Jerry Kobalenko Ellesmere Island Ellesmere Adventure Arctic Travel Arctic Photography High Arctic Adventure Arctic Expeditions Axel Heiberg Island Devon Island Ellesmere Island History

 

 

 

 

GEAR

 

 

 

SPECIAL NOTE:

I enjoy sharing stuff on this site but I wouldn't mind making some coffee money sharing a little more. So I've put together a pdf of my complete sledding equipment list. Every item I bring on a typical arctic sledding expedition is here. In many cases, I explain why I've chosen it, and in the case of obscure items, where to get them. The list has every piece of hardware and software someone needs for an arctic manhauling expedition at temps from -15 to -60 C below.

A jpg of the first page is below. The complete list has 11 pages in all and is available for $15 (Cdn or US). Unfortunately, setting up an automatic shopping cart on this site is a little complicated for one or two items, but if you remit the funds by Paypal to jkbanff(at)telusplanet.net, I'll forward the complete pdf.

 

December 22

As headgear goes, the balaclava is so ugly that I usually remove it for photos, or at least gather it up on my head into a toque. Maybe if it was made of chainmail and I was a flaxen-haired yeoman, it would not look quite so dorky. Unfortunately, the balaclava works. I carry three with me on every arctic sledding expedition: a thin stretchy one for general travel, a thick fleece one for nightwear, and OR's Gorilla balaclava for serious headwinds. The oversized nosepiece protects the nose without forcing you to breathe right into it. And since this nosepiece attaches with Velcro, it can be removed in the evening, the ice from breath melted away over the cooking stove, and the item more or less dried by sleeping with it.

The balaclava has a noble history. Many of the old explorers wore balaclavas of boiled wool. In a wind, they pulled the lower part over their noses to prevent frostbite. Trouble is, breathing through a balaclava inevitably fogs up your glasses. It doesn't matter whether you're wearing single lenses or double-lens ski goggles smeared with anti-fogging agent. Those old explorers were tough but not always particularly bright, and they typically removed their fogged-up sunglasses. This, of course, led to snowblindness. Wearing a balaclava in a wind takes a lot of breath control, like swimming. If the balaclava is pulled up over my face, I hold my breath and then, in midstride, quickly pull it down, breathe out, breathe in and pull it up again. You can get quite good at this and do it in one quick sequence. The Gorilla balaclava minimizes the need for such shenanigans, as long as you breathe out through your nose.

Not all balaclavas are created equal. Most have design defects that render them unsuitable for arctic use. Take the following example:

.

This balaclava has two problems. First, it does not adequately cover the forehead. If you're wearing goggles, there should be a fairly tight seal between balaclava and goggles to prevent the icy wind from finding a gap and causing a thin sliver of frostbite. Second, you'll notice the looseness of the material near the model's right eye. The wind snakes in through that gap, and though it may not lead to frostbite, it at least causes an ice cream headache. If you shop wisely, you can find models without that loose gap when the balaclava is pulled over the face.

In the sleeping bag, I wear a warm 300-wt fleece balaclava. On the coldest nights, I hook the top part over my nose to keep it warm. Why the top part? Why not just pull the balaclava up, as in the photo? Because in the sleeping bag, this feels very claustrophobic & makes it hard to sleep. The part over the mouth also gets very wet and clammy from breathing. Thankfully, I don't have a button nose but a big schnozz that allows me to hook the top part over it securely.

December 19

As part of the tweaks of my new Nikon D300s, I tested the focus of my various AF lenses through Lens Align. This useful gadget shows exactly where your autofocus lens focuses: It is not usually where it should be! Some of my lenses backfocused, which means they focused beyond the spot where they should have. One frontfocused -- focused slightly too close. This isn't just an issue with my lenses, but with all lens/digital camera combinations. Sensors, it turns out, are as unique as fingerprints, so high-end cameras like the D300s include a little function (called AF fine tune in this model) that lets you adjust the camera so that with a particular lens, the focus is bang on. Earlier models, such as the D200, lacked this fine-tuning and you had to adapt your shooting to the limitations of the system. One friend, for example, learned that with big telephotos and narrow depth of field, he had to focus on the shoulder of a bird to get its eye in focus.

Each lens has its own quirks with a particular camera, and the D300s remembers your adjustments for up to 12 lenses. My required adjustments weren't too bad: typically, around + or - 4 on the camera's scale of -20 to +20.

Focusing down from infinity to the subject was always different -- and more accurate -- than focusing up to it from a close distance, such as three feet. Sometimes the former direction slightly backfocused while the latter direction grossly frontfocused. Since there is no way to balance both perfectly, the trick is to ensure that you are always focusing from a farther distance down to your subject.

The Lens Align setup, and examples of significant backfocusing, middle, and slight frontfocusing, far right. Some photographers want their focus to be symmetrical around the 0, others prefer the focal range to be one-third in front of and two-thirds behind the 0.

