On his Crocker Land Expedition of 1911-14, American explorer Donald MacMillan and his men celebrated their first Christmas dinner in jackets and ties. By the third Christmas, no one bothered dressing up. See his expedition book, Four Years in the White North -- essential reading for anyone who travels Ellesmere.
That lapse of formality comes partly from slouching around the wilderness for so long; but by that time, morale was also the pits. Their doctor, Harrison Hunt, disapproved of the others' tendency to bed Inuit women at their base in Greenland. There wa -- a habit MacMillan picked up from his years with Robert Peary. There was also the divisive issue of Fitzhugh Green's unnecessary murder of one of their guides, Peeawahto. (I tell this story in The Horizontal Everest.)
The Crocker Land Expedition was one of those gimmick projects that gains funding and profile because it purports to do something famous, namely find the new land that same Peary reportedly spotted off the north coast of Ellesmere. But Peary was lying about his sighting of land, and so MacMillan's expedition was an illusion in pursuit of a lie. I much preferred MacMillan's later expeditions to Labrador. In one of them, he tried to paddle in an open canoe up the coast, and did pretty well. He also set up a research station just south of Nain and introduced the snowmobile to Labrador: a Model T Ford with the wheels replaced by skis in front and treads behind. The remains of that Model T from the 1920s still sits in the woods where their station used to be.
Sometimes I don't have much patience with the clowns and hucksters who continue to dominate British polar travel -- but only in Britain would you get a philosophical lecture on, "Is Mountaineering a Sport?" Wish I could attend this event. Thinking seriously about things like adventure is just not part of the lightweight, action-oriented North American psyche.
For those who have not had the pleasure of experiencing both, here's the difference in size between black bear tracks, below top, and polar bear tracks.
Alexandra received a wonderful email this morning from our friend in Beijing, Rhianna. Rhianna was our translator during our trip to China and Inner Mongolia a few years ago. She and Alexandra have kept in touch since then. Rhianna now works in Beijing for a British firm, where she puts her English to daily use. Recently she went on her own expedition of sorts -- a business trip to London. It was her first time outside China. She was impressed by how uncrowded London was.
A modern girl, Rhianna has no interest in the fried scorpions of a Beijing hutong. She prefers pizza.
Haven't updated this site for a couple of weeks because I've been working on stories and organizing a sledding expedition that begins this February. It's been three years since my last winter journey -- I've done mostly kayaking expeditions recently, and took one sabbatical year to work on Arctic Eden. But a sledding life is the best life, and I'm looking forward to getting out in the white again.
Speaking of the white, and the Banff festival mentioned below, one of the polar films shown was an Antarctic non-epic called, I think, Call of the White. Kind of a Survivor: Antarctica (the first half of the film showed would-be participants competing for spots on the expedition), it featured a group of women some of whom were from the Caribbean or Arabian Peninsula and had never seen a flake of snow before. They skied to the South Pole. Full marks to them, but the everywoman aspect also unwittingly reveals how extremely talented Scott had to be to die on that route.
Spent much of last week at the Banff Mountain Film Festival. Every year, there are one of two unforgettable films. This year, it was On the Trail of Genghis Khan, about Australian Tim Cope's three-and-a-half year solo journey on horseback from Mongolia to Hungary, following the path of the legendary marauder.
Cope shot almost all the footage himself, and did a great job. He spoke Russian well, was interested in nomadic culture, not just balls-to-the-wall trekking, and he was clearly talented with people: so many of the nomads he encountered on the steppes had big smiles on their faces when around him.
Australian TV edited the footage into four 44-minute episodes that were shown back-to-back during the features evening, a few days before the main part of the festival. It kept your interest for its entire three hours. The film eventually won the People's Choice Award -- a somewhat schizophrenic category that sometimes goes to the best all-around film, sometimes to a popular film by a local. This time, it went to the best film. The only downer is that it's too long to show in its entirety on the festival's World Tour; they plan to air just its last episode. But if you get the chance to watch the entire series, don't miss it.
More photos from the dying days of the Soviet Union, during the late 1980s. The omnipresent images of Lenin notwithstanding, it was like time-traveling back to the Depression era.
A Vladivostok woman prepares her son for the first day of school. Kids wore little pins of Lenin as a child of the same age.
One of the editors of Sovietsky Sport.
A Soviet schoolgirl wears the traditional fartook, or white apron. The red scarf signifies membership in the Young Pioneers, a youth Communist oranization.
A mountain woman in Kazakhstan.
Lineups for gasolene during Perestroika.
The first whiff of the West: Muskovites line up for hours to sample a Big Mac.
Stalin wedding-cake architecture in storm light from a window in St. Petersburg.
Life in Turgoyak, a small town in the Ural Mountains.
Faces of the proletariat.
