A polar bear's day bed, by Nachvak Fiord in Labrador's Torngat Mountains.
You can download the full Explore magazine story of last winter's expedition across Labrador with Noah Nochasak here.
Even in the subarctic and the arctic, rivers don't always freeze completely. Luckily, the bad ice is usually obvious, and just a few steps away, you're on a solid platform again. Below, a clip of Noah Nochasak sledding past a rapid on the George River in northern Quebec. Older sea ice is likewise solid, except where it visibly is not. The bottom photo shows the North Water polynya at Cape Norton Shaw, on eastern Ellesmere Island. My partner and I were able to stand at the very edge of the ice, the toes of our mukluks dangling over the open water.
My article about the 550km expedition with Noah Nochasak last winter is in the current issue of explore magazine.
It wasn't a surprise that Crossing the Ice, the film about the wacky duo that skied to the South Pole and back, won big at the Banff Mountain Film Festival. It scooped the two biggest awards, the Grand Prize and the People's Choice, as well as its Adventure category. All the other prescreeners responded to it in the same way that the audiences and film judges did. Tightly edited, loveable protagonists, and the competent Norwegian, Aleksander Gamme, who waited for them so they could all finish together, further amped up the cameraderie quotient. Still, I wonder how the climbing community would have responded to a couple of beginners weeping their way up Mt. Everest. Almost no one, even in the outdoor community, understands sledding, so you can get away with a lot that you couldn't in a climbing film.
Speaking of Everest, here's a nice, no-bs riff by Andy Kirkpatrick on the conga line up that abused mountain.
Missing the cut: Not all good films make the finals of the Banff Mountain Film Festival, especially in competitive categories like the long features, where only about half a dozen are aired. Here are some of the also-rans that deserve a look, if they ever screen in your area:
Mountain Runners: A hilarious history of a yearly marathon race up Washington State's Mount Baker early in the 20th century. The graphics and re-creations are great, and what a classic tale -- especially the first marathon. Trouble is, the filmmakers didn't stop there: after 45 minutes, they continued without any foreshadowing to document the races in subsequent years. Bit of a bump there. The second half was good, but their love of the material had them miss a much better film. They should have called it a wrap after 50 minutes. The movie's theme song, Mountain Runners, by a local group memorably called Pretty Little Feet, is one of my current favorites and can be downloaded from iTunes.
Rising from Ashes: Possibly the best film of all, it didn't make it as a finalist because it was not mountain-y enough. Another film set in Africa about white guys helping black guys, but this takes it to a higher level. Two Americans create a biking team in Rwanda. The Rwandan cyclists are trying to emerge from the shadow the country's recent genocide, and one of the Americans is also trying to resurrect from his dark past. For most of the cyclists, the journey is about trying your best against long odds, etc. but one of the Rwandans has real athletic talent and becomes his country's flagbearer at the London Olympics.
Happiness - Promised Land: It sounds more like Unpromising Land: A guy walking the length of France along country roads. But it's not about the walk. In these Gallic back forties, the narrator meets odd characters and earnestly asks them: What is happiness? This wouldn't work in North America, because the answers would tend to be inarticulate. But this is Europe, where everyone is thoughtful. (ok, not everyone) But you have to love the woman who admits, "I'm too superficial to live alone." Would you ever, ever get an answer like that on this side of the Pond? Another nice touch: the filmmaker/walker never puts himself on camera, just occasionally his shadow. You don't see what he looks like till the end credits.
More recommended films from the upcoming Banff Mountain Film Festival:
Living Wild: A hippy-dippy woman, ex-druggie, has impressively remade herself into an expert on living a Stone-Age life. She teaches these primitive skills to a variety of young acolytes: how to skin a buffalo using flint edges, how to sew garments with sinew, how to start a fire using friction, how to make skin canteens and wooden vessels, and so on. Once they've learned the basics, it's time for the ultimate test: living as Stone-Age gatherers for several weeks in the Colorado Rockies. They trap the odd squirrel but mostly they forage berries, nuts and roots. There's a New Age feel to this, of course, but the long period of immersion makes it a kind of expedition. Director Eric Valli, who came to prominence shooting the honey hunters of Nepal for National Geographic, knows how to tell a good visual story.
Ndizotheka - It is Possible: An American paraglider travels to Malawi to build kites for local kids. He meets a sympathetic young Malawian named Godfrey who dreams of flying but never had the means. After a lot of ground training, the two new companions hike up the second highest mountain in Africa, and Godfrey becomes the first paraglider from Malawi. Despite its motivational undercurrents, the film keeps on the right side of balance between feel-good and syrupy.
The Impossible River Journey: If you wanted to pitch this film in an elevator in 10 seconds, you would use almost the same words as with Ndizotheka: white adventure guy goes to Africa and picks up an inexperienced but charismatic local partner whose life is radically changed by the adventure. At first, the Norwegian traveler does not seem particularly likeable, but eventually you realize that it's just his cool Nordic temperament. This is serious adventure: cross southern Africa by canoe. In need of a partner, the narrator finds Joseph, a refugee without documents but with a 10,000-watt smile and the willingness to commit to this puzzling journey. In its 90 minutes, the film covers the solo adventurer starting out, the unlikely partnership, the clashes with residual prejudice in South Africa, and the final forbidden passage through land owned by a diamond-mining company, which does not dick around when it comes to security.
