In the wilds of the Arctic north of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, lies the Applied Physics Laboratory Ice Station: a support base for the U.S. Navy, used to investigate how submarines and underwater communications can work effectively in this harsh environment. The North Pole marker stuck in the snow close to the camp is fake, but the remoteness is genuine.
The camp, made up of plywood hutches and tents, took about three days to construct, as workers had to fly back to their base at Prudhoe Bay each night to avoid -30 to -50 degree temperatures until there were enough shelters to house them all.
"I had entered another world"
The Arctic Ocean in March is basically an ocean of ice. Almost the entire thing is covered from October to June in an icepack that only partially disappears in the summer.
Why would anyone in their right mind volunteer to spend a month or more in temperatures that usually don’t exceed -10 degrees Fahrenheit or -23 degrees Celsius? In the case of the roughly two dozen souls who work either for the British, Canadian and United States Navy or the Arctic Physics Laboratory Ice Station, it is because there is a job to be done: building a camp and maintaining a command centre that communicates with two nuclear submarines below the ice.
We were approached by Navy and research centre to come up and do a story about this camp and the work they do with U.S. Navy submarines. When I was asked if this was something I would be interested in, I of course said yes. Who wouldn’t like to go to the Arctic, sleep in a plywood hutch, and go underneath the ice in a nuclear submarine?
On the flight to the camp I was amazed how there can be nothing for hundreds and hundreds of miles but sheets of ice, only rarely punctuated by cracks where seawater can be seen steaming through into the frigid air.
The only thing that broke up the monotone landscape was the camp and as we approached I saw for the first time the small collection of wooden huts and a couple of tents that this band of souls were calling home. I had entered another world.
It was difficult for me to process what to photograph and how to get images that even began to show what life was like here. I couldn’t seem to fit the immenseness of the place into my camera’s frame no matter how hard I tried.
But it was also beautiful and after looking back on the photos a couple of times I realised that when I was just taking a picture for myself of the flatness or immensity I was actually capturing a good slice of what it is like.
On day two we were flown via helicopter to watch the Seawolf class submarine USS Connecticut force it’s way through 3-4ft of ice to pick up the Secretary of the Navy and a congressional delegation that had flown up to inspect the Arctic project.
Shortly after the surfacing we were flown to another submarine that had surfaced in shallower ice for our overnight trip. The USS New Hampshire is a Virginia class submarine, the newest class in the US Navy. The dive away from the ice was quite exciting as the boat went down at a very steep angle.
The last day was a blur. In that one day we surfaced the submarine in a very narrow bit of open water, I flew in a helicopter back to the ice camp, and flew in a small plane back to Prudhoe Bay.
In roughly 60 hours on the ice I had slept a total of about 8-10 hours and taken a few thousand photographs of things that I will probably never see again. I met dozens of amazing people both at the ice camp and in the submarine. As I sit in my apartment now writing this it seems like a strange dream that this had actually happened.