In July 2013, a polar bear dragged a hiker out of his tent in Labrador's Torngat Mountains. The rest of his group -- part of a Sierra Club tour to that national park -- managed to scare off the bear by firing flares. The hiker was badly injured but was medivaced out after a few hours and survived.
A New York journalist working for an environmental group has just come out with a Kindle ebook about the incident, called Melt Down: Terror at the Top of the World. She combines the story of the attack with an overview about disappearing sea ice and its effect on polar bears. She connects climate change with an increasing number of polar bear/human encounters. The implication is that skinny bears are desperately seeking out human prey.
Her story of the attack was gripping, and her background on polar bears and melting sea ice was pretty good, too. But climate change had nothing to do with this attack. By all accounts, this bear was healthy. Starvation, in fact, has nothing to do with most polar bear attacks on people.
I've seen at least 100 polar bears out on the land, and have had to chase away over a dozen predatory individuals. Like the Torngats attack, many of these incidents happened at night, when I was sleeping. An approaching bear becomes increasingly comfortable with the sights and smells of a quiet camp. It gets closer. Then things may escalate.
Most predators are opportunists. If a potential meal presents itself, they'll consider it, even though it's not their usual fare. But predators are also conservative. If this unfamiliar prey seems formidable, they'll think twice. Predators have to avoid injury, because a wounded animal usually perishes. Polar bear researcher Nikita Ovsyanikov once told me that polar bears are among the most conservative animals in the world. This makes sense, because their typical prey, the ring seal, is harmless, so hunting is a danger-free activity. They aren't used to prey that fights back.
Almost all my close calls with polar bears have been with adolescent males, like the one above. Like their human counterparts, adolescent males are cocky and curious. They haven't learned humility.
Alexandra and I also had an incident in Labrador in 2011 with a full-grown male, during one of our kayak expeditions. It allowed itself to be chased away but wouldn't leave the scene. It kept returning. Although this was a problem bear, it was big and fat and healthy.
Very few travelers have had as many encounters with polar bears as I have, but one who has is Alfred Duller. Alfred, a retired schoolteacher from Austria, has spent 30 years hiking and kayaking Labrador. He's been pulled from his tent twice by polar bears, including by a mother with cubs. His experience with predatory bears has run the gamut: males, females, adolescents. Like me, he's never had to deal with a skinny bear. They're just not common. I've seen only one: on the Lower Savage Islands off the south coast of Baffin Island. This was during a cruise with Adventure Canada, where every summer I'm one of the resource people. We photographed the animal from the safety of a Zodiac.
Most polar bears scare off fairly easily, but the usual deterrents might not work with an animal like this, which has nothing to lose. You might have to shoot it, and anyone who travels the Arctic has to be mentally prepared to do this, even though the last thing a traveler wants is to kill a polar bear. But such a desperate animal was not the culprit last year in the Torngats.
The Sierra Club used to run tours in the High Arctic. Rather than work the same area every year, they picked new exploratory routes, in exciting parts of Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg Islands. No other company offered those imaginative adventures up there.
Nevertheless, when I heard that the Sierra Club had a tour planned for the Torngats, I wondered what they were thinking. My first experience in the Torngats had been on a similar backpacking tour back in 1991, but there were no polar bears then. The population has since exploded, perhaps because of the current moratorium on harp seal hunting. Nachvak Fiord is particularly dangerous. When Alexandra and I kayaked the length of the Torngats in 2006, we saw more polar bears in Nachvak Fiord than anywhere else. We had special permission to carry a firearm in the new national park, but the Sierra Club guides did not. As I've written before, firearms are a vital last resort in polar bear country. No one travels the Arctic without one. The prohibition against firearms in all Canadian national parks makes certain arctic reserves, including the Torngats, currently unsafe to travel.
According to Melt Down, the group carried an electric fence and a flare gun in lieu of a firearm. Flares are very effective; fences are only good if you use them properly. If you don't, they provide a false sense of security. This group's fence seemed to be a lot like the bear bells worn by inexperienced hikers here in the Rockies: a mere talisman. In recent years, three parties have had serious incidents with polar bears when their fences did not work properly. All these cases seem to have been more operator error than defective product.
My own security fence emits a loud alarm if a polar bear interrupts the circuit by breaking the perimeter wire. The noise might scare the bear away, but its primary function is to wake me up before the bear reaches the tent. Fences are a pain. Mine takes at least half an hour to set up. At the end of a long day, that's significant. The fence also requires small repairs almost daily. False alarms are common.
Alfred Duller's fence is more elaborate, as befitting someone who has been dragged from his tent by a polar bear. The diameter of his enclosed zone is about 60 metres. He understandably prefers lots of warning, but he sets up more base camps than I do. It's hard to spend an hour or two setting up a fence on a long-distance expedition where one packs up and travels every day.
The Sierra Club's borrowed fence did not sound an alarm but supposedly gave a strong shock to anything that brushed against it. The ebook gave the impression that it was not working well, but no one was willing to touch it to verify its effectiveness.
Judging from one photo in the ebook, the attack happened near the site below, where our own group camped in 1991 and not far from where Alexandra and I briefly set up our tent in 2006 before a polar bear showed up with her two cubs. We immediately relocated to the other side of the fiord.
The Sierra Club group spotted two polar bears on their second day, one a female with a cub, the other a male. The male approached until a flare made it retreat. But polar bears often don't flee entirely, they just withdraw a brief distance, then go about their business again. Often they wander off for good. Sometimes not. This bear lay down on a ridge nearby and just watched them.
