You probably haven’t seen this side of Alberta before. Stevin Tuchiwsky takes us on a journey into Ice Caves, behind frozen waterfalls, and on frozen lakes.
In total, we carried around 7kg of camera equipment, portable chargers, and accessories to capture these images. Capturing these images while exerting maximum physical effort was incredibly challenging. We hope the effort was worth it.
It’s been just six short weeks since we had the pleasure of crossing Iceland. The 420 km journey took us 14 days. Trekking a distance of average of a marathon a day including 3 days of rest for injury prevention. As we continue to sort through our media we captured along our journey, I thought I might share some of my favourite moments in this photo essay.
In total, we carried around 7kg of camera equipment, portable chargers, and accessories to capture these images. Capturing these images while exerting maximum physical effort was incredibly challenging. We hope the effort was worth it.
The 40,000 square kilometre wilderness region of Iceland is being actively developed for the first time in history. Corporate hydro interests view the desert “wasteland” as a goldmine. Filmmakers, Ryan Richardson and Hailey Playfair, are hoping to make some noise before it’s too late.
The 40,000 square kilometre wilderness region of the Iceland Highlands are being actively being developed for the first time in history. Corporate hydro interests view the desert “wasteland” as a goldmine. Filmmakers, Ryan Richardson and Hailey Playfair, are hoping to make some noise before it’s too late.
The Highlands Project Chose Us
Being Canadian, both Hailey and I recognize that we’re pretty spoiled with nature and wide open spaces. Honestly, I believe that it’s something most Canadians take for granted. Previously living in two Canadian national parks has really allowed me to see the number of people from around the world who travel to Canada to experience even just a small piece of wilderness. I’m truly inspired to appreciate the wilderness even more.
Since taking the leap into the unpredictable path of filmmaking and freelance work, Hailey and I have been fortunate to travel to many of the planet’s few remaining “wild” places. We’re often disappointed by the over commercialization of such places, knowing that we have more untouched wilderness to explore at home.
Iceland has always been the exception. With so few truly untouched areas left around the world, Iceland is abundant in nature and open spaces.
On one of our flights home from a trekking trip to the Highlands of Iceland, we learned about an initiative that was aiming to protect the region from development. The Highlands National Park initiative was attempting to create a park, it would be Europe’s largest national park.
Once we learned of its’ intentions, we felt immediately convicted to help. Having enjoyed the nature and exploration in the Highlands region so much, it’s a place I can’t imagine being lost, especially just for greed.
We Can Film and Walk
Neither Hailey nor I went to school for environmental protection, or nature conservation, etc. We’re just two outdoor filmmakers and photographers who find solace in open spaces, and use the outdoors as our office. Our appreciation for nature overrides our hesitation to do everything we can to help protect it.
The two of us recognized there’s a lot of things we can’t do to help create change. We did, however, recognize there are a few things we can do. We can film stuff and we can walk. Instead of focusing on the accolades we wish we had to help make a difference, we focused on the things we are able to do.
Besides a few weekend hiking trips, backpacking in Europe and a few other adventures, we had never done anything as extreme as this. A fourteen day thru-hike starting in the Arctic, walking through a remote desert, and ending 420 kilometres later, completely self supported seemed beyond the scope of our physical abilities. Did I mention there would be no access to food, shelter, or infrastructure?
“What the hell, we’ll give it a shot” I thought.
Our route started in Akureyri in the northern region of Iceland along the shores of the Greenland Sea. Getting there meant driving around the country for eight hours in a bus or a 45 minute direct flight from the capital, Reykjavik. We chose to fly.
Seeing what would be our route underneath us as we flew over the Highlands was intimidating more than it was inspiring. It looked as if snow was everywhere, the glaciers were massive and the scale just seemed totally enormous. I had almost wished we took the bus there instead.
Once we arrived in the small town of Akureyri, we finalized our gear for the hundredth time. Knowing that the next time we put our packs, would be the last time we have access to anything besides what we bring with us for the next 14 days.
The Highlands – Northern Region
Walking along paved road for 42 kilometres on our first day didn’t exactly feel like the “wild” and “untouched” landscape that we came for. However, we had the idea to start at the coast and work for the journey into the Highlands. Starting any other way wouldn’t have been as rewarding.
The paved road turned to gravel after 50 kilometres, and then the gravel road turn into a 4×4 track after another 20 kilometres. Finally, we felt the slow incline underneath our feet as we began ascending into the Highlands.
The transition from town, to rural farmland, to wilderness, was entirely worth the extra kilometres on our feet.
