Five days of Polar Shakedown. I had thought about it many times, but never really paused long enough to think about what I actually might face there. It probably was for the best though, as with little expectation, I could only be surprised and excited but, more importantly, experience rather than think.
The temperature ranged from -15 to -25 degrees Celcius; it was only as I boarded the plane and googled the weather forecast that I realized how similar the conditions I would face while camping would be to the North Pole. It was of course the first time I experienced weather this cold.
Polar Shakedown is probably the best training one could get for a polar expedition. It was held in Ely, Minnesota, through forests and over lakes, less than 25 miles from the Canadian border. As we drove from the airport to the lodge where we would stay the first night before setting out, I could only stare at the winter wonderland I was surrounded by. We drove through forests of pine trees absolutely coated in snow, and drove over snow sprinkled country lanes lined with thigh deep packed snow.
I could easily ramble on about the Polar Explorers team I worked with during the trip. Annie, the token female polar expedition guide, went about her work with her beautiful blue-eyed daughter Lola strapped to her hip (she redefined the term supermom). She gave me a ton of girly advice, lessons I am glad I didn’t have to learn the hard way! I also met Rick, who will be one of the guides with me on the expedition, and Dirk, a guide and photographer who took all the fab shots of me during shakedown. They were very quick to show me the ropes from packing to skiing, to dog sledding, to sleeping warm. What I didn’t realize is that I was being evaluated the entire time, to assess my fitness for the expedition.
After checking and packing our gear we split into two groups and set out to pick up the huskies we would be dogsledding with. First lesson – if you want the huskies to respect you, get to know their names. You would think it’d take an age to memorise seven new names, but after about 15 minutes of instructions I was left to my own devices to control the dogsled and those names were quickly seared into my mind; Larry, Mo, Dozer, Lightning, Bubba, Darla and the beautiful Isis.
Huskies are pack dogs, they are little different from wolves. I woke up in the morning to their extremely wolf like calls, I watched them fight to assert the pecking order, but in the end they were the cuddly loving creatures they have a reputation for (except for Bubba who had some seriously toxic gas issues!).
During the days I alternated between cross country skiing and dog-sledding. Much as I was warned, I don’t think I appreciated until I got there how much harder dog-sledding can be than pulling a pulk. Huskies are great at pulling the weight of a huge sled, but they are not the best navigators and, if not steered correctly, the sled will easily end up slamming into a tree trunk as it rounds a corner. By 4:30pm, when we stopped to set up camp before sunset, I was just about cooked as much as overdone roadside shawarma.
I came to understand many of the concepts that I read about, or was told about but couldn’t imagine. Like the importance of regulating body temperature to ensure you don’t turn your base layer into an icesheet. Like the preplanning that must go into what is put in your pockets and day-pack and even how far down the day-pack things are, to avoid freezing every time you need a drink of water. Like how to put your tent up without getting your working gloves wet and icy. Like how much the onset of frozen fingers and toes hurts and controls your psyche, rendering you unable to perform even simple tasks. Like how everything we consider important in our normal lives pales in comparison to the need to keep warm in that environment.
I realized how picky we are in our definition of cleanliness, our selection of food, our need for the most comfortable duvet or mattress, the need to use so many different utensils to cook one meal, even the use of sugar in coffee. Turns out I didn’t need sugar in fact when choosing between freezing my fingers to get the sugar out or just drinking the coffee black and bitter. There are very few things we actually need; but our modern lifestyle dictates otherwise…