December 24

Nothing to do with expeditions, but it was cold in the Rockies recently -- -30C for much of last week, down to a low of -41C. A good chance to have fun with winter. At those temperatures, if you fling a cup of boiling water into the air, it explodes into frost. Below, Alexandra demonstrates.


December 17

The light is lovely now in northern Labrador, but Labrador in December is also the wildest weather spot I've ever seen. The wind doesn't blow, it convulses. A 15-knot wind is a relatively calm day. One night, the wind reached about 70 knots and blew my packed sled over the tent. Luckily, it was clipped to a guyline. The snow on land wasn't good enough for staking, so I had to camp on frozen lakes, which were all windblown, and hammered nails into the ice to secure the tent.

Saglek Bay, looking north from near the crash site.

Concerned about being stranded for weeks in this weather, I cut the Hebron hike a little short, but easily covered 40 to 45 kilometers in three days, before the wind really worsened and pinned me down for two days. In the end, I used a small sled as well as a backpack, after discovering that a US Air Force survival manual of that era suggested that a downed plane's engine cowling made a good sled for hauling.

I learned a lot about the tragic 1942 crash of the B-26, which I'll write about in future. But what I may remember most is the loveliness and awfulness of Labrador in early winter. It gave me a medley of my all-time most extreme weather experiences, except for cold. It does not get very cold until the sea freezes sometime in January, at which point the weather also settles down. I only brought my second-warmest sleeping bag, and it was more than enough in the -18 to -21C nights.

In the violent wind, snow smokes over the ice-glazed hills south of Saglek.

November 23

I thought my travels were over for 2008. I've already put in three months in a tent this year, as I do most years, and was looking forward to writing, cross-country skiing, and photographing the winter Rockies. (The local ponds have just frozen, and the ice skating is great!) But when rare opportunities come up, a traveler can't ignore them. Thanks to help from Bill Rompkey, a Canadian senator and author of two books on Labrador history, I've received permission to fly to Saglek in northern Labrador in early December. I'll be joining a crew from Nasittuq, the company that maintains the military radar station there. It's a chance to investigate a story that's fascinated me for years.

In December 1942, seven American airmen were flying home from Greenland via Goose Bay in their B-26 bomber. They never reached Goose Bay. They got lost and crash-landed at Saglek when their fuel ran out. At the time, there was nothing at Saglek, though they did realize from a star shot that they were not far from the Inuit village of Hebron, which was populated then. They remained with their downed aircraft, standard operating procedure, waiting for a rescue that never came. They survived for almost two months before succumbing to starvation. The wreckage of their plane still lies beside the airstrip at Saglek.

Visiting Saglek at the time of year they were there will give me a better sense of what the men endured. I'll also walk the 60 kilometres from Saglek to now-abandoned Hebron, without snowshoes or sled, just postholing with a big backpack, to see how hard it would have been for them to save themselves. At that time of year, the sea isn't frozen and there are no sea ice shortcuts.

Alexandra at the wreckage of the B-26 in summer. Saglek, Labrador

October 28

On a cruise earlier this month with Adventure Canada, we stopped briefly at Killinek, a series of rugged islands called "the coldest, most dismal and barest of all the Labrador coast," by S.K. Hutton, a doctor who lived there while ministering to the Inuit a century ago. On this early fall afternoon, it was hard to disagree. Fresh snow dusted the ground. A stiff wind shoved dark clouds across the sky. The air was dank, the light muted. Yet many of the passengers loved that shore outing. Everything, the wildness, the rawness, the openness, was new to them. That's why in between expeditions, I enjoy traveling with northern tourists. They're curious about the place. Joining an arctic cruise is a deliberate act: You go south by default but you go north by choice.

The late David Foster Wallace wrote a darkly hilarious essay about a luxury tropical cruise, called A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. It's available at http://www.harpers.org/media/pdf/dfw/HarpersMagazine-1996-01-0007859.pdf


Polar bear monitor Eli Merkeratsuk watches over the scene at Killinek

September 3

From Snug Harbour, the most exposed part of the trip began. I spent the next few days along the open Atlantic, rounding a succession of big capes. There was the odd 10-km stretch, but deep rocky coves indented many of those capes, and I could usually duck into one of these havens after 4 or 5 km if a wind came up.

I'd been bucking the wind for a month, but this most dangerous part of the route coincided with fairly calm weather. Not calm enough, however, to properly experience the most beautiful landmark on the expedition -- the Hole in the Wall at Cape St. Michaels. Here, a giant cathedral window has eroded into one of the cliffs. Through it, you can see the forest, mountains and sky behind. But Cape St. Michaels is choppy even on a relatively quiet day, and I was bouncing around too much to take the camera out of its Pelican case or even to do more than glance quickly at the window while focusing on the waves ahead of me.

This was also the most populated part of the Labrador coast, and each new day I passed a village like Pinsent's Arm, William's Harbour and St. Lewis. I was making good time now, but it was clear that because of all the wind delays, I wasn't going to make Blanc Sablon without screwing up Alexandra's vacation. If you do just a few expeditions, the A to B is everything -- but if you do a lifetime of these things, the B is -- occasionally -- optional, as the line between an expedition, with its formal stated goal, and hard travel blurs a little. I'd been paddling for five weeks and covered 850 km, and I felt that I'd cracked the nut of the route. So I pulled up at Lodge Bay, about 150 km short of the finish line, and joined Alexandra. Within two hours by vehicle, we were in Blanc Sablon.

