On Exploration (Part I)


When I was growing up my imagination was never held captive by the endeavors of explorers.  I’m not sure why… I believe I was probably  more interested in actually being outside and looking around for myself, however meager those researches were in comparison.  Christopher Columbus and James Cook and Francis Drake were never part of the archetypal repertoire that defined my youthful urges.  I was even less moved when forced to read about these demagogues, starting somewhere around fifth grade… Christopher Columbus being sent by some Queen to find a new trade route by which to expand the empire while I passively witnessed what a fourth or fifth hand narrator had to tell me about this character who mistakenly found America instead of the West Indies, in the margin a little Victorian glossy picture of a guy with a moustache and what looked like jester’s pantyhose, bowing before a royal court.  And then next is the chapter about the pilgrims.  The emphasis on the man, the explorer, I think has always seemed strange… like the whole place is associated with him, even though plenty of people were already living in the place he “found.”  I just looked up “explore”… ex plorare… literally “to cry out.”  Explorers cry out.  Something like, “I found it.”  When we were leaving the Arctic last year, Brendan Griebel (archaeologist) was telling me about an aspect of his PhD thesis being an analysis of the old explorers’ Arctic maps.  He wanted to translate them as maps of the individuals’ desires.  The map of a land starting as the urge in someone to go somewhere that hasn’t been visited before.  I don’t mean to speak about one explorer or another in a pejorative tone… because I’m pretty sure there are as many kinds of explorers as people.  I have spent some time now reading about the Arctic and about a few of those folks who came up here to look around over the past few hundred years.  This place has been the subject of the armchair explorer’s delight for something like two thousand years… starting with the idea of Thule.  Ultima Thule.  A majestic frozen land to the North where there are strange lights, gelatinous seas, ice mountains, mystical ice creatures, and home to the hyperboreans–those living above the north wind, Boreas… a tribe of immortal ice giants, by some accounts people with only one leg.  Pytheas, a Greek explorer from the second century B.C. is supposedly the first explorer to chart the Arctic seas of Ultima Thule, as described by Polybius in his Histories. (I would have much preferred to read Polybius and about the one legged hyperborean giants early in school than Christopher Columbus… both are appropriately history).  It is debatable whether Pytheas “found” the Shetland Islands, the southern tip of Greenland, Iceland or perhaps only northern Ireland.  Did he meet Druids, Vikings, or another native people?  No matter what he found or did not, the Inuit were already up here, living year after year, way further north, with two legs, and getting along quite well despite having not been discovered yet.

I think one bifurcating factor when I contemplate an explorer is something along these lines: is this person voyaging out to carry back a story… to return to London and put on a tuxedo and address the Royal Geographic Society about his findings in the Arctic after which there is a reception with champagne and caviar in a room filled with cologne, shiny black shoes and people who are desperate for the outré (armchair explorers) surrounding and questioning our manor is this person going out there because it’s fun?  Those are (potentially) two different people.  Personally I wonder about the explorer who trudges mile after mile, oblivious of the native peoples, ethnographic background of the place, and archaeology, just to set foot there, plant a flag and take a picture… and bring a story back to London.  It doesn’t sound attractive to me mostly because it does not sound fun.  I would also be pretty chagrined to say I did something like that first, or found, cried out, a place which already had many many very well situated inhabitants with their own language and culture.  There are of course those adventurers who are bold and pure… who go for the going, who have fun being in dramatic and perilous landscapes, I think Amundsen was so, Hillary, Moitessier… lately I have been reading about Samuel Hearne… who worked for the Hudson Bay Co. in the late eighteenth century and was so good at learning from natives that he was able to live off the land by himself and adopted wearing furs (because they work so much better in Arctic climates) and komiks, poilus, etc… he was the first European, and perhaps first person, to go from Hudson Bay overland to the Arctic Sea in one go, more than 2,200 miles to the northwest.  I like the stories of the guys who go native as it were.  (If you’re interested in reading an incredible account of someone who adventured and loved the process so much that he could not reconcile it with the waiting parade at home… so just stayed out there, check out A Voyage for Madmen.)

Anyway, I am lucky enough to be up here in this Arctic region surrounded by 1) people who choose to live here, 2) people who have always lived here, and 3) people who are here to adventure.  (For the sake of this little foray into the idea of exploration, let’s divide the realm of explorers into tuxes and furs… and I’ll describe one of each from recent explorations of my own… of the gravel streets of Cambridge Bay.)

This past winter I was here with Brendan and at some point near the end of our stay he had been in communication with an Englishman called Richard Best who was planning a sort of epic kayak trip… from here to Gjoa Haven, about four hundred miles by paddle to the East.  He had invited Brendan, who was deliberating about it.  I have done a fair amount of kayaking, mostly whitewater, and told Brendan he would be welcome to come to Portland and hang out for a month and I’d teach him to roll and get acquainted with the water and the boat.  He ended up being too busy.  On this trip, luckily enough, I ran into Richard Best, who was here completing the finishing touches to his skin-on-frame kayak–that he built here–in preparation for the trip.  He was waiting for another fellow from Engand, Glen, who would accompany him to Gjoa Haven, leaving about the  21st of July.  As I discussed in the last post, there is still tons of ice up here.  At that time, last week, we had been going out to the sea every day and monitoring the ice situation (fishing)… and I was visiting with Richard almost every day… and he was growing nervous about the ice situation.  Once it is all broken up, the ice can shift quite dramatically… and–according to Brent Boddy, a local resident and explorer in his own right–can completely fill the bay back in here… which was extremely hard to believe looking at the huge bay of open water… until I saw it happen.


