Filing daily reports from
the field would ruin a trip, but it's fun to do pre-briefs and
The Health section of yesterday's New York Times has an interesting column on athletes in the off-season and after retirement. Some keep up regular exercise all their lives; others become couch potatoes. In one study, athletes who quit training completely at the end of the competitive season lost about 10% of their strength and endurance within a month. Others, who kept up a relatively small amount of activity, maintained much of their fitness.
What does this have to do with expeditions? Although I've always been active (see Dec. 25 video), I consider that this daily, at-home exercise merely slows the process of deterioration between expeditions. It's leading a totally physical life 12-14 hours a day for about three months every year that keeps me pretty fit. This all-day-every-day-for-weeks activity feels completely different from an hour or two of daily exercise. I'm no scientist, but it seems as if the benefits of this physical life last for months after an expedition. Meanwhile, the skiing and swimming and walking stuff in between work like a pilot light, simply keeping the burner primed to be turned on again.
I've tried to make this a No BS site, where you get the straight dope about polar expeditions. Often my take is less than complimentary, because a lot of the expeditions you read about elsewhere are copycats doing the same two routes -- North Pole and South Pole -- in the same old ways and trying to make their project sound different, when it isn't.
But now and then, you get a real McCoy who is doing something impressive, and Christian Eide's sledding journey to the South Pole falls in that category. From the beginning, he's averaged about 44 km/day. Uphill and into the wind, with a full sledding load, that's first rate. He's clearly a good athlete and experienced enough not to lose time learning as he goes.
I averaged 50 km/day on one sledding expedition, but only for 11 days and on flat sea ice. I was walking, not skiing -- I find that faster on good snow. (Another disadvantage of Berwin bindings, which I profiled recently on the Gear page, is that they're not the fastest ski system in the world.) To cover 50 km, I hauled for 12-13 hours. I felt I could maintain that daily pace for a month; I wasn't sure I could keep it up for two months. It was pretty intense.
50km/day = 12 hours of brisk sledding
Nevertheless, as sledders get more experienced and arctic travel draws better athletes, I suspect that 50km/day will become a much more common pace, at least where the snow is generally windpacked, such as Antarctica.
I've mentioned before how the practice of "training" for an arctic sledding expedition by pulling tires is mainly a gimmick. It's photogenic but isn't necessary, except as a pr tool. Preparing for a long journey is mainly about building endurance and stressing the joints to avoid the main danger in this sort of travel: repetitive stress injury. Before an expedition, I just increase the usual exercise routine. Here are some of the winter activities I do to train/stay in shape. Of all these, the two most important are probably swimming (to strengthen back muscles for pulling a sled) and walking at expedition speed. I'm a naturally fast walker, and I can pull a sled at the same speed on hard snow -- 112 to 120 steps/minute. If your natural pace is a saunter, you can be the best athlete in the world, but you'll still be a slow sledder.
A story behind the image:
This was the cover of The Horizontal Everest; it also appears in Arctic Eden. To me, the image summarizes the lovely counterintuitiveness of High Arctic travel: Look, this place is so weird that you can hop safely across ice cubes.
Alexandra and I were a somewhat new item when we spent three weeks hiking around Good Friday Bay on Axel Heiberg Island. The summer of 1999 was witheringly hot in the High Arctic. We spent much of our time in T-shirts. This is unusual that far north: although sun and no wind can make the day feel semi-warm, the underlying air is always refreshingly cool. But not this August.
The sea ice of Good Friday Bay was disappearing quickly. Open ocean gapes between the floating pieces. Nevertheless, the floes themselves are two to three feet thick, even at their very edges, and just bobble slightly when you jump on them. It's like hopping from one floating dock to another.
I positioned myself on shore, on a low bench for some elevation, and asked Alexandra to jump from floe to floe. The further out she went, the better it looked, because I could bring the mountain on the other side of the bay closer with my 80-200mm lens. But if she went too far, as you can see, the telephoto compression removes the space between the floes and the composition doesn't look as good.
The problem was that her trailing leg never looked right as she jumped. It kind of dragged. "Lift up your back leg dramatically, like Supergirl landing," I advised. But it's hard for the model to see how she looks, and the body English just didn't sing.
I shot about 300 frames on her. As midnight moved toward 3 a.m., the polarization angle improved. I finally got one decent shot with a straight polarizer, below, but I prefer the tones of the blue-yellow polarizer in the final image, above. These two frames were the only ones where her back leg's positioning worked.
During this session I also tried other photo ideas with our tent, above right, but nothing special ever came of it. Afterwards, we had supper at about 4am. Then Alexandra spotted a herd of Peary caribou at what looked like half an hour's hike away. But the Arctic's lack of scale fooled us; two and a half hours later, we reached them. I got some decent images of this endangered subspecies, we returned to the tent about noon, then slept till evening. One of those magical never-ending High Arctic days.
Had a note today from an old Russian friend, Valera Malakhov, who traveled the Kuril Islands with me a few years ago. Valera lives in Kamchatka and is a real Dersu -- the title character of a book by Arseniev that has made a big impression on wilderness-loving Russians. I've never felt as humbled as a traveler as when I was with Valera. As we hiked the rough coast of Kunashir, and climbed three of the island's four volcanoes, he showed more than the usual Russian solidity. Despite our heavy packs, he danced over the boulders. With typical Russian stoicism, he seemed to regard my habit of drinking water every hour as an effete Western affectation. Perhaps following what they learn during their military service, Russian trekkers tend to drink tea at lunchtime, and that's about it for fluids during the day.
The shores of Kunashir teemed with plastic bottles, Japanese glass floats, and scrounging foxes and brown bears. Once we camped in a seemingly waterless location. I wondered if we were going to be drinking at all that night. But then Valera showed me how to find water with a truly Dersu-like trick. Taking his big Bowie knife from his belt, he carved one of the discarded plastic bottles into a spigot. This he stuck into an embankment of damp sand. To my amazement, water trickled down the spigot and into our pots and bottles.
The southern Kurils are a border zone, still disputed with nearby Japan, which is visible from Kunashir. We kept running into paranoid authorities wondering what the hell a Canadian was doing prowling the island with a camera and a Russian friend. Once, I was interrogated by an FSB colonel who happened to be visiting from the district capital in Sakhalin. The interrogation was in Russian, which I learned in order to better travel this crazy and engaging country. One of his questions showed that I was being monitored. "Why are you so interested in Japanese graveyards?" he demanded. During my time on the island, I'd asked several residents where to find the Japanese graveyards that the Soviets did not get around to eradicating when they took over the islands at the end of World War II. "I'm interested in Japanese graveyards for the same reason I'm interested in the Ainu culture or volcanoes," I told him. "They're part of the story of this island."
The FSB guy was creepy and tried his best to be intimidating, but our papers were in order and eventually he let us go.
Valera mentioned in his note that the trip changed his life. Today, he's living with a girl he met on our adventure.
Valera sprinting across a challenging bit of coastline; a pre-WWII Japanese grave in the Kurils.
Valera finding water and crashing through bamboo on the lower slopes of the Mendelevo volcano.
Atop Mendelevo, with the Tyatya volcano in the distance; Japan (Hokkaido) just a few km across the water from Kunashir.