     Trans-Labrador Highway, prettified by truck dust                                        Puffin at Blanc Sablon

September 1

As I headed south from Cartwright, I continued to average about 25km/day. Considering that my paddling pace was about 6 kph in calm water, that was a discouragingly modest daily distance. In sledding terms, it's like doing 11km/day -- not a disaster, but not really mileage that makes you happy. Afternoon headwinds typically cut my pace to 2 or 3 kph. Depending on the terrain, or sea-rain, I often quit a couple of hours early. Sometimes the meagre distance to be gained wasn't worth the effort. I also try to avoid tackling big challenges at the end of the day, when I'm tired. So if I had to round an exposed cape or risk a long open-water crossing, I left it for the morning.

The only advantage of the winds was that my camps were not particularly buggy, with one exception: Snug Harbour. Another ghost village, Snug Harbour was a brushy, claustrophobic place well-protected from the wind. On this damp evening, black flies descended on me in multitudes that I'd never seen before. (Ellesmere Island and much of the High Arctic, where I often travel, has few mosquitoes and zero black flies.) But here in Snug Harbour, about 1,000 black flies clambered vigorously up each pant leg. I felt like an African explorer about to be overwhelmed by army ants. My socks and shirt were tucked into my pants, and of course I wore a headnet (Outdoor Research's black headnet gives the best visibility of any I've used). A few found their way in, but not many. That many insects felt gross, but you had to give them high marks for enthusiasm. As I set up the tent, the backs of my hands glistened with newly applied DEET, but this did not deter them. They clambered vigorously over my hands, dissolving in the potent compound. Soon, the backs of my hands were freckled with black fly corpses. Once I got in the tent, they ceased to be an issue: black flies get disoriented with a roof over their heads and lose all interest in biting. The 200 or so that came into the tent with me were easily dispatched. But how grateful I was that night that I had a pee bottle!

August 28

At home I'm not superstitious, but out on the land, I'm so obviously at the mercy of forces greater than I am that nature seems made up of Greek gods -- spiteful, helpful, treacherous, guiding, crafty. A minke whale surfacing nearby suggests that I'm in tune with the sea. A wind comes up too often, and I wonder what I've done wrong. It doesn't make sense, but that's how it feels, especially if you're traveling solo.

One day I lunched at one of the many abandoned fishing stations, Seal Islands Cove. The settlement dates back over two centuries, and it was larger and more haunted than most. As I paddled away, I noticed a broken heart in the shallows. It was probably just a kid's toy, but it really disturbed me. All afternoon, I wondered whose heart was going to break. That evening in camp, I made sure to touch the lucky rock that Innu elder Elizabeth Penashue had given me before the expedition to keep me safe.


August 27

Although the south winds slowed me down, they were helpful in a couple of areas. North Strand, a 25-km-long strip of sand beach thought to be the Wonderstands described by the original Viking explorers, can be wicked to land on or launch from in an onshore wind because of the surf. But in a south wind, I had an easy time of it until Cape Porcupine, a long east-pointing finger which divides North Strand from another stretch of beach called Porcupine Strand. A violent squall came up just as I was rounding the cape. There was nowhere to land, and I had to ride out the storm, with its 50-knot winds, paddling double time to keep the kayak braced in the pitching water. At the same time, I had to evade several bergy bits, house-sized chunks of iceberg, that threatened to squeeze me between them and the rocky headland. The squall lasted 10 terrifying minutes, then the weather instantly morphed into a lovely calm evening. Such is Labrador.

A day later, I was in Cartwright, my one major stop. Here, I took two days to restock and repair equipment. The expedition almost ended prematurely here. While the boat rested against the wall outside the Cartwright Hotel, someone, not looking where they were parking, managed to overlook a 16-foot kayak and drove into it with a pickup, splintering one of the Klepper's gunwales. But Woody Lethbridge, the father of the hotel's owner, took the shattered piece to his workshop and managed to repair it with bolts and Gorilla glue. It held up for the remainder of the trip.


August 26

East winds continued from Rigolet as I paddled east. When I turned south, the winds became consistently southerly. The one west wind of the five-week expedition came on the last day, when I paddled west for the first time. Some trips are just like that.

Kayaking is similar to sledding in some ways: the boat carries the load and you can tote several weeks' supplies, the pace is repetitive and, at its best, zen-like. But kayaking a windy sea is not zen-like. You have to be there all the time. No flights of fancy. I had to closely watch both the waves and the sky, since Labrador's weather often changed completely every two hours. Mentally, this was much harder than any sledding journey.

Although few people live along the coast now, ghost villages are everywhere. Before the end of the cod fishery in 1992, almost every sheltered cove held a few families. Nowadays, the houses are empty or fallen down. Doors creak on their hinges. Many interiors are mouldy from leaky roofs. Typically, each station included one or two fishing stages, small warehouse-like structures overhanging the water where the catch was unloaded and the floats and nets kept.

Abandoned fishing communities at Indian Tickle, left, and Snug Harbour.


