(By Correne Coetzer) "20+ High Arctic expeditions (plus another 15 in Labrador) have given me the luxury of a variety of experiences – hard, medium, easy. The easy and medium trips taught me about wildlife, archaeology, history, geography, photography; the hard trips, about travel. But if adventurers can only do one or two High Arctic trips a lifetime because of cost, no one will ever become educated," says Jerry Kobalenko to ExplorersWeb.
Kobalenko has backpacked, sledge-hauled and kayaked through the Canadian Arctic regions for the past thirty years. He shares his opinion about the cost of Arctic expeditions, how and why adventure in the High Canadian Arctic has changed over the years, gives advice about handling polar bears, and advice to solo adventurers.
ExplorersWeb: You have been doing expeditions in the High Arctic for more than 20 years. Apart from skiing to the different North Poles, what challenges/adventures are there?
Jerry: Thousands upon thousands of routes. A few years ago I posted a list of some interesting undone expeditions on my website. Two have since been done – circumnavigating Ellesmere Island and skiing the Northwest Passage. There are countless more. Incredibly, no one has ever traveled the vertical length of Canada, from Cape Aldrich on Ellesmere Island to Pt. Pelee, on Lake Erie. Yet there are towns 500km apart all the way (for resupplies) that make this 5,000km project very doable for a small, strong team in 10 months or so, using a combination of sledding, kayaking and cycling. I used to think I wanted to tackle this trip, but I’m a middle-distance traveler and prefer routes between 400 and 1000km.
Unfortunately, most “polar explorers” aren’t travelers, they’re trophy hunters. Their horizon ends with the North Pole, done the same way as everyone else. Yet even the North Pole has one or two undone world-class variations left: solo there and back unsupported, for example.
ExplorersWeb: We know the Arctic is home to polar bears and other animals. How dangerous is the Arctic? And what should adventurers do to be cautious? Are animals the only danger to be cautious of?
Jerry: I live in the Rockies, which have far more objective dangers than the Arctic. People die here from avalanches, rockfall, they tumble off cliffs or they fall in crevasses in the few glaciers we have left in southern Canada. While crevasses are still in play up north if you travel on ice caps, the snow bridges tend to be pretty good in the sledding season. And while a couple of people have perished falling through thin ice on the Arctic Ocean, I’d argue that inexperience played a part there. The one real danger in the Arctic is polar bears.
Most polar bears are pretty easy to scare away, and during the day you can spot them easily on the open tundra or sea ice. They don’t blend into the snow; they’re yellowish in sunlight and greyish in overcast. So you make a practice of glancing quickly behind you every ten minutes or so during the travel day.
The problem comes at night, when they happen on your camp, get comfortable with the strange sights and smells, and edge closer and closer to the tent while you’re sleeping. Finally, they may break into it. That’s what a guard dog or an alarm fence is for: They may scare the animal away, but mainly they give you advance warning.
I’ve had to chase off 13 aggressive or curious polar bears over the years, some from as close as two feet away, but the bears and I have all survived. Of course, you have to carry a gun as a last resort, but I’ve had good luck using aerial flares as my primary deterrents. I fire just in front of them. They don’t like this fiery projectile flying at them, then sizzling and smoking on the ground in their path. Unlike grizzlies, polar bears tend not to charge, they just walk slowly toward you with an intense predatory look. This gives you time to do things. Polar bears make great stories but miserable experiences. There’s tremendous pressure both to survive and to avoid killing the bear.
ExplorersWeb: What previous experience or advice would you recommend for doing adventures there, in particular solo?
Jerry: Be born Norwegian. Failing that, be extremely anal with your preparations. Out on the land, be flexible: accept that the Arctic is ultimately in control. Be patient: think of the Inuit hunters who used to stand still all day at a seal’s breathing hole, waiting for it to surface. That’s the arctic spirit. Finally, be afraid: fear makes you careful.
ExplorersWeb: How does the Ward Hunt start point compare to Cape Discovery, which seems to be the popular start point lately?
Jerry: Correne, this is probably best answered by the North Pole people, or by the pilots at Kenn Borek. WHI has shelters, so it’s a good place to prep for a day or two. With time, you could even base yourself here while you scout the best route through the pack ice. But maybe with the disappearance of the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf, the ice is worse here than it is at Cape Discovery. Or maybe Cape Discovery has become the de rigueur starting point simply based on one or two recent expeditions picking it, I don’t know.
