An explorer’s itch
A few months ago, last November, I had a conversation with fellow Fortweekly contributor Greg Leighton loosely about the perilous polar explorations of over a century ago. These expeditions often inspire interest and wonder for obvious reasons: they took up the Herculean task of planting man’s feet on some of the last unseen and most isolated lands of our planet. Perhaps ancient Pacific people may have glimpsed or known of Antarctica, but we had not set upon it until the nineteenth century. So too the Arctic polar icescape would have bounded the small indigenous communities in the New World and even intrepid Vikings, and it would also take until the nineteenth century for humans to push beyond.
We were discussing the tragedy of two ancillary explorers: Captain Lawrence Oates (for the Antarctic) and Robert Stein (for the Arctic). Oates’ demise is a striking example of self-sacrifice: realizing that his gangrenous feet were slowing the rest of his company down in the far reaches of the Antarctic, he instead elected to wander out from his tent in a blizzard in suicide to force the others to finally abandon him. On a very different but similarly striking demise, Robert Stein was involved in some fairly ill-prepared attempts at exploring the Arctic North before committing suicide in 1917 over his disconsolation with the savagery of World War I and the gloomy outlook for peace and stability.
Robert Stein had also participated in some of Robert Peary’s expeditions as a translator. Peary is remembered as ostensibly the first explorer to reach the North Pole over his rival Frederick Cook, or at least that is how American culture decided. Peary’s records of his journey become suspiciously scant and less plausible as he nears the pole, probably meaning he never really reached it. The other claimant in Cook was similarly almost certainly a fraud. In all likelihood, the Norwegian Roald Amundsen was the first person to reach the North Pole many years later (albeit in a dirigible), just as he was the first to encounter the South Pole.
Rather unlike their Norwegian peers, the British and American explorers were fiercely competitive and driven by pride. While the supporting crews of men on the expeditions may have been driven by adventure, the pursuit of knowledge, and duties of honor (we remember here Captain Lawrence Oates), the expedition leaders were too often concerned with besting rivals, earning glory, denying rank to subordinates, concealing information from others, et cetera. Often treating exploration as a race, they would endanger their crew with reckless planning and poor strategies. While rivalries like that between Peary and Cook or between Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton add dramatic color to the historical record, it also means we must use caution when evaluating their accounts and claims. Pride pairs poorly with honesty.
Soon after our conversation, I drew inspiration to read both Peary’s account of his North Pole journey and that of the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen; reading these, in turn, would inspire a journey of my own. I found Nansen’s attempt to reach the Pole highly inventive: instead of fighting against the forces of Nature, as most tried before, he would instead construct a special ship, named the Fram, which he built to withstand the pressures of the ice, and simply drift on and off ice for years in the slow Arctic currents from Siberia to Greenland. He realized part-way through that the currents would not take him to the Pole so he made a mad dash farthest North than any man before (86°14′ N) and then retreated.
The contrast between the accounts and writing style of the two is interesting and telling. Nansen’s writing is patient and meticulous; hyperbole and fantasy were anathema to him, and he often looks suspiciously on previous explorers’ accounts that tend to log conditions that seem well beyond what he experiences. He shows the reader not just excitement but also the ennui. This is to be expected from the Norwegian explorers, who were quite sober and well-prepared about the harsh realities of the poles. This quality, as Nansen saw it, came from the long historical experiences of Norsemen boldly pushing further North, doing so not just for practical purposes but also for the love of knowledge, not just engaging with the limits of mankind’s reach but doing so with little fantasy of what was beyond.
Even the monotony of such a desolate journey is wonderfully expressed by Nansen. His almost existentialist questioning of our reality and our planet while lodged firmly in the infinitude of the paleocrystic ice is remarkably relatable for the contemporary reader. While many pages may repeat in tone, it is unassailable that such a journey as his would be repetitive.
Compared with Nansen’s book, I found Robert Peary to be an approachable but far less skilled writer. Given what we now know (that he likely did not reach the North Pole) the account is also suspicious to read. Every patronizing passage on his Inuit companions or allusion to his own skill and resolve gives the impression that he knows the account will bolster his reputation and legacy. Whereas Nansen viewed the specific goal of reaching the Pole trivial to the scientific goal of understanding the circumpolar domains of our planet, Peary viewed this small mathematical point the whole purpose. Nansen, our trusted analyst, also gives insight into this kind of self-centeredness that overcomes the explorer: “It is the sad part of expeditions of this kind that one systematically kills all better feelings, until only hard-hearted egoism remains.”