Arctic travel is more pensive than adrenaline-filled, and I've never much enjoyed those films of extreme skiers blasting down impossible slopes or mountain bikers doing tricks like inner-city kids on skateboards. After five minutes, they begin to get repetitive -- like watching fireworks. But this is a lovely, lyrical little film:
Another Story Behind the Image:
I mentioned on the Gear page how this is the time of year when you can begin skating on the lakes. That ended for the time being last night when we got our first dump of snow. But the bigger lakes, like Banff's Minnewanka, above, freeze later and may be skated on until the first big snowfall after freeze-up. That year, Minnewanka froze in early January.
Alexandra and I wanted to get a group shot of skaters on the photogenic lake. There aren't many places where you can find nine adults willing and able to go skating on a weekday morning, but the Bow Valley -- the Canmore-Banff-Lake Louise corridor -- is one of them.
To get slightly above the action, and to have the skaters profiled against the ice rather than breaking up the horizon line, I brought an aluminum ladder. I'm teetering on the last rung, shooting down with a wide-angle zoom. Alexandra steadies the ladder against the wind, while the gang skates to and fro past us. We lent red and yellow jackets to three of the skaters to ensure some splashes of color.
After a while, I got off the ladder and lay on my belly as they skated past, for a different shooting perspective. Presently, we heard a faint voice. Alexandra, on her skates, was still holding onto the upright ladder. The two of them were locked in a strange spinning dance and had been blown halfway downlake by the stiff breeze.
I've been at the Banff Mountain Film and Book festival for the past few days. Apart from the films (as one of the prescreening judges, I've already seen many of the good ones), it's a great social venue, a time to connect with friends, to hear about their upcoming adventures and to meet new people.
Kayaker Jon Turk is planning a major arctic expedition for 2011, and we chatted about that. It's an imaginative route; it's also one of the Non-Cliché Arctic Expeditions I listed on this page in February 2009. Major project, never done. Jon's the real deal, and he has always thought outside the box. On his first High Arctic expedition, he hoped to kayak from Grise Fiord to Greenland. He and his girlfriend innocently showed up in Grise in June, when the sea ice is still weeks away from breaking up. Gifted travelers make up for the inexperience of their early years through fortitude and flexibility. Undaunted, they got a lift by snowmobile to the SE corner of Ellesmere, then gamely began dragging their plastic kayaks north over the sea ice. Weeks of hauling later, chronically short of food, they paddled the 30 terrifying miles across semi-open Smith Sound to Greenland. Then a real stroke of brilliance: They paddled south to Thule, the highly restricted U.S. air base, where they had no permission to be and where they weren't welcome. They were deported back to the States on the next military flight out, which was exactly what they had hoped for. Talk about a masterful way to get home cheaply from such an inaccessible destination! Jon's subsequent expeditions, such as his paddle from Japan to Alaska, were equally original.
A couple of nights ago, I watched the self-styled Baffin Babes present about their 1,200 km sledding expedition from Qiqiqtarjuaq to Pond Inlet on Baffin Island. I commented here on their film a few weeks ago. Although the film itself wasn't good enough to be shown at the festival, their live presentation earned them a standing O. It really was charming. All four of them spoke, equally, it seemed, and seamlessly. They downplayed the conflicts emphasized in the film, and made the 80-day trek seem like a hoot. In my writing, I try to shoot down the notion of arctic sledding as something done only by stoic supermen -- in many ways, it's easy and enjoyable -- but I've never been able to make it seem like this much fun.
I especially liked their choice of route. First-time arctic sledders, especially Europeans, almost invariably go to Svalbard or cross Greenland. Then it's on to the other two clichés: North Pole, South Pole. Few do anything different. Few tackle the harder aspects of those polar routes. It's the phenomenon of the used-car salesman trekking the standard route on Everest to make a quick name for himself, rather than striving to do something serious and original as a mountaineer.
Choosing this route on Baffin Island showed out-of-the-box thinking similar to Jon's. A certain number of parties do the second half of their route, from Clyde River to Pond Inlet; in fact, because the route includes lovely scenery, is fairly easy, with not too many polar bears and not too expensive to pull off (no airplane charters), I'd consider it an ideal beginner's sledding route. These four women doubled the distance by starting in Qiqiqtarjuaq, at the east end of Auyuittuq National Park in southern Baffin.
I bumped into three of the Babes at the coffee shop at The Banff Centre yesterday morning, and mentioned my enjoyment for what they'd done. Alas, I found myself being asked about the logistics of getting to the North Pole -- evidently, their next expedition. Sigh...
What's wrong with the North Pole? Because the blunt, experienced assessment of their Baffin project -- laying aside the charm of their presentation -- is that currently they're neither strong nor experienced enough to accomplish anything other than the standard North Pole stuff. They made no more mistakes on Baffin Island than I made on my first sledding expedition, but they made lots. And 80 days is very slow for that route on Baffin.
You might counter with what I call the Bulgarian Pogo Stick Expedition argument -- namely, that although they may want to do just the standard route in the standard way, it's unusual for a team of women to attempt it. But lots of women have done the North Pole, and today there are so many world-class adventurers who are women that the Woman Adventurer sub-category is getting a little out of date.
More than that, it shows that I may have been mistaken in my first impression of their originality and potential as travelers. It's possible that those who do the North Pole in the standard way can later go on to bigger and better things, with this iconic success under their belts as a useful part of their resume. But it never seems to work out that way. The real deals always set out trying to do something different, even at the beginning. Twenty years ago, when few had skied to the North Pole, it was a valid quest for serious athletes, but now it's a cliché, and that's one path that those who evolve into the Jon Turks of the world never, ever travel.
For years, Newfoundland & Labrador Tourism has had some of the classiest outdoor ads I've ever seen. Like British Columbia, Newfoundland & Labrador showcases its natural beauty. The campaigns seem to have been produced by some of the best in the business. They were very sophisticated custom productions, not just ads cobbled from pre-existing stock images. Years ago, their shot of a hiker looking down on Western Brook Pond in Gros Morne National Park, below left, became one of those iconic Canadian scenes, like Moraine Lake.
I know someone who was involved in creating this image. They used professional models, a helicopter, a stylist, an art director, several days of shooting time and a whole wardrobe of outdoor clothing to get it just right. Years later, as I hiked up to this outlook from Western Brook Pond, I was keen to get something similar but different. When I reached the top, it was clear that they had used a helicopter to put the hiker on that otherwise inaccessible rock pillar, then shot from the helicopter to get the right combination of height and intimacy.
Nevertheless, thanks to the cooperation of my two warden companions, I managed to get something decent, above right, though not as moody. What made the tourism image so remarkable was the convergence of light: the sun just manages to illuminate the hiker but leaves the valley in glorious shadow, while godbeams rake across the top of the frame. Even assuming that I had a helicopter, I could have waited all week and not got that image: It was a different time of year, and my late afternoon sun was still too high to get the godbeams and that exquisite play of light & shadow.
Newfoundland & Labrador Tourism recently came out with a video of the Torngats, below, that is equally lovely in its way.
