It's -21C (-6F) here in Canmore this morning. When you're in city-think mode, this feels very cold. But out on the land, that's a mild, comfortable temperature to sleep in, and during the day, you might haul a sled in just an undershirt, no hat and liner gloves, if there's no wind.
A few years ago on this page (see Archives 2009) I offered a short list of undone arctic expeditions. I could offer many more, but these were a few intriguing projects that I'd considered over the years but eventually decided that I didn't want to do myself.
One of the suggestions, in particular, has garnered some interest: Canada North to South. Surprisingly, no one has ever attempted to travel from the northern tip of Canada -- Cape Aldrich on Ellesmere Island -- to its southernmost point, Pelee Island, in Ontario's Lake Erie. It's over 5,000 km and takes seven to nine months of manhauling, kayaking and hiking or biking. The logistics are formidable: Apart from the basic work of getting supplies and spare gear to the Inuit communities spaced at 500km intervals along the route, you have to figure some way of getting to your starting point during the Dark Season, when charter aircraft won't land off-strip. It's important to start in early winter to manhaul far enough south -- say, half-way down Baffin Island -- to kayak efficiently; the High Arctic paddling season is just too short and unpredictable, because of sea ice.
One fellow in Ottawa, whom I don't know, created a website and tried to fundraise for a while, but his interest seems to have fizzled out. One of my past expedition partners, Noah Nochasak of Labrador, sketched out a detailed expedition plan as a term paper for the Adventure program he is taking at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B. C. Noah's a great guy, and there's nothing I'd like better than for him to bring off this expedition, because he'd do it in the same spirit that he's done his other travels.
This summer, an outfitter with whom I previously discussed the project mentioned to me that organization is well underway to help the reality TV personality Survivorman do Canada North to South by snowmobile in 2017, the 150th anniversary of Confederation here in Canada. Snowmobile? Survivorman? The outfitter is making money handling the logistics, and for Survivorman it's a great pr stunt that will only take about three weeks and should attract a lot of attention. But I groaned inwardly when I heard the news, and I wish someone else would tackle it properly. Alas, when you make an idea public, you don't have a choice over who uses it, or in what spirit.
Every year I prescreen the entries to the Banff Mountain Film Festival, to help decide which films get shown. Here are trailers and mini-summaries of some of this year's best.
The Great Alone
The neglected son of an Iditarod winner overcomes cancer, alcoholism and drug use to win the Iditarod himself...several times.
Four young guys train and ride wild mustangs from Mexico to Canada.
The repercussions of last year's deadly avalanche on Mount Everest, told largely from the Sherpas' perspective.
Two women, an environmentalist and a pro-coal activist, unexpectedly find themselves on the same side after a deadly cave-in.
Two childhood friends part ways: One becomes a cautious family man, the other a famous pro skier. Ironically, it is the family man who survives a near-fatal accident in the mountains.
A simple but well-told story about a girls' soccer team in Nepal. One is tempted to use such descriptors as "heartwarming" and "uplifting", but of course, that would ruin things.
A pseudo-ad encouraging us to get out in Nature. Includes tongue-in-cheek display copy like, "Caution: Golf is not nature."
Last month I returned to the Arctic to help guide a second Adventure Canada cruise, from Resolute Bay to Devon Island to Baffin Island to Greenland. Because of heavy pack ice along the east coast of Baffin, impeding landings, we spent most of our two weeks on the Greenland side. Although I visit Greenland almost every year on these cruises, I've never done a personal expedition there. Greenland is, with Svalbard, the arctic destination for Europeans. There's a little kayaking in the fiords, though not many long-distance journeys, and its big walls have drawn climbers from H. W. Tilman to the present day. Mainly, however, expeditioners come to Greenland to ski across the width or length of the Greenland ice cap. Sometimes these are training trips for Antarctic crossings; often nowadays they're attempts at speed records. The principle seems to be, If you can't do something original, do something unoriginal slightly faster. Considering how huge the circumpolar Arctic is, and how many unique projects remain to be done, this approach is at best premature. We usually think of adventurers as being imaginative, but the truth is, in the polar regions most simply are not.
I have no great Greenland plans, although I would like to spend four to six weeks kayaking from Qaanaaq north to the historic areas around Cape Inglefield and back again, poking around the many sites. Cross from Ellesmere Island to Greenland either by skis or by kayak -- a gap in my resume. Visit Charles Francis Hall's grave in far northwestern Greenland. The main hurdle with all these projects is affordable access. When I'm asked what my next project is, I often have to hedge, because I work on several possibilities at the same time, and do the one that materializes first.
