"Going through the ice was rough," says photographer Louie Palu, describing the moment he plunged into water barely above freezing. "My mind was saying 'don't panic, don't panic,' but my body was panicking."
Palu was working on a multi-year project to document how nations are positioning themselves to control resources in a thawing Arctic. He was photographing at a Cold War-era radar station in Nunavut, Canada, when he was asked to join the Arctic Operations Advisor course. The intense survival program is taught in part by Canadian Rangers, a Canadian Armed Forces reservist unit that, in the Arctic, is made up of mostly Inuit volunteers. It's required for military personnel expecting to operate in the Arctic or work as a ranger instructors and covers a variety of cold-weather skills, including GPS reading, mapping, snowmobiling, shelter building, and survival techniques. One test is a non-negotiable, one-shot challenge—pulling yourself from an “unexpected” fall through the ice.
The rangers told Palu that for him to go into the field with them, he too would have to pass the ice-fall portion of the test, which prepares the students for one of the deadliest dangers of traversing the Arctic landscape. Despite having spent decades in perilous reporting situations, including years photographing combat missions in Afghanistan, Palu felt unnerved when he hit the water. “It wasn’t painful as much as it was a shock,” he says. “You do panic, naturally. It happens right away.”
Specifically, the test requires students, who are harnessed to a safety rope, to calmly walk across the ice on Jackfish Lake in Yellowknife, Canada, until they fall into the frigid water. The drop is meant to mimic an accidental fall, so the students are not allowed to run or jump. Once in the frigid water, trainees must answer some simple questions posed by the instructors and then find the calm and focus necessary to pull themselves out, a process that requires crushing fragile ice near the hole’s edge until they reach a more solid layer. They must crawl until they can safely stand and then finally get up and walk—not run—to their “battle buddy,” who holds a dry outfit. With near-frozen fingers, they must strip naked, change into the new clothes, and stomp out laps to get their blood flowing.
“You’re so desperate to start feeling things again,” Palu says of the moment he pulled himself out of the water and into the frigid air that, with windchill, hovered around negative 33° Fahrenheit. "In less than two minutes, I could barely use my hands, then they stopped working. I could not feel my feet, and I thought if I don’t pass this test and this happens in the field for real, I could die or someone else could because I did not recover quick enough."
- Nat Geo Expeditions
The rangers explained to Palu that the goal of this ice-dip test is part skill, part psychology. On one hand, it emphasizes crucial survival skills—staying calm in the face of near-death, knowing how to navigate treacherous ice, making smart cold-weather choices when compromised. These skills matter because small mistakes can kill in the Arctic. “You lose a glove, you can lose a hand,” Palu says. And the team needed to know that Palu could save himself, and someone else, if disaster struck.
On the other hand, the test is about building mental strength. It’s meant to serve as a reminder that trained rangers and military staff can manage dangerous situations out in the Arctic. Palu says the hope is that if disaster strikes they’ll remember: “Stay calm. You have saved yourself before.”