“Unusual things are not meant to last.” Said Mika, a deceptively humble and sedate Inuit woman. She had said some form of the same statement many times over the last few weeks. This time she was referring to a team of dogs that she said could pull her Dogsled at a sustained speed of 17 kilometers per hour. Sadly most of those dogs had perished from the disease parvo, the year before. She sat across the room from me sowing a pair of beaver skin mitts speaking in a quiet monotone voice, occasionally punctuating words by raising her eyebrows. Inuit people are not all as quiet as Mika, but those who were raised mostly on the land understand the value of quiet. “We are taught to be quiet so as not to disturb the animals.” Mika said. I’m sure I had a quizzical look on my face. Who cares I thought. The more I learned from Mika about their traditions, the more I realized just how valuable their laws are. She remembers a time years ago when the Canadian Government tried to teach the Inuit to be herders, so they could make a living herding Caribou. The Inuit tried the techniques, but in the end the Caribou were just to hard to manage, so they went back to their old ways. What the Canadian Government didn’t understand, was that the Inuit had been managing the Caribou already for thousands of years. By our standards, the Inuit were a nomadic people, moving from place to place depending on the seasons. Nomads are roamers though, and they knew exactly where they were going, and it was the same as the year before. They didn’t move only to follow herds of Caribou, or to stay within hunting distance of the Flow Edge. They moved to allow their homes to air out, and to let the scent of man leave for a time, thus allowing nature to follow it’s course uninterrupted by man.
Many of the Inuit ways are confusing to us. They fight for rights to lands rich in mineral deposits, and yet do not mine them. They are a people backed by oral tradition, with knowledge passed down from the Elders. Those who lived solely off of the land are older now, mostly in their 80s, and it’s they who understand the reasons behind the laws. As with many oral traditions, they are passed on only when they are of use to those who keep them, and they are intimately connected with the language they were created in, changing the language changes the meaning of the story. Mika is fighting now to preserve not only her people, but their ancient ways. It isn’t easy, she is bending the rules by recording what has been an oral tradition for so long, and it’s considered rude to tell the Elders what to talk about. On the cusp that binds the generations, Mika is fighting to hold together her culture.
Not all struggles can be described in full just by recounting the events. This last day was one of those days. Iʼve deliberated at how to complete this story over the last few days, and have had a great deal of trouble ﬁguring it out. Iʼm still not sure that Iʼve found the best way to convey the feeling of both desperation and determination that all of us were going through that morning as we left the last camp amid waist deep snow. At a certain point, I was acting outside myself, with my self consciousness conﬁned to the hood of my parka. As nice as it was to be on autopilot, at the same time the danger of falling into a complacent pace was more than just possible, it was our greatest enemy. Breaks dragged on, snow still fell. Finally as darkness began to fall, we passed the ﬁnal descent to the sea ice and made it to open sea ice. Only 21 miles stood before us, and for a moment we almost felt we were home. The Sea Ice was slow, and the blizzard obstructed our view of the city lights. Flickering in the distance, just barely in visible range, a single light occasionally broke through the storm to guide us home. All it takes sometimes is a single light to remind you that you arenʼt alone. That there is someone out there waiting for your arrival, standing and looking into the windswept darkness waiting for you, silently rooting you on. As hard as those ﬁnal miles were, they were impossible to give up on. Our beacon in the dark led us to the waiting friends and families. They stood in the bitter cold, in the whipping wind and welcomed us home. At midnight, on the ﬁnal day, we had ﬁnally overcome our greatest challengers, ourselves.