This is not in the bay directly in front of town, but just out past West Arm, where the sea opens up slightly between Victoria Island and the Mainland… a lot of people have little cabins out there and we had been there the day before and there was NO ICE.  It had all blown in from the west and stacked one two-ton block upon another for as far as you can see.  (Char will come in under the protection of ice, so I thought it would be a good fishing situation until I almost fell into the water as a piece of floating ice I was standing on disintegrated, only teetering on another piece below it, below the water line.)  It’s treacherous.  This picture was taken two days after Richard and Glen had departed.  Their plan had been to paddle around the Victoria coast line to the west until they reached a small strand of islands about forty miles away and then make the trip across the sea to the Mainland coast, another forty miles or so, broken up by this string of islands… the longest time in open water about ten miles.  At the last minute they had decided that the ice situation might be too difficult (which turned out to be right on) and they hired a float plane to take them over to the mainland.  I offered to help them rig the kayaks and load gear and get over there.  So I was fortunate enough to make the trip about seventy miles from here to a pristine white shell beach on the Mainland.

Here is the same area (as the above photo) two days prior:


It’s hard to see how far out that sea extends under the plane, but it’s far.  The ice was ( and is still) moving in the direction of Richard and Glen.  I also got another account from a different explorer (aviator), who had flown over the area they are currently paddling and said that it appeared ice was locking the Mainland pretty well.  After seeing how quickly the ice can move, I got a bit nervous for Richard and Glen.  I think the worst thing they’d have to endure at this point is simply staying put and waiting for the situation to clear.  They also have good dry suits and could attempt paddling a bit and then portaging over the teetering wind blown ice and then paddling again… but look at that ice.  Hard going.


Here are a couple of the shots I got in preparation for the float plane (de Havilland Beaver) flight…


Richard’s is the darker, less flexible boat, being carefully strapped to the pontoon of the plane.

From the air, here’s the ice labyrinth they were avoiding:



This is where I’m going to leave you:

The beach:

This is Richard with an absolute bat shit storm of mosquitoes invading all of our personal spaces.  I’ve never experienced a bug situation like this.  It’s a remarkable sensation… an audible buzzing sound extending many meters around your head and a sensation all over your body that mosquitoes are landing and doing their thing. 


I think Glen was kind of pissed that I took this picture, but it was one of the most awesome economic transactions I’ve been party to.  Glen paying Fred for the float plane ride across to the mainland:


As we lifted off the water and ascended into the ether above the Arctic, Cambridge Bay very quickly fell away, the plane picked up to 120 MPH and we flew.  Over the sea, over the ice labyrinth, for about forty minutes… as we navigated along the coast of the Mainland, looking for a place to land, I realized that I had never been to such a remote place.  I realized that there is no more remote a place on earth, than this… really thousands of miles from any kind of emergency service like a hospital, thousands of miles from any kind of ordinary civilization outside of these tiny Arctic hamlets.  This sensation filled the plane.  I knew what Richard and Glen were doing.  I could feel their excitement and trepidation, being left in this rocky place with only a skin boat and everything they needed to pack into it, hundreds of pounds of food and gear… only a layer of skin separating a harsh expedition from an emergency.  So we left them there:

Fred humored me in buzzing them on the beach once… the last time they would hear the sound of a motor for a month… the last time they would see anything made by man.  I kept them in the corner of my vision for another few seconds and as the de Havilland droned away and picked up to speed, it penetrated me quite viscerally how far away these gentlemen are from… anything.  A huge flood of feeling arose in my body… I saw all of Richard in a moment, a veterinarian from England who’d left his family to come make this trip because he loved it… leaving Cambridge Bay, where he’d made friends with about twenty kids–who were very reluctant to let him go–and charmed the adults he shook hands with, who had studied the kayak because it’s beautiful and decided to come here, build one and paddle it across the Arctic, because it’s possible, and fun.

I had encountered the fur species of explorer.

The others will have to wait, because it’s three o’clock in the morning and I have to do my job tomorrow.

2 thoughts on “On Exploration (Part I)

  1. Ben, I read recently that a team of Japanese scientists had proven that time travel is impossible, and that the theoretical sub atomic particle that had been postulated to exceed the speed of light did not in fact exceed the speed of light. After reading your post I wonder if they are not “barking up the wrong tree” so to speak. Seems like Richard and Glen are in fact ‘time-traveling” as are you and many of the local folks in these remote Arctic regions. Maybe time travel is not the Dr. Who type adventure, but the Richard Best type of adventure, seeing the past, present, and future of a place without the constraints of contemporary social values and norms, only the ongoing rhythm and vibration of a particular reality. A visceral access point to the genetic history stored deep in our cells rather than the virtual reality of Dr. Who. Happy journeys!

  2. BEN!!!