For some reason, they didn't move their camp. It was a rainy afternoon, and they had faith in their talismanic bear fence. It's easy to speak from hindsight, of course, but without question if I found myself in Nachvak Fiord, with a polar bear lying down on a nearby knoll, I would have immediately moved camp as far inland as I could, rain or not. I would have tried to increase distance by going high up a ridge, although even that isn't a guaranteed escape: A researcher once noted that in bad weather, polar bears sometimes go high, seemingly preferring the snowfall of the upper reaches to the rain downslope.
Still, they're most common along the coast, so even a kilometre or two inland would have removed the group from the casual beachcombers, if not from the bears actively drawn to human smells. There actually aren't many of these. Most polar bears prefer to avoid people. But the hikers needed to get away from that male loitering around. It didn't bother them the first night, so they pushed their luck and stayed there a second night.
Most of the hikers had his or her own tent, all serried within the tight perimeter of the fence. One of the men was a loud snorer, and he was the one the bear targeted in the middle of the night. It's impossible to tell if his snoring drew the bear to him, although I've had two incidents where shouting from inside a tent, where the bears couldn't see me, made them even more interested. I've never read any research about this, nor had it confirmed by Inuit hunters, but based on those two episodes, I'll never make noise at a polar bear from inside a tent again. By comparison, shouting from outside, within full view of the animal, sometimes scares it off.
Whereas my friend Alfred was dragged out of his tent both times by his sleeping bag, this bear seized the unfortunate Sierra Club hiker by his head. The fence had evidently not worked. Its electric jolt either wasn't strong enough to deter a thousand-pound, heavily insulated polar bear, or the fence was not sending out a current. The man's screams woke the camp, as the bear dragged him toward the beach. One of their guides fired two flares, and the polar bear dropped its victim and lumbered off.
As quickly as it had started, the incident was over. That's the nature of a polar bear attack. Life sort of scales back to normal instantly, although your nerves remain so jangled that you certainly don't sleep again that night.
What made this attack different, of course, was that the man was gravely injured. A physician in the group managed to stabilize him. Eventually he was evacuated by helicopter to Kuujjuaq, then flown to Montreal. After several operations, he recovered. Although he was a U.S. lawyer, he was big-spirited enough to sue neither Parks Canada nor the Sierra Club, which put clients in a predicament that even the Torngats' own risk management consultant called "only a matter of time." The man even returned to Nachvak Fiord this past summer, by boat, with the journalist.
I'd summarize the causes of this incident as follows:
1. They relied too much on a fence without understanding either how (or whether) it worked or its limitations. When sleeping in polar bear country, with or without a fence, you have to keep one ear always awake, listening for sounds. The bear often pokes around camp for some time before making its move. On expeditions in polar bear country, it's important not to be so exhausted at the end of the day that you sleep too soundly.
2. A polar bear was hanging around their camp for two days, yet they failed to relocate.
3. Although tour operators have worked the Torngats intermittently since the 1970s, the explosion of polar bears in northern Labrador has made hiking unsafe along the coast, especially since the creation of the national park in 2006 has meant that outfitters and independent travelers can no longer carry a firearm. Only local Inuit can. (Adventure Canada uses armed Inuit bear monitors when taking passengers on day hikes in the Torngats.)
Near the end of Melt Down, park superintendent Judy Rowell suggests that local people who know the Torngats would only do that sort of camping a minimum of 10 kilometres inland, well away from most polar bears. Setting aside the fact that Inuit no longer travel that way, retreating 10 kilometres from the ocean makes little practical sense in this coastal range. With or without a gun, I would be very nervous camping again on the shores of Nachvak Fiord. Polar bears are sure to pass closely. Most will not bother you, but you have to be prepared for one or two serious encounters. It is certainly not a place for tour groups.
Occasionally I'm contacted by historians working on arctic books set in the areas I've traveled. They've done their archival work, but as a rule, they've never been north. They're looking for details on what the place is actually like, from someone familiar with both the environment and the subject of their research. I'm happy to help, especially because in my own books, I often try to reinterpret explorers' adventures and misadventures from the perspective of an educated traveler.
One of these historians has just come out with his biography of the Fram, the greatest of all polar ships. Published by the University Press of New England, Charles W. Johnson's Ice Ship chronicles the Fram's three classic expeditions under Norway's great polar trio of Nansen, Sverdrup and Amundsen.
I've visited the Fram at its final resting place near Oslo, where it is housed as a museum. And on Ellesmere Island, I've seen bolts to which the Fram was moored, memorial crosses to the two crewmen who perished on the expedition and dozens of camps where Sverdrup and his men discovered Axel Heiberg Island and covered more of Ellesmere Island than every other explorer combined.
While Ice Ship isn't a mainly a picture book, its 9x9" format includes many old photos from those expeditions. And it incorporates information that has only become public in recent years -- the suicide of Sverdrup's doctor, the sometimes acrimonious rivalry between scientists and sailors on the Second Fram Expedition, and what lay behind the conflict between Amundsen and Johansen, who was such a strong traveler and had figured so prominently on Nansen's expedition. (Moral: Even if a leader screws up, you criticize him at your peril.)
Last month I prescreened many of the films for the upcoming Banff Mountain Film Festival. Three or four other prescreeners and I waded through all the good and bad films entered this year in the Mountain Environment/Natural History, Mountain Culture and Adventure categories. Below, some personal favorites.