 

December 9

In arctic cold, avoiding constriction in clothing is as important as the quality of the gear. On one bitterly cold trip, I lost feeling in my toes for two or three days. I could tell they weren't frostbitten, they were just pins-and-needles numb. I figured that was just the peripheral nerve ends dying, as they occasionally do on the feet during the hardest trips. I forget the skin temperature at which this happens, but those near-surface nerves don't like being chronically cool. The feeling returns in a month or so, when the nerves grow back.

Eventually, I decided to have a look at my foot, just to make sure it was ok. I noticed that my sock had slipped down and had bunched around the ankle. It had probably been like this for a week or two. I pulled it up and to my surprise, the feeling returned to my foot a day or two later. The numbness hadn't been temporary nerve damage at all, the bunched sock had just restricted the circulation a little.

In deep cold, the slightest constriction has an effect. The one time I frostbit a finger, I was sledding while holding a sandwich and eating it periodically between strides. Just holding the sandwich had reduced circulation in my index finger enough to give me frostbite.

I've learned to be very picky about gloves and socks, in particular. The elastic in some socks is so tight that your feet would inevitably be cold in them, despite the socks' good insulation. Many gloves have elastic near the wrist, as a powder barrier. I always cut that elastic away, even if it means opening up the lining to get inside the glove. Most products are simply not made for arctic travel, where the slightest crimp in circulation means cold hands or feet or worse.

December 2

When I picked up my new Nikon D300s last week, I was given a small discount, because another photographer had tested that unit for a day or two. At home, I took a test jpg on the camera, then ran it through a program that reveals the number times the shutter has been released in its lifetime. This is called shutter actuations or camera actuations. To my surprise, the shutter had over 20,000 frames on it. The store owner checked with the individual photographer, but he had only shot a few hundred frames. The camera hadn't been a demo, and we couldn't figure it out how it had accumulated that much use; maybe Nikon pulls every so many units off its assembly line, hooks them up to a machine and runs tests for quality control. Since the D300s takes video, I wondered whether the actuation count included the 24 frames/second that the camera shoots in video mode. If so, that wouldn't take long to add up to 20,000. But no, one video clip equals one actuation.

Considering that a shutter's typical life is about 150,000 actuations, 20,000 was a lot. I average 10,000 frames a year, so this camera had two years' use on it. I swapped it for a new one, whose shutter actuation count was 1. The 1 was my test shot. Two demo models in the store, which I tested out of curiosity, had actuation counts of 3,300 and 13,000.

Not long ago, only the manufacturer could figure out a camera's actuation count, back at the lab. Now it's easy, since this figure is embedded in the exif data. The number doesn't appear in the metadata in Photoshop, but it's easy to find with a third-party app. I used Exif Viewer, which works with Mac, and doublechecked the count by using the similar Windows program, Opanda, on our old PC.

November 28

In outdoor photography, carbon tripods are standard equipment these days because they are solidly built but much lighter than comparable aluminum models. Yet part of the effectiveness of a tripod lies in its weight. A two-pound tripod is not going to keep your long lens steady in a wind, no matter how well-designed the tripod.

In summer, I get around this by using a big carbon tripod that weighs almost five pounds, not counting the ballhead -- about same weight as my old aluminum Gitzo 224 Reporter but much taller. I also have a second carbon tripod weighing two-and-a-half pounds for fair-weather day hikes. However, for winter or arctic use, I go back to aluminum, because I've found that carbon tripod legs stick in the cold. A cameraman here in the Bow Valley finds that same problem with carbon video tripods. But there are so few of us who photograph outside for hours in -20, -30 or -40 that I'm wondering whether this is a consistent issue with all carbon tripods or whether it just affects a few designs. Has any reader -- in Alaska, Yukon, Nunavut, wherever -- had a similar experience? If so, drop me a line at info@kobalenko.com.

November 26

I like to browse outdoor shops looking for gear that's suitable for arctic travel. Maybe I'll find a pair of gloves that's superior to what I use now; maybe a hat. With gloves, I look for something that's wind-resistant without being a Windstopper-type product. Windstopper gloves become very starchy and cold when the temperature drops low. With some manufacturers, I fall between their medium and large sizes. The Mediums are a little tight, while the fingers on the Large have an extra half an inch in length. This makes it hard to push a camera's shutter button or do other fine tasks. None of this really matters at home, but if you're out for a month or two and live in the same things every minute of every day, a minor issue like floppy glove fingers can drive you batty.

Auclair or Paris gloves, out of Montreal, has always made something that worked well for me in the Arctic. One particular product was so good, almost perfect, that I bought five pair. Part of the advantage of these gloves was that they were supertough, and the five pair lasted for years. I've never found anything quite that good since. I should have bought 20 pair.

