EXPEDITIONS ARCHIVES 2008
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.
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
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.
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
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
Polar bear monitor Eli
Merkeratsuk watches over the scene at Killinek
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
Highway, prettified by truck
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!
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
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.
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
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.
communities at Indian Tickle, left, and Snug Harbour.
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.
Setting off after a night
in sheltered Penny's Cove, 130 km southeast of Cartwright.
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
The black line shows
the kayak route. The southern section of the Trans-Labrador
Highway is not on this map.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
Top Ten Expedition BS
2. Claiming something is a first, when
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
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.
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,
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
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.
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
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.
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
Top Ten Expedition BS
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.
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."
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
Top Ten Expedition BS
9. Doing one or two
expeditions, then retiring and affecting the pose of an elder
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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
jumpers descending from Mt.
for the three towers at left (The Beak, Broad Peak, etc.)
the local Inuit have named them after a komatik, a
wearing a parka hood and a woman with an amautiq,
a baby on her
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
One of the Inuit who died after visiting Peary's
ship. Box fragment with "Peary
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Alexandra's two-month hike in 1999 on Axel Heiberg and Devon
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