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November / December 2012
by Jennifer Stewart

It was a feat often dreamed of, and rarely accomplished. It took weeks of planning, and days of patiently waiting for gusty conditions and fog to pass. In Canada’s far North on a cool spring day, John Davidson flew one of his multi-coloured hot air balloons between two soaring pillars of a single iceberg, jutting upward from the ocean’s surface. Award-winning photographer, Michelle Valberg, captured the spectacular vision on camera.

“It was just an incredible and exhilarating adventure,” said Davidson. “To see the Arctic from that view, in an open space, took your breath away.” This Arctic trip was a once in a lifetime adventure for this family of Arctic enthusiasts, one most people could only dream of. Dream yes, but one defined by an indelible sense of purpose.

To that end, the family wisely chose a team of experts in their respective fields to assist their Spring 2012 expedition, capturing their experiences on film and video, and providing very personal, uniquely tailored adventures. In addition to the family of seven, the entourage included Davidson, Valberg, a videographer, a chef, eight Inuit guides, two helicopter pilots, a mechanic and an experienced, reputable expedition leader.

A top priority for the family was to witness first-hand the haunting views of the remote land, including the floe edge where the frozen ocean meets the open ocean. “It is one of the most spectacular landscapes to witness and photograph,” says Valberg.

Late May and June is the best time to travel to the floe edge, according to Davidson. Visitors are able to take in the stunning landscape, including mountain scenery, glaciers, and a variety of Arctic wildlife.

A New Way to Travel
The expedition was a first of its kind for Valberg. Having travelled to the Arctic more than two dozen times, she had never taken part in such a unique expedition. Camped out on the ice about 150 kilometres from Arctic Bay, Nunavut, the group faced erratic and unseasonable weather, which limited some of their activities and altered planned timelines. It was a true testament of the power of the Arctic. “You are in the hands of the North when you embark on an adventure like we did,” says Valberg.“Its quite humbling to realize that you’re not fully in control of your plans, and they can be changed in an instant. You need to be respectful of that.”

Waiting for the fog to clear, the family and their team made the most of their time. With the help of their Inuit guides, they made an Inuksuk and built an igloo. “It was a real team building initiative that we were all proud of,” says Davidson. “It built an appreciation of the land and the hardships and effort needed to battle the elements.”

A positive of the unpredictable weather was the deep grey skies against the stunning landscape, which provided an ideal backdrop to capture the terrain by photograph.

A Leader in his Field
While Davidson had travelled the world as a hot air balloonist, the prospect of flying at such high latitude in the Arctic was exhilarating and one he couldn’t turn down. As one of Canada’s most noted and celebrated hot air balloonists, Davidson’s passion for ballooning grew from his days as an avid skydiver, and his love of seeing the world from above. He had his first big break in the world of ballooning in the ’90s, when Michael Cowpland, a successful hi-tech tycoon, contracted his company to help market its graphics program, Corel Draw. It was Davidson’s first vividly coloured balloon that was turned into Corel Draw’s icon logo that would eventually become familiar around the world.

While Northern expeditions are his true passion, Davidson has had his fair share of flying adventures. Just a few of his ballooning accomplishments include flying 550 miles over the Canadian Rockies from Prince George, British Columbia, to Medicine Hat, Alberta; a high altitude flight to 37,500 feet over Ottawa; and a flight of 130 miles from Sanikiluaq, Nunavut, to the shores of Nunavik, Québec, in temperatures below -38 degrees.

Davidson has also flown throughout North America and Europe, Japan,Australia, the Caribbean, Fiji and Africa,with special memories of flights over St. Petersburg, Russia; Warsaw, Poland; and Los Angeles, California.

A View Unlike Any Other
Hot air ballooning is gaining traction in countries all over the world, and its rise in popularity makes perfect sense to Davidson. His hope is that the sport becomes a tourism staple in Canada’s Arctic.

“It’s an economical way to see a place in a completely unique way,” says Davidson. “For me, there is no better feeling than taking in the sights of a new land, while feeling the air on your face and the freedom you feel in the sky.”

While helicopters are a tourist favourite in the Arctic, they are expensive to operate and can be nearly impossible to get into some remote and untouched areas. Balloons, on the other hand, are extremely portable, and can be easily assembled in small or confined spaces.

“Contrary to what some may think, the Arctic is a next to perfect backdrop for ballooning,” says Davidson. “The abundance of ice and land provides ideal landing opportunities, and the views are unparalleled.”

The Photograph
The photograph of Davidson’s balloon soaring between a majestic iceberg has made its way around the world. Valberg’s image has received nation-wide media coverage, and was recently nominated in the National Geographic Traveler reader photo contest for 2012.

As far as both Valberg and Davidson know, the voyage is one of the highest latitude commercial passenger flights in a hot air balloon. “It is truly a unique shot that captures an experience many would dream of having,” says Valberg.“And the lighting just happened to be perfect.”

Getting the ‘perfect’ shot meant succumbing to the unpredictability of Canada’s North, and remaining patient until the right moment finally arrived. The wait, according to Valberg, was well worth it.

While the photograph is making its rounds, Davidson hopes it will ignite passion and curiosity about Canada’s North and the many possibilities to witness its untouched beauty.

Jennifer Stewart is an Ottawa-based writer, and owner of JS Communications, a communications and media relations company with national reach. www.jscommunications.ca