Sometimes I'll buy a pair of gloves that look promising, just to try them out. Some years ago, I visited the Winnipeg lab of thermophysiologist Gordon Giesbrecht, aka Professor Popsicle. He was into winter travel at the time, and we had great fun testing dozens of boots, gloves and mattress pads. He put thermocouples on my hands, feet, back, etc. and I sat in his cold locker, which was about -19C, testing various items of winter gear. One promising pair of gloves I'd bought recently, which superficially seemed very close to the supergloves I was looking to replace, performed so poorly that I never brought them to the Arctic.

Hats are a little easier to find, since I wear balaclavas a lot, and thin helmet liners on mild spring days in the Arctic. Helmet liners cover the ears very well; and Arc'teryx's new Bucket Liner has extra thickness cleverly added around the ears. Many of the hats that Canadians call toques leave gaps at the bottom of the ears. In a slicing arctic wind, those cold tips are at peril. I had a toque custom-made from 300-weight fleece that fits over a thin balaclava and pulls way down over the earlobes without pulling over the eyes. Today in the new Patagonia store in Banff, I saw a hat with the goofy name of Warm One Beanie that would do as good a job as my custom model.

November 23

Picked up a Nikon D300s last week. It was either that or a D700. The problem with a D700 is that I would have needed a slew of new lenses to go with it. Old film lenses just do not work well with a full-frame sensor like that on the D700. Even the 17-35mm, no slouch of a lens, is supposedly soft around the edges. The sensors these days are that good. So buying a D700 would also have meant also getting a 14-24mm, a 24-70mm and a 70-200mm. The D300s was an economic compromise, since I already have the DX lenses for it.

The D300s doesn't have high ISO shooting capability like the D700 or D3, but it's a lot better than the D200, which was my first digital camera. The D200 was noisy in the shadows and its RAW files were pretty muddy, but those issues could be overcome in Photoshop. The D200's main disadvantage was its notorious uselessness in the cold. Not exactly a great feature for an arctic photographer. The EN-EL3e batteries go stone dead in the cold. Even the D200's winder, which could take cold-resistant AA lithium batteries, had electrical issues which caused the camera to seize up in the cold and to indicate that the AAs were depleted when they were not. That's not just my winder but these winders in general.

The D300s runs off EN-EL3e batteries too, but its supplementary winder has no problems in the cold and can accommodate both lithium AAs and Nikon's rechargeable professional battery, the cold-resistant EN-EL4a.

November 13

Freeze-dried food has improved a lot from 20 years ago, when Mountain House produced tight foil packages of stuff that tasted like sawdust laced with cayenne pepper. Now freeze-dried food isn't half bad, and I use it for expedition dinners once every second day.

There are just a couple of things to be aware of. The first is obvious: The "serves two" or "serves four" on the package is like sleeping bag ratings -- grossly exaggerated. Typically, a dinner that promises to serve two will serve one. Depending on how cold it is and the length of travel day, I need 6 to 8 ounces of freeze-dried fare to make a full dinner. Eight ounces is a hardy portion, but that's what it takes to fill the hole after 12 hours sledding in -30. My meals are made by Harvest Foodworks, a Canadian company whose portions are expedition-sized. They also have some great little food accessories -- decent coffee in a teabag, genuine maple syrup granules for pancake breakfasts on rest days, and especially, powdered shortening. On cold-weather trips, I throw a couple of spoons of powdered shortening into dinners, soups, even granola to shore up the calories. It's like butter, but with all the moisture removed, it's a fraction of butter's weight and volume.

I alternate the freeze-dried meals with a homemade potato gruel dinner (see http://kobalenko.com/geararchives2008.htm for the recipe). This avoids the little-spoken-of problem of eating freeze-dried meals every night for weeks: they give you the runs.

October 30

Called (by me) the Woody Hat, after Woody Lethbridge of Cartwright, Labrador, who showed it to me last summer, it is the dorkiest piece of outdoor gear you'll ever wear. But it works.

Woody doesn't like wearing a headnet when the bugs are bad. He wards them off by lighting one of those green mosquito coils and fastening it to his ball cap. He safetypins the little aluminum stand that comes with a package of coils to the brim of his hat, then fixes the coil on that. In full smoke mode, the result looks a bit like a beanie copter on fire.

I tried it on the second half of my 800km kayak expedition, and did it keep the flies away! It doesn't work great in a wind, but then, there are fewer bugs in a wind. It was especially effective inside the tent vestibule, where hundreds or thousands of mosquitoes infiltrate. It chased them away or killed them outright.

The smoke from those coils is a mild insecticide, so you probably don't want to breathe the stuff in an enclosed vestibule for the rest of your life, but in small doses it was fine. And it was great outside, when setting up or taking down the tent. The main inconvenience was the ash that kept dropping on my arm or lap, as if I were a messy smoker.