I hate competing. I loathe it. I was convinced by my teammates for an upcoming Ellesemere Island Expedition that it would be good training though. It was only going to be 7 days, and it would be fun. Besides, we weren’t actually “racing,” it was all in the name of fun. I can’t say I was in the least bit excited about covering 320 kilometers without cross country skis, and the mandatory 120 pounds of flower that we were to deliver to Kimmirut. The weight of our gear, the flower, the heavy wooden sleds, and my team mate and I was to much even for the 9 bearlike inuit sled dogs we had fan hitched to the pulling end of the sled. Fan hitch is how the Inuit used to run their dogs. In the Arctic, and near arctic, there aren’t to many trees for the dogs to get tangled up in, so having each dog separately tied to the sled allows them to pick their own path through tide tossed sea ice, and the boulders that roll down from the stone walled canyons broken off by the intense cold. All dogsledding is descendant from the Inuit. It has even been argued that the Inuit could not have survived in the Arctic without dogs. Pieces of dogsleds made from baleen, whales jaw, have been found alongside bones of dogs in archaeological sites 5000 years old, the oldest of the arctic ruins. Not to much has changed in the designs, better wood is brought in and carved into shape. It used to be the only source of wood was driftwood that washed up from the south. Imagine what you might think of driftwood if you have never seen a tree. Imagine what you might have thought of a ship sailing north full of Southlanders were you Inuit. Inuit people imagined ships carved from single gigantic trees. It seems silly to us, but try to fathom a home built from snow warm enough to wear a t-shirt in.
Arguably things have changed more quickly for the Inuit than any other culture. Just 30 years ago, people where still living in Igloos out on the land and traveling by dogsled. A friend, and a great source of knowledge in the wild is a small unassuming woman named Mika. She was number 9 in a family with 12 children, and offers a great perspective on the changes that the Inuit have been through. She sees her siblings as covering three generations, the first children where born out on the land, to a family that moved with the seasons and followed the hunting grounds throughout the year. The middle children were sent to town to go to school, while the family still lived on the land. The last generation of which Mika was a part grew up in a town, close to a school and in a world constantly in touch with what we would call the “Western World” and what they would call the “South.”
On day one of the race, I wrote in my journal that I had just been through the hardest day of my life. Even when the dogs are fresh, and the the trail flat, the dogs had trouble carrying our weight, so one of us was constantly running the flats, climbing the hills, or skating, a technique kind of like riding a giant skate board on your knees. 75 kilometers later, and 2000 vertical feet climbed. We stood atop a plateau that represented (at least to me) five more days of struggle. This same night, the temperature dropped to about -40 degrees. It doesn’t matter if you want it in Fahrenheit or Celsius, at -40 it’s the same. It’s the point where both parties can agree that it’s freezing out. We set up our tents and retreated into our many layers of sleeping bags to sleep out the night.
Do you know that feeling, when you are in your nice warm bed, and the floor around you has cooled in the early hours of the morning but you still can’t sleep because nature has been calling. Eventually you have to throw off the duvet and roll out of bed, your feet cringe as they first touch the floor. Now imagine the same feeling except in a tent at -40. Earlier that night, I had watched water freeze as we poured it into a pot, building a rough stalagmite of ice before our eyes.
Day two was far, far harder. We were already exhausted and sore from the first day, and the dogs must have realized they weren’t going home. According to my GPS we actually did more climbing on day two than on day one, but we didn’t get the satisfaction of standing on top of a peak and looking out over the bay ice to see what our efforts had added up to. The climbing was all done in long slow climbing sections quickly followed by short descents that nullified any gains we felt we had made. A rolling and mostly featureless landscape that offered no short term goals to reach for us or the dogs. Dogs love the rough ice that forms where the frozen ocean has been pushed by tides and winds against the shore into a cracked and broken accordion of Ice. To them it’s the equivalent of a racetrack, they yip and bark and growl each vying for the front position in the pack, another reason why having different length ropes tethering the dogs to the sled is so effective. The Plateau had none of that thrill. Yet, standing on the edge of the plateau at the end of the daylight hours and watching the sunset stands out as one of the most beautiful sights I’ve been privileged enough to see. After descending into that valley during the twilight hours, we lead the dogs for 4 more hours into the night and that stands out as one of the most difficult nights i’ve ever experienced.
The halfway point, Kimmirut, welcomed us on the third evening with a feast and a warm place to lay our sleeping bags. The locals were more than willing to lend a hand with any of our tasks. Even the dogs were treated as royalty, dining on the same fresh meat as the people instead of hard packed and frozen dogfood. Seeing the blend of cultures that have created Kimmirut and the way in which the people live their day to day lives in the far North forces reflection on our own cultural development. After a lengthy prayer by one of the village elders, locals descended upon raw caribou laid out on a sheet of Tyveck. To the side, a table waited with cooked caribou for those that didn’t find the raw caribou appetizing. The inuit culture like many other native peoples has found a blend of religion and tradition with those of the foreigners that have shown up over the years, this blend has paralleled the peoples adaptation to life in houses and villages, as well as having replaced dogsledding with snow-machines. As we found on our return trip to Iqaluit, the changes have their downfalls to survival in the North.