Greenland towns tend to be much lovelier than Canadian ones. Partly it's the brightly colored houses that give such a psychological lift in the muted arctic landscape. Partly it's the giant icebergs everywhere; Canadian icebergs are small and few by comparison. Partly it's the traditional details: the dog teams, the kayak frames, the fish drying racks. Greenland is modernizing too -- except north of Cape York, in the domain of the Polar Inuit, dog teams are becoming a tourist affectation rather than the chosen means of winter travel. But these towns are only a generation removed from traditional life rather than three generations. Finally, many Greenland towns are built in steep enclaves or on rocky islands with a Newfoundland outport feel. Below, some images taken from these Greenland towns.
The Ocean Endeavour near Uummannaq, Greenland
Uummannaq, perhaps the most photogenic town in Greenland, thanks to its hilly streets and distinctive Uummannaq Mountain looming above everything.
Qaanaaq, and one commercial use of the image.
Freshly back from traveling the Labrador coast in style, as a lecturer and resource person on an Adventure Canada cruise. Although Alexandra and I have kayaked that entire coast over two-and-a-half months, every new visit deepens our knowledge of that place. Above, passengers hike a riverside in Eclipse Channel, in the northern Torngat Mountains. Eclipse is not actually a channel, since two narrow gravel bars interrupt its continuity, below.
After dragging our boat over the second rocky barrier in the background, we turned left (south), while the scenic river lies off-route to the through paddler, two kilometres to the right. Most northern rivers are shallow and braided, but this short, deep and powerful river courses like a firehose between rock walls. It issues from Eclipse Lake, two kilometres away, tumbles over a falls at the halfway point, then hurries the last kilometre to the ocean. A worthwhile hike, and a scenic highlight of the trip.
Off this week on my annual cruise ship gig as a lecturer/resource person with Adventure Canada. This year, I'll be returning to the Labrador coast. Although I've kayaked that whole coast, these cruises still teach me about the place. Three years ago, we sailed in early October. At that time of year you don't go for the bird life -- most birds have long gone -- but the tundra colors erupt in tropical brilliance. In July, Ramah is green and blue, but October's reds and yellows are electrifying.
I would likely never have visited the fiord on my own at that time of year -- it's a rough season for kayaking, and the long nights increase the possibility of having to deal with a polar bear in the dark. One snowfall -- common at that time of year -- would have turned the Torngats black and white, but we lucked out.
Photo by Kurtis Kristianson/SPL, courtesy of Crowfoot Media
Earlier this month, I took part in a panel in Banff about outdoor risk, along with (from L to R above), local mountaineers Dan Evans, Brad White and Margot Talbot. It was the first time I'd spoken about risk, although it's a popular topic among outdoor motivational speakers. Motivational talks to corporations are well-paying gigs -- some adventurers make a six-figure income based on 10 hours work a year -- and most of us dirtbags would love to hop aboard that gravy train. Alas, I'm more from the school of friend and original Seven Summiteer Pat Morrow, who once said that he didn't give such talks because he just couldn't see himself telling a convention of hog farmers that they too can climb their personal Everest. If I had to try to relate my expeditions to corporate leadership or communication, my tongue would explode and I would never again be able to write an honest line.
However, the topic of risk might be an exception. In preparing for this evening, it became clear to me that every person in the audience -- and every reader of this website -- could talk about risk just as authoritatively. We all take risks in life. Typically, these risks don't involve physical danger, which is what we were talking about that evening, but emotional and spiritual risks are equally serious for all of us. Physical risks are actually simpler to deal with, because you are forced to act promptly, whereas it's possible to avoid dealing with emotional risks indefinitely.
In general, one approaches everyday risks just as one does physical risks: with preparation, caution, calculation and sometimes, just by going for it and accepting the consequences. To avoid risk is to lose out on the positive outcomes too. It's life in neutral.
This season, three Norwegians set a speed record across the Greenland ice cap: 350 miles in just under 7-1/2 days. No kites, just skis and sleds. Impressive but not unexpected, especially from Norwegians, who both are competent in the polar regions and know how to ski.
In 1989, I manhauled 300 miles in 11 days, from Eureka to Grise Fiord on Ellesmere Island. For years, it was the fastest manhauling expedition on record. But even as I did it, I realized that while it was good for the time -- and was as hard and as fast as I could have done -- elite athletes could have done it even faster. I estimated that 7 days was possible, but given this Greenland pace, even 6 days might be within reach. The Greenlanders averaged 46 miles a day for a week. Once, I manhauled that distance in a single day. It took me 16 hours, and I could not imagine putting in that effort again the following day. Granted, I was walking, not skiing.