Woody Lethbridge, with hat and a stub of coil.

September 4

My first sledding harness came with the sled. Thole-pins linked plastic attachments on the harness to fiberglass pulling wands. It combined a chest harness and a waist belt that attached in front, as usual, with a Fastex buckle.

I hated those rigid wands. They helped on side hills, but I couldn't retrieve anything from the sled, even a drink of water or a camera, without taking off the harness, getting the stuff from the sled, then putting the whole harness on again. Sounds trivial, but if you go to the sled a lot, the lost time adds up and the process feels very inefficient. On subsequent expeditions, I replaced the wands with a loop of 1" webbing and a modified dogsled harness that clipped to the loop with a carabiner. (Figure 1)

Figure 1

I liked that harness and used it for years, even though it didn't include a waist belt. The pulling angle looks a little too high in the photo, but I usually had a second long loop that extended the trace and lowered the angle. It didn't look good in photos, though, so in self-timed shots I always used just the short loop.

On one sledding trip, my partner, Graeme Magor, had a different harness that he made from an old backpack waist belt. He reversed the belt so that the padded area rested against the stomach, and fitted the belt's ends with two loops that clipped with 'biners to the webbing loop on the sled. His harness also included adjustable chest straps to share the pulling. We briefly tried each other's systems but didn't like them. He found that my harness put too much strain on the back. I felt that his belt restricted the free movement of my fast-moving legs. We were just used to our own devices.

Then one year, I had a monster load, about 310 lbs, in the sled. (There is a quantum leap in hauling difficulty above 285 lbs.) The snow wasn't great; the effort required to go forward was. I made 10 or 11 km/day, but for the first time, my back was sore at the end of every day.

The next time I had a big load, I tried his harness. I liked it. No back strain. I've been using it ever since, even on expeditions with lighter loads. I'm used to it now. I especially like the nuance of having the padded part of the belt in front, on the stomach/hips, which bear the load. (Figure 2) The few companies that make harnesses commercially all have the belt clip in front, so the unpadded buckle bears the strain of most of the load -- one of those obvious design flaws that the manufacturers just haven't thought through.

Note that I still remove the secondary webbing loop for photos. Some things never change.

Figure 2

 

July 17

Alexandra's a magazine cover girl again this month. My photo of her in our Alpacka raft on Two Jack Lake in Banff National Park is the cover of the August issue of explore magazine.

July 16

Randall Osczevski, an environmental physicist who does cold-weather research at a government military facility in Toronto, writes this addendum to my comments on the MSR stove pumps' O-ring problems in the cold:

"We discovered this problem with the O-rings in 1986 while preparing for a snowmobile trip up James Bay. The solution is to replace the O-rings with ones made from nitrile rubber, which is more flexible at low temperatures than the ones the stove comes with."

Alas, Mr. Osczevski used their in-house polymer lab to make these souped-up O-rings. Finding commercially available nitrile O-rings the right size will take some creative online shopping.

I've known of Randall Osczevski's work for years. He's written some fascinating papers on High Arctic history, but he's best-known, perhaps, for his part in successfully lobbying to change the old windchill factor to its current more reasonable state. The original windchill factor seemed geared mainly to throw terror into the hearts of city folk, by grossly exaggerating the effect of a puff of breeze. My old running partner always used to consult the Weather Channel before heading out for our five miles. "It's the equivalent of -30!" he'd declare, donning a GoreTex suit on a day that required no more than tights and a T-shirt.

July 8

In an interview in thepoles.com, Lonnie Dupre speaks of the problems he had with MSR fuel pumps leaking on his recent trip to the North Pole. MSR stoves are great, and I've used them on all except my first couple of winter expeditions, but periodically they seem to change suppliers to a company whose O-rings do not work in the cold. I had the same problem as Lonnie on my 2004 winter Labrador expedition. Two new pumps were completely useless because of this leakage, which is severe. Gasoline free-flows out of the joint between the stove and the fuel bottle. Luckily, I brought three pumps, including one from MSR's good old days that was impervious to cold. I ended up using that one pump the entire expedition.

After the 2004 expedition, I replaced the defective pumps with even more recent ones that MSR said would be okay. They seem to be; they've worked on two winter expeditions since then. But now it seems they've gone back to using crappy O-rings. So winter users of MSR stoves, take note.

June 15

One of my most useful items of gear has nothing to do with the outdoors, and I never carry it with me. It's a LifeSource scale. It weighs items up to 350 pounds and is accurate to either 1/10 pound or 50 grams, depending on which model you get. This medical-quality scale (I first saw it in a scientist's lab) is perfect for weighing expedition food. It also lets you weigh airline luggage, to ensure you're under the 50 or 70-lb limit. Thanks to this scale, I always impress airline check-in staff with luggage that weighs precisely 49.9 lbs.