In the past year, readers from 100 countries visited this website, including a few dozen from Kyrgyzstan. The latest Kyrgyz visit came yesterday, I notice, so in honor of that remote part of the world, this little anecdote: Years ago, during the dying days of the Soviet Union, a group of us were the first westerners in 70 years to travel the Kyrgyz backcountry. Here are a couple of photos from that trek through the Tien Shan, including one taken of our group, me in front, by a Russian news agency.
Good work, Jean:
Long-distance walker Jean Beliveau finished his 11-year, 75,000-kilometre walk around the world this week. Jean stayed with us for two days in the spring, when he passed through Canmore. Although he pushed a hand cart loaded with a tent, sleeping bag and a few extra clothes and supplies, he mostly slept at homes along the way. He walked about 30 kilometres a day, but at least in Canada, he often stayed in one place for a few days, meeting people and giving talks.
He chose mostly a warm-country route and he said that the Canadian leg of the trip through the mountains was the coldest weather he had to deal with.
One of the amazing aspects of his saga is that he's still married, although his wife visited him on the trail for just a couple of weeks every year. It'll be tough to adapt to home life; even a couple of months out there changes you forever. But for the time being, I'm sure that sitting in one spot and not moving will feel exquisite.
Jean Beliveau walks Highway 1A east of Canmore.
Here's an overview of arctic expeditions. I'll paste it at the bottom of this page as a general reference for new readers.
Manhauling is one of the only forms of wilderness travel that allows you to be out there for two months at a time, without resupplies. It’s best done in the Arctic, where windpacked snow and relatively flat terrain, such as sea ice, let you haul 250 pounds of food and supplies. You can’t drag a heavy sled very well up mountains or through deep powder. But in arctic conditions, manhauling is a wonderful life and not the ordeal that those who’ve never tried it might imagine.
Arctic journeys are non-technical. It's not like canoeing whitewater or climbing 5.12. Even a two-month ski expedition at -40° is just walking and winter camping. Mostly, you need fitness and an equipment list. You don’t even have to know how to ski, because you’re just shuffling. Skis are generally better than snowshoes, because you’re pushing the skis forward rather than lifting them with each step, so your legs are fresher at the end of the day. However, snowshoes are superior in powder and in tight quarters, such as through subarctic forest or broken sea ice.
Because arctic travel is relatively simple, when things go wrong, it usually indicates mistakes, not force majeure.
Most publicized polar expeditions involve either the North Pole or the South Pole. Typically, the participants are beginners or near-beginners. They go to the Poles for the same reason that ambitious novices climb Mount Everest: to get known quickly by tackling a route that the public has heard about. They are not serious travelers any more than the hordes who summit Everest are climbers. Few of them travel the polar regions more than a couple of times.
While there remain original challenges even today (South Pole in winter, anyone?), most of these polar expeditions are sadly unimaginative. The psychological barriers on the standard routes have been broken. Hired guides often make the way even easier. New wrinkles, like speed records, tend to be more pr than substance. It doesn’t take much to be faster than predecessors because few serious, experienced athletes have addressed these challenges. We’re not talking about lowering the time to run 100 metres here. It’s more like unicycling from Miami to San Diego a few hours faster than the last guy.
A reader gets the impression from adventure news sites that the North Pole/South Pole, and maybe crossing Greenland, are all there is to polar travel. These digests are useful for keeping abreast of who is doing what, but with rare exceptions, they offer no editorial perspective. Usually, they just cut and paste an expedition’s press release.
The more you travel the polar regions, the less interesting the North Pole/South Pole seem. Compared to other arctic areas, they lack culture, scenery and natural history. They do, however, have athletic appeal, in the same way that running around a track or swimming across a lake does. And there’s some money in them – for charter airlines, guides and motivational speakers.
There's so much more to the sledding life than these cliches. When the sea is frozen, the Arctic is half the size of Europe, and almost none of it has been walked in modern times. Plenty of possibilities for unique adventure out there.
The joys of arctic travel.
My Outdoor Photographer article on self-timed imagery has been out for a couple of months now, but expedition shooters who haven't seen it might be interested to see how I get self-timed photos like this.
Self-timed photos aren't necessarily the most artistic but you can come back with magazine-quality images to document the expedition even if, as in this case, we were just two people and one kayak.
Although I've kayaked the entire coast of Labrador, I've never taken a lesson, never played in surf and it's been 20 years since I last did an Eskimo roll (practising in a swimming pool). This may be surprising to some. But travelers don't have to be expert kayakers or skiers. The first time I put on cross-country skis, I skied 600km solo through the arctic winter.
Not all expedition travel is so forgiving. You don't ski 55-degree slopes or even venture into avalanche country without knowing what you're doing. Beginners can climb Everest or ski to the South Pole, but not climb Half Dome. After reading Chris Duff's excellent book on kayaking around New Zealand's South Island, I would not presume to tackle that technical challenge. But there is a lot you can do with just fitness and wilderness judgment.