At times Peary seems to rush proper explanation or context for the arduous task; at others he turns more romantic and poetic. See this passage by him about the allure of Arctic expeditions:
The lure of the North! It is a strange and a powerful thing. More than once I have come back from the great frozen spaces, battered and worn and baffled, eager for the society of my kind, the comforts of civilization and the peace and serenity of home. But somehow, it was never many months before the old restless feeling came over me… I began to long for the great white desolation, the battles with the ice and the gales, the long, long arctic night, the long, long arctic day, the handful of odd but faithful Eskimos who had been my friends for years, the silence and the vastness of the great, white lonely North.”
Part of my curiosity with these books and with the polar explorers more generally was rooted in the fact that I had almost no familiarity of the North—not just the blistering Arctic, but even a fairly cold winter. I grew up in South Florida, where you sweat in short sleeves in December, and lived also in more mild climates of Europe and the US South. Reading these first-hand accounts of glacial realms was like reading a fantasy of a distant planet.
I was starting to get the “explorer’s itch” to set off immediately and experience a bit of the great white North. And while I have neither the desire nor the disposition to engage in any serious adventures into the frigid landscapes of the near-Arctic (a polar explorer I am most certainly not), I at least wanted to hike on frozen water and see the haunting aurora borealis to have a taste of this clime. In mid-November we had our Arctic discussion and I poured over the accounts of Peary and Nansen. Two weeks later, I climbed down an aircraft at the 62° 28′ northern parallel in Canada. It was a breezy negative twenty degrees Celsius.
Journey to the North
The long, December nights of the northern latitudes of Canada not only offered a small experience with the frigid cold for the first time in my life, but also a first opportunity to experience the aurora borealis. A quick glance at airline flight prices surprised me; I could fly roundtrip from Florida to Yellowknife, Canada (capital of the Northwest Territories province) the next week for cheaper than many places in the US. That meant in my mind the trip was settled, and all I needed was to try and convince one or two travel partners to join me—a task I didn’t fully expect to succeed at. Surprisingly, the allure of an off-the-cuff journey to a place they had never heard of to see the aurora convinced my sister and another friend to join in, and everything was set.
The total travel time to get to Yellowknife from Florida was nearly eighteen hours, with layovers in Toronto and Calgary. The outgoing trip was largely uneventful, although on descent into Calgary I was a little surprised by just how alone the city was in the landscape. Looking out to the East of Calgary from the air, I could see what felt like hundreds of miles of perfectly flat land, with hardly any mark of human settlement, save the occasional sliver of a road, thinly disappearing into the horizon. Any look at a map of Canada tells you that many Canadian cities (Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, et cetera) are essentially islands of humanity in a massive depopulated sea. Nevertheless, I assumed that outside of them were mountains or forest or some other reason of topography that naturally bounded humanity to each of these locations; the completely flat plain that Calgary was on, however, suggests to me that that it is probably just Canada’s low population that necessitates the vast emptiness.
We arrived in Yellowknife at 7PM and disembarked the plane for the airport. Immediately on exiting the plane, the icy air hit for the first time—though as often with a shock to the system, I was not terribly affected and even chose to ignore my winter coat in exchange for being able to more nimbly maneuver my bags on the runway. The airport itself was very small; there are only a couple major passenger flights a day, mostly to Calgary. Looking at the arrivals and departures board though showed many charter flights throughout the night heading much further north; these destinations with indigenous names like Inuvik, Tuktoyaktuk, and Ulukhaktok are nestled so far north on the Arctic ‘coast’ of Canada that traditional map projections make them seem an entire world away.