The Highlands – Central Region
“We earn our stories now” I said jokingly to Hailey as we looked at our current location on our GPS. Heading into the heart of the Highlands. We were completely on our own, self contained, and self reliable, no matter what.
A warden in the north reminded us that hikers go missing every year in the Highlands because of poor decision making. “Make smart choices, and stay alive”, she said. Hailey and I were feeling as prepared as possible, armed with a healthy respect for nature and the extreme environment in Iceland. We were confident we would be alright.
We spent the next week moving through the remote and completely desolate Highlands region. Watching the sun set and rise as we walked alongside ancient glaciers while navigating black sand deserts, and weathering intense arctic storms day after day.
The Highlands – Southern Region
The last few days in the Highlands laid a beating on us. The journey was filled with long days and little rest, if any. Our shoulders constantly ached and our feet were swollen. My feet were so swollen I could barely fit them in my shoes anymore so I didn’t risk taking them off.
Then there were the blisters. My blisters had gotten so bad by the time we reached the south region, I didn’t think we would finish. We arrived in Landmannalaugar after multiple 50+ kilometre days on our feet. We tried getting there as fast as possible because we knew we had our one and our only food cache shipped to Landmannalaugar.
It Wasn’t Going to Get Any Easier
Walking faster was better than rationing food. I can handle long days, but I can’t handle an empty stomach. The sand, wind, and lack of shelter in the Highlands made it impossible for me to take care of the blisters on my feet. I taped them tightly and waited until we were in the Landmannalaugar to look at them.
Hailey and I sat in our tent and began unraveling the tape protecting my toes for days and hundreds of kilometres. As the tape started coming off, the smell hit me before the site of the blisters did. It was bad. After a closer look, I was pretty sure this meant we were going to have to throw in the towel here in Landmannalaugar.
We were approximately 88 kilometres away from the coast to the south. I just couldn’t imagine walking on my feet, as bad as they were, for another 3 or 4 days. However, I learned from my mother, Leanne Richardson, “never quit at night, if you’re going to quit, do it in the morning after you rest”.
Quitting Wasn’t an Option
There are a few circumstances I would be less reluctant to quit, such as bad weather. If the weather in Iceland shut us down, there’s nothing we can do. Mother nature is always the boss.
Another circumstance would be injury. Not discomfort, or pain, but debilitating injury. If one of us had a stress fracture or some kind of trauma, that’s a no brainer, you pull the plug.
Otherwise, I couldn’t think of many other scenarios where I could imagine being back home, thinking about our trek objectively and being OK with us quitting.
We were in so much pain for so many days, and already achieved so much more than we ever had in our lives. Walking our first marathon distance, our first ultra distance, and then our first 100k, 200k, 300k, multi-day treks while on this Journey.
We couldn’t quit now. What’s a little more pain after so much pain already?
The Light at the End
Trekking through the southern Highlands breathed a new life into us. The ever changing landscapes, being surrounded by other energetic hikers in less remote areas on softer terrain was the medicine we needed. Everything just came together for us. We felt like we had a second wind.
The last few days were cold and wet, but the smell of the ocean was beginning to fill our nostrils. Watching our GPS location on the overall map of Iceland was mind boggling. We couldn’t believe we had nearly crossed the entire country. It was so far beyond what we had expected, in every single way.
We were much more inspired now than ever to get to the coast as quickly as possible. The thought of touching salt water and accomplishing our first objective, crossing Iceland was within reach. It was exciting knowing that this mission was only the first phase of our plan to help protect the highlands.
Walking Across the Country Lends Us a Platform, it Helps Give Us a Voice
Crossing Iceland, coast to coast, 420 kilometres… it was the hardest thing both Hailey and I have ever done, however, it’s just a small part of the bigger picture. Although we set out to capture our experience, the story is more about the human experience in vast wilderness. The relationship between us and nature.
The bigger picture is also sharing the beauty of the Highlands with as many people as possible. So few people will ever experience this remote, far off the grid region for themselves. It’s tough to inspire someone to care about a place they’ve never been to, let alone imagine. Hopefully with our films and with our images, we can close the gap between far-off imaginative places and tangible, beautiful places, places worth protecting. Places worth giving a shit about.
Written by Ryan Richardson, edited by Hailey Playfair.
Special thanks to Pelican for getting behind this project as our film sponsor. Film to be announced soon.