A few years ago, a party of American kayak instructors paddled Labrador's Torngats, doing about 500km from Nachvak Fiord to Nain. They had never been in such a remote place, and it was a big deal for them. They printed expedition T-shirts and set up a website. Clearly, they were well-equipped to tackle the kayaking part, and one of them later told me how they paddled 10-foot seas off one of the capes. They had to go a mile out to sea to avoid the bounceback from rollers smashing against the cliffs. I've paddled that cape too, but I just wouldn't do it in 10-foot seas. You don't push your technical limits in a place like Labrador. You acquire those skills where you can walk to the parking lot at the end of the day.
Most summers in Labrador, you can kayak for at least 5 days out of every 7, even if, like me, you don't venture out in anything more than 12 or 15 knots. Kayaking can gobble tremendous distances -- our 30-35km/day average is so easy that I don't even consider it an expedition pace. Forty-five kilometres and up starts to get more serious. During one stretch this summer we did 150km in three days, but most of the time we just crept along, enjoying life in the country.
A couple of years after their Labrador trip, the kayak instructors set off to do a more ambitious route in the High Arctic. It was an artificial construct, and seemed foolish to me. Not surprisingly, they got nowhere. From what I observed, they seemed totally out of place. Being comfortable in an extreme wilderness 300km from the nearest person may not be as technical a skill as surf landings or couloir skiing, but it is the essence of arctic travel.
Many cabins in Labrador are left unlocked in case travelers need an emergency shelter, and for hospitality. The cabins are simple: a couple of cots, a table pushed against the window, three chairs, a stove. All you need.
The cabin where we stayed a day's paddle north of Groswater Bay was part of a larger complex: a private fishing camp. One cabin served as an overnight shelter for visitors. It hadn't been used for years; no one used it any more. Mosquitoes kept finding their way in through unseen cracks. We half set up the tent in the middle of the floor so we could sleep without being eaten alive.
At 3 am we heard a noise outside. We shouted. Bad move: Suddenly there was a hammering, like a sledgehammer, on the wall of the cabin. We scrambled out of the tent, headlamps on. Filling the one small window in the rear was the enormous head of a polar bear. The head disappeared, replaced by a giant paw that began to push in the window and the much larger frame around it. The paw disappeared briefly; I fired a shotgun blast through the window. Silence.
We waited till it became light enough go out. The polar bear was still wandering around, about 40 meters away. Another warning shot and a flare nudged it along. When we arrived in Rigolet, we heard from fishermen in the area that a day later, the polar bear returned, damaged several cabins, and broke into the one we'd been sleeping in and trashed the place.
This was no curious adolescent, like the ones who usually bother me. This was a 900-lb adult male that had acquired a taste for breaking into cabins. Puts the mosquitoes that were eating us alive into perspective.
The seemingly secure sleeping cabin.
PS. Alexandra has a little YouTube video describing the encounter, done a few hours later:
Every expedition has its crucial days; Alexandra and I had three or four of them on our kayak expedition. Although Nain-Rigolet is not as exposed as the Torngats, you spend more time away from land, on innumerable 10km or 15km crossings from island to island. The route includes two cape days, where we were exposed to the open Atlantic for long stretches of time. On the first, we crossed Cape Makkovik and Strawberry Head under a moderate tailwind that built up a choppy sea as the fetch increased. It was uncomfortable and took concentration, but not dangerous; our double Feathercraft is so stable that if we're in conditions that threaten to flip it, we shouldn't be out there.
Cape Harrison has the reputation as the nastiest bit on that Nain-Rigolet route. Unlike most capes, the exposure continues for much of the day. Three days earlier, we had had a northwest wind so spunky that although it was a tailwind, we sat out the day. In winter, northwest winds in Labrador bring in fair weather; I was hoping the same would be true in summer, and it was. When the next day showed calm, we stepped up our modest 30-35 km/d pace to position ourselves to do Cape Harrison the following day if the good weather continued. It did, and by covering 100km in two days, we were back in fairly sheltered waters, on a lovely stretch of sand beach near some fishing cabins. It was time to relax, or so we thought.
Cape Harrison, top. The beach north of Red Pock Point, above.
When Alexandra and I arrived in Rigolet after finishing our month-long paddle along the Labrador coast from Nain, I had not lost a pound. Disappointing, you might say: After a hard expedition, you want to be able to indulge for a while. Well, you can. The metabolism stays jacked up for a couple of weeks after a journey like this, and you lose weight while relaxing and eating voraciously as your expedition-hardened muscles shrink. (Muscle weighs a lot.) I've been on a cruise as a resource person for the last 12 days, exercising almost not at all, and eating a large breakfast, a five-course lunch and a five-course dinner. When I came home yesterday, I'd lost two pounds. I suspect I'm the only one on the cruise who can make that claim.
