Tuktoyaktuk Ice Freezer
If you are driving through Tuktoyaktuk you may come across a small white shed. It's easily missed, but it is the entrance to the community ice freezer. The freezer is dug roughly 30 feet down into the permafrost. The "shed" is the entrance to this beautiful spot, unfortunately it is no longer accessible to the public and for good reason. I was lucky enough to get in invite into this amazing hidden gem.
The Tuktoyaktuk Ice Freezer:
Once you are down in the freezer there are three corridors that fan away from the shaft down. The three corridors dug into the permafrost have 19 individual rooms coming off of them with doors and locks that would have been used by the families in the community.
The sights within the freezer are truly amazing to say the least, and like nothing I have ever seen before. The floor is on a frozen sand based bottom with snow, likely crystals that fell or were knocked off the ceiling over the years. The ceiling is covered in beautiful ice crystals that extend down quite a bit from the permafrost. The crystals cover the ceiling and extend about half way down the walls, ending in almost a straight line.
The lower portion of the wall has surreal textures of the sand in the rippling permafrost. Another unique aspect of the freezer is that you can see three distinct variations of permafrost; shinny ice with sand patterns that are amazingly smooth to the touch, parts where the sand is exposed and gritty and lastly parts that are covered in small layers of frost.
I arrived in Tuktoyaktuk in 2016, the freezer was already closed to the public at that time. I have heard from people that toured the freezer in 2014, but I am not sure exactly when it closed to the public. I had dabbled in photography a few years prior to arriving in Tuk, but it was in Tuk that I started taking photography more seriously. I started shooting the northern lights and slowly widened my scope from there.
After seeing pictures taken by a photographer friend of mine, during their time in Tuktoyaktuk, I saw the potential to capture some amazing shots of more unique origin, such as the freezer. I had my ear to the ground to see if I could get the opportunity to shoot it. It took almost two years, but with the help of my wife, I found someone who was willing to take me down. All I had to do was wait for the anticipated call that all was good to go.
When I got the call, I immediately dropped what I was doing and grabbed my equipment and left.
Although I had seen pictures, I wasn't able to truly appreciate the ladder going down. The adventure of a life time almost ended right there, above the ground. I didn't have a gear bag. I arrived with my camera in one hand, my tripod in the other and a flashlight in my pocket. I was able to get my tripod down easily using the pulley, I tied it and slowly lowered it to my guide already at the bottom, only catching glimpses of them as the light moved around. I wasn't worried about getting down the ladder on my own, it was getting down with my gear in one piece (photography equipment is pricey and I had invested a small fortune in my set up). The only way down that I could see, was to carry the camera in one hand and navigate the icy ladder with the other.
I did make it down, if I said my heart rate didn't spike at times on the way down, I would be lying. Once at the bottom, the only sounds that could be heard were the crunching of the snow as we moved about navigating the low ceilinged corridors. We slowly checked out the entire freezer, as I was told some stories about it. After viewing the freezer, I quickly tried to get as many pictures as I could, knowing that I would have a limited time to work.
I used a tripod and this allowed me to shoot at a lower ISO, which helps to keep noise out of my images, something learned from the experiences of my friend, who didn't have the benefits of a tripod. I had a really bright LED light that was great for seeing in the pitch black without an added light source, but it was very bright and over exposed the images where it was shining. I made do with shielding the light with my body, while shooting the beam away from the area being photographed, keeping in mind to not create a shadow. Due to the lighting the images are shot with a very small depth of field and were upwards of 20 second exposures each.
I can't recall the temperature, but it wasn't unconformable, although below zero. I was use to operating my camera in extreme cold, making camera adjustments in the Arctic winters, with bare hands in -40 that were quickly returned to warm mitts. It's likely colder above ground most of the year than in the freezer, certainly when you factor in the windchill that wouldn't reach the sheltered depths of the freezer.
Once it was time to leave, I had the task of getting my camera up safely, something I didn't think I could do the same way I got it down. I eventually settled on sheltering it in the hood of my parka and tied it as tight as I could with my hood strings. I slowly climbed the ladder trying to keep my head/neck as still as I could, not fully trusting my impromptu bag. I managed to get myself and the camera up safely, and began researching gear bags the following day.
Once on the surface again I noticed the northern lights had come out so I moved on to take pictures of them. To add to this amazing night, I had captured a shot of the northern lights bathed in a sunset with a unique iceberg grounded on the shore. It became of my more requested prints.
If I got the chance to go back into the freezer, there are things I would do differently from a technical point of the photography. I am fortunate to have had the experience to see the freezer and to have photographed it, it was the experience of a lifetime and one for the memory banks.