Back at camp 2, with dogs and racers well rested and inspired from an easy day traveling up a frozen river from Kimmirut. They sky held signs of a coming storm, but the racers readied for another day. The race organizer Muni held us back against our will, even though we trust him and his unparalleled knowledge of the trail implicitly. It wasn’t until waiting a full day in the tent that we found out we had been held for a search and rescue operation. Suddenly we didn’t mind waiting so much, the head Ranger, Jameson, was missing. He had left in the early afternoon the day before to pick up spark plugs for the snowmobiles and hadn’t returned. In a landscape as vast and dangerous as this, anything could have happened. Theories on his disappearance verged from the catastrophic to the mundane, but when a man like Jameson disappears without a trace something must have gone horribly wrong. After spending the night in two sleeping bags, a bivy sack, a vapor barrier and a tent, I couldn’t imagine anyone surviving a night out in such bitter cold. Mika was more optimistic, and in her way quietly gave us all hope. The wind had swept away most of the snowmobile tracks, the snow in the sky blended with the snow on the ground, and only the occasional rock added depth or contrast to the scene. In this weather, the Canadian Rangers had combed the land for two days and hadn’t turned up a sign of Jameson. It wasn’t until the next morning, after his second night out that he was found. He had veered off the trail, and had fallen over 20 feet into a ravine breaking his pelvis. He hadn’t moved in two days, and he was alive. Chills sent shock-waves up and down my spine when I heard that he had kept his willpower to live. According to Mika, your will is your strongest force against the cold, and Jameson had little else to protect him.
We had to feed the dogs their emergency food which had previously weighed down the sled even more, along with some of our extra fuel, and without the weight of the flower, climbing back up onto the plateau was tough but quick and manageable, the weather was holding, and the dogs had had plenty of rest. Throughout the day, the weather slowly started to lean towards storming, the wind began to build, and oddly enough the temperature began to rise. Dogs run slow in the warm weather. I watched my altimeter all day, and the barometric pressure was dropping faster than we were climbing indicating the onset of a low pressure system. By nightfall, we were in a blizzard, winds buffeted the tents at 60 miles an hour and our dogs had curled up into themselves letting the snow cover them for more insulation. Again, we had no choice but to wait it out in our tents.
Two mornings later, I stepped out of the tent to find our sleds buried, our tents in self created wind wells, and the dogs still sleeping under the snow. It was late in the morning, and according to the locals, it was the most snow to have dropped in over 15 years. Snowmobiles where bogging down before they even began to move, tents had been ravaged, the storm was in a lull and would begin anew at any moment. We had 50 miles to go, and not enough food to wait out the storm.
Tonight I went outside to catch some fresh air, I'd spent the majority of my day inside packing food for the expedition, and the fresh air was a great way to unwind. Looking up into the starry sky, a faint green ribbon, almost smoky in appearance began to unravel across the sky. Within seconds, the most beautiful Northern Lights I've ever seen burst into the atmosphere and unfurled in hues of green and purple. The green is common, but the purple is a rare treat. The lights are caused when Light from the sun enters the atmosphere at an angle that ionizes certain atoms in the upper atmosphere giving off the light that can range from soft and lazy, to a rapid fire kaleidoscope reminiscent of a lazer show from the 90's. When we are in Ellesmere Island, we won't be able to see the Northern lights, because there will be no night, and the sun will not set while we are are above the arctic circle. The lights were feared in ancient times by the Inuit, but now that it is understood that they do not bring harm, they serve only to inspire.
So tomorrow the team and I are leaving for a 7 day dogsled race to Kimmirut and back. The round trip will be 320 Kilometers, most of those miles will be run by at least one team member. Tomorrow will be our hardest day, and I'm glad that we are getting it out of the way right off the bat. We will sled for about three hours to cross the bay, then we'll hit rough sea ice that has pressed into shore all winter, creating massive folds in ice many meters thick. Just behind the sea ice, our trail heads for the sky, and a very poorly covered slope strewn with boulders marks the beginning of 700 meters of climbing. The dogs are not going to be very happy about this, and I probably won't be either. To do a race of this distance is intimidating, but to do it in the frigid temperatures that we will be in is downright terrifying. It's so cold out here, that cargo holds and transport trucks called "refrigerators" are actually heated to keep food from freezing to much.
