December 24

My own wish from Santa this year is that in 2009 there won't be too much baloney around the 100th anniversary of Robert Peary's last North Pole expedition. No serious historian believes any more that he reached the North Pole in 1909 -- even National Geographic, which for complicated reasons has supported him against all evidence until recently, is not doing anything special for the anniversary, according to an NG editor I spoke to recently at the Banff Mountain Film Festival.

Unfortunately, because it's one of those things that's impossible to disprove -- just like it's impossible to disprove that alien spacecraft have visited Earth -- you'll still get self-serving In the Footsteps of Peary-type expeditions, and the occasional ill- informed group or person, behaving as if his success is a given or at least open to controversy. Some are more honest about it than others. A few years ago, the fine polar traveler Borge Ousland told me that it was his impression that Peary might have made it, but admitted that he didn't really know much about the story. When I was researching my book The Horizontal Everest, curators at the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College told me they're aware that he fell short. But if you check the museum's website at http://www.bowdoin.edu/arctic-museum/index.shtml, their anniversary treatment dances around the issue, merely publishing entries from the expedition journals without editorial comment or context. Understandable, I guess.

Ditto for exhibits around satellite figures like ship's captain Bob Bartlett, whose participation in the 1909 expedition is being celebrated in Newfoundland. (see http://www.bartlett2009.com/about.html) In October I had coffee in St. John's with Larry Coady, author of an historically excellent book on Labrador called The Lost Canoe. Larry's a member of the Newfoundland and Labrador Historical Society, and he was concerned about the Society's participation in Bartlett centennial functions, because of the potential for embarrassment. But like the Peary-MacMillan site, it seems that Bartlett festivities may be downplaying the actual North Pole expedition in favor of an overall career appreciation of their man.

Organizations with vested interests in Peary are gradually accepting the inevitable, but it will be a few years yet before they acknowledge Peary's hoax openly. National Geographic, in particular, is backing away from Peary so slowly and delicately, as if they hope no one will notice.

November 20

In their upcoming issue, Professional Photographer magazine out of Atlanta has a cover story on my arctic photography. It'll be out in a few days. See http://www.ppmag.com/


September 22

Lots of headlines this summer about Ellesmere Island's ice shelves breaking off. Ice shelves have been periodically breaking off northern Ellesmere since they were first studied in the 1950s, but the pace is accelerating. (The first ice island, which is a piece off one of these ice shelves, was discovered in 1946 by a U.S. military plane and was classified secret because in the event of a skirmish with the Soviet Union, it provided a potential long-term base in the middle of the Arctic Ocean.)

Ice shelves often have corrugations or long, parallel ditches that fill with meltwater in the summer. (See photo) Pelham Aldrich of the Nares expedition was the first to describe these "ridges and rollers". From the air, they look like ploughed fields of ice, one of the Arctic's lovely abstract geometries.

Ridges on the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf

June 8

Looks like Mitsuro Ohba took the wrong route after leaving Lake Hazen and had to quit when he ran into meltwater and bare ground near Piper Pass. He finished 200km short of Ward Hunt Island. I thought he'd follow the standard ice cap route, but -- pure speculation -- he may have been deterred by the prospect of traveling on glaciers alone. Yet he had a spike on his sled's rigid pulling poles, the sort invented by Borge Ousland for his Antarctic crossing, whose purpose is to bite into the ice and possibly hold up the hauler if he falls into a crevasse -- as if Ohba were prepared for a solo glacier crossing.

The wardens of Quttinripaaq National Park skied that ice cap route to Ward Hunt Island just last month. Ice caps and sea ice are the only places where sledding is possible at this time of year. 

In what was surely the world's most expensive North Pole expedition, two members of the Canadian military snowmobiled to the North Pole as part of a "military exercise" this spring. They were resupplied by plane every two (!!!) days on the two-week trip.