August 25

The Labrador coast was windy this summer, and I reached Lodge Bay, about 150 km from Blanc Sablon. Here, I stopped to join Alexandra, whose travel dates were fixed. Labrador is scary enough, but the thought of messing up your spouse's vacation is truly intimidating. So in the end, I covered 850 km of the 1000 km. All was well, I just would have needed an extra week to complete the route.

It was a hard journey, and Lake Melville was particularly tough. At 160 km long and relatively shallow, it took only the slightest wind, maybe 7 knots, to create a rough chop. The waves' short wavelengths meant that the kayak was always pitching. I was windbound for two days on the lake and had to stop early several times, despite a quick morning start. If you're doing a short trip, you can get on the water early, wait onshore till the afternoon wind dies down at 7 or 8pm, then squeeze in another hour or two of calm paddling. But on a long expedition, this burning the candle at both ends is not really practical.  

By the time I reached Rigolet, on the edge of the open ocean, I was several days behind schedule. Rigolet is old French for a tickle or narrow channel, which here refers to the Narrows through which flows a powerful tidal current. As I waited on a point before the Narrows for the tide to ebb, I was looking at convulsions of whitewater. I reached Rigolet the following day, doing 8 knots despite a headwind.

More tomorrow.

Setting off after a night in sheltered Penny's Cove, 130 km southeast of Cartwright.

June 15

Off to paddle 1000km from Goose Bay, Labrador to Blanc Sablon, Quebec. I don't know of anyone who's done this entire route. At least a couple of parties have paddled the entire coast of Labrador in a season, but they understandably skipped the 150km of Hamilton Inlet. And several local parties have kayaked pieces of the route, such as Goose Bay-Rigolet and Goose Bay to Cartwright and almost to Charlottetown.

The last person to attempt to kayak the entire south coast of Labrador as far as the Strait of Belle Isle, however, died of a heart attack shortly after beginning, in summer 2000. Roy Willie Johansen's body was found, still in the kayak, on the shores of Long Island in Lake Melville. It was a weird end for the 6'7" Norwegian giant, who earlier that year had successfully paddled 300 km across fearsome Davis Strait from Greenland to Baffin Island.

My journey, which should take five weeks, is as much a cultural as a wilderness one. Yeah, there are long days on a rough coast without seeing a soul, but there are also periodic summer cabins, and abandoned villages from the era when cod was king. I also plan to get a whiff of the spirits of old explorers like George Cartwright, by visiting some of the spots they describe in their books. "Haunted by entities" is how one friend in Goose Bay described that coast.

At the end of the journey, Alexandra will meet me in Blanc Sablon and we'll drive back home along the Trans-Labrador Highway, a dramatic wilderness road that is the eastern version of the Alaska Highway.

The black line shows the kayak route. The southern section of the Trans-Labrador Highway is not on this map.


June 13

Greg Deyermenjian sends along some Expedition BS particular to the tropics. Greg has led more than 12 expeditions to the high jungles of Peru in search of the lost Inca city of Paititi.

Greg's suggestions:

Armed Guards: There are doubtless some areas of the world for which armed guards or soldiers accompanying one's expedition may be warranted (former "Peoples Republic of the Congo," for example), but for most other areas those groups that have armed guards accompany them usually do so because they are 1) Inexperienced, and/or, 2) Thinking that the photograph of one with armed guards will add to the aura of dangerousness, which many think of as automatically adding to the "Indiana Jones" quality of an adventure.  In actuality, though, most danger on an expedition, especially in tropical areas, goes the other way around: danger to the native peoples via imported illness to which they have no immunity; and danger to the fauna, of being shot, simply for being there and showing oneself, rather than for the sake of providing food to truly starving or hungry explorers.  

Fee-Paying "Expeditionaries": Not infrequently one sees yet another expedition announcing its intention to find this or that lost city, and its seeking expeditionaries to come along, as long as they pay a certain amount of money to "join the expedition."  Such an expedition will never really discover anything (except funding for the organizers), as, even an expedition composed of all truly experienced explorers, able to travel with skill and cover territory rather quickly, has a hard enough time finding lost ruins.   

Unnecessarily Full Complement of Científicos (Scientists) Aboard:It is good to have a scientific objective.  But many expeditions look to puff themselves up by boasting Biologists, Geologists, Anthropologists, Archaeologists, Botanists, and a host of other scientific types, as a way to automatically add a panache of scientific importance.  When it comes right down to it, most important is the perceptiveness of all the expeditionaries, exceptional machete-wielders, and maybe a specialist or two in relevant fields; or else one ends up with a particularly difficult, unwieldy, and immobile group of folks in need, themselves, of services.   

Lots of Porters: When an expedition has as many or more people there simply to carry stuff than it has others who will not be carrying, it's an automatic giveaway that the entire group is going to get nowhere off the beaten path.  One has to be at least hardy enough to carry one's own decent-sized pack, in order to have the wherewithall to truly go along new paths.  (There are times when an expeditionary, because of injury, needs to hire someone, that particular time, to carry his/her pack; but that's different than a group with porters.)

In general, the larger the group in tropical areas, the harder it will be to travel far and without some problem cropping up.  Small armies of expeditionaries usually get nowhere. 

