Filing daily reports from
the field would ruin a trip, but it's fun to do pre-briefs and
'Tis the listmania season, so here's an obscure list for arctic travelers only:
The Five Toughest Sledding Conditions
1. Knee-deep snow. There is nothing worse than dragging a sled through deep powder. In the High Arctic, it's actually okay the very day of a snowfall, because the snow tends to be so light that it has no resistance at all. But once it has begun to settle...hell. Pulling 250 pounds is impossible without first breaking trail; even a 150-pound sled can be advanced only with tremendous cardiovascular effort. Depending on the weight of the sled and the depth of the snow, I try to reach 100 steps, or 50 steps, before catching my breath. Think of it as six or seven continuous hours of interval training. It's particularly bad when the snow is too deep for skis and -- since deep, soft snow is comparatively rare in the High Arctic -- you didn't bring snowshoes.
2. Cold snow. Below about -25C, a sled loses its glide. Friction increases as the temperature drops, and by -50C, a sled is dead weight even on hard snow. When you stop, the sled immediately halts, whereas in warmer conditions, it glides for a foot or so first.
3. Uphills. Gradual uphills are manageable, but steep hills show the limitations of sledding in mountainous country. Sometimes you can hook two people to one sled and extend what is doable, but often you end up portaging the contents of the sled in several loads -- which is why my custom-made food duffle includes backpack straps.
4. Rough ice. You want to learn the meaning of patience, haul a sled through this.
5. Bare land sledding. Not much snow actually falls in the dry High Arctic. In windy passes, or where exposed hills reflect the sun and sublimate the snow that does fall, the ground may be almost bare, even in early spring. On land crossings, hauling a sled over gravel and exposed rocks is sometimes unavoidable. And with every scream of the sled as gravel cuts new gouges in the runners and gelcoat, you realize that the friction of hauling is permanently increasing and the lifespan of your sled fast decreasing.
And in the spirit of lists everywhere, one Honorable Mention:
Headwinds. They're a little easier to handle early in the year. It's colder but the sun is lower and you don't need sunglasses. (The snowblindness season begins around April 1 on central Ellesmere, and in early February in central Labrador.) When you have to protect your face with a facemask, and also use eyewear, it's hard to avoid glasses fogging up from your breath. I try to use controlled breathing, breathe out through my nose, etc. so that the moist air is directed away from the sunglasses as much as possible -- but it's still hard to avoid icing up the lenses. In a crosswind, it's even harder, but only the downwind lens fogs up. I've spent many a day sledding half-blind or 3/4 blind because of frosted lenses.
Most of the time, I don't bother to bring crampons on an arctic sled expedition, though I do carry cleats -- those little rubber slip-ons with carbide tips on the bottom. They're invaluable on windblown sea ice. If a strong headwind is blowing, they're the only way you can move forward. In a tailwind, you need them to make quick evasive movements to keep the wind-pushed sled from bowling you over.
If an expedition involves land crossings, however, I do tend to bring crampons. Land crossings often include little river canyons, where frozen spillways are hard or impossible to manage without them. It's not technical climbing -- the spillways are usually not vertical and I just wear the crampons over my sealskin kamiks -- but you need more bite than the little cleat nubs can provide. Sometimes I also carry a short climbing rope for those little canyons, to lower down the sled.
My typical aerobic exercise at this time of year is a quick 35 minute skate-ski at the Canmore Nordic Centre. Today is fairly cool in town, -23C during the day, and snow at that temperature is almost too abrasive to give a decent glide for skate-skiing. But there was a little.
In the Arctic, I've noticed that glide -- both on skis and sled runners -- declines precipitously after -25C. By the time it reaches -50C, hauling a sled feels like dragging a sack of potatoes along a sandy beach. If the sled is very heavy, it feels more like a sack of bricks. Meanwhile, when the snow is mild, as it gets in late spring when the arctic sun beats down on it, a 150-lb sled can glide over hard snow as if nothing at all is attached to you.
This has nothing to do with expeditions, but for what it's worth: The other day, I (and several other photographers who shoot the Arctic) received an invitation to submit images to a photo contest, run by a bathroom tissue company. If our image was selected, we would receive a $500 "honorarium", have our photo on a box of nose tissue and give the company permanent rights to use that image.
I've run photo contests before, in my time as a magazine editor, and helped judge the entries in several other contests. Let me offer a contestant-beware notice: Some companies run photo contests mainly as a way to get free or cheap photos. Rules sometimes stipulate that any image submitted may be used by the company that puts on the contest. Since photos used for advertising may sell for thousands of dollars, and getting permanent use of an image can run into the tens of thousands, some photo contests, including the one in question, are just a rights grab -- a way to get something of value for little or nothing.
Amateur photographers, of course, wouldn't get thousands of bucks for an image, and so might feel lucky or honored to earn what looks like a fair piece of change. It's still exploitation. What's interesting here is that the company, stuck for arctic images, actually sought out and contacted professional photographers, all of whom would know better.
Had a conversation a couple of days ago with Nikita Ovsyanikov. He's the Russian scientist who researches polar bears on Wrangel Island, walking among them with just a long stick and some bear spray. On Wrangel, 150 to 600 polar bears hang out sociably every summer waiting for the sea ice to form. It's Russia's version of Churchill, Manitoba. Ovsyanikov was in Canmore this week as part of a bear/human conflicts symposium.
He mentioned how North Pole skiers -- extreme tourists, the Russians like to call them -- are inordinately scared of polar bears, which he calls the most cautious animals on earth. "If injured, grizzlies could still graze," he points out. "Polar bears would starve." This need to avoid injury makes them think twice before confronting prey that may or may not be dangerous. Which is why his policy, and the one that Alexandra and I have instinctively followed, is to be aggressive when confronting a curious polar bear.
Ovsyanikov doesn't believe in carrying guns against polar bears. Among other things, it "puts the carrier into an inadequate psychological mood," he said in his Russian-accented English. In other words, the temptation is to rely on the gun's power rather than deter what is generally an easily intimidated animal in some non-lethal fashion, such as with bear spray.
He has not had much success scaring off bears with gun noise or with flares, but perhaps that is because he is dealing with the same individuals all the time. In more typical adventure situations, you are confronting a single bear once, one that has never seen a human. I've found that the noise of a shotgun blast scares a polar bear away about a third of the time. Flares work virtually 100%, although some bears need several flares to convince, and what Ovsyanikov says also makes sense: that if pain doesn't accompany the noise or visual intimidation, eventually the bears learn that it's a bluff. But for a single confrontation with a naive polar bear, flares work great. Still, I would not want to be without a firearm as a last resort.
Thepoles.com today reports on a couple of tents in Antarctica blown down or damaged by 120kph winds. I have the same Hilleberg Keron 3GT tent, and last December in Labrador it easily endured 120kph winds. All was calm and secure inside; outside, I had a hard time standing up, and my half-empty sled actually blew over the tent. (It was clipped by carabiner to the tent, so I didn't have to start running after it.)
