal was a triple threat combination of northern meat; elk, musk ox, and arctic char, all of which were delicious. The best part of it was that their Scotch menu was as big as their dinner menu. I started off with some 12 or 16 year old Lagavulin, but accidently began to order 25 year old Glenmorangie later. Oops...
We walked out of there around 11pm, to find it was still somewhat light out. Some departed for the hotel, but the rest of us decided to find out what Yellowknife had to offer for nightlife. It turns out there isn’t much to do on a Monday night there, as the only open place was a small bar in a basement, possibly slightly larger than a two car garage. We piled into a corner for a few drinks before deciding that an extra hour’s sleep was a better alternative than a hangover, especially considering we had to get up at 5am.
Back at the hotel by 1am, we asked for the 4:45 wakeup call, which seemed to happen a few seconds after I hit the pillow. Up again at 5, it was light out. We geared up to shoot interviews with some of the group we had not yet spoken to, before they had to make early airport departures. Annoying audio issues, and sleepy people made it somewhat problematic, but we got a few off before deciding to call it quits and pack up.
The rest of the trip was less eventfull, shooting interviews with local exects and material with the expedition company, and went by uneventfully. Sitting in the cushy business cabin on the way back, staring at the mountains, I longed for the frozen seat of the helicopter, duct tape and all. I drank another beer.

The End.
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Old May 23rd, 2005, 11:07 AM   #3
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That Was Awesome!!!!! Thanks For Sharing! Totally Awesome!
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Old May 23rd, 2005, 10:48 PM   #4
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Yeah, double thanks, that's a great story!
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Old May 23rd, 2005, 11:06 PM   #5
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Thank goodness you weren't like Survivorman, if you were, those cameras would be drifting to greenland by now!
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Old May 24th, 2005, 01:55 PM   #6
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Dude, it felt like I took a little trip just reading that! Looked like "fun." How many times have you traveled to shoot, Dylan?
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Old May 24th, 2005, 06:56 PM   #7
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Do you have any video footages of large sheets of icebergs breaking apart into the ocean? That'd be awesome. How about penguins?
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Old May 24th, 2005, 07:28 PM   #8
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Dylan,

How many ND filters do you have to stack onto your XL to film out there? The dang pictures were blinding, and I'm sure they were no where near as bright as it really was with the sun reflecting off all that white stuff.

No problem findind a place to white balance, eh?
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Old May 24th, 2005, 08:41 PM   #9
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Hey guys, glad you got a kick out of that.

To answer questions:
Patrick, only the built in ND filters on the XL1 and XL2's were used. With no need for shallow focus, we just stopped the lenses down. I did have polarizers on them though.

Yi: We weren't near the ocean, so no icebergs, and penguins don't live up there. :)
I was looking for polar bears, and asked about them, but apparently they don't live in the area we were. Lots of cariboo though.

Jesse: Good question, I usualy do 3 or 4 trips a year that are work related. This is by far the most unique.

Jack, if I was Survivorman, I would have told the chopper pilot "no thanks, I'll walk". :D
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Old May 25th, 2005, 08:33 AM   #10
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Dylan,

Great story, thanks for sharing. Let us know when we can see some of the footage.
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Old May 25th, 2005, 08:33 AM   #11
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one more thing, does the cam really work in that temp range? isn't that waaaay out of the operating range the cam was designed for?
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Old May 26th, 2005, 01:35 AM   #12
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Yi:
Yes! A Canon XL1 *WILL* work in -85 degree temperatures! At least for 10 minutes, on until your battery freezes, whichever happens first. :)
Maybe I should offer to sell it back to Canon for their museum as "the coldest XL1 ever".

Barry, I could cut a short clip next week. I don't have the bandwidth, but maybe I could get Chris to put it up on the server here.
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