For big, soft items like duffles that are hard to lay on a scale, the LifeSource has a handy zeroing feature: If you weigh under 150 pounds and stand on the scale before you turn it on, the scale reads zero. So Alexandra stands on the scale, we turn it on, then I hand her the duffle or other awkward item to get an exact reading.

An accurate scale, of course, has domestic uses as well. Apart from monitoring our own weight, we regularly weigh our two cats, Ellie (Ellesmere) and Devon, to make sure we're not feeding them too much or too little. Ellie, an ocicat, weighs 11.7 lbs; Devon, our wacky Egyptian mau, comes in at 9.5.

May 12

A sleeping bag is the most important item of equipment on a cold-weather expedition. If you can't sleep properly, you won't make much mileage. Apsley Cherry-Garrard and his companions had such a grim time on their winter Antarctic quest for emperor penguin eggs that one of them got frostbite in his sleeping bag. Now that's bad.

On my first winter arctic expedition, I naively used a mountaineering bag that was advertised as good down to -30ºF. It wasn't. On the coldest nights, I shivered most of the night, but at least I never got frostbite, not even when the temperature reached -58ºF. Later, I spoke to several manufacturers and learned that all bags are overrated by at least 10ºF. "We don't want to do that, but everyone else does it, and if we didn't, our products wouldn't be competitive," one manufacturer admitted to me.

I also factor in a longevity margin -- a bag that's a few years old loses about another 10ºF as the insulation flattens out. Finally, although I don't sleep particularly cold, I try to add a margin. So if I'm going to be sleeping in temperatures down to 0ºF, I make sure my bag has an "official" rating of at least -20ºF and if it's an older bag, -25 or -30ºF. If it's a fall trip and I can expect temperatures of 20ºF, I've never gone wrong with a bag rated to 0ºF. If the weather's a little warmer, I just open the bag a little or wear less clothing inside it.

I've already mentioned my arctic sleeping bag preference in the FAQs below. I haven't mentioned that on the coldest trips, I shore up even this super bag with a custom-made overbag, insulated with one layer of Polarguard. The overbag is cut huge, so it doesn't compress the down, and zips up until there is only a small round hole where the face sits. The synthetic insulation catches a lot of the moisture that would otherwise freeze in the outer layers of the down and affect the bag's insulating abilities. (My bag's integral vapor barrier is ok, but it's not a 100% barrier.) The outer bag also protects the down inner bag from moisture as it rubs against the frost-covered tent or from breath, which pollutes a sleeping bag around the collar and hood. Cherry-Garrard's men made it worse by sticking their heads inside their sleeping bags at the beginning, when conditions were coldest. By the end of the trip, they were crawling into rigid sheets of ice that had minimal insulation value. No wonder one of them got frostbite.

Including my overbag and the Stephenson bag's integral open-cell foam pad, my sleeping bag system for extreme cold weighs 10 pounds. Not exactly featherweight, but that's what it takes. A bag that promises 50-below warmth in a five-pound package is just not going to deliver. The only disadvantage with the overbag is that it takes Houdini-like struggles to get into and out of the double, fully-zipped-up system. This is a minor inconvenience unless a polar bear breaks into the tent and you need to reach for the gun instanter.

Inside the bag, on the coldest nights, I wear three layers -- thin Lifa-type underwear, a stretchy thicker layer, like running tights, and thick fleece. My feet are usually fine with Patagonia expedition-weight socks that I reserve just for camp use. Sometimes I stuff handfuls of muskox qiviut, which I've scrounged on summer trips, into the toes of the socks. Occasionally I'll drape my down parka over the foot area. Mostly, I use the parka as a pillow.

What do I do on warmer trips? Use another sleeping bag -- I have 7 of them, including a second Stephenson bag that's old now but still serves on milder spring arctic trips.

April 29

Bought a copy of Outside magazine today for the first time in ages; it has an interesting piece on risk. I used to love Outside -- for a while it transcended journalism, it was almost literature. But though it's still well-written, it's become too self-consciously trendy, desperately seeking the next New Thing in every issue. Flipping through it reminded me of an objection I have with all magazines: their tongue-in-bum gear reviews. As a former magazine editor, let me confirm the obvious: all those new product reviews have nothing to do with serving the reader. They are included either to get advertising -- an advertiser that gets an editorial mention is more inclined to buy an ad in the same issue -- or as an informal perk to regular advertisers. Editors don't really care about gear: They just hold their noses and give the advertising department what it asks for. You want me to run a new products blurb on some manufacturer's latest rain jacket, even though it's essentially the same as 1,000 other rain jackets? Sigh, okay... In other, more journalisty sections of the magazine, editors will fight not to let advertising intrude.