[Ed note: Eric Larsen, who is scheduled to start skiing to the North Pole on March 7th, said in an interview with ExWeb that their decision to start from Cape Discovery, "was simply based on when we could fly in. Borek wouldn't schedule a Ward Hunt flight until March 11th or so which meant that by default it was Cape Discovery.]
ExplorersWeb: How did adventure in the High Canadian Arctic change over the years? And why?
Jerry: The High Arctic was never a cheap or easy destination, but until 2002, it was accessible. In the 1950s to 1980s, adventurers, filmmakers and photographers successfully hitchhiked on half-empty aircraft; I’ve done that a lot, though the era of hitchhiking was on the way out by the time I started. Still, I once went from Toronto to Ellesmere Island and back on $200. More typically, I could mount an expedition for $2,000 in travel expenses; for $4,000, you could buy a share of a charter each way and go in style.
Even in the mid-90s, commercial High Arctic hiking or kayaking tours cost about $5,000. Today, that sum barely gets you to Resolute and back. For the privilege of carrying a 60-pound pack for 11 days in Quttinirpaaq National Park on Ellesmere, you’re now looking at $20,000. So the schoolteachers and other ordinary folks who used to save their pennies for one of these exotic adventures are gone; it’s mainly doctors, dentists, lawyers and well-heeled professionals now.
What happened? In 2002, First Air got out of the Twin Otter business, so the one airline left in Resolute had a monopoly. Good for them, not so hot for customers. At the same time, gas prices soared. And gradually, over the years, liability became more important. On my first trip to Ellesmere, our Twin Otter flew with a payload of 3,400 pounds; now I think the maximum payload for offstrip flights is closer to 2,200 pounds. You have to divide the cost among fewer people.
It took me six years of expeditions before I began to be knowledgeable about the High Arctic. The harder a trip, the less you learn about anything except travel and yourself, because all your time and energy is spent making miles. In 1989 I manhauled 500km in 11 days from Eureka to Grise Fiord on Ellesmere – the fastest sledding expedition until Christian Eide’s fine recent sprint to the South Pole. It was a fun experience, pure athletics, but I learned nothing about Ellesmere, except that the west coast has good travel conditions and lots of polar bears.
So 20+ High Arctic expeditions (plus another 15 in Labrador) have given me the luxury of a variety of experiences – hard, medium, easy. The easy and medium trips taught me about wildlife, archaeology, history, geography, photography; the hard trips, about travel. But if adventurers can only do one or two High Arctic trips a lifetime because of cost, no one will ever become educated. They’ll all be just giving superficial accounts of derring-do, plus a smattering of history that’s full of errors. That’s not their fault: If High Arctic travel had always cost as much as it costs currently, I would never have been able to indulge my love and curiosity for the place. Instead, I probably would have done what I’m doing now, focused on a more affordable part of the north, such as Labrador.
ExplorersWeb: Anything else?
Jerry: Lots more, but 1000+ words is enough for one meal, I’m sure!
A few more words to be added: Expedition BS has always been around, says Jerry on his website and compiled a list of Top Ten Expedition BS (read the detail on his website).
1. Faking an accomplishment
2. Claiming something is a first, when it's not
3. Pretending that an expedition is all about something socially relevant
4. Claiming that an expedition proves something it doesn't
5. Hiding the fact that an expedition is guided
6. Making an expedition sound harder than it is
7. Telling your audience that all it takes to live this life is the courage to follow your dreams, when you're sitting on a trust fund
8. Motivational speaking
9. Doing one or two expeditions, then retiring and affecting the pose of an elder statesman
10. Presenting mistakes or incompetence as force majeure
Jerry Kobalenko, lives in Canmore, Alberta, and has been venturing into the Arctic since 1984 when he manhauled 600 kilometers alone across Labrador in midwinter. After Labrador awakened his northern passions, the writer and photographer traveled Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg Islands for the next 15 years, putting in 1000s of kilometers by foot, manhauling and kayaking. He has written 2 books on Ellesmere Island and done 30 expeditions there.
In the last few years, Jerry has returned to his first love, Labrador. He has kayaked the entire coast of Labrador, and 20 years after his first expedition, he redid his original route to see how age balances experience. He finished a week faster this time. In 2012 Jerry took 24-year-old Inuit, Noah Nochasak, on a 550km sledge-haul expedition in Labrador and Quebec.
Jerry specializes in journeys between 500 and 800 km. He describes himself as "a mediocre downhiller and more or less a non-climber.”
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