Alexandra and I successfully completed our 550-kilometre Labrador kayak expedition from Nain to Rigolet! It took 26 days. We were behind at the beginning because of poor weather and cultural detours, but ended up being way ahead and dallying for the last week or so. More info to come in mid-August, after I return from lecturing on an Adventure Canada cruise from Kuujjuaq to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland.
Paddling Groswater Bay, Labrador.
Alexandra and I are in Goose Bay and will be leaving for Nain tomorrow on the ferry. Driving from the airport to our B&B, I note wistfully that the Cafe Inconnu, the only place in Labrador that serves real lattes, did not survive the last year. I could see the writing on the wall last summer, not just from the modest number of clients. Few locals knew how to pronounce the name of the place; others called it Cafe Canoe for simplicity. The owners were ahead of their time. The utter dominance of Tim Horton's is not threatened.
Off to Labrador. We don't blog while kayaking but may include some entries from our start and end points. Otherwise, regular updates will resume in mid-August.
All packed and ready to go for our 550km kayak journey along the Labrador coast from Nain to Rigolet. Three of the duffles have been preshipped to Goose Bay. We leave for Labrador on Friday.
Kudos to Kokatat, the manufacturer of premium paddling gear. They've sponsored Alexandra and I for years, providing PFDs, drysuits, sprayskirts and clothing for our kayak expeditions. We've appeared in a few Kokatat ads, like the one below. But that's not what this is about.
A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a young Inuit guy in northern Labrador, Noah Nochasak. Noah, 23, lives in Nain, which is almost a second home to me. As the northernmost town on the Labrador coast, it's often the starting or ending point of my Labrador expeditions.
Noah has started doing long-distance journeys by kayak in summer and manhauling in winter. He built his own kayak out of wood and canvas and paddled the 100 kilometres to the Innu town of Natuashish to the south. He plans to kayak in the Torngats later this summer.
This spring, he hauled his own komatik west from Nain up onto the plateau. He dreams of traveling all the way to Kangiqsualujjuaq (George River Post), like his ancestors used to do. He tries to travel in as traditional a style as possible. On that spring trip, he even used a kudloo, or Inuit seal oil lamp, to melt snow for water. It didn't work too well, he admits. A non-pressurized stove of any kind takes ages to do its job -- not what you want at the end of a long traveling day. It's different when you have people in a fixed camp keeping the pot on.
Anyway, I'm not aware of any other Inuit, either in Nunatsiavut, Nunavik or Nunavut, drawn to long-distance, self-sustained travel. Yet there's no reason why outsiders like myself should be the only people to travel the land in a traditional way these days.
When I told Kokatat of Noah's ambitions, they immediately offered to give him a drysuit. He's been using a dry top, but says he still gets wet. The drysuit, which arrived in Nain last week, will not only make his travels safer and more comfortable, but allow him to learn how to roll his boat in the frigid Labrador waters. This generous gesture from Kokatat could make a big difference in Noah's traveling career.
Noah's going to join us on our paddle for a couple of days next month, accompanying us from Nain to Voisey Bay. Hopefully he will supply the caribou and char.
Our daily 90 minutes of training...Thanks to videographer/photographer Pat McCloskey for joining us yesterday.
Haven't updated this site much lately because of expedition preparations and training, plus everything else going on: Directly from Labrador, I'll be joining Adventure Canada on my annual gig as a cruise lecturer. This year we're going from Kuujjuaq, in northern Quebec, to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. Am currently prepping a couple of lectures. I also have two magazine stories to complete before we leave.
Alexandra and I are currently training for a summer kayak expedition in Labrador. We'll be paddling 550 kilometres from Nain to Rigolet. Apart from the Strait of Belle Isle, it's the one section of Labrador coast I haven't kayaked yet. Alexandra has kayaked much of it as well.
We're now paddling one to two hours a day, getting the muscles limbered up and ligaments/tendons, etc. toughened against repetitive stress injuries, the real danger on long-distance journeys. The house is in full expedition mode, all the gear being laid out, inspected, organized, winnowed, tweaked and eventually packed. The excitement, furor and attention to detail that surrounds a trip.
Jon Turk's expedition around Ellesmere has been going two and a half weeks. Progress is fine so far, on this straightforward part of the route, but no one, including themselves, will know their chances of success until after Alert. The section between Alert and Pim Island may be largely ice-free or choked with impassable blocks that will take weeks to negotiate.
Nevertheless, at last word they have reached one of the minor cruxes, Norwegian Bay from Goose Point to Eureka. It's easy walking, but that area is chockablock with polar bears. So far, they haven't had any inquisitive adolescents come visiting at night, but -- while bears can show up anywhere -- this is the stretch where an encounter is most likely.
