The Canadian badlands boast much more than just fossils however. It’s a great place to break in a new 4×4 and get a little dirt underneath its’ tires.
Alberta is a driving province. Everything is relatively close, so long as you have a vehicle to get you there. The mountains, the prairies and everything in between are all easily accessible. After a lot of deliberation, my partner Hailey and I finally pulled the trigger on our own vehicle. Our first destination with our new wheels might come as a bit of a surprise.
Alberta’s badlands are located around the usually sleepy town of Drumheller. Drumheller is about ninety minutes from Calgary. The town is known for the famous Tyrell Dinosaur Museum. The badlands around the town are famous for being the dinosaur bone capital of the world.
The Canadian badlands boast much more than just fossils however. It’s a great place to break in a new 4×4 and get a little dirt underneath its’ tires. It had been about seven years since I last visited the area with my old 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee. I couldn’t imagine a better place to christen our brand new Jeep Cherokee.
We drove around the town for a while. Turning down just about every dirt road we could find. There were a few roads that elevated quickly out of Drumheller which opened up to beautiful views of the town below.
After making the rounds around town we decided to head to Horseshoe Canyon. It looked like on Google Earth we might be able to drive off road a little bit and park next to the edge of the canyon. We didn’t quite know what to expect but that was part of the adventure!
Horseshoe canyon use to be a lush habitat for the dinosaurs that once roamed its’ surface. It’s not hard to imagine what it might have looked like to see a dinosaur there as you look into the layers of ancient layers of sediment that make up the canyon.
We found the perfect spot to park our new Jeep to enjoy the setting sun together. I brought my small acoustic guitar to pass the time until the sun set closer to the horizon. Once the sun lowered in the sky, it cast all kinds of incredible shades of colours into Horseshoe Canyon.
I took full advantage of the fleeting sunlight and snapped photos of our temporary setup at the edge of the canyon. We were parked right on the rim and had the entire view to ourselves. The sun slowly faded into a gentle purple hue until the stars began to fill the sky.
When living in Alberta it’s easy to overlook the less visited towns and regions that make up our beautiful province. The Canadian Rockies steal a lot of the thunder. The badlands reignited a spark in me that enjoys discovering completely new places – especially the adventures where I can explore on four wheels.
Glacier running is something I knew nothing about until a few weeks ago. Crossing a glacier without a rope, what kind of crampons would I even wear?
Glacier running is something I knew nothing about until a few weeks ago. Crossing a glacier without a rope, what kind of crampons would I even wear? All of my concerns would quickly disappear with the reassurance of navigating this terrain with the guides at Canadian Rockies Running Adventures.
Blue ice crunched beneath my feet as I carefully ran on the Wapta Icefield. Surrounded by towering mountain peaks, I feel as though I’m a character in some kind of alpine fairytale. Crossing a mix of solid ice and melting ice for the next 8 km. I fill up my now empty water bottle with the melt water pouring off the melting glacier as it heats up from the afternoon sun. I feel as though I’m sipping a piece of Canadian history.
There’s a group of 10 of us runners having the time of our lives, running with micro spikes on our trail shoes, jumping over flowing water and avoiding the occasional crevasse. The sound of the river systems beneath the glacier echoed so loudly it was as if we were standing next to the Niagara Falls.
So it’s Safe Right?
This area of the of the Wapta Icefield is unique because it’s a “dry glacier”. That means that if the conditions are right, there’s no snow hiding the otherwise dangerous cravasses. That means there’s no risk of falling into the glacier never to be seen again. That doesn’t mean there’s no risk at all though! That’s where the guides come in.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when Canadian Rockies Running Adventures invited Ryan and I to come along on their Wapta Icefields Run. “Crossing a glacier? Don’t you need to be roped up for that?” I nervously thought to myself.
Don’t you need to be roped up for that?
Having this kind of glacier adventure without mountaineering experience is nearly impossible for the average runner and adventurer. However, My fears quickly disappeared in knowing that our friends and certified mountain guides James (IFMGA / ACMG MG) and Emily (ACMG AHG) would be leading the way!
Running to New Heights
We started running lakeside from the edge of the Bow Lake. Bow lake sits along the Icefields Parkway in Banff NP. We ran around the lake and then up a relatively flat trail through the trees behind bow lake. We gradually ascended alongside the flowing melt water from the glacier that we would soon be running on. Leaving bow lake behind us, a beautiful scene down the valley began opening up. I had never experienced so much eco-diversity in such a small area.
Hopping over some rocky terrain, small streams, and tree roots. We reached the famous backcountry hut, Bow Hut. We stopped to have some lunch and take in the gorgeous alpine scenery. After a quick bite of gourmet protein bars, we continued to ascend up to the toe of the glacier beneath St. Nicholas peak. Bright turquoise glacial ponds formed right at the toe of where we would start our “glacier running” adventure. We spiked up and got ready to take on the Wapta Icefield!