When I was editor of a Canadian photography magazine, I tried to give real product reviews. This meant sometimes criticizing products. This is sensitive, because it is advertisers, not readers, who financially support most magazines, and even fair criticism drives advertisers apeshit. Yet impartial, in-depth product reviews are one of the ways that even good magazines can be improved. Currently, you can only find the straight dope on the websites of opinionated experts.

In one issue of the photo magazine, I had a writer do an in-depth review of a new Kodak professional slide film. (This was at the tail end of the film era.) All the pros were having trouble with this film. Among other things, it gave halos in the highlights. Kodak has made some great products over the years but they just rushed this particular film to market before they'd ironed out the bugs. The writer did a great job on the piece, but that is essentially what he said. It was still a very sharp film, and he left the door open that with corrections, it could yet evolve into a good product.

When the story came out, I received a call from the pr guy at Kodak. "Have we done anything to offend you?" he asked.

Print publications still produce their same old puff-piece reviews. Only book reviews seem open to a little honesty or opinion. But hiking poles, rain gear, tents, GPS units and sport watches can do no wrong.

In case you're wondering, we continued to run balanced equipment articles at the magazine and somehow managed to avoid getting fired for them. As for the film, Kodak tried to improve it for a while, failed and eventually pulled it off the market.

April 26

A lot of arctic travelers use kites nowadays but I'm not one of them. Reason is, kites are mainly valuable in Antarctica and the Greenland ice cap. Since (yawn) that's where most expeditions go, along with the North Pole, kites can seem to a reader like standard equipment these days.

In much of the Arctic, however, they're not very useful. As I outline below in the FAQs, it's just not windy enough. Alert, Eureka and Grise Fiord -- the three weather stations on Ellesmere Island -- are less windy than Vancouver, Winnipeg and Calgary. Three years ago, a goofy expedition led by a Japanese guy set out to travel from northern Ellesmere to Churchill, Manitoba in three months. That's 2,500 to 3,000 kilometers. A thousand kilometers a month? Good luck. I've sledded 500km on foot in 11 days, but that's tough and unsustainable and requires perfect snow conditions. Of course, they were planning to kite all the way.

Predictably, they floundered around northern Ellesmere in calm winds for two weeks, getting nowhere. Then they called in an aircraft and flew halfway down the island to Eureka, where they continued another few days until a polar bear broke into one of their tents. Also sadly predictable: southern Eureka Sound is terrible for bears. Every second geographical feature does not include the Norwegian or English word for "bear" for nothing. They had to shoot the bear. After this tragedy, they went home. It would have been funny if not for the bear incident.

I bring a little three-pound sail for my sled. It's nowhere near as efficient as a kite, but in a tailwind it helps nudge the load along. In stiff winds, it can also be fun for a while: You hop on the sled and hang on for dear life or waterski behind it. I use the sail maybe twice a month up there. That's how often there are useable winds.

For kites, you also need a totally different ski system: AT skis, bindings and boots. Even the lightest ones weigh a ton compared to light touring gear. Having to bring/wear the boots is especially bad. You want blisters, trying walking in AT boots. You simply can't kite-ski with Berwin bindings and kamiks or mukluks.

There's a final, philosophical reason I don't like kites: You go so far and so fast with them that on windless days, it doesn't make sense to move at all. Why labor to manhaul 16km/day when you can kite-ski 100km or 200km? But for some of us, the fun is in the walking.

Sled sailing: Yahoo...just don't let go.

March 7

In the current issue of Canada's explore magazine, I have a little piece on 10 of my favorite pieces of equipment. Although many of the items on this web page would qualify as favorites from my point of view, some of them are too polar-specific for a general audience. These 10 are more generic. The editor, James Little, has agreed to let me re-post the story here.  

February 23

I don't use satellite imagery much for my expeditions -- you don't really need it on land-fast ice routes -- but for the 700km journey along the edge of the North Water between Canada & Greenland, I did regularly view one NASA site called MODIS before we left. It's freely available at http://rapidfire.sci.gsfc.nasa.gov/. Click on the Real-Time link to view the Terra and Aqua satellite photos. These two polar-orbiting satellites have confusing names: Nothing to do with water & land, one photographs in the morning, the other in the afternoon, that's all.  

Currently, it's still too dark in the High Arctic to get photos from up there, but they'll begin appearing in a week or two. Some of the shots are blurred or obscured by clouds or taken at too oblique an angle to be useful. Not every orbit of the satellites covers the area you want, either, but by quickly scrolling through the satellites' last few passes, you can find a recent decent image.

Below, a old detail from April 2004 of southeastern Ellesmere Island, showing the extent of the North Water polynya, and Greenland at the bottom right-hand corner. Although I've scaled down the image, you can still discern enough information to make route decisions. For example, the open water does not press right against any of Ellesmere's capes, so you can get around them without detours. And the polynya ends around the traditional spot, the Bache Peninsula near the top right-hand corner, so a crossing to Greenland is also do-able.