Note that not all of these will be screened at the festival or the following world tour. Some of them are just too long -- there is limited room for 90-minute films. But if you have a chance to see them somewhere, they are worth it.
Mountain Environment & Natural History
Touching the Wild
How does the Marlboro Man spend his time when he can no longer do cigarette ads? He roams the Wyoming chaparral with a herd of mule deer who've adopted him as a family member. This PBS Nature documentary with the totally forgettable name is an unforgettable watching experience. Naturalist Joe Hutto really is your classic Hollywood cowpoke. He squints, he carries a lever-action 30-30, he wears a beautifully styled denim shirt, he sheds a reluctant tear -- but not before lowering his head modestly into the shadows. Joking aside, he's a great on-camera presence, and his intimate and emotional connection with some local mule deer is pure magic.
16 Legs -- Spider Love
The festival always gets lots of competent BBC and National Geographic wildlife films, but this one is different -- quirky, funny, a one-off project. A arachnologist hires a cinematographer to film the mating of a Tasmanian cave spider. Like many cave creatures, the spider does not like light -- an obstacle to filming. It also tends to remain motionless for weeks at a time. When the scientist first appears on camera, dressed in a black shirt flamboyantly embroidered with large spiders, he earns a chuckle. It's not the last laugh in this very engaging film. Unfortunately, the trailer captures none of this.
A small gold-mining town in Columbia under threat from greedy Canadian developers takes matters into its own hands. Sounds like your usual environmental morality play, but extremely well done.
A cartoon telling of the rediscovery of a supposedly extinct species of stick insect on exotic Lord Howe Island in the Tasman Sea.
Superb documentary of America's infatuation with dams.
And Then We Swam
Everywhere but the polar regions, the British are competent adventurers; but culturally they love to embark on mega-projects with little knowledge and only pluck to see them through. This is another fine example of that genre. Two young guys set off to row across the Indian Ocean without a support boat or any experience rowing. Incredibly, they cover 3,500 miles until just before landfall in Mauritius, when they try to get through a reef and disaster strikes.
Under the Wings
Alas, this 87-minute film will not be shown at the festival. A commercial jet pilot, soaring at 37,000 feet above everything, wonders what the world beneath him is like, so he decides to cycle from Guangzhou airport in China to Paris along the flight path he knows so well. Long-distance tensions with his wife add add a recognizable but little-explored reality to this imaginative journey.
Mystery of the Arctic Cairn
A journey on Ellesmere Island, along a route I've traveled myself. I kinda wonder why they brought four dogs with them -- you only need one as a polar bear guard, and dogs eat almost as much as people, increasing the load -- but they've done a good job at making a sledding journey engaging. I love sledding, but I recognize that it can be like watching paint dry; all the interesting stuff is internal.
Even the world's remotest places are slowly modernizing, and this film shows the temptations of television and internet coming to medieval Bhutan. It focuses on a boy studying to be a monk but who really just wants to be a kid. The intimacy is striking; it's as if the camera isn't there.
All great films have one feature in common: memorable characters. Here, two eccentric Egyptians, an old woman and an herbalist, lovingly tend their oasis gardens in the countryside far from Cairo, the pyramids and politics.
A weeper about a 90-year-old man, his love affair with his wife and with flyfishing, and his war memories. Only marginally about mountains, but possibly the best film at this year's festival.
No trailer on this one. Portrays a small mountain village in northern Italy through profiles of residents with different and sometimes clashing relationships to it -- the young woman who dreams of moving away, the stranger who settled here, the farmer who loves his lot, the guy who succeeded as a businessman in a far-off city and now returns to his native village only as a somewhat stuffy outsider. Lovely cinematography.
Expeditions as Weight Loss Programs
Part of the fun of expeditions is being able to eat as much as you want, whatever you want, and still lose weight. A pound of chocolate a day? Check. A breakfast or supper bowl so heavy that you can barely lift it? Check. Brownies, candies, butter in everything? Check, check, check.
I shed a few pounds on every expedition, but because I know how much food to bring, the weight loss is rarely more than five pounds or so, even on a hard two month sledding trek. The most I ever lost was on a relatively non-physical trip: a month in the Karakum Desert of Turkmenistan. My Russian friends who organized it brought little food; we lived mainly on bread and tomatoes, and not a lot of those. I came back after four weeks 15 pounds lighter and looking pretty gaunt.
Some of my expedition partners have lost a lot of weight. When Bob Cochran and I manhauled 700km up the east coast of Ellesmere Island in 2007, I lost almost nothing, while Bob lost 25 pounds. We ate the same breakfasts and suppers, but Bob didn't eat enough during the day. It's hard to eat large amounts of frozen food, but you have to force yourself. When he returned home to Los Angeles and put on his city clothes, Bob said, "I felt like a little boy wearing his father's pants."
When an expedition ends, you don't begin to gain weight back immediately. Your metabolism continues shrew-like for some time. How long depends on the length and severity of the trip. A hard month and a half of travel gives you about a week when you can do no exercise, eat like a horse and still lose weight. This afterdrop is a feature of every trip. You lose weight as your muscles shrink. Muscle is heavy, and it's not uncommon to drop an extra four pounds, beyond what you lost on the trip itself, in the first few days after returning home.
If anyone wants to lose 20 pounds while eating all they want, this is the way. There's a niche to be filled running expeditions as weight-loss clinics.
Prowling the long strand at Burnett Bay
A grey whale gives itself a good scratch on the sandy bottom near camp.
