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Field Notes
Nicklen
Photograph by Mark Thiessen
Paul Nicklen
Interview by Cassandra Franklin-Barbajosa

What was your best experience while covering this story?

We live in a busy world full of phones, email, and crowds of people, and, frankly, it’s sensory overload. To me, nothing is more satisfying than traveling back to the high Arctic with a great assistant like Jed Weingarten and a fantastic guide like Gideon Qaunaq, pitching our camp, and then going off on my own to the floe edge, where open sea meets the ice.

I can watch the sun skim over the sea in a spring of endless light and listen to silence so wonderful that it’s almost deafening. I can hear the distant blow of a bowhead whale—the second largest whale and probably the oldest living animal on Earth—or listen to the whistling wings of eider ducks as they travel to their summer nesting grounds.

To work in the Arctic, a photographer needs more patience than I can describe. There are probably only a few great hours of photography in each month, and the rest of the time means waiting patiently. But, as I sit in a peaceful and meditative state, open to the next magical moment that nature provides, it is the waiting and anticipation that I love so much.

What was your worst experience while covering this story?

In 2006, the ice at the floe edge was very thin, meaning that our camp was on ice that was only about a couple feet thick. Every time a major storm blew in from the north, the sea would undulate under our camp, and the ice would break up all around us.

We then had to pack as quickly as possible, load our komatik, a kind of Inuit sled, and race on our snow machines for safe ice. By the time the end of June came around, we were moving our camp off breaking ice every other day. It’s a lot of work to keep breaking and then reestablishing camp on the sea ice. Once, we moved three times in one day.

Finally, in early July, we were caught off guard. My wonderful guide, Dexter Koonoo, heard a radio report that the ice was moving. I checked my GPS, and, sure enough, we had drifted more than a mile (two kilometers) out to sea on a large pan of ice. Our plane was broken down, so I sent my team with all of our gear to find a way around the wide crack.

About ten years before, more than 50 hunters drifted out to sea and had to be rescued. They lost everything, but we were lucky. Tommy Kilabuk, a local hunter, was waiting with his boat and was nice enough to carry our team and gear to safety. I stayed with the plane for another ten hours and watched the GPS indicate that I was going farther and farther out to sea.

The ice was too thin for a Twin Otter floatplane rescue. About 15 hours later, however, Dexter raced up on his snowmobile and towed the plane—with me in it—for about ten miles (20 kilometers) to the open crack. I then drove the plane across the water, and Dexter and his snowmobile were ferried across.

What was the strangest experience you encountered while covering this story?

Jed and I were alone, hunkered down in our tent while waiting out a wicked blizzard. Our guide had gone to town for supplies, so we sat there for days.

Then, early one morning, Samson Ejangiaq, a hunter, awakened us. He poked his head in our tent and said, “You might want to think about moving your camp.”

We looked up groggily and asked, “When?”

“Maybe like ASAP,” Samson said.

We stuck our heads out of the tent and into a raging blizzard. Everywhere we looked, cracks were opening up around our tent. We frantically started packing and, as we were collapsing the tent, a huge crack opened up right where we had been sleeping minutes before. We loaded our sleds and raced over the fracturing ice for miles, looking for a solid piece to pitch another temporary ice camp.

I love how confident and understated the Inuit are.