Saturday, March 5, 2011

A soul-searching Arctic adventure

Michelle Valberg will showcase 84 photos of her many trips up North at a solo exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Nature March 4 to May 29.

Michelle Valberg will showcase 84 photos of her many trips up North at a solo exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Nature March 4 to May 29.


OTTAWA — Ottawa photographer Michelle Valberg gets a warm fuzzy feeling when she talks about her trips to Canada’s frozen North.
She’s been there 16 times during the past three years, travelling to Nunavut, Nunavik, the Northwest Passage, Greenland and Churchill, Man., sometimes spending weeks at a time capturing images of a life unfamiliar to most people. She snapped more than 60,000 images for a photo exhibit and a forthcoming book on the North to be published this fall.
On her many trips, she also arranged to bring more than 100 sets of hockey equipment donated by the NHL Players Association’s Goals and Dreams Fund. The fund is benefiting six Nunavut communities in a campaign she’s behind called Project North.
“I found my soul in the North and have a greater appreciation of it,” says Valberg, who plans to return to Pond Inlet next month and deliver more hockey equipment.
“I’ve seen the communities, and the majestic beauty of this land and I shared a kinship with the people, and with the wildlife.”
Friday, Arctic Kaleidoscope: The People, Wildlife and Ever-Changing Landscape, an exhibit of 84 stunning photos from Valberg’s journeys to the North, went on display at the Canadian Museum of Nature on McLeod Street. The solo exhibit runs until May 29.
Valberg says that, until her journeys, she had been like most Canadians who had never travelled North and knew little about the people or the land. But on her first visit in 2008, she was surprised by the area’s natural beauty and the warm hospitality shown her by the people. She fell in love with the area and vowed to return.
“I never thought I’d be in a sea of polar bears and have nothing standing between me and the polar bears. Or watch bowhead whales that would surface right in front of the ice floe’s edge,” says Valberg, who camped on the ice for eight days.
“I’d hear the seals and they’d pop their heads up and then go down. There was also a bird cave with hundreds of thousands of birds. It was just remarkable.”
Valberg says the photo shooting conditions up North were not always ideal, but she was wary about protecting her digital camera when she wasn’t capturing images.
“I always kept the camera close to my body and my batteries were in pockets in my parka; you sleep with your batteries, basically. And when you’re shooting animals, you have to shoot a lot of images.”
Valberg says she had a harrowing experience on a trip last June to Sam Fjord on Baffin Island with author Joan Weinman, who is helping edit the book, and Esa, a local guide.
“We got there safely and were in a little cove, camping, surrounded by 4,000-foot glaciers. It was incredibly beautiful, but it was just us — there was no one remotely close to us.”
The camping trip went well until the trek home. The temperature was close to -30C with the wind chill, and they stopped so Valberg could take photos of a polar bear and her cubs. The bear was not happy with Valberg snapping away and circled them before leaving. As they were about to leave, their sled, which was pulled by a snowmobile, slid into some water.
“I’m on the sled and jumped out,” Valberg says. “The guide starts screaming at me and I don’t know what to do. All my equipment was on the sled and I thought I was going to lose it. And we’re several hours from the closest town.”
The guide left Valberg and Weinman alone for more than an hour as he forged a new track in the snow for the sled and returned afterward to lift it out of the icy water.
“It was a close call and by the time I got back I was frozen. But I always believed we would get out,” she says.

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