A Polar Experience on Muskeg Bay
The quintet skied steadily up the Warroad River from the Big Lake in the idyllic January weather, temperatures in the teens above zero degrees F, each pulling a toboggan style sled with a zippered red cover. The speed of movement may have been largely determined by four days of steady movement combined with the weight of the cargo the sleds bore, 50 pounds of supplies, clothing sleeping bags and tents, along with 50 pounds of ballast that trainer Eric Larsen had decreed must be pulled to denote the freight one must haul on a real Polar Expedition.
The Lake of the Woods is a great resource, and Polar Explorer Larsen is taking advantage of its availability for his training business. I visited with him upon completion of his first session on the lake, winding up after a four day lake trek. The trek was preceded by three days of training out of the Base Camp which happened to be Doc’s Harbor, a Bed and Breakfast in Warroad.
Larsen, wearing a bright yellow and blue overcoat with a fur collar, under which could be seen several other layers of undergarments, cheerfully granted an interview as he directed the packing up of gear after the mini expedition. Erickson is a polar explorer of the highest caliber, among his accomplishments is having done the triple in 2010: Skiing to the South Pole, then a trip to the North Pole after which he scaled Mount Everest, becoming the first person to have reached the world’s three “poles” in one year. He related that his first taste of polar expeditions actually started with his involvement in dogsled racing, and mentioned that he had participated in Minnesota’s John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, having lived in Grand Marais for some years.
Larsen began with a brief explanation of his training process, “We start here, and I have everybody just stay out in a tent right away just to get practicing, and we pack all of our food, and we do all the work on the stove and we work on all the techniques, and safety…and then we go do a 4 day mini expedition on the lake.” Larsen described the trek as traversing an elongated teardrop shaped route around this end of the lake.
Students Pictured Left to Right: Nathan Jenkins, Angus Morton, Philip Huffeldt, Jason Carpenter
Larsen’s four students, though from varied corners of the globe, are all skilled adventurers in their own right, here to hone themselves for their next challenge. Philip Hüffeldt, filmmaker, was here preparing to accompany Larson on a ski trip across Greenland. Angus Morton, professional cyclist and filmmaker from Australia, is preparing for a trip across Siberia on a fat tire bike. Jason Carpenter, computer security expert residing in Tokyo, is preparing for an Antarctic expedition, intending to ski to the South Pole. Nathan Jenkins, Outdoor Research’s design innovation manager, is here to test his apparel designs and prepare for skiing in the Cascades.
Larsen, when asked about using the Lake of the Woods for his training venue says, “My God, it’s great. It’s perfect. These big windswept lakes, the surface becomes just like you see in Antarctica. The Antarctic surface is very hard, there is not a lot of snow, it is a desert, and it is big, open expanses. In that sense, being here is really an ideal training ground. Equally important for being here is the darkness and the humidity. In the Antarctic it is 24 hour daylight and very dry so camping is very easy, but when you go up to the Arctic, Greenland, North Pole, Arctic Canada, you have night, you have a very humid environment so physical camping there is very hard. The nice thing about the Lake of the Woods is that you have an environment that is more like the North Pole, but then you have a surface that is more like the South Pole so it is a great combination. There’s a few little pressure ridges out there that are very much like the Arctic Ocean so we can train around those and you have a few cracks in the ice you have to be somewhat wary of…so it is ideal conditions. It is a place with big, open horizons and you have a lot of wind.”
As Larsen spoke, the ground around the sleds started assuming the hues of a kaleidoscope as the contents of the sleds were divulged as the 4 expedition members skillfully transferred the contents to an awaiting van. On one edge of the loading area, a curious pile of blue packages started to mount.
Larsen continued speaking, telling about the whiteout conditions the group had encountered on the lake. “We had whiteout where you pretty much couldn’t see anything. There was a little bit of surface snow, which is actually pretty good…We couldn’t see the sun, I call it being on the inside of a ping pong ball. We wear a bracket on the compass, so then I have a GPS point that we are going toward and we navigate by looking down at that compass. That allows us to ski in a straight line…you just ski looking straight down without looking up at all, otherwise you just go around in circles.”
