GEAR ARCHIVES 2008
Early in 2009, I reported on the problems I'd had trying to
use a Nikon D200 camera and its accessory motor drive on an
arctic expedition. On Ellesmere Island in March, I was able to
take just a few frames before even the lithium AAs
seemed to conk out. (The standard lithium ion batteries are
useless in the cold.)
I've since learned that this motor
drive is notoriously cranky -- a voltage issue, some say. (eg.
) Since then, I've done a
firmware update on the camera and drive in the hope that Nikon
was able to tweak this problem. Hard to say if it had any
effect, although I did use the D200 in Labrador
semi-successfully. I usually had to shut the camera off
briefly after shooting a few frames, but as soon as I turned
the camera on again, the lithium AAs were ready to go.
Unacceptable for action or even self-timed stuff, but at
least the camera worked in a rudimentary fashion.
However, it was a lot warmer in Labrador in December,
typically -14C, than on Ellesmere in March, -30 to -35C.
The real solution is to rig an external battery pack that
you keep warm in an inside pocket. I thought this would be
impractical on a long expedition, but some time after posting
the note, I heard from a Finnish reader who had skied
unsupported to the North Pole. Their team photographer, Kari
Poppis Suomela, had succcessfully used a D200 on that trip,
thanks to such a battery rig. (The same photographer is
currently using a D300 and D700 on a South Pole trek.) So,
with a little ingenuity, digital SLRs can be used on arctic
Thumbs up to Arc'teryx's Bora 95, which carried a big
weight well during my recent winter trek in northern
Labrador. Although I used a small sled part of the time, I
spent most of one day humping a full pack uphill in
two loads, to get beyond the mountains girdling Saglek to the
flattish interior leading toward Hebron. The suspension
carried the weight comfortably, and the pack has enough
smartly located straps to maintain a tight load, even
with four or five bulky items on the outside. It's my new
One of the hardest items to find is a backpack that
carries weights over 80 pounds. Almost no one makes them. Not
surprising, since no one wants to carry those loads. But
sometimes I have to. I'll be carrying 95 pounds in northern
Labrador next week. That includes a shotgun for defence
against polar bears, tripod, camera gear, 10 days of food.
Plus the usual arctic gear.
For years, I've used a 20-year old North Face frame pack
called a Back Magic. It was one of the first packs I ever
used, and it actually carries 100 lbs pretty well. I liked it
so much at the time that -- in a rare exhibit of foresight --
I bought several of them. When one wears out, or the frame
breaks, I move on to the next one. The main problem with
the Back Magic, apart from the external frame's vulnerability
to baggage handlers, is that the volume of the pack is not
great. I always have to strap too many things to the
I've tried to find an internal frame pack to replace
it. A guide who often toted big loads told me that
Gregory and Dana Designs (now Marmot) made good expedition
packs. I bought Gregory's biggest pack, a 120-liter behemoth,
but I never liked it. The suspension system failed after 80
pounds, so that the hip belt became useless and I had
to bear the entire load on my shoulders. I used it
on three or four trips and suffered every time. I then
went back to the Back Magic and never did try Marmot's
Astralplane pack, which has now been
For this trek from Saglek to Hebron, I'm going to try a new
pack -- the Bora 95 from Arc'teryx. It was lent to me by
climber Will Gadd, who sometimes uses it for carrying big
racks of gear to the base of his climbs. The "95" stands for
liters, but in this case it's also the weight in pounds that
it will have to bear. Tried it today; it felt pretty
good; as good, anyway, as 95 lbs can feel. Will report on it
when I get back.
Arc'teryx Bora 95, fully loaded
One of my most useful and well-used items of expedition
equipment is a LifeSource bathroom scale. I first saw this
precision scale in the lab of thermophysiologist Gordon
Giesbrecht, aka Professor Popsicle, when we were testing
various items of arctic gear in his freezer. The scale
is accurate to 1/10 of a pound (or 50 gms, depending on
whether you get the metric or Imperial version) -- more
than precise enough for weighing expedition food. One of my
favorite features is that if somebody under 150 lbs (eg
Alexandra) stands on it before it's turned on, it gives a zero
reading when activated. I can then hand her a floppy duffle or
some other item that wouldn't sit well on a scale to
get its exact weight. This ensures that all my
airport check-in bags are under either 50 or 70
Moisture, not temperature, is the biggest equipment problem
in the cold. How big a problem it is depends on how much you
sweat. Those who sweat easily have to be much more careful
about not overdressing, and sometimes even that is not
enough. I've traveled with partners who sweat so much that
their goggles fog up from the effort of sledding. Nothing they
can do seems to prevent it. Anti-fogging agents don't work.