One of the intimate views in the Hakai area, off the central BC coast.
lexandra and I recently returned from a small non-Arctic adventure, kayaking 250 kilometres off the central coast of British Columbia from Bella Bella to Port Hardy, on northern Vancouver Island. It took us 10 easy days. Only the last day, when we paddled 50km to Port Hardy to avoid bad weather that was moving in, was at an expedition pace. In other words, you hurt a bit and are somewhat bagged at the end of the day.
A 250km journey is a strange beast, neither expedition nor recreational trip. I haven't done many of them; this one and last year's 200 km circumski around Mount Logan are the only two. Usually I prefer 400km and up. The 10-day trip differs from the 25, 30 or 50-day journey in that the end is in play from the beginning. In other words, on a month-long expedition, if you're weatherbound for a couple of days near the beginning, it doesn't matter. You can make it up imperceptibly along the way. But on a 10-day trip, a delay of any sort changes the arithmetic dramatically. You suddenly have to paddle 30 km a day instead of 20. On a short trip, thinking two or three days ahead is necessary from the start.
Since Alexandra and I knew that we could cover 50 kilometres if we had to, the 25 km/day target was quite conservative. It allowed us to paddle from 7:30am till 1 pm or so and have lots of time to prowl the beaches around our campsite at the end of the day. As usual in kayaking, when the need to cover distance creates a certain pressure, we got up early (5am) in order to paddle mostly during the calm mornings, before the afternoon winds rise. The only disadvantage of that, besides packing in the dark for the first 45 minutes, is that mornings were often foggy (August is known as Fogust on that part of the BC coast) and we did most of our crossings just staring at the compass. Land only became visible, as a dark smudge, when we were half a kilomtere away.
A little-known (at least, in the English world) but impressive northern expedition is about to wrap up successfully. Four Quebec guides have been skiing and pulling sleds from Montreal to Kuujjuaq, near the northern tip of the province. They'll finish their 2,000-km journey in the next few days.
Called Projet Karibu (Project Caribou), it is in part an homage to the four Quebecois who first hauled that distance in 133 days back in 1980. At the time, I too lived in Montreal, and when I began to prepare my own first sledding expedition, across Labrador, I contacted the leader of that 1980 group, Andre Laperriere, for advice. Andre was generous and forthcoming and introduced me to one of his sponsors, the local outdoor company Kanuk.
At the time, Kanuk made some of the most imaginative winter gear in the world, and I still use some of their ideas, although I now have them custom-made: To survive, Kanuk abanoned the miniscule winter camping market and transformed itself into a manufacturer of town-and-country wear.
Andre was a great talker and energetic planner. He and his friend Louis Craig, another of the original four sledders, wanted to become the first Quebecers to scale an 8,000-metre peak, so they joined an expedition to Annapurna. It didn't go well. Some members died, and while Andre and his friend survived, I had the sense that that close call spooked them out of their Himalayan ambitions permanently. When I left Montreal, I lost touch with him.
I didn't have much faith in Eric Larsen's North Pole expedition because he and his partner started off carrying 317 pounds for 55 days -- 50 pounds more than necessary. Nevertheless, they plugged away at 3 miles per day for the first month and after 41 days, are now making good progress.
Unlike most expeditions, which rely on the temporary Russian ice station Barneo for the affordable flight out, they have the funding for their own charter. Every spring, Barneo does the logistics for North Pole tourism -- Last Degree treks, champagne flights to the Pole, etc. Because they set up camp near the North Pole itself, pickup flights are vastly cheaper than hiring a Twin Otter from Resolute, which costs about $100,000. The downside is that Barneo pulls up stakes early: They've already shut down. In recent years, many expeditions failed because they couldn't reach the Pole before Barneo's close date.
Larsen's daily blog is more readable than most. Both he and his partner seem somewhat depressive characters, who don't really enjoy being out there, but that transparency is more interesting than the blank affect of a typical expedition report.
Mountaineering and arctic travel both take place in worlds dominated by austerity and purity. In most ways, however, the two activities are quite dissimilar. Arctic travel tends not to appeal to climbers, who use the word "slog" a lot in reference to it. Mountaineers are sprinters -- a climb takes hours or at most days -- while arctic travelers are marathoners. It hardly makes sense to speak of arctic travel except in multiple weeks.
Then there's weather. Many mountaineers I know have abundant horror stories in which they spent vast quantities of time in a tent, waiting for a weather window in which to race to the summit. In some particularly gnarly parts of the world, they had to wait out 20 days of storms to climb for three or four days. This is unheard-of on arctic sledding expeditions, where you can move in just about anything. You don't have to worry about avalanche conditions, and good visibility is not as important, because there isn't the danger of falling off a 3,000-foot cliff.
Occasionally, an arctic headwind is so strong that it doesn't make sense to travel: It's exhausting and you don't make enough mileage to justify the effort or the risk of frostbite. In places like the High Arctic, it also doesn't happen that often. In 13 High Arctic sledding expeditions, I've been windbound about a week in total. Sometimes windbound days are just well-timed days off.
This isn't true everywhere. Labrador is far windier than Ellesmere Island or elsewhere in the High Arctic. Still, a typical expedition into the prevailing wind might require three windbound days in a month and a half. On my worst expedition for weather -- the 550 km route in 2012 with Noah Nochasak, from Nain, Labrador to Kangiqsualujjuaq in northern Quebec -- we sat out the wind for five days out of 44. Most of the layovers occurred in the barrens, a notoriously windy place, and we took some of that time off from caution: We were carrying a dome tent, which is more spacious than a tunnel tent but harder to set up in a gale.