There are six teams in the race, one of them has already said that he will only be along for half of the race, he already had to do the first part of the course just to get to town, and the tough 70 year old Inuit man is running with puppies, as all of his dogs died from disease last year. It's guys like this that make me reevaluate myself. What I call adventure, and what I prepare for many months to do, this guy has done his whole life. I listened very carefully to his words of advice through an interpreter last night as he advised the teams on the condition of the trail, the speed of the snow, and the dangers that we will be encountering. I am certain that his words will echo in my mind as all that he warned us of comes to pass.
With most of the team here finally, and the expedition coming up quickly, we have been working overtime trying to get everything ready. Food needs to be packed so that in two months when we pull it out of the box, we aren’t missing anything, and gear needs to be tested and readied for the expedition. Even with all of the things we have to do, the dogs need to be run every day.
Time is running short. But every day, when we get out on the ice with the dogs, everything seems worth while. Passing kilometer after kilometer in the silence, with the beautiful and surreal landscape stretching out around us, our stresses disappear. Training in Iqaluit is not just getting our body ready for the physical stresses of skiing all day every day, or staying warm in the cold. Training is also getting our minds ready for the solitude that we will find on the ice. Ellesmere Island offers some of the most remote landscapes in the world.
For me, training also involves figuring out what camera equipment I should be taking with me, and how my equipment will handle the cold. I’ve already learned so much about taking pictures in the cold, but in training, I always have a warm place to come home to. Hopefully, we will all be able to learn as we go, and adapt to our environment well enough to get our job done. The pictures from Ellesmere Island will be used to show the world the effects that global warming has on our planet, and because of that the pictures are one of the most important aspects of this trip.
In a couple of days, we will have our best training run yet. We are doing the 6 day race from Iqaluit to Kimmirut and back. We will get to test our gear, our food, and our stamina in another beautiful landscape. For us, the race is about figuring out our systems, and having fun. Winning would be a great bonus though!
Toby taught me a new word in Norwegian today. We were having a conversation about languages and how you can express certain things more precisely in one language verses another. Toby speaking more than 4 languages was more than understanding of what I meant by that. I gave the example of one of my favorite spanish words, ‘tranquilo’ which translates directly to ‘tranquil’ but it’s meaning is so much deeper. It’s a way of being, a mood, and is a way of life in sleepy little beach towns in Central America.
Friluftsliv. It means literally: Free-Air-Life but again, the real meaning is so much deeper. Like any of these words, they loose meaning when they are forced into another language. Toby helped me understand the meaning by changing the words around to “open air life,” We can get a general understanding of the meaning right off the bat, just as we know the “meaning” of the word tranquil. But in Norway, it goes deeper.
It means living in the open air, but living ‘for’ the open air. You may be stuck in an office all week, but you look forward to spending your weekend outdoors. You could drive your car, but you walk. It means that your heart is in the fresh air, and you will do whatever you can to be there. I guess in a way, it combines a few of our american words. Like the over used and bastardized environmental word ‘Green’ and the personality trait ‘outdoorsy.’ You could probably even throw in a little bit of ‘inspired.’
We may not be able to pronounce ‘fruluftsliv’ with any sort of accuracy, but we can certainly make an effort to live by it. I’ve seen the effect of the word, even before I knew it existed. When at 53 years old, my dad suddenly decided to become a surfer and get in shape, or in the way my 83 year old grandmother still goes hiking after a recent hip surgery.
There is a power that language holds that is revealed to those people like Toby who speak a number of them. Like my friend Wade taught me, Language is not just a code that is designed to explain the world, it is a way of seeing your world.