Sledding in underwear doesn't work. These people are just
moisture factories. (They also need to drink about twice
as us non-sweaters.)
If fogged-up goggles are your fate, all you can do is
tough it out. It drove one of my partners crazy; he couldn't
endure it. He felt he was flying blind. He quit the expedition
after a single day. Another one, just as sweaty but mentally
much tougher, endured it silently for almost a month. He
peeked out of whatever corners of the glasses weren't fogged.
He got used to see the world in a haze. I don't know whether
I'd have that equanimity. You can't take the glasses off,
either: For much of the traveling season, you
need glasses to prevent snowblindness.
The darkness of the glasses, incidentally, has nothing to
do with the protection. Polar guide Paul Schurke once became
snowblind wearing a cheap pair of sunglasses. On the
other hand, I often wear just clear prescription lenses
with a UV coating. (I dislike dark glasses.) It's the
ultraviolet coating that prevents sunburning your retina.
Because I don't know the minimum UV blockage required in
a pair of glasses in polar conditions, I always use 100% UV
For years, I resisted sewing a fur ruff around my parka for
winter expeditions. Sure, the old explorers did it, but that
was the problem. Too many modern quasi-explorers latched onto
it as a status symbol. It seemed that the more lightweight
they were, the thicker and handsomer the parka ruff. So in a
wind, I just hid inside a plain GoreTex hood. It
But I had an old bit of fur in a closet that someone once
gave me. On a frigid winter expedition four years ago, I
decided to sew it round the edge of my parka, as an
experiment. The fur was ratty enough that it couldn't be taken
for a fashion statement.
You can guess the result. The fur trim really did add to
the warmth of the hood, especially in a cross wind. I no
longer had to struggle to protect my long beak: The fur
outrider did that.
So for the March-May trek up Ellesmere Island last
year, Bob Cochran & I both went equipped with
fantastically flamboyant fur ruffs. It was great, although
when strong headwinds caught the greater surface area of the
fur, it was often a chore to keep the hood from blowing
off my head.
Bob of the Arctic, well-accoutered against the wind.
Jackets, gloves, hats are important enough, but what you
wear on your feet often determines the success or failure of a
long-distance trek. Some personal favorites:
Socks. Ultimax Ultimate Liner, Ultimax
Cool-Lite Hiker Pro. Winter or summer in the Arctic, they keep
my feet warm but not cooked -- and they last forever. I walk a
lot, even in day-to-day, non-expedition mode. Most socks wear
out prematurely. For example, when Smart Wool socks began to
appear in outdoor stores everywhere, I tried a couple of pair.
They were full of holes in less than two weeks. Besides the
two Ultimax socks, the only other sock I bring on winter
expeditions is Patagonia's expedition-weight sock, which I
wear around camp and in the sleeping bag.
Paddling boot. Chota's Mukluk Light
neoprene boots. My current ones are pretty chewed up by now --
and they're hard to patch -- but they've lasted for three
summers of expedition kayaking.
Instead of a rubber boot. For stream
crossings, dewy mornings, rainy days, snowshoeing in
wet snow or just general sloshing, I no longer carry
rubber boots or even Chotas when hiking. Instead, I just use
Neos overboots (The Trekker model comes up the highest, almost
knee-high.) They're essentially waterproof nylon bags
with reinforced toes and heels and light rubber soles on
the bottom. They fit over hiking boots or running shoes.
Velcro and a couple of straps hold them firmly in place. They
don't look like they should be totally waterproof, but they
are. They don't look like they should last a long time either,
but they seem to. I even wore them while de-quilling a
porcupine during my snowshoe trek in Labrador's Mealy
Mountains this past March, and to my surprise they escaped
without a puncture. Many thanks (again) to Alfred Duller for
alerting me to these.