Training time: Alexandra and I have begun our training for a kayak expedition this summer. It's been an abrupt seasonal transition: last week we were skiing with friend Pat Morrow, a few days later it's 20C, we're paddling and Alexandra has red hair.
Jon Turk and his partner are off on their attempted circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island. All the best to them. I envy the months they're going to spend out on the land. Meanwhile, Alexandra and I have begun preparing for our summer expedition. More details on that in future.
Two years ago on this page, I made a Non-Cliché Expedition list -- imaginative, challenging polar journeys beyond the usual North Pole/South Pole re-dos. Three of those expeditions are either being done or may be in the works: the circumnavigation of Ellesmere and sledding the Northwest Passage are ongoing; and last week, I received a phone call from a guy in Ottawa who was hoping to organize Canada North to South, the hardest of the three.
Tomorrow's the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl. I visited there some years ago on a month-long journey around Ukraine and was told that the official photographer who documented the accident died of radiation poisoning. I guess at that time if you were a photographer, and an official told you, "Get in that helicopter and take pictures," it was hard to say no.
Reactor #4 in its sarcophagus.
Old USSR Atomic Ministry sign at Chernobyl.
The Dityatky checkpoint, a main entrance to the closed zone around Chernobyl.
Inside one of the still-healthy reactors at Chernobyl.
Radiation-killed trees at one of the abandoned villages within the closed area.
The abandoned village of Lilyev, being swallowed up by the encroaching new forest.
The joys of hauling a heavy sled uphill, even if it's just a little slope over some tidal ice:
For those considering an arctic cruise, I'm giving two information sessions next week on behalf of Adventure Canada. (I lecture on one of their cruises every summer.) The session in Canmore takes place at 5:30pm at the Canmore Library, on Monday April 18. Here are the details of the Calgary presentation:
The magazine Outdoor Photography Canada profiles my arctic expedition imagery in their new issue. The coverage includes this extra online story.
Outdoor athlete and neighbor Will Gadd wrote provocatively on his website a couple of weeks ago about How Not to Suck at Ice Climbing. It prompted me to consider How Not to Suck at Polar Travel. Below isn't a definitive list, just a few preliminary thoughts.
Polar Bears: Polar bears are not out to get you, and you are not a hero for seeing one at a distance of 200 metres. Most polar bears have no interest in travelers. The few that do, mostly adolescent males, start out merely investigating you. If you don't behave properly, they'll investigate you all the way into their stomachs. But a little noise or a flare or two, and most get the hint. They're good-tempered, actually.
Stoves: Carry a spare stove, spare pumps and a stove repair kit. Know how to fix the stove. There's no excuse for aborting an expedition because of a stove problem, yet every year, it seems, would-be arctic explorers do. And it's always the stove's fault. Some people are better at updating their websites than at traveling.
Frostbite: Frostbite indicates user error. Either clothing is inadequate for the conditions, you're not eating or drinking enough, you're moving too slowly to generate enough body heat or, most commonly, you're simply not looking after yourself. Arctic travel requires constant fine-tuning of layers. It's an anal activity. Sometimes I put on or take off my hat six times an hour, or pull up and pull down the face mask on my balaclava once a minute. Don't stop to do this; do it in midstride. If you're just a little cold, speed up slightly. There is no reason for frostbite no matter how cold it is, except maybe a little frostnip on exposed cheeks.
Jon Turk's Ellesmere circumnavigation plans suffered a major setback when one of his two partners, Tyler Bradt, broke his back kayaking off a waterfall some days ago. Bradt holds the current record for the highest kayak descent off a waterfall, but what was he thinking, doing this six weeks before leaving on a major expedition?? That's the problem with enlisting a 20-something adrenalin junkie for an endorphin-based project. If I had been Jon, I would have been relieved that the guy hadn't been killed or paralysed in the accident -- then I would have killed him myself.
So the expedition is now down to Jon and a single partner. Although it's not a project that I'd want to do -- the prospect of kayaking 70 miles along the glacier walls of southeastern Ellesmere with nowhere to land does not appeal -- there are parts of the route, gaps in my resumé you might say, that I'd dearly love to see. They might even be able to sleep on ice floes during that long, dicey kayak section. This is easily the year's most interesting and difficult arctic expedition.
Eastern Ellesmere during the sledding season.
My friend Jon Turk is leaving in May with two partners on an attempted circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island. Jon's first experience with Ellesmere was about 25 years ago, when he and his girlfriend dragged their kayaks from the southeast corner of the island up and then paddled across to Greenland. They'd hadn't planned to be hauling their kayaks over the sea ice so much, but they adapted and overcame their June start, which is early for kayaking.