As the chance to accomplish firsts has diminished in both mountaineering and the polar regions, speed attempts have become a popular hook. In the Arctic and Antarctic, most of these so-called speed records are not serious. The routes have been done so rarely that inexperienced travelers "distinguish" themselves by doing the distance slightly faster than the previous inexperienced traveler. Call it the Backward Pogosticking from Arkansas to Saskatchewan phenomenon. It is simply plucking at low-hanging fruit.
Speed climbers like Ueli Steck really are superfit and competent. In setting new records up well-known yardsticks like Annapurna or the North Face of the Eiger, they are showing what is possible. Same for those three Norwegians in Greenland.
Three weeks ago, two Dutch manhaulers died when they fell through the sea ice north of Resolute Bay. For background, see this report in ExplorersWeb. I have no further information besides this and follow-up stories, so consider this riff more about raising questions than providing answers.
Falling through the ice is rare in contemporary polar travel but is not unprecedented. It usually happens on the Arctic Ocean during North Pole expeditions, rather than on the generally solid platform between northern islands. Two deaths have occurred on the Arctic Ocean in recent years, both on solo expeditions. In one, a woman perished off northern Russia on her way to the North Pole. North Pole travelers sometimes prefer to start from Russia because the ice is flatter and you're going with the drift rather than against it. But for the first 50 km, the ice is thinner and more unstable than it is off northern Canada. In the second tragedy, a Japanese man died off northern Ellesmere on his way back to land from the North Pole.
Solo travel is always riskier -- I speak as someone who has done 10 solo expeditions -- but two people dying at the same time by falling through the ice is unprecedented in modern times. (For an historical example, however, read In the Land of White Death.) The whole thing has puzzled me, and I wish I had more details. Where exactly did they go through? Some media reports stated that it was near Bathurst Island, but the victims' website, coldfacts.org, shows their projected route much further to the east, near Baillie-Hamilton Island, one of the High Arctic's half dozen regular polynyas (areas of open water). Google "Baillie-Hamilton polynya" to see a copyrighted image of what that region sometimes looks like in late April, when the Dutch pair drowned. That area of strong currents typically has open water. And although the air remains cold in late April, under the midnight sun you rarely get the 30 or 40 belows that quickly refreeze a bad patch, so open water tends to stay open.
Often, arctic expeditions run into problems due to inexperience. The public would be surprised at what rookies many arctic travelers are. They're good with websites and pr, but they've rarely even camped in summer and have little experience in the cold, a fact they hide for the sake of credibility. Some years ago, a British fellow set out, with much boasting ("the last great arctic expedition"), to reach an inaccessible part of the Arctic Ocean. He quit after just a couple of days, citing dangerous ice. Immodestly, he tried to spin it into a climate change story. In all his years of arctic experience, he averred, he had never seen such conditions. But he was just a clown.
These two Dutch fellows were doing climate change work during their expedition, so at first I wondered if they fell into this same category. But on closer inspection, they seemed to be much more serious. They had sophisticated portable equipment with them to measure sea ice, although neither had a scientific background: They were motivational speakers and expedition organizers. Their plan was to research changing ice conditions. Most full-time researchers would just use planes and snowmobiles, but this pair were trying to mate science and adventure. They were 200km from Resolute at the time of the accident. They had been out for three weeks. Two hundred kilometres does not take long to sled in that region; maybe 10-12 average days, although they seemed to be moving fairly slowly, with a biggest day of 20.5 km. Perhaps they would haul for four or five hours, then set up their equipment. It would have been very cold at the start of their expedition, but by late April, the bite has mostly disappeared from the air, except in a wind. In their last audio report, on April 28, one spoke of wearing just an undershirt, a typical experience on calm late spring days.
Partway through their expedition, they diverged from their planned route (dotted green arrow, above) and swung northeast (orange arrow). They were west of the small polynyas at the north ends of Dundas and Baillie-Hamilton Islands but little holes and funny ice seemed to pock several areas in their vicinity, as seen in the satellite photo, below, taken the day before they disappeared. My estimate of their location, marked x, is based on their audio journal entries.
