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ExWeb Interview with Jerry Kobalenko: "Open water, funny ice, soft snow and polar bears... I've wanted to do it for years."

Posted: Mar 01, 2007 05:40 am EST

(ThePoles.com/Story updated 12:40 pm EST Mar 05, 2007 with editors note) Canadian Jerry Kobalenko, currently preparing for a Canada-Greenland crossing with American Bob Cochran, knows what to expect on his upcoming trip. He has backpacked, man-hauled his sledge and kayaked through the Arctic regions for years. These days, he knows exactly what he likes and doesnt like about this sort of journey.

For one thing, he won't send trip reports. And he wont shoot a polar bear until all scare-off methods have failed and the animal gets closer than 10 meters from him. And - oh yeah - he won't use Global Warming to promote his trip. He also wont take sides in the old controversy about the first man to reach the North Pole; for according to Jerry, both Peary and Cook cheated. This time though he will retrace one of Frederick Cooks journeys - one that Cook did for real.

Before he rides off on the white horizon without a word, ExWeb managed to catch up with the polar cowboy for a chat.

ExplorersWeb:Jerry, how did this all start for you - what made you turn towards the Arctic regions?

Jerry: In 1984 I took a leap in the dark and sledded 600km alone across Labrador in midwinter. It was my first time on skis, my first time with a camera, and almost, but not quite, my first time winter camping. It was the hardest trip a kid from Montreal could conceive. Because of Labrador's cold & wind (the temp went as low as -64F, sans wind-chill) it has remained my hardest route.

Still, I loved it, and it awakened in me a lifetime passion for man-hauling. In 2004 I re-did the exact route, in the same style, no sat-phone, no caches, etc., to see how a veteran who is now 20 years older measured up to himself as a younger but inexperienced guy. I finished a week faster this time, thanks in part to better snow.

ExplorersWeb: So, in the end youve become a regular visitor to the Great North

Jerry: I consider myself a middle-distance traveler: 4 to 6-week trips covering 400 to 800km are ideal. I do one almost every year. I've covered much of Ellesmere on foot, but this upcoming route closes one of the remaining gaps. One of the cleanest and simplest man-hauling trips I've ever done was Eureka-Grise Fiord, 500km in 11 days, 95% walking, 5% skiing. Apart from kiting distances, that's the fastest sled trip of which I'm aware.

ExplorersWeb: You said you're no Cook apologist. But you've chosen to follow his foot-prints. Do you think your attitude toward Cook could change after the expedition?

Jerry: No. It's pretty clear today that Cook, like Peary, faked the NP, and both made a career of faking. There are good travelers who think differently of Peary. But just because someone is a good traveler does not mean that they do their homework.

Despite the faking, Devon Island-Greenland was a good hard trek and this is a chance to acknowledge that. There were little injustices done to Cook after his name fell in the shade. For example, Schei Peninsula near Eureka was rightly named a peninsula by Cook even though every other explorer called it an island. But it was renamed an island after the scandal, ignoring his discovery. Likewise, on our upcoming route, Cook discovered a couple of new islands & named them after his Inuit companions, Ahwelah and Etookashoo. They too were renamed afterward, called the Stewart Islands. Pity.

I could just as easily say I'm following in the footsteps of the Inuit shaman, Qidtlarssuaq, who led a group of migrants from Devon Island to Greenland in the 1850s. But the centennial of the Cook/Peary Polar Controversy is coming up in a year or two and this is a chance to think about it and write about it. I've traveled lots of other explorers routes too, including Peary's. Check out the image, showing the outline of his tent at Floeberg Beach where he lived before leaving for the Pole in 1909.

ExplorersWeb: Warm temperatures make things very difficult for Arctic teams. Do you reckon global warming will affect to your trip too?

Jerry:Global warming education is such an expedition gimmick that I'm loath to say anything about it. But the fact is, there's a *lot* of open water this year and I suspect it will affect us as much as or even more than the NP expeditions. Cook started his trip in mid-February and he would have been totally hooped this year. Even this late, there's very little ice around the North Water & people in Grise Fiord haven't even managed to snowmobile to Devon Island yet to hunt musk ox, which is unprecedented.

We still have a month for the ice to form. We have a raft for short open-water sections and we are also prepared to cross glaciers. But, if there's nothing but open water, it would be silly to attempt it. And I won't be surprised if, in that case, we did another two-month historic recreation instead! When you aren't dependent on pleasing sponsors you can do the route that makes sense. But the ice should be ok come late March.

ExplorersWeb: You guys are moving in a very isolated area. You stated no one has skied/tramped the east coast of Ellesmere since Cook. Why is that?

Jerry: Because everyone used dogsleds. It's a hard route because of the open water, the funny ice, the soft snow and polar bears. I've covered about 5,000km on Ellesmere Island, but this may be the most difficult route I've done. I've wanted to do it for years.

ExplorersWeb: Last year you went with your wife Sasha on a kayak trip along the Torngat Mountains - isn't she accompanying you this time?

Jerry: Sasha often travels with me and is a wonderful traveler -- she's absolutely fearless around polar bears -- but she can't handle the unremitting cold. She has Reynaud's, her fingers get painful, stuff like that. So we do summer trips. Our 6th date was two months alone on Axel Heiberg Island!

ExplorersWeb: Last year, you had a little too many encounters with polar bears. Do you expect to find as many bears in the area you're crossing this year?

Jerry: Hopefully not as many! But yes, because of the open water, there are more bears than usual on this route. Cape Faraday, about 2/3 of the way to Greenland, was the site of a classic misadventure by a party of archaeologists who had to spend all their time chasing off polar bears -- 29 in 14 days -- and no time to work. After our trip to the Torngats last year I know exactly how they felt.