So why the problem in Antarctica? To judge from the photo, their tent was simply not staked down securely. It was loosely set up and seems to be moored casually with spare pole sections. Like all tents, in big winds the Keron lives or dies by how well it is staked. The stronger the wind, the tauter the tent needs to be. You may need to tweak the tension on the guylines several times. In gales, as in the 80kph wind below left, you need either rocks in summer or snow stakes, skis or nails on snow and ice to make a tent bombproof. It's a pain, especially on a sandy beach, where you have to trek a long way for rocks. Sometimes it takes an hour's work to stormproof a tent. But when it's secure, the Keron even sheds strong crosswinds.
When a tent is not secure, all bets are off. Two years ago, when Bob Cochran and I were following Frederick Cook's 700km route from Devon Island up the east coast of Ellesmere, one night we lazily staked down the tent in some sugar snow. Bad snow for staking, but we figured it was a calm evening, it would be ok. We woke up in the middle of the night with the tent around our ears. A gale had risen while we slept and ripped out the feeble stakes. The next hour was interesting, but we managed to re-erect the tent without damage. Our fault.
Windproofing a tent with 400 lbs of rocks, left, and a taut Hilleberg Keron, right.
The first week of every November, I catch the events of the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festivals -- one of the advantages of living in the Bow Valley. A selection of the best films gets aired in close to 300 venues around the world, but at the festival itself, you get to view as many films as you have the stomach for, as well as listen to adventurers talk in person about their latest expeditions.
Many of the films are ok. Some are ragged but charming efforts done with a cheap camcorder, others have top-notch production values. BBC wildlife films are always classy.
I watch the screenings in search of the one film a year that makes an indelible impact. There's always one, it seems. Last year, it was a big-budget film, Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World, his documentary about McMurdo base in Antarctica. It combined lovely underwater footage with unblinking looks at some of the zany characters who inhabit the station.
A couple of years ago, it was 20 Seconds of Joy, a study in adrenalin addiction. Another year, the classic Berserk in the Antarctic, in which a 21-year-old Norwegian sailor shows an almost superhuman commitment to keep the camera rolling no matter what happens.
This year may belong to a film I heard about from one of the festival pre-screeners and managed to find online: Lost at Sea, about Andrew McAuley's fatal attempt to paddle 1,000 miles from Australia to New Zealand. He survived a major storm and a month on the open ocean only to perish within 30 kilometers of his destination.
While hauling a sled is a mentally relaxing way to travel, kayaking in rough seas requires non-stop concentration and is very stressful. The pressure to stay alert every second grinds you down. What seems to have killed McAuley is that he wasn't able to sleep properly, to recharge the mental batteries. The little watertight bubble that fit over his hatch and turned the kayak into a self-righting vessel while he slept was a neat idea, but the kayak was too small and cramped to allow him to get the rest he needed. By the end of the expedition, the surviving film footage showed that he was totally wasted. Also, when you're that close to the finish line, psychologically you're already there and tend to let down your guard a little. His bulbous hatch cover, which worked at night and sat on the aft deck during the day, didn't allow him to roll his boat in the event of a capsize. Something happened to him within sight of shore -- a rogue wave, perhaps, since the weather was decent at the time. He made a garbled mayday call on his radio to rescue authorities saying that he was in the water and that his boat was sinking. His kayak (and video camera) were later found, but McAuley had disappeared.
It's no crime for a good adventurer to write a mediocre book, just like we shouldn't expect good writers like Paul Theroux to have to trek 1,000 kilometers before we pay attention to them. But when bad adventurers write bad books...
Alas, just about any book by a contemporary British polar traveler fits in that category. Generally, Britons are great adventurers -- the first slide show I ever saw was given by Doug Scott, and it made a tremendous impression on me -- the wonderful photos, the high adventure, the understated hilarity of his delivery, his toss-off philosophical remarks.
But climbing is different from polar travel. Climbing is a serious sport, practiced regularly. It draws people who climb for the love of climbing, or mountains. At the upper end, professionals have to accept doing a little self-publicity in order to earn a living, but it's not all a hustle. Among other things, these guys really are good athletes.
On the other hand, polar travel, as practiced today in England, consists entirely of would-be motivational speakers doing one or two trips, then spending the rest of their lives posing publicly as experts. Motivational speaking is a good way to earn money -- there are people making a six-figure income based on 10 hours work a year -- but there is an inverse relationship between that sort of communication and writing. Simply put, motivational speakers can't write. The bs that works at the lecture podium bites them in the ass on the printed page.
The only good British polar travelers remain the expatriates, who carry their culture's passion for the Arctic while having left behind the hooey that seems to accompany it on the mother soil.
BEST ADVENTURE BOOKS
10. The Long Walk, Slavomir Rawicz
Another Great Escape book, in some ways similar to We Die Alone. It tracks the narrator's escape from a Soviet labor camp and through Siberia, China, Tibet and into British India. It comes, however, with an added dash of controversy: Many travelers experienced with the areas described believe that the book is largely fiction. Objections range from subtle clues -- like no mention of the constant winds that rake the Tibetan plateau and are the most memorable feature of the place -- to hard-to-believe sections like trekking for over a week across the Gobi without water to, er, bumping into two Abominable Snowmen in the Himalaya. A 2006 BBC investigation furthered the case for the prosecution. See http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/6098218.stm
Throughout his life, Rawicz steadfastly upheld the truth of his account. Perhaps he was like Frederick Cook, inhabiting a mental universe where half-truths and fantasy blurred with reality. That may have helped make The Long Walk such an inspiring account of fortitude.
BEST ADVENTURE BOOKS
9. Last Places, Lawrence Millman
Last Places is the only book on the Arctic -- maybe the only travel book -- that made me laugh out loud a lot. Some readers swear by A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush; others by Redmond O'Hanlon or Bill Bryson. But the last two try too hard to be funny. They affect the klutz persona and milk it for all it's worth. The klutz persona is a popular device in contemporary travel writing, because readers don't feel intimidated by the author's competence and can better identify.
If Tim Cahill (another naturally funny man who isn't constantly poking you in the ribs with his elbow) wrote books rather than just magazine stories, he'd be near the top of this list. But with one exception, his books are collections of recycled articles. The stuff he produced for Outside in the mid- to late-1980s was always the highlight of my reading month, except when David Quammen did something even more memorable.
Full disclosure: the author of Last Places is a friend. But I know several authors, and the reason I keep flipping through Last Places is, as with Richard Francis Burton, for the delight in a well-turned curmudgeonly phrase.
BEST ADVENTURE BOOKS
8. Wind, Sand and Stars, Antoine de Saint-Exupery
At first I wasn't going to include this book -- I don't know why -- but it kept nagging and nagging at me until I relented. It really belongs up with Arabian Sands and Desert Solitaire. It's a marvellous, poetic account of the author's experiences flying the early mail planes. It was all seat-of-the-pants flying in those days. Engines routinely conked out. Navigation relied heavily on local landmarks -- some of his route-finding reminds me of the ancient Portuguese sailor's map noting "a remarkable tree with three crows upon it."