Much of the ocean has frozen solidly (featureless white areas) and can be walked on, camped on, lived on as if it were land. It's at least three feet thick. It's known as land-fast ice and doesn't move between freeze-up and thaw. But the photo also shows several zones of concern: the always-open Hell Gate polynya at the southwest corner of Ellesmere Island, the polynyas around Baillie-Hamilton and Dundas Islands, as well as Lancaster Sound south of Resolute. Sometimes this freezes, and hunters can snowmobile the entire 70 kilometres south from Resolute to Somerset Island, but strong currents often create rough ice or open water. When I sledded the south coast of Cornwallis Island some years ago, the ice was a mess, below. It is impossible to progress over such a surface, but I was able to travel on the ice foot, a smooth ribbon between the moving ice and shore.
Rough ice on the south coast of Cornwallis Island
Besides those large areas of open water, the satellite image reveals several small holes between Bathurst Island and the Grinnell Peninsula, plus two small dark areas west of Baillie-Hamilton Island. Finally, there is what looks like a large patch of disturbed ice west of Dundas Island. As best as I can determine, the fatal accident happened somewhere in that area.
On April 29, the day after their blog entry about how tropical the weather was, authorities received an SOS from the travelers. No details were included about the nature of the emergency, because it was a Spot-type signal rather than a satphone call that would have clarified exactly what was going on. (Spot doesn't work well that far north but units such as InReach, which run off the Iridium network, do.) All these units are waterproof and can be used by someone who has fallen in the water, while satphones cannot.
A plane flew over the site indicated in the emergency signal, and saw two sleds around open water. One sled was in the water, one near it. The Eskimo dog they brought as a polar bear alarm was still at the site. Neither traveler was visible.
The plane couldn't land because of the bad ice. In any case, it was clear that they had somehow perished by falling through thin ice or having the piece of ice they were sledding on break away, then shatter underneath them. The latter is a common danger around open water and strong currents. Countless Inuit hunters have died when a piece of sea ice broke off from shore and drifted away. In the 1920s and 1930s, RCMP officers doing sovereignty patrols out of Dundas Harbour, on southern Devon Island, almost died on more than one occasion because of the treacherous ice along that coast. Eventually, they found it safer to cross the Devon ice cap to the north side of the island, and begin their patrols on the secure ice of Jones Sound. And in the most miraculous escape in arctic history, a group of explorers and Inuit became stranded on an ice floe off the west coast of Greenland in 1872. Over the next several months, they drifted 3,000 km south on an ever-dwindling cake of ice. Incredibly, they were spotted by a whaling ship off the coast of Newfoundland and were all rescued, with no fatalities.
Eventually, a recovery party from Resolute snowmobiled out to the site of this latest tragedy. They brought back the dog, which had remained in the vicinity, plus one of the bodies, which was still attached to a sled floating in open water. This indicated that it really was an accident with thin ice rather than a polar bear attack. The fact that they had their packed sleds indicates that the ice didn't break underneath them when they were in camp, which is sometimes a danger on the Arctic Ocean. It is, however, strange that he would still be attached to the sled: If you fell in the water, you'd have plenty of time to get out before succumbing to hypothermia. The natural thing to do would be to get out of the harness and try to get into warm camp clothes or a sleeping bag. Some imagine that in ice water, you freeze within seconds, but that's a fallacy. Tourists often take polar dips for several minutes. When the flamboyant thermophysiologist Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht ("Professor Popsicle") immersed himself in an icewater bath on the David Letterman show some years ago, he easily endured 17 minutes. Even considering that salt water may run a little colder (the ocean freezes at -2C), one should have at least 5 or 10 minutes to clamber out.
The two victims were experienced sledders, but they had done mainly treks across the Greenland ice cap and were less familiar with sea ice. Sea ice is different from freshwater ice. Often sea ice is safe right to the edge of open water because the weak margin has broken off and what remains is thick and solid. I've stood right on the edge of sea ice and had open water lapping at my toes. This is called the floe edge and is a great place to spot wildlife. However, sometimes ice tries to reform, but it hasn't had enough time or cold to freeze securely. That's when thin ice is a danger.
I'd especially want to know whether the pair had a packraft or drysuits that fit over arctic clothing, which North Pole trekkers use to swim across leads. One of the victims had on his website a clip of this drysuit in action from a previous expedition, but there is no indication whether they had such survival gear on this journey. Such backups are vital around open water or bad ice.
Two guys drown during an expedition to study thinning ice: It was clear that once the general media got hold of the story, some were going to spin it into a parable about climate change. Sure enough, the online magazine Salon soon did a superficial piece about the tragedy as climate change symbolism. The Weather Network jumped on board:
I don't know if you could call them science heroes, because as noted earlier, they were adventurers, not scientists. And death by sea ice happened regularly centuries before climate change. An old adage from the island of Igloolik, Nunavut, states that if you laid in a row the caribou parkas of all the hunters who've fallen through sea ice, it would stretch from Igloolik to the mainland.