May 28

Every spring, the High Arctic sees a handful of expeditions. One or two are interesting; most are not very good; a few are hustles. Anything, for example, with the "Geomagnetic Pole" as its goal is likely a hustle. This minor mathematical curiosity has been the only pole that's easy to reach since the North Magnetic Pole left the vicinity of Resolute Bay a few years ago and began amscraying across the Arctic Ocean toward Siberia. Before it left, the North Magnetic Pole was a good shakedown test for expeditions preparing to try the much harder Geographic Pole the following year. For others, the Magnetic Pole was an end in itself, and a sly few returned south boasting about having reached "the Pole", rightly calculating that the media and general public didn't really know the difference.

This year, the only project of interest is Mitsuro Ohba's trek from Resolute to Ward Hunt Island. I didn't have much faith in this expedition when I first heard about it. According to the rumor mill, an Ellesmere journey Ohba had done a couple of decades earlier had ended badly. And in 2005, he and three others went to northern Ellesmere with the patently absurd goal of sledding -- using kites -- from Cape Aldrich to Churchill, Manitoba in three months. Ellesmere is not very windy, and kites are only useful a couple of times a month. So the seven-league progress typical with kites in Greenland or Antarctica is impossible here. Ohba and his team floundered around the north coast for a week or two, getting nowhere, then flew to Eureka, where they tried to ski to Grise Fiord. But even this they had to abandon after a polar bear broke into their tent on bear-rich southern Eureka Sound. They had to shoot it, after which, spooked, they went home.

This year, Ohba's companion wimped out early in the expedition, but Ohba persevered. He reached Grise Fiord, where he stocked up and continued to Eureka. This part took him three weeks, a decent pace. Two weeks later, he is now at the north end of Lake Hazen. Looks like he'll make Ward Hunt Island, and that's good hard work. His website, www.global-edventure.net , doesn't say much, at least in English, but the map is updated daily.

Other projects are more high-profile than impressive. A famous mountaineer doing a late-spring sledding trip with a friend near Pond Inlet blogs about succeeding in covering 10 or 12 miles a day -- which is like a novice climber writing about solving a 5.7 boulder problem. Meanwhile, Will Steger's dogsled trip is more educational project than expedition. Unfortunately, the historical comments written by his young crew are usually wrong -- not great when your goal is public education.

That said, Steger's 1986 unsupported dogsled expedition to the North Pole was a landmark. Never mind what it said or didn't say about Robert Peary. It broke the psychological barriers guarding the North Pole. Those who followed began to succeed more consistently. And he pioneered the expedition use of three brilliant items of arctic gear -- sealskin kamiks, wristlets and Berwin bindings -- four, if you count the great cold-weather mukluks that his former wife Patti still makes commercially. All in all, a big difference from this year's two North Pole expeditions from the Ellesmere side, which, lowered psychological barriers or not, ended with a whimper.

Berwin bindings, kamiks and wristlets: ideal gear for High Arctic sledding. 


May 2

Some challenging "theme" routes for those who want to sled Ellesmere:

1. Do the length of the island from Cape Aldrich to King Edward Point without air drops. Two expeditions, in 1990 and 1992, have already done the length of Ellesmere, but had several caches en route. The expeditions took three months and two months. A fit party really intent on distance should be able to do the route in a month, if they have good snow conditions.

2. Circle the island. No one has attempted that yet, although when I was in Qaanaaq a few years ago I heard that two Greenland Inuit supposedly dogsledded around Ellesmere 50 or 60 years ago. When asked by a Danish schoolteacher why they did it, they magnificently replied, "We wanted to."

3. Do all four east-west passes. Most people only know about Sverdrup Pass, which runs from Irene Bay to Flagler Fiord, but there are three other non-ice cap routes across Ellesmere: Makinson Inlet to Stenkul Fiord, Copes Bay to Canon Fiord and Fort Conger to Tanquary Fiord or Antoinette Bay. Copes Bay to Canon Fiord was particularly challenging when I did it with Graeme Magor. The little canyon we followed was slow and tricky, full of little waterfalls. Then we ran out of snow -- it was a hot spring -- and had to portage the gear and wade across a river in full flood. It would have been much easier if we'd just crossed via the Parrish Glacier, despite the experience of the British Oxford University Expedition in the 1930s. They attempted that route but were bogged down by soft snow on the Parrish.