The two main northern cities of Canada, Yellowknife and Whitehorse, have recently found a successful niche in aurora borealis tourism, especially with tourists from Japan and China, so it is common in Yellowknife, particularly in the airport and tourist areas, for signage and information to also come in Chinese or Japanese. The airport itself also had a sort of hokey “Welcome to the North!” touristic charm; above the single baggage claim belt towered a taxidermy polar bear that tourists could take amusing pictures with, or whatever, while they waited to be picked up by their package tour operators. Likewise, we were picked up by our host and brought to our cabin near the Old Town of Yellowknife. Immediately, after dropping our bags off, I headed to the local brewery, Northwest Territories Brewing, which, by no coincidence at all, sat not far from where we were staying.
Pints of beer flowed forth, serving the dual purpose of providing a good buzz and warming my body, which had already started to grow cold from walking outside. Inside, plenty of people were also drinking and, although most that I both talked to and listened in on were living in Yellowknife, few were actually from the city. In a recurring theme, many folks from Vancouver, or Ontario, or elsewhere in Canada came to Yellowknife for either the change of pace in life or for more practical considerations (there are still plenty of decent paying jobs in the tourism and mining sectors). Considering that the price of beer was reasonable, the feat of opening a brewery that brews several styles with a variety of ingredients in a city that is nearly a ten hour drive on just a two-lane road from the next nearest city is impressive. I talked with a bartender at length on the logistics of it all, a conversation I can guarantee enthused few others at the bar.
The reality though is that the logistics of transportation is a major theme of Yellowknife’s history. Up until the First World War, the permanent population of the Northwest Territories comprised almost entirely of indigenous communities, with temporary white populations coming for trapping, whaling, and small-scale prospecting. While it would have been known that the territory had abundant mining resources, the question of how to transport these from such a distant location meant that only resources that could be easily sent by seasonal transport (as fur could) were pursued. Railways and roads were not practical to build to, let alone throughout, the region.
That all changed with the spread of airplanes, allowing not only certain resources to flow out easier, but also goods to flow in easier so that permanent settlements could be sustained. Thus, Yellowknife was born from a former makeshift air base to a new town, attracting prospectors, miners, construction workers and also teachers, doctors, journalists, shopkeepers, all seeking either fortune or adventure. There were several gold and mineral mines nearby, but substantially more were accessible by plane using Yellowknife as a base. By the 1940’s, Yellowknife was a chaotic frontier town of thousands of residents, but it had no proper municipal infrastructure, despite the town fast becoming a de facto capital of the northern Canada. Not long thereafter, Highway 3 was built, connecting Yellowknife to the rest of Canada by road.
Yellowknife’s Old Town is a quaint area on a small peninsula on the Great Slave Lake. Around the peninsula are a collection of colorful houseboats; during the winter, you can easily walk to them or drive a car over the frozen lake. Other than the brewery, it also features small artisanal shops, small cafes, and restaurants. While not a particularly remarkable neighborhood in the larger scheme of things, in temperatures that mostly floated around negative twenty degrees Celsius, the Old Town formed a good base to explore local trails throughout our stay. The downtown area is shortly up the road from the Old Town and is more functional, with a primitive skyline but also some decent pubs and restaurants.
I had come to Yellowknife ready for the weather, at least in my mind, with a thick winter coat, base layers and wool socks. While the coat and thermal layers were more than effective at keeping me warm, even at negative thirty degrees, my attempt at winter boots were not, and I had to succumb to renting more appropriate boots in order to manage walking for any distance. While Yellowknife is far to the south of the regions that polar explorers like Nansen and Peary would push, the temperature can actually be lower here: Arctic ice sits atop flowing water, whereas solid land can sustain a deeper cold, with less kinetic movement. In Nansen’s accounts, he often interprets a deep plunge in temperatures as a sign that land may not be far away.
The morning after I arrived, I made some small walks around the Old Town before I set off on a hike across the Great Slave Lake and around the surrounding areas. Not far off the lake is a beautiful ice cave formation; however, I could not find good directions online (package tour operators sometimes charge to reach them so maybe it is a devious plot), so we decided to wander around and toward the general vicinity that I expected them to be. I had loaded the map of the area on my phone so that I could track our location with GPS, but the cold was too strong for me to keep removing my hands from gloves to operate the phone, so I just left it and meandered as I thought fit, and sure enough, after venturing off the lake and through an eerie cemetery, we arrived at the ice caves.
