I turned to face Brian in the backseat of my ultra-light airplane, hoping to understand just how severe our situation was after the engine sputtered and died a thousand feet above northern Baffin Island's drifting sea ice. The altimeter on the dash steadily dropped as he fought to maintain a controlled emergency descent, 28℉ wind flooding the cockpit through its open doors. Even if our delicate craft somehow survived an Arctic crash landing, it was unlikely anyone would ever find us drifting on pack ice in the middle of the ocean. I fiddled with the dials of my camera and tried to stay calm.
It was 2006, and National Geographic had sent me to Canada's far north on assignment to photograph narwhals. I had been attempting to capture these legendary whales since the mid-nineties, successfully making many images of females—some underwater, some from the surface—but failing time and again to photograph the males with their big, long tusks. It was an encounter that had proven to be much more elusive than anticipated, and I remained empty-handed despite nearly a decade of searching.
This occasion marked the fifth of five consecutive years traveling to Baffin Island, but my hopes were high this time around thanks to local Inuit elders who had been kind enough to share their traditional knowledge with me. "How do I get close to these animals?" I had asked. "Avoid the hunting season and embrace the rotten, broken conditions of mid-summer sea ice when very few people are out there," came the answer. An area wildlife expert had agreed, suggesting that an ultra-light airplane on amphibious floats (equally advantageous on land, water, and sea ice) was the key to success. So I bought a Chinook Plus 2 and learned how to fly it.
I quickly realized it would be extremely difficult to simultaneously fly the plane and photograph through its open doors from the front seat, so I called my best friend from high school, Brian Knutsen, who had been flying off-strip airplanes for most of his life. I had nothing but awe and respect for Brian, who had gone off to become a commercial pilot when we were eighteen. Twenty years later, he had amassed more than 25,000 hours of experience captaining Twin Otters, Cessnas, and everything in between. Being the great friend he was, Brian agreed to drop what he was doing and fly to Baffin Island, where the two of us would live in a little tent on the sea ice, eat what the locals were eating, and endure the hostile Arctic climate for as long as it took to capture my vision.
Getting my new craft to Nunavut was the first challenge. Brian met me in Whitehorse, where we dismantled the plane and loaded it into a U-Haul before he set off on a nearly 1,200-mile road trip to Yellowknife. We discovered on arrival that the battery had contacted the rudder cables en route, shorting out all the wiring and electrical. Brian, who is also a skilled mechanic, and some colleagues worked through the night to rewire every system before loading the parts into a DC-4 and shipping them to Arctic Bay on Baffin Island the next day. After the crew unloaded them on the runway, we set to work on a final assembly, our frozen fingers carefully aligning panels and threading bolts until, at last, she was ready to take to the skies.
My Inuit guides and I departed for the sea ice, where we set up camp and awaited Brian, who flew out to meet us shortly after. Unfavorable conditions confined us to our tents for several days until one cold evening when, at last, the clouds parted to reveal brilliant blue. Knowing our opportunities would be few and far between, we quickly took to the skies and began our search. It wasn't until we had reached a thousand feet above the sea ice that the engine began to sputter, and I felt my heart stop as it died altogether.