Hiking boots. I still haven't found the
perfect hiking boot, but I prefer one of the light, low-cut
models from The North Face. I've never needed a heavy boot: a
couple of trips I've carried a 100-lb pack on Ellesmere Island
with just running shoes. Boots, of course, are better in mixed
(ie dry/soggy) conditions. TNF's boots tend not to last very
long, but their last fits my foot well. It fits Alexandra too.
Often the right gear depends on personal abilities -- do your
feet get cold easily, etc.? -- but the right boot brand often
depends merely on the shape of your foot.
I owe this dinner recipe to fellow
sledder Graeme Magor, who introduced me to it years ago. He
says he originally found it in Recipes for a Small
Planet. It's an ideal expedition dinner,
tasty, satisfying and super-caloric. Most people like it,
although it's too heavy for a weekend trip. It's made for
long, hungry expeditions. I eat it every second day,
alternating with freeze-dried fare or some alternative.
Serves 18, or one person 18 times
11 cups whole milk powder
10 cups potato flakes
45 tblsp whole wheat flour
23 tblsp onion flakes
23 tblsp garlic powder
23 tblsp wheat germ (optional)
23 tsp parsley flakes
23 tsp dill weed
23 tsp oregano
11 tsp salt
dash of pepper & nutmeg
powdered shortening or margarine for extra calories
6+ lbs cheese
I carry the gruel in medium Ziplocs. 1.4 lbs of gruel
mix = 4 servings. My preferred cheese, for its calorie/weight
ratio, is a Swiss raclette with 48% fat, available at a local
deli. (Supermarket cheeses are typically only around 25% fat.)
For cold-weather expeditions, I ask them to remove the
rind, cut the cheese in 1" cubes, then vacuum-pack it for
freshness in 2-lb bricks. The cubing is important, because
otherwise you'll be whaling away with an ice ax at cheese
frozen hard as cement. That takes forever, and you lose a lot
of cheese splinters that way. You need 1/3 lb per person-day
of cheese. As a treat, budget for a little more after a
particularly long day, somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 lb per
person. This is a monster bowl, for trenchermen only. Note
that the rind does not count in cheese weights.
Add 1/3 lb gruel powder per person to
enough cold water to make a thickish soup. (Whole milk powder
doesn't mix well with hot water.) Heat over medium heat,
stirring constantly. As the gruel nears boiling, it will
thicken. The final gruel consistency should resemble a
medium porridge. Hitting this ideal balance is just
trial and error.
Add the chunks of cheese when the gruel is almost boiling,
and stir constantly over low heat, if your camp stove allows
such a refined setting, until some of the chunks are melted in
but you have enough melting, still-visible chunks to give
you several good cheese hits. Add some powdered shortening or
margarine, if desired, to further increase calories.
One disadvantage of this recipe: No matter how diligent the
stirrer, the pot bottom will inevitably be messy with
burned-on gruel. Scrape it off with the screwdriver piece on a
Alfred Duller, the Labrador traveler who invented the polar
bear alarm fence described below, recently mentioned to me
that he'd be willing to build the occasional alarm
unit for a modest fee. Alfred travels a lot and doesn't have
much time, but he's also remarkably generous and willing to
share the device with kindred spirits. Send an e-mail to
describing where you're going and I'll forward your note onto
I took my first photos on my first winter expedition
across Labrador. Since it was a solo journey, and I
wanted to do a magazine story about it, I had to put myself in
the picture for interest. This meant some sort of
self-timing set-up. I avoided a tripod -- too heavy, I felt --
in favor of a little C-clamp that I'd bolt to a ski, snow
shovel or snowshoe stuck upright in the hard snow. I'd
trip the camera's self-timer and scoot into position. It
worked fine, in a limited way.
self-timing rig. Picture taken by a second little camera
that screwed into a ski pole.
I continued to travel solo or
more often with one other person, so for variety in photos,
I continued to need a self-timing rig. I took to
carrying a tripod as well as an
infrared receiver/transmitter, so I wouldn't be limited to the manual timer's
10 seconds. (The Nikon radio transmitter/receiver was
not available in Canada; an airwaves licensing thing.)
This was much better, although in sunlight you had to
carefully aim the transmitter at the receiver to trigger the
shutter. Automatic cameras with programmable self-timers
allowed me to stash the transmitter away before the camera
fired. Still, the distance was limited to 20 or 30 meters.
