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Behind the scenes: the journey to Ellesmere Island

In 2022, we began discussing the possibilities of travelling to Ellesmere Island with our good friend Ben Cranke. Photographing the Arctic wolves was a childhood dream of his, making it an easy decision. From this point on, we had 14 months to prepare, not only the equipment that we would need but also get mentally ready to embark on an expedition. This wasn’t just another routine safari trip; temperatures could drop to -50 and the area is so isolated, any emergency would take time and effort to manage. We were planning to travel in March when the sun would hug the horizon for about eight hours and the average sunshine would last 4.9 hours each day. This region falls within the Arctic Circles and experiences a unique phenomenon- Polar Nights. Complete darkness lasts for a few days during the month of December when the sun hides beneath the horizon. Beyond the belt of the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, this far North in the Arctic, the light of day is rare. This was clearly out of my comfort zone, but it was also a unique opportunity to travel to a place on Earth where very few humans had ever stepped foot.

In fact, only a hand-full of truly wild and remote areas remain on our planet. These are places that are difficult to reach even with modern-day means of transport and are completely devoid of any kind of infrastructure. Places so quiet that upon standing still, the only perceptible sound is that of our blood pounding in our ears. Ellesmere Island, the northernmost landmass in Canada’s Arctic Archipelago is such a place. Access for civilians is via Grise Fiord. Aujuittuq meaning “the place that never thaws”, called Grise Fiord in English, is Canada’s northern-most permanent settlement which 144 people call home. The hamlet lies 1,160 km north of the Arctic Circle and is surrounded by towering, mottled mountains. Beyond it, a landmass encased in snow and ice, and subject to harsh winter conditions stretches over 196,000 km2. This polar desert, barren and frozen is punctuated by the rugged mountain range of the Arctic Cordillera, flat ice fields, fiords, sounds, lakes, and stretches of open ocean.

Fast forward to February 2023; we had finally put together an exhaustive set of equipment for the expedition from clothes that would withstand the extreme cold to photographic gadgets that would continue to perform in these conditions.

The week before we were due to fly, I applied for the Electronic Travel Authorisation, a document required to enter Canada. Patrick being organised had applied for his in December and received it within the hour. Like me, Ben had forgotten to apply for his visa and did so, receiving it several hours later. As the hours and days started piling up with no news about mine, I was beginning to be quite concerned. After an extensive follow-up, the problem was uncovered. In 1997, I was 13 years old, and my family and I moved to Canada with the idea of settling there permanently. Unfortunately, my elder brother experienced a lot of racism there and we decided to move back to India within the year. At no point were we informed that having gone through the formalities we were eligible to apply for a Canadian passport or ID. Twenty-five years later, I applied to enter Canada and I was denied entry because apparently I was the proud holder of a Canadian Permanent Resident permit. When you leave Canada, it doesn’t automatically expire, it follows you around. With this document, you can enter Canada but only with a valid Canadian passport or ID of which I had neither. The only way to resolve the situation was to “voluntarily renounce the Canadian Permanent Residence” by sending all the documents to Embassy in Paris. This done, I was still hopeful to receive my visa by the time we reached the airport. But it was not to be, and it was heart-wrenching moment to watch Patrick board the plane, while I went back home with all my luggage. Drowning my sorrow in a half-bottle of champagne, I chatted with Patrick as he flew away from me, towards Montreal. The crew had noticed the empty seat next to him and how sad he was and so were being rather generous with champagne to help him cope with the enormous disappointment. A few hours later, I received an email- my renouncement of the Permanent Residence had been accepted and my visa was issued! It then became a mad scramble to rebook flights to Montreal and as there was not daily direct flight from Zurich, I had to transit via Brussels. At 4am, being sleepless I heard a ding on my phone- it was an email to inform me that the flight to Brussels was cancelled and I was being rerouted via London. After some tense moments (the Zurich to London flight had technical problems and we spent 45 min on the tarmac waiting for it to be fixed, arriving late in London and being told my ticket was not valid, running through half the airport to reach my gate), I finally made it on to the London-Montreal flight. The next 7h25 minutes were spent resting and recovering from the overflow of stress and emotions from the past 48 hours. As we approached Montreal, there were several announcements informing us of a terrible snowstorm in the area and that most local flights had been rerouted or cancelled. Knowing I still had a short hop to Ottawa with a 30min flight, I held my breath as I waited for ground staff to help me find a solution which turned out to be a flight to Toronto and then to Ottawa. It seemed like an unsafe bet and after several calls with Patrick, we decided that I should go by car. But the next challenge was to get my luggage. As I waited at the luggage belt for the London-Montreal flight, my heart sank as the conveyor belt stopped without delivering my bags. I made my way to the lost luggage counter where a line was already forming…with so many grounded flights, people were resorting to the same plan as mine, getting their luggage and going by car, bus or train to their connecting destination. Without my bags, I could just board a plane back to Zurich…after all the specialised equipment for Ellesmere was vital for my survival in these extreme temperatures. It took three hours, a lot of shouting, pleading and tears and a determined presence at the counter (I did not once go sit down and wait) for someone to finally realise that there was a luggage container from the London-Montreal flight, laying unopened on the tarmac. And surely enough, my two bags were in there and were delivered once they employees had found staff to open the container which was lying 20m from me! Half an hour later, the bags were loaded into a car and we made our way carefully out of Montreal and in the midst of an incredible snowstorm. It took far longer than normal to get to Ottawa but I finally made it and was reunited with Patrick and Ben.

