Inuvik Satellite Stations Await Federal Approval

When one thinks Arctic landscape, one usually visualizes serene endless tundra or boreal forest with snow covered trees! There’s a section of that austere boreal forest in Inuvik that has five dormant satellite receivers that look alien to the habitat and have been ready for use since 2016.

The satellite receivers were built by Norway’s Kongsberg Satellite Services and American satellite company Planet Lab. Over 18 months ago the application process for federal licensing commenced and since has been caught up in government red tape. The anticipated turnaround was six months.

Going into the application process, both companies expected a turnaround of about 180 days. Word surfaced last week that the licenses were finally approved though no formal announcement has been made. Global Affairs Canada, needs to approve an auxiliary license under Canada’s Remote Sensing Space Systems Act. Until this happens the dishes cannot be activated. Since these installations are integral to a remote sensing space system they need approval from the two agencies.

Inuvik Satellite

Inoperable Invuk Satellite receivers constructed two years ago are unused due to one federal license still needing approval. Rolf Skatteboe photo.

President and CEO of Kongsberg Satellite Services, Rolf Skatteboe, stated the license delays are costing his business money since he is unable to fulfill a contract with the European Space Agency.

“I’ve got the message … hey you’ve gotten the approvals now you can get started, which unfortunately isn’t true,” he said.

Global Affairs Canada apparently has cleared the department to “proceed in evaluating our application” according to Skatteboe.

“We still don’t know … when we will potentially get a license or not,” Skatteboe said. “That’s the most frustrating part.”

Planet Lab and Kongsberg have spent millions to build the installations at Inuvik  Skatteboe values the single large antenna installation at around $6 million, and four of the smaller Planet Lab installations at roughly $8 million. The sixth antenna has received the licensing it needs since its use under the Remote Sensing Space Systems Act did not require review.

Kongsberg constructed its satellite installations in Inuvik prior to being issued a license since the building season in the North is so short and doesn’t allow for flexibility. The company didn’t anticipate delays of the magnitude that has occurred.

Skatteboe added Kongsberg contracted with the European Space Agency to utilize the Inuvik ground station in conjunction with the European Space Agency (ESA) environmental Earth monitoring project named the Copernicus program.

A Kongsberg Satellite Services satellite station in Svalbard, Norway is one of 21 stations around the world and had very little resistance for permitting unlike what he has encountered in Canada according to company president and CEO Rolf Skatteboe. Rolf Skatteboe photo.

“[Kongsberg Satellite] has 21 ground stations around the world and they have all been licensed without any problems,” he said.

“So [Kongsberg] did not expect any problems related to approval to receive … data from an ESA satellite, an organization where Canada also is an associated member.”

“[Kongsberg Satellite] applied more than a year before the system was planned to be operational,” said Skatteboe.

The uncertainty surrounding when, or if, Kongsberg’s installations will ever be approved for use is the main concern.

“If Canada decided what we’re doing is a threat to national security, fine, I accept that,” he said.

“The frustrating part is that we haven’t gotten any feedback on the timescale for them to rule on this one.”

Global Affairs Canada, department spokesperson Brittany Venhola-Fletcher said in an email statement that, “Global Affairs Canada continues to work closely” with Kongsberg and Planet Labs to finalize and hopefully approve their licensing application.

New Player May Facilitate Port and Rail Sale

With little time to waste a new player has surfaced in the crucial sale of the Port of Churchill to two independent First Nations groups in the north. Investment firm Fairfax Financial Holdings from Toronto hopes to partner with One North and Missinippi Rail LP to wrest ownership from Denver, Colorado-based Omnitrax and set forth in motion the extensive repairs to the Hudson Bay Line damaged by severe flooding last May.

Port of Churchill

The Port of Churchill may be under new ownership soon. CBC News photo.

The new prospective partner will also bring a financially sound backing and a strong business base to the deal that Churchill officials and residents hope will secure access to the south and free them from isolation.

According to reliable sources, a negotiator for the federal government, former clerk of the Privy Council Wayne Wouters, has brokered a deal with the two potential owners.

“This development has the potential to contribute to an arrangement supported by First Nations and communities in northern Manitoba,” Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr said in a statement released Thursday.

“This would enable a sustainable business approach that results in a safe and reliable rail line.”

Paul Rivett, president of Fairfax Financial Holdings, said “we are optimistic about the prospects of northern gateways.” stated in a press release.

“The Churchill rail corridor and the Port of Churchill are important pieces of infrastructure for northern communities and to the economy of Canada. Partnering with First Nations and communities is the right model for this investment,” Rivett said.

He said Fairfax will rely on a company it has invested in, AGT Foods, to develop a plan that is “viable and profitable in the long term as a business.”

