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It's a small thing but one I still needed to get right. Twice a day Environment Canada staff at the Eureka Weather Station on Ellesmere Island launch a hydrogen-filled balloon carrying a lightweight instrument package that radios back information about the atmosphere, all the way up to the ozone layer. With in situ measurements dating back to 1966, Canada has the longest running record of ozone measurements in the world. When I was visiting the station for The Globe and Mail I watched the preparation for a launch and then, just before noon in the grey half-light of a polar winter day, I was asked if I wanted to be the one to let the balloon go. It's easy, they told me. Just let the balloon fly with one hand and then let it take the instrument package out of your other hand. I had visions of the line getting caught in my thick gloves, or of somehow sending the whole thing smack into a building. But it worked. The balloon rocketed up fast and snatched its parcel out of my hand without a hitch.
It's just one measurement among thousands made every year. Yet, somehow, I now feel like one data point among all those many thousands has my name on it. And I like that.


It’s hard to convince yourself to get out of bed when the world outside your hotel window remains the colour of night long after your alarm tells you otherwise. It’s hard to convince yourself that it’s lunchtime when the sky it lit only by the headlights of passing cars. Sleep, though, comes easily in this northern town, where the sunless winter, known as the “Polar Night,” lasts for three months. You don’t even need to close your curtains.

* * *

The cab driver laughed out loud when I told him I had been to Murmansk before, a dozen years ago.
“Do you see anything different?” he asked me, his tone daring me to name something that had changed, let alone improved.

I gave up. He helped by pointing out a couple of shopping malls and a McDonalds that hadn’t existed in 2002.

I smiled and nodded absentmindedly. My gaze was fixed on the half-finished bottle of whiskey that he kept within arm’s reach as he drove.

* * *
“Thailand Nights” the sign promised. Outside, it was pitch black and a numbing number of degrees below zero. But the hotel bar was promising to transport me somewhere warm.

The hours passed by without a hint of lemongrass or sand. Finally, two young women appeared on stage. They wore saris, but their dance was more St. Petersburg than Phuket. I finished my drink and walked outside into the blizzard.

I stood shivering atop the hill beside “Alyosha,” the affectionate name locals bestowed on the colossal stone statue of a soldier that stands over their city, reminding them of the heroic role Murmansk played during the Second World War. Murmansk took a pounding from Hitler’s bombers, but never fell, remaining a crucial conduit for Allied supplies to the Soviet Union.

A young couple stopped to chat in the shadow of Alyosha. I asked them what they thought the future held for this inhospitable place. The woman looked on nervously as her husband launched into a diatribe about everything the Russian government was doing wrong in the Arctic.

After we finished speaking, I asked if I could have his name. I understood why the woman had seemed nervous – her husband was a member of the security services.

* * *
I found good news in Murmansk too. I came to the city in 2002 to write about the environmental disasters that surrounded it: the obliterated nature in Monchegorsk, the “City of Metallurgy” that spewed filth into the air a short drive to the south, and the dangers posed by rotting Soviet nuclear submarines at a naval base just north of Murmansk.

Given the Russian government’s dismissive attitude towards most environmental issues, I expected to hear that little progress had been made on either front. But local environmentalists told me dramatic breakthroughs have been made on both fronts.

Monchegorsk’s offending nickel smelter was closed a few years ago, and foliage started creeping back into the moonscape. The nuclear reactors have been taken from the submarines, their fuel safely stored elsewhere.

Progress. I must remember to tell the cab driver with the whiskey bottle.


Raina Wilson for The Globe and Mail 

Our Globe Style shoot in Iqaluit was supposed to take place over two days, but an early-November blizzard kept the crew hotel-bound on our arrival so we knew we needed to start shooting at first light the next day. Here we are on a slab of granite above the frozen Sylvia Grinnell River diligently buckling our model Malaya into her boots, setting up an umbrella light and completely ignoring the absurdly striking scenery behind us. While this part of Nunavut isn’t very mountainous, the layers of landscape in the distance and the contrast of fresh snow against dark stone guaranteed endless dramatic views over the territory.

Before we flew back to balmy Ottawa, the Nunavut Tourism team organized a tour of Iqaluit that took us out to Apex, a community on the edge of town that was an early settlement when Iqaluit itself was still a military base. It’s also home to a former trading post of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Despite its appearance, this weatherworn building is centuries younger than the date over the door suggests. And despite the icy wind blowing in off of Frobisher Bay, it seemed like a good spot to snap the obligatory crew photo.

Raina Wilson for The Globe and Mail 

There are certain things one takes for granted on a photo shoot that aren’t guaranteed when the temperature on “set” is hovering south of –20. First and most inconveniently, cameras can stop focusing in sub-zero temperatures (luckily, wrapping the camera body with hand-warming heat packs from your local camping shop helps). Second, nothing sticks in the deep cold, so that lint roller you bring along to de-fuzz a black felt skirt that was packed in a garment bag next to a white mohair sweater – useless. Third, the use of your fingers is severely limited by wearing three layers of gloves, so carefully timing when you label your picture files on your laptop while kneeling on a frozen river is key. Photographer Wilson Barry, pictured, proved to be a pro at that last one.