The Banff Mountain Film Festival begins this weekend with the screening of the feature films. As a prescreener, helping decide the finalists, I had an early look at all the long films and those in the Adventure category. I've already mentioned Wild Bill's Run, half documentary of a truly zany expedition, half mystery film: whatever became of Wild Bill? Other standouts include:
Crossing the Ice: As a sledder, I found this tale of the Australia duo "Cas and Jonesy" manhauling to the South Pole and back both cringe-worthy and well done. This is the same inexperienced pair who successfully paddled a sort of kayak 1,000 miles from Australia to New Zealand after veteran adventurer Andrew McAuley perished while attempting the same crossing in a conventional kayak. This time, on the South Pole trek, they're equally at sea, but likewise manage to succeed. It's not much of a first -- there are still lots of low-hanging fruit in the polar regions because access is so difficult and expensive -- but their real skill is knowing how to play it up on film. They weep, they look tragically unhappy, they vomit into the camera, they dig, half-insane, for a lost cache of food. You're watching reality television. Forget that sledding does not lend itself to such histrionics. It's interesting to see reality TV extroverts taking on expedition film-making. A non-finalist, called Beauty Beneath the Dirt, about two squabbling girls and the brother of one of them hiking the length of the Appalachian Trail, has a similar feel: twenty-somethings, used to having a cell phone camera record their every twitch, unselfconsciously emoting all over the place.
Messner: A biopic about the Great Reinhold. Although the film doesn't say this, one gets the sense that Messner bankrolled this production. A lot of money in helicopter time went into it. And what does it cost to license a Bob Dylan song for your musical score? Mainly, it's the style with which the film handled Messner's motivations and controversies, such as the death of his brother on Nanga Parbat, that suggests that its subject might also have been one of its producers. Still, amazing to see the hunger with which Messner tackled extreme challenge after challenge. He solos a wall near the Grandes Jorasses in a style and speed that blows away everyone who came before: Does he soak up the plaudits and rest for a few days? No, he does another grand wall the next day, and then a third the day after that. Whew! An interview with a young partner immediately after a gnarly traverse of 8,000-metre peaks in the Himalaya shows him totally shaken by Messner's commitment and supreme confidence in the face of almost unbearable risk.
Tomorrow: more recommended films.
Some images from the recent Adventure Canada cruise from Greenland to Labrador. When I travel Labrador on my own, it's either winter sledding or summer hiking and kayaking. I begin kayak expeditions in early July because the long days give greater flexibility for dealing with wind and minimizing the chance of polar bear encounters at night. But from the safety of a ship, fall is the best season because of the colors and absence of flies. Alexandra and I had been to Ramah in summer, and the fiord was pretty enough, but nothing like it appears in late September, when the ground cover is all red and gold.
Fall colors near Kangiqsualujjuaq (George River)
Nachvak Fiord, Torngat Mountains National Park, Labrador
Ramah Bay, Torngat Mountains, Labrador
Above St. John's Harbour, Saglek Bay
Above St. John's Harbour, Saglek Bay
Back from the Adventure Canada cruise. Some images from that later, but first: The ice foot is a feature well known to those who travel on sea ice, but in recent months I've heard a few people (including an arctic historian and one relatively new polar traveler) using the term without really understanding what it is. Here are some photos to illustrate:
The first image shows an aerial overview of the ice foot on the south coast of Ellesmere Island. The landfast (non-moving) ice is a typical highway for both past explorers and modern travelers. In this first photo, the ice of Jones Sound is smooth, so there is no need to use the ice foot, which lies just behind the barrier of tidal ice. (This tidal ice varies from insignificant to near-impenetrable, depending on local tides and shallowness of the water around shore.) In some places, though, even landfast ice may be so rough that sledding through it is a nightmare. With a heavily loaded sled, the ice in photo 2 allows 100 metres/hour of very difficult travel, if that. If a detour around this obstacle does not exist, you take to the ice foot (photo 3). The ice foot is smooth, continuous, great travel -- but it also slavishly follows the coastline, so it isn't necessarily great if the shore wiggles and indents radically. In photo 3, incidentally, notice the kayak stand from ancient Thule residents to this area.
Photo 4 shows another use for the ice foot. Sometimes near polynyas, strong currents sweep all the sea ice away, except for this narrow band of ice that clings to the shore like a shelf fungus. In this example, high tides in this region have made the ice foot form 10 feet above the open sea. You pick your away along this narrow causeway quickly and carefully, and hope that your weight won't break off the part you're standing on.
The Inuit of NW Greenland frequently used the ice foot around the polynyas in their area. Occasionally, where a chunk fell off, so that a gap existed in the ice foot, they had to negotiate tricky detours over bare rock. (see last photo, below) Still, for the traveler, the ice foot is a godsend in bad sledding conditions. In a pinch, it's also a great place to camp, although since polar bears travel the ice foot too -- they aren't dumb -- one camps there with a certain trepidation.
Off tomorrow to join Adventure Canada as one of their resource people on a cruise from Greenland to Labrador.
Yesterday I finished prescreening the adventure films for this year's Banff Mountain Film Festival. I won't say much, except that my favorite wasWild Bill's Run, a documentary from Minnesota about a crazy snowmobile expedition in 1972. I'm familiar with a good part of their route, and that they didn't perish was astonishing.
An arctic adventure film that makes you laugh is incredibly rare. The Arctic seems to force us to wax serious and sublime. Over the years, I've consciously tried to bring out the humorous side of arctic travel, probably unsuccessfully. If I'm not talking about the joy that travel on the land brings, I'm pissed at the clowns who exploit the Arctic in an attempt to craft themselves into heroes. Not funny.
If you have a chance, check out this one-hour film. It's airing later this month at the Yellowknife Film Festival, and -- though this is not yet official -- likely at the Banff Festival in early November.
