Last summer, a group of American explorers travelled 1,000 miles across northern Canada with a Cambodian flag in tow, bringing a little piece of the Kingdom to one of the most remote places on earth.
Photographs of the trip, which reveal an incredible landscape as well as a very human struggle, will go on display this evening at Meta House.
After travelling for 58 days on foot and by canoe, 26-year-old Ben Woods and his friends became the only known group of people to cross the Dubawnt, Morse and Arkmark rivers, starting at Canada’s Black lake and ending at the Queen Maud Gulf on the Arctic Ocean.
Other than spotting an aboriginal man and his dog five days in, they saw no other human life.
Although Woods took thousands of photographs on the expedition, the exhibition, called Arctic Bound, is limited to 24 images. As well as shots of the group dragging canoes along the bed of a shallow stream, and on the water beneath the open sky, the exhibition features more intimate portraits betraying raw emotions: hunger, exhaustion, pain, frustration.
It was at an annual summer camp in Minnesota where Woods and his friends became canoeing aficionadoes. It became their dream to explore somewhere in the Arctic region by canoe, he said, but it was only when he was living in Cambodia and working as a journalist that they were offered the chance.
“About a year and a half before we went on the expedition, a friend emailed me and said, ‘do you want to go on a canoe trip?’ My best friend growing up was also visiting me in Cambodia at the time, and he was on board as well. I think neither of us really thought it was actually going to happen,” he said.
By now, Woods was establishing himself as a photojournalist and was keen to use the opportunity to depict a journey of which there was no existing documentation. He received a Young Explorer’s Grant from National Geographic, agreeing to send photographs and blogposts on his return.
National Geographic was keen for the trip to involve a scientific element, he said, so the group took water samples for research at the University of Alaska.
Hunger was one of the main difficulties Woods and his friends had to grapple with. Other than a few fish, all the food they consumed in 58 days – a lot of dehydrated rice and beans – they carried with them. They had enough in the end, he said, but the physical exertion made it particularly difficult.
“About halfway through the trip we just couldn’t stop thinking about food. We were eating plenty, but we were burning so many calories that our bodies were just craving food,” he said.
Each of them lost between 25 to 30 pounds on the trip.
But the photos aren’t limited to hardship.
One portrays one of the group engrossed in a novel; another shows the same man laughing and horsing around with an oil can.
Woods’s favourite, he said, is of the group taking a lunchtime nap, their grey shirts camouflaged against the rocks they lie upon.
One photograph of particular importance to Woods didn’t make the exhibition.
It shows him holding the Cambodian flag by the Arctic Ocean, but has been omitted because it wasn’t his photograph. “I did it to represent my adoptive country, and I thought Cambodians would like to see their flag in a faraway place,” he said.
Arctic Bound opens at Meta House at 6pm this evening. The exhibition will run until May 12.