I wish we'd had these conditions on our trip. For us, the open water and broken ice extended all the way to the northern tip of Ellesmere Island, so we ended our journey on Pim Island, which is the last bit of land on the upper left-hand side of the polynya that the open water almost touches.

This satellite site does not cover all parts of the High Arctic, and I'd be interested to know if there are any sites that cover areas more to the west. The Canadian Ice Service offers subscription-only views at exorbitant fees, but I'm not aware of any other free sites similar in quality to MODIS. If you know any, drop me a line at info@kobalenko.com

 

February 16

Olaus Magnus on the use of crampons in 1555: "When it is impossible to travel fast over the slippery ice...unless some piece of cunny is devised, there are wooden shoes fitted with iron spikes on the under side to support men and assist their stamina...They use tricuspid nails, that is iron triangles with sharp points...They have pliant, circular shoes with points sticking out from all sides, like sharp teeth. Very strong straps are attached to all of these, to hold them close to the feet; this confers a stability which ensures that a person's passage or crossing will be safer."

You gotta love a good piece of Renaissance cunny.

Magnus wasn't ahead of his time in all ways, however. His classic History of the Northern Peoples also describes "the Hideous Revenge of Mice against the Impious" and reveals how "elephants bound for countries strange to them do not go aboare ships before they have been induced by an oath from the superintendent assuring them of their return."

February 14

Photographer Darwin Wiggett has always distinguished himself not just by his beautiful landscapes but by his practical understanding of photography and photo gear. When I was editor of Photo Life magazine, he was one of my favorite go-to guys for tech tips. Along with fellow Albertan Daryl Benson, Darwin took Galen Rowell's pioneering work with graduated filters to the next level. If you've ever used a blue-yellow polarizer, you also have Darwin to thank for it. He rediscovered this forgotten Cokin filter and shared his discovery through his photography articles. The blue-yellow polarizer is one of the most useful of all landscape filters. The glass ones now made by Singh-Ray are optically better than the plastic Cokins.

Recently Darwin wrote a piece recently on his blog about autofocus problems with digital cameras, and a solution for it called Lens Align that works with certain professional models, including the Nikon D300, D700 and the Canon EOS-1D and 50D. See http://darwinwiggett.wordpress.com/2009/01/25/can-you-trust-auto-focus/

I've been aware of this autofocus issue for some time, but my older Nikon D200 doesn't allow manual microadjustments, so until my next upgrade I either shoot manual focus (a real pain) or make sure there's enough depth of field to compensate for the faulty autofocusing.

January 15

I drove from Alberta to Labrador last summer. Gas prices were at their peak, and it would have made more economical sense to fly, but I wanted to see the Trans-Labrador Highway again. To save money, I slept in our CRV.

It was summer, and I had to leave a couple of windows in the vehicle partly open at night for air and to avoid too much condensation inside. To avoid being phlebotomized to distraction by mosquitoes, I rigged a screen system, designed by Alexandra. First, we got a bolt of mosquito netting and cut it in the shape of the windows. Around the perimeter of the netting, we sewed little sleeves, in which we slipped magnetic ribbon, which you can buy at sewing or craft shops. The magnetic stripping stuck to the outside frame of the windows and kept the netting in place with no gaps.

January 4, 2009

Sometimes I try to explain to people why I (and many other professional photographers) shoot in the RAW format. The reasons are pretty simple: First, photo agencies, like the ones that sell my images, demand high file sizes -- 50 mb per image is standard -- and RAW files give you the most control over the final high-resolution image.

But the second reason for shooting RAW is even more important. RAW images look very neutral, even flat -- much duller than reality. You then tweak the RAW file in Adobe Photoshop and/or Lightroom to make it look good. When you shoot RAW, it's impossible to avoid this post-production work. That's the drawback. A RAW file is a digital negative that then has to be developed in a digital darkroom, ie, a computer equipped with Photoshop.

Most good cameras give you the option of shooting RAW or one of several sizes of jpeg. Jpegs look good right off the bat, because the camera automatically applies algorithms to the digital image that does the tweaking for you. But these are, in a way, one-size-fits-all tweakings. Many serious photographers can't accept these cookie-cutter tweaks. It's like getting your prints done at Wal-Mart rather than at a custom lab.

The exceptions are news photographers and those who shoot tons of images. You just can't process 100 RAW files a day without applying quickie algorithms of your own. Even if I'm on a long expedition, I'm happy if I come back with 10 or 20 images that deserve custom treatment, which often takes an hour or more.

A few people argue that since pros manipulate their RAW images, they're not real -- compared to their amateur images, which they don't manipulate at all. They haven't grasped that the camera does the manipulation for them. Their images are no more or less real. It's actually the RAW file that doesn't look real.