The Icefields along the parkway are dwindling in size each year. The adjacent Columbia Icefield tracks the regression of its’ glaciers with great detail. The regression is shared with the public and shown by placing markers along the moraine with the dates at which the glacier still reached the markers, indicating the glacier’s retreat and the timeline at which it’s retreating.
The climate crisis can be overwhelmingly large and intangible at times. Spending time near glaciers and on glaciers is the best way I know how to get a “crash course” on our climate and the rate at which our planet is getting warmer.
Glaciers around the world are receding at an alarming rate due to our current climate crisis. It’s sad and sobering, however it’s a fact, and it makes me appreciate our time on the icefield, as it lives and breathes, even more special.
It’s true what they say. When you do something outside of your comfort zone, your comfort zone grows. This glacier running adventure is a low risk opportunity to put that theory to the test. Having professional ACMG guides blazing your trail and upholding an uncompromising ‘duty of care’ ensures your well-being.
Having your safety looked after, you can focus on enjoying a brand new experience. Pushing your personal boundaries and exposing yourself to a brand new experience that might otherwise be unachievable or dangerous. After this glacier running adventure, I have become even more inspired to push my safely boundaries and personal development moving through the mountains. I hope to explore new and exciting terrain that before I thought to be unachievable or out of reach.
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.
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”.
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.
The arctic is the most extreme environment on the planet, and shooting there isn’t easy. Photographer Jon Golden shares his arctic experiences, talks gear, cameras, and close calls.
Warm weather is rare in Nunavut, Canada; the land is fiercely hostile, and desolately remote. Nestled among this icy wilderness lies the fifth largest island in the world: Baffin Island. The island is one of the coldest and the most remote destinations on Earth.
Baffin Island is located between the mainland of Canada, and Greenland. It has a population of ~11,000. The islands’ topography is riddled with an exceptional backbone of jagged peaks measuring up to 2,147 meters (~7044 feet) in height. Many of the mountains are snow-capped all year round with ancient glaciers, while the rest of the landscape is home to deep valleys, massive fjords, and arctic wildlife of all kinds. With 75% of Canadians living within 200 kilometers (124 miles) of the US border, it’s no surprise that the general population in Canada doesn’t know much about its own northern regions:After all, it is the second largest country on Earth.
Jon Golden has great respect for these remote environments, especially during the winter season. When in an isolated and brutal environment nearly 100 kilometers (61 miles) away from any form of civilization, it is critical to be as prepared and respectful as possible. Jon has already taken three trips to the Arctic in Canada, visiting places like Baffin Island, Nunavik, andNorthwest Territories. On one return trip, after hearing he had been on six jet flights to get to Toronto, an airport employee asked Jon where he was traveling from.When he responded, “Norman Wells,” she promptly replied, “where is that”?
“If you’re not fully prepared for the Arctic, you’re a liability… and not just to yourself but to your team, to the locals, and the Canadian Parks Services, too. There’s not a lot of margin for error up there”
Golden has created an extremely dynamic lifestyle for himself in the 25 years he has been a professional photographer. While living in Norway, he managed to barter his way onto a Norwegian military winter survival course (in exchange for photos). The course was to become an integral piece to the puzzle for his preparedness in the Arctic.
What are some tips or advice you might have for someone looking to get into photographing subjects in extreme cold temperatures like the Arctic?
For me, as someone that grew up in Virginia, USA, much more southern than Canada, I had zero experience with the kinds of cold that you experience in the Arctic. I would also venture to say that most Canadians also do not have experience with the kind of conditions you get in the Arctic. When I was living in Norway, I was fortunate enough to take a Norwegian Military winter survival course, and learn the basics of extreme cold weather survival… things that most Canadians might learn growing up, if they go north at all. The most important advice I would have would be to get some experience in extreme conditions: Arctic cold is NOT the same as normal winter cold. Go out and car/truck camp in conditions that are -35°C and windy. Test yourself, test your gear and have the car or a cabin nearby. Read up on or take a course on Arctic survival. Like Scuba Diving, you have to be 100% comfortable in your environment to be able to work at a high level. Preparation is everything when visiting sub-zero temperatures.
How did you end up photographing in these extreme environments?
What are some of your biggest challenges when trying to “get the shot” in these Arctic environments?
Cold is the obvious one, it makes everything more difficult or more time consuming… anything metal must be handled in gloves… you cannot just sit around. If you do stop moving you need to be in a sleeping bag, you need to plot and plan your bathroom routine, you need to make your meal preparation is as easy as possible. The cold determines everything that you do and how you do it, so it’s critical that you pay attention to every detail, and address every problem before it becomes a problem. Everything that I do, I do intentionally to combat the elements. I pack my camera batteries in the chest pockets of my first layer. I pack my snacks for the day in my parka pockets, accessible even on the back of a snowmobile. Tokeep everything warm while sleeping, I put my batteries in a pouch that I keep with me in the sleeping bag. My sleeping bag provides insulation for me and my batteries, while my parka protects the cameras. Every single consideration is taken, and if it’s not, you risk missing your few opportunities to create an image. There aren’t many opportunities to capture the expedition athletes in action, as I have limited access to them. When I do have access to them, the conditions don’t always cooperate, so you have to make those rare opportunities count.
