North Pole by ski and canoe/kayak: Lonnie Dupre and Eric Larsen recall

Posted: May 25, 2012 08:57 pm EDT

(Correne Coetzer) Timo Palo and Audun Tholfsen are currently on the Arctic ice skiing from the Geographic North Pole to Svalbard. Inspired by Fridtjof Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen’s 1895 epic journey to attempt reach the North Pole on skis and with kayaks, these two men are also pulling kayaks, loaded with all their gear to cross areas of open water.

On May 2nd, 2006 Lonnie Dupre and Eric Larsen started their journey from Ward Hunt Island to the NP and arrived at 90°N on July 1st, 2006. They were the first explorers to reach the northernmost point on earth in summer on foot. Today they are taking a trip down memory lane with Explorersweb discussing the choice of kayaks or canoes instead of sleds and the challenges that goes with a journey faced by lots of open water.

Back in 2006 Dupre and Larsen pulled modified canoes. Eric explains, “These were three meter solo whitewater canoes made by a Canadian company called Esquif – we reinforced the bottoms and pull points, added runners and a spray cover.”

The duo spent 3.5 years training and testing gear for that trip. Eric recalls, ”We tested about 8 different kayaks before finally choosing the Esquif canoe. One of the things that made that trip so hard was that we didn't really have the ability talk to anyone and get their advice on how they traveled, the gear they used or what they ate, etc. No one had done a trip like that. We were also one of the first expeditions to use snowshoes regularly, which was a direct result of a training trip to Hudson Bay.”

He added, “It's all about gaining skills, practice and training. I think there are a lot of people who could do that trip – the key is to understand what sacrifices you are willing to make to prepare and put in the time.”

ExplorersWeb: How easy is it to pull a canoe or a kayak instead of a North Pole sled?

Lonnie: Depends on whether it is a whitewater kayak or sea. Any kayak with a v-hull and sharp bow pulls awful. Needs to be a rounded hull and bow. Eric and I found that the best boat was a whitewater canoe.

Eric: We chose specifically not to take kayaks simply because we felt that they were too long and didn’t have enough rocker to get up and over ice chunks.

Obviously, Borge Ousland felt much differently as they used kayaks much more effectively and successfully on his and Thomas Ulrich’s North Pole to Franz Josef Land expedition in 2007. In my opinion, the canoes that we used were much better in the ice, but kayaks are much better suited to larger water crossings.

As far as pulling our canoes over ice – it really depends on what the conditions are like and how much weight you're carrying. The snow can change quite substantially over time – especially as the weather warms. When the snow is soft it loses its structural integrity and our canoes sunk deep into the surface creating more drag and making it much more difficult to pull.

ExplorersWeb: How do you load gear in a canoe/kayak? Is it important to have the weight balanced in a certain way?

Lonnie: As in loading a sled...heavy stuff in the middle or slightly forward of that and on the bottom.

Eric: Again, I'm sure that different people have different philosophies – because we were able to paddle our sled/canoes by sitting on the gunwales when they were catamaraned together – we loaded them like a sled/pulk would be loaded.

I prefer to have most of the weight in the middle of the boat but with a little more of the weight distributed toward the rear. This makes the bow lighter which means you can pull it up an over obstacles very easily then use length of the bow for leverage to get the rest of the boat through (or over) so even though the stern is heavier you are using simple mechanics to your advantage – ultimately saving energy.

ExplorersWeb: How were the ice and water conditions in 2006?

Lonnie: Towards the end of June there were cracks and leads every few feet to 200 yards.

Eric: As far as my knowledge goes, no one had really tried a 'summer' style expedition previously so one of the most difficult parts of that expedition was simply not knowing what the ice conditions might be like. Overall, the ice conditions were dramatically different than what I experienced in 2010.

In '06, we would basically ski across a big flat pan then cross a really big pressure ridge (compared to just more rough ice and smaller ridges in '10). The first couple weeks everything was decent, difficult of course – with some really big pressure, but as temperatures warmed things turned difficult pretty quickly.

With warmer temperatures the brash ice becomes very unstable so we found ourselves traversing ice by jumping from one unstable chunk to the next. The closer we got to the pole, the ice was thinner and there was more open water.

ExplorersWeb: How many times did you paddle? What was the longest distance? Did you wear drysuits in the kayaks?

Lonnie: Towards the end as we neared the Pole we paddled every day. The longest paddle was a mile or 2.

Eric: We were usually paddling the boats between 5-15 times a day. We never wore drysuits because we catamaraned our canoes together, which made them very stable. We could even stand up on the boats while scouting the route.

ExplorersWeb: Did you swim?

Eric: Once, but we probably could have found a way around.

ExplorersWeb: Timo and Audun can possibly get big open water near the end. How does one live in a canoe/kayak if there is no ice to camp on, no ice to put your stove on, go to the toilet… for days?

Lonnie: The most dangerous will be the last 60 mile where there is almost no ice at that time. They will need to bring water, be able to raft up their boats... a small sail would help and the ability to lay down and stand when rafted.

Eric: Good question. I don't have enough experience kayaking to say one way or the other. In my mind, two of the biggest issues would be keeping the kayaks stable and finding ice to melt snow for drinking water. I think there are relatively easy solutions to both but they are still problematic.

ExplorersWeb: The one photo of these guys is quite impressive, where they practice to capsize. What are the dangers of being in a kayak on the Arctic Ocean? Did you have scary moments?

Lonnie: Well the water is 28 degrees F. They definitely need to put on drysuits, even to protect themselves from the spray. Without a suit they would most likely die. I have lots of experience of this during my and John Hoelscher's 6500 mile circumnavigation of Greenland. [Ed note: In 2001, Dupre and Australian teammate Hoelscher completed a circumnavigation of Greenland using dog sleds in winter and kayaks in summer.]