They just don't make adventures like this any more: We're too plugged in. As was clear from another polar film that will be airing, beginners today get a huge head start by employing guides or consultants.
Noah Nochasak is back in Nain after his aborted kayak trip to Kangiqsualujjuaq with two southern partners. Here's a link to an interview he gave about the trip to the local radio station in Nain.
I'll be back in Labrador next month as a resource person on an arctic cruise with Adventure Canada. Although the ship won't be stopping in Nain this time, I may have a chance to see Noah's father Levi again at Hebron, where he's working for the season.
Noah Nochasak, Rod Mackinnon and Lev Tarasov are now at the national park base camp in Saglek Bay and will be flying home tomorrow -- Noah to Nain, Rod and Lev to Goose Bay and beyond. Noah's father Levi posted a chilling note of relief on Facebook last night. On the way around Gulch Cape, the three kayakers "almost got killed", said Levi, in "20-foot waves." When I spoke to Levi this morning, he had no more details to add, except that the partnership among the kayakers hadn't worked out either. Happens to all of us sometimes, especially on these expedition blind dates. People behave differently in difficulty and danger than they do socially, and very quickly you discover that a new partner will either be a friend for life or that after the trip, you will never want to see them again.
I wrote a little about Gulch Cape on July 26. Though it finishes in a relatively low and innocuous-seeming point compared to such looming Labrador headlands as Capes Uivak and Harrison, it extends so far east into the open Atlantic that tides, wind and current create a weird jumble of clashing influences. Before Alexandra and I did our own Torngats expedition, Smithsonian archaeologist Stephen Loring penciled some interesting landmarks on our topo maps. Beside Gulch Cape, he wrote ominously, "Everyone has a Gulch Cape in their lives."
Noah Nochasak and his father Levi.
Labrador archaeologist Stephen Loring.
Noah and his cronies are still slowly wending their way back to the Torngats park base camp on southern Saglek Bay, from which they'll catch a charter flight back to Nain. They've been stranded by wind on the north coast of Saglek for a couple of days, a half-day's paddle away from their new finishing point.
In July 2011, when Alexandra and I kayaked from Nain to Rigolet, we constantly saw dead harp seals that had washed ashore in the coves and beaches. Sometimes a cove had one seal carcass, sometimes a dozen. Neither seabirds nor polar bears were feeding on these carcasses, which had gone so bad that even scavengers could not stomach them.
I asked about these dead seals after the expedition. Apparently there had been so many along the Labrador coast that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans autopsied some of them, but didn't find any reasons for the die-off. The seals seemed healthy.
Yesterday a health website ran a story about a die-off of harbor seals in nearby New England. A Columbia University researcher had traced the cause to a new flu strain transmitted by seabirds. New England is not that far from the Labrador coast, especially for a bird, and it's reasonable to wonder whether the two die-offs are related.
Dead harp seals at the abandoned fishing village of Ailik, near Makkovik, Labrador.
Lot of news today, all bad (see also Ellesmere Island page). Noah Nochasak and his companions have decided to abort their kayak journey and return to Nain. Details are still sketchy, but Noah apparently called one of his relatives in Nain by satphone last night and said that the three kayaks kept getting separated in the wind. Considering that one boat might carry the tent, the other the tent fly, the other the stove or the gun for polar bear protection, this threat of separation is a big deal even for one night. That it happened repeatedly suggests a serious difference in speed between the paddlers. It also confirms what became clear from Noah's Spot position reports: they were frequently having to paddle in marginal conditions.
I'll have more details when I speak to Noah in a few days. I assume that they'll kayak back to the national park base camp at Saglek Bay and hitch home on a boat from there.
This would be a bitter disappointment for Noah. Again, I've never spoken to Lev, but Rod MacKinnon told me before he left that he was more interested in the way than the goal. As a prominent scientist, he's been goal-oriented enough in his career, I suspect, not to have to carry that with him when he kayaks.
Later...their retreat has begun. Noah's latest position report shows they have paddled south from their last camp at Nachvak Fiord and are now hidden inside Reddick Bight, one of the few landing places in that area. Understandably, they did not paddle an ambitious distance today.
In another big day, Noah and team have completed one of the most exposed sections, the 55-km stretch from Ramah around Gulch Cape and into Nachvak Fiord. Gulch Cape (photo below) is a wicked point that extends far east into the open North Atlantic, a gathering point for conflicting maritime influences. Although part of Gulch Cape is your classic looming headland, the business end is a long low rocky point, like a thumb sticking out into a turbulent ocean.
I have few photos from our own 2006 crossing -- sometimes you have to put away the camera and just take care of business -- but I managed a few quick snaps. They're camped on the south shore of Nachvak Fiord, on the grassy bench over Alexandra's right shoulder in the photo. They have only one more technical day to go before they're in more protected waters, with lots of easy landing spots. However, the polar bear encounters now go from intermittent to continuous. We dealt with 11 bears in six days from Nachvak north.
Noah and his partners were still in Ramah as of very early this morning. They are certainly having trouble, presumably with the wind: It has taken them 10 days to paddle from Hebron to Ramah, a distance Alexandra and I did in 6 easy (but calm) days toward the end of our expedition. Their daily mileage is good when they travel, but they're not able to travel often. Food becomes a factor: Although they picked up supplies at the Torngat park base camp in Saglek Bay, Kangiqsualujjuaq remains a long way off. Maybe they'll manage a second resupply at Iron Strand near the northern tip of Labrador. Iron Strand is a 5-mile stretch of flat beach not included in the national park because of its mining possibilities. A mining company is doing some preliminary work on those garnet-rich sands this summer, and I would assume that longliners will be coming and going frequently from Nain to Iron Strand, and could bring more food for the three kayakers.
