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From the West into the Wilderness

From the West into the Wilderness

Europeans arrived in North America looking for wealth and the Pole. Explorers defied death for glory. But what drives today’s adventurers?
By Tim Edwards
Aug 11
2015
From the August 2015 Issue

In 1849, English surgeon-apothecary Joseph W. Haddock received a letter from Captain Alexander Maconochie containing a sample of Sir John Franklin’s writing to give to a young maidservent, Emma, in Haddock’s employ. Sir John Franklin had been gone for four years searching for the Northwest Passage, a journey that would be the end of him and his 128-man crew. Emma was described as “a vulgar girl, anything but handsome, and extremely ignorant.” But when put under anesthesia, she would become, said Haddock, a psychic “living stethoscope.” And England, wanting to believe its polar hero was still alive, was open to all options.

Through use of anesthesia during a séance, subjects would enter a trance that, it was said, would give them the ability to travel in spirit to faraway lands and speak to humans and spirits alike. The practice of entering trances was growing with the advent of Spiritualism and rising interest in the occult—even Abraham Lincoln is known to have attended a séance in America, trying to contact his deceased son. In England, Emma became well-known for her ability to do so. Word had spread that she’d visited Australia in a trance, and even the moon, meeting its dwarf-like inhabitants. Maconochie, former secretary of the Royal Geographic Society, and W.A.B. Hamilton, second secretary of the Admiralty, were apparently convinced. They delivered to her not only writing samples but hair samples of Franklin and his officers to assist her in her quest through the spiritual plane to find them. And she claimed she did find them, describing the icy landscapes and “many queer looking things,” though she couldn’t pinpoint their geographic location.

Depictions of Franklin's lost expedition, like this one by Grandsire & Laly, took on mythic qualities.

Newspapers and journals both told Emma’s story and at times satirized it and the practice of séances, according to historian Shane McCorristine, who’s written extensively on the spiritual and otherworldly responses people had to Arctic exploration in the 19th century.

It was just one instance of many in which the fascinated public did their part to assist in the discovery of new worlds—so romantic and noble a purpose. Citizens would write in to the admiralty with ideas for flying machines or hot air balloons to search for the lost expedition. Naval officers would even receive letters detailing clues revealed to the senders in dreams—visions of ships that sat in a far-away world of ice, darkness, and fantastic animals. “It was almost a serialized adventure story,” says Tina Adcock, assistant professor of history at Simon Fraser University, “People would eagerly await news of the search expeditions: had they found anything? What had they found?”

Returning explorers Frederick Cook and Robert Peary were welcomed as kings by governors and the public alike as they stopped in various ports on their way back from the North Pole, which they both claimed to have found first. Newspapers covered their fantastic journeys and sold more copies because of it. Songs were written and sung of the heroic explorers and their far-off adventures.

Now, the world is mapped and the heroes of old are long in their graves. When people go missing in the High Arctic, we consult SPOT trackers, not spirits; we send out search and rescue missions that last days, not years; and we’re not so quick to sing the praises of adventurers who wander unprepared into the great unknown. 

When Kate Harris was a child in Ontario, one book changed the course of her life. “[It] was this really beautiful illustrated version of Marco Polo’s travels on the Silk Road,” which stretched from Asia through the Middle East to Europe. “He set out when he was 17 and I was maybe 12 or 13 when I was reading this, and he was just the biggest hero to me.” The book captured the highlights of the Italian merchant’s travels through Persia, Indonesia, China, and his time spent in the court of the Kublai Khan.

When Harris made it to university, she found an unabridged copy of his journals—and was utterly disappointed. “Clearly a merchant wrote this. That was his obsession: what is of value on the Silk Road, and what is the climate for selling things and buying things along the Silk Road.” The mountains and deserts and animals that coloured Harris’s dreams were, to Polo, impediments to his mission. So she and two friends, fresh out of school, decided to sneak across the border into Tibet on the first of two trips to rediscover the Silk Road. “It was an expedition to become the antithesis of Marco Polo,” says Harris, 33, who lives just south of the Yukon border in Atlin, B.C. “To sort of avenge the ideal of exploration and not go there with commerce in mind, and travel through the same places but with a totally different view of what was worth observing there: wildness, and cultures that you feel have changed at the natural pace of evolution for a culture and not been so westernized.”

Terri Cairns cooks dinner atop a mountain looking over the Yukon's Snake River, one of the most popular paddling routes in the Peel. Photo Peter Mather

Canadians grow up seeing the names of historic explorers gracing waterways and remote islands in the North, as well as streets and schools. (In Yellowknife, the main street is named Franklin Avenue and a few blocks away sits Sir John Franklin High School.) But people like Franklin, Samuel de Champlain (the “Father of New France”), or Samuel Hearne (the first European to cross Great Slave Lake) were not just out to chase the horizon. “It was either to trade within the country or to find a way around it,” says Douglas Hunter, a journalist and author of The Race to the New World and Half Moon, both of which chronicle early European contact with the Americas. “People weren’t exploring the North of Canada to learn more about the North of Canada; they were trying to find a way through it to get to the Orient … and open trade routes there.”