Because we don't know the details of what happened to the pair, it's hard to fault anyone. But this was not a freak avalanche or earthquake: with this sort of tragedy, mistakes are usually involved. On my first arctic expedition, I fell through some (freshwater) ice and almost died. I screwed up. In adventure, you sometimes need luck to survive your mistakes.
On sledding technique
I used to think that dragging a sled took no skill at all. I learned by doing it and wasn't conscious of improvement. It's like walking: how technical is that? But traveling with inexperienced manhaulers, I noticed that things that were second nature to me were not obvious to them. Eventually I had to concede that while anyone can pull a sled, to do so properly takes learning.
The most noticeable failing in beginners is improper use of poles. The poles should not be just feelers, but third and fourth legs that contribute almost equally to propulsion. At the beginning of an expedition, my arms are not strong enough to drive close to 50 percent, but they get stronger over the weeks, so that by the end, the triceps become as well-developed as the legs. A quadruped hauls much faster than a biped. If you try to do everything with your legs, the legs tire much earlier in the day.
Preserving the legs is an important part of sledding technique. Most fit people can do seven or eight hours a day, but stretching that to 10 hours, 13 hours, 16 hours requires guile. When hauling a loaded sled over chunks of pressure ice, for example, the innocent approach is to power over with your legs. It's better to use gravity. As the sled begins to go uphill over the ice, I straighten my legs and fall forward, catching myself once the sled passes the fulcrum. With practice, you can do this without breaking stride.
My partner in Labrador, James MacKinnon, was a passionate learner who was always trying to improve his technique in whatever he tackled. As a result, we discussed the fine points of arctic travel a lot. I've already published below his comments on adapting to cold. Here are a few of his impressions about sledding:
JBM: I think of sledding as being as technical as a swimming stroke or cross-country ski stride, when you’re doing movements that aren’t complicated on the face of them, but you want to do them as efficiently as possible.
The technique for deep, soft snow is to make small, quick steps, like trail runners use short strides on steep uphills or cyclists do a high rotation in an easy gear. That keeps you from ever getting to the point where you feel you can’t take another step. If you work too hard in soft snow, you’ll eventually bonk.
When we hit the packed snowmobile trail, I tried to use my deep snow technique at first. I eventually noticed how in hard snow you bent at the waist, putting more weight on your shoulders, then took long strides, planting your feet in front of your chest. At the same time, you planted your pole at the same time as your foot, rather than slightly later. This increased the propulsion from your arms. I tried this and was able to go much faster. That’s not intuitive. The first few days, harder snow also uses different muscles. You feel it more in the groin, for example, especially on snowshoes.
When I got home, I had all these new muscles: my calves were wider, and a ball of muscle had formed at the top of my hamstring. Pectorals and triceps – which I don’t use much in climbing – had also developed.
In Labrador, JB Mackinnon had many great talks in the tent at night -- about previous adventures, books, and as writers will, the realities of making a living in publishing. We also discussed the mental and physical aspects of expeditions. Here's an interview I did with him after we returned about one of those topics: adapting to cold.
JK: You've said that this was your first time on snowshoes. But what were some of your previous experiences with cold?
JBM: The closest I've been to hypothermia was in Africa and the Dominican Republic. Both times, my light clothing got wet. I underestimated how cold the tropics can be in a wind.
My worst encounters with cold all had to do with water. I used to whitewater kayak on Vancouver Island in winter -- it's the rainy season when the rivers are highest. The water was always cold, and often I had to put on the previous day's frozen wetsuit. Then, two or three years ago, I participated in a traditional harvest of wapato bulbs. It's an aquatic tuber also known as Indian potato. You're in water up to your chest, and you stomp these things out of the mud with your bare feet. It was December, and ice had started to form on the river's edge. Afterward, I tried to drink tea to warm up, but I was shaking too badly to bring the cup to my mouth. I had to sit in the car for an hour with the heater blasting to warm up.
JK: What were your first impressions of the extreme cold in Labrador?
JBM: It's hard to get off a plane from Vancouver and walk around Goose Bay and it's -36 and you think, "Hey, I'm going camping in a couple of days."
The morning we started our expedition, it was -40. I was shocked. The signals going from my body to my head were telling me to panic. I overdressed at first because of that reaction. I felt I was in a dangerously cold environment and I needed to be hot -- not just warm -- in order to feel safe.
