Michelle Valberg’s Excellent Arctic Adventure
By Julie Beun
In Michelle Valberg’s airy photography studio on Sherwood Drive, the silence is punctuated only by the gentle fizz of champagne bubbles in four tall flutes sitting on a coffee table.
It’s the Friday afternoon before the Earth Day launch at the Canadian Museum of Nature of her opus, Arctic Kaleidoscope: The People, Wildlife and Ever-Changing Landscape and we’ve all gathered—Valberg, her staff photographers, Val Keeler and Lindsay Gibeau, and me, as the book’s writer—to look at the finished product for the very first time.
No one says anything, initially. After all, the book has a weighty pedigree: It has taken five years of Valberg’s life and encompassed 27 trips that zigzagged to 40 remote Arctic locations—from Kugluktuk to Greenland and Resolute to Churchill—during which she took more than 100,000 images. To get them, she endured frostbite and raging northern winds, slept in tents on ice in polar bear country, tread through mountains of walrus dung and dived with narwhals. To say anything at this point seems as irreverent as whistling in church.
Finally, Valberg herself breaks the silence with a half laugh, half sob. “Oh my God. It looks so… I mean…” She cracks open a copy of the 224-page coffee table book and closes her eyes as she breathes in the “new book” smell. “It’s really here.”
Those words—they’re so telling of an epic and unexpected journey. In the five years since Valberg first trekked North to photograph wildlife on the sinaaq or floe edge (where polar ice meets open sea), the Ottawa-based photographer has become utterly entranced with the North, its people, animals, landscape, vibrancy and mystery. In that time, she’s morphed from a renowned portrait photographer who took wildlife shots in her spare time to an internationally-recognized Arctic photographer who still relishes her studio work.
“I feel like I’m living someone else’s life,” she says. “It’s unbelievable. From wanting a picture of a polar bear from when I was young to actually doing it… realizing your dreams can be scary. You think of it so often, and then it’s there, playing itself out before you, over and over. For the past five years, I’ve been living the dream, doing what every wildlife photographer imagines doing. It’s like an out-of-body experience.”
So much of Valberg’s Arctic adventure has been like that. For one thing, there are the stories: standing her ground, with one of her guides, Jason Curley, as a massive male bear prepared to charge; stepping out onto the deck of an Adventure Canada ship navigating the Nachvak Fjord in Labrador’s wild Torngat Mountains; landing in a de Havilland Beaver airplane next to raw and inaccessible Akpatok Island in Nunavik’s Ungava Bay; seeing for the first time the last remnants of the ancient paleo-Eskimo Dorset and Thule settlements at Resolute in the High Arctic.
Of course, no one is born an Arctic photographer. True, Valberg grew up loving nature and found her calling when she received her first camera at an early age. But it was never the “back to the wild” type of nature love, she admits.
“I’ve always liked to camp, but I like the cottage and hotels better,” she laughs. “I didn’t really like getting out there and roughing it. If I said otherwise, the people in my life would laugh. Camping on the floe edge was never on my radar. In fact, when I first told my husband, Scott, that I was going to camp on the ice for seven days, he fell off his chair, laughing.”
Even so, the city girl with “my high heels and my highlights” was immediately beguiled by the Arctic she came to know. Not the barren, white wasteland most Canadians imagine, but one saturated with color, texture and life.
“It’s changed my perception of Canada and the Arctic,” she observes. “It’s allowed me to feel that need to be quiet and find the solitude, to be on the land and to feel it. Having firsthand account stories from the elders and my guides—it’s a true gift to learn that way and not from a book.”
And in turn, Valberg shares those stories in text and photos. Over the days, weeks and months we worked on the book, the experiences Valberg had up North would take shape, mostly through half-finished stories, illustrated by those thousands of photos. “I don’t know how you can make any sense of this,” she’d remark, after offering a few descriptions and a lot of pauses in telling some tale. “Michelle,” I’d respond, on more than one occasion, “it makes perfect sense. Your voice is in my head. I can see everything in your face. The story tells itself.”
In the end, says Valberg, who has also started a not-for-profit organization called Project North, which brings hockey equipment to remote northern communities, her Arctic adventures aren’t just about her work, the book, the stories or her dreams.
“I have been lucky enough to love what I do every day. But what I’ve realized is that, every step you take is a step towards your dream, whether you realize it or not. Work hard, and when you’re ready,” she says, “it’s like a floodgate. It’s there for you. The right place at the right time.”
Arctic Kaleidoscope: The People, Wildlife and Ever-Changing Landscape can be purchased at Valberg Imaging (111 Sherwood Drive, 613-521-3117) or online at www.michellevalberg.com.