I thought that my travel woes were over now that I had been reunited with the team. But it is no small feat, reaching the northern most reaches of this vast country. We began our journey North on the 3rd of March, with a delay of three days due to a combination of weather and airline incompetence. We flew from Ottawa to Iqaluit (“place of many fish”) the capital of Nunavut and spent one night there. The next day we had a “hopping flight” which would take us from Iqaluit, a stop in Pond Inlet followed by another short stop in Arctic Bay and finally Resolute Bay where we would spend another night. Our flight left with a considerable delay and on landing in Pond Inlet at 20h, we were told that the aircraft was broken, and we had to spend the night in this snowy hamlet cradled by mountains and sea. Incidentally Pond Inlet is one of the best places to observe and photograph narwhals. With great difficulty, we finally made it to Resolute Bay the next day but as luck would have it, half of our luggage stayed back in Pond Inlet. Our flight to Grise Fiord was scheduled for the next day but due to dreadful weather conditions, that flight did not take off. Our luggage from Pond Inlet however, made it to Resolute Bay as the airline company sent an unscheduled cargo plane to pick up all the luggage that had stayed back from several different flights. This would be a good moment to explain that these small planes are the only mode of transport for much of the items that are necessary for life in the high Arctic (anything from food to household items to medical supplies). This is why, people’s personal luggage is often given a lower priority when loading the airplanes. Two days later, we finally had all our bags and the flight to Grise Fiord was on schedule. The runway in Grise Fiord is not tarred and in winter it is an ice field, so the aircrafts that can typically land there are a DHC-6 Super Twin-Otter and Super King Air 200. By the time we flew to Grise Fiord, we had lost a whole week due to delays.

Flying over the ice fields and past remarkable ice formations was our introduction to the landscape we would be immersed in for the next few days. As the airplane approached the hamlet, a large partially snowy mountain loomed in front of us. It certainly looked like we were going to fly straight into it but at the last minute, the plane banked left and finally bounced to a stop on the rough runway of the northern most settlement in the Arctic, Grise Fiord.

The next day, our team consisting of our good friend Ben and the three local Inuit guides- Terry, Nolan and Silas arrived with the skidoos and we began packing and arranging the qamutiiks with our personal luggage as well as all the camping gear and food. We left the hamlet at 13h40 in the afternoon; exiting Grise Fiord takes you onto an ice field surrounded by towering mountains. Two hours across the ice field, which is actually the sea that has frozen over, and we find ourselves in a narrow corridor flanked by sloping mountains and finally we have to stop. In front of us is an enormous wall of ice; it is a glacier stretching between the two mountain ranges we’ve followed so far. It’s the beginning of the journey, so the qamutiiks are bursting at the seams. The only way to get them over the glacier and onto the other side is by going one by one: each qamutiik pulled by three skidoos. As we waited in the frozen world enveloped in a bluish darkness, we hoped to hear the first howls of the wolves. It was indeed a surreal moment when the skidoos were over the glacier and there was not a single light except for the stars shining and we were completely alone, waiting. The last run is to pick up the guests who at this point are so thrilled by the experience so far. Standing alone in the darkness at the edge of the world with just our partner and wildlife-passionate friend is something out of this world.

By the time we reached the first campsite, it was 21h in the evening. We began pitching the two tents and getting the camp organised, dinner that evening was quick and efficient: instant noodles. I’m pretty sure I heard wolves howling in the wind while we were sleeping but it must have been the exhaustion and the great eagerness to see them in the wild.

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