Stepping off of the airplane in Iqaluit reminded me of running head long into a brick wall. The cold wind was penetrating, and impenetrable. In the short walk from the plane to the building, the wind had pushed the cold through every layer I had on, and I felt like I was standing naked on some fictional icy planet. Iqaluit is not actually above the arctic circle, but sits just south of it on the map. The map lies. If you follow the tree line, the northern limit of where even large plant life can live, you will find that there is a sudden dip just around Iqaluit. Arctic storms that can be heard coming, howl across the ice, bringing temperatures that make your bones brittle. It’s a white dessert, with no open water, no trees, and scarce life to be found.
After meeting up with the team, I went back to the house where I’ll be staying for the next month, and was given my clothing that will be my only protection from the elements for the upcoming expedition to the even colder Ellesmere Island. The words of a good friend came to mind as I pulled on my bibs, and bent down to my knees to zip up my jacket. “Function over fashion,” Craig had said. I have no problem with that, as long as it keeps me warm!
Soon after, I was introduced to the dogs. They need no artificial warmth, or layers to keep them warm. Even the puppies can spend nights out, curled up on the ice. These dogs however are closer in relation to arctic wolves than they are to the handbag stuffing chihuahuas and the overbred lapdogs we find comfort in. It shows too. The elongated stride, the tooth scarred muzzles, and the cold, calculating, but intelligent stare of the dogs remind me of the feeling of looking into the eyes of a lion on the Serengetti.
The dogs you see in movies are malamutes, and siberian huskies, kitty-cats compared to the canadian eskimo dogs that are pulling us. Three of the dogs on our 9 dog team have drug their previous owners and 800 pounds of gear to the north pole twice. They are easy to make friends with though, and just like people, each dog has it’s own personality. The new dogs on the team are skittish, and afraid of people, just like a captured wolf would be. The veterans have the system so figured out that they could practically put their own harness on and will snap at other dogs for stepping out of line. After a hard day of pulling you around, the dogs are tied up individually and fed, then after all the other work is done for the night, they look forward to a good petting that is the highlight of their day. Sarah, my teammate impressed the value of “saying goodnight” to your dogs early. A dog that is your friend is going to listen a lot better, and is going to enjoy pulling you around a lot more than one that resents you.
On my second day in Iqaluit, we load the sleds and harness the dogs for a 30 kilometer run out to a cabin that Sarah and Eric own across the bay. Sarah and Eric are the children of the famous arctic explorer Matty Mcnair-Landry. Matty is like one of the sled dogs, she pulls people up to the arctic. People with dreams of the North Pole invariably will come to Matty to lead them there. Sarah and I team up on a sled, and are yanked by the yelping dogs through a kilometer of broken up sea-ice before reaching the smooth ice beyond. I can’t say it was the easiest place to learn to ski. Dodging chunks of ice, wind hardened drifts of snow, and the sliding sled the whole time. Some of the new dogs didn’t always know how to pick their way through the ice while tied into the sled, and would try to go around the ice on the wrong side. As the sled went forward, the momentum and the 8 other dogs would suddenly yank the misguided dog backwards and the dog would get drug around the ice chunks and catapulted back toward the sled. Sarah has been doing this since she was two. She can remember being tied down to the sled and bundled up as her mom mushed the dogs across the ice. A life in the arctic running dogs makes for a strong person. I got to see Sarah lift an 80 pound dog (one of the small ones) as it got caught between two ice flows, and throw the dog over the ice, and over the sled, clearing some of the other dogs, probably saving it from being smashed to death between the flows by the frenzied other dogs.
Denver is 20 degrees, and the wind is blowing the snow sideways at 45 miles an hour. I suppose I should take advantage of the nice weather before I get to the arctic... I'll be in Baffin island all month training the dogs for the actual expedition. Or should I say they will be training me.
At the age of 26, Ben Horton’s biography reads like that of a seasoned
explorer. Highly influenced by his love of travel and adventure and
his constant search for something new, his imagery is vibrant with
fresh and creative energy. Raised in Bermuda, Ben Horton has spent the
majority of his life traveling and seeking out new adventure. Ben is
the recipient of the National Geographic Society’s first Young
Explorer award for research on Cocos Island involving shark poaching.
This led to a 2 month Expedition to Ellesmere Island in the Canadian
Arctic with Arctic legend Will Steger. As his career has developed,
Ben has adapted writing and the organization of his own expeditions to
complement his photography. To support his conservation photography,
which is Ben’s passion, he works as a fashion and advertising