June 12

Top Ten Expedition BS

1. Faking an accomplishment.

Explorers' claims used to be taken at face value before it became clear that gentlemen could, and did, lie. Whether it's a first ascent of Mt. McKinley or up some aesthetic Patagonian spire, a round-the-world yacht race, or a trek to a slippery place like the North Pole, where you can't leave notes or build cairns, exploration has a rich history of fakery.

The question is, how much still goes on? The late, great Resolute outfitter Bezal Jesudason used to clear his throat tellingly whenever the conversation turned to a certain Italian who claimed to have reached the North Pole in the 1970s. Now and then, rumors bruit -- about expeditions, supposedly unsupported, that received surreptitious air drops, for example, or the motivational speaker who didn't really summit. But most modern fakery probably occurs in less complicated projects, especially solo ones. The media never investigates whether a traveler is telling the truth or not. Why bother?

On the other hand, there's little to be gained from lying if you just go out quietly and try something. Attention-getting projects require greater scrutiny.

In general, most bs comes not from what someone does, but why they do it. Exploration remains one of the easiest roads to celebrity. A beginner fires off a press release and so it begins. By contrast, imagine how much work it takes for an athlete or a physicist to become as well known.

In compiling this list, I first vetted it with other adventurers, since this Top Ten is admittedly polar-bs-biased. Climber/paraglider Will Gadd, one of the world's best outdoor athletes, suggested another entry: "Decrying all future attempts on your objective as unworthy." I'd never heard of this, so I asked another well-known mountaineer about it: "Is this a climbing thing?"

"It's a Reinhold Messner thing," he replied.

I considered other entries, such as Excuses for Failure. The three commonest excuses on North Pole expeditions, for example, are: 1) My back hurts 2) My sled broke 3) My sat phone is on the fritz and I feel too great a sense of responsibility to my family proceed under such dangerous conditions. But these violin concertos are really just a human, all-too-human response rather than specifically expedition bs.

Greg Deyermenjian of the Explorers Club, who really does explore rather than just eat bugs once a year under a phalanx of stuffed rhino heads, promises to send some bs of which tropical expeditions are guilty.

In the meantime, I'm off to paddle 1,000km along the coast of southern Labrador, from Goose Bay to Blanc Sablon in Quebec. I'll say a little about it in the next day or two. Since I don't do field reports, the next update after that will be in mid-August.


June 11

Top Ten Expedition BS

2. Claiming something is a first, when it's not.

Usually this is just self-serving laziness. Why look too closely into what's been done before when ignorance allows you to grandly claim priority? Other times it involves splitting hairs, so if an earlier expedition did something microscopically different from you, it can, for your convenience, be ignored. Rarely, it is an outright lie from someone for whom the end justifies the means, as when Robert Peary tried to wrest the discovery of Axel Heiberg Island from Otto Sverdrup: "No, no, no, he didn't discover it -- I saw that island the year before." Yeah, right.

Nowadays, this doesn't work with iconic endeavors, in which who did what, when, how is well known. But it's still in play with more obscure challenges.

June 10

Top Ten Expedition BS

3. Pretending that an expedition is all about something socially relevant.

A century ago, climbers used to boil a thermometer on summits to estimate the mountain's height and claimed to be contributing to science.  Later, others made a big deal of taking ice samples, or blood samples, or water samples en route. This hobby science was popular expedition shtick for years and still has its practitioners. In large, though, it's been replaced by the mantra of Raising Awareness, as in Raising Awareness of Multiple Sclerosis or, especially, Raising Awareness of Global Warming. If I see one more expedition muttering concerned platitudes about how the Arctic has changed since they were there ten years ago, or how there are actually areas of open water on the Arctic Ocean in summer, I'm going to scream.

Very occasionally, there are people for whom environmental concern is the real spinning cog driving their project. They're incredibly admirable, but they're also rare as hen's teeth. With most, it's just a fundraising and publicity gimmick.

June 9

Top Ten Expedition BS

4. Claiming that an expedition proves something it doesn't.

Wearing wool knickers and hobnail boots while climbing the Second Step on Everest does not prove Mallory did it. Nor does cutting off eight of your toes and dogsledding to the North Pole prove Peary succeeded, either.

I've always envied mountaineers their sense of history. Many polar travelers, on the other hand, even good ones, seem to have barely skimmed the Coles Notes version of arctic history. Still, if you're trying to get your expedition noticed, there are few better ways than claiming that your endeavor resolves some age-old controversy. 

Not that there's anything wrong with following in the footsteps of past explorers. It's a legitimate form of historical research, as valid as poring through archives. But you gotta do your homework first. Otherwise it's just misinformation, or disinformation.

June 8

Top Ten Expedition BS

5. Hiding the fact that an expedition is guided.

Some challenges are still so formidable that they're beyond guiding -- climbing K2, for example. In the case of others, and polar travel in particular, a guide reduces something that is extremely difficult, especially psychologically, to an endurance feat that any fit and motivated client can accomplish.