It was a revelation when I picked up a pair
of Pocket Wizards a few years ago. With the receiver
hooked to the camera by a custom-made cord from Paramount Cords
in New York, this radio-trigger kit let me shoot
self-timed images up to half a kilometer away -- more than enough to
do just about anything. It's a pain to have to put
yourself in the photo, but if the group is small and you have
to double as both photographer and model, this is the way to
Pocket Wizard & Paramount cord system,
and self-portrait with Alexandra from Labrador's Torngat Mountains.
In Labrador, the GV snowshoes worked perfectly on
packed snowmobile trails and uphill climbs to the Mealy
mountaintops. But in the deep, soft snow of the woods, no
alpine-style snowshoe could give the flotation of a pair of
traditional round Innu snowshoes. Sometimes I tried to follow
our guys as they searched for porcupine, but it was
impossible. They floated; I floundered. On the other hand,
they struggled uphills, constantly taking off or putting on
their snowshoes as the grade steepened or lessened. Only in
the softest powder did the Innu snowshoes also sink
Lightweight Innu snowshoes float in the airy powder
of the protected woods.
I mainly use skis in the Arctic but sometimes I
also bring snowshoes for backup. In deep powder,
snowshoes let you tamp a trail for the sled, which otherwise
pulls like a sack of potatoes. In the subarctic, snowshoes
are more maneuverable and give better flotation in
the bush, while skis are faster on the windblown lakes. For
the same reason, snowshoes are better in rough sea ice, where
the snow also tends to be softer because the jagged blocks
act like small windbreaks.
Since snowshoes have been secondary
transportation until now, I've put up with binding
systems that are a nuisance. Often, the lashings work their
way loose or the heel strap slides down off the boot. While in
Quebec's Chic-Choc Mountains last month, I had a chance to try
a pair of GV snowshoes. Their binding system, reminiscent of a
snowboard binding, was a revelation. The bindings were easy to
put on, and for once, my boots held tight. That's how
snowshoes should work.
Later, I discovered that a colleague, Richard Weber, used GV snowshoes on a trek
to the North Pole two years ago. When we chatted earlier this week,
he agreed that snowshoes are faster than skis when the
ice is rough. Maneuverability in tight spaces, again. The built-in crampon
also lets you haul a sled over pressure ice much
better than a ski/climbing skin combination.
At first, he used their high-end Polar Trail model. The expedition was successful, but he
found that the crampon on the Polar Trail was so aggressive that
it stuck in hard snow. "You had to lift your foot straight
up before moving it forward," he said. So, on an
expedition the following year, he changed to a
different GV model called the Snow Aerolite. Its slightly more
modest crampon was more effective for general snow walking. "It made
a difference of half a mile an hour," he said.
GV snowshoes at work in Banff National Park
Most experienced travelers parse their gear carefully, but
the North Pole -- like Mount Everest in the last 10 years --
tends to attract ambitious beginners who haven't quite
got the gear thing down. A few years ago, I had the chance
to visit Ward Hunt Island, just off the northern tip of
Ellesmere Island. Ward Hunt has been the classic starting
point for modern North Pole expeditions, and some of the
expedition garbage lying around was itself classic. At least,
during their final packing job before setting off, they
decided to leave the worst behind.
Top row, L to R: can of beans; shoe polish;
anchovies; can of margarine; shark repellent (this had to be
from a British expedition!); jar of honey.
Second row: Concentrated pineapple juice
Third row: root beer; Borwick's baking powder;
yeast packet; "brown sauce"; asparagus tips (truly historic;
supposedly from the 1968 Plaisted expedition, the first
surface trek to the pole); curry powder
Fourth row: stock cubes; Camel cigarettes
(expedition from France?); Kodak developer; frozen green
Beneath everything, a box of military combat
rations from the 1950s. The canned bread and Chiclets gum were
still pretty good.
Still, it was not great to have all this stuff
lying around. When I was there, an arctic wolf haunted the
area, scavenging the questionable food. The wolf later turned
up dead. Its teeth had worn down to nothing from
chewing open the cans to get at the food. I helped the
Quttinirpaaq park wardens gather up the garbage, and we burned
it. I've always regretted not bringing back the shark
repellent as a souvenir.
Once in a while, a great idea comes along
that can transform how you travel in the outdoors.