While trekking kilometers across the frozen lake, some unexpected issues arose, at least for an inexperienced winter wanderer like me. Bespectacled as I am, I learned a quick lesson on how quickly and severely my glasses would fog up: either you wear your glasses so that you can see better, thus leaving your nose and mouth to fend for themselves in the weather, or you cover your face and keep your glasses off to prevent fogging them up in the trapped breath of your covering. Once the lenses fog up, they have to be wiped quickly or else the moisture will freeze to the lens, which makes them harder to clear up again. Leaving the glasses off also gives rise to another curious phenomenon whereby your eyelashes and eyebrows become iced and thick with frost. Eventually they become so heavy with frost they become a real burden and the top and bottom lashes might even fuse together. Of course, I learned later that there are accessories to prevent this fogging issue…
We ate at night at a famous little restaurant in the Old Town called Bullock’s Bistro. It has a quirky interior, where travelers from all over the world scribble notes on all the walls and tables, and they serve a no-nonsense menu of fresh fish straight from the icy lake, which is more than ideal for fish and chips. We talked a bit with the waitress about how cold it was (since talking about the weather with strangers is the universal compulsion for humans), and she mentioned that we’ll get used to it soon enough and before we know it, winter will end—she thought we were miners that must have recently arrived. Upon learning that, no, we were tourists in for a weekend, she became very confused as to why anyone from a warm, sunny place would do that.
The aurora borealis
The aurorae (borealis in the Northern Hemisphere and australis in the South) are curious meteorological phenomena. They are caused by an interaction between the solar winds and the Earth’s magnetic field. The winds comprise of charged protons and electrons, and most are deflected through the magnetosphere, far beyond the reach of our atmosphere. However, the magnetic deflection is weakest near the poles, and charged electrons from the winds can circle back and collide with oxygen and nitrogen atoms closer to earth; this causes these atoms to enter an excited, high-energy state. This state only lasts for a flash, however, and the excess energy is released as light, which we see as the aurora. The colors are determined by the altitude and atoms that interact with the charged electrons: oxygen emits green at lower altitudes and red at higher, while nitrogen emits blue.
Throughout history, the prominence of the aurorae rises and falls depending on changes in solar activity. Currently, the sun goes through roughly eleven-year cycles of activity, and it most recently peaked a few years ago. However, there are also solar cycles over longer periods; from the historical record, we can ascertain the peaks and troughs of these cycles. For example, the so-called Dalton minimum of solar intensity during the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century corresponded to a sharp decrease in auroral activity, as documented by the English meteorologist John Dalton.
Later our second night I had a series of alarms set in order to wake up and try and see the aurora. Our guided trip was the next night, but the hope was that I could catch a glimpse earlier. The lights are never a guarantee, however, and even when they do come they may not last very long. So despite waking up and trudging outside once an hour to scour the skies, I did not see anything, either because that night had very low activity or I just had poor luck in when I chose to go outside.
The best views for the aurora come when you leave the city, away from the light pollution. We decided to go with a smaller aurora tour operator led by a one-man tour guide; this was largely because I loathe tours and wanted as small and eccentric of one that I could find. Our guide brought home-made vegan cookies, warm cider, and an infectious and also amusing passion for the northern lights. Each night requires perhaps a different approach for finding the best viewing because of cloud cover and magnetic forecasts, so he came with maps and apps to explain all the contingency plans he had in store in case the outlook did not seem so good at first. Ultimately, however, there are only two roads out of Yellowknife, so it is more of a binary choice.
We headed out on road leading eastward from the city. This is the only road that connects Yellowknife to the rest of Canada, therefore it is the main transportation vein. However, it is hardly conducive for trucks and large vehicles, not only because it is just a two lane road, but also because of the nature of the frozen topography below. Uneven buildup and melting of permafrost causes the road to be extremely bumpy and undulating. Even in our van it was a bit uneasy to drive over. After about forty minutes of driving, our guide had decided we had reached a good zone for the night’s aurora, and we pulled off the road toward a small frozen pond bank.
I stepped out and tread purposefully toward the frozen pond to setup my tripod. Despite being in a small group with others, my mind became locked in isolation: having a thick, padded hood with layers of fabric wrapped over my ears sharply reduced peripheral vision and the ability to hear. Marching around in silence, trying calmly to adjust to the conditions, created such an introspective marvel of the harsh, but beautiful environment before me.
