2015 Hudson Bay Expedition – The View from Above


This changes everything.

Like most boys, I dreamt of flying. My young nights filled with aerial adventures that come crashing to earth with the morning alarm. And like most men, I lacked the ambition, attention span or available stockpile of cash to make those dreams a reality. These days, most of my flying dreams are set in an airport where I’m arriving late, without my luggage on the wrong day and possibly in the wrong country. Not unlike real life, but in my waking hours I’m usually wearing pants when it happens.

My dream of a pilots license has pretty much gone the way of other youthful dalliances. My time living in Alaska, with its steady diet of missing and presumed dead weekend bush pilots, pretty much extinguished any chance of me walking through the flight school front door.

But show me a camera that flies, and now we’re talking.

Days before I left on this expedition, I ordered DJI’s latest Phantom drone. I’ve used earlier versions that seemed a miracle of technology at the time, but I was never able to match when I hoped to see from the air with what I could actually capture in a photograph. I had great fun flying my old drone in Botswana, hovering over the Okavango Delta and photographing elephant herds that I couldn’t have reached any other way. But the camera was primitive, and continually flying it into trees didn’t help.

But now, it feels like I’m hovering 500 feet above the pack ice, or 50 feet above a sleeping polar bear. I feel like I have a god’s eye view of creation, seeing the world from entirely new perspectives.

It’s not perfect; but the technology is nothing short of amazing…when it works. When it doesn’t it’s sheer agony to go through a string of system alerts and error messages, IMU calibrations and MC data errors. I’ve spent an hour just starting and restarting it, hoping and praying that it might miraculously spring back to life.

But when it sings its boot-up tweet, swivels its little gimbaled camera to life and takes flight, it is magic. The best camera ever, because it FLIES. Suddenly I feel like I’m on even footing with all the Blue Planet, Frozen Planet, Planet Earth BBC types, just without the posh accent, cute production assistants or extravagant budgets.

I’m thinking of giving my drone a name; Petit Mort. It’s about as clever as I will ever get in French, meaning both “small death” and also a common term for…how you say…a moment of maximal sensual pleasure.

When it works, I need a cigarette by the time I’m done. And when her little head becomes filled with ennui and feels the need to flee and die, a little of me dies with it. Picture me standing on an arctic shore, fiddling with the controls trying to convince my little drone that suicide is not an option, even as it flies 50 mph downwind and out of sight on a course only it knows, bound for a certain watery death. It’s like a video game, only you only get to die once and it costs you a thousand bucks to start over.

But so far, touch wood, I’ve managed to coax my little PM off the cliff and fly her home, both of us a little shaky for the experience.

So I keep trying again and again for more pictures, sending the little bird hovering out over these austere, frozen landscapes. In my head I can hear Sir Richard Attenborough’s plummy voice intoning…”These images, what you see here, have never before been seen by man…”



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