Not all their projects worked, however. Once, they created a well-photoshopped collage of many of the adventurous highlights of Newfoundland & Labrador: among other things, a whale breaches as a kayaker paddles in front of an iceberg. Except the whale they used was a Pacific species. Oops.
Another Story Behind the Image:
The hardest part of a solo expedition is coming back with decent pictures. It's very time-consuming to set up a shot, then put yourself in the picture for scale and bracket or tweak the composition. This is especially true with distant figure-in-the-landscape shots. Nowadays, those setups are a little easier, because I carry a radio device that can trigger the camera from far away. But for years, I had just a little infrared device that worked up to 60 feet -- and even that far was a stretch.
Nevertheless, there were ways to get in that all-important figure. Here is the secret behind the above image, taken near Expedition Fiord on western Axel Heiberg Island:
The first in an occasional series on The Story Behind the Image. I'll kick off with a photo that's appeared here before.
Most expedition photography is, frankly, staged. The expeditions are real and the situations are real, but crafting a good shot takes time. The photographer needs the right composition, the right light and people in the right position. Finding that composition doesn't happen instantly. But on expeditions, people move constantly; the photographer too. A couple of times a day, I muster up the nerve to ask my companions to pose. That doesn't sound like much photography, but at the end of a two-month trip, that's 120 promising shooting situations.
One April morning on the southeastern coast of Ellesmere, Bob Cochran and I were sledding past an iceberg frozen into the sea ice. That's a pretty common experience in this region; we passed many icebergs every day. At times, dozens were visible, like sailboats in a regatta. But icebergs with windows are fairly rare. The spring sun was strong enough that by late morning, the east-facing wall of this particular iceberg had begun to drip, creating a jawful of icicles.
While Bob sat on his sled and snacked, I went to investigate the iceberg. It's not always possible to clamber around an iceberg because they're so slick, but the window location on this one was easily accessible. As a lucky coincidence, there was a secondary small window where, by raising the tripod as high as it could go, I could frame the morning sun. A post of ice in the foreground bothered me a little bit, but it was too thick to break off. In retrospect, I like it. It seems to be a sort of pedestal for Bob, who is the rear sledder. I used my ultra-wide 17-35mm zoom; I forget the exact focal length, but closer to 17mm than 35mm.
I carry a lightweight radio receiver/transmitter, which allows me to trigger my camera at distances up to half a kilometer. I was shooting film at the time, because my old digital Nikon D200 couldn't handle the cold. The newer D300s and 700 can.
Bob struck a sledding pose, and I went back to my sled and did the same. Then I fired the camera via the transmitter. I shot one roll of film of us in various poses, because it's hard to pose statically, in pseudo-midstride, without looking phony. Then I circled again to the back of the iceberg -- avoiding footprints in the foreground snow -- and changed rolls. I also had to tweak the tripod position slightly, because during the five minutes of shooting, the sun had shifted far enough to the right to be out of the window.
Then I shot a second roll. This is one of those frames. The sun will move out of the window in another minute or two, but the fact that it's partly broken by the window frame actually creates a better sunstar. One of those little optical principles.
The session took about 20 minutes in all. It wasn't too cold that morning. In particular, it's hard to linger when a wind is blowing, because you depend on exercise, on constant movement, to keep warm. You even eat walking. I haven't taken many good shots in a strong wind.
Another Banff Mountain Film Festival entry that we saw during prescreening was one by the so-called Baffin Babes. The film wasn't great, but as the still photos on their website and the very name of their group suggest, they're extroverted and good presenters. They'll be giving a talk at the festival about their expedition, which was a 1,200km ski from Qikiqtarjuaq to Pond Inlet on Baffin Island.
First, it was good to see a group of women doing a project like this. It's rare. There's the occasional female arctic soloist, but I can't think of another all-woman sledding team, except the long-term duo of Anne Bancroft and her Norwegian partner. Second -- although their film tended to emphasize conflicts in the group -- they had a sense of fun, doing aerobics, jumping naked into ice water, etc. So many sledding expeditions come off merely as hairy-chested sufferfests.
On this website, I try to give some perspective on polar travel, because there's so much bs around. No bs around this expedition: some pr, but nothing wrong with that. The only groaner was a (natural) tendency to milk their one or two distant sightings of polar bears as close shaves with the Lord of the Arctic. As another prescreener pointed out, it's like the tourists who come here to Banff and return home with stories about bears, or potential bears, around every tree.
As someone who's done about 20 sledding expeditions, and is somewhat familiar with the area, I noticed a few little technical things that most others would not. They seemed to have done most of their filming in the Sam Ford Fiord area. (It's the photogenic highlight of the route, so I would guess they took a couple of days off to film here.) They averaged 15km/day over 80 days, which is slow for that fairly straightforward route. They seemed to use skis all the time, even when the snow was hard enough to walk on. Walking is quicker, but they probably avoided walking because they chose to wear what looked like AT or telemark boots and bindings, rather than lightweight mukluks and Berwin-type bindings. Sledders don't need heavy boots and bindings unless they're kiting or doing serious downhill skiing en route. A lighter system allows you to switch quickly from walking to skiing, as conditions dictate. Finally, they used full-width climbing skins -- also slow. Skins don't need to be more than about an inch wide. Minimizing skin width improves glide.
Anyway, what a treat to see a sledding film that was not about global warming or going to the North or South Poles.
The last few days I've been prescreening for the upcoming Banff Mountain Film Festival. A handful of us sit in a room for six hours a day, watch the entries and try to decide the best ones to show during the event. I was part of the group prescreening the Adventure category.
My favorite film was Crossing the Ditch, an Australian film about the two guys who successfully paddled the Tasman Sea from Australia to New Zealand the same year that Andrew McAuley attempted it and perished within sight of the New Zealand coast. The documentary about McAuley's expedition, called Solo, was the most haunting film at last year's festival. Crossing the Ditch had an upbeat ending and was a good coda to that dangerous and difficult challenge.
I also loved a short film called The Longest Way, a brilliant little work done by a guy who spent a year walking from Beijing to Urumchi. It's available on YouTube:
The latest issue of explore magazine has an excerpt from Arctic Eden, based on the 700 km sledding expedition that Bob Cochran and I did in 2007 from Frederick Cook's wintering den on Devon Island up the east coast of Ellesmere. Here it is:
Over the weekend, the Clipper Adventurer made national and international headlines when it got stuck on a rock two days ago near Kugluktuk in western Nunavut. According to a note I received from Adventure Canada this morning, charts at the time indicated a depth of 68 meters, not the 3 meters that produced the snag. This is the ship that is supposed to be conveying us from Ilulissat down the coast of Labrador in two weeks, so I'm not sure if it will be dislodged from its rock perch and inspected/repaired in time. There are no spare ice-strengthened ships hanging around a dock in the Arctic somewhere, waiting to be called into service.
The Clipper Adventurer holds about 130 passengers, plus crew. It's a good ship, run by an experienced Swedish captain. Its sister vessel, the Lyubov Orlova, is identical in size and similar in layout, but the Orlova did not have the Clipper's multimillion dollar upgrades, so it's fraying somewhat around the edges, and its Russian captain inspires less enthusiasm than his Swedish counterpart on the Clipper.