The circumnavigation of Ellesmere is one of the premier undone arctic expeditions I listed on this page in 2009. (February entry) It's a very doable route. I'm less convinced that Jon & his partners will succeed. They're leaving too late to maximize sledding and too early to maximize kayaking. You can haul a kayak over puddling sea ice, but it's slower than sledding and much slower than kayaking, especially later in June, when the puddling cannot be avoided but must be sloshed through. They also expect to complete the route in 100 days; I think it's a minimum 135-day trip. Still, expedition-tough travelers often succeed more through persistence than perfect planning.
My main worry for them will be the section of their route in Norwegian Bay/southern Eureka Sound. It's fast, painless hauling -- but it's also full of polar bears. Two expeditions have shot bears in southern Eureka Sound. I almost did too 20 years ago, when on an early expedition there a bear broke into my sled when I was sleeping and then came at me. It was my first encounter with an inquisitive polar bear at distances less than 20 metres. Now I have a dozen such close calls, and although I've never killed a bear, I have to admit that sometimes that's just luck. If a bear breaks into the tent and starts dragging someone away, as happened on Svalbard to two kayakers last year, there's little you can do except shoot the bear. Necessary, perhaps, but tragic and politically a disaster for the expedition.
At first, a sledder can pick his way over the puddling sea ice of early summer, but eventually you have to drag your bumpy way through those shin-deep pools.
Rarely does a lead go in the direction you want.
All the North Pole expeditions have aborted their trips because of weather delays. Frankly, I was surprised that they had expected to fly to northern Ellesmere in late February. With one exception, I've never heard of that happening; the earliest is always a few days into March.
The pilots have the last call on whether to go or not. Sometimes, in marginal conditions, they leave it up to the clients. If they can find a window in the clouds through which to land, they'll land. But they remind you: If we have to turn back, you still have to pay. That's the sobering gamble. Most of us who've flown up there have taken that gamble at one point or other and lost thousands of dollars when the pilots aborted the flight because the landing area socked in at the last minute.
Some pilots are exceptionally timid. It's frustrating when your assigned pilot is one of the timid ones, because sometimes no-fly is based as much on the skill and personality of the pilot as on the conditions.
Before First Air got out of the Twin Otter charter business, some of their pilots had 30,000 hours behind the stick. Guys like Karl Z'berg, Al McDonald and Doug McLeod were legends. They were all older guys, from an era when limits were pushed a little further. Many were eccentric: Doug used to put tin foil between his ears and his headset because he didn't want radio waves zapping his brain. Two of Karl's aircraft are at the bottom of the ocean -- one at the North Pole, one between Ellesmere and Greenland. He wasn't the only pilot to suffer that experience. If a plane landed on ice that was a little thinner than it needed, one of the skis broke through, then the other ski; then the plane was supported by the wings spreadeagled on the ice; there was no getting it out. Passengers climbed out through the pilot's door and were okay, but the plane itself ended up at the bottom of the drink.
The Borek pilots are from a younger generation. They take fewer chances; they're allowed fewer chances. They're still some of the best bush pilots in the world, but they don't know the limits of their aircraft as well. When I started going north, a Twin's offstrip payload limit was 2,800 lbs; pilots would sometimes push that. Now an offstrip weight max is something like 1,800 lbs.
Anyway, all those Polies are up in Resolute, they have food, equipment and time; it's revealing that none of them take the opportunity to sled some other route while they're there. They don't know what they're missing.
Legendary bush pilots Karl Z'Berg, left, and Doug McLeod.
Some years ago, the Russians had a great idea: build a seasonal camp on the Arctic Ocean near the North Pole as a base for what they like to call "extreme tourism". That means anything from a helicopter and champagne flight to the North Pole to skiing the entire distance from Russia or Canada. Since then, most expeditions have used the Barneo ice station for their flight back from the Pole.
The problem is that the ice station packs up pretty early, in late April. That means that if your trek is still ongoing by the time they shut operations, you're out of luck. The expedition ends because of their schedule. Expeditions from the Canadian side can't begin till the last day of February or the first day or two of March, because the sun doesn't return to northern Ellesmere Island until that date. In twilight, the pilots can't see the contours of the ice and snow well enough to land. So North Pole expeditions have at most seven weeks to complete their trek, which is pretty tight for most of those trekkers, who are not very experienced/superfit, especially if they go unsupported, that is, no resupplys en route.
Before Barneo, North Pole expeditions just chartered an aircraft out of Resolute for pickup. It was never cheap, but it was cheaper than it is today. In 2002, First Air got out of the charter Twin Otter business, leaving Kenn Borek Air with a monopoly. No competition, higher costs. Then the price of fuel shot up. Then I heard that Kenn Borek, supposedly for safety reasons, insisted that there be two aircraft flying to the North Pole, in case of mechanical problems with one. That doubled the expense. I have no idea how much a pickup at the Pole would cost today, but it would be well over $100,000.
So all would-be expeditions assume that Barneo is the only way to go. It isn't. Even now, a Twin Otter could probably land at the North Pole well into May. That used to be when everyone was picked up. But the expeditions would need very deep pockets to go this route.