LED headlamps were one of those. In the early years I had to
light my winter camps with candles, because I couldn't bring
enough lithium D-cells to power a tungsten headlamp for
4-5 hours a day. Now, the LEDs eat so little power that
one set of 4 AA lithiums can keep my Petzl headlamp shining
for about 35 hours in extreme cold.
The latest great idea I've bumped into is the
packraft. It's been around for a few years now, used mostly in
Alaska. Made by an Alaskan company called Alpacka Raft, they
are serious inflatable boats rather than pool toys. And they
weigh less than five pounds.
The main question with a craft like this is how reliable
is it? With only one air chamber, you don't want it to
suddenly spring a small leak in the middle of a big lake. It turns
out that these rafts, made with modern urethane, are
incredibly tough, despite their feather weight. Alaskan paddlers use
them for bashing down icy rivers littered with sharp rocks.
They're even good in winter. I brought one last year on
our expedition retracing the footsteps of Frederick
Cook, planning to float the sleds behind if we hit a barrier of
open water that we couldn't ski around. We didn't use it in the end
-- there were always other ways around the open water
-- but the raft material never got brittle or
unreasonably stiff in the cold.
Alpacka's largest two rafts are big enough for two
(crammed) people, and two is best way to go. Even with a kayak
paddle, the raft is so responsive -- being made for whitewater
-- that it tracks poorly. Two paddlers are able to go in
a straight line much more easily.
The raft inflates in a couple of minutes with an ingenious
3-oz nylon bag with a nozzle at one end that screws into the
raft. You inflate the raft by using the bag like a
The beauty of the packraft is that hikers and backpackers
can now be amphibious. Need to cross a lake or ford a river?
No problem. The raft is compact and light enough to fit
in a backpack, along with the rest of the camping gear.
And it's tough enough for expedition use.
A Russian expedition to the North Pole is currently
taking place during the polar night. A very tough project,
although it's already been done two years ago by Borge Ousland
and Mike Horn. (The fact that Ousland & Horn reached the
Pole a couple of days after the official end of winter does
not, in my mind, give this first winter expedition to the Pole
Reading the occasional reports on thepoles.com, it's clear
that the Russians are underdressed, at least in their camp
gear. This has forced them to use their camp stove not
only to cook and melt drinking water, but to keep the
tent warmer during the evenings. Not only is
this tricky -- you have to leave the tent door
partly open to vent the carbon monoxide, and constantly
monitor yourself to ensure that the CO in your system is not
affecting your sledding performance -- but on an extreme
expedition like this, where ounces count, it's a huge waste of
On my first winter arctic expedition, I had a very
spartan camp and averaged .18 liters of fuel/day. Now my
winter camps are a little more genteel -- hot chocolate
every morning, soup every night or two -- but I still average
only .22 liters/day on -30C and -40 trips. How much fuel
you need depends on how much you need to drink. I don't drink
much -- a liter during a seven-hour sledding day, 1.5 liters
during a nine-hour sledding day -- but I've traveled with
partners who sweat a lot and need almost twice that.
Since fuel is vital for melting water, I add a margin and
bring .25 liters/day, which leaves me some left over for
warming the tent as a luxury -- especially useful when making
notes. But for the sake of a couple of extra pounds of
clothing, the Russians could have saved themselves much
more in fuel.
I'm going to assume that every arctic expeditioner
brings a huge down parka. (Mine is the Rock & Ice from
Feathered Friends.) The two other ingredients for a warm camp
are a pair of insulated pants (such as the 40 Below pants,
also from Feathered Friends) and a pair of insulated camp
boots. You've seen smaller versions of these before: they're
similar to the down booties some people wear in alpine huts or
for less extreme cold-weather camping, but the ones for arctic
use are twice as thick and reach up to the knee.
A company in Quebec used to make these commercially, using
synthetic insulation, which is where I got my first pair. But
they worked so well, that I've had them custom made ever
since when the old ones get ratty.
The addition of insulated pants and these superbooties
creates a kind of bivouac suit that lets you adapt comfortably
to an arctic winter camp. You don't have to protect your lower
half inside the sleeping bag when you're cooking. I
can relax in an unheated tent even at -50C. And I don't
need to waste fuel taking the edge off the cold's bite.
