When an icy road is a blessing

The ice road to Fort Chipewyan stretches 200 km through wilderness. "It's like a roller-coaster on steroids," says one local. Photographer Ryan Jackson & Marty Klinkenberg drove the ice road this month -- after a few bumps and slides, they made it back with these stories, as told by Jackson.

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  1. Marty Klinkenberg & Ryan Jackson
    Marty Klinkenberg & Ryan Jackson
  2. How was the driving?
    It was fun. I love driving. Marty was a little more white-knuckled than I was. Maybe I’m just younger and dumber. We had a four-wheel drive vehicle so I felt safe the whole time, there are certain parts where you could go 100 km/hour. On average, we went 80 km/hour but sometimes you had to slow down to 50. km/hour. But you have to constantly remind yourself that you are driving on ice.
    We never heard the ice crack under us but we did drive with the windows down to see if we could hear it. But I think our vehicle was too light. If you’re driving a semi, from what the driver we interviewed told us, you can hear it cracking and you can see the cracks. I’ve gone ice fishing before and I’ve driven on lakes , so I wasn’t ever really worried -- especially when you see the semi trucks that are much heavier than you drive across with no problems.
  3. Helping a motorist on the ice road
    Helping a motorist on the ice road
  4. So there weren't any major problems?
    On the way there, it too about four hours to get there. The drive back was a lot longer because we went the wrong way. There’s a sign at a fork in the road just outside of Fort Chip giving directions. But on the way back, the sign isn’t facing you. Locals know. And of course, I should have remembered to go left but I just missed that turn and somehow veered to the right when I should have gone left.
    We were heading northwest when we should have been heading south. We would have ended up in Fort Smith, N.W.T. if we had kept on driving. We drove for a couple of hours. We were stopping, we’re taking pictures of things and saying, "How did we not notice this last time?"
    After two hours of driving we finally see the first sign in two hours and it said, “Fort Smith 119 km.” To us, you have that moment of denial. You’re like, “That sign must be wrong! Fort Smith should be 400 km away, not 120 km!” Then we luckily we saw another truck and asked which way to Fort McMurray.
    Marty drove on the way up and I drove on the way back, and when you’re driving you see the world differently that you do when you’re a passenger. Also compounding this was the fact that it was an overcast day, so I wouldn’t have noticed that the sun was going the wrong way.
    When we realized we were going the wrong way, we started doing the math and realized there was no way we’d get back to Fort McMurray to catch our flight. So then basically we blasted back to Fort Chicewayn to fill up the gas tank. We tell the owner there’s no sign to tell you if you’re going the wrong way. He said, “Well, I like it that way, I sell more gas.”
  5. From a photographer and videographer’s perspective, what were the challenges of getting the shots and taking the videos that you got?
    One challenge is that it’s very, very flat. So you have to take every opportunity when you get to the top of any sort of hill to see the landscape. And because it’s winter, everything is white with dead wood sticking out of the ground. The terrain in the summer is very beautiful — it has beauty to itself in the winter, too — but it’s very plain and repetitive so you’ve got to keep your eyes open for anything that’s different.
    Other challenges are the cold — you have to dress appropriately and be weary if your camera gets too cold it might shut down. You’ve got to keep extra batteries in your pocket to keep it warm. Another thing to worry about is fog. If your camera gets too cold and you bring it back into your car you risk getting it fogged up. Another thing is just in general, when you deal in cold weather, everything is slower. I brought less camera gear on this trip than I normally would because I knew I wouldn’t want to be screwing around with a ton of gear, because it’s cold and realistically you won’t be able to do that.

    Your video was really upbeat and I thought it was fun to watch. What tone were you trying to get and how did you achieve that?
    Originally I wanted a video that was kind of like Marty’s story, that explained what the ice road was and explained its importance to Fort Chip. Unfortunately a few of the interviews we were supposed to do there fell through. So I didn’t get any good voices on camera explaining the overall importance of the road. So I had to decide to make an okay video to explain the road and its importance. Or I could make a really good video that was just about the road. And that’s what I settled on.
    I chose very upbeat music and that was because I wanted to have a faster pace to set up the footage. I chose this music that has a beat that happens every two seconds. When I found that song, then I could start cutting almost all the clips at two seconds, two seconds, two seconds, two seconds. The shot is changing every two seconds with the beat. That really kept the pace of it going.

  6. How does this fit within your your experience as a photojournalist — is this as fun as it gets? Is it up there?
    It’s up there. It’s been on my bucket list. I love Fort Chipewyan. I’ve been up there four times now. It’s Alberta’s most isolated community and it has a rich story, both past and present. It’s Alberta’s oldest settlement, which is really cool. It’s just always had this cool story, whether the story be about the oilsands and the battle between industry and culture. But also there are so many other stories, like this ice road and how important the ice road is to the community. It’s also just a bit of frontier because it’s so isolated you can only get up there by flying or barge or ice road. I like northern stories, I've been fortunate to go up north a lot, and to bring back stories.
    The next item on my bucket list is to do a story about the river barge that heads up to Fort Chip every week in the summer with supplies.
    I drove the Number One Highway in California. For someone who loves driving, I rank this drive up there as a really fun drive to do.

    Interview by Alexandra Zabjek. Interview has been edited and condensed.
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