Earlier this week, Ottawa responded with an $18-million lawsuit against Omnitrax after it filed filed a claim for damages against the federal government under the rules of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The head of the Fairfax, V. Prem Watsa, has been characterized as the “Warren Buffet of Canada” often investing in troubled companies and turning them into a positive entity. Watsa invested in BlackBerry and Fairfax has significant holdings in several other companies.

V. Prem

Fairfax Financial CEO and chair V. Prem Watsa.CBC News photo.

Omnitrax signed a memorandum of understanding with First Nations Consortium Missinippi Rail in June and then joined forces with One North to strengthen interests in purchasing Omnitrax’s Manitoba assets.

Churchill Mayor Mike Spence, in a written statement to CBC News, said transferring the port and rail line to a stable, strong northern regional ownership group is the highest priority. He is behind the efforts to find a partner to purchase the assets one hundred per cent.

“I am pleased that there are outstanding companies that also share this vision. We now need the negotiations expedited and [to] ensure our preparations for repairs to the rail line and port are ready for the 2018 season,” wrote Spence.

Retired Canadian Mountie Sentenced to Prison

narwhal and tusk

Narwhal tusks can grow more than 8 feet in length and demand high prices on the black market. Paul Nicklen/Getty Images photo.

Retired Canadian Mountie Gregory Logan, 60, of Saint John has been sentenced to five years and two months in a United States federal prison for smuggling nearly 300 Narwhal tusks with a value of $1.5 – $3 million US into Maine. The contraband tusks were hidden in false compartments in Logan’s vehicle according to U.S. prosecutors. Once in the United States, they were shipped from a post office box in Ellsworth, Maine, to wealthy buyers all across the country.

This story was first reported on in a March 2016 blog post on this site.

Narwhals, protected in the United States and Canada, grow ornate, spiral tusks that can grow longer than eight feet and are coveted for use in carvings, jewelry-making, and general display. Under the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, it is illegal to transport any parts of a Narwhal across federal borders.

According to the indictment, Logan smuggled the narwhal tusks into the U.S. in 2000 while he was working as a Mountie. He retired from the police force in 2003.

Logan filled orders with his U. S. co-conspirators according to what they wanted in terms of quantity and size and then contacted northern Inuit hunters to supply the tusks.

“Unlawful wildlife trade like this undermines efforts by federal, state, and foreign governments to protect and restore populations of species like the narwhal, a majestic creature of the sea,” said acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey H. Wood of the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.

U.S. District Court Judge John A. Woodcock sentenced Logan to money-laundering and conspiracy charges to which he pleaded guilty. Smuggling charges were dropped under a plea agreement. Logan has paid $350,000 in fines and served four months of home detention on a related wildlife – smuggling charge to which he plead guilty.

Co-conspirator and U.S. resident Andrew Zarauskas, of Union, N.J., was convicted and sentenced to 33 months.  A Tennessee man had charges dismissed. Logan was pinned as the leader and organizer of the scheme and therefore sentenced most harshly.

“He directed and organized the way in which the tusks were smuggled and shipped as well as the ways in which the proceeds would ultimately be laundered into Canada. In sum, (Logan) was the ‘hub’ without whom the ‘spokes’ could not have succeeded in their joint criminal enterprise,” they said in court documents.

The U.S. Department of Justice detailed how the scheme worked in a news release:

“Logan knew that his customers would re-sell the tusks for a profit and in an attempt to increase that resale price, Logan would occasionally provide fraudulent documentation claiming that the tusks had originally belonged to a private collector in Maine who had acquired them legally,” it said.

“In addition to shipping the tusks from Maine, Logan maintained a post office box in the Ellsworth shipping store as well as an account at a bank in Bangor. Logan instructed his customers to send payment in the form of cheques to the post office box, or wire money directly to his Maine bank account.

“Logan then transported the money to Canada by having the shipping store forward his mail to him in Canada, and by using an ATM card to withdraw money from his Maine bank account at Canadian ATM machines. At times, Logan also directed his customers to send funds directly to him in Canada.”

Churchill Polar Bear Adventure Photo Tips

Photo guru and Naturalist guide Court Whelan details how to photograph like a pro and get the most out of a Churchill polar bear adventure!


What’s in your Camera Bag? Churchill Polar Bear Adventure

It’s that time of year when Polar Bears are off the ice and migrating through the Western and Southwestern coasts of Canada’s Hudson Bay.  This means that folks are soon headed up to Churchill to photograph the iconic King of the Arctic.

Read on to make sure you have the right gear with you to get the photos you’ve always dreamed of.

Please note, photographic styles vary, as do conditions on the ground.  While this is meant to be a guide for choosing your camera gear, you should consider your own photographic interests first and foremost.