Noah will go as long as it takes to reach Kangiqsualujjuaq. I'm not sure of Lev's schedule. However, Rod did not have an indefinite amount of time to complete this journey.
Tonight, Noah Nochasak, Rod MacKinnon and Lev Tarasov are camped at the abandoned Moravian village of Ramah, in northern Labrador's Torngat Mountains. As I've previously mentioned, they're out of touch and I can only make guesses about what's going on from Noah's daily Spot position reports and my own kayaking experience in the area. They've gone into Ramah Bay a fair way perhaps partly to see the historic ruins, but certainly also because the outer part of the bay has no good camp spots. It's all just rough and rocky coastline. Ramah, though, has a gentle beach and a small waterfall nearby that used to be the village's source of drinking water.
This was a long day's paddle for them, about 50 km. En route, they crossed Bear's Gut (a small fiord where katabatic winds can turn the seas from flat calm to heaving in minutes), and the Muzzle, a rough capeland where Alexandra and I had our hairiest paddling. They were weatherbound yesterday; they appear to have a lot of windbound days, followed by head-down mileage days in which they try to keep on schedule. If they really put their backs into it, they can be past the worst part of the coast in two days. I'd judge today's and their next day's paddling as the most exposed part of their route. Good stuff, guys.
Alexandra at the ruins of Ramah.
Just back from hiking Mount Robson with a friend. Despite dire weather forecasts, we had sunshine the entire four days. While driving home, we got stuck on the Trans Canada Highway when a mudslide came down near Banff and covered the highway. At first we abandoned the car and started to cycle the rest of the way home via a bike path (Robson park allows mountain biking for the first 7 km, so we had our wheels with us). Even the bike path required wading through a stretch of mud, resulting in well-coated feet. But then we heard that they reopened the eastbound TCH, so back to the car and home. Meanwhile, thigh-high mud and gravel plastered the westbound lanes for several more hours.
Meanwhile, in the real expedition department, Noah and crew have just begun the roughest part of their 900km kayak journey to Kangiqsualujjuaq. They're currently camped on the north shore of Saglek Bay. From here, the cliffs begin.
Noah Nochasak and team reached Hebron yesterday. They kayaked the 260 kilometres from Nain to Hebron in 11 days, including -- to judge from their Spot reports -- three or four days in which they did not travel because of those wicked Labrador winds.
It will take them one long day or two short days to reach Saglek and pick up their food resupply at the base camp of the Torngat Mountains National Park. From here, the technically hardest part of their journey begins: the 110 kilometres from Saglek to Deacon Head. This coast is unrelentingly cliffy, with only a few rough harbours, unless they want to undertake lengthy detours into the fiords. When Alexandra and I paddled that section in 2006, there were times we had to give up on a promising lunch spot or campsite because a polar bear was patrolling the beach. Other places, we could only land at high tide, because steeply dumping waves made the cobbled shore inaccessible during other phases of the tide cycle.
The residents of Hebron were relocated to more southern communities in 1959. But many people living in Nain today were born in Hebron -- or their parents were -- and its memory still lives vividly. Hebron, one of the Moravian missionary communities, had a lovely long church/school/missionary quarters that over the years has charmed many southern visitors. The red paint of the church had weathered to a photogenic auburn. Caribou wandered the haunted site.
Half a dozen years ago, renovations started on that old church. For a while, the unpainted, weathered wood looked pretty good, but the last time I visited it, in 2008, the beautiful building had become a little too white and polished. I'll be seeing it again in two months, when I join Adventure Canada as a resource person on their annual Greenland and Wild Labrador cruise. Hopefully in the interim, the church will have reacquired some of its former grungy appeal.
Three phases of the church at Hebron: the orange-roofed antique, the work in progress and the suburban bungalow look.
Noah and comrades have just rounded the corner after Lost Channel and are back in relatively sheltered waters after putting the Kaumajet Mountains behind them. The steep-sided fiord north of Lost Channel is usually a wind tunnel, if my two experiences kayaking it allow me to so generalize.
Lost Channel, above, is a narrow neck of land bifurcating what should be a continuous channel. For kayakers, it's more than a liftover, so it makes sense to time your day to camp there. Lots of Paleoeskimo rings to the left of my red tent suggest that earlier peoples did just that. The bank is high enough that a tent isn't washed by waves from either side in a gale. However, polar bears often rest here too, judging from the abundant prints.
Inuit legend about this weird little neck of land claims that there is an underwater hole through which seals can swim from one side of the channel to the other.
Noah, Lev and Rod spent last night at a cabin at Nutak, near the old village of Okak. They're trying to sleep in cabins as far as Saglek to minimize polar bear encounters. Although I know only what I can surmise from Noah's Spot position reports, I'm familiar with the area from my previous kayak journeys. I suspect they'll spend tonight at a cabin at Mugford Tickle, about 30 kilometres further. The cabin belongs to Tom Goodwin, owner of the Atsanik Lodge in Nain. There are always polar bears in Mugford, I'm told. In fact, I had a very close call with a polar bear beside the cabin during a kayaking trip in 2007.
The three of them had some trouble getting around Cape Kiglapait, a hulking cliff exposed to the open North Atlantic. They had to wait two days before conditions were suitable for kayaking the brief but exposed headland.