The first two-thirds of the book are lyrical musings on the life of a mail pilot in the 1920s and 1930s, but the part that everyone remembers best is when his plane crashes in the Libyan desert. They survive the crash, but they go thirsty for -- how many days? It's as if the Alive rugby team had a great writer among them not only to record the experience but to dig at its essence.
BEST ADVENTURE BOOKS
7. The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux
More travel than adventure -- for the sake of argument, let's say that "adventure" includes a physical component -- but the best books balance the writing and the story. Some books, like We Die Alone or The Lure of the Labrador Wild, almost tell themselves. Meanwhile, the account of some guy taking a bunch of trains through Europe and Asia has to be pretty well written to stand out.
Film critic Roger Ebert calls Paul Theroux the most well-read person he's ever met. From Theroux's writings -- and I've read most of his non-fiction books -- I get the sense that he travels light. And yet I wouldn't be surprised to hear that he secretly carries a steamer trunk full of books with him everywhere. Theroux is a writer inspired by travel, not a traveler.
Theroux's ear for dialog amazes. He not only remembers long conversations, but people's quirky pronunciations, which he renders unerringly. Without ever having heard him speak a foreign language, I can tell he is one of those who may know only 10 words in a particular language, but can speak them like a native. The linguistic equivalent of perfect pitch.
Some of his books, like Happy Isles of Oceania, where he paddles hither and thither with his trusty Klepper, and Dark Star Safari, where he dodges bullets in the back of an open truck while crafting insults about NGOs, have a stronger adventure component than his railway compendiums. No matter. Like Burton, he's a literate companion whom you read for the pleasure of his educated, no bs eye. One of my regrets is that I have to read so much bad exploration writing, because the books cover the areas where I travel, that I don't have time to read as much good stuff as I'd like. Theroux is a breath of fresh air.
BEST ADVENTURE BOOKS
6. We Die Alone, David Howarth
Another classic survival story in which the tale, not the writing, is the thing. It takes place during World War II, when Norwegian Jan Baalsrud returns to occupied arctic Norway with a resistance crew to sabotage an air base. Before the patrol even lands, it is ambushed. Baalsrud is the only one to escape. He swims through ice water, has his big toe shot off, runs barefoot through the snow with bullets zinging about him. And that's just the beginning. For the next two months, as he attempts to trek 80 miles to neutral Sweden, his close calls are so many, and come in such quick succession, that they seem part of some Greek myth. At one point, he wanders snowblind through the mountains, is caught in an avalanche, which deposits him, incredibly, by the door of a hunting cabin. Here, he holes up, starving. He cuts off his frostbitten toes with a penknife. He becomes a symbol of Norwegian resistance; the Nazis scour the countryside for him. The book reads like a chase dream.
BEST ADVENTURE BOOKS
5. The Lure of the Labrador Wild, Dillon Wallace
Survival stories are great, and if I were a mountaineer, I'd put Into the Void on this best-of list, and if I were a sailor, Adrift would have to be included. There are so many good tales of survival or near-survival, from literature like Wind, Sand and Stars to Alive and the recent retakes about that famous crash in the Andes.
The Lure of the Labrador Wild is not particularly well written, but the story is unforgettable. It combines survival, starvation, comradeship and death. Leonidas Hubbard was a junior magazine editor from New York who wanted to make a name for himself by penetrating the heart of Labrador, still terra incognita in 1903. He enlisted as co-conspirators his old pal Dillon Wallace and a half-Cree guide from northern Quebec named George Elson. Through a combination of misfortune and mistake, what could have been a long but fairly effortless journey turned into one for the ages. (Part of the fun here is attempting to separate the misfortune from the mistakes.) In the end, Hubbard starved to death; his companions survived by a whisker.
Years ago, my partner Marc Desjardins and I were the first to retrace Hubbard's canoe route up Labrador's miserable Susan River. In three weeks on the river, we paddled a total of 15 minutes. We spent the rest of the time portaging, lining and dragging the canoe up to our waists in whitewater through the Susan's endless boulder gardens. Good fun. I only regretted that we ran out of time before we got to re-do their 24-mile long portage. Next year, maybe.
BEST ADVENTURE BOOKS
4. The Lake Regions of Central Africa, Richard Francis Burton.
As I admitted below, Burton is a quirky choice, because his writing is so uneven. His mind is full of factoids; his omnivorous curiosity fits into the early travel or exploration phase where the author believes that there is some value -- more scholarly than literary -- in recording every fact, rumor, observation and experience about an exotic place. I can sympathize, because I felt that same enthusiasm when first traveling the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. The country had been locked behind an Iron Curtain for 70 years; everything was new and fresh to a Western eye. I photographed Soviet laundry detergent, mosquito repellent, drunks on the street, cops in Red Square, Lenin portraits in offices, Hammer-and-Sickles on rooftops. My Russian hosts thought I was a spy: "He's too curious about everything." Needless to say, none of my photos of Soviet mosquito repellent was scooped up by Magnum -- or the CIA.
But Burton's strength as a writer is less his curiosity than his sardonic and politically incorrect turns of phrase. He is unsparingly blunt in his descriptions of pretention, laziness and, of course, non-Britishness. He is one of those travelers who endure the worst uncomplainingly but can't abide the small indignities: Half-dead with malaria, he takes in stride; but woe betide the local who serves him a greasy breakfast. That fellow will bear the full brunt of Burton's formidable vocabulary. He is one of the few writers you have to read with an unabridged dictionary at hand. He drops lines like "pachyderms and solidunguls" or "mules bimanous and quadrumanous" or "The chief graminae are the atriplex and chenopodaceous plants" for the sheer joy of wacky vocabulary. He opened my eyes to the comic value of Victorian English. About a tribe of female warriors in West Africa, he wrote, "I was looking forward with prodigious curiosity to seeing five thousand African adult virgins, having never yet met with a single specimen...They maneuver with the precision of a flock of sheep...An equal number of British charwomen, armed with the British broomstick, would clear them off in a very few hours." Elsewhere, he comments with withering simplicity, "The floor was like the ground outside, only not nearly so clean."
One of his traveling companions described him as "a good man, but too angry." There's no single book of his I prefer; The Lake Regions of Central Africa is just one of several on an equal footing.
BEST ADVENTURE BOOKS
2. Arabian Sands, Wilfred Thesiger.
3. Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey.
Although Arabia and the U.S. Southwest seem diametrically opposed to the Arctic, the traits of all three places are similar and they appeal to the same sort of person. "This desert, all deserts, any desert," wrote Ed Abbey. "For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match," wrote Thesiger. The only real difference is, those who fare better physiologically in the heat are drawn to scorching deserts, while those who come alive in the cold fixate on the Arctic.