The incident recalled the more serious one in the Antarctic a couple of years ago, when the MS Explorer hit a submerged piece of ice and sank to the bottom, after all the passengers had been safely evacuated. And some years earlier, the World Discoverer, another polar cruise ship, sank after striking a rock near the Solomon Islands, in the off season. All these ice-strengthened cruise ships migrate like terns, working the Arctic in summer and the Antarctic during the northern winter.
Clipper Adventurer last summer off the coast of Northwest Greenland.
I don't expect that our ship will be in danger of bumping into any large, floating ice islands. In the last couple of weeks, I've read that this ice island that calved from Greenland's Petermann Glacier might become a concern to oil platforms or shipping lanes, although there are neither within thousands of kilometers. And of course, every major calving raises the cliche spectre of global warming. I'm not trying to shrug off a serious climatic phenomenon. It's no doubt happening, and it certainly makes sense that people are responsible...but global warming seems to be the only thing ever written about the Arctic. To anyone who knows the north, the media's take on arctic events is naive, repetitive, superficial, and sometimes wrong.
Some years ago, for example, environmental reporter Andrew Revkin of The New York Times joined a tourist icebreaker cruise to the North Pole. To his horror/surprise/astonishment, there happened to be open water when they reached the Pole. His subsequent article made world headlines; it was one of the early popular articles that put global warming in the public eye. The article spawned a book, and although he's done a lot of other writing, this is the article of his career.
Except its whole premise was wrong. Patches of open water happen all over the Arctic Ocean in summer. Have, for centuries. Sometimes a patch coincides with the North Pole, sometimes not. By the time his ship returned to port, the Pole was probably ice-covered again. At the time, he had no idea that this was a routine event.
In subsequent years, scientists have tracked the disappearance of multi-year ice on the Arctic Ocean and noted the thinning sea ice compared to earlier in this century, or even 20 years ago. All important information. But open water at the North Pole is just a red herring.
Likewise, the plight of the plucky polar bear. On past Adventure Canada cruises, whenever we've spotted bears -- which is every trip -- I've always tried to photograph them on as small and miserable an ice floe as possible, knowing that these images will sell. Which, heh heh, they do. In marginal parts of the Arctic, polar bear populations are down, and surviving bears are thinner. But in the eastern Arctic, where I roam, there are more polar bears than ever. Northern Labrador is crawling with them. Until not too long ago, you might not see one for an entire summer.
As the climate continues to warm, polar bears will likely disappear or decrease in the marginal parts of their range. On the other hand, as the Arctic Ocean turns from large areas of multi-year ice, which bears and seals don't like, to first-year ice, which they do, the Arctic Ocean may come to abound in polar bears -- where, until now, only the occasional one prowls.
The Mealy Mountains in southern Labrador, site of an upcoming new national park, are a tough place to travel in summer. First, they're hard to get to. No roads run into the park. Boats can deposit you on the south shore of Lake Melville, but there is then a wide apron of bog between the shore and where the escarpment of the Mealys suddenly rises.
String bogs: not ideal hiking.
I managed to get in thanks to the generosity of Gudie Hutchings of Rifflin' Hitch Lodge, a high-end fishing camp on the nearby Eagle River. The lodge has its own helicopter. I flew from Goose Bay to the heart of the English Mountains, the high point of the Mealys. From the air, the rocky landscape looks like good walking, but this perspective changed once I confronted the reality on the ground. Thick stands of near-impassible krumholz guard all but the highest reaches. It can take an hour to maneuver 100 meters through this wiry shrub. Rocks and boulders cover the unseen footing -- unseen because the krumholz is visually impenetrable as well. Your next step may take you down up to your thigh, into some dark realm. Then you must step up again onto the next boulder. It's slow and picky work.
The flies add to the degree of difficulty. While mosquitoes dominate the interior plateau of central Labrador, black flies rule the Mealys. Every step, thousands rise to greet you from their resting places on the ground. Here's a little clip of the entourage outside my tent. Little wonder that the old trappers and Innu only traveled the Mealys beginning late September, and abandoned them in summer for the cooler, less buggy coast.
Still, once you get above the krumholz, to the alpine meadows in the breezy upper reaches of the range, the going is straightforward. I spent five days in the English mountains, then another several days around the Wonderstrands, the 50-kilometer-long sand beach that Vikings mentioned in their sagas and which will also be part of the new Mealy Mountains National Park Reserve.
The English Mountains, highest part of the Mealys. The right-most peak, with the snow patches, may be the highest point of the whole range, reaching 4,000 feet.
The north end of the Wonderstrands, near the abandoned fishing community of West Bay.
Back from Labrador with plenty of stories, but the Hubbard retrace itself ended up as something of a dud. Unfortunately, my partner Philip Schubert had too hard a time with his 95-pound pack, despite the training he did with that weight. He was struggling from the first steps, and soon we had to shuttle his load forward in stages. By the end of the first day, we'd advanced a mere 1.3 km. The following morning, he admitted that he'd bitten off more than he could chew, so we turned around.
While Philip used his sat phone to call for a boat ride back to North West River, I continued up the Susan River for a couple more days. But I was bored: I'd been looking forward to discussing/arguing/sharing insights about the Hubbard expedition for a few weeks with someone else who knows the saga well. So in the end I backtracked, and after returning to Goose Bay, I spent the next two weeks tramping the Mealy Mountains -- site of an upcoming new national park. More about that later.
Stuff like this happens occasionally with partners you don't know. Northern travel is not like climbing, where the abilities of all parties are clearly known. Northern travel is more of a blind date.
Philip had two friends who were going to do a little canoeing near our original end point at the east side of the Smallwood Reservoir. Together, the three of them drove up the Orma Lake Road and started canoeing. But on the third day, Philip fell sick and had to be medivaced out by helicopter. This was not a good summer for him. He seems to be feeling okay now.
Off today to Labrador to trek Leonidas Hubbard's ill-fated 1903 route with Philip Schubert. Philip is an Ottawa canoeist who has been chipping away at the Hubbard saga for several years. When I was just starting my expedition career, another friend and I retraced Hubbard's route up the miserable Susan River -- a tortuous, rocky stream that the too-optimistic novice explorer managed to convince himself was a native thoroughfare into the unexplored interior. In three weeks on the river, we paddled a total of 15 minutes. The rest of the time was spent lining, portaging and dragging the canoe upstream through the rapids. A good project for someone like myself, who finds actual canoeing a little boring.
Hubbard ultimately perished of starvation. His two companions, Dillon Wallace and their half-Cree guide George Elson, survived by the skin of their teeth. Wallace later returned to the camp where Hubbard died and chiseled a memorial note into a nearby rock. In the 1970s, a relative of Wallace's returned by helicopter to the site and inexplicably bolted a bronze plaque over the original inscription.
Jerry, above, and Philip Schubert, below, on earlier expeditions to the Hubbard Rock.
The Hubbard tragedy made a big splash; along with the Greely expedition, it was one of two Canadian wilderness tragedies to make the front page of The New York Times. Dillon Wallace later wrote a book about the expedition. The Lure of the Labrador Wild became one of the classics of northern exploration literature. The writing is not great but the story still rivets.