I've already introduced Noah to readers in my reports of the sledding expedition we did together from Nain to Kangiqsualujjuaq this past winter. Lev Tarasov is a physicist who works out of Memorial University in Newfoundland. Looking for a third member, Noah posted a notice on a Newfoundland kayaking site and Lev responded. Rod MacKinnon contacted me some months ago for information on kayaking Labrador, and I passed him on to Noah. Rod has not done a trip of anywhere near this length before, but in subsequent conversations he has always sounded level-headed and well-prepared. As well he might: Rod won the Nobel Prize for chemistry a few years ago, for his work on potassium channels. Now he's working on Labrador channels.
As a storyteller, I was sorely tempted to join Noah on this expedition. But I've already kayaked that entire route, except for the relatively uninteresting Ungava Bay section, and wanted to avoid five or six weeks of sleep deprivation listening for polar bears at night. The kayakers are going to be dealing with white bears almost daily from Mugford north. Southern eco-types get all soft and fluttery about the majestic polar bear, but believe me, when you're out there and a polar bear is poking around your camp every day at distances of 20 metres or less, it's a real pain.
Their current position, at Nutak.
Noah and his two partners, Lev Tarasov and Rod MacKinnon, leave Nain today to paddle 900 kilometres to Kangiqsualujjuaq via the Torngats, Killinek and Ungava Bay. Noah will be using the same homemade boat he had last year, below, while his partners will go with modern plastic kayaks. Fair winds to them!
Currently on a magazine assignment in Newfoundland, aboard the renovated trawler Wanderbird. Tonight we're in Ramea, a small island off the south coast.
Some Labrador expeditions: A couple of readers of this website are planning long journeys in Labrador this summer. One team of kayakers wants to re-do the route that Alexandra and I did last year, from Nain to Rigolet, and then continue to Goose Bay. Another fellow hopes to spend several weeks kayaking solo around Nain.
A canoe party (whom I haven't heard from) intends to paddle from the Smallwood Reservoir and down the George River. It's a very common route, done at least once or twice every summer, but the organizer has managed to raise $15,000 for it onKickstarter. Too bad Canadians can't use Kickstarter...
By far the most hardcore journey is the one my sledding partner, Noah Nochasak of Nain, has planned. With two American kayakers, Noah will paddle 900 km from Nain to Kangiqsualujjuaq. It's the same beginning and end point as our sledding expedition, but their route keeps to the coast rather than the interior. As Alexandra and I discovered when we paddled the length of the Torngats in 2006, the mountains' legendary winds are just one of the serious kayaking challenges. These katabatics and williwaws can rear up from 0 to 100kph in minutes; you have to eye the barometer, the topography and the sky like a fearful lemming and pray that one of these ghost winds does not begin in the middle of a 10- or 15-kilometre fiord crossing.
These insta-hurricanes are relatively rare. But these days, any party kayaking northern Labrador will have run-ins with polar bears. That's the real obstacle on Noah's trip, and why I took a pass on joining him. I've had so many close encounters with polar bears in the last few years that I'd like a short vacation from them. Tourists get all misty-eyed about spotting Nanook, this grand symbol of the Arctic, but the experience is somewhat different when the bear is 10 metres away and you have to convince it that you're a mean, ornery cuss who is too risky to tangle with, when really you just want to curl up in a ball and call for Mommy.
Noah's partners will use hard-shell kayaks, but Noah will paddle his latest homemade kayak, similar to the one he used last July when he joined Alexandra and I for a couple of days. Noah stretches canvas over his wooden frame; he prefers not to use traditional sealskin so he won't have to deal with more polar bears than necessary.
Noah shows Alexandra the frame of his latest kayak.
Some months ago, Parks Canada asked me to comment on the issue of firearms for polar bear protection in arctic national parks, especially in relation to the Torngat Mountains park of northern Labrador. It's an important and little-understood issue: Because so few people travel these arctic parks independently, the majority of hikers or kayakers down south who dream of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure in the north don't realize that these new northern parks are de facto off limits to everyone except local Inuit, who are allowed to be armed. Here's the letter I wrote Parks Canada:
For the last 25 years, I've spent one to four months every year in a tent in the Arctic, while traveling by kayak, skis or on foot. I've had over a dozen close encounters with curious polar bears, including several in Labrador. I have also had many, many further incidents of less curious polar bears passing within 20 metres of me or my camp, especially in Torngat Mountains National Park. Based on my experience, anecdotal reports from others and the recent polar bear population census, I would have to say that for campers in the coastal areas of the Torngats, the odds of a close polar bear encounter approach 100 percent.
At the risk of stating something that is obvious to any resident of the Arctic, or any scientist, outfitter or traveler who visits the north regularly, it is unacceptably dangerous to travel in polar bear country without a firearm. Parks Canada’s prohibition on carrying firearms needs to be changed to fit the reality of northern parks, and it’s good to see that some changes are finally happening. But more need to be implemented.
Thus far, Parks Canada has attempted to solve the polar bear issue by allowing armed Inuit bear monitors to accompany tour groups. This solution works for cruise ship passengers’ brief shore excursions. But it does not address the basic issue of how Canadians can safely visit northern parks in the same way that they can visit every other national park in the country -- as a private party. When these arctic national parks were created, the intention was not to limit the experience of visitors to highly controlled situations.
In some northern parks, polar bears have been a minor issue until now. But as we read every day, the Arctic is changing. While some polar bear populations are declining, the number of bears in the eastern Arctic has increased, at least temporarily. As sea ice conditions change with warming climate, bears will turn up commonly where they have been rare or absent historically. A polar bear attack occurred inland some years ago in Auyuittuq National Park, along a popular hiking route. Quttinirpaaq National Park on Ellesmere Island had its first polar bear incident a few years ago, when a bear investigated a hiking group's camp.