Even if you didn't win your Oscar pool, you still have a chance at winning your office pool (ha) on which expeditions will successfully traipse to the North Pole. Here's a four-point guide to increase your odds of betting success. I've written a few of these before -- some are a recurring rant -- but they may be news to first-time readers of this website.
1. Guided expeditions will likely succeed. Polar expeditions are essentially walking and winter camping, so are not that technical. Guides advise on the right equipment (nothing worse than bringing too thin a sleeping bag), nurse clients over thinly frozen leads -- the only danger on North Pole treks -- and keep a mental odometer during the journey, so if the group is behind schedule, they're aware of it early and can compensate with longer days. In the interests of keeping their success rates up, guides would also probably level with prospective clients who weren't up to the challenge.
2. British expeditions will likely fail. The British are drawn to the Arctic, but have never been good at it. It's not just Amundsen's "Skiers the Englishmen are not." You don't need to know how to ski to pull a sled on skis, although it helps if you are gliding rather than merely clomping with boards on your feet. But beyond the fact that England is not a great place to practice cross-country skiing or winter camping, there is a cultural incompetence that only expatriate British seem able to overcome. Ex-military types have a particularly abysmal record. Note: Scotland has a fine history of arctic whaling, and though there aren't a lot of Scottish polar expeditions today, I'd guess the Scots would do well compared to the English polar gentlefolk crowd.
3. Expeditioners whose previous attempts were aborted because of "equipment failure" or injury are generally lightweights whose odds of success remain low. Even the least talented travelers, however, may eventually succeed if they are able to keep re-attempting the route often enough.
4. Norwegians will always succeed. Another historical cliché that remains true in modern times.
Expedition potpourri: I used to read Outside magazine devotedly; but I've barely glanced at it for several years. Every story tries too hard to tout the Next Big Thing: the flaky heir billed as instant environmental savior because of his famous name, cute surfer girls with 'tude, bicycle spokes photographed with unbearable artiness... Outside's desperate effort to be hip and happenin' and stylish is too much for my taste. Men's Journal is much more honest about its materialism.
That said, the profile in the current issue of Hendrik Coetzee, the kayak guide killed recently in Africa by a crocodile, is a good story of an interesting man. It's even online, so no need to wade through pretentious bicycle-spoke photos in their gear section or six-pack abs photos in their workout section.
Speaking of adventure tragedies, the yacht Berserk, skippered by Norwegian Jarle Andhoy, has gone missing in the Antarctic during a fierce storm. Andhoy's film, Berserk in the Antarctic, won the People's Choice award at the Banff Mountain Film Festival 10 years ago. A fine adventure film -- not too slick, real hard adventure, a lot of human interest as well as the standard man-vs-nature and Grand Nature stuff. People's Choice winners at Banff tend to be either favorite local films or the best overall film at the festival. Berserk was the latter.
I cross-country ski three or four times a week at the Canmore Nordic Centre. Usually just quick exercise, 40-45 minutes, a 12-kilometre route. It's a lot like going to the gym.
Except: when the trail narrows and most of the skiers disappear, both Alexandra and I keep a casual eye on the open woods flanking the trail. Cougars occasionally show up at the Nordic Centre. The odds of getting chomped by a cougar are miniscule: There is just one recorded fatality in Alberta. However, that fatality happened about 10 years ago on what was then our favorite ski trail, and the victim was a solitary skier.
I wrote about the natural history of cougars in my first book, Forest Cats of North America. Attacks on humans are rare, but the nature of the attacks are sobering. While bear encounters tend to be frontal assaults, cougars' are blindside hits. They lay into an unprepared victim with the power of an NFL linebacker, knocking the person flat and maybe senseless. Then with a precision bite to the back of the neck, they severe a vertebra. Sometimes they crush the skull in their powerful jaws instead. Death is instantaneous. If you get knocked down, you have to recover almost instantly and protect your neck and head. If you can get to that point, your odds of survival are pretty good. It's the surprise and power of the initial strike that's so effective.
So skiing the Nordic Centre is not exactly like going to the gym. Or maybe it's like going to the gym through a dark city alley.
The awareness of wildlife is just part of living in a place like the Rockies, or of doing expeditions in polar bear country. When I ski on Ellesmere, I always glance quickly behind every 10 minutes or so, just to make sure a bear is not following. Now and then, they are.
Alexandra and I don't watch much TV, but I found the series Walking Dead, about survivors in a post-apocalyptic world overrun with zombies, gripping from an expedition point of view. What the survivors endure feels similar to high-stress expedition travel: A physical, much harder life than we in the West are used to, plus a lot of insecurity.
On the program, some just can't hack that stress and give up the ghost. Others do what's necessary; a few thrive, as if this is the sort of life they've been waiting for all along.