For an in-depth explanation of RAW vs jpeg from a jpeg shooter who is a good gearhead, check out http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/raw.htm

Below is an image I took at Killinek, at the northern tip of Labrador, in September. On the left, how the RAW file first appeared. On the right, the final, corrected version.

You might think that we just brightened up the LH image. Alas, there's a lot more work required than that. Below, the LH (RAW) image merely brightened up.

 

 

FAQs

1. What sleeping bag do you use for winter arctic travel?

The Stephenson Triple Bag, with 20% overfill and their 2" open-cell foam pad. See warmlite.com. In 20 years I've never had a cold night, and I've accumulated about a year in it at -40 or colder. It's bulky - stuffed, it's about the size of a big green garbage bag full of leaves - but I can squash it down to a little bigger than a medicine ball with a custom-made compression stuff sack. Still, its bulk makes it more suitable for sled travel than winter backpacking or ski mountaineering.
It includes an integral vapor barrier liner that doesn't make you feel soggy but which works best when new. But its smartest feature is that it has no goose down on the bottom, just that slip-in foam pad. As one manufacturer admitted to me, goose down on the bottom of a winter bag is a design flaw, but people buy them, so they keep making them. Why on earth would you want to have down on the bottom of a bag, where it gets squished? Besides bulk, the Stephenson bag's only disadvantage are its microscopic zippers. Stephenson is a lightness junkie, but those zippers make it hard to close the unusual hood.  

European polar adventurers often use the Tempelfjorden bag from the Norwegian company Helsport. I have no experience with it but although it's a classical bag with down on the bottom, enough people have used it in extreme cold that it obviously works okay.

2. What tent do you use?

For years, I used a North Face VE-25. Recently I've switched to Hilleberg's Keron 3GT, which sets up faster and resists wind better. It's hard to get those third and fourth poles into a dome tent like the VE-25 during a gale, especially if you're traveling solo. The Keron is a little narrower for two big guys with winter bags, and like most tunnel tents it's not free-standing, so it needs secure anchors. But it's especially good in places where the wind can rip. And its vestibule is gigantic.

3. What boots do you use on sled trips?

Equipment choice depends a lot on personal style and abilities. My feet don't get very cold, and Steger mukluks, Expedition style, from mukluks.com are as warm as I've ever needed. Some travelers prefer big Sorel-type boots, but for me they're too heavy and unnecessarily warm. Since I prefer to walk, not ski, while hauling a sled, I need footwear that is as light as possible. Most of the time I'm sledding in Inuit sealskin kamiks that I buy in the Arctic. I have light nylon overboots made for them that add warmth in a wind. The kamiks are fine down to about -25 or -30C - in other words, from mid-April through May.

4. What about skis and bindings?

Fischer Europa 99s and Berwin bindings. I don't use kites - the eastern High Arctic is not windy enough: A couple of years ago, an ill-prepared expedition that imagined they were going to kite 1000s of kilometres in a couple of months got a rude awakening. It was the most slapstick arctic expedition since two guys from France decided to gallop a couple of glue horses around Cornwallis Island in 1990. In short, you don't need technical boots & bindings up there. They're overkill and they give you blisters.
       Berwins are made for shuffling. They're not great - one guy designed a superior style that lifts from the toe, like modern racing xc bindings, rather than under the ball of the boot like the Berwins. Unfortunately, they're not sold commercially. So Berwins are okay until a better model becomes available. I replace my Berwins every couple of expeditions and have never had a problem with breakage. They're available from Akers Ski in Maine.

5. Where do you get your sleds?

If you live in Norway, you have it made, because that's where the two main manufacturers, Acapulka and Fjellpulken, are located. Acapulka sleds are great, but some of them are the cost of a second-hand car -- a good second-hand car. Then there's the shipping from Europe. There are a few molds floating around North America, though, and I use one of them. It's not my mold, and I'm not sure how public it is, so I can't be more specific. But a fiberglass sled shell, with runners, costs me $600. I then have to custom-make my own cover, then pop-rivet it on the sled. Finished, the sled weighs 19 pounds, heavier than the primo Acapulkas. It's about seven feet long and holds enough for two months. The harness is pretty easy to make: a backpack waist belt worn backwards, its buckle replaced by two loops with 'biners, plus adjustable chest straps. You don't want a pulling belt that fastens in front, because that's where you want the padding.

6. Where do you get your custom sewing done?

Ninety percent of my gear is store-bought but about 10 percent is custom-sewn. There's usually someone in your area who can custom-sew outdoor gear. I even found somebody when I lived in Toronto. Custom work tends to be an aside for them: Usually their main business is warranty repairs or making outdoor clothing for local manufacturers.

7. I'm planning an arctic expedition. Can I ask you some questions?

I don't mind answering the odd question, but for more elaborate consultations, I have to charge.

 

 

info@kobalenko.com

All words and images 2008-10 Jerry Kobalenko. Unauthorized use strictly prohibited by law.