Increasingly, expeditions to the North Pole and South Pole are guided. Not just last-degree expeditions, which have always been for tourists (albeit a special kind), but also full-length projects. I'm not sure how necessary a guide is on a South Pole trek, but in the case of the more difficult North Pole, it's an enormous advantage. Very few people succeed in doing the entire distance to the North Pole themselves. Even fewer succeed on the first attempt. Add a guide, and the success rate becomes essentially 100%.

Today, an expedition may be named the Tom Thumb Polar Expedition, but likely as not, Tom's just the vain and ambitious guy holding the purse strings, hoping to make a name as an explorer and often forgetting to mention publicly that one of his teammates is a little more than a fellow traveler.

June 7

Top Ten Expedition BS

6. Making an expedition sound harder than it is.

One of the nice things about climbing or white-water kayaking is that challenges are graded numerically, so there's little opportunity to inflate an accomplishment. Not so in polar travel, which the public doesn't really understand and where there are no clear yardsticks. Many imagine, for example, that pulling a 150-pound sled is a superhuman act, little realizing that any grandmother who jogs on Sunday can do it. But 150 pounds sounds good, and 250 pounds sounds even better, because for those unfamiliar with sledding, it's natural to compare it to how hard it would be to backpack those weights. As a result, those who want to impress can easily do so. Because there's not really a polar community as such, just a few people doing things independently of one another, it's hard for the media to verify just how difficult something is.

The other side of this equation -- and this comes up time and again in this countdown -- is that many polar adventurers are novices. Given that this sort of project takes a healthy amount of self-esteem to begin with, it's easy for the adventurers themselves to think, "Wow, I'm pulling a 250-pound sled for 12 miles at 30 below. I must be amazing." Alas, it's easier than it sounds.

June 6

Top Ten Expedition BS

7. Motivational speaking.

If you want to know how adventurers really make a living, it's often by motivational speaking. I'm not talking about storytelling with pretty pictures, but presentations crafted to a business audience, in which the message is Teamwork or Leadership or similar corporate psychology buzzwords. Nowadays, it seems, everyone bills themselves as a "keynote speaker". And why not? If you can lay it on thick, the money is incredible. There are people making a six-figure income based on 10 hours work a year.

Sometimes the accomplishments of these adventurers are genuine. Twenty years later, sadly, some of them are still giving the same lecture, based on one triumphant afternoon. Others are glib phonies. Neither climbers nor adventurers, they climb Mt. Everest specifically to launch a career in motivational speaking. As bad, in my mind, are the ones who haven't done anything yet but presume to have valuable lessons to impart to the rest of us.

There is something refreshing about the attitude of a first-class adventurer like Pat Morrow, who admits that he never gave motivational talks because "I just couldn't see myself telling a convention of hog farmers that they too can climb their personal Everest."

June 5

Top Ten Expedition BS

8. Telling your audience that all it takes to live this life is the courage to follow your dreams, when you're sitting on a trust fund.

Many people would be surprised at the number of adventurers who don't have to make a living. Nothing wrong with being born well off, if you make the most of it: the great Bill Tillman was a gentleman amateur. So, for that matter, was Charles Darwin.

But as a poor bloke, I've always been aware that the hardest part of adventure is making a living at it. (The adventure itself is just personal hunger, and is almost effortless.) When adventurers give presentations and claim -- often in response to audience questions at the end -- that they make a living from selling photos, or from book royalties, I cringe. Since I myself survive partly from photography, I know the business and I can say that the only ones making serious coin from adventure photography are full-time photographers, not expedition types. 

Even if you're a serious shooter, it's not easy. A National Geographic photographer I know used to make much of his income flipping houses -- he'd buy a fixer-upper, renovate it, then resell at a profit. Several handyman adventurers go that route. One well-known big-wall climber builds outdoor decks. As for books, the royalties are rarely significant unless you're Jon Krakauer or David Roberts. So it's dishonest when a "professional" adventurer tries to inspire without admitting that he or she doesn't need to earn a living like the rest of us.

June 4

Top Ten Expedition BS

9. Doing one or two expeditions, then retiring and affecting the pose of an elder statesman.

Again, the nature of polar travel. Good climbers climb every day or two, but most polar sledders are not, pardon the pun, in it for the long haul. Typically they do the North Pole or the South Pole, then retire. A few do both. If they're particularly serious, they also cross Antarctica or the Arctic Ocean. That's it. End of polar icons. Too bad, because the sledding life really is a fine one. It's as if 99% of climbers just did Everest and maybe the Seven Summits.

Especially in Britain, it seems that once retired, these one-trick ponies vigorously posture as wise greybeards in all matters polar. (Maybe one-eyed kings rather than one-trick ponies is a more apt description.) This was more understandable in the 19th century -- for years, Adolphus Greely was considered America's greatest living polar explorer, based on one diastrous expedition. But standards of experience are different now. Will Steger, for example, was doing impressive arctic stuff as a dirtbag long before he hit the big time.