To learn more about how you can protect Iceland’s Highlands, please visit http://halendid.is/#thjodgardur-1
Images shot on Sony A7RIII with G-Master 24-70mm FE 2.8 and G-Master 100mm FE 2.8. Crossing Iceland was shot in collaboration with Sony Imaging and Pro Support.
Thanks to Arc’teryx Toronto for assisting with fundraising efforts and providing necessary equipment to accomplish our expedition.
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Hailey and I grabbed a red eye from Toronto to Keflavik, Iceland overnight. We arrived in Iceland early this morning and immediately began organizing our expedition.
The Adventure Begins.
Our first stop after arriving at the airport was the BSI bus station located just outside of downtown Reykjavik. The BSI bus station is basically basecamp for all highland access. Their fleet of off-road busses can cross raging rivers and tear through quick sand with ease.
The busses drop off hikers to remote mountain huts, they also deliver packages and food to the huts. Packages like the two that we had prepared to be dropped off five days apart at two separate strategic locations to refill our food supply on route across the country.
As we arrived, we learned that the BSI bus station is no longer servicing the huts we had planned to cache our food at ahead of time. We have approximately 30 pounds of food for the duration of 14 days on the trail. With the addition of film equipment and camping gear, there’s no room for the access food in our packs…
The adventure begins!
Our Route Across Iceland.
We were very intentional about our route across Iceland. It’s important we capture as much compelling footage of key areas as possible. These visuals will aid the conservation group with more eyes on some of these rarely seen areas of Iceland.
Other considerations included access to “bug out” points should something go wrong. We are never further than 15 km away from a 4×4 road that would see at least a few vehicles a day. Additionally, if some rivers are impassible, our only option will be to hike to the 4×4 road, wait for a “super jeep” to give us a ride across the river, before returning to our original route.
We chose to go North to South for a few reasons. The first reason, there are much less rivers to ford compared to crossing from east to west or west to east. The location of the glaciers and their run-off makes traveling across the country more dangerous.
The second reason, The first two days of the route have a lot of climbing. They will be tough days. However, after the first two days, there’s a gradual decline for the next five days. Near the end of our route we connect with a trail called the Laugavegur trail. We are familiar with the Laugavegur trail, and at this point we will be pretty worn out. Knowing what to expect will give us a bit of an edge.
What We’re Taking With Us.
We categorized most of our equipment by shelter, kitchen, clothing, and accessories, and finally camera equipment.
We are using the A7RIII and A7III for photography on our trek. We are filming exclusively on Sony RX0 II cameras for our Crossing Iceland film. Sony was generous enough to lend us the equipment to ensure we weren’t limited by not having access to the right tools for the job.
Not listed below is the Sony camera batteries. We will be caring approximately a dozen for the mirrorless systems and another dozen for the RX systems.
As far as food goes, we are bringing the homemade dehydrated meals for dinner each night. Homemade oatmeal for the morning, instant coffee, salt tabs, and an assortment of vegan meal bars such as Bobo bars, Pro bars, and Cliff bars.
We Met With the Halendid (Highlands) Conservation Founder.
We met with project founder, Árni Finnsson about the Highlands National Park project. Politics and policy have been slow at best. However, Árni is optimistic. Árni started working on the protection of the highlands with the Icelandic Nature Conservation Association in 1997.
The idea of protecting the highlands with a national park was very popular in recent years. But with new governments constantly changing over, it has been challenging to get the idea to take off.
The current government has agreed that there should be a national park in the highlands. However, since that statement, there has been no more information on how much of the highlands region the government plans to protect, or when to expect its’ implementation.
This has pretty much put the Highlands project in another holding pattern. Meanwhile hydro interests and local municipalities continue to plan on development in multiple areas around the highlands.
Ready or Not.
The Crossing Iceland film will be presented by Pelican.
Explore your backyard and discover these breathtaking hiking trails. Here’s a list of 5 breathtaking hiking trails near Toronto.
There’s a reason most outdoor inclined individuals move from Toronto to cities like Calgary or Vancouver. We’re all bombarded with imagery of breathtaking hiking trails out west in our news feeds. However, Is it possible we’re just not looking hard enough in our own backyard? Here’s a list of 5 breathtaking hiking trails near Toronto.
Niagara Glen Trails.
Where: Niagara Glen Conservation Area.
Distance from Toronto: 1 hour 20 minutes.
Trail length: Intersecting trails, 0-1.5 km with the option to hop on other trails.
Optional activities nearby: Checkout the Niagara Falls. Stay overnight and enjoy the night life in Niagara after a long day of hiking.