But it's the zombies that give me the greatest sense of recognition. Wandering polar bear country is like trying to survive in zombified America: the environment is hard but otherwise fairly benign most of the time, but it can turn deadly any second. The zombies move slowly and usually aren't on you in a flash, but their potential presence creates a sense of constant threat and alertness. (Arctic travel features little actual fear but a lot of anxiety.) The main differences with polar bears is that there are far more zombies, and that a traveler doesn't shoot bears as glibly as the survivors in this program dispatch the walking dead.
Sure signs that an arctic zombie is outside one's tent. Unlike Hollywood's Walking Dead, polar bears can usually be chased off by non-lethal means.
Although I'm no fan of polar races or records -- it reduces adventure to what is often mediocre athletics -- there is an upside of Christian Eide's excellent 24-day, 1,130-kilometre ski to the South Pole. He has set a serious time, and anyone who breaks it will have to be serious. The days of just anyone setting a record time are over, at least on that route.
There's still lots of room for improvement. Eide broke the previous best time by about nine days, set by a couple of fit beginners guided by Richard Weber, who is a superb traveler and athlete but who is in his 50s now. Turn loose an elite athlete in his or her prime, one who knows how to ski and has learned enough about polar travel to be efficient, and they could knock that 24 days down to 17 days or so. At which point it becomes real athletics, like Ueli Steck's speed climbs up the Eiger and the Matterhorn.
At the same time, as the challenges on these old routes become familiar, the adventure itself vastly diminishes, except in the populist sense, where "we walk on old trails that are new to us." Such expeditions appeal mainly to professionals and would-be professionals, who recognize that the only way to get noticed for re-doing a tired icon is to do it faster, or more weirdly.
Skiers approaching the South Pole comment on how much extra friction the snow has, despite the lighter sleds at the end of their journey. This is because summer air temperatures on the Antarctic plateau hover around -25C. That, I have found, is the critical temperature where snow loses its glide and pulling a sled is like dragging a sack of potatoes. Even skis lose their glide.
The reason for the friction is not well understood, although studies have been done at sites like CRREL, the U.S. Army's cold research lab. Some papers posit that a moving ski or sled or ice skate melts a microthin layer of water that lubricates and improves glide. Below a certain temperature, which varies with runner material, speed, weight of object and snow type, this lubricating layer doesn't form. Other studies question the existence of this lubricating layer of meltwater. They do the physics relating to speed, temperature, coefficient of friction and pressure and conclude that water would not form. Their alternative theory is that loose surface bonds in the snow crystals create a kind of ball bearing effect. Presumably the crystal adherence becomes more stubborn with a drop in temperature.
Whatever the reason, the dramatically increased friction around -25C is obvious to any skier or manhauler.
Long-distance walking is not a modern phenomenon. I've long enjoyed the story of Edward Payson Weston. In 1861, Weston made a bet with a friend over the upcoming presidential election. The loser would walk from Boston to Washington in 10 straight days, to see the inauguration. Weston lost, and began his 478-mile walk on Feb 22. He arrived mere hours too late to see Lincoln sworn in as President but in time for the inaugural ball.
That accidental marathon seems to have awakened in Weston a love of long-distance walking. In 1867, he walked 1,200 miles from Portland, Maine to Chicago in 26 days. Two years later he walked 1,058 miles in 30 days, in winter.
Eventually he competed in race walking, and beat Britain’s best walker by covering 550 miles in six days. When he was 72, he walked across the US from Santa Monica, California to New York in 76 days. He was still walking up to 25 miles per day into his 90s, when he was struck by a taxi in New York and lost the use of his legs. He died two years later.
Christian Eide has managed to maintain his 45+ km/day every day on his South Pole trip and should finish the 1,130 km in about 24 days. An excellent manhauling pace. Speed, of course, means you can travel lighter -- less food, less fuel. In this case, his speed allowed a very light sled, 136 lbs. On hard snow, that pulls like nothing.
What's most impressed me is that he does his 45km in nine hours, about an hour faster than I've ever sledded that distance on foot. It's convinced me that good skiing is ultimately better than good walking. For me, hauling on skis has always been a reluctant second choice, done only when the snow is not supportive enough for boots. I've never committed to skiing as the preferable means of arctic travel. I enjoy walking too much. Although I ski pretty fast here at home, in the Arctic my skiing is little more than shuffling.
To haul on skis as quickly as Eide has, you need to minimize the width of your climbing skins, use mohair skins rather than nylon for better glide, and also eschew Berwin-type bindings in favor of a more traditional boot/binding system. Oh yes: and you need to know how to ski. Shuffling, by comparison, requires no skill: Beginners can shuffle hundreds of km on skis, as I did years ago on my first expedition.
Anyway, Eide's time for that project is a serious one, as opposed to some other polar "speed records" set so early in a sport's history that they have little meaning.