JK: Yet you adapted quickly to that environment.
JBM: I'd mentally prepared myself to feel badly for the first few days. But even on the first day, I realized that I was well enough equipped to be warm, day and night. Little by little, I got smarter about dressing. By day three, the alarm bells had gone and I remember thinking that adapting hadn't been that hard a process.
JK: What did you learn about the cold on this trip?
JBM: First, how you have to manage your pace and clothing in order not to overheat and sweat too much. (For me, it's hard not to sweat at all.)
Second, I learned to be conscious of what my true body condition was, versus what the frigid temperatures were telling me to believe.
At the beginning of every day, I tried to warm up slowly, with small, slow steps. If you're not warmed up, it's easy to damage a tendon, ligament or muscle. Some years ago, my partner was sitting at her desk for several hours. The room was cold, she was stiff, and she got up and ran to fetch something and tore her Achilles tendon.
I learned from you that there are moments of stoicism that one simply has to endure, like putting on 40-below boots in the morning. Also, not to hesitate putting layers on or taking them off. Sometimes this fine-tuning seems like futzing or wasting time, but it's really important. Lastly, the cold has certain counter-intuitive aspects. When your body core temperature starts to drop, you feel it in your hands first, for example. Your core doesn't feel cold but you need an extra layer, not just a thicker pair of gloves.
As long as you stay off glaciers and away from avalanche slopes, winter manhauling is a comparatively safe wilderness activity. Extreme cold may require a willingness to suffer, but it's not dangerous. The only two manhauling dangers in the North are falling through the ice and polar bears.
As readers of this website know, I've had many run-ins with polar bears. And on my first Labrador expedition many years ago, as an inexperienced traveler, I broke through the ice and almost didn't survive. I was careless. Some sled haulers on the Arctic Ocean have actually perished by falling into freezing water, but I would argue that they were to blame as well. They just weren't as lucky as I was.
On this recent Labrador expedition, we were only theoretically in polar bear country. An encounter that far south, deep in the interior, would have been a truly freak event. About 10 years ago, friends in St. Augustine, on the Quebec Lower North Shore, saw polar bear tracks in the interior southeast of our position, closer to the pack ice of the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. Out of respect for my past encounters, we carried a firearm just in case, and always brought it into the tent with us overnight, but no bear passed by.
However, the danger from thin ice this time was the most serious it has been since that first near-disaster years ago. On most northern rivers, the holes around rapids are obvious, and the ice even a footstep away from open water is reassuringly thick. At one narrows, where another major watercourse joined the St. Augustine River, we had to detour through the woods to avoid some thin ice. But the real crux of the expedition came a few days later, at a 13-kilometre section known locally as the Devil's Hole. Here, the river drops an average of 16 metres (50 feet) per kilometre. Huge.
The aerial photo, above, looks to have been taken around early April; there wasn't that much open water at the beginning of March. Nevertheless, from the moment we entered Devil's Hole, we felt at risk. If we'd just been snowshoeing, we could have easily kept to the wooded slopes above the river, but they were too steep and wooded for sleds, and canyon walls on both banks hindered short detours. Mostly, we had to work the river itself.
In the first kilometre, we were in peril two or three times. In the top photo, James is hauling over a bridge of thin ice and airy snow, as a torrent rages loudly beneath him.
At this rate, it was going to take us four days to get through this 13-km section. If the other 12 kilometres were anything like the first, we would have to risk falling into the rapids dozens of times. This sort of travel is like crossing an avalanche slope: You either make it in one piece or you don't make it at all. And as we took chances to creep forward that first day, I kept wondering: three days later, eight kilometres in, if we face an unacceptably risky section after so much hard work and commitment, will we show good judgment and turn back, or will we roll the dice with our lives? It would be very hard to turn back.
So, after four hours, we decided to retreat out of Devil's Hole in favor of a long overland detour. Turning back at that early stage was not hard. Neither of us like uncontrolled risks. Unlike some other adventurers, arctic travelers prefer controlled situations. We enjoy hard work, contemplation and long periods out on the land, not brief, intense sections of out-of-our-skin terror. James, a serious climber, had previously scaled the Nose of El Capitan. While that involved more exposure to danger than this sledding journey, his skill and systematic approach to every pitch allowed him to remain in control of his fate.