Niagara Glen is located 1 hour 20 minutes south of Toronto and boasts some of the most scenic trails in the entire province! There are tons of short yet incredible hikes in the area. River trail, cliffside trail, and terrace trail are our favourites.
The Bruce Trail – Peninsula Section
Where: Bruce Peninsula National Park.
Distance from Toronto: 3 hours 30 minutes.
Trail length: Up to 160 km.
Optional activities nearby: Make it a multi-day hike and camp on the trail overnight. Checkout the Grotto trail while you’re in the area.
The entire Bruce Trail is a massive trail starting at the northern tip of the Niagara escarpment in the Bruce Peninsula running all the way south eventually ending in Niagara. The 160 km section in the peninsula is by far the most breathtaking. We recommend starting at Tobermory and hiking south to Crane Lake. Break it up into two or three days and stay at one of the three wilderness camping sites along the way.
The Grotto Trail.
Where: Bruce Peninsula National Park
Distance from Toronto: 3 hours 30 minutes.
Trail length: 1 km one way.
Optional activities nearby: Visit more breathtaking trails in the area.
This one is almost cheating because it’s only a short detour off of the Bruce Trail listed above. However, we think it deserves it’s own recognition on this list because of how breathtaking it is. It’s worth the drive from Toronto just for this one short day hike if you ask us.
Where: Rattlesnake Point Conservation Area.
Distance from Toronto: 50 minutes.
Trail length: 4.7 km one way.
Optional activities nearby: Overnight camping with beautiful campsites and a generally quiet location.
Rattlesnake point has an absolutely breathing lookout. On a clear day you can see all the way to Niagara. The Nassagaweya trail walks along the niagara escarpment with great views and fantastic trails. The Bruce Trail actually intersects this trail as well. Hundreds of kilometres from where it first started in the peninsula.
Where: Dundas Valley Conservation Area.
Distance from Toronto: 55 minutes.
Trail length: 10.5 km loop.
Optional activities nearby: Visit downtown Hamilton for the best coffee in Ontario at Phin Coffee Bar.
The Dundas valley conservation area is home to 40 km of trails! It’s hard to pick a favourite trail. Try them all over the course of a few days. Or leave the heavy backpack at home and try running some of them to cover some extra distance!
What’s your favourite breathtaking hiking trail? Is it on our list? If not, comment below so we can check it out!
Photos by Ryan Richardson.
Swimming with Orcas felt as though I was witnessing something from a different era. It felt as like I was seeing an extinct dinosaur with my own eyes.
Swimming with Orcas in Norway
Swimming with orcas is something I had never considered, let alone knew was possible until this past November. Swimming with killer whales was never on my radar, in fact, just about anything to do with the ocean is way outside of my comfort zone. Unfortunately, I’ve always lived in landlocked cities, besides, the Rocky Mountains are my first true love. The ocean is just this overwhelming entity. I wouldn’t even know how to get into something like this.
I’m so glad that I did though.
Friends of ours asked Hailey and I if we would be interested in filming a photography workshop they were hosting in Norway. The workshop was swimming with orcas. We thought, what the heck, might as well get our feet wet sooner than later.
Skjervøy, Norway 400 kilometers north of the arctic circle.
Every year in the late fall, billions of herring migrate along the gulf stream current. Herring travel thousands of kilometers in massive schools. The herring swim until they finally reach the remote fjords of the Norwegian Sea, in the Arctic Ocean. Behind all those herring, thousands of orcas and humpbacks follow. Herring is a large source of food for both predators, so a gathering like this is well worth the travel if you’re a hungry orca or humpback whale.
The wildlife in the Norwegian Sea is thriving still. Unlike the pacific coast of Washington and British Columbia. Orcas are found in large numbers. There are young and healthy pods scattered all throughout the remote inlets and fjords of the Norwegian coast. Unfortunately, the wildlife there might not be safe in Norway for much longer. There are oil development, and oil transportation initiatives that are putting the orca’s well-being at risk.
In Norway, there is no code of conduct for approaching wildlife at sea.
The code of conduct in many parts of the world is simple. Don’t have your boat within 200m of the wildlife. Additionally, don’t swim within 200m of the wildlife. The 200m rules helps direct traffic on the waters and enforce a common sense rule. A 200m code of conduct helps to keep swimmers safe from tour boat operators. The operators have eager clients on board. The operators will sometimes stop at nothing to give their clients a “whale watching experience”. Even if that means they’re driving erratically, and dangerously close to swimmers, or right over top of the whales.