When I began shooting digital in 2006, the main question
was how to charge the camera in the field. Humanedgetech.com
makes a great little 12-V charger than runs off 8 AA lithiums
that I use to recharge an Ipod or sat phone. In
cooler weather, about -20C, I could charge both
devices about three times on one set of AAs. But a
digital camera gobbles up a lot more power. It seemed a sad
solution to just keep throwing AA lithium batteries at the
problem. An electronics friend calculated that an
eight-pack of AAs would charge the D200's proprietary EN-EL3e
battery roughly once.
So I tried solar. The Brunton Solarroll14 is strong enough to
charge a laptop. It comes with several connectors, but I focused
on the 12V, which looks like the female end of a cigarette
lighter socket. It was relatively easy to find a third-party
charger for the Nikon battery that came with a cigarette
lighter plug. eg. bluenook.com. Since the Solarroll can
charge two devices at once, I ordered an extra connector from
Brunton and also an extra charger from Blue Nook. Finally,
in case of long travel days or dark weather, I packed three
The system worked beautifully on our month-long paddle down
the coast of northern Labrador. The flexible panel wrapped
neatly around a Thermarest and didn't take up much space,
despite its four-foot length. And it fully charged a D200
battery in about three hours, not much longer than a wall
socket takes. Given the long summer days in arctic Labrador,
we had plenty of daylight before or after paddling to keep
both cameras charged.
Many great travelers are also equipment inventors, and I
tip my hat to them. I can improve an idea that already
exists, but designing a piece of gear from scratch is beyond
So when I meet someone like Alfred
Duller, I'm both envious and humbled. Alfred is a schoolteacher from Austria
who has been traveling northern Labrador for 27 summers, by foot and kayak. He doesn't
promote himself, he just keeps returning to a place he
loves. Sometimes he has traveled solo, sometimes with fellow Labrador devotees Katherine Suboch or the
late Andy Rudzitis. Over the years, he's become
the most knowledgeable person alive about the Torngat Mountains.
Alfred is a talented inventor, and one
of his inventions, which he's shared with me, is a polar bear alarm
fence. "The fence saved my life several times," he says. It weighs just three
pounds, including batteries, poles, wires and the alarm itself. It sets off
a shrill alarm when a bear or other animal breaches
the perimeter of your camp. The noise may scare off the bear,
but most importantly, it wakes you up and buys you
For the first 15 years of arctic travel, I had only
one close polar bear encounter, but recently it has seemed
as if I can't go anywhere without being threatened by a polar bear.
Last year, I had five close calls.
All bears and all people survived. On one of those encounters, a polar bear broke into my sled
(the yellow and blue one below) while my partner and I were sleeping
on the sea ice of eastern
Ellesmere Island. The alarm both woke us up and scared it
I won't venture into polar bear territory again without
the fence. It's so light that it would also be good to
carry while backpacking in grizzly country.
Here's the recipe for the polar bear fence. The
first two ingredients are the trickiest.
WHAT YOU NEED
- a small alarm unit, such as a
Sonalert. Basically, this is a circuit board and small
electronic horn for making noise. In the real world, they're used as security alarms. The
precise units that Alfred uses are now out of production, so
it'll take a little shopping around.
- an electronics friend or local electrician
who can create a homemade switch for the alarm unit, which includes battery
and fence inputs and a test button.
cold-weather arctic expeditions, I use Stuart Cody's Li-77 lithium battery
pack, available from automatedmedia.com. Stuart also provides the
female part of the plug that is integrated into the
alarm unit. Alfred travels mainly in summer, when even a 9V battery
can power the fence for a multi-week trip. (see five models below) You can protect the circuit board
in a casing but the entire unit can never be waterproof,
because that would muffle the horn.
- 2 banana plugs in two colors that
attach to a lead wire that runs about 60 feet from the tent to
the fence, where it is spliced onto the lighter perimeter
wire. The banana plugs fit into the fence jacks on the alarm
- 8 carbon
fiber poles about 50" long and about 1/2" in
- 8 lightweight aluminum arrowheads as
points for the poles. The arrowhead should slip into the
bottom of the pole without too much play. Epoxy the
arrowhead into the bottom, as below. For added strength,
I had a machine shop drill a hole through each pole and
arrowhead and glue a metal pin holding the arrowhead more
firmly in place.
about 20 yards of lead wire and 80 yards of much
thinner perimeter wire on a plastic spool. At first, I
used the extremely light perimeter wire that Alfred uses in summer, but in
the cold, it was constantly breaking and the pieces had
to be twisted back together -- a time-consuming and miserable job in
the cold. On the next winter expedition I will try
a more expensive silicon-coated wire, also very light, that supposedly will
not break easily.