Abandoning Devil's Hole turned out to be our expedition's key decision. We not only eliminated probable disaster in exchange for having to snowshoe a few extra kilometres, but a day later, we bumped into an old snowmobile track, left -- we later learned -- by our friend Felix Fequet from St. Augustine. The semi-packed trail upped our mileage from a sad 7 kilometres a day to 12 kilometres. Shortly after, we hit a main trappers' snowmobile trail. We no longer even needed snowshoes. The first 100km on this difficult expedition had taken us 16 days; we did the last 100km to St. Augustine, safely, in 4 days.
Everyone who works in the arts runs into piracy. Photo agencies used to pursue unauthorized use of images aggressively. Pre-digital piracy was so difficult that it tended to be a commissioned sin, in which perpetrators knew what they were doing. Today, screen captures and other digital tools make piracy an easy and often unthinking act. A few months ago, I noticed that a store in Banff was using an image of mine to advertise one of their services. My rule of thumb is to send a polite letter first, on the assumption that it's an innocent error: Many people simply don't realize that they have to pay to use someone's photo. That was the case here. The store owner liked the image and wanted to keep using it, so we negotiated a licensing fee. Everyone won.
You'd drive yourself crazy pursuing every 10-year-old who's using an image of yours as a screen saver or for a school project. If you go to Twitter and look up @ellesmereisland, you'll see one of my polar bear shots. I have no idea whose handle this is. It's not an active account, so it might be someone who wanted to reserve the name in the hope of selling it later.
Pirated images turn up even in legitimate sources. Amazon is selling an iPhone case cover, above, showing me hauling across the northern Labrador tundra. I took the shot using a radio trigger, a kind of fancy self-timer. This image is not with any of my stock agencies, so it's either a screen capture from this website or from a magazine article I did after the expedition. From the company's name and lack of online presence, I suspect that Love Destiny is out of China, still the top spot for digital piracy.
We arrived in St. Augustine tired and sore but in pretty good shape after 34 hard days. No major ailments, just a few temporary issues. In the temperatures that we experienced, it's hard to avoid frostnipped fingertips. Gloves inevitably get a little wet, then freeze; you have to dry them through hand warmth, which means stuffing fingers into frozen gloves at -30 or -40. The fingertips become sensitive, as if you're learning how to play the guitar, and erupt in second-degree-burn-type blisters. Along with the tenderness, they go away in time.
We were also putting such pressure on the balls of our feet from the heavy pulling that after a while, we each lost feeling in the toes of one foot -- a nerve irritation called neurapraxia. I've had it before: the feeling returns in a month or two.
These little ailments, plus other challenges -- such as stuffing your feet into 40-below boots; the feet first scream, then go numb for two or three hours -- would deter many people from ever wanting to do such a trek. Understandable. But really, it's not that bad. To enjoy a month out in the wilderness, all that's required of you is hard work and a little stoicism.
Back from Labrador after a very hard 400km snowshoe trek with partner JB MacKinnon. We went from Sheshatshiu, near Goose Bay, to St. Augustine, on Quebec's Lower North Shore. While western Canada basked in springlike temperatures through February and March, southern Labrador had the coldest winter on record. On our first 20 days, 12 days were -40 to -50C. The snow on our river routes was uniformly soft. The fact that the trek took us only 34 days is thanks to us finding a packed snowmobile trail toward the end. Our first 100km took us 16 days; the last 100 km took four.
Most of the time, we fought to make 7-8km/day in the unpacked snow -- a hard-won km/hr. The work was so hard that we simply couldn't put in more than seven-hour days. Wind occasionally blew, and we were always hopeful that it would transform the snow into a supportive surface over which we could travel swiftly, but it never did. Once the snow has had time to settle, wind doesn't do much to it. You want a strong wind immediately after a snowfall, when the powdered snow is easily blown around and transformed into hard sastrugi.
We weren't the only creatures struggling in the soft snow. As we hauled up the Kenamu River, we kept running into moose -- mostly cow- and-calf pairs -- feeding on the willows along the shore. A moose's long, spindly legs give new meaning to postholing. The moose sank up to their bellies, leaving tracks like mutant otters, as one Labrador man later put it. (Otters slide on their bellies and leave toboggan-like trails.) The moose had such a hard time that we could have run them down on snowshoes. In the deep snow, they could not have used their legs -- their only weapons -- to protect themselves. Luckily for them, the snow was too deep for wolves too, and we saw no tracks.
JB MacKinnon and I leave for our 400km snowshoe/sledding trek through Labrador on Feb. 5. We spent a few days in Goose Bay with friends, then expect to hit the trail on Feb. 9.