Unfortunately, the Norwegian government has no such code of conduct. The tour operators and local outfitters do what ever they want at sea. Fortunately for the orcas, small tour boats and eager swimmers with little regard for wildlife etiquette, don’t really cramp their style too much. The orcas are too busy feasting on millions of herring to pay too much attention.
It’s the oil tankers and the threat of oil spills that will really harm these animals. The code of conduct helps protect swimmers more than anything. It’s also just good practice to give the orcas some space.
Regardless, wildlife etiquette is crucial. Our approach, as explained by our wildlife guide and award winning photographer, Jonas Beyer, was to find the herring. If we found herring, we could anticipate the orcas arrival. If the orca came to us, they might be curious and swim with us and interact with us.
It didn’t take long for us to find them.
Our alarms set well before sunrise, we woke up early. Inhaled some breakfast, and left for the harbour. Our captain was going to meet us on the harbour at 8:00 am. Right around when the arctic sun would rise above the not so distant mountains. I packed up my gear and hopped on board.
We cruised away from the harbour and after only a few minutes our captain spotted a large pod of orcas. The captain then headed in for a closer look. It was an absolutely massive feeding frenzy. Orca everywhere, humpbacks breaching beside each other. Birds flew over head. The birds would try to grab the stunned herring floating at the top of the sea. There were also about half a dozen whale watching boats, and two massive fishing boats in the middle of the action. We definitely wouldn’t be swimming with orcas here.
After about twenty minutes of sailing along silky smooth waters, our captain spotted another pod of orcas and our wildlife guide, Jonas instructed us to “suit up”. The daytime temperatures hovered around 4 degrees celsius, which was about the same temperature of the water.
“The important thing to consider when approaching wildlife is always respect, it’s important that we get into the water and wait for the orca to come to us, not drive our boat over top of them and then jump in right beside the orcas.” – Jonas Breyer
It felt as though I was witnessing something from a different era. It felt as though I was seeing an extinct dinosaur with my own eyes.
The anticipation was building. It was strange to know I’d be diving into this foreign world. A world with animals I’d only ever seen in bad Hollywood movies. I crawled into my wetsuit and waited on the back of the boat for Jonas to give us the “go ahead”.
We got our signal and slowly dipped into the water from the back of our boat. The key was to get into the water quickly, but quietly. I waded the water for a few minutes, with the taste of sea salt in my mouth. I adjusted my breathing so I could use the snorkel effectively. Then I saw it. I saw a dorsal fin sticking right out of the surface water immediately in front of me.
It felt as though I was witnessing something from a different era. It felt as like I was seeing an extinct dinosaur with my own eyes.
The four orcas swam almost within arms reach.
I remember feeling calm, but there was also a tingle that went down my spine, something primal. The feeling wasn’t fear. It felt as though I was witnessing something from a different era. It felt as like I was seeing an extinct dinosaur with my own eyes. I watched the dorsal fin approach closer, then I lowered my head underwater and looked straight ahead through my snorkeling mask. The orca and I locked eyes. Time practically froze. I was completely in the moment.
I peaked my head above water to see if Hailey, saw what just happened. Smiling ear to ear, I knew she saw the orca as well. We shared the moment and exchanged high-fives. Hailey pointed out a few more dorsal fins twenty meters away to our right. She started slowly swimming over to get a closer look. Four more orcas saw us treading water towards them. They appeared to casually change direction and head straight for us. The four orcas swam almost within arms reach.
Orca are the apex predator of not just the ocean, but land too.
After spending four more days on the water, swimming with the orcas and even humpback whales whenever possible. It’s like everyone knows sea creatures like this exist. However, it’s as if most people don’t believe they exist the way they do. Watching these predators interact with each other, with us, play, and socialize, it completely reframed my understanding of wildlife in general.
Swimming with Orcas is extremely humbling. Orcas are the apex predator of not just the ocean, but land too. Killer whales hunt not only the largest mammals in the water, blue whales, but also the largest predators on land, polar bears. It’s truly an experience beyond words, one I wish I could describe, or gift to others. The only way to truly understand though, is to get in that water.
Would you go swimming with orcas?
All images taken while on assignment by Life Outside Studio and used with the permission of the owners, Hailey Playfair and Ryan Richardson
The central highland contains volcanoes, glaciers, voluminous rivers and waterfalls, colorful hot springs, vast lava fields and broad expanses of black sand, all contrasted with oases of vibrant but vulnerable vegetation. And it’s under attack by hydro companies and lack of protection.
