Two Greenpeace explorers are now trekking across the Arctic Ocean to the North Pole – the first ever such trip during summertime1. The trip is harder and riskier in the summertime, when the seasonal melting of the ice sheet leaves large gaps of ocean water, shaky ice, dense fog and deep slush. The explorers, Eric Larsen and Lonnie Dupre, want their trek to shine a light on the plight of the polar bears, and to build support for the fight against global warming, which is shrinking the ice sheet that the bears live on, driving them to hunger and extinction. The men are also gathering measurements, such as ice thickness and snow depth, for climate scientists2. No one has taken these summertime polar measurements before, so scientists value them highly. After travelling 343 miles (552 km), the two explorers have crossed the 88th parallel and will travel another 130 miles (209 km) to the Pole. After that they will turn around and hike back. Each pulling a canoe-sled, they travel mainly on skis, but switch to snow shoes when the ice and snow is too soft. When facing open water, they get in the canoe-sleds and paddle across. The trip plan calls for one air drop of supplies on the way out, and another on the way back. The explorers use a satellite phone to report to the world daily on their blog. From Thursday’s report3:
… we saw a set of polar bear tracks ambling off to the west. They were older tracks judging by how drifted they were; however, with all this open water around us one must be near. We have placed our camp on orange alert as a result of the sighting. …
… The day started nice enough, the wind had shifted, cooling things a bit and firming up the snow. But like so many of the other ‘good’ conditions we experienced, it didn’t last.
The light soon went flat and we were once again stumbling blindly forward. It started to snow too, and hard. We wondered if another blizzard was on its way, but it just kept falling at the same steady rate all day. The new snow stuck thickly to the bottom of our skis, made them heavy with no glide. Stopping to scrape the snow and ice off only helped for a few minutes. We switched to snowshoes.
When we put on our MSR snowshoes, it’s like putting a truck into four-wheel drive. We are able to pull the sled-canoes up and around ice that would be impossible with skis. On the down side, our travel slows and we expend extra energy lifting (instead of sliding with skis) each step. Still, without snowshoes, we would still be on the ice post-holing our way to madness or worse.
The only really good part of today was that we were able to laugh about it once it was over. For over six hours, we snowshoed. The sled-canoes seemed like a pallet of bricks and stopped dead at even the slightest pause in forward momentum. The ice was worse – small pans, pressured together in random ways, lots of open water leads filled with compressed snow and some brash ice. We had to veer so much east and west that at times, we thought we might be going in circles.
It’s hard to convey the feelings we have during a day like today. Several times we were near temper tantrum level when a sled-canoe got stuck or a piece of ice disintegrated underneath us. There’s intense fear when facing a tenuous brash ice crossing or relief like when three car-sized chunks of ice heeled over just after (not while) we had hopped across them. Frustration and despair as we scout the route and see more bad ice. Physical exhaustion as we try to pace our efforts. Hunger. Desire to stop and quit. Drive to keep moving forward.
When we finally reached a big flat piece of ice with 15 minutes left in the travel day, we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
It is equally hard to describe our emotions now that today is nearly complete. Before today we had hoped for good ice to the Pole, now we expect bad.