In recent years, Parks Canada made an error in creating more northern national parks without first addressing the issue of visitor safety from polar bears. This is especially true with parks such as Torngat Mountains, Ukkasiksalik, Sirmilik, Aulavik and Wapusk. Torngat Mountains has gone from a dream destination for a small number of experienced travelers to a place that has become impossible to visit, except by cruise ship or in a highly controlled base camp, for anyone except Inuit and scientists granted special dispensation to be armed. The base camp has been an excellent idea that has created visitor opportunities while these changes were pending, but in the long run, it’s very limited. Among other things, the media will quickly tire of covering one experience. Return visitors will also be absent.
National parks are not like Canadian Wildlife Service bird sanctuaries, open only to special groups of people. Traditionally, visitors are welcome to experience national parks in a variety of suitable ways. It might be argued that controlled group experiences rather than the uncontrolled experiences of small numbers of private travelers are the future of arctic national parks, and that may be true. But these national parks were not created with this in mind, and many southern Canadians, who feel good when they see a new green park outline on a map of the country, would be shocked to know that these parks are de facto private preserves, not open to all individuals equally. While everyone currently has the option of visiting these parks without a firearm, that is not only unsafe, but it will last only until the first fatal polar bear attack and subsequent lawsuit. Then Parks Canada will have to ban or severely restrict hiking, canoeing, skiing and kayaking because of liability issues.
Polar bears have become a worldwide symbol of our changing climate, and some would argue that we must leave them alone at all costs. But a defence kill makes no impact on the population, because it comes out of the hunting quota of the nearest arctic village.
Even if an independent traveler were willing to hire a local guide able to carry firearms under a Land Claims Agreement -- setting aside for a moment the issue of expense and the fact that while a local guide may add immeasurably to the experience, a guided trip is a different experience -- it is difficult to find an Inuit locally with the qualifications to kayak or ski many kilometers along an exposed coastline. I know of only one such individual in the entirety of Nunavut, Nunavik and Nunatsiavut who fits these qualifications.
Not just independent travelers such as myself are affected. One outfitter has stopped visiting Sirmilik National Park because he feels that without a firearm, he cannot protect his clients. Some guides likewise refuse to work in Aulavik National Park, on Banks Island. Till now, outfitters have the option to hire armed Inuit guides. But outfitters who have tried to do this haven’t managed to find someone. Realistically, few northerners are willing to carry a 40 kilogram pack for 15 kilometers a day in exchange for the daily $150 or so that a hiking guide typically makes. The going rate for an Inuit polar bear monitor is $400/day, according to some scientists. This rate would make an already expensive trip still more inaccessible, and further limit the number of people who would join such a tour.
If the above outlines the problem, what are the possible solutions?
1. Limit visitor experience in northern national parks to organized commercial encounters, mainly day hikes with armed polar bear monitors from cruise ships or a fenced-in base camp. This would be a sad denouement for arctic national parks, and in the long run would likely prove deleterious. Public appreciation of wilderness depends on intimate experiences shared by word of mouth or through some form of public communication. Visitors such as myself who travel the Arctic independently are few, but our influence is strong disproportionate to our numbers, because many of us who are drawn to this sort of travel try to document our love of the place in some public way.
2. Create the means either to allow northern park managers to allow private travelers to carry firearms on a case-by-case basis, or create a qualification protocol that would allow individuals to carry a firearm for self-defence in polar bear areas. In the first case, some national parks already assess visitors before allowing other potentially risky activities. Kluane, for example, appraises mountaineering experience before allowing a group into the backcountry.
There are precedents for the successful use of protective firearms by individuals in arctic national parks. It is important to point this out, because two objections to firearms in a national park are 1) that some visitors will use protection as an excuse to justify shooting a polar bear for sporting or adventure reasons; and 2) that trigger-happy visitors will shoot too many polar bears unnecessarily, when non-lethal forms of deterrence would have worked.
The Norwegian arctic islands of Svalbard are mostly a national park with a considerable population of polar bears, and get visitors of all kinds, including independent parties. Because Svalbard gets so many visitors compared to Canadian arctic parks, it is a good indicator of what will happen as arctic tourism and travel grows. Here, park authorities so strongly encourage visitors to arm themselves that many tourists on Svalbard believe (wrongly) that carrying a firearm is mandatory. Firearms can even be rented locally. In the last two years, firearms saved the lives of two groups in Svalbard attacked by predatory polar bears. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of defence kills are by residents.
Since a defence kill comes out of the polar bear quota of the local community, it would be important to reasonably compensate a village in the event of a defence kill, if independent travelers or non-Beneficiary guides were allowed to carry firearms.
The use of lethal force on a polar bear is a last resort and a tragedy that all wilderness travelers must strive at considerable personal risk to avoid. I carry bear spray (in summer), plus flares and rubber bullets. I also use a homemade bear alarm fence, which gives advance warning if a polar bear breaks the perimeter of my camp while I’m sleeping.
I have never had to kill a polar bear, but I would not travel where I do without a firearm. It is simply too dangerous. The current policy has unfortunately created a have and have-not culture, where some local residents can safely enjoy all the pleasures of an arctic national park while most Canadians cannot.