Europe has over-developed most its’ wilderness areas
How Much Wilderness is left in Europe?
Europe’s Last True Wilderness is Under Attack. Europe has an estimated 500 or so fragmented wilderness areas left scattered throughout the continent. Most of its’ wilderness areas are in northern Scandinavian countries, and are staggered and isolated from each other. Iceland’s Highlands are really a last hope for Europe’s wilderness. There is really no comparable place like it anywhere, not just in Europe, but on earth. To quote the Hálendið or “Highland” National Park initiative:
“The central highland contains volcanoes, glaciers, voluminous rivers and waterfalls, colorful hot springs, vast lava fields and broad expanses of black sand, all contrasted with oases of vibrant but vulnerable vegetation. Collectively, these natural phenomena and magnificent landscapes form one of the most vibrant areas in the world”.
What’s Special About the Highlands?
The geology, nature, landscapes and sheer epic size is unlike anywhere else. It’s easily possible to wander around the highlands for days, if not weeks without seeing another soul. The earth’s total wilderness areas has decreased from 33% just a single generation ago, down to 23%. The decrease in wilderness is usually due to animal agriculture, mass logging, oil and gas, and hydro. In Iceland’s case, their direct threat to their beloved highlands is hydro infrastructure in the form of dams and electrical pylons.
The Highland National Park initiative is raising awareness and funds in hopes to establish a national park protecting all 40000 square kilometres of the highlands. With Europe’s last true wilderness under attack, protecting only 14000 square km with the current national parks, it isn’t enough. The protection from the park would stop all corporate interest from destroying its’ nature. The national park would have the power to effectively conserve one of the last true wildernesses areas, not just in Europe, but the world.
You Can Help Make a Change
To help with the Highland National Park initiative please sign its’ petition, it takes 15 seconds, and you can help make a real difference. Click here.
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People like to celebrate huge successes, but sometimes when you show the reality of what it takes to accomplish seemingly impossible goals, it can come across as reckless and dangerous… in reality it’s just the evolution of realizing your objectives and the execution pushing past physical and mental barriers, sometimes it hurts.
When I picked up a camera to share stories with friends and family about my little adventures in the Rocky Mountains a few years ago, I had know idea where my camera would eventually take me.
It didn’t take long to realize that I loved being outside. As soon as I started sharing photos of my adventures, people began asking me if I was selling them. I sold a few prints and after that, a lightbulb went off… I thought I might be able to make a career out of this photography thing! I met a photographer, Chase Teron of Artica Studios through a mutual friend. We hit it off immediately and planned a 4×4 trip around Iceland in the middle of winter in February 2015. Chase was already an established outdoor photographer, he gave me a head start by showing me the ropes. I took what I learned from Chase about photography and about the business of photography, and I started my own business… a business where I could be outside as much as I wanted to. I learned something on that trip that I’ve found to be true, over and over again… The lessons that you learn in the Arctic, are lessons that you never forget.
Soon after that trip in Iceland I realized that waiting around for the occasional print sale wasn’t exactly a long term business strategy. I began photographing people in the mountains, people will pay for their photos to be taken, unfortunately mountains and landscapes usually don’t.
I met Ray Zahab who was directing a successful ultra-trail race series in Gatineau Park, just outside of Ottawa ON. After photo- graphing a few of his Ultra-Trail races, Ray and I became good friends. Ray Zahab is an extremely accomplished explorer and adventurer… in 2015 he was recognized as a Top Explorer by Canadian Geographic. He has ran over 14,000 kilometres across the worlds’ deserts, and in 2009 he was the first person to trek to the south pole without the assistance of skis.
So when Ray called me and asked if I would go with him to Africa to film and photograph his crossing of the Namib desert, I was elated… And then I asked him when he was leaving, he said “three weeks”… Good things never arrive at a good time. Ideally I’d have months to prepare and I had literally just returned from a project in Banff AB. But luck wouldn’t have it. I’m a Professional Photographer, but an amateur filmmaker at best at this point. I only had three weeks to basically learn an entirely new skill, not just learn it, but attempt to master it. After spending about a thou-sand dollars on creativelive.com and honing my skills everyday at least 12 hours a day, I was feeling confident, OK, I was feeling semi confident at best.
I met the team in Virginia Washington, we did a “gear shakedown” and went over logistics. We mostly just drank Woodford Reserve and traded stories of adventure. Our team consisted of Ray Zahab, his running partner Stefano Gregoretti, Team manager Jeff Dean, Photographer Jon Golden, and myself, amateur videographer. While we were going through our final checklists, my photography hero, Chris Burkard, emailed Jon Golden to wish us good luck on our expedition. I was pretty stoked about that, and that was about all the motivation I needed for the upcoming weeks. We flew out of Virginia and arrived a few days later in Windhoek, Namibia.