Tailwinds are easier to bear than headwinds, and I've only opted out of a tailwind once, during a violent storm on the Quebec-Labrador border in mid-February. The temperature was -40 and the wind howled for three days at 30 to 35 knots. (see photo below) This was the last camp where I'd have the protection of trees before the open barrens. A good time for discretion. After almost a month on the trail, it was also a great opportunity to recharge the batteries by sleeping 18 hours a day.
The guy mentioned in my January 8 entry had to be rescued a few days after starting his expedition. CBC has this quote from him: "He said he now realizes that choosing the right equipment and testing it out beforehand is really important."
I'm a big fan of Australian Tim Cope's work. He's the best sort of traveler: stoic, talented, intellectually curious. At the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival in 2012, everyone loved the film he did on his three-and-a-half-year journey on horseback from Mongolia to Hungary. And last year, his book on that trip, On the Trail of Genghis Khan, deservedly won the grand prize at the festival. The book not only describes a great journey; it is also -- one could even say mainly -- about the nomadic cultures he connects with along the way. It is conspicuously lacking in the superficial historical sections that pollute many adventure books. His background riffs are personal and informed. Check out this recent interview on Australian radio about Crimea. What a contrast to the polar types still yapping about Peary reaching the North Pole.
From a professional adventurer's point of view, there are serious difficulties with such long trips, especially those with a cultural focus: Few travelers who specialize in 5,000km epics do more than one or two of them. They are so disruptive to every other aspect of one's life. (Tim did this trip in his 20s, when it is easier to be footloose and fancy free.) Furthermore, to get the most out of the journey, you must do tons of reading beforehand. You must be almost an expert on the place before you go, in order to recognize and get the most out of what you see. Finally, and most difficult, you have to learn the language of the region through which you are traveling. Tim's experiences would not have been the same had he not been fluent in Russian. His Russian allowed him to get inside rather than stay outside.
Very few places remain on earth that are geographically large enough to permit 4,000 or 5,000-kilometre journeys, and where there is simultaneously an indigenous culture that still partly follows its ancient traditions, in the way that the nomads of the Asian steppe do. Tim could follow up by traveling across northern Russia -- he already has the language. But where else?
Here's a link to a research paper on Carbon Monoxide in Tents. Thanks to climber/doctor Tom Hornbein for passing this on to me. It's interesting reading for those of us who cook in a tent or snow shelter. I only wish that apart from the well-known risk of CO poisoning, the paper delved into whether low levels of carbon monoxide in a well-ventilated tent affect athletic performance: a more subtle question. I've never noticed anything, but you'd think it should...
A shout out to a fine traveler who has never shouted out about himself. Alfred Duller is a now-retired schoolteacher from Innsbruck, Austria. About 30 years ago, he and his brother went on a canoe trip on a river near southern Labrador. Their canoe dumped in the second day; they lost everything. They were too deep in the wilderness to walk out, so for the next four weeks, they survived by eating bark and tiny fish which they killed with stones. When a rescue helicopter eventually came looking for them, it carried body bags. But both Alfred and his brother had survived.
Despite this terrible introduction to the north, Alfred became obsessed with Labrador, and especially with the Torngat Mountains. Every summer he went back, kayaking and hiking. His goal was not to make giant miles; he was an explorer who enjoyed poking around. He seemed to go everywhere: looking at his obsessively annotated topo maps, every intriguing little valley, every bay, every ridgeline, bears his footprints. Over the years, he's become the most knowledgeable person alive about the Torngat Mountains.
I've had lots of run-ins with polar bears, but nothing compared to Alfred. He's been dragged out of his tent, twice. After these nightmarish episodes, he invented a bear alarm fence. It's the model I now use. He says that polar bears have triggered it approximately 100 times.
If I had to psychologize, I'd say that Labrador has given Alfred a sense of freedom compared to the rigid, Teutonic Austrian culture in which he lives most of the year. So it's both ironic and tragic that Alfred can't go back to the Torngats because of bureaucracy. Since that area became a national park, non-Inuit can no longer carry a firearm to protect themselves. More than anyone, Alfred knows that a firearm is vital in northern Labrador. So the leading expert on the Torngats remains in exile in his native Austria.
A short ps to yesterday's training entry: Admittedly, I'm prejudiced in favor of swimming as a training tool for arctic sledding, since I began as a marathon swimmer. But apart from strengthening the lower back, swimming also works the triceps, which are, counterintuitively, among the most important sledding muscles. Good sledders use their arms, via the ski poles, almost as much as their legs for propulsion. Inexperienced sledders tend to use ski poles as delicate little feelers rather than as third and fourth legs. By the end of an expedition, triceps should be as well-developed as quads and back muscles.
Even when I'm not training for an expedition, I work out almost daily. That's the price a restless person pays for his squirrelyness: If you don't take the edge off somehow, you can't sit or think. Above, today's cross-country ski workout at the Canmore Nordic Centre, my standard 7.2-mile route. Times are nothing special in a town that's home to the Olympic cross-country and biathlon teams, but it's not a bad recreational pace, I suppose. Slower/faster splits indicate uphill and downhill sections.