Philip and I are off with 95-pound packs to hike the 220-kilometer route from the start of the Susan and Beaver Rivers to Windbound Lake -- now the eastern edge of the Smallwood Reservoir. Figure a little over three weeks, as we wrestle through the bush at first, squish through the string bogs of the plateau higher up and enjoy the company of seventy zillion mosquitoes and blackflies. I bought my first bug jacket in 20 years for this trip: You'd think that as an arctic specialist, I'd have lots of experience with insects. But there are few to zero biting flies in the High Arctic; and the coast of Labrador, where I've traveled a lot the last few years, tends to be too cool and breezy. The hordes are inland.
We'll also be taking some time to climb some hills done by Hubbard and his crew as they scouted for the elusive Lake Michikamau. For me, it's a chance to reacquaint myself with the Hubbard story. I expect a trip of moderate difficulty -- no great distance but heavy packs and lots of flies put it solidly in the expedition category, with its philosophy of delayed gratification.
As usual, I won't be updating this site again until I return from Labrador, around mid-August.
Carrying a heavy pack is mostly about pain tolerance: How miserable can you be and still enjoy the experience?
More images from Huangshan. With all these granite pillars, and no one climbing them, you have to wonder why the place is not one of the world's primo destinations for sport climbers.
Alexandra and I are just back from China. Nothing expeditionary about it: just shooting video in Shanghai for a friend. Apart from the work, it was a tourism experience in a city of 20 million: hitting the Bund, buying custom-tailored clothes and $40 stylish eyeglasses in the markets, and hoping that the delicately gelatinous shark's fin soup that our host served us will not prompt the Shark God to seek retribution the next time I go ocean swimming. We went to Expo but the lineups at most pavilions are 3-5 hours -- longer at the most popular sites -- so we didn't go into anything.
On our one outdoor excursion, we visited Huangshan, or Yellow Mountain, for a weekend. It's a five and a half hour bus ride from Shanghai. The phallic peaks are reminiscent of the Bugaboos here in the Rockies or smaller versions of Fitzroy in Patagonia. But pagodas and tortured pines give them a beauty all their own. Beginning in the 1930s, workers created a network of trails, including precarious but solid stone steps leading up these precipitous peaks, with 2,000 foot drops on one side -- that was an astonishing engineering accomplishment. Huangshan may be the only place in the world that is both one of the natural wonders and one of the manmade wonders at the same time.
But for an arctic traveler used to the Silence of the Lands, or even for an ordinary North American who likes the cottage or quiet hiking trails, Huangshan was disturbing, because of the number of people and the way they behaved. Twenty million people in Shanghai is one thing; you expect cities to teem. But to have the same hectic, noisy feel on mountain trails overlooking stunning peaks made me grasp what a billion people really means. The Taoist peacefulness that one associates with these Chinese sugarloaf mountains, and which is easy to recreate in photos (see below) was totally absent. Guides blew shrill whistles in my ear summoning their flock; others bellowed on loudspeakers. Everyone shouted. Hundreds walked along oblivious, pecking text messages on their omnipresent cell phones. Climbing Lotus Peak, the high point, I had to jostle through shoulder-to-shoulder crowds for 15 minutes before I could climb the last little stair to the narrow summit. Here, a tinny whine revealed itself to be a couple of local entrepreneurs who had set up a table and were etching the names of summiteers on Olympic-type medals to sell as souvenirs.
Several hotels sprinkled near the mountaintops allowed thousands to awake at 4am and race outside to catch the sunrise over Huangshan from one of several overlooks. A hundred people packed shoulder to shoulder on each little platform, shouting, taking snapshots of each other, hallooing for echoes. No one, it seemed, was simply admiring quietly. I had the sense, perhaps unfair, that if air pollution ever reaches the stage where the real sun is no longer visible through the haze, enterprising engineers will construct an artificial sun that rises on cue, and everyone will still flock to look at it.
A typical cross-section of a Huangshan trail...
...though you wouldn't guess it, to look at the photos that can be taken here.
Last year I was at the desk writing Arctic Eden, due out this coming September, and so spent three days in a tent rather than the usual three months. This year will be more normal.
Most of the time will be spent in Labrador. Years ago, a partner and I retraced Leonidas Hubbard's 1903 canoe route up the miserable Susan River, dragging, line and portaging our canoe up a shallow, rocky stream that the inexperienced Hubbard believed was a major Innu route into the interior. Sometimes we made just one mile a day. It was hell, but a good hell, kinda. In three weeks on the river, we paddled a total of 15 minutes. Since I find canoeing boring, this was perfect.
This July, Philip Schubert and I will be hiking their entire 240 kilometre route from the mouth of the Susan to Windbound Lake. Philip is another Labrador traveler bitten by the Hubbard bug. He's devoted several summers to canoeing pieces of the Hubbard/Wallace/Mina Hubbard expeditions. Maybe because of Labrador's relative accessibility, lots of people have focused on the tragic Hubbard story -- everyone from travelers like Philip and myself to academics who try to sell Hubbard's wife Mina as the greatest explorer since Captain Cook. After Hubbard's death, Mina and Hubbard's partner Wallace had a falling out, and vied to finish Hubbard's planned route. Mina completed it several weeks before Wallace, but she did it like a bwana or memsahib, being royally shepherded by guides. Women here in the Rockies are strong and competent in the outdoors and have little interest in Mina's story -- they've outgrown her as a role model -- but she continues to appeal to urban feminists.
Strange for a northern traveler to admit, but this will be the first trip since that initial Hubbard lark when I will have to deal with lots of flies. Mosquitoes are largely missing from the High Arctic; black flies totally absent. And on the coastal kayak trips I've done in recent years, conditions near the water are, with some exceptions, too cool and breezy for many flies. I just bought my first bug jacket in 20 years.
Lots of other travels happening as well, including some non-outdoor stuff. Alexandra and I are off to China shortly for three weeks, mainly Shanghai. An opportunity to travel, photograph and help out some friends at the same time. So I won't be updating this website again until mid-June.
A 2008 CBC documentary called Polar Bear Fever profiles polar bears as four-footed rock stars. It interviews environmental lawyers in Arizona and the filmmakers of An Arctic Tale. It shows Knut, the polar bear cub which became an international sensation at the Berlin Zoo. With the exception of bear researcher Andrew Durocher (and to a lesser extent, photographer Norbert Rosing, who films them in Churchill) it doesn't speak to anyone who actually knows polar bears. Even Sheila Watt-Cloutier, the Inuit activist who is the media's usual spokesperson for her culture, is a townie who, apart from her early childhood, has little experience on the land. The Inuit who actually know bears rarely give good interview, and they never push the right enviro-speak buttons.
Experienced arctic travelers, both Inuit and white, don't regard polar bears as loveable or cute or symbolic. Rather, as a presence to fear and respect. Polar bears are great to see from a distance, but some individuals, inevitably, are too curious. They break into your tent or sled. They approach you with intent. I wouldn't say that they're out to kill you, but let's say they're out to test whether you're something edible and not-too-dangerous. I've had this too often to find polar bears cuddly. During these encounters, fear for your own life is compounded with anxiety for the bear's. When a bear is approaching and doesn't get the hint from noise or flares, how close do you let it come before raising the shotgun? A bear's death would be a tragedy. Fortunately, polar bears are conservative, and if you're able to swallow your fear and convince them you're dangerous, they usually withdraw.