Ray ran about 40 kilometres on +67°c asphalt, before he ran out of water and collapsed under the unforgiving desert sun.
After being in country for five minutes, we drove past a black mamba (the world’s deadliest snake) slithering along the side of the highway on our way to downtown Windhoek. I was seriously wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into when I saw that snake. We loaded the two expedition trucks in Windhoek, met our two local guides who would drive us, and keep us from becoming a lion’s afternoon snack. After packing five weeks worth of gear and logistics into our two trucks, we all squeezed in, and drove south, two days, to the border of Namibia and South Africa… where Zahab and Gregoretti would begin there 1,800 kilometre run across the country.
Day one, the locals were complaining it was the hottest day of the year so far. It’s probably just my luck, but when I’m on trips, I often hear locals saying “It’s usually never this hot… It usually doesn’t rain this much… It’s usually nicer than this”. Apparently I travel when anomalies in the weather are prevalent. It was +47°c and even the baboons were losing their minds. Zahab and I left Ottawa airport and the temperature was nearly -30°c. We were both struggling with the heat almost right away. Once the runners had finally began their journey, Ray ran about 40 kilometres on +67°c asphalt, before he ran out of water and collapsed under the unforgiving desert sun.
“The first few days are always like this”, Ray said. We were recording cutting and uploading videos every few days, and Ray asked me not include him passing out in our first video upload. Other expedition athletes and endurance athletes would probably infer what’s taking place when you say “It’s really, really hard, and the sun is beating us down”… People like to celebrate huge successes, but sometimes when you show the reality of what it takes to accomplish seemingly impossible goals, it can come across as reckless and dangerous… in reality it’s just the evolution of realizing your objectives and the execution pushing past physical and mental barriers, sometimes it hurts.
The next day, the team woke up with the sun. The runners started their days earlier and earlier to avoid as much direct sunlight as possible. They were averaging about fifty-five kilometres a day, taking roughly eight to ten hours including pit stops and lunch breaks. Filming the expedition so far was going well. Zahab is a natural when interviewing, he made it easy to extract information from. My job was essentially to record, edit and upload eight short videos during the thirty day run. I would record three days of footage, interview the runners every evening, and I would occasionally interview them when they were least expecting it. Candid interviews while they were hurting, tired, and feeling miserable, is a part of the expedition I wanted to shed light on. It’s not always fun breaking new ground, but it’s always worth it.
My biggest challenge by far was sleeping. Because I was a one man show, I was wearing a ton of hats… creative director, director, producer, interviewer, camera operator, photographer, time lapse tech, audio operator, editor, post Producer, colour corrector, graphics design, audio mixer. I also had to ingest and backup all of my files every evening, creating multiple copies for safe keeping. After all of that, I would use an Explorer 710 Bgan to broadcast and upload my short films and the photos shot in tandem with the videos. Each upload would take anywhere from thirty minutes to three hours, and the device couldn’t be left unattended… Needless to say I seriously had my work cut out for me.
Eventually, well after everyone would be sound asleep in their tents… The animals would start coming out. Wild dogs would congregate outside of my tent, mating and fighting with each other. Elephants would roam gracefully through our camp, sometimes wild foxes would raid our temporary sites as well. My days often started a few hours after I’d get to bed, I’d be up early to take a time-lapse of the scenic landscape we were waking up to. And then I would start my routine all over again.
It was an extremely difficult workload, in the harshest environment I’d ever worked in. But it was also the most wild and beautiful place I’d ever seen. Namibia reminded me of Utah and Arizona in the midwest of America. It’s how I imagine the midwest looked like just as the ranching industry started to evolve there. The world’s Deserts fascinate me. There is a sense of scale, and fragility in the desert that can’t be found anywhere else on earth.
We were deep in lion country and as a safety precaution Zahab and Gregoretti wanted a truck to stay beside them while running.
Near the end of the trip the heat had really hit me hard. The local water was very brackish and getting harder to drink where we were up north, so I was drinking a lot less of it. You lose a ton of water from being in such a dry environment, and you pay for it if you don’t drink enough… And I did pay for it. I had the energy zapped from me a felt pretty queasy for two days, I wasn’t even sure if it was just the lack of water at the time, I just felt awful, and worst of all… I still had a job to do.