I've been active all my life, so I don't need to up the training much before an expedition. At least, before a sledding expedition. If I plan to carry a 100-pound backpack, I'll walk around with one for an hour or two a day; likewise, kayaking training involves paddling for an hour and a half or two hours a day four days a week. Then in the field, I'll ease in by paddling five or six hours a day for the first couple of days before bumping it up to seven or eight hours. I try to avoid monster days for the first week or two. If I feel a twinge anywhere, I scale down temporarily before the twinge becomes pain, the precursor to injury.
Manhauling a sled is different, because after 17 expeditions, I seem to have enough muscle memory not to have to train specifically for it. I've never hauled tires or other sled surrogates. Because pulling a heavy sled taxes the lower back, however, I make sure to work swimming into my general training regime. The crawl stroke seems to strengthen the same lower back muscles used in sledding.
So much research has been done about the effects of exercise, yet I've never been able to find a single paper on the physiological differences between exercising 12 hours a day for two solid months -- the typical arctic expedition situation -- versus exercising an hour or two a day year round. But I can say anecdotally: the physical life led on a long expedition feels completely different from a daily workout, even if the home workout is more intense. On expeditions, my heart never hits 170, as it does every day while cross-country skiing. (The exception is pulling a loaded sled through deep powder, but that rarely happens in the windswept, dry Arctic.) Nevertheless, I consider that my daily workouts merely slow the deterioration between expeditions. It's living that total physical life an average of two months a year that keeps me fit.
By comparison with the expedition discussed earlier this week, with its small likelihood of success, check out this interview on CBC's Labrador Morning with an American canoeist who plans this summer to retrace Mina Hubbard's 1905 expedition through the Labrador interior, using only traditional equipment. He radiates competence. Chance of success: extremely high.
The Hubbard saga is the most famous in the exploration of Labrador. It has all the elements of a good yarn: tragedy, survival, rivalry. It also has a couple of good books to stoke interest: the original The Lure of the Labrador Wild, by one of the survivors, Dillon Wallace; and Great Heart, a novelistic but accurate retelling published in modern times.
In 1903, a young New York magazine editor named Leonidas Hubbard and two companions set off from Northwest River, near modern Goose Bay, to attempt to traverse the then-unknown interior of Labrador as far as the mouth of the George River. They made mistakes, had bad luck; Hubbard perished, the other two barely survived.
Hubbard's wife Mina resented the account of Dillon Wallace, which implied that her husband, though wonderful, was not perfect. Two years later, she set out with some local guides to do the route her husband had attempted. At the same time, her husband's old friend, Dillon Wallace, was beginning a separate expedition with the same goal. Mina had come to detest Wallace. In the end, she reached the mouth of the George River several weeks ahead of him. In modern times, Mina has become popular with urban feminists, perhaps because she was essentially a city woman who stuck it to her rival so thoroughly on the traditional male battleground of wilderness exploration.
Mina has always seemed to me a bit of a pill, and her resentment of Wallace was unreasonable. Leonidas comes off very well in The Lure of the Labrador Wild. The best thing about Mina's expedition was the maps she produced of her route. After achieving closure of her husband's death in this way, she married and moved to England. She never did anything further in the exploration field.
Years ago, on one of my first expeditions, a partner and I were the first to retrace Leonidas's route up the miserable Susan River. Stubbornly keeping to this stony creek, believing against all evidence that it was a native waterway, was the main cause of Hubbard's demise. It was a sufferfest. No Innu traveler in his right mind would pick this route.
The contemporary US canoeist's retrace is one of several expeditions inspired by the Hubbard tale. Mina's route is long and involves challenging poling/hauling up the Naskapi River, before reaching the Height of Land. The downstream section of the route, along what is now the Smallwood Reservoir to the George River and downstream to Kangiqsualujjuaq, has been done many times and is a straightforward route for experienced wilderness paddlers.
Leonidas Hubbard's trail journal, July 27, 1903, along Labrador's Susan River. Note the ominous, "Stopped early -- chilled." Hubbard found many reasons, including observation of the Sabbath, not to travel when speed during the short Labrador summer was essential.
January 8, 2014
Polar guide Richard Weber once spoke of seeing various North Pole expeditions in Resolute preparing to leave and being able to instantly tick off in his mind which ones had a chance of success. "Fail, fail, fail, maybe, fail, fail..." I feel the same way when I read the bold announcements of polar travelers, many quite inexperienced, about to set out on epics. This week, ExplorersWeb ran a story about a fellow from France who will shortly begin a 2,300 km solo sledding journey from mainland Canada to Greenland.
Good luck to him. This is an interesting project, and certainly possible. I'd be most concerned about the open water of Bellot Strait en route to Somerset Island near the beginning of his trek. Or the sometimes open water of Lancaster Sound near Resolute, which might require a big detour. Finally, there are the unpredictable conditions of the North Water between Canada and Greenland, which stopped Bob Cochran and I after 700km in 2007. Traditionally, an ice bridge allows you to cross; in recent years, this bridge often doesn't form.
A few extraordinary people, mentally tough, obsessively well-prepared and quick learners, do occasionally bring off their first expeditions despite inexperience. But when a novice sledder writes about snowblindness and dangerously thin ice around river mouths in the High Arctic as two of the premier obstacles, and lists unrealistic daily mileages that he expects to maintain, I immediately think, "Fail."
Bellot Strait, between mainland Canada, left, and Somerset Island: not far across, but strong currents keep it from freezing solidly.
NOTE: A few years ago, I made a list here called the Top Ten Expedition BS that has gone semi-viral. Readers often come to this site looking for it in the archives. For easy access, I thought I'd include it at the bottom of this page.