All around, the frigid, moon-lit landscape of white snow and hoar-frosted trees had a particularly ethereal, other-worldly quality. The full moon was particularly bright and lit the scene such that it felt as if we were caught in the nebulous zone between twilight and night. From the silence, I felt I could almost hear the radiating moonlight off the sparkling plains of snow. It was strange to think that in just a few months, this same vista would show green trees, still water, and grassy banks.
But for now the cold was pervasive. The actual temperatures reached -35°C (-31°F) with a wind chill even lower, and I made two paradoxical conclusions: for one, I was surprised how easy it felt at times to operate and hike around in these low temperatures. I was bundled up, and most of my body was kept warm enough to hardly register the temperature (or so the brain thought), though much of this might be chalked up to either adrenaline or steeling myself mentally before going out. On the other hand, any part of the body that had sub-optimal layering was immediately attacked to the bone by the cold. There were no shivers or gradual senses of the temperature, no warning or opportunity for the body to adjust, no transitory state of numbness that the body might be accustomed to. A body part was either warmed enough to be content or freezing to the point of sending panicked signals of alien distress to the brain.
While I had rented extreme-cold boots and had wool socks, I had mistaken the order of my sock layering; as a result, my sweat soaked the wool socks, which then froze from the moisture, which in turn made my feet functionally into blocks of ice. Likewise, while I had thick wool gloves, I could not operate my camera with them; thus, every moment that I took to adjust my camera or the tripod would risk freezing my fingers numb. And of course, if you are trying to photograph the night sky, there are a lot of adjustments to make.
Frequently over the few hours we were out, the cold became too much. I would have to retreat to the heated van and rip of my boots in a rush to warm my frozen feet. Our guide spent the entire period outside, often more or less alone as everyone would rush back to the heated van for temporary respite. Clearly he knew how to layer his socks correctly. I asked him if he ever felt when it became too cold, if there was any temperature that even he would not want to come out for. Negative forty degrees was his answer. It seems a good, natural floor for human experience: the only temperature at which both Celsius and Fahrenheit equal.
It took a couple hours before the aurora started becoming active. At first, it was nearly invisible to the eye, but the camera could pick up a green, ghostly streak with a long enough exposure. Then came long arches of light that were stable across the sky. They were faint, but were a sign of the coming activity. Finally, near midnight, standing in the deep cold in the middle of a frozen lake looking eastward, I could see the aurora borealis emerge. The first realization I had was that the lights are far less color-saturated than in pictures; indeed, between looking with my eye and setting a long exposure photo, the photos were always significantly more green or bright than the reality. Keep this in mind when looking at the photos below.
However, while the camera catches more brilliant color, the eye can see how the lights positively dance. They move and frolic rhythmically like icy sprites across the night sky. They shimmer and fade as they tease the mortal spectator. One can only imagine how auspicious or frightening these northern lights would have been to ancient peoples. In medieval Britain, they were associated with dragon fire; for the Inuit they represented the spirits of the dead as they play games in the sky; in Chukchi mythology, those who die a noble and voluntary death transcend to the fires of the lights. In cultures where the aurora would be far rarer they usually served as an important and terrifying omen.
More so than other celestial bodies and phenomena like the sun, moon, or even shooting stars, the aurora feels alive. In the shifting, soft-green lights come flashes of orange, red, and mauve that vanish just as soon as they appear. The aurora seems as if particularly conducted to grab onto man’s particular sense of beauty—his love of color, his celestial awe, his musical predilections—to show that the universe too can understand such sentiments. While the view was mesmerizing, but the gradual ebb and flow of the auroral dance was also not ideal given my frozen feet. Eventually, my pedal ice blocks were in such biting pain that I was forced to retreat to the van and witness the rest from behind a window. A frustrating besting by the cold, but I at least take comfort when I recall that even Nansen retreated during one of the grandest auroras he saw due to the same temperatures.
