(Correne Coetzer) "That first expedition remains the hardest for me, because I was alone, in frigid temperatures, into a headwind, I had no communications for 46 days and most importantly, I was learning everything for the first time.” Jerry Kobalenko reflected.
Last month Kobalenko completed his 20th sledding expedition, all personal projects, he emphasized.
He and James MacKinnon started February 9th from the Innu community of Sheshatshiu, near Goose Bay, Labrador and sledge-hauled to St. Augustine, on Quebec’s Lower North Shore. They completed the expedition 34 days later, on March 14th.
"The mileage wasn’t huge, but every km was a battle, and in this case, 400 km felt more like some of my harder 700 km,” Jerry said to Explorersweb.
We wanted to know what made this particular expedition so hard, how his 20 expeditions compare, then and now, what goes into preparations, where he had traveled over 20 expeditions, what he likes in a team mate, his favorite gear items, and the local people.
Explorersweb: You say every kilometer was a battle. What made it so hard?
Jerry: Soft snow. The secret of sledding is that in Arctic regions, wind and cold transform the snow from soft powder into something resembling hard styrofoam, over which a sled slides easily. But southern Labrador is tree country, and the wind never managed to harden the snow. Even on snowshoes we were sinking up to our ankles or shins with every step. Tremendously aerobic. For much of the expedition, making 7-8km/day was a triumph. That’s half of what I usually average.
Also, it was the coldest February on record in southern Labrador. On our first 20 days, 12 were -40 to -50. Below about -25C, snow is like sandpaper and sleds glide poorly. We were bent over double from the effort. The colder it is, the greater the friction and the harder the sled pulls. James likened it to pulling a paraglider all day against the wind.
Explorersweb: You have done 20 sledding expeditions. Which areas have you covered? How do you decide where to go?
Jerry: Mainly the Canadian High Arctic, especially Ellesmere Island, and Labrador. I’ve written two books on the Ellesmere area, and am working on one on Labrador. I go to these places because I chanced to visit them once, and fell in love with them, so I keep returning.
What organization and preparation go into such an expedition?
Jerry: It’s mostly mechanical for me by now. I have an equipment list that I give to my partners, and James was very proactive at rounding up or making everything he needed. We discuss food; much of it is just arithmetic: 300gm granola/person/breakfast, 100gm peanut butter/sandwich, etc.
I have a favorite expedition dinner and James devised one of his own that worked great for us; both use lots of fatty cheese. We also carried freeze-dried meals. We rotated every three days: his, mine, freeze-dried.
Every expedition has its little organizational challenges. In this case, the one uncertain part was getting back to Goose Bay at the end of the journey. A friend in St. Augustine snowmobiled us 100 km to the Trans-Labrador Highway. From there, we hitchhiked. Only in Labrador could two guys successfully hitchhike 500km with giant sleds on a wilderness road with little traffic. We organize as best we can, but a little serendipity is unavoidable.
If you think of your first expedition and this last one, how do they compare? How did the gear changed and how accessible were places 20 years ago compared to now?
Jerry: That first expedition remains the hardest for me, because I was alone, in frigid temperatures, into a headwind, I had no communications for 46 days and most importantly, I was learning everything for the first time. The pressure was incredible. Also, although I prepared meticulously, my equipment wasn’t as good as it is today, You can get by with less than optimal gear; you just suffer more. Little by little over the years, I improved my kit and nowadays I’m comfortable even at -50; at least, as comfortable as it’s possible to be at those temperatures.
Labrador is more accessible now than it used to be – the Trans-Labrador Highway didn’t exist when I started, for example. On the other hand, the Canadian High Arctic is less accessible now, because the cost of travel up there has increased, without exaggeration, tenfold. I still worship the Ellesmere area, but you need to either fundraise for years, have institutional support or be a rich kid to travel there.
3-5 favorite gear items?
