Reporter's Notebook: In the High Arctic with the Canadian Forces
Extreme cold created technical issues, unbelievable landscapes brought perspective to CBC reporter
In one of the first briefings I received upon arriving in Resolute Bay, Nunavut, to cover Operation Nunalivut 2016, a Canadian Forces Arctic sovereignty mission, Lt.-Col. Timothy Halfkenny hammered home a point rather succinctly: for the military, just setting up camp in the High Arctic is enough to consider the operation a success.
As a reporter, the feeling was mutual.
Working in such an isolated area — the bulk of the operation took place on Little Cornwallis Island, an 80-kilometre-plus Twin Otter flight away from the hamlet itself — provides some unique challenges. Without a phone signal, there's no way to contact editors at home or send files. With limited storage space, carrying large amounts of equipment, like CBC's traditional ENG cameras, was out of the question.
And then there's the weather. Even in April, we were told to prepare for windchills making the temperature outside feel like -50 Celsius, and with the operation taking place on the tundra, there was nothing to shelter us from the harsh conditions.
As a native Yellowknifer, I felt like I was up to the challenge, dressing in a Canada Goose one-piece snowsuit, complete with scarf and snowmobile goggles, but it only took 15 minutes or so before I was feeling the first signs of frostbite in my fingers. By the end of our five hours at camp, the Canadian Forces press officer told me my nose was turning white.
However, I was most worried about how my gear would stand up to the conditions. With a proper video camera out of the question, I went armed with a rig designed to allow me to film on my iPhone, complete with microphone inputs and a small LED light. It was something that we'd tried in the relative comforts of Yellowknife, but nobody had any idea how it — the phone, especially — would hold up in the cold.
I did my best, stuffing hand warmer packets into the rig to keep the battery operating, while attaching it to an external battery, also covered with hand warmers, in my jacket pocket. The odd set-up got some looks from my more traditionally-outfitted colleagues, all from southern media outlets, but it held up, and only the microphone broke down due to the elements (it began working again later that night, once I warmed it up).
'I'm dog, and that's pony'
The operation itself was absolutely breathtaking. It's difficult to prepare yourself for the scene of hundreds of military members, all outfitted in camo gear, driving snowmobiles and building ice walls, surrounded by what seemed like an endless landscape of white.
Though our visit was heavily scheduled — we were shuttled from one camp to the next by a press officer — everyone I spoke to was warm, friendly, and eager to share their story. We were on a junket, certainly, but I never once had someone refuse to speak with me or answer a question.
That wasn't the case for all of my colleagues, though. With the northern media contingent represented by myself and a local newspaper reporter, most of the journalists in camp represented southern or international media, amplifying the parachute nature of our coverage.
"I'm dog," responded one of the Rangers, "and that's pony," he said, pointing to his counterpart.
I didn't experience the same reaction, but it's an important lesson for reporters looking to take advantage of growing interest in the Arctic — it's important to spend time with locals, understand their culture and customs, and remember reciprocity. In places that have lasting legacies of colonialism, popping in, taking what you need, and popping out can be, quite understandably, not well received.
A new perspective
A fellow reporter put it best: this trip was all about perspective. Getting a glimpse of life on what felt like the other side of the world, even though it was within our own country. Feeling the vast emptiness of the tundra, and seeing the beauty in open space. Watching cultures collaborate and collide, all in the name of being prepared to keep Northerners safe.
Watching the sun set over hundreds of kilometres of tundra can make you feel pretty alone, sure. However, it can also make you feel more connected to Canada than you'd ever thought possible.