Champlain arrived at the Saint Lawrence River in 1603, at a time when trade and travel in the region was dependent upon cooperation with its indigenous peoples. “French, Spanish, Basques were in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence trading with indigenous peoples for years.” Hunter says people like Champlain were “consolidators of knowledge.” They were coming to a place where free trade had existed for a century, consolidating maps and finessing relationships, and then, with the promise of handsome kickbacks, getting permission of the Crown back home to claim a monopoly on trade in that area.

The search for the Northwest Passage kicked into full swing in the 1800s. European trading companies had begun springing up 200 years earlier, setting course for the East Indies to bring home bounties of silk, salt, saltpetre (used in everything from fertilizer to gunpowder), tea, opium and other commodities. Sailors and entrepreneurs braved the previously unheard of two- or three-year journeys because “the profit margins were insanely high,” says Hunter. Mortality rates were too. Even if English traders made it past adversarial Spanish and Portuguese ships, lengthy time in the southern oceans exposed people to foreign diseases like malaria. Something like one in five ships, and one in three people, didn’t come back, says Hunter.

But a journey over the top of the world, through the Arctic, could radically change the market. These three-year trips to the East Indies through enemy waters could become six-month jaunts through neutral territory. The risks were lower, and the return on capital for investors was much higher. Interest in finding a Northwest Passage had come and gone through the previous few hundred years, but it now had the corporate interest to really back it up. After the Napoleonic Wars, England’s Royal Navy was bloated with many ships and people who had nothing to do. So they were sent to find a way past the unmapped Arctic, destination Asia.

Today, the destination is almost always back home, safely. Sarah McNair-Landry and her boyfriend Erik Boomer set out to circumnavigate Baffin Island, 4,000 kilometres over 120 days, this past February. Their goal was to retrace a journey McNair-Landry’s parents took 25 years earlier that resulted in her family setting down roots on Baffin Island. They met the people her parents had met and saw how the land and communities along the way had changed. They travelled on skis, with a dogteam pulling their gear. Though they're both experienced adventurers—McNair-Landry the youngest woman to reach both Poles, and Boomer a previous National Geographic Adventurer of the Year—three days in, pure luck saved their expedition from ending early.

BAFFIN ISLAND BY SLED AND SKI: Sarah McNair-Landry, Erik Boomer and their dog team spent 120 days circumnavigating the fifth-largest island in the world, arriving home at the end of May. McNair-Landry’s parents took the same route 25 years before, and the two young adventurers noticed a few stark differences, both environmental—“We only saw five caribou. I don’t know if they’re the five left,” says McNair-Landry with a laugh—and cultural: “There were a lot more people living in outpost camps [back then]—cabins out in the middle of nowhere on the land—and there was none when we went around.”

“We were up on this big plateau and this big storm started to hit but it hadn’t quite picked up and we weren’t sure whether it was going to develop into a storm,” says McNair-Landry. They decided to keep moving forward, and as they climbed a hill the storm began to rage. “By then, it was 90 kilometres per hour wind,” she says. “In [Iqaluit] they were recording, with windchill, -67 C.” There was nowhere flat to camp on the hill, but just beyond it was a lake where they could pitch their tent and wait out the weather. But as McNair-Landry and Boomer steeled themselves for the journey, the dogs lost their nerve.

“I went up there to encourage the dogs to keep running,” says McNair-Landry, “and the dogs decided to just pull a 180 and go downhill, downwind, and as they did it I got caught up in the dog lines, and they started bolting downhill with me under the sled.” Boomer stopped them and tried lifting the sled, and the dogs bolted again. “I was getting dragged backwards and in my mind I was like, ‘Man, if there’s a rock I’m done, I’m going to blow my knee out and it’s going to be the end of the expedition.” Even worse, if they lost the dogs and sled, there went all their gear—food, shelter, stove, sleeping bags—and they would be alone against the elements. Sure, they had an Iridium satellite phone for emergencies, and a Delorme InReach, which allows two-way texting from almost anywhere on Earth. But no one would be able to come for them until the storm had passed. That wasn't the case here. They avoided injury, got the dogs under control, camped through the storm, and kept going. But it was a good reminder of nature's indifference.

“It’s this very real experience where you don’t have all the other noise and nonsense of life going on around you. It’s a very simple existence, a very simple place to be. You have to move 300 metres. That’s it. That’s your whole job. You need to survive and move 300 metres today.” 