Journey back to the South
The next morning, we checked out of our accommodation and spent much of the rest of the day in downtown Yellowknife before the flight out. Despite the low temperatures, Yellowknife has a problem with homelessness, particularly in the downtown area. The large majority of the homeless come from the Aboriginal Dene and Inuit communities. These communities are quite small and isolated. Because their culture and way of life is being transformed by modernity, a loss of social cohesion and a lack of modern jobs in their communities forces them to Yellowknife in an attempt to find work. Too often though they end up on the cold streets.
The main museum in Yellowknife is the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. The museum is fairly new and well laid out, and uses a good chunk of its exhibition space to cover the interesting culture and history of the indigenous people of the North, particularly the Dene people surrounding the Yellowknife region. The museum also has a bizarre emphasis on a Northern tale about a figure known as the Mad Trapper. The Mad Trapper was actually a man named Albert Johnson, though even that is unknown since his real identity has never been confirmed. In 1931, he moved to the area near the remote outpost of Aklavik, in the far north near the Arctic coast without having secured a license for trapping. This confused the local officials in the area, since trapping was one of the only reasons that foreigners came that far north. After suspicions that he might be destroying the traps of others, the police took a warrant to question him, but instead, over a couple episodes lasting tens of hours he engaged in a protracted standoff with the police, even after they blew up his cabin with dynamite. Eventually the police retreated.
Over the next month a manhunt broke out to find Johnson. Occasionally, he was cornered and more firefights broke out, leading to the death of one officer and the injury of others. Somehow, Johnson wandered in the frigid cold for weeks, evading capture by stepping his feet in caribou tracks to avoid aerial detection. The pursuit team realized this and was able to finally pull near to him, engaging in one final firefight which killed Johnson. Despite the resulting intrigue in his story and various investigations and DNA tests, it is still not known who he was, why he came to the Arctic, and whether he even did any trapping to deserve the name “The Mad Trapper.”
That such a seemingly minor story, which would inspire books, films, and television series, has such a strong place in the history of Canada is fairly amusing. It’s hardly the stuff of legends. But I suppose the tale of the Mad Trapper is rooted in mystery, darkness, adventure, and solitude, and these are the archetypes of hyperborean life in the great, white lonely North. However, our contemporary reach and technology has dampened some of these archetypes, bringing cities like Yellowknife much closer to their southern counterparts than to the northern emptiness of the Arctic. Climate change too is melting the permafrost, lengthening the summers, shortening the winters. Nowhere else have the temperatures risen as high as they have in the Arctic. The reality is stark: commercial ships in the Arctic no longer flee the annual coming of ice in October, as they did only a decade ago. Soon, there will shipping routes across the poles, from Japan to Eastern North America. Dogs raised for sledding can go over a year hardly seeing snowfall. Even the annual Alaskan Iditerod race has to push the routes more northerly each year in order to find adequate snow. The fauna that once thrived in the arctic and subarctic climates is under threat from these rapid environmental changes. As time goes on, Arctic folk stories like the Mad Trapper will be a relic and a memory of a bygone era, of a past world, before man brought modernity northward and, by extension, pushed the temperatures upward.
Seventy-two hours or so I spent in the Northwest Territories, hardly a lengthy time at all. But the North is no longer a frontier; weekend jaunts are possible, and most danger and risk from visiting these latitudes have been removed. In the evening, we boarded the plane to Calgary with many of the other weekend tourists and began the eighteen-hour journey back to Florida. In Toronto, I peeled off the thermal underwear and put on a short sleeve shirt. My winter jacket was now a burden to drag through the airport since it was no longer useful to wear.
Arriving in Orlando, I walked outside into the sun, and in temperatures nearly one hundred degrees higher than yesterday, I began to sweat from the heat as I loaded the suitcases in the car. There was still some driving to do before reaching home, and the air conditioner was on full blast for most of the ride. To a child of the twenty-first century, having travelled four thousand miles in a day and now driving in a climate controlled container seems more natural than perhaps it should. In the couple centuries since the first polar explorers, we humans have so easily made the vastness of the Earth small and brought the harshness of Nature to bend to our comforts. Time will tell if there was wisdom to our conquests.
 Peary, Robert. The North Pole. Hodder & Stoughton, 1910.
 Nansen, Fridtjof. Farthest North. Archibald Constable & Company, 1897.