My favorite polar bear/global warming headline is this one from The Onion. But most southern journalism just parrots the usual bears-as-global-warming-icons theme. "Animals are yet, to many people, little furry parables," wrote skeptic Bergen Evans in his 1946 classic, The Natural History of Nonsense.
Bodice ripper: An archival still from the film Polar Bear Fever.
A couple of weeks ago, one of the inexperienced North Polies was plucked off the ice by Canadian search and rescue. Sketchy accounts failed to make it clear exactly why he needed rescue. He'd fallen through the ice but had extricated himself and set up his tent. He'd had minor frostbite from earlier in the trip, but nothing terrible. Even if he was low on fuel, I couldn't discern why he didn't wait a day or two for an aircraft that he chartered to reach him -- apart, of course, from the salient fact that rescue cost him nothing while a private pickup from that location would have set him back over $50,000.
The Canadian military had been doing a sovereignty exercise in the area, based out of CFS Alert, and probably regarded it as a public relations windfall that further emphasized their presence up there. News stories about the rescue featured comment after comment from readers, including the usual foaming at the mouth from sober citizens who resent their tax dollars paying for such shenanigans.
Readers of this website will know that I'm no fan of most North Pole trekkers. Nowadays most of them are hustlers looking for quick reputations as "adventurers". These challenges used to be wonderful; now they're little different from any marathon, except that they attract more egotistical types. Most of them feign experience that they don't have, and when they get into trouble, they sell it as force majeure rather than incompetence.
Nevertheless, I've also met the citizens who resent paying for rescues. They tend to think that all adventurers are idiots, and should be holding down 9-5 jobs and raising families, or whatever people are supposed to do. They resent more than paying for rescues; they resent those paths less traveled, because these seem to reject the conventional route that they themselves have chosen.
I've written about my own first arctic trek, over 20 years ago, that ended ignominiously in rescue -- or rather, in a search, because I was fine. It made me give a lot of thought to SAR. Among other things, I discovered that you can't waive your right to search and rescue, any more than you can waive your right not to be murdered. That search and rescue has a budget, and that these high-profile salvage jobs do not deflect money from orphans and poor widows; it means that the SARtechs do a little less training, because part of the training budget went to the sort of exercise for which they are training. I also discovered that such sober-citizen-infuriating incidents happen infrequently -- typically once every 10 years. Officials told me that by far the most common SAR operation involved looking for fishermen off the east and west coasts who've stopped somewhere to visit friends without reporting home.
Adventurers tend to be pretty fit, but help pay for the astronomical health care costs of smokers and the super-sized. Those without kids still contribute to schools. Although I'm not sure I fully subscribe to the argument, it's possible to regard rescue as just another part of the social contract.
The life of an outdoor photographer has always been a little weird. First of all, there is no single way to survive at this. Some photographers make their living exclusively from selling their images directly to editorial and advertising clients, or through stock agencies. Stock imagery can sometimes be boring -- how many ways can you photograph businessmen shaking hands? -- but the best photographers are superbly skilled, imaginative, driven.
Then there are the photographic educators, who don't sell much but lead tours and workshops. A lot of them are not very good photographers; they are the Those Who Can't Do, Teach types. A few, however, are remarkably good. Artistic outdoor photographers, for example, often don't sell much imagery -- their work doesn't lend itself to commercial use -- but they have a vision to impart.
Finally, there are what I call the Businessmen, who produce workmanlike photos, competent but uninspired, but have superior marketing skills. They self-publish postcards, prints, greeting cards, calendars and books, then get them in the right venues through hard legwork. Their stuff may not be great, but they know how to make a living.
Many photographers do a combination of these things, depending on their individual skills. And far more than most professions, the outdoor photography universe has always been in flux. The survivors tend to be those able to adapt to constantly changing circumstances.
The business of selling imagery has taken a major hit in the last two years. Prices of images have dropped drastically, as the number of good shots has exploded, largely thanks to digital. Digital's instant feedback makes the learning curve extremely quick. There is also comparatively little cost to digital imagery. Many full-time pros used to spend $20,000 a year on film. That was an effective barrier to the masses producing good photography.
There are also a lot of amateurs giving away their photos for free or almost free on places like Flickr. Doctors and dentists are taking photo tours with top professionals and coming back with great shots, which they are happy to sell for peanuts and bragging rights. Soon, the value of an image will drop so low that full-time shooters won't be able to offset the cost of production. It remains to be seen whether outdoor photography will survive as a profession. Seeing the writing on the wall, some pros are becoming photographic educators. Some of these are imparting great technical advice in their workshops, seminars and online courses; others profess to explain how to become a professional outdoor photographer, which is selling the sizzle, not the steak, because the way of life they're pitching is essentially over.
On a recent sledding trip, my partner and I concocted a list of Songs to Sled By -- a sure bestseller, we joked. We chose the tunes for their humorous connection rather than actual suitability -- the Proclaimers' I Would Walk 500 Miles, for example. I listened to that song once on the trail, but the beat and melody were all wrong. Another on that bogus list: Shook Me All Night Long, because of the perfect incompatibility of heavy metal and arctic silence.
Strange to admit, I've found only two songs that are absolutely perfect for sledding. They're fast, and you can only play them when sledding briskly on good hard snow, while walking, not skiing. They are: Bonnie Tyler's It's a Heartbreak, and Taylor Swift's You Belong With Me. Their beat can keep your legs driving for an entire afternoon.
On the surface, the art of sledding is so self-evident -- you walk and you pull -- that at first glance, there seems little to learn. I learned to sled by sledding. I wasn't aware of learning anything, or of improving. I just sledded.
But in recent years, I've shared manhauling trips with partners who were unfamiliar with this form of travel. Everything went fine, but I discovered that there is something to learn, after all.
The most obvious technical flaw with novice sledders is that they don't use their ski poles enough. Rather than use them as a second set of legs, they use them as delicate little feelers. They do almost all their pulling with their legs. This is inefficient: a quadruped pulls more forcefully than a biped. By the end of a sledding expedition, your triceps and upper back muscles should be at least as well-developed as your legs.
Then, when going over rough sea ice or uphill, inexperienced sledders continue to use their legs exclusively, when they should be enlisting gravity to help them. Hauling a heavy sled up and over pieces of rough ice hundreds of times a day can exhaust your legs prematurely. When the sled begins to climb over the ice block, you need to stop straining with your legs and simply lean forward, letting your weight do the hard work. (This is particularly effective if you can brace your feet on the downslope of another ice block and "fall" forward.) The moment the sled crosses the fulcrum onto the downhill side, you begin marching again. Done fluently, you don't miss a step. It saves the legs from having to horse the brunt of the load, and as a fringe benefit, you can stretch your legs during the lean, relieving those tight muscles. This whole process is harder to describe than to do, but it makes a huge difference. On a sledding expedition, your legs are gold, and you have to treat them as your most valuable item of equipment, and give them every form of relief and advantage.