Snowfall after snowfall has belted the Goose Bay area; little wonder that the stop signs in town rest atop such high poles. All this snow will make for some hard traveling.
Another interesting technical obstacle is the Trans Labrador Highway, which we cross near our halfway point. Snowploughs create deep canyons of snow. At some point, we have to descend one cliff and up the other. This will surely be a job for JB's climbing skills.
Our other most technical section is a 16-kilometre stretch along the St. Augustine River. The river narrows, rapids create much open water, even in midwinter, and steep banks on both sides make sled detours difficult. This area is known locally by the colorful name, the Devil's Hole.
In early February, writer JB (James) MacKinnon and I are heading to Labrador to snowshoe 400 kilometres along an old Innu route from Sheshatshiu (near Goose Bay) to St. Augustine, on the Quebec North Shore. It should take 25-28 days. We're beginning in the heart of winter because our route mainly follows two rivers, the Kenamu in Labrador and the St. Augustine in Quebec, and we want to hit the rapids on those waterways when they are mostly frozen and there exist sneak routes around open water, even in the canyon sections.
Thus the journey will be cold, though less severe than early February in northern interior Labrador. We'll have to deal with frequent lows in the -30s rather than the -40s and -50s. On the other hand, we may encounter far more difficult travel conditions than further north, because thicker forest means softer snow: In open country, wind and cold transform the snow into a hard surface over which a sled glides easily.
Pulling even a moderately weighted sled through knee-deep powder is one of the most aerobic chores it is possible to do. Imagine hauling 50 steps at 100 percent effort, then, gasping, stop to regain your breath, then take another 50 steps, catch your breath, and continue to do this all day. Six hours of interval training.
My partner James is author of The 100 Mile Diet and most recently, The Once and Future World. He's also an exquisite magazine writer. We are both past contributing editors to Explore magazine. James edited (wonderfully) my piece on the 2012 sledding trip I did with Noah Nochasak, from Nain, Labrador to Kangiqsualujjuaq, in northern Quebec. It first appeared in Explore and was later picked up by Readers' Digest and by the online publication, Perceptive Travel.
My account of sledding intrigued James, who is no slouch in the outdoors. Although he has limited experience in winter camping, he snowboards, mountain bikes and is a 5.12d [read: serious] climber who has scaled El Capitan, the same big wall (though not the same route) as the one recently completed by Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson.
For me, our route is a completion of sorts. I've kayaked the whole Labrador coast, from Killinek down to the Straits, and I've pulled a sled through most of the interior. This will complete my informal north-south winter route through Labrador. Really, it's just an excuse to do another journey, through a part of the peninsula I haven't tackled before.
I'd hoped to find an Innu man to join us as a third member and share his understanding of their part of the country. In recent years, hundreds of Innu have undertaken long snowshoe walks through Labrador and Quebec, reconnecting with the ancient ways of travel. Though important and inspirational, these walks were all heavily supported by snowmobilers, who carried most of the gear and food, tamped down the trail and sometimes, set up the trekkers' bush tent every day ahead of their arrival in camp. I joined one of those walks back in 2008, with well-known Innu figure Elizabeth Penashue.
I put out the word as best I could, but no one in the Innu community expressed any interest in joining us on our unsupported trek to St. Augustine. It made me recognize yet again how unique my Inuit friend Noah is, for his passion to travel out on the land for weeks, the way southerners like myself do it, but underpinned with the spirituality and tradition of of his culture.
Re the polar bear attack discussed below, one of my correspondents, Randall Osczevski, explains how hard it is to find a reliable high-voltage electric fence for wilderness travel (versus the alarm-style model that I use): "There are two problems with an electric fence. First, the bear has to make electrical contact with the bare wire, even though it is covered with fur which is probably a poor conductor of electricity. Second, it has to be electrically grounded. On dry snow, the latter isn't likely, or on dry moss, either."
Randall is a retired scientist who used to work at a government cold-research lab in Toronto. He's best known for reinventing the wind chill factor, to make it more accurate. Everyone uses his version nowadays.
Another problem that Randall didn't mention is that it takes significant power to have a high-voltage charge running through a wire for hours every night. You'd need to backpack a pretty hefty battery. As a result, most electrical safety fences are heavy, semi-permanent devices -- such as the one used at the Torngats park base camp.
All the portable fences used in polar bear country by travelers are the alarm type. It needs minimal electricity: I can power mine for two months on a little 9-volt battery. It was surprising to read that the Sierra Club guides brought a shock-type fence to Labrador, but not surprising that it didn't work.