Up The Dempster – North of the Arctic Circle with the GFX 50S

When I was asked to write a camera review of the new GFX 50S, my mind quickly went to all the gushing camera reviews all over magazines and the Internet. These are not so much reviews as they are statements of brand fandom and long lists of technical features. I immediately knew I didn’t want to write a traditional camera review but instead wanted to tell a story and to show you, the reader, how I used the Fujifilm GFX 50S. I was to take the camera on a trip was from Toronto Ontario to Tuktoyaktuk, North West Territories through the Yukon. And so it began…

Arriving from Toronto, we flew into Whitehorse, my travelling companion and I, before setting off on the long drive north up the infamous Dempster Highway. The term highway is a generous one. It can be more accurately described as a crude and very dusty (or muddy) gravel and shale cut, across an otherwise seemingly unblemished northern Canadian landscape, spanning the Yukon and Northwest Territories, and crossing the Arctic Circle. It has earned its nickname as the “Tire Eater”.

It’s July, and I have been fortunate enough to have been invited to attend the Great Northern Arts Festival (GNAF) in Inuvik, as a visiting artist. The goal is to arrive in Inuvik just in time for the opening ceremonies. From there we will fly to Tuktoyaktuk for the weekend, before returning to Inuvik and beginning the long drive back to Whitehorse. Travelling in a brawny pickup truck, two spare tires, our gear, and a bear rifle in tow, we set off.

In spite of all the advances in Fuji’s colour processing, I still love to “shoot” in black and white. There is a timeless quality to the resultant images, and the wide dynamic range and impressive bit-depth of this camera bring me into black and white film territory, and beyond.

First stop is the Tombstone Territorial Park, Yukon Territory. It had been a long day, but the sun sets late, even here, and I was able to capture this epic sunset. Not a bad start to the journey. In the valley below, that’s not water, but ice from the previous winter…just a reminder of where we are heading. These sights are becoming increasingly rare in the North, as the permafrost melts and the air warms, year over year.


Next morning, we had a chance for some day-hiking. At an elevation of 3000 feet (900 meters), the view is good — very good. Alpine trees and even some wildflowers can be hundreds of years old at this elevation, so we tread lightly at leave no trace.


After summiting and our decent, it is time to move on. But before too long, we come across this curious fellow and his large family. Apparently these small mountain sheep are very timid of people, but it seems like someone forgot to tell this summer lamb.

There is a lot to love about the Northern landscape, but what always amazes me is how quickly you can come upon an entirely different and majestic vista. Just around a bend, and with no warning, scenes like this open in front of you. I have been experimenting with hand-held multi-shot stitched panoramic images using the GSX 50S. Because of the already extreme resolution and its lightweight design, this camera is great for hand-held panoramic photography. This 113 megapixel stitched image can be beautifully printed larger than most walls can accommodate!

A ribbon of gravel, sand and earth lies in front of me. Time to move on. Many, many, more days of road are still ahead. We briefly stop to offer assistance to an RV, already with a flat tire. I’m glad I insisted on two spares. You see, by the laws of nature, had I only had one spare, I would likely get two flat tires, but by paying for two spares, I feel I’m nearly guaranteed to have no flat tires at all.

Firmly above the treeline, north of the Arctic Circle now…and it’s snowing…in July. No kidding. In spite of it being the hottest time of year, with 24-hour daylight, it is not unusual to have sudden snow storms here, at 2300 feet (900 m) of elevation. Weatherproof camera? Check! I would hate to be worrying about my camera in a place such as this.

Early in the morning, crossing the Continental Divide, and it is time to do some more hiking. It is this rise of land that determines whether the river waters reach the Arctic, Atlantic or Pacific oceans, and it was begging to be climbed. The Arctic wind across the open plain was brutal and the sun (when it was out) was harsh and bright, but still cold. As we approached the summit, there were times it felt like I would be blown clear down the mountain, head-over-heels. However, as you’ve probably gathered, since this essay doesn’t end here abruptly, I did not. Maybe having learned a thing or two from my sure-footed lamb friend earlier in the journey, I managed to stay upright, with my head and feet in their most usual positions.

Several hours, and one large meal later, it was time to get back on the road. And once again, the landscape changes. Jagged mountains give way to rolling hills and ancient worn peaks.

Travelling in the Arctic is as close to traveling back in time as I will ever experience. The cold nearly freezes time. You can imagine that this landscape has changed very little over the past several thousand years. These lands are millions of year in the making. It is enough to humble any man or woman, no matter their station in life. There are many a bombastic political leader who could benefit from a journey here.

After a brief stop in Inuvik for the wonderful GNAF opening ceremonies, it was time to catch a flight to Tuktoyaktuk, or Tuk, as everyone here calls it. The Great Northern Arts Festival is a destination for many Northern artists and worldwide art lovers alike, and should not be missed if you ever have the opportunity to visit Inuvik in July.