Graeme and I fell way behind schedule in that picky pass and were wondering whether we'd reach our destination, the Eureka weather station, before our food ran out. But once at Canon Fiord, we sledded the 250 km to Eureka in five days.


April 21

Avalanches are a fact of life here in the Rockies, but on Ellesmere Island there's usually too little snow for avalanches. Mountain slopes tend to be windblown and almost bare, or the snow is so hard that it would take a jackhammer to free it. Still, avalanches do occur once in a while in the High Arctic. One scholar who studied the Inuktitut dialect of neighboring West Greenland even recorded a local word for avalanche -- aput sisirtuq.

I've only once seen evidence of an avalanche on Ellesmere Island. While skiing from Goose Fiord to Hell Gate on the southwest corner of the island, my partner and I passed a recent avalanche site. It was in an area where big cornices hung off many of the hills. The open water from the nearby Hell Gate polynya creates more snow than usual here. Because of the precipitation, this is the only spot on the low west coast of Ellesmere (besides the very northwestern tip) that still has glaciers and ice caps.

                                                           Avalanche on southwestern Ellesmere Island


April 16

Bezal and Terry Jesudason met each other in Grise Fiord, where Terry worked as a schoolteacher and Bezal was a mechanical engineer. They married and eventually moved to Resolute, where they established High Arctic International Explorers Services, a pioneer outfitting business. In the 1980s and 1990s, it sheltered and provided logistics for arctic adventurers and others passing through Resolute. A pair of giant bowhead whale ribs leaned against the front of the building. Flags of many nations, often tattered beyond recognition by Resolute's whipping winds, fluttered from the roof. Everyone stayed here. Over orange Koolaid at the long dining table, adventurers bragged and swapped stories and thrashed out plans for future joint endeavours.

Bezal was from southern India and the unlikely saga of someone from a tropical climate ending up in Resolute made good copy for the reporters who came north to cover the adventurers. Apart from his native Tamil language, the culturally talented Bezal spoke English, German, Inuktitut and even some Japanese. Often, silent, unilingual base camp managers of Japanese expeditions would be sitting in a corner, reading, or stealing outside for a smoke. Bezal was, like Elizabeth Hawley in Nepal, uniquely knowledgeable about the expeditions that passed through -- who was competent, who was not and who had lied about their achievements. Sometimes he spoke about his plans to lead an expedition to the North Pole by elephant. Some journalists took his joke seriously and duly reported it. 

In 1995, while I was hanging out with the park wardens at Tanquary Fiord, word came over the radio that Bezal had died of a heart attack. Terry sold the business a year or two later, and while she stayed on in Resolute for a few more years as manager of the new Qausuittuq Inn, she eventually left for the south. The yellow and green building that hosted so many dreamers is now boarded up.

March 6

Last year, I visited for the first time one of the most interesting historical sites on Ellesmere. I'd wanted to see it for years, but it lies in one of the most inaccessible parts of the island. At first, second and third glance, Orne Island, near Cape Faraday on the east coast, is an unassuming hunk of rock. On its western side are the remains of half a dozen well-preserved Inuit sod-and-bone huts. They're 150 years old, but the sod is still rich, as if the roofs only collapsed last year. The story behind these huts is what makes Orne Island so fascinating.

                                                             One of the sod-and-bone huts on Orne Island

Qitdlaq was a shaman from southern Baffin Island who in the mid-19th century led the last great Inuit migration. In part, Qitdlaq had terminal wanderlust, but he was also escaping retribution for murders he committed. In that era, some might have judged him a charismatic serial killer, a Charles Manson. Today, from a distance of time, he seems more like an inspired rogue: "That Qitdlaq, always murdering people. What a character!"

After many adventures, and stopovers in northern Baffin and Devon Island that lasted years, the group reached Orne Island. The hunting was good here, and they stayed a while. Here, an ongoing crisis came to a head. The migrants had become divided into two rival groups, one led by Qitdlaq, the other by a man named Oqe. Oqe was fed up with wandering and wanted to return to Baffin Island. Qitdlaq insisted on continuing. Eventually, Oqe and his group turned around here, at Orne Island.