You’ve spent a lot of time in some of the harshest places on Earth, and you can only be so prepared, there are often factors completely outside of you control and elements you can’t totally prepare for, have you ever had a “close call”?
I have had the snowmobile roll on its side, a couple times, while I rode it, fortunately into snow. This is one reason you have to pack your cameras for riding: so that when something like this happens, they don’t get broken or beat you up.
On the second expedition, my Inuk guide, Billy, and I, plus one more Inuk (they always travel with 2 snowmobiles) left the team on Day 3 to go back to Pangnirtung. We rode all day in increasingly worse weather, and when we left the Auyuittuq National Park (~5pm) we drove straight into whiteout conditions. We bounced around (sort of lost) for 4 hours in wind that Billy said was gusting up to 100mph/160kph. At least one gust moved me and the snowmobile ½ m (2 ft) sideways with me while sitting on it!
When we stopped at one point and I told him since it was 9pm, I felt we should either make a snow shelter, or I could press the OK button on my Spot device, call his wife on the SAT Phone and ask her to tell us where we were. She would be able to look up our location on my website, which has a the GPS location from the Spot.
I was hungry (we had not had much lunch or any dinner, snacking on macadamia nuts [high in calories/won’t freeze]), and tired from sitting on a snowmobile for 12 hours, at this point, BUT I was warm, and generally not uncomfortable, and I was with Billy. Billy was born in an igloo, and naturally, he has forgotten more about these conditions than I could ever learn…
Billy had left his GPS at home, as he felt it was unnecessary to drive to “Pang” (I would agree with him 100% of the time, except for whiteout conditions).
Anyway, he used his experience and knowledge of the fjord and of the Parks rescue hut system and we eventually got into a hut. (We went to “Pang” the next morning.)
Close calls are always a possibility in the Arctic, and you can never take anything for granted. You just have plan and be prepared as much as possible for the contingenciesand then react to the situations as they happen… But being prepared means most importantly not panicking.
The Gear Jon Uses on Expedition
What camera gear do you use and why?
Cameras are tools, I try to use the best tools for the job. I currently use Canon 5D4, but have dabbled with Sony. They loaned me a camera (R7II & 24-70 2.8) for the last expedition, and when it was working it was great, but it had huge issues with batteries (which was a known issue for this camera in normal conditions).
The biggest problem was when the batteries died, the camera did a factory reset. Considering what you must do to get it back up to speed, I neither had the time nor the ability in gloves to fool with it during the day. When the batteries died, it got packed away, out of service, until I could deal with it. The Canon just wants new batteries and is back in business. A couple times, I have noticed my 16-35mm would not autofocus when it got super cold… I think the grease got cold. I think Nikons are even better in the cold based on observation of Billy’s camera – I think their batteries handle cold better.
You also need to visit all the settings and turn off LCD screens (they will turn black anyway from cold) and set the power settings to be as minimal as possible to save energy. You also need to figure out how to carry the gear on a snowmobile so to be quickly accessible, but not loose.
If you could only manage to bring one camera and one lens, or were recommending photography in harsh conditions to someone is just starting out, what would you use/recommend?
I would recommend going with a solid camera body like the Canon 5D4 and then picking a dynamic lens like the 24/70mm or 24/105mm. I normally carry two lenses, on 2 bodies: a 16-35mm and a 70-200mm and then I would leave the 24/70mm or 24/105mm at home. This is because you can typically use your other lenses to cover that focal range by “zooming” with your feet and working a little harder. If you can only mange one lens, you don’t have that option, and it’s an important and dynamic focal coverage to have.
How might you pack differently for an arctic shoot versus a typical shoot elsewhere?
You need to plan your battery situation. Since we typically have no recharge capability, you need to have enough batteries to cover your time in the field. You also need to plan for fully charged batteries to only be at 50% because of degradation of cold.
What are some items you’ve found to be invaluable specific to shooting in the arctic?
The clothing you need for Arctic specific protection is invaluable. Gloves are the most critical. I use Heat3 Gloves, which I’ve found after trying 4 different kinds of gloves on previous expeditions. None of those gloves that worked properly like Heat3 Gloves. The conundrum is you need enough insulation to keep your hands warm when handling the cameras, which may have cooled down to -30C, but still being able to have tactile control of the buttons. Heat3 Gloves give you both. But, while the Heat3 Gloves are great for shooting with, in super cold situations they were not warm enough for long runs on the snow mobile. This brand does have a new outer layer I can add that might correct this. I will try this next time. Previously, I swapped my right hand for a thicker mitten. My left hand was already in the thicker mitten as I really do not need it for anything. A few more key pieces of gear included in my arsenal are Rudy Project goggles, and Fenix flashlights, and the Spot device, which is an emergency EPIRB.
All photos by Jon Golden and used with permission.