Sledding isn't rocket science, but there is stuff to learn, as I saw when Bob Cochran and I sledded 700 km from Devon Island up the east coast of Ellesmere. Bob had done one previous sledding journey, but by the end of our 700 km trek, his sledding technique had gone from okay to impressive. In particular, he had the timing of the lean down pat when hauling over blocks of sea ice.
Use gravity more than your legs to haul a heavy sled over rough sea ice.
So many people currently skiing to the North Pole are beginners. Their climbing skins flop off, they suffer frostbite, they break their ski poles ... their constant litany of issues sounds like a titanic struggle against the elements but is mostly just inexperience. By comparison, Richard Weber's group just steams along without melodrama, putting in good mileage, making it look physically demanding but otherwise pretty easy. And that's the way it is.
It was also a treat for me today to read some advice from Borge Ousland on repairing a broken ski pole with a snow stake. I've only ever had one broken pole and I fixed that with a pole repair sleeve, but his is a great makeshift solution. At the end of his advice, Borge even adds this elegant postscript:
"...take care that the metal sawdust doesn't end up on [your] sleeping mat, it will puncture it."
Borge uses Thermarests; I do too in summer, but not in winter because it's so hard to detect a pinhole leak without submerging the pad completely in water and looking for bubbles. But he probably has an workaround for that too. A real traveler.
Climber Tom Hornbein is best known for his epic 1963 traverse of Everest, up the West Ridge and down the South Col, with Willi Unsoeld. It included a forced bivouac around 28,000 feet. But Tom has also survived other epics, including several hikes with Alexandra and I, and the following. Although the identity of the member in question is not revealed, Tom's matchless attention to detail makes it likely that the victim of this near-catastrophe was someone else on the expedition.
From ACCIDENTS IN NORTH AMERICAN MOUNTAINEERING
American Alpine Club, 1989, p. 76
INADEQUATE EQUIPMENT FOR NOCTURNAL DIURESIS, WEATHER
Washington, North Cascades
On August 19, 1988, four veteran mountaineers set out to ascend the West Ridge of Eldorado Peak in the North Cascades of Washington. The group was surprised by high winds, rain, and snow and was forced to make camp at 2030 meters. Equipped primarily for a summer climb, the oldest climber, who has predictable nocturnal diuresis at altitude, had forgotten his usual "pee bottle," a zip-lock bag. Undaunted by his forgetfulness, the climber fully opened one of the four 25 oz. cans of Foster's Ale, carried to high camp by one of his compatriots, to use as a substitute. During one of his nocturnal wakenings (necessitated in part by prior ingestion of the contents of the can), high winds and snow made impeccable maneuvering difficult, and he incurred a superficial laceration from the sharp edges of the can. Excessive blood loss was prevented by a firm squeeze technique; and so as not to foreshorten their trip, steri-strips were quickly applied longitudinally. This technique provided painless, effective closure of the two centimeters horizontal laceration. With no further trauma or change in morphology of the injured part, the steri-strips lasted for an adequate length of time to permit an uneventful descent. (Source: R.B. Schoene)
(Editor's Note: While no category exists for this kind of accident in our data base- nor do we intend to create one, this candid account is included for the readers' edification. With thanks to the members of this group, R. B. Schoene,T.F. Hornbein, W. Q. Sumner, and F. Dunham, we hope the most important member has fully recovered....)
Here's a little YouTube video of Alexandra wrestling with her 65-pound pack while we were trekking on the north coast of Ellesmere for a month. Alexandra only weighs 122 pounds, and I'm peeing myself laughing with her struggles to stand up with a mountain on her back. But once up, she carried that load for seven hours.
I've lived in the Rocky Mountains for 11 years, but only recently did I ski the Wapta Icefields for the first time. I always wanted to, though: it's the closest you get to an arctic landscape in these parts. A couple of weeks ago, I finally got to ski it with mountaineer and writer Geoff Powter.
We had not a cloud nor breath of wind -- very much like the Arctic in spring. But for Geoff, who had done Wapta several times before, the conditions weren't just good, they were unprecedented. Wapta socks in easily. "Good conditions are when you only have to take out your compass to navigate four times a day," he said.
Because of the alpine huts up there, backpacks can be relatively light. You don't need a tent, sleeping pad or even utensils. However, you were only one ridge removed from the Icefields Parkway. It didn't have that arctic isolation or self-sufficiency.
We began at Bow Lake, lunched at the edge of the icefield at Bow Hut, skied up Rhonnda Ridge, and did an exquisite downhill run over well-bridged crevasses to Peyto Hut. The following morning, we skied Mt. Baker, then back to the Icefields Parkway via Peyto Lake -- a somewhat messy exit requiring us to take off our skis and stomp cross-country for a while. Nice two-day semi-Arctic experience.
Rhondda Ridge above the Wapta Icefields.
View from the top of Rhondda Ridge.
Sunrise near Peyto hut.
The practice of adventurers "training" for their sledding expeditions by pulling tires has become commonplace. That began with Borge Ousland, a fine traveler but also one with a good photographic eye. It's not clear whether Borge thought this exercise would help and was trying to give himself an edge, or whether it was just a good photo idea.
In fact, pulling a tire has no real value, except to give beginners confidence that they are doing something to prepare themselves for the Arctic, and to give a quirky publicity image showing a distinctive form of training. Walking briskly on a sidewalk for two hours a day is more effective, but it doesn't look as good.
A few years ago, I set up an image of myself training for an upcoming expedition, below. I was doing a magazine story on the project and wanted some visual variety. Try it at home, don't try it at home: it doesn't matter. Just don't imagine that it's actually training.
Explorersweb has posted its list of 2010 arctic expeditions. Nothing of interest, just the usual: couple of clowns, couple of dreamers, including one whose only sponsor seems to be, charmingly, OK Tires. Greenland crossings and North Pole treks, done in the usual ways, are similar nowadays to cycling across Canada -- hard enough, but lacking in imagination.
One trek, unheralded except locally, began this week in Labrador. An Innu man from Sheshatshui, Michel Andrew, is walking from Sheshatshui to Sept-Iles. I'm not sure how long that is, maybe 1,200 km. Last year, he snowshoed the 300km from his village to Natuashish on the north coast. He did that alone; this year, various young Innu are joining him. Details are sketchy, but I get the sense that they are walking mainly on the snowpacked Trans-Labrador Highway, pulling light sleds behind them and camping in stove-heated tents by the side of the road. Here and there, they'll need to snowshoe cross-country.
It's been a mild winter in Labrador, but early February is always the coldest time of year. By mid-month, the sun is high, days are longer and the air warms considerably.
I don't expect Andrew to put in a world-beating pace -- his trek last year was about as slow as it is humanly possible to go. But from a recovering alcoholic, from a culture which is known in modern times more for its gasoline-sniffing kids than its athleticism, one thing it can't be accused of is a lack of imagination.
Innu boy, practicing for the future.
I'll be making some changes to this website shortly. Among other things, the Writing page will now include occasional blog entries. (Until now, Expeditions, Gear and Ellesmere have been the three pages I update regularly.) As a fun thing for today, I've attached a piece I once wrote about Groundhog Day. Go to Writing for this little tribute to winter. Nothing to do with expeditions or the Arctic, though.