I haven't reread either book, but I often flip through them looking for aphorisms. They're two of the books of my Old Testament, and their one-liners are my Proverbs. Tidbits of wisdom to light the way.
In their Prefaces, both authors interpret their works as elegies, as memorials to a vanished past. In the decades since they first traveled there, the modern world transformed both the Empty Quarter and slickrock country. The experiences they describe would not be possible today, they aver. One of Thesiger's memorable lines is his relief, "to have been there just in time."
Thanks to its vast spaces and lack of roads, it will be possible to pursue primitive travels in the Arctic for several generations yet. So what I've seen, I've seen in time, but not just in time. Even if a warming climate soon turns the High Arctic into the subarctic, well, the subarctic's a pretty wild and impressive place too.
After a productive writing year but a modest travel year (four days in a tent vs the four months/yr of the last two years), I thought I'd list some favorite adventure books, the ones I dream off when I'm not traveling my own dreams. We all have our own list, based on personal tastes: More than one writer calls Robert Byron's The Road to Oxiana the best travel book ever written, but I've never been able to get into it. On the other hand, I love just about everything Richard Francis Burton ever wrote, while recognizing that he needed a good editor to tighten those hastily written two-volume tomes. He was so disinclined to revise that he ended one surpassingly dull section with the immortal line, "I now conclude this unpopular chapter." It bored even him!
I'll also cover some Least Favorite adventure books; but first, the best ones.
1. The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry-Garrard.
Another candidate for best travel book ever written (it has Paul Theroux's vote), it also happens to be my favorite. Like Burton's stuff, however, it's far too long: I've never reread 85% of the book, which is mostly about Robert Scott's disaster, but the section about Cherry-Garrard's Winter Journey in search of emperor penguin eggs is a masterpiece. And the book's last two pages are more than good travel writing, they're great literature.
Admittedly, I'm prejudiced, because his Winter Journey is about sledding, and although the trip he describes is hellish, one of my definitions of heaven -- something I wouldn't mind doing for all eternity -- is sledding the High Arctic in May. In that short but intense Antarctic journey (they covered only 200km round trip), Cherry-Garrard seemed to have grasped all the essential aspects of sledding, and of companionship in those dire circumstances. You can keep Scott's pseudo-heroism; for Scott, "nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it." But Cherry-Garrard executed a masterpiece out of the most difficult manhauling journey ever done.
Just back from Greenland and Ellesmere on board the Clipper Adventurer, lecturing for Adventure Canada. Cruises provide a quick sampling of a region during the two- and three-hour shore excursions by Zodiac, and I had the chance to photograph central Greenland communities like Upernavik and Ilulissat for the first time. But even if you're familiar with a place, there are moments that advance one's connection. Pursuing a slightly different angle than usual, I took my best photo of Grise Fiord during a few brief moments of sunshine.
And on Bjorling Island in the Carey Islands, I reconnected with a spot that Alexandra and I first visited nine years earlier. Here, the 21-year-old Swedish explorers Johan Alfred Bjorling and Ewald Kallstenius came to grief in 1892. We landed on the rough island on a foggy morning at 6am. I hiked up to the summit cairn built by the British Arctic Expedition in 1875, in which Bjorling left his last note before setting off on his fatal attempt to cross Baffin Bay to Ellesmere. The note that Alexandra and I left in an old green bottle had barely weathered in almost a decade. But the real find was made down below -- an advantage to having 50 pairs of eyes exploring a spot. One of our group, David Richeson, found what is surely a homemade ski that Bjorling and his crew had fashioned to support themselves in the fall snow. (They didn't set out on their fatal crossing till late October.) The front of the ski was beveled to form a kind of upturned tip; a loop of canvas would have held the toe of a boot. There was also another fastening for a heel strap. The artifact doesn't shed any light on the Bjorling mystery but it shows how they were trying to adapt to the place as winter set in. Mainly, it's a talisman that creates a spiritual connection between past and present.
Homemade ski made by Johan Alfred Bjorling in 1892.
Since this has been a writing year, most of my recent posts have been on the Ellesmere and Gear pages rather than this one. But I'll be around Ellesmere and northwest Greenland for the next couple of weeks, poking around various historic sites while lecturing for Adventure Canada.
Every week or two, I glance over a web analytics program to learn something about the visitors to this site. When they come here through Google, it shows what readers were searching for.
The most common search term is my name, but that's not the interesting part. Visitors last week found their way here by googling, among other things, "Who did a solo South Pole trip and only ate bacon" and "Borneo shrunk head cannibal joke photo." One person input a longish quote: "I said to them, 'the arctic is far away, and it's cold...and that doesn't work for me.' " The quote, I assure you, was not mine.
It's probably common with websites, but readers come from all over the world. A hotel in Hawaii. A university in Kuwait. Romania, Serbia, Sri Lanka. Estonia, Laos, Israel. The list of polar explorers from those countries are candidates for one of those World's Thinnest Books.
Some readers write to say they like the honesty of the site. Others may not. Not long ago, a big NY law firm took a close look through. I wondered whether some aggrieved huckster was considering litigation.
The real thrill is when a reader contacts me with a personal quest. A month ago, someone asked me where Stallknecht Island was. I mentioned the little islet in one of these entries, because I've camped there on a couple of sled trips, and I suppose it came up in a search. Her name was Stallknecht, and she was looking for information on the island named for her ancestor.
The Arctic doesn't inspire a lot of humor. For some reason, everyone, including myself, is very serious about it. A wacky old book called My Northern Exposure, about the supposed arctic adventures of an invented character named Walter E. Traprock, makes a stab at being funny. (My favorite part is the cheesy photos, including pseudo-Traprock sporting a gentleman's cane, and various polar damsels in distress.) Last Places, by Larry Millman, is the one genuinely funny book on the Arctic out there.
That's not to say that nothing funny happens up north. Go to Resolute Bay in March and check out some of the expeditions. A few are impressive endeavors; a lot more are impressive only in their pr. And some are slapstick.
My all-time favorite comic expedition took place in 1990, when two brothers from France showed up in Resolute with three horses, which they wanted to gallop around Cornwallis Island, the gravel asteroid on which the village sits. The local Inuit had never seen a horse before, and the entire village showed up for their arrival. The horses had been trussed up for the flight in about 76,000 feet of seatbelt webbing, so they would not freak out and kick a hole in the fuselage. As the forklift offloaded the pallet, we could see that they were handsomely accoutered in bright red horse blankets, with "GoreTex" emblazoned on the side in big letters. Their eyes were insanely wide, as mine would be if I were a horse and suddenly found myself 4,000 kilometers from the nearest pasture. Their nostrils fired big clouds of steam into the frosty air.
The brothers were new to frozen-world equestrianism and hadn't realized that horses need to drink a lot. In April in the High Arctic, that means melting snow. They had to spend six hours a day in the tent, preparing fluid for their mounts. It took them several days to advance from the airport to the town dump, a distance of three kilometers.