Death or hardship is one misstep away in the wilderness. Yukoner Ryan Agar started climbing 12 years ago to distract himself from a broken heart, but he instead fell in love with a hobby that could break his entire body. “One of the things that you expect as a mountaineer is that one of the outcomes is not coming home,” says Agar. In May, Agar and three friends made their third attempt to summit Mount Logan, Canada’s highest peak. One of the group fell headfirst, 60 feet into a crevasse.

“When you looked in the hole, all you could see was his feet.” Agar knew the risk, but “it’s very different when it’s right in your face that you’re going home but one of your friends might not.” Incredibly, his friend was fine. He managed to get himself out and to the surface, almost on his own, and they didn’t need to call Parks Canada for a rescue. They went back to Whitehorse. Doctors, flabbergasted, said all he had to worry about was a bit of neck pain.

Gear and communications are leagues above what they used to be. When Franklin’s ships were lost, other ships were commissioned to follow their route and find the crew—who were stuck in some unknowable corner of the Arctic Archipelago—at their own peril. Today, adventurers have SPOT and InReach devices, satellite phones, and helicopters can extricate them from tight spots. But weather can hamstring rescue attempts while making conditions for survival a whole lot poorer. It’s impossible to eliminate risk completely—and that’s kind of the point of heading out there. 

After Agar and his friends arrived back in town from the mountain, they went to see Mad Max: Fury Road in theatre. For two hours, they watched Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy fight off insane pursuers with incredible weapons through miles of post-apocalyptic desert. “We went from the quietness of the mountain to go watch Mad Max and all of us walked out shellshocked,” he recalls. They were back in society, where a thousand competing things demand—sometimes violently—your full attention. There are emails to check, jobs to worry about, garbage to take out, and distractions abound. Goals compete with each other and responsibilities stack up. Our priorities can sometimes get washed away, says Agar, into the loudness of our lives.

A VIEW TO DIE FOR: When you've spent days canoeing, portaging and drinking instant coffee, you've earned a view like this, of a cow moose and calf in placid water in the mountains. (Taken at McClusky Lake in the Yukon, in 2012.) Photo Peter Mather

Life on the mountain was different. “It’s this very real experience,” says Agar, “where you don’t have all the other noise and nonsense of life going on around you. It’s a very simple existence, a very simple place to be. You have to move 300 metres. That’s it. That’s your whole job. You need to survive and move 300 metres today.” Agar says this is what he misses when he’s back in the comfort of home. Really, despite the skills required and abundant danger, what he seeks on the mountains and cliffs he climbs is simplicity—a respite from city life.

Harris, the erstwhile Marco Polo fan, echoes his view. “Self determination, self sufficiency, this idea that you’re carrying just necessities—your life is reduced to pure necessities and nothing superfluous, and I think travelling like that I’m especially open to the world around me.”

While many famous explorers of history were business-minded entrepreneurs whose tales were later romanticized, today’s explorers are living that romance, setting off for the sake of setting off, out for personal challenge and not much else. “I think that is more alive today, in part because there is nothing left to conquest,” says Harris. “It weeds those types out. They’re on Wall Street or something.”

Sure, this isn’t the case across the board. It could be argued that past polar explorers like Roald Amundsen, Ernest Shackleton and Fridtjof Nansen explored for adventure’s sake (and a bit of glory). “I think there’s a certain archetypal explorer—someone who’s drawn to ... living on the brink,” says Adcock, with Simon Fraser University. “Usually supremely confident of themselves and their abilities. Often quite bombastic. To make a living as an explorer in the late 19th, early 20th century, you had to be sort of a salesman, a one-man show. You would take on commercial sponsorships, go on lecture tours—you basically had to hire yourself out, and your experiences.” And that could just as easily be said of explorers today, though the public interest is nothing like it once was.

McNair-Landry, with some family and friends, runs Pittarak Expeditions and has been able to make a living guiding adventures as well as educating kids about getting active, and raising awareness about living sustainably. Harris and Agar both have day jobs and explore mostly as a hobby. And now, perhaps for the first time in history, exploration is more often a hobby than a means to an economic end. Whereas early explorers brought European society to the Americas, and 20th century explorers were out to leave a legacy and gain high esteem, today’s explorers are mostly unknown outside adventure travel circles, looking for not much more than to leave society and experience the world in its natural state. 

But discovery is still at the heart of it all—discovery of what’s right in front of us, when you strip away the mess of daily life and boil your list of priorities down to just one: to get back home safe.

When what’s in front of you demands your full attention, you don't worry about anything else. “As a kid I really thought you had to go to the other ends of the earth to have an adventure,” says Harris, “and now I see more and more that that’s only a state of mind. You can bring it to almost any context.”