A couple recently skied 1,100 miles across Antarctica in 70 days -- an average of 16 mpd. Unlike most polar expeditions to the usual suspects -- North Pole & South Pole -- that was a pretty good trip, at a decent pace. It's also a sustainable pace in good snow, with a moderate load. Most days they would have been making at least 20 mpd, to catch up from the beginning of their trip, when their sleds weighed 300 lbs and even 16 mpd would have been a challenge.
Sledding is a delicate poker play: Do you bring less food in order to go faster and finish sooner? Or do you bring enough food to cover a more conservative pace, knowing that if conditions are good, the extra weight will slow you down and the expedition will be longer than it has to be? It's partly a gamble -- one big dump of snow can change everything -- but the answer also depends on where you're going, what time of year, and how well you know your own speed and that of your companions. But 20 mpd, with a load up to about 250 lbs, is possible to maintain in hard spring snow.
Winter expeditions -- where the snow has a lot of friction -- trips with bigger loads, places where it snows a lot, sheltered country where the snow is not windpacked...all affect sledding pace dramatically. In time, as fitter travelers discover the polar regions, I suspect that 30 mpd will become a more common pace; I've managed that for a couple of weeks, and may have been able to sustain it for another couple, but it's pretty intense: 12-13 hours/day at 120 steps/minute.
Polar travelers often report losing a filling during an expedition. This is not a coincidence. It's caused by the filling's exposure to temperature extremes. The mouth is warm; frozen food and cold air create constant expansion and contraction that over time weakens the filling. It doesn't help that frozen food is often hard as a rock.
I used to lose fillings regularly; and my bridge fell out on almost every sledding expedition. When I mentioned this to my dentist, he experimented with a different bonding agent, one that didn't expand or contract as much with change in temperature. Since then, nothing has fallen out.
The same dentist -- an imaginative guy who's past president of the Alberta Dental Association -- has an unusual hobby: He enjoys painting designs on his patients' crowns and bridges. He uses a tiny brush with a single strand of hair. The miniature painting gets baked on and lasts indefinitely. He's painted tennis racquets, golf clubs, rabbits, freemason's symbols. He gave me a polar bear. Call it a tattooth, if you like. I like to think of it as a good luck charm, but considering the number of incidents I've had with polar bears in recent years, maybe it isn't.
On April 3, I'll be giving a seminar in Calgary on Top Ten Tips for Expedition Photographers. Here's the link.
Xanadu is less than a two-day drive from Beijing, but it feels much further away. En route, we passed fragments of the Great Wall; village houses of brick, as if reinforced against the Big Bad Wolf; donkey drivers on their cellphones shared the roads with black Mercedes. The roads, though paved and pothole-less, were narrow for two-way traffic moving at such varying speeds. Passing on blind curves was just the way it had to be done. Minimizing the risks took a lot of concentration. By the end of an eight-hour day, our driver was totally bagged.
Though herders do stay in gers in the summer months in Inner Mongolia, tourist gers were also common. They were like little cabins or cottages, and varied in features. Some had electricity and small TVs; others were more basic; a few had portraits of Genghis Khan, like little shrines, on the night tables. One of these small tourist camps stood just a few miles outside Xanadu, and we used it as a base.
We visited Xanadu twice, and spent hours poking around. Only a handful of Chinese tourists joined us, and those who did looked bored. When Alexandra spotted a weasel among the ruins, they briefly became animated -- wildlife! -- but the site itself did nothing for them and they left quickly. Meanwhile, some visitors from Mongolia proper had come 1,000 kilometers specifically to visit Xanadu, and they wandered the site reverentially, tears in their eyes. Fragments of green tile from the palace ceiling littered certain areas. In others, a low mound of earth was all that marked the glory days of the Mongol empire, and it seemed more inspirational of the poem Ozymandias than of Coleridge's epic.
Alexandra and the ruins of one of the 13th century buildings at Xanadu.
After our experiences in Tuva, we had high hopes of getting into the backcountry of Inner Mongolia on horseback. But China is not Russia. It's much more urban. Even if our Chinese companions from Beijing had wanted to gallop over the grasslands for days and camp under the hazy stars, it would have been difficult to arrange. In Russia, you made a couple of inquiries, someone put you on to his cousin's friend's brother, and later that afternoon, after a short drive to a family's ger, you were saddling your horses.
Inner Mongolia is almost the size of Alaska, and we had only about 10 days, including driving from Beijing. We had wanted to photograph the Naadym festival here too, but we had faulty information and missed it by a day or two. So instead, we sought out what is for westerners the most famous place in Inner Mongolia -- the ruins of Xanadu, the summer palace of Kubla Khan and the subject of one of the best-known poems in the English language.
Sign pointing the way to Xanadu.
January 6, 2010
Mongolia has become an adventurer's destination. Besides its charisma of remoteness, it includes the Gobi desert and an exotic culture. Deserts and locals in colorful clothing are flypaper to travelers. One man recently rode a horse across Mongolia. Another imaginative fellow knocked a golf ball from one end of the country to the other.
Alexandra and I have never been to Mongolia, but we've traveled comparable locales directly above and below it -- the Russian republic of Tuva and China's Inner Mongolia. In Tuva, we spent a few days on horseback but we couldn't go as far as we'd hoped because forest fires tend to ravage the countryside during the searing summer months. Tuva has a classic continental climate. In July, the temperature often soars to +35 or +40C. Now, in early January, it's so consistently frigid that today at -39C it bests the Pole of Cold at Oymyakon, also in Russia. Tuva is so continental that it's considered the Center of Asia. At least, a monument in Kyzyl, its capital, makes that claim.
When in Kyzyl, we met Kongar-ool Ondar, the famous throat-singer. (Check YouTube for his performance on David Letterman.) My photo of him in front of the Center of Asia monument is the cover of the Lonely Planet's guide to the Trans-Siberian railway -- which is strange, because the Trans-Siberian doesn't go through Tuva. We had to drive to Abakan, in the neighboring republic of Khakassia, to catch the train.
Kongar-ool Ondar and the Center of Asia monument beside the Yenisei River in Kyzyl.
Like Mongolia, Tuva celebrates the herder's festival of Naadym with bareback horse races, archery and Mongolian wrestling. As in sumo, there are no weight categories, and some of the earlier rounds pitted 300-pound behemoths against 98-pound weaklings. Among some North Americans, Tuva was well known during Soviet times for its colorful triangular and diamond-shaped postage stamps. They were one of the exotic jewels of a philatelist's collection. The best stamps featured drawings that wonderfully juxtaposed past and present, such as a galloping camel being overtaken by a locomotive or a horse glancing upward at a huge dirigible floating past.
Our stay in Tuva coincided with the Naadym festival. Unlike its counterpart in Mongolia, the festival drew no tour groups or other westerners. Still, we were happy to escape the heat of Kyzyl into the backcountry of gers and squat horses and fermented mare's milk.
I said that we hadn't been to Mongolia. That's not entirely true. The Mongolian border is a relatively short drive south of Kyzyl, and one day we went to the border, marked in this location only by a crumbling marker. Glancing around to make sure no border guards were poised to shoot us -- which had happened recently to some Tuvan horse rustlers -- we stepped gingerly across the marker for the superficial hell of it.