But in a tribute to perseverance, they continued to slog away. Three months later, they completed their circumnavigation of Cornwallis Island. For years afterward, a framed photo in one of Resolute's hotels showed a horse and rider en route, confronting a very puzzled-looking muskox.
Still working on a book deadline, so little to add till it's done. Regular entries will resume in July. On the home front, it's dandelion season in the Rockies, the best time of year to see grizzlies and black bears by the roadside.
Eating, and eating lots, is a big part of expedition life, but exactly how many calories per day sledders ingest is sometimes more of a pr boast than nutritional science. It sounds good to say you eat 7,000 or 8,000 calories per day. Whether you do or not is something else.
I don't calculate exactly how many calories I eat on expeditions -- although I do know that I eat less than I used to. I figure my food by weight, not calories. I know which foods I enjoy, and I just keep piling them in Ziploc bags until the weight quota is met. On cold trips, it works out to about 2.6 pounds per day. On summer expeditions, such as last year's 850km kayak trip in Labrador, it's about 1.8 pounds per day. The arithmetic must be close to a neutral balance of input/output, because I never lose much weight.
When I was starting out, I had a rough sense of how many calories I ate, but like everyone else, I may have exaggerated the total for effect. It's very hard to eat 7,000 calories a day, especially in the cold, when everything is frozen. Most food doesn't taste good in the cold. So while breakfasts and suppers get fully eaten, consuming all the day food is a real struggle.
I know what it takes to eat 7,000 calories a day, because I used to devour that much when training for swimming marathons. I put three hours a day in the pool and logged 10km. The rest of the time I ate or slept: simple life. I learned that it's hard to chew that volume of food; the jaw aches at the end of the day. Where do you get that many calories? A pound of bacon at breakfast -- yum. An entire strawberry shortcake a day -- not hard to take, if you like sweets. It's harder to find that many calories on expeditions: My peanut butter sandwiches are 1,000 calories each, but I can rarely get through an entire one in a day, unless the day is long. A pound of milk chocolate is about 2,000 calories; on cold trips, I used to eat a pound a day; less now. I suspect that I've never eaten more than 6,000 calories per day on sledding expeditions, even though I eat a lot compared to my partners. On spring (April-May) sledding trips, which are warmer, I estimate I eat 4,500-5,500 calories/day, depending on how hard the trip is.
Calories/day also depends on what an expedition "day" consists of. Under a 24-hour sun, a day lasts as long as you decide to keep going. I've found that an 8-hour travel day keeps you on a 24-hour schedule, while sledding for 12 hours makes for a 30-hour day. During those longer days, I eat 3 lbs of food, but that doesn't screw up the food budget, because the number of days' food that I bring is based on a 24-hour cycle.
Monday April 6 marks the 100th anniversary of Robert Peary's non-arrival at the North Pole -- what he claimed the Inuit called the Big Nail. There hasn't been as much fuss as I expected. Bowdoin College has a symposium about it on Saturday, organized by the Peary-MacMillan Museum -- it's a serious scholarly place, but with a name like that, what else can they do? Smithsonian magazine has a rehash of the controversy, not very interesting. A motivational speaker is flogging his new book about his own polar expedition and how in his considered opinion, Peary made it. Nice timing for a book launch, I'll hand him that. But the verdict of history has been laid down for some time now, it just takes time for the voices of those who haven't heard to die out. And of course, some voices from the fringe never die out. Witness the Flat Earth Society. Or Intelligent Design. There is also a lot of wilful ignorance in play, because as long as the controversy is alive, expeditions can use it to appear to prove something about it and seem more relevant than they are.
My souvenir table at home includes a five-inch rusty nail that belonged to Robert Peary. I don't take artifacts -- it's illegal, among other things -- but in this case, I was in a pickle. I was at Payer Harbour, on Pim Island off the east coast of Ellesmere, where Peary overwintered in 1901-2. A violent storm pounded my camp for two days; I'd lost a nail and needed an extra one to stake down my tent on the windblown ice near Stallknecht Island. I found a nail at the Peary site. After the storm, I kept it in case I had to fend off more gales, which are common around Pim Island. One day, given the opportunity, I'll take it back to Payer Harbour, but for now, I like to look on it as the only sort of Big Nail that Peary actually possessed.
Incidentally, Peary was also wrong about the Big Nail -- the Inuit actually called it the Big Navel. See Kenn Harper's current column in the Nunatsiaq News. http://www.nunatsiaq.com/opinionEditorial/columns.html. Kenn's column, by the way, is a fabulous weekly arctic fix. You can access his entire series, which has been running for years, through the newspaper's archives.
Peary site at Payer Harbour
Some random jottings: Alexandra and I have just converted from Windows to Mac, making us poorer but cooler. As a result of the switch, I've had to move from the BestAddress program I was using to update this website to Dreamweaver. So the website has not been updated for a few days and there might be a few wonky fonts in the next little while. And since I'm working on another arctic book, I'm steering away from entries to the Ellesmere Island page till it's done.
Not much going on with current arctic expeditions -- another dull year -- although I had to smile/wince/shrug at the report of the Italian guy who burned his sleeping bag on his first night out. Already, 2009 will go down in polar annals as the Year of the Sabotaging Stove. In 2005, this same guy declared that he wanted to ski from Resolute to Qaanaaq, Greenland. Since Bob Cochran & I planned to do the heart of that route ourselves in 2007, I paid close attention. But the Italian, Michele, never got anywhere, or even tried; rather, he joined a short commercial tour. That his original trek was overambitious for his experience was clear from the map of his route, which had him hoofing east in a beeline across Devon Island rather than taking the sensible shortcut through Viks Fiord to Jones Sound. Land travel is a fun break sometimes, but it's usually slower and harder than a sea ice route. Some dramatic failure also befell him on an expedition to South America last year or the year before. This fellow might be the sort whose trips always end in disaster -- a useful talent, if you can sell the disaster as force majeure trying to crush the indomitable human spirit. See Vilhjalmur Stefansson's classic essay, Incompetence as a Literary Asset in Arctic Matters.
Currently reading Resurrecting Dr. Moss, a book about one of the physicians on the 1875-6 Nares expedition. Moss's own book, Shores of the Polar Sea, is the loveliest old book on Ellesmere Island, full of his watercolors and sketches. I often come down pretty hard on British arctic explorers because of that nation's culture of bungling in the Arctic & Antarctic (elsewhere, mountains, tropics, desert, they're fine; it's just something about the polar regions). Still, those educated Brits were all so versatile. Not only are Moss's watercolors lovely, even his letters to his mother are clear, articulate and well-organized.
Was up at Purcell Lodge with a couple of friends last week, skiing and writing. A great place, the only backcountry Rockies ski lodge I know with good skiing for all levels of ability.