Expedition bs has always
been around. Those quaint Renaissance-era sagas of
someone sailing to the North Pole and finding a tunnel to the
center of the earth probably traces back to
some huckster in a frilled collar and balloon pants
looking for the Elizabethan version of celebrity, or hoping to
convince a gullible king to fund his future
endeavors. Expedition bs crosses all outdoor disciplines,
although Everest climbs and North Pole treks get more than
their fair share, because of their iconic stature. The less
technical something is, and the more instantly famous you can
get doing it, the more it attracts amateurs with
questionable motives. In arctic travel today, it's common
for those with big egos and small experience
to boast of undertaking "the greatest exploration of the
Arctic ever" or trekking to "the last important
place on Earth no one has reached."
In compiling this list, I first vetted
it with other adventurers, since this Top Ten is admittedly
polar-bs-biased. Climber/paraglider Will Gadd, one of the
world's best outdoor athletes, suggested another entry:
"Decrying all future attempts on your objective as unworthy."
I'd never heard of this, so I asked another well-known
mountaineer about it: "Is this a climbing thing?"
"It's a Reinhold Messner thing," he
Below, the 10 most egregious ways outdoor types
posture and/or try to fool the public.
1. Faking an accomplishment
Explorers' claims used to be taken at
face value before it became clear that gentlemen could, and
did, lie. Whether it's a first ascent of Mt.
McKinley or up some aesthetic Patagonian spire, a
round-the-world yacht race, or a trek to a slippery place
like the North Pole, where you can't leave notes or build
cairns, exploration has a rich history of fakery.
The question is, how much still goes
on? The late, great Resolute outfitter Bezal Jesudason used to
clear his throat tellingly whenever the conversation turned to
a certain Italian who claimed to have reached the North Pole
in the 1970s. Now and then, rumors bruit -- about expeditions,
supposedly unsupported, that received surreptitious air drops,
for example, or the motivational speaker who didn't really
summit. But most modern fakery probably occurs in less
complicated projects, especially solo ones. The
media never investigates whether a traveler is
telling the truth or not. Why bother?
On the other hand, there's little to
be gained from lying if you just go out quietly and try
something. Attention-getting projects require greater
In general, most bs comes not from
what someone does, but why they do it. Exploration remains one
of the easiest roads to celebrity. A beginner fires off a
press release and so it begins. By contrast, imagine how much
work it takes for an athlete or a physicist to become as well
2. Claiming something is a first, when
Usually this is just self-serving
laziness. Why look too closely into what's been done before
when ignorance allows you to grandly claim priority? Other
times it involves splitting hairs, so if an earlier expedition
did something microscopically different from you, it can, for
your convenience, be ignored. Rarely, it is an outright
lie from someone for whom the end justifies the means, as when
Robert Peary tried to wrest the discovery of Axel Heiberg
Island from Otto Sverdrup: "No, no, no, he didn't discover it
-- I saw that island the year before." Yeah, right.
Nowadays, this doesn't work with
iconic endeavors, in which who did what,
when, how is well known. But it's still in play with more
3. Pretending that an expedition is
all about something socially relevant
A century ago, climbers used to boil a
thermometer on summits to estimate the mountain's height and
claimed to be contributing to science.
Later, others made a big deal of taking ice samples, or
blood samples, or water samples en route. This hobby science
was popular expedition shtick for years and still has its
practitioners. In large, though, it's been replaced by the
mantra of Raising Awareness, as
in Raising Awareness of Multiple Sclerosis or,
especially, Raising Awareness about Climate Change. If I see
one more expedition muttering concerned platitudes about how
the Arctic has changed since they were there ten years
ago, or how there are actually areas of open water on the
Arctic Ocean in summer, I'm going to scream.
Very occasionally, there are people
for whom environmental concern is the real spinning cog
driving their project. They're incredibly admirable, but
they're also rare as hen's teeth. With most, it's just a
fundraising and publicity gimmick.
4. Claiming that an expedition
proves something it doesn't
Wearing wool knickers and hobnail
boots while climbing the Second Step on Everest does not prove
Mallory did it. Nor does cutting off eight of your toes and
dogsledding to the North Pole prove Peary succeeded,
I've always envied mountaineers
their sense of history. Many polar travelers, on the
other hand, even good ones, seem to have barely skimmed the
Coles Notes version of arctic history. Still, if you're trying
to get your expedition noticed, there are few better ways than
claiming that your endeavor resolves some age-old
Not that there's anything wrong with
following in the footsteps of past explorers. It's a
legitimate form of historical research, as valid as poring
through archives. But you gotta do your homework first.
Otherwise it's just misinformation, or disinformation.
5. Hiding the fact
that an expedition is guided
Some challenges are
so formidable that they're almost beyond guiding. In the case of others, and polar travel in
particular, a guide reduces something that is extremely
difficult, especially psychologically, to an endurance
feat that any fit and motivated client can
to the North Pole and South Pole are guided. Not just
last-degree expeditions, which have always been for
tourists (albeit a special kind), but also full-length
projects. I'm not sure how necessary a guide is on a South
Pole trek, but in the case of the more difficult North Pole,
it's an enormous advantage. Very few people succeed in doing
the entire distance to the North Pole themselves. Even fewer
succeed on the first attempt. Add a guide, and the success
rate becomes essentially 100%.
Today, an expedition
may be named the Tom Thumb Polar Expedition,
but likely as not, Tom's just the vain and
ambitious guy holding the purse strings, hoping to make
a name as an explorer and often forgetting to mention
publicly that one of his teammates is a little more than
a fellow traveler.
