||December 2010 issue
Interview with Jerry Kobalenko
A seasoned Arctic trekker and author of the words and pictures book Arctic Eden, Jerry Kobalenko shares stories about a herd of Arctic hares, how to get rid of a polar bear and other tales from more than twenty years of adventure in the High Arctic.
CG: What made you write Arctic Eden?
JK: I set out to make Arctic Eden the best words-and-pictures book on the Arctic ever produced. This sounds presumptuous, considering that there are several great works of polar literature, but those authors were not photographers. And there are some wonderful photo books about the Arctic by wildlife photographers, but they aren’t writers. Few books try to combine writing and photography in the way that Arctic Eden does. It's not based only on one or five trips, but over 20 years of intimate experience tramping the North with a camera and notebook.
CG: What is the High Arctic like?
JK: Meditative. The High Arctic is a place for people who like to walk and think and it’s very open. There are certain parts of the North that are quite rough and aggressive, but the High Arctic is a gentle place.
CG: What is it like exploring a place only a few others have seen?
JK: People have been tramping around southern Canada for centuries. But up in the Arctic you want to investigate every point of land you pass, because you never know if you might find a Paleo-Eskimo encampment. On one trip my partner and I stumbled onto an old Thule camp with bowhead whale vertebrae and bones scattered everywhere.
CG: Do you think people have misconceptions about the High Arctic?
JK: Anything you’re not familiar with you tend to look and see the clichés, especially if it looks like something you might not like. Mention the rain forest to people and they think of spiders the size of your hand and malaria. Mention big Asian cities and they think of cars honking and diesel fumes. Anything that you’re not familiar with is quite easy to dismiss. The Arctic is cold. But I’ve been colder standing in Montréal at a bus stop because I’m not wearing the right clothing.
CG: What’s it like photographing wildlife in the Arctic?
JK: Shooting wildlife is difficult there because you’re travelling in -40°C temperatures and can’t hang around. Wildlife photography takes a long time. You have to let the animal get comfortable with you. You have to hang around them for hours and sometimes days. Once I saw a herd of Arctic hare. The High Arctic is the only place in the world where they form large groups ranging from just a handful of individuals to hundreds moving as an army. There were maybe 75 or 100 hares in this particular group. When I first approached them they were quite skittish. I hung around them for six hours. After about four and a half hours something strange happened: they suddenly accepted me. They started hopping toward me and were nibbling at the legs of the tripod and then I just sat down.
CG: What have your encounters with polar bears been like?
JK: There are two kinds. The first happens when you’re wandering around and happen to see a bear. Most of them don’t really want anything to do with you, so they’ll wander off. But some are curious and will start to approach. That’s when you go into shouting, flare mode. Polar bears tend not to charge like grizzlies. They approach slowly and deliberately. The second kind of encounter is when you’re sleeping at night. That’s more difficult to deal with because you don’t have time to prepare. I try to sleep with one ear open. Since there are so few different sounds up there, you can tell when your camp has a visitor. A friend of mine has twice been dragged out of his tent by polar bears. It’s the stuff of nightmares and, touch wood, has never happened to me.
CG: What advice would you give to a first-time Arctic traveller?
JK: Do your homework and go in with an open mind. We all try different things in life and not everything works out. If you go to the Arctic and find that you don’t like it, OK then, now you know. But you can go there and discover a lifetime love, and that’s worth a try. If you’re going to the Arctic, you want to be well prepared and have the right gear. You don’t want to go with a tent that you bought at the hardware store. You have to prepare for more extreme conditions.
Interview by Mandy Savoie