Warroad resident, writer Kim Hruba, approached and invited the group to adjourn to the Algoma to continue the conversation about the training session, which was more or less eagerly accepted by most of the party. It appeared that 4 days on the big lake had whetted the appetites of the explorers.
When the trekkers were asked about the curious pile of blue bags, the answer was, “YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW…” Ahhh. The respondent then took the time to explain that this was an operation in which everything, everything was brought back, including bodily wastes. The explorers practiced good stewardship, and these bags were destined for proper disposal.
The van was eventually buttoned up and soon conversation resumed around a table at the designated restaurant. Spirits were high, and eventually the interview resumed after the meals were ordered.
Filmmaker Huffeldt was first to describe the lake experience at the insistence of the others. “When you are out on the ice, it is a meditative experience,” he said, “…your goals are pretty straightforward, get from point A to point B and survive relatively unharmed, stay warm, stay hydrated and do it in a relatively efficient way.” He went on to explain that they kept moving most of the day with short breaks, the favorite break being soup break. The soup had been cooked up in the morning in the tent, for noontime consumption. He noted that later in the day, it became crucial to set up camp before dark, secure the tent so it wouldn’t blow away, get inside and warm up.
Cyclist Morton then took his turn, expounding on the strategies used to keep warm in his Australian accent, “In this environment, everything is about layering, the tent is layered, the sleeping pad is layered…you bring three base layers, an outer shell, a down jacket…hard shelled pants, couple of base layers…” He went on to explain that he hadn’t changed his base layers for 4 days as the other nodded in agreement. He stressed the necessity of staying as dry as possible, limiting exposure to frostbite and the challenges of melting snow each night for food preparation and hydration.
Morton explained that the group used two tents, and all food preparation was done inside a tent. The first task each morning was to clear the frost from the tent ceiling and sleeping bags.
Design Innovation Manager Jenkins talked about clothing, noting that he was testing balaclavas, gloves, over-boots and other garments, saying, “All of the apparel I was wearing from my base layer out was from Outdoor Research, and everything performed exceptionally!” He then said about this adventure, “From several thousand square feet of personal space I went down to 18 square feet, a 3 foot by 6 foot space, sharing the tent with two other guys for 5 days on the ice. The thing that binds us is that we are all adventurers, and I realized that we are a little different, we are all outsiders…not the norm.”
When asked about what specific conditioning they undertook to prepare for Larson’s program, most were nonchalant. Outdoorsmen all, it appears routine for them to engage in hiking, skiing or biking activities. Typical was Carpenter, who said, “I had a race in October, so I was resting up. I’ll have another race in three weeks. Even if I wasn’t training, I’m usually in good enough shape that I can wing it.” All said they felt good after 4 days of non-stop skiing, but one hedged a bit in saying, “I’ll see how I feel tomorrow!”
The four students had chosen Larsen’s training program since they regarded this training to be the best to be had. Morton says simply, “We picked the master of polar travel.”
Larsen joined the group after stowing the training gear in his newly rented storage unit. Conversation became general; the weather conditions for the trek were discussed. It was noted that the weather had been cold enough for training, -26 degrees F was the coldest, but not the brutal -40 (with no wind chill) that could have been, as the Warroad residents at the table pointed out had been seen with regularity the year previous.
On the subject of diet, the explorers related that they depended on freeze dried products as well as ramen noodles, the base component of the afore mentioned daily soup, adding butter as necessary. Larsen noted that the key is to have a diet with the right proportions of proteins, carbohydrates and fat, and plans for enough to supply 4,000 calories per day per person on a trip such as this compared to 5,000 to 8,000 per day on a trip to the North Pole. The food must be as light and compact as possible, and be able to be eaten frozen or prepared with melted snow on the stove in the tent.
The five explorers had many road miles to traverse before the end of the day so goodbyes were said and Warroad was soon in the rear view mirror. Four new level one polar explorers, destination extreme cold, prepared to face the unknown with confidence.