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Connecting to the gifts and challenges of Nature: Canadian Winter Exweb interview with James MacKinnon

Posted: May 13, 2015 03:44 am EDT


(Correne Coetzer) James MacKinnon joined his fellow countryman, Jerry Kobalenko, on his 20th sledge-hauling expedition in the Canadian Sub-Arctic. For James, a rock climber, who has experience in wilderness travel and snow sports, this was a new experience, combining wilderness and snow.


In an interview with Explorersweb, Jerry said the mileage wasn’t huge, but every kilometer was a battle, "and in this case, 400 km felt more like some of my harder 700 km.” James tells how he experienced this challenge on the snow, what he learned from Jerry, how he trains, and about the local people, and in general, the relationship with food and nature.  


Explorersweb: Jerry says this is your first winter trip and first time on snowshoes. How did it come that you have decided to face the great outdoors in winter and how did you team with Jerry specifically?

James: Jerry and I knew each other’s work through Explore magazine, but had never met until the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival in 2013. I told Jerry that his sledge-hauling trips looked appealing to me—like a kind of positive monotony. On the spot, he invited me on his next trip. I love that kind of spontaneity, so I matched it with my own: I said I’d go. I have quite a bit of experience with wilderness travel and snow sports, but had never combined the two. 



Explorersweb: How did you experience the expedition? Was it as hard as you thought it would be? What was challenging to you and how did handle it mentally?


James: The trip was much harder than I expected, but then, it was much harder than Jerry expected, too. It was a truly gruelling trip, a physical and mental ordeal, with a lot of deep snow and plenty of days in temperatures of -40ºC or below.


The mental aspect is toughest. Under those conditions, it would have been easy to get into a headspace where you’re just suffering and unhappy all the time. To make sure that didn’t happen, I kept my daily expectations low and never let myself think about whether there was a way to end the trip early. I tried to enjoy the beauty of the place we were in, and to think of the trip as a privilege. It helps to have a sense of humour—our motto became, “The worse, the better.” 

Explorersweb: How did your preparation program look like?

James: I already train for rock climbing and I’m a mountain biker, commuter cyclist, and snowboarder, so I just added a bit more weight training, some running, and some speed hiking.


Explorersweb: Jerry is a veteran up there in the North. What have you learned from him?

Everything, basically. I have a fairly strong independent streak, so it was important for me to make a conscious internal decision that Jerry was the trip leader. To do otherwise would have been foolish pride, and I knew it. Jerry has all his winter camping and travel systems dialled, so I tried to watch and learn or just follow his directions. As a result, I feel confident that I could mount a similar trip of my own in the future. I’d still make some mistakes, I’m sure, but I have a solid foundation.


Jerry couldn’t teach me everything, of course. At the end of each day, I would think over my own systems, decisions, and any difficulties, and try to figure out what I should be doing differently. For example, I got frost nip on my nose and cheek once when I guessed—wrongly—that I could endure a blasting headwind for long enough to sneak around a point. The next time we hit serious headwinds, I was putting on a windproof balaclava within seconds. 



Explorersweb: You are passionate about Nature, the World, thinking here of your book, The Once and Future World. What side of the World have you experience here, exposed and challenged by the weather and conditions?


James: I write and think a lot about wilderness and wildness, so I think it’s important to spend time in wild places. Too often I meet people with strong opinions about the wild world but very little experience in or comfort with it. I love being out there; I am never in a big hurry to get back to “civilization” and its showers, restaurant meals and comfortable beds.


One thing that I really admired about Jerry’s approach is that he equips himself well enough to really enjoy the winter environment. That makes a trip like this one feel less like some kind of long-distance ultra race and more like “time on the land,” as the Labrador locals often put it. That said, there was one night when Jerry pointed out the northern lights dancing overhead. I was so tired that I only watched them for about ten seconds. Then I said, “Ah! The majesty of nature!”—and we both went to bed. We had a good laugh about that.

Explorersweb: Your 100-Mile Diet book, based on a practical experience to live only on local food, must have been challenging in a modern world where we don’t even think of how far our produce come from. Seeing the local people, the remoteness and conditions in the Canadian Arctic, how would you say is their diet influenced by outside products, or would you say they are an example of people who still produce food themselves and stay with traditional eating habits?


James: A lot of people are still eating “country food” in Labrador, though of course it is mainly a supplement to what they can buy at the stores. One moment that I’ll always remember was coming down to a trapper’s cabin and having the trapper put on his boots, grab his rifle, and say, “I guess I’ll go get us a partridge.” To him, going out to shoot a partridge because guests had turned up was the equivalent of a city-dweller running out to pick up a bottle of wine.


One thing that sticks with me is the relationship between the way we take care of the land and its ability to feed us. We didn’t see much wildlife, and a lot of locals were saying that the populations of a lot of animals—including food animals like caribou, porcupine, and hare—were way down. It’s hard to say whether it’s a natural fluctuation or a human-caused problem (or both), but people were worried about it. When there’s no wildlife left, it’s pretty hard to live off the land, and when you can’t live off the land, even if it’s just a part of your diet, then it’s all too easy to lose your connection with it.



Jerry Kobalenko and James MacKinnon started from the Innu community of Sheshatshiu, near Goose Bay, Labrador, and sledge-hauled 34 days to St. Augustine, on Quebec’s Lower North Shore.


J.B. MacKinnon, a rock climber, mountain biker, snowboarder and birdwatcher, is an accomplished independent journalist and author. 

For more information about his books and documentaries, check here. His newest book, The Once and Future World, (2013) is a national bestseller in Canada and won a 2014 Green Prize for Sustainable Literature.




Jerry Kobalenko, 20 Canadian Arctic sledding expeditions: Exweb interview


James MacKinnon’s website


Jerry Kobalenko’ website

[read more here about the expedition and an interview Jerry had with James]














James MacKinnon: "It was a truly gruelling trip, a physical and mental ordeal, with a lot of deep snow and plenty of days in temperatures of -40ºC or below."
courtesy Jerry Kobalenko, SOURCE
"I kept my daily expectations low and never let myself think about whether there was a way to end the trip early."
courtesy Jerry Kobalenko, SOURCE
James: "One moment that I’ll always remember was coming down to a trapper’s cabin and having the trapper put on his boots, grab his rifle, and say, “I guess I’ll go get us a partridge.”"
courtesy Jerry Kobalenko, SOURCE