The site has the flavor of two bitterly divided camps. There are two clusters of four huts, each cluster separated by about 20 meters. That's not much, but it's a small spit of land, and the distance between the camps feels chilly in more than temperature.

Qitdlaq and his men reached Greenland around 1862. Here, they integrated with the Polar Inuit and lived for many years. Eventually, Qitdlaq killed a rival shaman -- at the urging of others, and very reluctantly, it is said. He began to flee back south with his still-loyal entourage, but died of a stomach ailment while crossing from Greenland to Ellesmere Island. His followers continued south along the Ellesmere coast, but after a horrific winter of starvation and cannibalism, the survivors limped back to Greenland. Many people in Qaanaaq and Siorapaluk are descended from those migrants.

February 29

Norway's Otto Sverdrup was unquestionably Ellesmere Island's greatest explorer. Most people haven't heard about him for the simple reason that he was, in public, a dull man. He never said much, wasn't a storyteller, never played the media. He wrote, if possible, even worse than his compatriot Roald Amundsen. But Amundsen was a fame-seeker whose journeys tackled the three great polar icons -- South Pole, North Pole, Northwest Passage -- so even his painful-to-read books had quite a press run. Sverdrup's greatest expedition was a low-key, four-year scientific exploration of un-iconic Ellesmere in 1898-1902.

Anyone who travels the lower half of Ellesmere, or its entire west coast, travels in Sverdrup's steps. He discovered both Axel Heiberg Island and the Ringnes Islands. (named for his chief sponsors) I've fondled Sverdrup artifacts and camped in Sverdrup's camps a lot, but the most intriguing artifact is the most elusive: the "end cairn" that he build at 80 55' on the west side of Axel Heiberg Island. In it, he left a note declaring sovereignty over the islands for Norway. In this era of arctic sovereignty concerns, such a document would be a real treasure.

But in 1997, fellow Ellesmereophile Graeme Magor and I sledded there from Eureka, as part of a 700km loop. We looked everywhere, not just at 80 55', but all along that western coast. We hiked over all the likely hills and ridges, but found nothing. Cairns are easy to spot in the open arctic landscape, but this just wasn't there.

The place most redolent of Sverdrup is Fram Haven, halfway up Ellesmere's east coast, where he and his men first wintered in 1898-9. On May 17, 1999, I happened to be there, and took a photo 100 years to the day after Sverdrup photographed his men celebrating Norwegian Constitution Day. Note how much the background glacier has shrunk in the last century. This is the only photograph I know of that actually shows global warming in the Arctic. 

February 18

A lesser-known hike within Quttinirpaaq National Park runs 130 km from Fort Conger to Lake Hazen. Adolphus Greely first made the trek in the early 1880s and discovered the lake. The ground was level enough that he and his men were able to tote their gear on a wheeled cart, which they abandoned on the eastern shore of Lake Hazen. I've looked for it, using Greely's original trip journal as a guide, and the parks people have kept their eyes open when flying that shoreline by helicopter, but no trace of the cart has ever turned up. 

The hiking around Fort Conger is remarkably good -- great views, muskoxen, Greely cairns on hilltops, etc. -- but there is the usual risk of being in a national park, where firearms aren't allowed for protection, yet hiking a coastal area, where polar bears can turn up any time.

Historically, Quttinirpaaq has few bear sightings, but as the Arctic changes, the incidents are becoming more common. A polar bear stuck its nose into a tour group's tent near Tanquary Fiord two years ago; and last summer, military pilots spotted a polar bear near Fort Conger. As multi-year ice turns to first-year ice in that area, it's likely that the number of seals, and so the number of polar bears, will increase.

                                   Greely cairn above Ft. Conger              Hiking near Lake Hazen

The route from Conger to Hazen is pretty flat & uninteresting, until you get to the north end of Lake Hazen. There, you'll find a house ring built by some of the Greenland Inuit working for Peary. A little further along, near the Gilman River, the beach is awash with amber. (The Gilman itself is a difficult ford in warm weather.) Not far from the park camp at Lake Hazen, arctic wolves have a den that they've been using intermittently for thousands of years.