Wide Angle Zoom

This is certainly one of the most important lenses to consider bringing on an adventure “up north.”  While polar bear photos are no doubt the most anticipated, there are many other experiences that you’ll wish to photograph, including general landscape scenes, travel experiences, and the town of Churchill, too.  Something in the range of 18-55mm, 24-70mm, or 24-105mm for DSLRs or a 7-20mm, or 12-40mm on a mirrorless setup is ideal.

Zoom Telephoto

Having flexibility in your telephoto lens is immensely helpful while photographing polar bears, as they can be at a range of distances.  It’s not uncommon for polar bears to be within only a few yards, as they are curious creatures, all the way up to a hundred yards plus from you (after all, they are 100% wild animals!).  Generally speaking, your common zoom telephotos are top choices, like 70-300mm and 100-400mm on DSLRs and 40-150mm on mirrorless setups.

There are new lenses coming out that get you, even more, telephoto than this, all while maintaining a nice zoom range (Sigma’s 150-600mm comes to mind).  I haven’t personally tested these for sharpness and ease of use, but I can say that with each new lens and camera system I experiment with, I’m continually amazed at the higher and higher quality as new technologies consistently push the limit (in a good way!).

Maybe a super telephoto?

When I think super telephoto, I usually think about prime lenses 400mm or greater, but more commonly your 500mm and 600mm lenses.  If you’re not familiar, these are wonderful lenses and generally have incredible optics.  However, they are often quite pricey, too.  If you already own one of these and are considering bringing it on your polar bear expedition (examples would be a 400mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4 or 600mm f/4 on DSLR or 150mm f/2.8 on mirrorless), it’s indeed worth thinking about.

Whether or not you pack it is really going to depend on a) what else you plan on bringing for lenses and b) what style of photographer you are.  For instance, if you plan on bringing several smaller lenses (e.g., ultra wide, medium telephoto…10-22mm and 24-70mm) and a couple zoom telephotos like a 70-200mm and 100-400mm, a super telephoto might be a bit too much.  However, if you plan on just one wide angle like a 24-70mm, one medium telephoto like a 70-200mm, along with your 500mm f/4, I’d say go for it.  Again, 400mm should usually cover 90% of the shots, but you never know when it comes to wildlife…best to be prepared.

The risk here is that you can actually have too much telephoto — you definitely won’t need 500mm all the time.  Thus, it’s a balancing act of covering your focal ranges while also making sure you aren’t inundated by too much camera gear and too many options.  Versatility is key.

When thinking about a large telephoto, a second camera body is highly advisable, as you will not use it the majority of the time.

X-factor Lenses

I am always thinking about how to get a different shot.  If you go online and search for lion photos on safari, there is a lot of competition out there. Of course, first and foremost your photography is for you, and you shouldn’t worry too much about what other people are doing. But, by going to out-of-the-norm and meaningful locations like Churchill means that you’re part of a small group of people that have access to some of the most incredible sights and sounds.  Thus, you have the potential to really do something with your photos!

As a result, I am a big fan of bringing a couple “x-factor” lenses along with me, particularly my trusty ultra-wide angle and nifty-fifty lens.  My ultra-wide, if you’re not familiar, is capable of near-fish-eye effect, having a ridiculously wide angle of view.  Mine personally is a 17-40mm, used on a full frame camera.  For crop-frame cameras, a 10-22mm is excellent.  Other options for full frame set-ups include 14-24mm and 16-35mm lenses.  These enable you to get really unique shots that you’re not going to see elsewhere…period.

The other lens I generally bring is my nifty-fifty, which is a 50mm f/1.4 lens.  While it is fixed and has little versatility as a walking around lens, it can produce stunning results with shallow depth of field.  In fact, I often will force myself to use it, just because I can see things and capture things differently (there’s that word again!).  Snow on wooden windowsills?  All of the sudden a common sight is a compelling storytelling photo.

Accessories and other gear

You’re going to be in cold weather environments, so be sure to bring extra camera batteries and keep them warm by storing them in your pocket (the body heat prolongs their life).  And of course, bring plenty of memory for your camera.

A tripod is generally not necessary, and I personally feel they are just too much to deal with when exploring the tundra in all-terrain vehicles.  It’s far better to plan on hand holding your camera and being able to move from one part of the vehicle to the other to get the shot. Lugging a tripod along and having to set it up each and every time will result in missed shots.

However, if you are lucky enough to see the northern lights up in Churchill, a tripod is essential.  If the lights come out, you’ll be shooting in the dark and generally at exposures between 5” – 15”.  Thus, it’s worth bringing a small travel tripod with you, and keeping it in your room until there’s that lucky chance to use it one night.

Last but not least, folks with lots of lenses may wish to bring a second camera body.  Being able to put a wide angle on one body and a telephoto on the second will virtually double the number of shots you’ll get.  And, the more shots you take, the more show-stopping images you’ll have for a lifetime.

Hope these tips are helpful and don’t hesitate to recommend your own in the comments below.

All the best,

Pin It on Pinterest