June 3

Top Ten Expedition BS Countdown

10. Erecting plaques in the wilderness in honor of your own expedition.

This may be a purely arctic thing, a more permanent version of spray-painting your name on a rock. Several times at historic sites I've seen elaborate plaques laid by recent expeditions, ostensibly to commemorate the original explorer but not coincidentally, also commemorating whoever laid the plaque. The Franklin site on Beechey Island has some of this graffiti, which in the Arctic will last hundreds of years. But one of the most blatant examples is a series of plaques at various Sverdrup sites on Ellesmere Island. Norwegians are usually magnificent and understated travelers -- like Sverdrup himself -- but  about 15 years ago one less-than-modest Norwegian took a couple of guided snowmobile trips, erecting bronze plaques in which Sverdrup's name and his own are in identical point size. I've checked around with archaeologists, and while of course it is against the law to take stuff from an historic site, unfortunately it does not seem to be illegal to bolt a vanity plaque to a rock. On the bright side, it is entirely possible to remove such plaques and throw them into the sea.

June 2

Expedition bs has always been around. Those quaint Renaissance-era sagas of someone sailing to the North Pole and finding a tunnel to the center of the earth probably traces back to some huckster in a frilled collar and balloon pants looking for the Elizabethan version of celebrity, or hoping to convince a gullible king to fund his future endeavors. Expedition bs crosses all outdoor disciplines, although Everest climbs and North Pole treks get more than their fair share, because of their iconic stature. The less technical something is, and the more instantly famous you can get doing it, the more it attracts amateurs with questionable motives. In arctic travel today, it's common for those with big egos and small experience to boast of undertaking "the greatest exploration of the Arctic ever" or trekking to "the last important place on Earth no one has reached."

Beginning tomorrow, I'll count down the Top Ten list of Expedition Bullshit -- the 10 most egregious ways outdoor types posture and/or try to fool the public. 

May 20

Sam Ford Fiord on Baffin Island, just north of Clyde River, has become famous in the last dozen years for its giant granite cliffs. It has become the arctic Mecca for the big-wall climbing and base-jumping community. It also draws a smaller number of couloir skiers and sledders, which is what I was doing there last week, thanks to Nunavut Tourism, Rick Boychuk of Canadian Geographic magazine, Dave Reid of Polar Sea Adventures and a couple of adventurous friends, Derek Boniecki and David Holberton. An Inuit outfitter shuttled us six hours by snowmobile from Clyde River to a drop-off point at the north end of the Stewart Valley. Then for the next five days, we sledded our way slowly south.

At 4,200 feet, Walker Citadel, far right, is the highest uninterrupted wall in the world.

This small area probably has the most spectacular scenery in the Arctic. Not even the Mts Thor/Asgaard region a little further south in Auyuittuq National Park has a denser concentration of walls and spires and towers. As a result, Clyde River gets a lot of adventure tourists. Local Inuit have become so savvy about good gear that three of them offered to buy my Hilleberg Keron 3GT tent. At the end of the trip, the outfitter actually picked us up on time, an astonishing experience in the north. 

The only disadvantage about Sam Ford Fiord is that it feels like a playground. When we were there, we shared the fiord with two large teams of base jumpers. Every day, Inuit guides shuttled them by snowmobile to a different cliff, where they'd climb up the gentle backside, then dive off the wall. So snowmobile tracks, and the drone of snowmobiles, were common. In addition, a solo skier was camped nearby, doing lines down the couloirs. A team of sledders from France had just passed through. We bumped into other visitors more than I ever have in the Arctic. There was none of the familiar feeling of being a million kilometers from the nearest soul, of owning the spot, at least temporarily.

It reminded me of Bryce National Park in Utah -- an intensely beautiful pocket of wilderness. It's also been compared to an arctic Yosemite Valley and even the Fitzroy spires in Patagonia. It's currently going through the steps to become a territorial park. Why not a national park? Of all the potential parks in the country, this would seem to be ideal: small, easily managed from nearby Clyde River, plus unique, world-class scenery. I can't be sure, but I suspect that a national park would be just too restrictive to suit the local business people. Parks Canada would not allow base jumping, for one thing, because of liability. Firearms for protection from polar bears would also not be allowed, restricting access to fully guided trips.

May is definitely the time to go. Mild weather, beautiful evening light (it's blinding during the day) and the highway of sea ice. Kayaking in summer might have its moments: The cliffs plunge vertically into the sea, and there are few places to bail when a wind comes up -- which, judging from the hard snow in the inner fiords, it does frequently. 


Sledding past Polar Sun Spire, right. There are English names         Base jumpers descending from Mt. Kiguti.                                                           for the three towers at left (The Beak, Broad Peak, etc.) but                                                                                                                                the local Inuit have named them after a komatik, a man                                                                                                                             wearing a parka hood and a woman with an amautiq, carrying                                                                                                                              a baby on her back.                                                                                                                                                                    


April 28

In good conditions -- hard snow, flat ice, temperature above -20C -- sledding is a lot like walking. The effort is similar. A sled of 150 pounds doesn't feel like much, it just bumps along obediently behind. On such days, mileage is all about your walking cadence. A naturally brisk walker can eat up a lot of territory; but a saunterer, even a fit one, will rarely manage 20 miles in a day.

With experience, you can figure out how far you've come in an hour by counting steps per minute. Steps per minute depends on snow conditions; in good snow, when I don't need skis, my natural pace is 112 steps/minute, which is 2.4 miles an hour. I can keep that pace up for seven hours. By nine or 10 hours, it's down to 100 steps/minute. Years ago, my primo pace was closer to 120 steps/minute (2.6 miles per hour) but though I can still maintain that for a couple of hours, it feels unnaturally fast now.