6. Making an expedition
sound harder than it is
One of the nice things
about climbing or white-water kayaking is that challenges are
graded numerically, so there's little opportunity to inflate
an accomplishment. Not so in polar travel, which the public
doesn't really understand and where there are no clear
yardsticks. Many imagine, for example, that pulling a
150-pound sled is a superhuman act, little realizing that any
grandmother who jogs on Sunday can do it. But 150 pounds
sounds good, and 250 pounds sounds even better, because for
those unfamiliar with sledding, it's natural to compare it to
how hard it would be to backpack those weights. As a result,
those who want to impress can easily do so. Because
there's not really a polar community as such, just a few
people doing things independently of one another, it's hard
for the media to verify just how difficult something is. Besides, the media doesn't usually bother to verify human-interest stories like adventure.
The other side of this
equation -- and this comes up time and again in this countdown
-- is that many polar adventurers are novices. Given that this
sort of project takes a healthy amount of
self-esteem to begin with, it's easy for the adventurers
themselves to think, "Wow, I'm pulling a 250-pound sled for 12
miles at 30 below. I must be amazing." Alas, it's easier than
7. Telling your audience
that all it takes to live this life is the courage to follow
your dreams, when you're sitting on a trust fund
Many people would be
surprised at the number of adventurers who don't have to make
a living. Nothing wrong with being born well off, if you make
the most of it: the great Bill Tillman was a gentleman
amateur. So, for that matter, was Charles Darwin.
But as a poor bloke, I've
always been aware that the hardest part of adventure is making
a living at it. (The adventure itself is just personal hunger,
and is almost effortless.) When adventurers give presentations
and claim -- often in response to audience questions
at the end -- that they make a living from selling
photos, or from book royalties, I cringe. Since I
myself survive partly from photography, I know the
business and I can say that the only ones making serious
coin from adventure photography are full-time photographers,
not expedition types.
Even if you're a serious
shooter, it's not easy. A National Geographic photographer I
know used to make much of his income flipping houses
-- he'd buy a fixer-upper, renovate it, then resell at a
profit. Several handyman adventurers go that route. One
well-known big-wall climber builds outdoor decks. As for
books, the royalties are rarely significant unless you're
Jon Krakauer or David Roberts. So it's dishonest when a
"professional" adventurer tries to inspire without admitting
that he or she doesn't need to earn a living like the rest of
If you want to know how
adventurers really make a living, it's often by motivational
speaking. I'm not talking about storytelling with pretty
pictures, but presentations crafted to a business
audience, in which the message is Teamwork or Leadership or
similar corporate psychology buzzwords. Nowadays, it
seems, everyone bills themselves as a "keynote speaker". And
why not? If you can lay it on thick, the money is incredible.
There are people making a six-figure income based on 10 hours
work a year.
accomplishments of these adventurers are genuine. Twenty
years later, sadly, some of them are still giving the same
lecture, based on one triumphant afternoon. Others are glib
phonies. Neither climbers nor adventurers, they climb Mt.
Everest specifically to launch a career in motivational
speaking. As bad, in my mind, are the ones who haven't done
anything yet but presume to have valuable lessons to impart to
the rest of us.
There is something
refreshing about the attitude of a first-class
adventurer like Pat Morrow, who admits that he never gave
motivational talks because "I just couldn't see myself
telling a convention of hog farmers that they too can climb
their personal Everest."
9. Doing one or two
expeditions, then retiring and affecting the pose of an elder
Again, the nature of polar
travel. Good climbers climb every day or two, but
most polar sledders are not, pardon the pun, in it
for the long haul. Typically they do the North Pole or
the South Pole, then retire. A few do both. If they're
particularly serious, they also cross Antarctica or the Arctic
Ocean. That's it. End of polar icons. Too bad, because the
sledding life really is a fine one. It's as if 99% of climbers
just did Everest and maybe the Seven Summits.
Especially in Britain, it
seems that once retired, these one-trick ponies vigorously
posture as wise greybeards in all matters
polar. (Maybe one-eyed kings rather than one-trick ponies
is a more apt description.) This was more understandable in
the 19th century -- for years, Adolphus Greely was considered
America's greatest living polar explorer, based on one
disastrous expedition. But standards of experience are
different now. Will Steger, for example, was doing impressive
arctic stuff as a dirtbag long before he hit the big time.
10. Presenting mistakes or incompetence as force majeure
Every year, expeditioners strike off to a flourish of trumpets, only to quit sometimes for the silliest reasons. Their stove breaks down. The satphone fails to charge. Gasoline leaks and contaminates their food. Or they run out of food/fuel, necessitating a high-profile "rescue."
On extreme projects, gear often needs repairs. But unless a polar bear smashes the sled into 100 pieces, the journey should be able to continue. That's what a repair kit and backups of key items are for. But some adventurers use these minor glitches as an excuse to bail. Others are so out of their depth that they can't deal with more adversity. Or in their preparations, they've taken the time to create a website, get sponsors and have a media plan, but have neglected to learn how a stove works. Few own up to these mistakes: It's always the fault of the equipment or the conditions.
Sometimes, it seems as if an expedition invents problems to get more media attention. The media is not very interested in most adventures except as a cute kicker at the end of the real news. The exception is, if something goes wrong. If a delayed pickup is made to seem like you're stranded and desperate and out of food, you might get world headlines rather than a shadow of a whisper of a postscript of a mention.