Why you need to visit the Northwest Passage, in photos


It’s barely been a week into the new year, and there is already a flurry of articles, listicles, and more offering advice on where to travel in 2023. As the travel industry returns to pre-pandemic numbers, trends and habits among travelers are shifting, and many of them are investing time and money in longer vacations with deeper experiences.

That often means going off the beaten track and/or finally planning one of those once-in-a-lifetime trips. One destination that would definitely fit the bill is the Northwest Passage, the historical sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the Arctic Ocean, touching North America through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and Europe along the Arctic coasts of Norway and Siberia.

Established in 1763, the small hunting and fishing settlement of Uumannaq slowly grew to its present population of about 1,500 people. Over the years, Uumannaq’s main industry shifted from whaling operations to a niche market in the export of fine white marble.

Michelle Valberg

Abercrombie & Kent cofounder and CEO Geoffrey Kent along with Michelle Valberg, the award-winning onboard photographer, recently shared more with Fortune about capturing the sights on an A&K voyage between Greenland and the Bering Sea last November. Valberg also provided an exclusive look at captured footage that has not yet been published anywhere else.

Site of the abandoned Hudson’s Bay post known as Fort Ross. Built in 1937, this former residence served as a hub of the Arctic fox fur trade until the onset of World War II.

Michelle Valberg

Fortune: What brought you to the Northwest Passage for this trip? What was your experience like?

Valberg: I have been through the Northwest Passage six times, and every experience has been different and unique in its own way. From the ice to the wildlife encounters, this last adventure was full of surprises, including less ice. So many tantalizing and beautiful landscapes. The Inuit in the communities are welcoming and wonderful. Most often, you are left in awe of the beauty and wonder of this magical place. As a Canadian, I am always so proud and happy to show off this part of our country.

Kent: “The Northwest Passage: From Greenland to the Bering Sea” is an adventure inspired by the great polar explorers of the past as well as the region’s rich history, and one that had been at the top of my wish list since I was a boy. On Beechey Island, I felt honored to visit the graves of men from the 1845 Franklin Expedition, whose legacy helped inspire this journey. I was astonished by many of the things we saw, from the incredible landscapes to the remote villages and surprising wildlife sightings. It was exciting to go back to my roots and work with our award-winning Expedition Team, exploring remote and uncharted regions. Our Inuit culture expert, Leslie Qammaniq, shared intimate details of the traditional lifestyle in which she was raised, while Russell Potter, our Arctic history lecturer, brought the details of the fateful Franklin expedition to vivid life for us all. It was an unforgettable voyage to the top of the world, where even today a comparative few have ventured.

‘We cruised the Beaufort Sea, hugging the ice’s edge at a safe distance in hopes of spotting polar bears,’ Valberg says. ‘The healthy, well-fed specimens amply filled the frames of our binoculars, scopes and long lenses. While alert to our presence, the bears didn’t seem alarmed by us. We watched as they stood upright on massive hind legs, scanned the horizon with long stares and sniffed the air with flexible noses, their mouths opening periodically for great gulps of air. Our naturalist guide explained that this gulping served to enhance the bears’ sense of smell.’

Michelle Valberg

Compared to most destinations, this is more of an adventurous location. What were some of the unforeseen hurdles or issues you had to deal with, either on this trip or previous photography excursions?

Valberg: Managing expectations. Flexibility is key on these types of excursions, especially in the Arctic. I have been to the Canadian Arctic 60 times now. It is hard to not have expectations, but it is critical to go with the flow and allow what will be to be to experience the best trip possible. Due to weather and ice conditions, plans can and often do change in the Arctic. The only thing predictable about wildlife is the unpredictability. I am always grateful for any opportunity that presents itself. After a trip like this though, I have over 10,000 images to go through, as everything is picture-worthy in my mind. That can be a hurdle, too—to choose which images are the best to tell the story.

Kent: While cruising Melville Bay’s “iceberg graveyard,” we viewed still-impressive melting bergs ready-made for dramatic photo opportunities. But the very elements that make the Arctic a dream destination—pristine snow and ice starkly contrasting with sea and sky, an abundance of wildlife, plus seabirds in constant motion—make it challenging for photographers. My fellow guests and I marveled at the Smoking Hills of Franklin Bay, a rare geological phenomenon that causes smoke to rise from the rocky landscape. Discovered by Sir John Franklin in 1826, the hills are named for the sulphureous smoke emitted by the spontaneous ignition of tiny iron pyrite particles. We boarded the Zodiacs to cruise this singular shore in two directions. Looming black mounds of tarry shale were broken by smoldering incursions of red-, yellow-, and orange-fringed rocks, while the beaches were littered with burnt conglomerates resembling giant lumps of coal.

Over the years, Uumannaq’s main industry shifted from whaling operations to a niche market in the export of fine white marble.

Michelle Valberg

What settings or subjects inspire you most? What are you looking for on a photo shoot?

Valberg: I am and will always be inspired by wildlife, landscapes, and people, in and from all corners of the world. Telling the story is my ultimate goal and my passion whether it is with one photograph, a series, or filming. Also, I love to showcase the world in a way I haven’t seen before, or inventing a way I can tell the story differently. I am always seeking how I can make a difference with my imagery. This is what keeps me motivated and completely obsessed with photography.

After visiting the site’s buildings, many guests hiked up a rocky ridge for sweeping views of the Bellot Strait’s entrance. Discovered in 1852 by William Kennedy and Joseph René Bellot, this strait spans a dramatic shortcut through what was once thought to be the continuous Boothia Peninsula.

Michelle Valberg

What are some basic tips or advice you’d offer to travelers who would like to take better wildlife and landscape photos?

Valberg: For wildlife and landscape photography, it is important you have the right equipment and gear. I would recommend doing research on the type of excursion you are going on. If it is an adventurous expedition cruise like the Northwest Passage, you need to be prepared for all kinds of weather. Likewise if you are going south. Different climate conditions can cause serious issues with your equipment (from the cold to the hot). Camera covers, lens hoods, extra batteries, memory cards, dry bags, etc. are critical pieces to have in your camera bag.

Also, know your camera before getting on the plane. Practice, practice, practice before you go if you want your imagery to be what you want it to be. I have heard so many times that people bring (or download) their manual, thinking they will read it on the plane or while they are traveling. That never happens or it just causes more frustration. Know your camera before you go, at least the basics. Explore your menu and settings.

Icebergs near Sisimiut, a thriving fishing port and Greenland’s second-largest city.

Michelle Valberg

Where are you off to next? Where do you think amateur photographers should travel to in 2023?

Valberg: I am traveling to Antarctica, South Georgia, and Falkland Islands with Abercrombie & Kent for the month of January. I would recommend all of Canada for photographers and non-photographers alike. From coast to coast, you will find beauty everywhere. From the prairies and mountains to the lakes and oceans, it never disappoints. It’s a big country, so you need lots of time or multiple trips to see it all. Follow your dreams otherwise. We know all too well now that we don’t know what the future holds. Take advantage while you can and also, use a reputable and reliable company to help get you there.

Kent: In May, I am looking forward to returning to England for a once-in-a-lifetime journey during Coronation Week. I created Royal and Ducal Castles (May 1-9, 2023) to grant a few of our guests a peek into a world most people know only from The Crown or Downton Abbey: the life on grand country estates in Great Britain, complete with fine motorsports, polo (my own sport of choice) and, of course, five-star hospitality and exquisite dining. Along with my co-host, His Grace, the Duke of Roxburghe, we will experience some of Britain’s storied private residences—and most beautiful gardens—during the excitement of Coronation Week when the entire country will be at its magnificent best.

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