Your steps/minute cover more ground on a sidewalk, but on sea ice, the sled and the irregular surface shorten your stride. When I mess around on a treadmill, 112 steps/minute is over 4 mph; 122 steps/minute is 5 mph. But sledding is not about miles per hour; it's how fast your legs can keep churning for 8 or 10 or 12 hours a day.

My own one-day record is 42 miles in 16 hours, man-hauling from Buchanan Lake on Axel Heiberg Island to the Eureka weather station on Ellesmere. I don't know anyone else who's ever hauled that distance in a day, except when pulled by a kite. I wasn't attempting a feat; I'd simply had a close call with a polar bear in that region the year before and I didn't want to camp on the sea ice.

                                                       The arithmetic of sledding: 120 steps/minute = 2.6 mph

April 16

Sleeping in a heated bush tent, as we did in the Mealy Mountains, is a mixed blessing. Even in our big tent that slept 15, the little stove cranked out enough heat to ward off the -25 C nighttime temperatures at the start of the trip. As March advanced and the weather turned milder, there was rarely even a chill in the tent. Boots and gloves hung on a pole strung beneath the ridgepole and dried overnight. During the days off -- and we had six days off in 17 days -- it was like being in a little cabin. 

It took four hours to fully set up our big shelter. Often it took several people two hours just to lay enough boughs for floor insulation. At first, you just stripped the spruce and aromatic balsam fir of their branches and spread them out. Later, you fine-tuned the floor by snapping off the bare sections of each branch and throwing them outside. We usually gathered water for drinking and cooking from pockets of slush on the lakes and rivers. It was a domestic life, with endless chores, compared to the less comfortable but more mobile world of a mountain tent. It felt like the life a traditional Innu hunter would live in between hunting expeditions.


April 7

Back from snowshoeing with Innu activist Elizabeth Penashue and her family in the Mealy Mountains. The sledding was easy -- much of the heavy gear, including food, was shuttled forward by snowmobiles every day, and we walked or snowshoed on a packed snowmobile trail, typically covering 8-10 km/day. The hardest part was setting up the tents every night. This involved cutting about 20 spruce trees for ridge and frame poles and stripping them of their branches, which became the floor. Then cutting and splitting wood for the stove (after a few days, a chain saw was brought in and made life easier).

The trip mixed old and new. Most of the group walked with traditional Innu snowshoes -- strung with orange nylon webbing rather than traditional caribou sinew -- and pulled a wooden toboggan. We slept in a canvas tent, heated by a small wood stove. We ate porcupine and ptarmigan and caribou and bannock -- but also hot dogs, junk food, and enough baloney to reconstruct an entire cow. When we ran short, Elizabeth Penashue placed a satellite phone call to Sheshatshui for more supplies.  

                                            Francis and Jack Penashue take a breather after setting up one of the tents

More later, but speaking of baloney: Last month's Expedition News website included a call for participants from someone organizing a trip to the Mealy Mountains. "According to the best available sources, the higher mountains have never been visited in snow season, even by the native Innu" the organizer claimed. This is a classic example of expedition hype, in which someone makes a wild claim based on little or no research, because it makes their endeavor sound more pioneering. The Mealys are not Himalayan summits: They are accessible, and Innu caribou hunters have tramped their heights for centuries. 

                                                                 The Mealy mountains: good walking 

March 7

This weekend I'll be in Labrador, buying such atypical (for me) supplies as a 50-pound bag of flour. The snowshoe march begins next week. When I first went to Labrador, I read somewhere that it was the coldest place in the world for its latitude. Labrador is no further north than Great Britain, but the cold Labrador current helps to create an arctic/subarctic climate, so the statement made sense to me. Then a friend archly pointed out, "Maybe Hawaii is also the coldest place in the world for its latitude."

In any case, Labrador can be frosty. You can ski to the North and South Poles without ever experiencing the temperatures of winter Labrador. In 2004, the lowest still-air temp I had at night was -54 C -- that's -64 F. But now spring is almost here, and Labrador shouldn't get colder than about -25C.

Next update in April.

March 4

Off to Goose Bay, Labrador late this week to join Elizabeth Penashue's annual Innu snowshoe trek, about 275 km from Sheshatshui to Enekapeshakimau Lake in the Mealy Mountains. Now 63, Elizabeth is an Innu activist who led the protests against the noise created in the Labrador wilderness by low-level NATO training flights in the 1980s.

I experienced these jets myself one summer, while a friend and I retraced Leonidas Hubbard's 1903 canoe journey up the magnificently miserable Susan River. Even up to our waists in whitewater, dragging our canoe upstream, the noise of fighter jets at 200 feet scared us out of our skin. Labrador was a great training ground for this sort of hijinks, because it resembled Siberia. As the Cold War petered out, so eventually did most of the overflights. 

