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Photographer Harry Nowell talks about Iceland and the Yukon

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Over the last year and a half, as a student in the Professional Photography Program offered by Ottawa-area photographer Harry Nowell, I have, more than once, heard Harry mention that he loves the North. But it was not until last week, a few minutes after he handed me my graduation certificate from the Pro-Program, that we were able to sit down and talk about his northern adventures.

Thanks, Harry for your time and for agreeing to share your stories with our blog’s readers!!

With no further delay, here is a summary of my chat with Harry.
France

Where have you been up North?

In my mind, the first place I went that was north was Black Lake, Saskatchewan (coordinates: 59° 8′ 0″ N, 105° 36′ 2″ W), located near Uranium City. This is about as far north as you can get without getting into the Northwest Territories. It would have been around 1980-81. I was in grade 7 and participated in an exchange between a native reserve and my school. It was the first time that I was exposed to a culture other than mine. We went up for a week, probably in June. It was an eye opener!

Then, after university, I went tree planting. It wasn’t far north but it was in northern Alberta, northern British Columbia, northern Ontario and northern Quebec. Again, it was wide open spaces very much still within boreal forest.

I have always been attracted to the outdoors, wide-open spaces and cool climates. I don’t deal well with heat so going north is a way that I can escape the heat, which is a bonus for me. I have always liked adventure and there is an adventurous aspect to the North.

I remember that I’ve always thought that I’d like to go to Iceland. I went three summers ago. For me the Icelandic weather was fantastic. It rains quite a lot but when it’s not raining, it’s warm (15-20°C) but not hot which is perfect for me. The rain is still better than the heat.

The other place I have been up north was the Yukon. I went with Malak Karsh. That was a really neat experience too. Malak was, of course, a very well known landscape photographer in Canada. We more or less drove everywhere in the Yukon.

How did that collaboration with Malak Karsh come about?

It was in 1997 and I had done a bit of part-time photography. I was trying to figure out how the business worked, how to make a living in it. An acquaintance had heard that Malak Karsh wanted to go to the Yukon and was trying to find somebody to assist him. Immediately I thought “Well! What about me?”. I looked his number up in the phone book and he agreed to meet me. I told him about what I had done and that I was starting to learn as a photographer. He hired me. We went up for 2 weeks in August. His job was to take photos. My job was to do pretty much everything else: to drive, to move all his equipment, to move his stuff into the hotel, to move it back into the car, to explore, to find out things. I was not allowed to bring a camera so I don’t have any photos of the Yukon. We drove something like 5000 km in about 10 days. 500 km a day is not that far but a lot of that was driven at 20 or 50 km/h. We’d go back and forth, back and forth until he found the right spot. Then we would get out. There were a lot of long days. We would start usually at about 6AM and we would often pull in a hotel at 10PM or 11PM.

The thing I learned most from him was how to run a business. His greatest skill was his passion and his drive to succeed. We worked hard. We drove basically anywhere there was a major highway. I was disappointed a couple of times because as soon as we would get out of the Yukon, we had to turn around. That’s what happened when we got into BC. Even though we were just a few kilometers from Skagway, Alaska and the northwest coast, I had to turn around. The same thing happened when we went up the Dempster Highway. It was so beautiful. This highway goes to Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Ocean. But we got into the NWT and 5 or 10 km later he told me to turn around because we were no longer in the Yukon. I would have loved to see Tuktoyaktuk.

It amazed me that he was still very active (he was 82 at the time). My hat goes off to him. He worked till the last week of his life.

Which part of the Yukon impressed or surprised you most? What would be your top-2 places in the Yukon?

The Dempster Highway was amazing because it was a long way from anything. The mountains and the colours were spectacular. Not the reds of the maples of Quebec or Ontario but it was a very golden yellow, beautiful hue to it. The Dempster was unique and different from anything I had seen.

Dawson City was amazing too. The town is very small but the surrounding area and the town’s culture are interesting.

On the west side of the Yukon, there are the mountains, Mount McKinley and the Kluane National Park. Very beautiful!

Which part of the Iceland impressed or surprised you most? What would be your top-2 places in Iceland?

I think what impressed me most in Iceland were the landscapes, the people, the isolated culture which is still very much a contained culture. Iceland is located in the middle of the north Atlantic. They have influence of course from Europe and North America but it is very isolated, very different than here in Canada. I would go back every summer for 4-6 weeks if it were easy to do.

The southwest corner of Iceland is beautiful and you should go but it is where all tour buses go. It is worthwhile going but do it quickly and get out.

We went up to the Snæfellsnes peninsula in the northwest part of the island. It is an area much less traveled. I would love to spend weeks there.

The other place I would go back in a heart beat is the Thorsmork area. It’s a beautiful area with mountains, river deltas and glaciers. One of the nice things about it is that it is hard to get to. It’s a long way away from anywhere. You cannot get to this area by car because of the rough terrain. The usual way you get in is by a shuttle like a Voyageur bus but it has tires the size of this room!! Once you’re at the initial area there’s a whole series of hiking trails, cabins, huts, …

What was your most uncommon experience / your most interesting encounter up North?

We got to taste an Icelandic delicacy, the Hákarl! It is the most disgusting thing I have ever eaten without a doubt. It is made from a species of Arctic shark, called the Greenland shark. This shark is enormous and has a prehistoric look. The only problem is that they are poisonous to eat. What the Icelandic people found (and I don’t know how they discovered this) is that if they cut up the shark and bury it in the ground, it ferments and rots. Then, months later, they dig it up and it is now safe to eat. I had just a tiny cube of it. The taste wasn’t so bad but the smell is really what turned my stomach. We chased it down with potato vodka. It was a horrific and amazing experience at the same time.

Did the North teach you a lesson / change you in any way?

I think it brought the admiration I now have for people who live up there. Because of the difference, the hardship and the challenges. It is cold and dark a good part of the year. With determination and passion, they have proven that you can do pretty much anything.

Would you have some advice for photographers who are planning on travelling and photographing up North?

Bring lots of batteries!

In Iceland, I would bring mechanical cameras. It rains a lot and it is relatively harsh conditions. Even if you have umbrellas, they are going to get blown. I brought 3 camera bodies. Two were film, one was mechanical and did not require batteries to operate. When it was really really wet, I would use the mechanical camera. In such conditions, film cameras will keep going when the digital will not.

Any other comment / anecdote you would like to share with us?

Years ago, I took a 3-month mountaineering course at Yamnuska Mountain School in Canmore, Alberta. There were 10 other people on the course and one of them was a Swiss man who now lives in Juneau, Alaska. He works as an outdoor, nature and landscape photographer. His name is Laurent Dick. I haven’t seen him for almost 20 years. An acquaintance of mine went dog sledding in the Yukon. When he came back we went out for a beer to tell me about his trip. He brought some books he had bought and one of them was by Laurent Dick!! I emailed Laurent. It was so neat to reconnect with him.

2 comments to Photographer Harry Nowell talks about Iceland and the Yukon

  • Pitro

    Reading about the amazing experience of traveling through spectacular sceneries, I notice that what mostly stays in our memories is the meeting of generous people we cross along the way!

    Thanks for sharing with us the good moments you had discussing with Mr.Nowell. It was very interesting and it gives me hope that one day I will be visiting Yukon and Alaska.
    And hope his dream of visiting Antartic will come through.

  • Thanks for your interest. Was very fun – can’t wait to hear the next interview!

    Harry

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