Photographer celebrates 100 trips to the Arctic

Less than two weeks after arriving in Arctic Bay in 1999, Lee Narraway found herself travelling by qamutiq to Igloolik on the North Baffin Quest — the 445-km dogsled race to mark the creation of Nunavut.

Narraway, a photographer from Whitelake, Ontario, had been invited by her friend and former colleague Lawrie Barton to Arctic Bay to photograph local elders. Barton, then principal of Inuujaq School, thought an important contribution to the cultural legacy of Arctic Bay would be a collection of black and white portraits of the elders to hang in the town’s cultural centre for future generations to learn about their heritage. Barton got a grant for the project and hired Narraway to take the photos.

A glaucous gull sits on her nest with her two chicks. © Lee Narraway

While in Arctic Bay, the North Baffin Quest race committee heard Narraway had experience running dogsled races in Ontario. She was nominated to be the official timer. So, on April 13, 1999, when 180 sled dogs and 15 men headed out from Arctic Bay for Igloolik, Narraway was sitting on the qamutiq that sped ahead of the teams to set up the first timing checkpoint.

“Lawrie said she saw me climb in the qamutiq, and thought, ‘I don’t think she’s going to come back,’” laughs Narraway. But she did and with a passion to keep returning.

Narraway, dressed in a borrowed caribou suit and qammiks, spent eight days travelling by dog team, eating country food, and sleeping in a tent with the racers — all men, who spoke no English. It was an incredible introduction to the Arctic. Narraway photographed it all — the men, the sleds, the dogs, the breathtaking landscape — and loved it all.

That was Narraway’s first trip to the Arctic. It was also the first of nearly two decades of adventures across the North, including being timer on the annual Nunavut Quest dogsled race for 14 years. She loved everything about the Arctic, particularly the people, and welcomed every opportunity to visit and photograph it.

“I never said no,” says Narraway about being asked to go to the Arctic. “I always wanted to go, always wanted to learn more, and they liked my photos. Because I never said no and would always go North so willingly, I met so many wonderful people.”

A woman scrapes a seal skin with her ulu. © Lee Narraway

“Lee is the great doer of adventure,” says Barton.”But she doesn’t approach it as an adventure. She thinks, ‘I’ve got my camera. I’ve got my skills, and I’ll go and interact with the world with all that I am able to do.’ She does it with humility and not seeking attention for herself. But she does it for the work that she loves.”

Everywhere she went, Narraway’s enthusiasm for the North and her genuine interest in the people she met led to more photography opportunities. She travelled to and took photos in almost every community, as well as territorial parks and remote areas of the High Arctic, for Parks Canada, Nunavut Tourism, Pauktuutit, Nunavut Trust, Canadian Geographic and above&beyond Magazine, Canada’s Arctic Journal and the inflight for First Air.

“Lee has been an outstanding contributor to our annual report for Nunavut Trust for nearly 20 years,” says Don Runge, managing partner of Earthlore Communications, the graphic design firm that creates Nunavut Trust’s annual report. “The report is highly regarded internationally. And Earthlore has used Lee’s work exclusively for the annual report, which is a comment on the quality of her images and the way she captures Arctic nature and people.”

In 2001, at the post office in Pond Inlet, Narraway met David Reid, expedition leader for Polar Sea Adventures. He hired her as a cook for the floe edge expeditions out of Pond Inlet.

“I’m great at boiling water,” says Reid. “But Lee is a good cook. She is incredibly friendly, non-judgemental, works hard, and is a great photographer. For a lot of people, the floe edge is a strange and challenging environment, but it’s an environment she appears to be comfortable in. Plus, Lee, through the dog races, is comfortable in a cross-cultural environment. Her enthusiasm for the Arctic is infectious. She wants people to get it. She wants them to see, ‘This is a really special place. Don’t take this for granted.’ She appreciates it all.”

Altogether, Narraway did eight floe edge trips for Polar Sea Adventures between 2001 and 2004.

On one of those trips in 2004, Geoff Green and his wife Diz Glithero brought one of their Students on Ice expedition teams. They arrived at the base camp near the floe edge outside Pond Inlet with 10 students and five staff. Lee was the camp’s cook.

Always with a camera in hand, Lee taking photos from a Zodiac on an Adventure Canada voyage in 2015. © Lee Narraway

“We soon realized she was much more than our cook. She kind of became a mother hen to everybody. She embraced us and loved the idea of Students on Ice,” says Green, president and founder of the organization whose mission is to educate, connect, and inspire youth about the Polar Regions. “I’ve seen how youth gravitate to certain people. Lee is one of those. She is real, not superficial. The students always connect with her and adore her. I think it’s because they sense she just really cares about them. And absolutely, deeply cares about Inuit and the Arctic,” says Green.

Lee became part of the Students on Ice family, going on 14 Arctic expeditions with them, as well as on expeditions to the Antarctic, as one of the main photographers and team members. “Lee, like few others, can connect with absolutely everyone in such a significant, meaningful way on Students on Ice and beyond,” says Glithero. “It’s the value she places on relationships and how she fosters connections with people. You see that when she goes back to the Arctic: she’s become like family with so many people in the North.”

Since that first expedition by qamutiq in 1999, Narraway has travelled around the Arctic with her camera on ATVs, skidoos, helicopters, and Arctic cruise ships. She has also accompanied scientists and researchers on 10 different icebreakers, as they ploughed through Arctic ice on projects that advanced the knowledge of the Arctic Ocean, sea ice, and climate change. Each time, she capured these adventures on film and wrote about them for magazines, like above&beyond.

In July 2016, Lee made her 100th journey to the Arctic with Students on Ice. That September, however, she suffered a medical emergency and underwent surgery to remove a brain tumour. Recovery is not as speedy as the photographer hoped, though, and she wasn’t able to go with Students on Ice in 2017. Ironically, the medication she is taking makes her feel cold.

“I’ve never been cold in my life!” Narraway says. “I love the cold. I love ice. And I was never cold in the Arctic like this.”

Narraway is now working on a photography project that keeps the North close. She is compiling a collection of portraits she hopes to make accessible to the people she photographed in the communities. Hundreds of faces of the children, adults, and elders she met in her two decades of adventures in Arctic photography are her tribute to the Inuit she so admires.

Season Osborne has a passion for Arctic history, and is the author of In the Shadow of the Pole: An Early History of Arctic Expeditions, 1871-1912. She lives and writes in Ottawa, Ontario.