                                                                            Fun on the Susan River

Whether or not politics turn your crank, you have to admire someone like Elizabeth, who talks with her feet. She's been doing these winter walks for about 10 years, teaching a few kids who join her about traditional life. (In summer, she leads a similar journey, by canoe.) For me, it's a chance to learn more about Innu travel ways. For some people, it ain't the wilderness unless you're paddling it in a birchbark canoe you've fashioned yourself, preferably while wearing a 20-year-old red checked lumberjack shirt from the Salvation Army. But I've always preferred modern: You travel faster and less domestically, and you can be inept with your hands and still do ok. On the other hand, we modern travelers are just visiting. We're not living in the wilderness as a home. It's hard to patch a GoreTex jacket with spruce gum or fix a hole in a nylon tent with a crooked knife. When the granola and chocolate run out, we go home.  

February 22

Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the Polar Controversy, about whether Cook or Peary reached the North Pole. The debate is really doornail dead -- neither of them made it -- but we're going to be hearing a lot about Peary, in particular, from self-interested parties. The Peary "question" still makes the news, and just as realpolitik explorers in the late 19th century continued to try to raise money for Franklin search expeditions long after the poor guy would have died of old age, so modern travelers continue to whip up interest in their projects by linking it to the Polar Controversy.

A couple of years ago, for example, a dogsled expedition reached the North Pole in the same number of days it took Peary. Since Peary's remarkable speed was one of the weak links in his story, this expedition supposedly laid that criticism to rest. Never mind that we're now fitter, better equipped and have far more experience in traveling the frozen Arctic Ocean and would be expected to go faster than someone 100 years ago. Never mind also that the modern expedition and their exhausted dogs were airlifted from the North Pole and didn't have to try to get back to land at the even faster speed that Peary claimed to have done on the return leg. Finally, never mind that it's not one thing that kiboshes Peary's claim, but a whole whack of them -- especially his long habit of lying about his accomplishments on previous expeditions.

Others will try to smooth over Peary's unattractive personality by claiming he was the first to respect and adopt the Inuit way of travel. That is also a red herring. Peary was hardly the first to use Inuit clothing and technique. To him, the Inuit were pawns in his chess game. Typically he speaks of them in cold, abstract terms. When six of them died from a disease they caught from Peary's supply ship, he records it in a single dismissive line. Elsewhere, he refers to the Inuit as "members of [an] inferior race." Always the fundraiser, he brought back a few Inuit to civilization so they could appear as curiosities at exhibitions. Most of them died. And he stole the Greenland meteorites, from which the Inuit had made iron tools for centuries, and took them back with him to the American Museum of Natural History, increasing the Polar Inuit's dependence on him and the supplies he paid for their services. For decades afterward, the Inuit referred to Peary as the "great tormentor".

                    One of the Inuit who died after visiting Peary's ship.      Box fragment with "Peary expedition" stenciled                                                                                                                       on it, found at an old Inuit qammaq, or stone hut.


February 12, 2008

More News than Expeditions, but check out this profile of Canada's adventure couples, including Alexandra and I, in the current issue of UP!, Westjet's inflight magazine. www.up-magazine.com/magazine/features/The_Love_of_Adventure_3.shtml

January 10, 2008

2007 was a heavy travel year, with three major trips, including a 700-km ski expedition from Devon Island up the east coast of Ellesmere Island. My partner, Bob Cochran, and I followed the footsteps of Frederick Cook, on his 1909 march from his winter den at Cape Hardy on Devon Island back to Greenland.

Den at Cape Hardy

Cook may have faked reaching the North Pole, but the trek with his two Inuit companions, Ahwehlah and Etookashoo,  from the stone den where they spent the winter back to Greenland, was a great journey and worth emulating.

At the end of six weeks, we had covered Cook's entire route, except the last 50 km to Greenland. The ice bridge that reliably spans the open ocean between Canada and Greenland did not form this year. The open water extended all the way to the northern tip of Ellesmere. We had plenty of food left, but there was nothing we could do. We ended, ironically, at a site on Pim Island where Cook's arch-rival, Robert Peary, had once spent the winter.

Here are the pre- and post-expedition interviews from thepoles.com.





You can tell from his interviews that Bob is a fabulous companion. He lost 22 pounds on this journey. He went from looking like a corn-fed Ronald Reagan just before our departure in Grise Fiord to a sinewy Mick Jagger on our last day of sledding.

Select recent expeditions:

July, 2006: Jerry and Alexandra kayak 500km down the north coast of Labrador and become the first visitors to the new Torngat Mountains National Park Reserve. See Canadian Geographic magazine, June 2007.

May, 2005. Jerry and L.A. Bob sled 400 km on the polar-bear rich southeast coast of Ellesmere Island, from Hell Gate around Norwegian Bay to Grise Fiord. See Explore magazine, March 2006.

Jan-Feb. 2004.
To explore whether experience makes up for being 20 years older, Jerry re-does his first and hardest expedition, a 600-km solo sled journey across Labrador in midwinter, from Churchill Falls to Nain. Still-air temperatures drop as low as -54ºC (-64ºF). Jerry completes the route in 39 days, vs the 46 days it took in 1984. See Canadian Geographic magazine, March/April 2005.

All-time favorite expedition:
Well, the purest, anyway. In 1989, Jerry sleds the 500 km from Eureka to Grise Fiord on Ellesmere Island in 11 days - the fastest sledding expedition ever done without using kites.

The real favorite:
Jerry and Alexandra's two-month hike in 1999 on Axel Heiberg and Devon Islands.



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