Some guys en route to
the North Pole recently related their difficulties setting up their tent
on snowless sea ice. "We didn't bring ice screws, just snow stakes,"
This pair may still do ok, but not bringing
something to secure your tent on bare ice is just
inexperience. There is a lot of snowless ice in the High
Arctic -- either windblown or relatively new ice. You need to
carry more than snow stakes, especially if you have a tent
that is not free standing, like Hilleberg's Keron models,
which are otherwise so good and so popular for arctic
conditions. Ice screws are, in general, overkill, though I
bring a couple for general use (eg on glaciers) and they also
secure the crucial attachment points of the tent. But for most
of my Keron's 18 mooring points, four or five-inch
nails are a lightweight solution. I hammer them in using
a superlight ice ax that also serves to chop iceberg ice
A 27-year-old Innu man named Michel Andrew is
currently snowshoeing about 300 km from Sheshatshui to
Natuashish, Labrador's two Innu communities. He says he's
doing it to raise awareness about diabetes.
A lot of adventurers latch onto worthy causes as
a fundraising tool and to make what is in some ways a selfish
act seem socially relevant. But now and then, you find a
rare person for whom the cause truly drives the adventure.
Andrew's trek seems cut from this cloth. As a result, the
communities along his route have gotten behind him -- turning
out en masse to greet him, lending him the keys to their bush
cabins, etc. (Unfortunately, most wilderness cabins in
Labrador are kept locked nowadays, because of vandalism.)
Sheshatshui, where he comes from, is hardly an
athlete's culture. This might be the only real exercise he's
had since he was a kid. He didn't buy his sled from Acapulka;
nor is it a lovingly crafted trapper's toboggan from the
Elliott Merrick True North
era. It's the sort of small kid's toboggan
that you buy at a hardware store. That's what Innu elder
Elizabeth Penashue and most of her party used when
I joined her annual snowshoe trek last spring. In all
likelihood, he borrowed or bought all his equipment locally. Lot
of cotton and wool.
From the perspective
of a professional traveler, the distance is relatively
modest and the pace is slow. But it's a wonderfully
imaginative thing for an Innu man to undertake, and I wondered
to what extent he was inspired by Elizabeth Penashue.
Years ago, I snowshoed with a Innu friend from Sept-Iles, Quebec. He
set off at an amazing clip; it must have been about
120 steps/minute with snowshoes. I could hardly keep up and
would not have been able to sustain that speed all day.
After 45 minutes, predictably, his normally sedentary
lifestyle caught up with him and the wheels fell off; his
pace slowed to an amble. But I've always believed that the
pace he began with was the natural Innu pace that he'd been
taught, and which his grandfather would have been able to
maintain all day, for weeks. A recent book called Caribou Hunter, by Serge Bouchard, suggests how hard those old Innu hunters traveled in their search for food.
A journalist asked Michel Andrew during one of
his stopovers if he had any plans after he returned home.
"No," he said, "nothing."
When someone quits their North
Pole expedition after a few days because their stove
didn't work, they probably realize that they've bitten off
more than they can chew and they're looking for a reason to
give up. It's cold up there in early March. You can't
duplicate those conditions in a meat locker in
Europe. There is just no excuse for spending $100,000 to get
to the starting point and not knowing how to fix a stove or
having spares to overcome mechanical adversity.
Here's my favorite stove failure story: Some
years ago in Resolute, two older Swedish guys were staying at
the same hotel as I was while we prepared for our separate
expeditions. They were about to embark on some
multi-hundred-kilometer trek, perhaps to the North Magnetic
Pole. Now, Scandinavians are usually fabulous polar
expeditioners, especially the Finns and the Norwegians: I've
never met an incompetent Norwegian traveler, though no doubt
These Swedes were a little
odd, though. They had some unusual equipment ideas, such as
sleds that doubled as shelters. To the uninitiated, this notion
sounds promising, but it's really in the same category
as the inventor who wrote to Robert Peary about his gizmo to
pump hot soup to the explorer at the North Pole through a long
One night, the two Swedes hauled their sleds
a few kilometers outside Resolute for an equipment
shakedown. They came back in the morning, looking wasted. Their
stove, which they'd rented from the outfitter, hadn't
"Did you prime it first?" the outfitter asked
"Priming? What's that?"
The outfitter explained the need to prime a
stove in the cold and gave them a tube of priming paste. A
couple of nights later, they set out again.
In the morning, they came back disconsolate and explained
that their stove again hadn't worked.
"You primed it, right?" asked the outfitter.
"And you covered the little hole in the
pump with your thumb while you pumped it?"
You could hear a pin drop. "You mean you have to
pump it too?"
The pair stayed at the hotel a few more days,
then flew back to Sweden.
I'll be staying close to
home till this summer because of a book deadline. But since
this is the North Pole season, I thought I'd
give a no-bs perspective on what's happening out there. Let me
prepare the ground by tackling some common myths:
Myth #1: Never
cook in a tent.
I put that in the same category as not
swimming for two hours after a meal -- sound motherly advice,
but not necessarily gospel once you grow up.
To cook in a tent, I carry a cardboard
banker's box on my sled. It protects my peanut butter and
jam sandwiches from being squished by the load, but
it's also a handy countertop. I attach the stove to a small
piece of plywood, slipping the fuel bottle through a
tight-fitting bungie cord stapled to the wood. This
creates a secure and insulated platform, whether the stove
sits on the cardboard box top or in the snow.
Finally, if the stove is cranky, I light it in the
vestibule (foil windbreak ready to shield the nylon roof from
flareups) and move it inside once it's started to burn steady
I do worry about carbon
monoxide subtly affecting athletic performance as the
hard-to-shed CO molecules build up in the bloodstream, but
I've never noticed anything certain, such as excess fatigue,
from cooking in the tent. Many have died from CO poisoning, of
course, but with the tent & vestibule doors partly open,
there's little danger. Unlike snow houses, tents are easy
to ventilate. Some Inuit use catalytic heaters when they're
camping on the land; these units do not generate CO. But
they're too heavy for expedition travel.
Myth#2: You need to heat
the tent with your stove at -40 or -50.
For years, I
cooked outside or in the vestibule and stayed perfectly warm.
In recent years, I've heated my tent for about an hour a night
while cooking supper and melting water for the following day.
The relative warmth lets me make notes with bare fingers or
light gloves, but this is a luxury and a convenience, not a
necessity. But many expeditions have inadequate camp clothing,
which makes tent life hard until you crawl into the sleeping
bag for the night. With insulated pants and thick camp booties
(see Gear page), as well as a good baffled parka, you can sit
comfortably in an unheated tent no matter how cold it is. With
this clothing, which is essentially bivy gear, I don't even
need a sleeping bag until about -20C.
clothing adds a couple of kilos of weight, but that's far less
than the weight of extra fuel if you need to heat.