- shrink tubing for
the top foot or two of each pole and a wire spring that
slips over the tube and holds in place nicely by the friction of
the tubing. You should still be able to move the spring up or
down the pole along the shrink tubing, so the wire sits at
the right height, no matter how deep the snow. Add a drop of
epoxy on each end of the spring to keep it from snagging
clothing and to hold the wire more securely.
- a wire stripper, either a
store-bought one or a homemade superlight version, below left.
- Set up the fence at home before using
it. The final chore is to break the perimeter wire roughly
midway between each of the eight sections of the perimeter.
Alfred then strips off the insulation and twists the
wire lightly together -- enough so that it holds with some tension
but flimsily enough so that if an animal pushes against
a section of wire, it comes apart easily at that pre-broken
point. On Ellesmere, we found this very finicky -- the broken
sections were often coming undone and were a pain to put back
together in the cold -- so I've been looking for an
alternative. Next time I will fix a male and female
mini-plug (above right) to the wire at the breaks of
each section. These plugs can be inserted halfway or one-third
the way into each other, creating just the right tension, and
should be easy to reassemble if they come apart. Of course,
you know when they come apart, because the alarm rings.
January 10, 2008
Digital photography is liberating, although it enslaves you for hours in a dark room in front of a computer monitor. Film enslaved for years too, since photographers started scanning their work. But despite its advantages, digital still fails in a few serious ways. For one thing, it can't handle cold.
Last March, I brought my Nikon D200 to Ellesmere Island. A typical day was -30 or colder.
I mean real cold. I mean being outside in
that cold for weeks with full-sized equipment, not with a
little point-and-shoot kept warm in an inside pocket or with
batteries likewise protected and attached to the camera with a
messy cord. If a camera's going to do serious work on an
arctic expedition, it has to live in the cold, like the
It was my first time trying to shoot digital on an arctic expedition, so I backed it up with a film camera. Good thing.
The Canadian Rockies, where I live, get cold in December and January, so I had a chance to test the camera before I left. I put it in the trunk of our car on the coldest night. At first, I was afraid the liquid crystal display would freeze. LCD displays froze in early cameras, like the vintage F3, but they're better now. But would the big display on the back of a digital camera work?
It was clear from the trunk-of-car test that the D200's proprietary battery was useless in the cold. It went from fully charged to zero after just one night outside. Then it refused to charge from my big solar panel, which worked great in summer.
But the D200 comes with an optional pack that runs off AA batteries. For years, lithium AA and AAA batteries have been the arctic expeditioner's salvation. Even at -40 or -50șC, they'll power a headlamp or a camera flash. The six AA batteries in the D200's pack lit the LCD display even after that cold Canmore night. The camera itself seemed to work fine. So, armed with about 10 changes of batteries, I brought the D200 to Ellesmere.
Once out on the land, reality set in. At -30șC, the power demands of digital were too much even for AA lithiums. A fresh set of six AA batteries let me take one image before needing to recover. The LCD panel didn't freeze but it needed so much power that it stayed blank. The cost of film aside, checking the results & the exposure histogram on the LCD panel are the main advantages of shooting digital.
I couldn't even take two pictures in a row. I had to switch off the camera and let the batteries recover for a couple of minutes before shooting the next frame. A set of six AAs lasted a measly 10 shots. Then I had to put in a fresh set. It's impossible to shoot under those conditions. This is not a criticism of the D200, which is a great camera, but of the limitations of digital under those extreme conditions. So few people shoot in Pluto temperatures - why would the manufacturers bother building a camera that can handle it?
I limped on with the D200 for a few days, before switching to my old F4 film camera for the rest of the expedition. I managed to get several functional and one decent digital shot,
but film would have done a better job. The sunstar would have been cleaner, a sharp, glittering diamond rather than a blob of melting ice cream. But digital's lousy sunstars are another story.
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