Eric: Dangers… capsizing, is definitely up there. We had a ton of scary moments – falling through the ice, having huge chunks of ice flip just after we were crossed, racing to cross moving floes of ice, Lonnie hurt his back really badly and also had ankle problems which added to the intensity of the situation because during large parts of the journey were largely outside the ability to get rescued.

ExplorersWeb: Will polar bears attack kayakers?

Lonnie: Yes, bears will attack a kayak...

Eric: Polar bears look at nearly everything as a potential food source. Anything that a polar bear sees or smells it’s going to try to stalk carefully to try to determine if it is food and it can be caught. I think there are probably some situations where a polar bear would be hungry enough to attack a kayaker.

ExplorersWeb: Not many polar skiers use canoes/kayaks instead of sled. What advice would you give to someone who wants to canoe/kayak and ski to/from the NP in a time when there is a lot of open water?

Lonnie: Use a whitewater canoe about 8 feet long.

Eric: My advice for any person who is planning a big expedition is read, research, ask and then practice. Take what you've learned from others and modify it to suit your own physical ability, metabolism, goals and style. My other philosophy – train hard, travel easy.

The summer trip requires a couple years of solid dedication. Lastly, I still think the perfect sled/kayak is yet to be found. I've got some ideas for sure :)

ExplorersWeb: If you think about your expedition, how do you remember it?

Lonnie: Tough trip, lots of being damp.

Eric: In my estimation, I feel that my 2010 trip was about 10 times easier than the 2006 summer style trip.

So first and foremost, I remember constantly feeling overwhelmed and scared. There was never any certainty in how the expedition might end or what the ice conditions might be like. We had rain, snow, sleet, fog and lots of thin ice and open water, melt water pools, soft snow…

Each day it got harder - not easier like in the spring.

On top of that, we were on the constant alert for polar bears as we had so many close encounters in 2005 on our failed attempt off the coast of Cape Arktichesky.

Overall our 2006 expedition is also a little bitter sweet for me because our original plan was to return back to land, but instead we were picked up by an ice breaker at the North Pole. Had we made the complete journey, it would have stood as a substantial achievement.

That said, the goal of the expedition was more focused on environmental initiatives and I feel we very much met those goals. On the morning of July 2nd, the day we reached the Pole, we had a polar bear come into our camp. That was a very meaningful experience as our expedition was collecting signatures to help get polar bears listed as an endangered species – so we felt lucky to be able to see such a magnificent animal in its natural environment.

In 2006 Lonnie Dupre and Eric Larsen were on their second attempt to cross the Arctic Ocean via the North Pole. They started on May 2nd from Ward Hunt Island (Canada), and reached the 90°N on July 1. Originally they planned to continue from the Pole until they reached Greenland. Being a "summerly" trip, the team carried their loads on canoe-sleds, which they used to paddle across frequent open water leads.

Vikings sailed and rowed to Greenland, and probably America, in tiny ships long before Columbus. Fridtjof Nansen continued the Viking legacy by embarking on his biggest voyage in 1893. He sailed Fram (the ship later used by Amundsen to Antarctica) to the Arctic. Fram was allowed to freeze and drift north through the sea ice.

Nansen wanted the North Pole, but one year into the trip it became clear that Fram wouldn't make it there. At 84° 4´ Nansen and his Hjalmar Johansen therefore left the ship and continued north on foot. The two men started out on March 14, 1895 with three sleds, two kayaks and a bunch of dogs. They reached 86° 14´ N one month later and then turned back and overwintered in the Arctic.

In 2007 Borge Ousland and Thomas Ulrich retraced Nansen and Johansen’s route starting from the NP pulling kayaks to Siberia’s Franz Josef Land.

In 2011 Erik Boomer and Jon Turk traveled 1485 statute miles in 104 days, skiing on rigid fast ice, jumping from flow to flow on moving pack ice and finally paddling through ice choked water. They started out from Grise fjord on May 7; pulling 220 pounds and finished on August 19.The team received one resupply.

Related: Cecilie Skog and Rune Gjeldnes aborted 2011 summer mission to the North Pole.

Eric Larsen’s biography
Lonnie Dupre’s biography and books


Timo Palo and Audun Tholfsen’s expedition (and other expeditions with RSS feeds) can be followed in the links streams at the Pythom app and at ExplorersWeb

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Eric Larsen: "I remember constantly feeling overwhelmed and scared. There was never any certainty in how the expedition might end or what the ice conditions might be like."
courtesy Eric Larsen and Lonnie Dupre
"large parts of the journey were largely outside the ability to get rescued." In the image, Lonnie and Eric 2006, Day 62.
Image by Eric Larsen
Lonnie : “Towards the end of June there were cracks and leads every few feet to 200 yards.”
Image by Eric Larsen
Eric: “We never wore drysuits because we catamaraned our canoes together, which made them very stable. We could even stand up on the boats while scouting the route.”
Image by Lonnie Dupre
Lonnie: “Any kayak with a v-hull and sharp bow pulls awful. Needs to be a rounded hull and bow. Eric and I found that the best boat was a whitewater canoe.”
Image by Eric Larsen
2007 NP to Franz Joseph Land: Each pulling about 170 kg, Borge Ousland and Thomas Ulrich had attached a smaller sled loaded with fuel at the end of the kayaks, in order not to have to pull all the load in one attempt over the rough ice.
Image by Borge Ousland
2012 NP-Svalbard ski: Timo Palo and Audun Tholfsen’s latest available position.
courtesy Timo Palo and Audun Tholfsen

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