February 12

Ellesmere is the tenth largest island in the world. (The nine larger ones are Greenland, New Guinea, Borneo, Madagascar, Baffin Island, Sumatra, Honshu, Great Britain and Victoria Island.) As its size suggests, the interior of Ellesmere Island has as many personalities as its coasts do. Ice caps cover one-third of the island. They're a weird and wonderful world; and their austerity feels quite different from that of the coast in early spring. Both are white worlds broken only by white shapes.

But the ice caps are also colder, windier, emptier. Although bush pilots occasionally spot a lost muskox or Peary caribou wandering over them, and although nunataks are breeding grounds for birds like the ivory gull, the ice caps are about as purely unalive as it is possible to find on this world.

Travelers occasionally use ice caps as highways, but you have to choose your on and off ramps carefully. Some glaciers end in 100' ice cliffs. Others are dangerously crevassed. A few are benign. I love the feel of the ice caps, but they add an element of mountaineering, and I'm a reluctant mountaineer, so with half a dozen exceptions I've tended to avoid them.

    Ice cap at the foot of Barbeau Peak                    Leveret layabouts                               Hazen-Tanquary hike

The best-known hiking route on Ellesmere Island runs 110 km from Lake Hazen to Tanquary Fiord in Quttinirpaaq National Park. It's a standard trek for tour groups, really the only cliche trek on Ellesmere, just like the only commercial paddling tours take place in Alexandra Fiord, on the central east coast.

The charter flight to Quttinirpaaq is so expensive that a two-week guided hiking tour costs close to $14,000 a person from southern Canada. That's a lot for the privilege of carrying a 60-pound backpack and eating pasta out of a plastic bowl. Maybe 10 people a year hike Hazen-Tanquary. Another group might do a loop out of Tanquary or day hikes based out of Lake Hazen. Canada's northernmost and second-largest national park rarely gets more than 20 to 25 hikers a year.

Hazen-Tanquary is a lovely hike, relatively easy, not many ups or downs and only a few icy river fords. On a hot July day, the river issuing from the Henrietta-Nesmith Glacier is the most formidable obstacle along the route, best tackled around 5 a.m., when water flow is lowest. And the Hazen-Tanquary area can get warm, sometimes 20C, although 9C is a more typical July temperature. If warm weather only strikes late in the trip, then the final crossing of the glacier-fed MacDonald River will be the hairiest obstacle.

Hazen has lower hills than Tanquary but lots of wildlife -- muskoxen, arctic wolves, arctic hare, red-throated loons, terns, Peary caribou if you hike high enough and are lucky. The closer to Tanquary, the more dramatic the scenery. The many fabulous day hikes out of Tanquary have only one disadvantage: many of the best ones, like the Omega Lakes or the summit of Mt. Timmia, are on the other side of the MacDonald River. In good weather that river is a non-trivial crossing, requiring hiking poles, full-on concentration, and careful route picking through the braids. To negotiate the fast water, which is sometimes thigh deep, it also helps to have legs proportioned to a 6'2" frame, not a 5'4" one.

   Quttinirpaaq park headquarters, Tanquary Fiord                       Park camp at Lake Hazen


January 24

Ellesmere Island is the size of England and Scotland combined, so for the traveler, there is no one Ellesmere. There are many. Along the west coast, travel -- especially spring manhauling -- is easy. Sweeping north winds tamp down the snow of Eureka and Nansen Sounds. The going over this hard surface is delicious, though the scenery, at least on the Ellesmere side, is less so. Hills are low and rolling; there are no glaciers or ice caps, except in the extreme southwest and the extreme northwest. Your eye wanders constantly to the high mountains and ice caps of neighboring Axel Heiberg Island.

 Eureka Sound                                    Ice cave, eastern Ellesmere                               Skirting a cliff around the North Water

The east coast, meanwhile, is ornery and challenging for the sledder. Snow can be good or bad. Ice can be rough or smooth. The proximity of the North Water Polynya means that you may bump into open water at several points -- King Edward Point, Cape Norton Shaw, Cape Isabella and the infamous Cape Sabine. Strong currents from Cape Sabine south also sometimes tear the sea ice prematurely around the Alfred Newton Glacier, which unlike the other glacier detours that we took along this route, is technical and dangerous. In May 2007, the sea ice was fine around the Alfred Newton Glacier and so fortunately we didn't have to cross it.

