(Correne Coetzer) Canadian adventurer Jerry Kobalenko recently came back from another sledge-hauling expedition and admits to ExplorersWeb he still has little patience with “expedition BS - newbies pretending they're grizzled veterans, egotists doing the same couple of routes as everyone else and then billing themselves as the greatest thing since sliced bread.”
On April 5th Jerry finished a 44-day, 550 km sledge-haul expedition in Labrador and Quebec with 24-year-old Inuit Noah Nochasak. The route was Noah’s dream. Jerry explained why it attracted him, “What appealed to me about Noah's dream was how pure and unaffected it was.”
“Can you imagine a more obscure, less "professional" route than Nain, Labrador to Kangiqsualujjuaq, Quebec? It took me weeks just to learn how to pronounce Kangiqsualujjuaq smoothly. Who would ever want to re-do it? Yet there are countless one-time dream routes like that in the polar regions, for the right dreamer.”
ExplorersWeb: Why then this specific route?
Jerry: This route was Noah's dream. He wants to revive traditional Inuit travel; for two or three generations it's been all snowmobiles and motorboats. His dad used to snowmobile the 550 km from Nain to Kangiqsualujjuaq and describe it to his son as a "big-time trip".
Noah had always been in school and couldn't join him, so he dreamed of doing this big-time trip in his own way. He called it the Tukimuatvut Expedition, an Inuktitut word meaning, "We're going in the right direction." A wonderful name.
I believed in his dream and wanted to help make it happen. Noah was the first Inuk I've ever met who was interested in non-motorized travel. In modern times, a couple of Inuit have been involved in white guys' projects, but this was totally Noah's idea.
I couldn't teach him traditional skills, or anything about hunting, but I'd done 16 sledding expeditions around that length before, and knew what was required mentally, physically and logistically to do that distance.
ExplorersWeb: You travelled 550 km. What type of terrain did you cover?
Jerry: From Nain, we first hauled our sleds from sea level up a ravine to Labrador's interior plateau at 500m. For almost three weeks, we traversed the barrens, a treeless area notorious for wicked winds. Indeed, they were all headwinds, with temps averaging -25 to -30°C.
Hard to navigate because of all the twists and turns required to get through that lumpy confusing country, with poor visibility because of face mask, goggles, etc. Eventually, we reached the frozen George River.
The high surrounding hills, though mostly barren, are lined with trees at the base, so we could camp out of the wind in the quiet forest each evening. We thought we were home free when we reached the George, but we had poor snow conditions, and Noah had to deal with leg injuries that threatened the expedition. Ultimately, with the help of a lot of Tensor bandages and stoicism, he managed to tough it out.
ExplorersWeb: Tell us about your team mate pls. Who is he and how do you know each other?
Jerry: Noah Nochasak is a 24-year-old Inuit fellow who lives in Nain, Labrador -- our starting point. He contacted me last year because he'd heard of my journeys and he was just getting into kayaking and manhauling. He'd tried to walk our route last winter from Nain to Kangiqsualujjuaq alone, but he didn't get very far and figured that he needed help.
We talked a lot on the phone, and when my wife and I were in Nain last July to kayak 500 km along the Labrador coast, he joined us for two days in his homemade kayak. A great guy. He told us he wanted to walk from Nain to Kangiqsualujjuaq, at the mouth of the George River, and I signed on for it in the fall.
ExplorersWeb: What logistics were involved to make the expedition happen?
Jerry: I already have the gear, and food and fuel are known arithmetic (for example, 200 ml fuel per person per day). It's just a matter of getting me and my kit north. I flew to Labrador on points, and the Canadian Rangers, a reserve branch of the Canadian Armed Forces of which Noah is a member, shipped my gear and our sleds from my home in Alberta to Labrador.
Air Labrador, a local airline, contributed a flight to Nain. First Air flew me home from northern Quebec. For Noah, it was a matter of stepping out his back door. Hard for an Arctic expedition to get simpler than that.
ExplorersWeb: What were the challenges on your expedition?
Jerry: I'm such an old hand that the question with every new expedition becomes, Are the wheels still there? Turned out they are. All the mental battles -- with boredom, with cold, poor travel conditions, bad weather, and especially, the patience required -- I knew well.
It was harder for a young guy like Noah, who had to confront so many of these issues for the first time. But mentally he was a rock, and he had the infinite Inuit patience that I could only admire. I'm patient out there, but his went deeper.
ExplorersWeb: What was the best?
Jerry: So often I've pulled into a village at the end of an expedition, and one sleepy dog briefly cocks an ear before going back to sleep. But Noah's quest captured the imagination of local people, and as we approached Kangiqsualujjuaq, the town fire engine's siren called residents to the beach.
Almost half the town of 900 showed up. The local branch of the Canadian Rangers fired celebratory shots in the air. Everyone formed a reception line to shake our hands. I was shaking hands for an hour, and almost got my one case of frostbite from having an ungloved hand exposed to the cold for so long.
I might have been the field commander on this expedition, but I was mainly there to support Noah trying to revive something of past Inuit culture. When we arrived on the beach at Kangiqsualujjuaq, one Inuit woman hugged me and said, "This was very important to us. Thank you for the work you did for us."
ExplorersWeb: How was the weather like?
Jerry: Terrible. Only four nice days out of 44. An unusually cold winter. -30s continued well into March. Headwinds most of the time. Soft snow. We were windbound for seven days. That's nothing for mountaineers, but in all my Arctic expeditions, I've never had to wait out the weather in a tent so much.
A lot of travel time involved staring down at our ski tips for hours to shield our faces from the knifing wind, merely glancing up every few steps to keep a straight line. A very internal expedition, as opposed to those in lovelier parts of the Arctic, or with better weather, where the reward is drinking in the landscape all day.
ExplorersWeb: Why did you decide on this time of the year? Could it also be done at another time?
Jerry: We could have left a little later or a little earlier, but March is usually the ideal sledding season in Labrador: a little warmer, days longer, yet cold enough to keep the snow fairly hard.
[Ed note: Click here for an interview with Noah Nochasak.]
One of Canada's top 10 adventurers, according to the current issue of Explore magazine, Jerry Kobalenko has averaged one to four months a year in a tent in the Arctic since 1984, when he manhauled 600 kilometers alone across Labrador in midwinter. He considers himself a middle distance traveler, specializing in journeys between 500 and 800 km.
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 and becoming the most experienced modern High Arctic traveler. In the last few years, he 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.
The hardest part of his expeditions he admits is polar bears. "A dozen have broken into my tent and sled over the years. It's incredibly stressful, because you have to not only protect yourself in these very tense encounters but you have to do everything possible to avoid killing the bear. So far, I've managed."
Jerry Kobalenko has also written several books.
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