Read the style feature:


Globe and Mail writer Ian Brown getting started on his 9,000 word story about Canada's north during a hunting trip for muskox east of the northern Nunavut community of Cambridge Bay on Nov. 30, 2013. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Reporting in the Arctic in the winter is an unusual experience, not least of all because you have to take notes, which means writing, which means that at –35 you very quickly have no feeling in your hands. You spend about 20 per cent of your day stuffing mitts, hats, notebooks and pens, into your pockets and then fishing it them again. Thank God I don’t smoke, because that would have been the straw that broke the muskoxen’s back. Plus it’s such an unusual place, so you’re always taking notes.

At first people in the North seemed hesitant to talk to me. I couldn’t figure out why. I mean, I had been told before my first trip to the High Arctic that you needed someone in the community to introduce you around. That you had to listen, and not rush. And I was doing all that.

But then one day, in the Iqaluit airport, I happened to sit down on a bench across from two guys wearing exactly the same parka I had on. It was an unusual jacket, huge, green, knee-length down, complete with powder skirt and a telescoping hood and plastic sleeves for I.D. on the chest and arms – a parka for someone who never wants to take their hands out of their pockets. I had borrowed mine from a colleague in Toronto. But these two guys were wearing exactly the same jacket. They were also wearing matching blue sweat pants and matching black Adidas. So they sat down, and I looked at them, and they looked at me. “Hey, same parka!” I said. “We must be on the same team. Which one do you guys play for?” They didn’t say anything. Then the guy next to me spoke. I hadn’t seen him sit down. “Probably not the same one you do,” he said. They were convicts, and he was a Nunavut Correctional Officer. My parka was the same model that all convicts in Baffin wear.

After that, when I met someone new, I made sure to mention that I wasn’t doing time, and they opened right up.


Morning commute: One of the most remarkable things about the North is the soft light in the morning, and the length of time pink and purple hues last before the sun rises about the horizon in the early winter. A real treat was watching the slow-motion sunrise aboard an Aklak Air Twin Otter flight to Tuktoyaktuk from Inuvik, packed with supplies and passengers. The colours were splashed across a seemingly endless expanse of land dotted with frozen lakes on the Mackenzie Delta, and the sky was clear. The locals seem to take much of this for granted. For many this is their morning commute.

Read his story:


(Peter Power/The Globe and Mail) 

Polar Bears: The most reliable way to catch a glimpse of polar bears in Resolute is to visit the dump, a few kilometres away from the settlement. Locals set their garbage bags on fire, presumably to burn materials that might get caught in animals’ throats – but the orange flames summon the bears in a matter of minutes, and their snouts are quickly covered in ashes as they hunt for scraps. Tiny, soot-covered arctic foxes wait their turn at a safe distance.

Hunting Seals: The only sensible way to reach the deepwater Arctic port of Nanisivik in November is on a snowmobile across the sea ice. Tom, my Inuit guide, used the 40-kilometre trip from Arctic Bay to scout for seals. He stopped frequently to check breathing holes in the ice. And after dozens of tries he found one, pulled out his rifle, and asked me to drive the Yamaha a few hundred metres ahead – to trick the animal into thinking we’d left. Waiting at a distance, with the winter twilight deepening, I heard a muffled shot. Tom had killed a seal, but then the current pulled it away from him. No seal meat for his dogs tonight.


Pencil and notepad in hand, Ian somehow took notes during perhaps the bumpiest ride of his life during a hunting trip for muskox east of the northern Nunavut community of Cambridge Bay on Nov. 30, 2013. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Komatik: If you’re ever offered the chance to ride in a sled, or komatik, across a semi-snow-covered tundra behind a speeding snowmobile be sure that this is your last option before accepting. Ride on the back of the snowmobile, or better yet, drive one yourself.


(Peter Power/The Globe and Mail) 

Night lights: I had hoped to see the northern lights during the 25 days I spent working in the north – and I finally got my chance at the very end of the assignment, in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.
After a great meal of caribou stew with a local family, we headed out from town to walk their dog, and find a suitable place for me to photograph the show in the sky, which in the far north actually appears in the south. We found a spot near a frozen bay by the ruins of an old stone Catholic church that stands on the site of the original community, and I focused on setting up my camera.

But soon my companions were keen to return to the warmth of a wood stove back in town. “See those two lights close together,” said my host, pointing across the dark, frozen bay. “That’s our house. When your finished just walk towards those lights and you’ll find us.

Left alone in the dark with no sounds other than my camera’s shutter firing at regular intervals, I started thinking back to dinner – and a conversation about polar bears and wolverines. And about the sea ice I had to walk home on, smooth and slippery from being blown by steady winds.
In the end, it wasn’t the northern lights that stay with me, it’s those two lights in the distance. Afer packing up my gear, I didn’t look back, I didn’t look around – I walked towards them.

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