The east coast is an austere world. It has the biggest glaciers on the island. Nothing compared to the size of the Greenland giants, but some of them take a day or more to ski past. Along the face of one of them, we saw 12 ice caves, one after the other. When I went inside one to photograph my partner Bob sledding past, the glacier overhead made terrifying groaning noises.

The north coast is weird and lovely, with high mountains that sometimes throw long shadows over the traveler's path. Summers are dank, thanks to fog from the Arctic Ocean. Even in springtime, moisture in the air -- unusual in this polar desert -- gathered as frost on our gloves and fleece jackets. Or maybe the air was just moist enough that frozen sweat from our bodies didn't immediately sublimate into the dry polar air.

 Ward Hunt Island, on Ellesmere's north coast, in August            Grise Fiord, south coast

Finally, the south coast has qualities of all three other coasts. Except for its extreme east and west corners, the south coast has always felt a little less remote to me, because of the hamlet of Grise Fiord, halfway along. This is all in the head, of course; in High Arctic communities, wilderness begins where the last house ends. But despite good scenery and decent traveling conditions, and though Grise Fiord itself is in one of the most beautiful settings of any arctic town, I've never warmed to the south coast as I have to the others.

More Ellesmeres to come.

January 10, 2008

Ellesmere Island was named in 1852 by Sir Edward Inglefield, who saw it from the deck of his ship, the Isabella. Since then, it has seen a lot of expeditions, some impressive, others impressively wacky, but none more tragic than the Greely expedition of 1881-84. It was supposed to have been a strictly scientific endeavor during the first International Polar Year. It became instead one of the great arctic disasters. Sat phones and aircraft have made the current International Polar Year staid and predictable by comparison.


From Lockwood’s journal:
Aug. 4, 1883 (a few days before they abandoned Fort Conger): “Personally I would rather take almost any chance that offered than stay here another long winter night.”
Sept. 26, 1883. “God only knows what the end of all this will be. I see nothing but starvation and death.”

Fort Conger today

From the journal of Adolphus Greely:

Aug. 12, 1883: Sgt. Cross the engineer who is in general charge of the launch did nothing…and appeared to be under the influence of liqueur. When we were in the worst of the pinch and every minute precious and every man at the limit I ordered him to turn the bow and keep her head straight. After waiting about 2 minutes (it seemed 5 hours) I felt the necessity of urgent action and with profane language ordered him out [from under the canvas] threatening to shoot him in 20 seconds if he did not obey. He then appeared and gave some insolent answer. I regretted my violent words although fully called for by circumstance, as he was evidently drunk. He must have been up to his old tricks and stolen some of our fuel alcohol. Not being able to trust him I have had to put all the rum in another boat…”
Later… “Sgt. Cross was continually criticizing me…and once I heard him say, ‘You can see what it is to have a damned fool for a Commanding Officer.’ ”

April 22, 1884: While lying starving between the stone walls of Camp Clay, Greely records his last requests: “I want Brainard commissioned [and] my daughters raised as analytical chemists.”

The walls of Camp Clay

From the journal of David [Handsome Dave] Brainard:
Oct. 21. “Everyone complains of excessive weakness, and even the strongest of our party may be seen to stagger.”
Oct. 26. “The sun disappeared below the horizon today…I wonder how many of us will ever look on his glorious face again?”

…“I cannot understand how we manage to survive on 6 to 10 pounds of shrimps per day, but I suppose the vegetables and seal-skin possess more nutriment than we imagine.”

“Shrimp”, or amphipod, like the ones Greely’s men ate


The Press in Philadelphia, 1885, after the rescue: “Lieutenant Greely is lionized as much as he will allow himself to be, but he is so modest, so reticent, that it is a bold person who will trench on his reserve…It is needless to add he is a great favorite with women.”





All words and images ©2008-9 Jerry Kobalenko. Unauthorized use strictly prohibited by law.