What does one expect, coming to a remote northern Inuit town? Cut off from the world, until just the other day, November 2017, when the first all-year highway opened up to the south, what do you think awaits? Check your expectations and biases at the door. Check your frame of mind.

The town of Tuk is certainly beautiful, in a very special way. A quintessential northern Canadian town, rich with Inuit/Inuvialuit culture at every turn. The buildings in Tuk remind me of the quilts you see at antique shops in the city or at farmer’s markets on the weekend. Small irregular pieces carefully come together to make the whole. Look deeper, beyond the surface, and we’re reminded of how wasteful most of us have become.

This may be a story of the haves and have-nots, but not in the conventional sense of the phrase. It is us, the busy nine-to-five city-dweller, who are truly the have-nots. We are poor in the knowledge of the very land on which we live. We are poor in family and in community. We are poor in the sense of belonging as an integral part of, and not separate from, our environments.

Being a Fujifilm X-Photographer, and working in the North, I have had the privilege of catching a glimpse of these riches we rarely see in the south, while using a camera that not only captures the true detail of the scene but also allows me to feel more connected to my subjects.

A room with a view! Staying in a room at “Hunter’s”, right on the Arctic Ocean. I don’t think it gets much better than this.

The Ibyuk pingo, a 1200-year-old earth-covered ice mound, is the tallest pingo in Canada. It is still growing, for now, until global climate change alters that. A big thank you to the Gruben family of Tuktoyaktuk for the trip out. I would not have been able to experience this without their support.

The view north to the Arctic Ocean from atop the Ibyuk pingo!

Young Hunter with a small .22 for target practice. Hunting is a way of life and a necessity in the North, so your shot needs to be good if you want to eat.

When it gets so cold that even the land cracks!

Leaving Tuk and flying south to Inuvik to pick up the truck again, we get one last glimpse of this magnificent view. Can’t wait to come back another time! The highway will be open then, and there will inevitably be change. As a photographer using the GFX system, I have the unique opportunity to document these changes with staggering detail and acuity, and these images will serve as a record of days, and generations, gone by.

Well after midnight, on a cold summer’s night in the land of the midnight sun.

A lot of forest fires as we head back south along the Dempster. It will take decades before this forest has regrown. While you might think a sight like this is sad, it is the fire itself that helps the forest grow! Not only does the fire break down organic matter into the new forest floor, but these trees are designed to burn. Their lower limbs burn, and in the process, the upper pinecones (you can see them at the very tops of the trees), after being heated from the fire, release their seed onto the nutrient-rich ground below. With nearly no competing vegetation left and direct sun on the forest floor, the seeds are free to grow into healthy saplings and on to mature trees. The trees may die, but the seeds and their genes live on. Without the fires, this process would never happen. However, as always, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. With more forest fires than usual, another result of climate change, the trees don’t have time to produce their seeds and the forests will struggle to survive.

Try to see the beauty in everything. Nearby forest fires make the air thick with smoke.

Just outside of Dawson City…and there’s gold in them there hills!

Last stop before heading home. A smoky Yukon River just beyond Dawson City.

I have been to the Arctic and sub-Arctic zones in spring, summer, and fall, and while it can certainly be a challenging climate, it is also most definitely a rewarding one. It is a vast area that, once seen, beckons for your return. Unquestionably, the lack of trees makes for a landscape photographer’s dream. With nothing to block your view and seemingly limitless unspoiled land, there seems to be a sweeping vista in every direction at any point along the journey.

As for the camera itself, what can be said that has not been covered in the numerous technical reviews? I think what’s missing from these reviews is a first-hand account of how the GFX 50S feels in use. I’m not just talking about the ergonomics, but rather the ethos underpinning the experience of creating images with this particular camera. Ultimately, I felt that the camera became an extension of myself, which is the highest praise I can afford a mechanical object. Sure, having a big medium format 51-megapixel sensor, lenses that perform flawlessly, and files with huge dynamic range and beautiful colour, all help with the experience. But the technical features alone do not account for the experience of creating images with this camera. It is often said that a great camera should not get in the way of the photographer creating images. Not only does the GFX 50S not get in the way of the photographer, but I found I was not thinking about the camera at all, let alone worrying about technical issues. And that is probably the highest compliment I can think of for a camera – that I simply did not notice it.

Thank you again to Fujifilm for your continued support and to the Great Northern Arts Festival for inviting me to join you in Inuvik, and of course, for everyone who has followed along! Where should I go next??

About the Author

Canadian photographer and adventurer, J R Bernstein is a long-time Fujifilm X-Photographer. He is an award-winning and well-published photographer known for his narrative images and perfectionist approach to lighting and storytelling. His art leaves the viewer with a sense of time and place as if every photograph is a single frame of a much larger story. Each image, and each of the elements within it is deliberate and plays a role in the story-telling process. Photographs are not to be left to chance or whim.

For more information on his fine-art and commercial work, J R can be reached via his website, jrbernstein.com

3 thoughts on “Up The Dempster – North of the Arctic Circle with the GFX 50S”

Leave a ReplyCancel reply