- Warmlite sleeping bag. The most important item in arctic winter camping is a sleeping bag that actually works at -40 or -50. I’ve never had a cold night in their Triple Bag.
- homemade wristlets. These protect the vulnerable gap between undershirt sleeve and gloves. They also add about ½ layer of warmth and let me wear thinner gloves, which is especially useful when taking pictures or journal writing.
- whisk broom. One of those vital items for cleaning frost off the tent walls in the morning, brushing frost from your sleeping bag, getting snow off clothes.
- stove board. Another little homemade item that insulates our stove from the snow, so it’s not constantly melting its way down. It even lets us bring the stove in the tent, although I wouldn’t recommend this, because you have to watch the stove like a hawk, especially at -40, when O-rings sometimes leak.
Local people play a big role in your expeditions. Tell us about them please. What have you learned from them?
Jerry: I’ve benefited from the famous Labrador hospitality from my first expedition to this latest, but it’s more than that. Labradorians are incredibly capable: Every man I’ve met can build his own house; many of them can build their own boat. And they spend a lot of time out on the land. It’s mostly motorized travel, but they love being out there, as I do. We notice different things. As a walker, I’m more sensitive to subtle changes in snow conditions, for example, while their awareness of wildlife and animal signs seems almost supernatural to me.
I’ve done a few trips with Inuit and Innu (First Nations) partners. Travel then becomes not just spiritual but cultural. These are among the richest journeys. There are a lot of social problems across the north, but everyone seems to leave them behind in town. No one drinks out on the land; it’s considered disrespectful.
Once I was buying something at the store in Grise Fiord, on Ellesmere Island. The Inuit woman at the counter, whom I didn’t know, said to me, “Hey, you’re Mr. Ellesmere!” I guess she’d recently seen the TV documentary on my Arctic travels. To have an Inuit person in Grise Fiord call me Mr. Ellesmere was one of the best compliments of my life.
What tips do you have for people who want to explore the areas you have done?
Jerry: Arctic travel is mainly walking and winter camping; it doesn’t require high levels of skill in the way that downhill skiing or climbing do. Fitness, meticulous planning and cautiousness often compensate for inexperience. The people who run into problems tend to be poor planners.
Although I learned by myself, I guess I had a natural feel for how to do it. These days, some beginners succeed by hiring guides. It doesn’t take that long to learn; an equipment list and two weeks in experienced company and you’re on your way.
The hardest thing to learn is not sleeping at -40, but how to travel in a wind. Hauling a sled also uses a lot more technique than you’d imagine.
What makes a good expedition partner?
Jerry: All my best expedition partners, including James, have been strong physically and especially mentally, funny, stoic when they have to be, and enjoy being out there, as I do, whether the going is hard or easy.
A new partner is always a gamble, and occasionally it doesn’t work out, but I’ve had pretty good luck. There’s nothing better than sharing such an intense, poetic experience with a sympatico person. Strangers can quickly become lifelong friends, as if you’re five years old again.
You are passionate about photography. How does taking photos contribute to your experience. What equipment do you use? How do you protect your cameras/batteries and hands in the cold?
Jerry: The cameras have to tough it out like we do; no inner pockets, no special treatment. The key is finding batteries that work in the cold; most little ones don’t. I carry a big motordrive because it runs off a battery that works at -40. These are Nikon’s EN-EL4a batteries, and they power some of Nikon’s high-end cameras; Canon has a similar battery. (I wrote a piece on shooting in the cold for Outdoor Photographer magazine; it’s still online, I believe.)
I used to insulate my cameras with moleskin, so I could handle them more easily, but I don’t bother any more.
I bought my first camera so that I could photograph my expeditions. At first, I was afraid that photography would get in the way of the experience, and it does, but it also improves it in its own way. It’s a tradeoff.
Read more about Jerry’s latest expedition on his website: Expeditions section and also Ellesmere Island section.
Jerry Kobalenko, lives in Canmore, Alberta, and has been venturing into the Arctic since 1984.
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