The Non-Cliché Arctic Expedition
I could continue
indefinitely, because there are many undone arctic expeditions
remaining, including a few I'd like to do. The Arctic is so
vast that expeditions only get cliché when they involve
the poles, or Greenland, which is often a dry-run destination
en route to bigger things. But as I said below, even the
poles still have some virgin territory. It would be
cool, for example, to see a party attempt the North
Magnetic Pole from Resolute, now that it's distant and
difficult, not merely a three-week shakedown trip for
Geographic Pole aspirants, as it was in the 1980s. And a
solo unsupported round trip from Ward Hunt Island to the
North Pole and back remains a mammoth challenge.
Most "polar explorers",
however, just want to do the clichés. The clichés have
immediate iconic recognition, and bragging rights, generally,
are what it's all about. Trekkers can even hire a guide and
put very little thought into it. Most contemporary polar
travel is like commercial trekking up Mount Everest.
Yet new routes,
or unusual ways of doing them, are everywhere. In
this list, I've covered just projects with some hook
for professional adventurers. As for the arctic routes that
are just excuses to spend time walking through beautiful
country, they are truly boundless.
The Non-Cliché Arctic Expedition
7. North to South in all 10
provinces and 3 territories in Canada
Kinda gimmicky but
an original life list. A couple of the 13 are easy;
Prince Edward Island isn't more than a one or two-day bike
ride, and Nova Scotia doesn't have much vertical heft. On the
other hand, Canada is the second largest country in the world,
and most of the provinces and territories are huge. About
30 years ago, it took Andre Laperriere and his three
companions an entire winter, three or four months, to ski
Quebec from south to north -- and their start and
finishing points were not even the true ends of the province.
By far the longest of the 13 is Nunavut, from 83°07' to the
60th parallel near Arviat -- about 2,500 kilometers. The
Northwest Territories is only slightly shorter, from Borden
Island near 78 degrees down to 60°N near Fort Liard or Fort
Lists are increasingly
popular but most just follow what other, more original
adventurers have thought up -- Seven Summits, etc. Peakbaggers
climb all high points in the 50 states or Canadian
provinces, or all the 11,000-foot peaks (or is it
14,000?) in the western states. Where I live, several people
have even done all 156 scrambles in the Scrambles in the
Canadian Rockies guidebook. Hiking up the Monroes, the 284
peaks in Scotland greater than 3,000 feet, is huge in that
country. Point is, there are lots of original lists
remaining, including this one, that do not smell totally
The Non-Cliché Arctic Expedition
6. Re-do The Worst Journey
in the World
across enough giant frozen lakes and endless bays that I
have little desire to do much in the Antarctic. The one
exception would be if I ever had the chance to re-do the
winter trek that Apsley Cherry-Garrard and his two
doughty companions took in mid-Antarctic winter in their quest
to collect emperor penguin eggs.
Maybe it's because his book
-- and in particular, the tale of that trek -- is so
marvellous. To this day, they hold the record for the coldest
temperature ever camped in, -77F, and that was in an
unheated tent. It was so unremittingly cold that
Cherry-Garrard speaks of the -50s as a warm spell. And yet
their route from Cape Evans to Cape Crozier is only 100
kilometers long. Two hundred kilometers round trip: That's not
I've camped comfortably
down to -64F. With slightly warmer equipment, -77F is do-able.
And who knows whether it even gets that cold in that part
of the Antarctic any more. They had to trudge in the dark, but
modern headlamps make that a lot easier.
They sledded for five
weeks, and that was their key mistake. With that short a
distance, you can bring about half the amount of food they
did, to avoid double hauling like they had to. You can pull
150 pounds across even frigid, abrasive snow.
Despite the cold and dark,
this is mainly a logistical challenge. First, you need
permission to stay at either Scott Base or McMurdo Station.
Because there are no flights in the dark season, you'd have to
go several months earlier and stay several months later. You'd
also need permission to visit Cape Crozier, which is
restricted because of its bird colonies.
Sometimes, it's only
logistics, not degree of difficulty, that guard a route.
When my partners and I made just the fifth ascent of Ellesmere
Island's Barbeau Peak, the highest mountain in Canada or the
US east of the Rockies, we didn't join such rare company on
the strength of our climbing skills -- it's mainly a
2,000-foot walkup from the ice cap. It's just hard
to get to.
The Non-Cliché Expedition List
5. Perimeter of Canada
Dunn has done some nice firsts, including the
lengths of Ellesmere and Baffin Islands and northern
Labrador. When he did these three one after the other, I
wondered whether they were part of some grand plan to
circumnavigate the entire perimeter of Canada over his
lifetime. Probably not, as it turns out, but what a project
that would be.
The very idea of linking
related routes on such an insane scale as a career goal is
refreshing. It's structural thinking, where most adventurers,
myself included, tend to be scattershot with our body of work.
True, expeditions done in chunks separated by years are often
second rate, and after all, nowadays some adventurers circle
the entire globe in one push. But circumnavigating Canada
is vastly more difficult than bicycling across Siberia or even
rowing the Pacific. It's comparable to climbing all the
8,000-metre summits but it's less gimmicky. The chunk approach
The cool thing is that you
can do the two hard sides of the triangle, the east coast and
the west coast, in the early and middle years,
and schedule the standard east-to-west or west-to-east
along the Trans-Canada Highway for your old age, during the
lawn bowling off season.
The Non-Cliché Arctic Expedition
4. Northwest Passage
By now, sailing through the
Northwest Passage is almost old hat. Cruise ships do it every
year. Private sailboats regularly attempt it, many
successfully, since the ice mostly disappears in summer now.
But no one's skied or kayaked the length of the fabled
waterway, and no one's done it in any self-propelled manner in
a single season.
The beginning and end point
of the Northwest Passage is open to interpretation -- by
splitting hairs, you can reduce this trip to just a few
kilometers -- but the true passage runs from at
least the west side of Banks Island to Pond Inlet, a distance
of 1,600 kilometers or more, depending on the winding path
chosen through the islands of the western High Arctic. That's
well within range for either kayaking or sledding.
Years ago, two Canadians
sailed a catamaran through the Passage, but they did the old
"oops, didn't make it in one year, let's go back and complete
it next year and claim success" thing. Amundsen did that too,
but he overwintered there, he didn't relax at home in
between travel seasons. Jon Waterman did parts of the passage,
mostly by kayak, but his route was incomplete and
intermittent. Don Starkell and Victoria Jason kayaked much of
it, but it took them several years, and their starting
point -- Churchill, Manitoba -- was way off line.
The Northwest Passage is
not the Arctic's prettiest route. The islands there
have an only-a-mother-could-love flavor: Low and grey for
the most part, some cliffs but no mountains to speak of, no
glaciers, few plants. But the Northwest Passage is as iconic
as the poles, and it's odd that no one has taken on the
The Non-Cliché Arctic Expedition
3. Re-do Joy's 1929
One of the greatest, if not
the greatest, sledding expeditions of all time was the 1929
sovereignty patrol led by Inspector A. H. Joy of the Royal
Canadian Mounted Police. He and his Inuit partner dogsledded
almost 3,000 kilometers from Craig Harbour on southern Devon
Island to Winter Harbour on Melville Island, then back to
Bache Post, the RCMP station near present-day Alexandra Fiord
on Ellesmere Island. It took them 81 days.
