Dealing with Firsts

This article was originally published in April 2, 2002 on the website

Dealing with Firsts:
Covering The Arctic Winter Games

By Robert Dall, Northern News Service

Robert Dall in Nuuk Greenland with a mountain in the background
Robert Dall in Nuuk, Greenland

I thought lack of sleep would be my biggest problem when I landed in Nuuk, Greenland to shoot the 2002 Arctic Winter Games for my employer, News North, a Canadian paper based in Yellowknife, NWT. I’d been up for 24 hours when I arrived. The opening ceremonies were only a couple of hours away.

At that moment, I was thankful for the local coffee. It was rocket fuel — imagine a free-based version of Starbucks — and I was counting on it to get me through the ceremonies and my first attempts to file digital images back to my editors apx 4800 km (2858 miles) away.

The pressure was on. News North had never sent a dedicated photographer to The Games before. In the past, it had relied on the writing staff to supply images. My assignment represented an expensive first for the company. It was first for me, too. I had never been The Games before and this trip was to be my baptism in the world of digital photography.

With the clock ticking down to the start of the opening ceremony, I made way to the media centre to set up my stuff and get ready to file my first photos. Or so I thought. I barely survived the journey myself. My laptop had expired somewhere en route. My editors were back at home waiting for something that looked like it wasn’t going to arrive.

No matter how much I poked and prodded, the thing wouldn’t come back to life. I was beginning to wonder if pouring the coffee that was keeping me going into the hard drive might help when the loud voice of a local volunteer broke my train of thought. “The media room is now closed,” She announced. “Please make your way to the opening ceremonies.”

I had no choice but to go and shoot — and hope that my computer might fix itself while I was away. I returned 3 hours later and found nothing had changed. It was at that moment I noticed my salvation: a computer had been set up behind me . I wrestled my way on to the machine and discovered that it not only worked, but also had a T1 connection to the Internet. My editors rejoiced as reams of images began to make their way through the system.

Mission accomplished. I took off to a good meal and my B&B from some R&R.


Wes Busby sihouetted Quassussuaq ski hill in Nuuk, Greenland
Wes Busby sihouetted Quassussuaq ski hill in Nuuk, Greenland, Copyright Robert Dall / NNSL

Those early hours in Greenland represented several firsts for me and my employers. But, as I would discover over the next few days, dealing with firsts – and a willingness to improvise, as I was forced to do with my first photos — pretty much captures the spirit of the Arctic Winter Games.

Founded about 30 years ago to promote sports among young people in the northern regions of Russian, Alaska, Arctic Canada and Greenland, the 2002 Games achieved a first of their own: until Nuuk, the Games had never been hosted outside of continental North America. The reason is simple. Most communities in the far north are too small to handle the thousand athletes, coaches and cultural performers who gather for the Games.

Nuuk certainly fell into that category. Although the capital of Greenland and a centre for transportation and administration, this community of 13,500 couldn’t have handled everything on its own. So it shared the responsibilities of hosting the 2002 Games with Iqaluit, a Baffin Island community of 5,000 and the captial of the new Inuit Territory of Nunavut in Canada’s eastern Arctic.

This unusal arrangement – Iqaluit lies several hundred kilometres across the Davis Straight from Nuuk – is typical of the northern tradition of making due under difficult circumstances. And it is part of tradition, I soon discovered, that is alive and well in the Arctic Winter Games.

For example, take the method for getting reporters and photographers up and down the runs during the snowboarding competitions. We were ferried on snowmobiles. The ride up felt like the gentle climb of a roller coaster as it first leaves the platform. I can only compare the ride down to the terrifying drop that comes right after you reach the peak.

I had spent the morning shooting at the top of the snowboard hill when I was ready to make my descent. Jillian Rogers of the Yukon News helped me flagged down a machine. A young driver, who spoke very little English, happily picked us up. Then he pointed his machine downhill and hit the gas. It was one of the wildest rides of my life! We passed competing snowboarders as we accelerated to rocket speeds, and even got some airtime after hitting one particular bump. I can only describe the ride in terms of what I call ‘Robert’s 10-Point Scale of Adrenalin’ Swimming in Arctic Ocean: 3 Riding the Corkscrew rollercoaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain, California: 4 Riding with Canadian Snowbirds acrobatic team flight: 5 Skydiving Chillwack, B.C. : 7 Downhill snowmobiling in Greenland:10

But even if the ride was rough for me, my heart went out to the Nunavut snowboarding team. Every sporting event has its own version of Eddie the Eagle, the Jamaican bobsled team or the Cambodian cross-country skier. In Nuuk, the honour belonged to Nunavut’s boarders. The team came from Canada’s eastern Arctic, which, for the most part consists, to the unaccustomed eye, most of a flat, lunar expanse. Rugged mountains rise up along the coast of Baffin Island, the most easterly portion of the territory. But they are remote and, for the most part, hostile to sports like skiing and snowboarding.

So, the Nunavut snowboard team arrived in Nuuk never having had a real practice, except for one day on the ski hill where their event would take place the day before the Games began. Competing against teams from mountainous regions like Yukon and Alaska, they had no hope of finishing in the medals. Predictably, they came last in every event. But no one cared. They had a great time and are planning to compete again in the 2004 Games at Wood Buffalo National Park. They might even get to Whistler or Banff a couple times before the event.

While I was shooting the snowboarding, another branch of Team Nunavut was taking its first stab at another event: Dene Hand Games. Hand games are a traditional gambling pastime among the aboriginal communities of the Northwest Territories and Yukon. Essentially, they are an elaborate version of ‘Button. Button.Who’s Got the Button.’

Opposing teams sit down in lines facing each other with some kind of blanket between them. The members of one team hold small objects in their hands, typically a twig or stick. Then, they hide their hands under the blanket and pass the sticks back and forth. When they are done, a guesser from the other team tries to figure out in which hand each of the opposing players in is holding their stick. The guesser signals his choices with an elaborate series of gestures.

The Inuit don’t play hand games as a matter of tradition, so the head of the Yukon team stayed up until 4 a.m. the night before the event teaching Team Nunavut the rules of the game. Team Nunavut learned quickly — and learned well. It upset the NWT, home to the most Dene in the semis. The faced down their mentor in the finals and prevailed again.

* * *

Two people looking at Fireworks at the Arctic Winter Games closing ceremonies
Fireworks at the closing ceremonies of the arctic winter games

My week in Nuuk wound down at a media party hosted by the Greenlandic television network KNR, which produced record-breaking amounts of live coverage during the 2002 Games.

I arrived late – having filed late – and was greeted to the sounds of all-native band belting out tunes from the southern United States. I grabbed a Danish beer and joined the Kari Herbert from the Independent London, England and for a night of swapping stories and to ponder the scene.

Listening to “Born on Bayou” in the middle of the Arctic with a European brew in hand seemed incongruous. But then, so did the Nunavut snowboarding, at least it did at first. I put all down to the spirit of the Games and relaxed.

We left Nuuk – along with its strong coffee and other amenities – the follow day for the first leg of the flight home. We laid over in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, a former American Airforce base that is now one of two international airports for the country.

There weren’t enough hotels to accommodate everyone so they opened up the old barracks of the airforce base for the night. while lying on a cot playing crazy eight’s against the NWT snowboarding coach with miniature cards I had purchased for the plastic case (perfect flash card holder) I wonder if I would cover the next games in 2004. You better believe it, I just hope I can get some of that Greenlandic coffee to keep me going.

This article was originally published in April 2, 2002 on the website

1 thought on “Dealing with Firsts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.