We were about a week away from our final destination. The runners were completely exhausted, they were sick of the desert, and just tired of running. The entire team was starting to look forward to the end, to accomplishing our goal. But it was also distracting, when you’re thinking about home, or thinking about the end… you make mistakes. We were deep in lion country and as a safety precaution Zahab and Gregoretti wanted a truck to stay beside them while running. Zahab instructed the other vehicle to drive ahead fifteen or so kilometres and set up camp. The two guides discussed a suitable camp site near a dry river bed, and then they parted ways, one guide with the runners, and one guide with the camp gear. I was in the truck with the camp gear, I wanted to set up an interview at camp and have it ready for the runners as soon as they arrived.
Three hours later, the sun started to get closer to the horizon, our guide was getting increasingly concerned. The runners and the first truck are nowhere to be found. Our guide at camp asked Golden and myself if he should go look for the guys before dark, we agreed it was a good idea. We were also essentially in the middle of a massive wildlife corridor, and Golden and I didn’t feel safe at camp without a vehicle to retreat to, so we joined our guide. The sun eventually set, we made our way back to camp to make a decision… we knew that the Zahab and Gregoretti were with their guide and team manager, Jeff Dean, we also knew they had food, water, and shelter with them. We too, had food, water, and shelter. We also knew where we were, and we knew that the other guys probably knew where they were… we just didn’t know where each other were.
There is one chief rule in Africa, do not drive after dark. I voted that we set up camp, and find the rest of the team in the morning. I was overruled, but there was no way in hell I was staying in a dry river bed in lion country alone… I went with the Golden and our guide on the search for the rest of our team.
After a few hours, we were completely lost, we were going in circles and avoiding herds of desert elephants in the darkness of the night. It was terrifying, you couldn’t see the elephants until you were beside them, and they were twice the size of our Land Cruiser. In Canada, if you see a grizzly bear, you’re completely safe inside of your vehicle, In Namibia, if you accidentally provoke an elephant, your vehicle isn’t going to do a thing to protect you. We eventually found the river bed that we had set up camp in, and we drove up and down it, until we found our campsite. I was relieved we knew where we were gain. We slept in the truck for a couple of hours and waited for daylight.
Sure enough, the next morning we found the first truck and the runners. Nobody was worse for wear. It was however, a humble reminder that things can happen quickly in the dessert, and if you let your guard down it can potentially have dire consequences. An American had ventured out near where we gotten lost, just weeks prior. He left his vehicle behind and headed for the hills, he was never seen again. The search was still ongoing in the area when we traveled through it. It was a sobering reminder.
For me, it was a reminder that no matter how remarkable a place is, the people that reside in those places, are that much more remarkable.
The expedition ended just 60 kilometres shy of our original goal, the Angolan border. The only routes from where we were, were through a potential minefield that still hadn’t been cleared since the last civil war, and a washed out road that was impossible to cross, even with our guides’ outstanding ability to navigate off-road. The expedition was a supported one, and if the trucks and the team couldn’t continue on, nobody would. Zahab and Gregoretti set their last GPS mark, and called it.
We had traveled 1,800 kilometres together. The runners ran everyday for 30 days to achieve their goal. The set back at the finish turned out to be a blessing, as we were finishing close enough to the northernmost primary school in Namibia. Zahab reached out to the Principle and asked if we could share our experience of the Country with his students. The school was happy to host us.
We arrived early the next morning. The students were packed into a medium sized classroom, where the principle introduced us to them. The students had prepared a song for us, one boy took the lead and the rest of the class followed along. For me, it was a reminder that no matter how remarkable a place is, the people that reside in those places, are that much more remarkable. Zahab had pre- pared a slideshow of images we had captured on our journey. The students had never strayed far from their remote village before, they had never seen some of the marvellous sites that their country had to offer. Zahab then showed them images of Canada, and expeditions he had been on in Baffin Island. The students laughed at disbelief when they saw snow for the first time, they laughed even harder when they saw a photo of Zahab with icicles hanging off his frozen beard.
So often when we plan a trip to experience a new place, we forget about the incredible people that live in these amazing places. Engaging with the primary school students, seeing a glimpse into their world and their daily lives… encounters like this are exactly why the runners do what they do, it’s why I do what I do.
The coolest part about adventure photography and filmmaking is constantly being surrounded by such inspiring athletes, culture, and people. People who take their sport, or their craft, and push it to the next level. Being able to to document that process, and then share it as a means to inspire others.
Photos by Ryan Richardson