Actually, this is the place to step briefly on a soapbox: Ever since Naomi Uemura killed a bear during his solo to the NP in the late 1970s, arctic expeditions have occasionally had to shoot polar bears in self-defense. But not all these killings have been justified. In 2005, the year Bob & I did our 400k trek, the "Magnetic Pole" racers killed two polar bears. That pissed off communities across the Arctic. It's one thing to put beginners out there -- one of the nice things about arctic travel, as you know, is that it's relatively non-technical, vs. say climbing -- but there are lots of areas in which they could do their sledding race and which are not bear country.

On the other hand, there are responsible travelers like Borge who goes out of his way to give the bears every last chance to be scared off, even at the risk of letting them get dangerously close. My own invisible line in the snow is 10-12 yards away before I shoot for real, and it's very, very stressful to have to wait that long. I haven't had to kill a bear yet, but I've had four close calls in 23 years. We have 40(!) flares, an electric warning fence around our camp, bear spray and rubber bullets, apart from the serious bullets. If the bears are too many or too aggressive, we'll take to the ice caps. Often I try to camp inland a bit to avoid them, but it's hard to do that on this trip.

ExplorersWeb: You're skiing 700km, slightly less distance than the North Pole from Ward Hunt Island. How would this trip compare to an NP expedition, as for conditions, terrain, etc?

Jerry: Both are hard, both are more technical than sledding landfast ice or places like Antarctica or Greenland. I think the NP would have more rough ice than our route, but then, I haven't done it. Our route used to have a lot of multiyear ice, but it's been pretty ice-free the last few summers, so I expect mostly first-year ice with some junk that drifted down from the Arctic Ocean. The open water issues should be similar, except we'll have larger stretches requiring detours or paddling rather than narrow leads. On the other hand, we'll have more bears. So it is a similar challenge in a lot of ways.

ExplorersWeb: You refuse to send reports and dont even take a sat-phone most of the time. Why?

Jerry: I started doing expeditions when there were no sat-phones, just the 15-lb Spilsbury SPX-11s. And that didn't work half the time. They were also expensive, and I do my stuff extremely economically (one of the reasons I never tried the NP). Once I did a sledding expedition, traveling Toronto-Ellesmere Island-Toronto for $200.

As a professional photographer I like to bring a sophisticated camera system on my expeditions, including a radio trigger device for elaborate self-timed shots (see image) plus reflectors, flashes and other stuff to shoot inside the tent without getting a wonky color cast. Digital SLRs are still not suitable for polar expeditions: Lithium-ion batteries can't handle even moderate cold, going stone dead after just a few hours outside.

My camera has an optional motor drive that powers off reliable lithium AAs, but I'm still bringing both film and digital on this upcoming expedition -- film for the first (cold) month, digital for the second. The little cameras that most expedition people use and keep warm inside a jacket are OK for magazines and even books but are too limited and the files are not usable commercially.

Anyway, I got used to traveling without communication, and it really does feel different it gets psychologically a lot harder and scarier. However, on this upcoming trip we will have a sat-phone.
Incredibly, our preparations are 99% complete, a month ahead of time. The gear is packed & will be shipped to Resolute next week.

Ed note: Due to editor error, two of the original interview answers were incorrectly altered. Jerry's quote "sledding landfast ice or places like Antarctica or Greenland", was changed to "sledding land-fast ice such as at places like Antarctica or Greenland". (Landfast ice doesn't mean ice caps, it's the solid sea ice you get in fiords and other non-Arctic Ocean areas.) The quote "there were no satphones, just 15-lb Spilsbury SBX-11s", was changed to say that the Spilsbury was a type of sat phone. (It's in fact a high-frequency transceiver.) Corrections has been made to the story.

Starting in March, 2007 Jerry Kobalenko and American Bob Cochran will ski 700 km from Canada to Greenland, following Frederick Cook's 1909 route from his winter den on Devon Island to the abandoned hunting site of Annoatok in northwest Greenland. The 40 to 50-day expedition will follow along the edge of the North Water Polynya.

Jerry Kobalenko is facing his 15th sledding expedition actually this will be his 30th self-propelled arctic journey -- including kayaking, canoeing, and backpacking. Jerrys partner will be Bob Cochram, from LA, who has done a couple of arctic kayak trips and one 400k sledding expedition previously.


"My California friends do not understand the trip. I am always asked about penguins and where we will 'stay' in the Arctic," said Bob, in the image smoking a fat cigar: "I started [smoking] when I was 13 years old," Bob mentioned (click to enlarge).
A devout photographer, early this year the funny and outspoken polar veteran finally got a homepage - already promising to become a classic. Image of Jerry Kobalenko (click to enlarge).

The simple life. Kayaking a world without editors. Image courtesy of Jerry Kobalenko (clcik to enlarge).
"In 1984 I took a leap in the dark and sledded 600km alone across Labrador in midwinter. It was my first time on skis, my first time with a camera, and almost, but not quite, my first time winter camping. It was the hardest trip a kid from Montreal could conceive. Still, I loved it, and it awakened in me a lifetime passion for man-hauling." (Click to enlarge).
"Global warming education is such an expedition gimmick that I'm loath to say anything about it. But the fact is, there's a *lot* of open water this year and I suspect it will affect us as much as or even more than the NP expeditions." In the image, expedition's route in blue (click to enlarge).
"It's pretty clear today that Cook, like Peary, faked the NP, and both made a career of faking." Image showing the outline of Peary's tent at Floeberg Beach where he lived before leaving for the Pole in 1909 (click to enlarge).