It is important that gateway villages to these national parks, such as Nain for the Torngats, Resolute for Quttinirpaaq, Pond Inlet for Sirmilik, etc. should have safety deterrents such as flares, bear spray and other items that cannot be carried on passenger aircraft readily available for purchase in the local Co-op or hotel, just as white gas currently is. I would also strongly encourage the testing of alarm fences, such as the kind commonly used on Svalbard, and perhaps make the use of such a fence mandatory for independent or guided camping in the park. In my experience and observation, most serious incidents occur at night, because the bear has time to get comfortable with the strange smells and objects of a camp and can approach closely without being deterred.
Any change to firearms regulations should only apply to arctic national parks with polar bears. I live on the border of Banff National Park. We have grizzlies, and grizzlies sometimes kill people, but no one, including myself, believes visitors in Banff should arm themselves before going on a hike. Grizzlies are different animals.
Parks Canada has been aware of this polar bear issue since at least 2001, when two hikers were mauled by a polar bear in Katannilik territorial park, near Iqaluit. For almost 10 years, little changed, except the number of new arctic national parks that were formed without addressing this basic issue. It is encouraging to see that the unique situation in northern parks is now being acknowledged, and that changes allowing non-Beneficiary guides to carry firearms to protect their groups seems to be in the offing. I would encourage Parks Canada to extend this to allow the small number of dedicated individuals who travel northern parks to continue to do so. There may be some public relations issues to address if this were enacted, but the alternative is addressing even more awkward public relations issues when an unarmed individual in an arctic park is killed by a polar bear.
Because an expedition diet consists of so much fat and rich food, I was curious whether cholesterol would drop as a result of the hard exercise or increase because of the diet. So I had myself tested immediately before I went on a hard winter expedition, and immediately after I returned. I hadn't lost much weight, just the usual two to three kilos, but cholesterol plummeted. Exercise won.
The current issue of Explore magazine lists me as one of Canada's top 10 adventurers. A real honor. By the way, for anyone interested in attending a worthwhile fundraiser, I'll be at Massey College in Toronto on May 17 as part of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society's inaugural Explorers Dinner.
Explorers Web interviewed Noah and I about our recent expedition. My interview appeared yesterday; Noah's is upcoming.
Interesting how they linked to an old story about my Expedition BS list. I think the editors found that list amusing, although the site itself reports mainly on the usual North Pole/South Pole repetitions. (However, I admit that if I were editing such a site, my list of expeditions worth covering would be small.)
I'd add another item of Expedition BS to the list nowadays: the hype about "speed records". If you do the same route as everyone else, and you're trying to get attention, you have to reach for ways to distinguish your project; but it really is reaching in most cases. They present it as if they're elite athletes lowering the record for the 100 metres or the Boston Marathon, when it's more like shaving a few hours off the times of the five other people who've walked from Austin to Albuquerque.
The barrens of Labrador have had a mystique for me since my first Inuit friend, the late Auggie Andersen, described a caribou hunt gone wrong there in the late 1970s. He and several partners had built a snow house, but one of their party wanted to hurry back home to Nain, so all followed. Night had fallen. They were en route on the shelterless barrens when they saw a wall of wind coming toward them. "There was no time to do anything. It hit us like a wall," said Auggie.
The winds were so strong that their snowmobiles overturned and were quickly buried by drifting snow. Two people succumbed to the cold almost instantly. The others linked arms to try to stick together, but they were blown apart. One other man died. Some of the stronger survivors, including Auggie, made a desperate attempt to reach a cabin many kilometres away, while others hunkered down and waited in a half-collapsed tent, without food or water.
Auggie managed to reach the cabin after two days of staggering across the tundra, and ultimately, he and the remainder survived. For the rest of his life, he carried a scar around his wrist, like a burn scar, from where the metal accordion band of his watch had frozen to his wrist.
Originally, he told me this story to deter me from crossing the barrens. So forewarned, I tried to avoid the area, but my alternative route did not work out and ultimately I had to face this terrible place. The treeless region was very narrow at that spot, and I had good weather, so I hurried and put it behind me in three days.
The barrens along our chosen route this time were much wider, and Noah and I were exposed to its dangerous winds for almost three weeks. We encountered nothing like Auggie had had, but every night, we nailed down our tent on bare lake or river ice with the hammer end of my ice ax. I also carry snow stakes for hard snow, but nails on ice are more reliable. In the past, my tent has weathered 110 kph winds thanks to this bombproof way of staking it down. (A couple of the key anchor points are secured even more solidly with ice screws.)
If it looked like a storm was coming, we built a snow wall. Once we excavated a pit to lower the profile of the tent. And we were very conservative, stopping early when the wind seemed to be rising to a velocity where setting up the tent would be difficult. On these expeditions, mileage is important, but the most important act of the day is getting the tent up securely in the evening.
Few aspects of sledding are harder than hauling uphill with a full load. Depending on the weight and the steepless of the hill, sometimes you have to get down on all fours for leverage. Other times, two people need to haul the sleds one at a time. Below, a clip of my partner Noah doggedly tackling a ravine locally called the Pearly Gates. It was near the beginning of the expedition, and our sleds were at their heaviest.
Home at last after sledding 550km with Noah Nochasak from Nain, Labrador to Kangiqsualujjuaq, the easternmost village on Ungava Bay. It took us 44 days, only two days less than my first 600km sledding expedition in Labrador and infinitely longer than my quickest sledding expedition at that distance (500km in 11 days, from Eureka to Grise Fiord on Ellesmere Island).
Why such a huge discrepancy in times over the same distance? Because travel speed is largely about snow and ice and weather conditions. We had near-constant headwinds, relatively poor snow and surprisingly rough ice along the George River. Here, the rapids froze in a jumble of ice blocks that was at times comparable to rough pressure or tidal ice. And when we neared the mouth of the river, we had Ungava Bay's huge tides to contend with. Below, what confronted us on our second to last day; adversarial conditions to the very end. Luckily, by then the sleds were light enough that we could horse them over and around these blocks; with fully laden sleds, this sort of ice is a one- to two-kilometre per day ordeal.