In an era when lesser
lights were still perishing on much shorter trips, Joy
and his incomparable guide Nukapinguaq made this grand
transect look easy. Nowadays, it would be hard to justify
hunting as you go, as they did, although if you manage to find
an Inuit partner and don't mind seal meat...
They set off in
mid-March, but in these warmer times you'd need to start even
earlier. To my mind, the hardest section would be the final
bit, through Sverdrup Pass on Ellesmere Island in late spring.
There's rarely much snow in this windy pass even in late
winter. A lot of dragging over bare gravel. Just before the
finish line, you'd also need to detour around the Flagler
This isn't a famous route,
but then, it hasn't been re-done by 50 other people, either.
No one has attempted it -- not even, curiously, the
recent army patrols by snowmobile that are getting
millions of bucks to promote Canadian sovereignty.
Politics aside, Joy's journey was a heroic example of
competent travel in crazy-extreme conditions.
The Non-Cliché Arctic Expedition
2. Ellesmere Island
A few years ago, when
Torben Diklev was curator of the Thule Museum in Qaanaaq, he
told me the story of two local Polar Inuit who had dogsledded
around Ellesmere Island in, perhaps, the 1930s. He had no
names, and details of this monster trek were vague. No one
else I've spoken to has ever heard of it. But, so the
saga goes, when a puzzled Danish schoolteacher
later asked the two Inuit why they'd done it, they
shrugged and replied magnificently, "We felt like it."
Two parties have already
skied the length of Ellesmere Island, with caches. (In a
decent snow year, following the right route, it's quite
possible to do it unsupported.) But no one since this
possibly apocryphal Greenlandic pair has attempted to circle
Ellesmere. I've done about two-thirds of the
perimeter on various trips, and it would be arduous but
possible for a party to circle the entire island in one
sledding season. It wouldn't even have to be too expensive,
since the trek could begin and end at Grise Fiord, which is
reachable by scheduled aircraft. However, you'd need caches
along the way, and there is a string of ideally
spaced depot sites at Alexandra Fiord, Fort Conger,
Alert, Ward Hunt Island and Eureka. At all except Fort Conger,
food can be left inside structures, safe from polar bears.
Total distance: about 3,000
The problem with this
route, of course, is that it's not sexy enough for arctic
travelers who want insta-fame. It's merely a lovely route
around a lovely island, done simply because you feel like
The Non-Cliché Arctic Expedition
1. Canada North to
Dozens of people bike,
walk, run, wheelchair or limp from west to east across Canada,
but the country is only 880km less from north to
south than from east to west, and no one has done the vertical
direction, from Cape Aldrich on Ellesmere Island to Point
Pelee in southern Ontario. Yet it's very makeable. A small,
strong party should be able to complete it in nine months.
There is a natural route
with communities nicely spaced about 500 kilometers apart for
resupplies: Cape Aldrich-Eureka-Grise Fiord-Resolute-Arctic
Bay-Igloolik-Cape Dorset-Ivujivik-down the east coast of
Hudson Bay to Moosonee in northern Ontario. From here, it's
home free: You can walk south along the railway tracks if
desired. I've never measured the route's precise distance, but
it's somewhere over 5,000 kilometers.
arctic expedition would combine sledding and kayaking, with
hiking from Moosonee. To maximize the sledding season, it
requires as early a start as possible: beginning in the dark
at Cape Aldrich in December at the latest. (Getting to Cape
Aldrich during the Dark Season is one of the logistical
challenges.) I figure 4 weeks to Eureka, 3 weeks to Grise
Fiord, a month to Resolute, etc. You should be able to get
well down Baffin Island before having to switch from sledding
For years I wanted to do
this route, but the organization of such a
mega-project takes too much time for my taste -- and I
don't enjoy being out there that long. But Canada North to
South is a major first.
By the way, no fair doing
it in pieces. Bit-by-bit projects are mainly the recourse of
those who try to do it in one go the first time,
fail and then figure that they can get most of the credit for
the route if they just keep chipping away at it over a period
of years. A marathon run in 10-km sections is not a
The Non-Cliché Arctic Expedition
Although I try to keep
aware of the projects of other arctic travelers, this has
become increasingly boring. It's as if the North Pole
and the South Pole are the only two routes in the polar
regions. That's like saying, to a mountaineer, that the only
two mountains worth climbing are Everest and Vinson.
At first, going
to a pole or peak is interesting, but by the tenth
or twentieth clone, it has become more tourism or sport than
exploration or travel. As long as arctic adventurers follow
the same faulty axiom ("Every route must include some
pole"), there are only three ways to distinguish yourself
-- by going for speed records, by Elegant Variation -- eg a
Magnetic Pole -- or by stringing several projects
together -- North Pole, South Pole, Everest in a single year,
for example. You might call this the Seven Summits or Grand
Slam approach. Soon, of course, these too become
cliché. They already have.
still several bold, original and magnificent things
left to do at the poles -- South Pole in winter, anyone? But
even more wonderful is how much remains to be done in the
polar regions beyond these usual suspects. I know the
Canadian High Arctic pretty well, have logged thousands of
kilometers and accumulated over two years in a tent north
of 75 degrees, but I feel that I've barely scratched the
surface. There are lifetimes of fine expeditions
In the next few days, I'll
list some of the routes I'd love to see tackled. Call it the
Non-Cliché Expedition List.
Twenty-five years ago
today, I set out on my first sledding expedition,
600km across the interior of Labrador. Although it worked
out, I have to admit that I was a bit lucky. I didn't
understand sledding. There were very few sledding expeditions
at that time. About all I knew about it was from a book on
winter camping by Minnesotan Bob Cary. Adventurer Ned Gillette
and some cronies had done an Ellesmere Island trip in 1979,
and got their fiberglass sleds from one of Cary's friends,
Erling Hegg. I contacted Hegg and for several years ordered my
sleds from him. Sleds don't often break or wear out, but
dragging them over rocks -- which is sometimes necessary --
scratches them to hell, and the scratches add friction to the
What I didn't understand
about sledding is the importance of snow conditions. I figured
you could do it anywhere in the north. You can't. Especially
on long trips, when loads are heavy, you need hard snow. You
rarely get hard snow down south, except on the prairies or on
mountaintops, but the combination of wind and cold transforms
powder snow into something hard and squeaky that the sled can
glide over without sinking in. That's the basic secret of
sledding, and how an ordinary person can carry 250 pounds of
gear or more. I was lucky in Labrador because my chosen
route took me over open country -- windswept frozen lakes
and rivers where the snow was great.