North·Photos

Inside Tuktoyaktuk's underground icehouse

Carved from the permafrost, the freezer has been closed to tourists since 2016 — but photographer Chris Kelly got a rare look inside.

Carved from the permafrost, the freezer has been closed to tourists since 2016

The entrance to the Tuktoyaktuk icehouse is an unassuming white shed. Since 2016, it's been closed to tourists, but photographer Chris Kelly got a rare look inside. (Philippe Morin)

In one of the N.W.T.'s northernmost communities, an unassuming white shed hides an icy underground world unlike any other.

Tuktoyaktuk's community icehouse was carved out of the earth in the late 1960s, and is used by families to store winter harvests of goose, fish, seal and caribou through the summer months.

Buried roughly nine metres beneath the ground and caked in permafrost, the freezer keeps a naturally chilly temperature year round.

Once one of the hamlet's hottest tourist attractions, the icehouse has been closed to tourists since 2016. But in 2018, photographer Chris Kelly got a rare invite to tour the site, and has the stunning photos to prove it.

The door to a storage unit inside the Tuktoyaktuk icehouse. (Chris Kelly)

"It took almost two years, but with the help of my wife, I found someone who was willing to take me down," wrote Kelly in an email to CBC. "When I got the call, I immediately dropped what I was doing and grabbed my equipment and left."

"The ladder down is quite treacherous," he said. "Although I had seen pictures, I wasn't able to truly appreciate the ladder going down."

A look up the ladder used to access the Tuktoyaktuk icehouse, deep below the ground. (Chris Kelly)

A pulley system next to the ladder is used to move fish and meat to the surface. Kelly stashed his tripod in the bucket, but had to carry his camera in his hands for the icy descent.

"I wasn't worried about getting down the ladder on my own," he said, "it was getting down with my gear in one piece."

"If I said my heart rate didn't spike at times on the way down, I would be lying."

A look down one of the claustrophobic halls of the Tuktoyaktuk icehouse. Frost crowds the ceiling and walls, while sand-like ice crystals are scattered on the floor. (Chris Kelly)

The freezer houses 19 rooms off of three corridors, used by local families and secured by lock and key.

"Once at the bottom, the only sounds that could be heard were the crunching of the snow," Kelly wrote.

Kelly took his photos using exposures of more than 20 seconds, dimly illuminating the halls with an LED light he shielded with his body.

A door to a storage unit in the Tuktoyaktuk icehouse. (Chris Kelly)

"The sights within the freezer are truly amazing to say the least, and like nothing I have ever seen before," he wrote.

Kelly said the floor felt like "frozen sand," made of crystals that had fallen from the ceiling over time.

"The ceiling is covered in beautiful ice crystals ... [and] the lower portion of the wall has surreal textures of the sand in the rippling permafrost," he wrote.

A close-up view of permafrost on the wall of the Tuktoyaktuk icehouse. (Chris Kelly)

"I can't recall the temperature, but it wasn't unconformable, although below zero," he said. "It's likely colder above ground most of the year ... certainly when you factor in the windchill that wouldn't reach the sheltered depths of the freezer."

Once it was time to leave, Kelly said, he had to figure out how to get his equipment back to the surface.

Frost on the ceiling of Tuktoyaktuk's community freezer. (Chris Kelly)

"I eventually settled on sheltering it in the hood of my parka and tied it as tight as I could with my hood strings," he wrote. "I managed to get myself and the camera up safely, and began researching gear bags the following day."

Out on the surface, Kelly saw the spectacular lights overhead, and shot a photo that became one of his most-requested prints.

Chris Kelly said he took this photo after emerging from the icehouse. It's now one of his most requested prints. (Chris Kelly)

Erwin Elias, the mayor of Tuktoyakuk, said his family helped build the underground icehouse.

"It was built for the locals in the community, and it was very well-used ... back in the day," he said.

Elias said the hamlet decided to close the freezer to tourists to "keep it for its original intent."

Its slippery entrance could have posed liability issues, he said, as high traffic increased ice build-up on the ladder.

"It's a huge tourism attraction, of course. We agree with that, and we'll all for that," he said. "At the same time, we have to understand that that particular one was built for the community."

Kelly was just happy to have the rare opportunity to see inside — and share its icy depths with the rest of the world.

"It was the experience of a lifetime," he wrote.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.