In the next few days, I'll cover some aspects of our journey, which was inspired by Noah's dream of reviving traditional Inuit travel that for a couple of generations now has been replaced by snowmobiles and motorboats. For now, here are a few images from the journey, including our wonderful arrival in Kangiqsualujjuaq, where almost half the town came out to greet us. From a distance, the line of people looked like a forest.
Above left: Noah sledding up to the height of land, on our way toward the George River. Above right: Arrival in Kangiqsualujjuaq.
Noah and Jerry.
Jerry and Noah are on the home stretch, following along the George River and approximately 220km from their destination of Kangiqsualujjuaq PQ.
They had some weather delays while crossing the barrens of very cold temperatures with high winds of gusts up to 70km making it too cold to travel. Jerry and Noah are both in great spirits however, Noah is experiencing some pain in both legs forcing a few more rest days.
Off to Labrador today for the expedition with Noah Nochasak, 550 km from Nain to the mouth of the George River. I won't be updating this website until after my return at the end of March. The worst of winter is behind us, but Labrador is still often -25 to -30C -- cold but nothing like the -45 or -55 that sometimes occurs in the interior in early February.
Noah and I had an interview today with CBC's regional Labrador Morning program. It will be airing tomorrow. You can stream it here after Feb. 17 or download it as a podcast from iTunes. Noah had a pre-expedition adventure of his own this week, successfully hunting his first polar bear. It's a big deal for a young Inuit fellow, and an accomplishment that everyone up north can relate to: "Lot of people want to be my friend on Facebook now," says Noah, "but when I kayaked [300 km] from Nain to Hebron last summer, no one said anything."
At this time before an expedition, my L.A. partner Bob might be picking up a last-minute pair of ski bibs at The North Face store on Rodeo Drive. Today my Inuit partner, Noah, is out on his first polar bear hunt, trying to score himself a pair of pants. Each method has its charms...
All systems are go, I leave on Feb. 15 for Labrador, with an estimated expedition start of Feb. 20 from Nain. I've even learned how to pronounce our destination, Kangiqsualujjuaq, with reasonable fluency.
It's always exciting when the great unruly piles of equipment finally coalesce into neat units ready for shipment. In this case, most of the gear is going to Labrador in one great sled load, boxed for protection with cardboard reinforced by several rolls of duct tape. Thanks to Air Labrador and to the Canadian Rangers, a northern branch of military volunteers, for helping transport this enormous load from Calgary to Nain. Shipment of sleds typically costs at least as much as the sleds themselves, so I simply leave the sleds in the north. Some travelers have a girl in every port; I have sleds in every port.
This week's Nunatsiaq News, out of Iqaluit, has a nice story of my partner Noah and our upcoming journey. Noah recently came up with a wonderful name for our project: the Tukimuatvut Expedition. Tukimuatvut is an Inuktitut word meaning, "We're going in the right direction." And Noah certainly is. I leave for Labrador in mid-February. The journey begins approximately Feb. 20.
Meanwhile, ExplorersWeb -- a valuable and honest resource for who's doing what -- has a recent photo essay on the war wounds of this year's crop of Antarctic travelers. The images of frostbitten digits and raw blistered feet make me cringe, not out of horror from the rigors of the polar trail (which is the implication) but from how unnecessary these injuries are. Frostbite and blisters indicate that you've chosen the wrong footwear or are not taking care of yourself out there. They are not inevitable.
January 5, 2012
Next expedition: Beginning in February, manhauling 550km from Nain (Labrador) to Kangiqsualujjuaq (northern Quebec)
Noah and Jerry
In just over a month, I'll be leaving for Labrador to sled from Nain to what was formerly called George River Post with Noah Nochasak of Nain. Noah, 23, is the only Inuit guy I know who is passionate about long-distance travel. Last summer, paddling his homemade kayak, he traveled 300km alone from Nain to Hebron. He didn't want to go alone, but despite knocking door to door, he couldn't find anyone willing to go with him. He also joined Alexandra and I for two days at the beginning of our month-long July kayak journey from Nain to Rigolet.
The previous winter, Noah tried to do a long snowshoe trek, pulling his own wooden sled, or komatik, behind him, but had equipment problems and had to abort. His trek was a mixture of modern and traditional, with the emphasis on traditional: He brought a nylon dome tent, but also an Inuit seal oil lamp. This sort of lamp is fine when simmering all day in the snow house, but since it's not pressurized, it takes forever for a traveler to melt enough drinking water on it.
550 km is a decent distance, but I've done expeditions around that length 15 or 16 times before. The new and most exciting part of this upcoming trek will be sharing my winter travel secrets with Noah, and learning from him about the Inuit approach to life on the land. Our food will be largely dried, but he'll also bring raw seal and caribou and hunt ptarmigan en route. (I'll share the seal and caribou but will probably pass on the raw ptarmigan.) In future, I expect he'll take my techniques and adapt them to a more traditional way of travel, which would be so cool.
You don't often get a chance to help out a promising young traveler, and maybe also be present at the beginning of a renaissance of traditional Inuit travel. No reason why only white guys from the south should be doing these crazy arctic treks. Sometimes, all it takes is one person: Further south in Labrador, Innu elder Elizabeth Penashue has been leading snowshoe treks for years, and now several Innu are journeying in a way that was lost for a couple of generations.