6 weeks solo Arctic Ocean to “Dechinule”

4:07 p.m. on March 3, 2014 (EST)
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This report concerns a ski trip I took in January through February from Darnley Bay on the Arctic Ocean to the tree line (Dechinule). The duration of the journey was 6 weeks. There was no outside support or caches set up along the way; I was completely self-sufficient and food was augmented through hunting. I also did not carry a GPS, Spot, map, or a compass preferring instead non-technical means of route-finding. I understand that this may be atypical for many people out there accustomed to groomed trails in our National Parks, but for me I have seldom camped any other way. I also acknowledge that my methods may be a bit “old school”, and I recognize that they are not for everyone nor would they be applicable everywhere.

This route was chosen mainly for its solitude as it was well off the beaten track. For all intents and purposes this is a true wilderness; there are no facilities or developed trails, and the best part, no people for hundreds of miles. Case in point, I encountered no other people or signs of people until the last day of my trip when I came across a snow machine trail which led into town. In other words it isn’t a walk in the park. The Far North, thankfully, is still a place where your soul has elbowroom or as Calvin Rutstrum stated, “Now, dammit, we can holler for help and no one will hear us”.

The trip in total was about 300 miles and I figured on five or six weeks depending on the weather north of the tree line, snow conditions and my own whimsy. I expected very high winds along the coast, blizzards and deep cold and I was not disappointed.

My kit resembled a mix of old and new, although nothing was purchased specifically for the trip.

The following is a list of items taken:

North Face Inferno sleeping bag, 27 years old, with VBL and bivy bag. With this setup I can sleep comfortably at -50C or so; much needed for this environment.

Exped UL Down filled mattress

Eldorado Tent, with snow stakes and ice screws

MSR Whisperlite stove (20 years old), 1 liter of fuel in bottle; this is for the sea ice and tundra only where firewood is non-existent. 2.6 liter titanium pot

An axe, to gather firewood where available and chop ice for drinking water

Clothing

Although I have tried many synthetics in the past, I prefer multiple layers of wool. Nothing fancy here: wool baselayers, socks and a sweater or two. I also have a light-weight Army Surplus Primaloft jacket. This is all I normally wear even when the temperature is below -40C. In very cold, windy conditions I will don my Primaloft jacket with a nylon shell. I don’t wear Gore-Tex or similar material during any time of year. Altogether, the bulk of my clothing cost around $200.00, most of which is at least ten years old, and it is what I wear every day during the winter months.

Finally, Feathered Friends Rock and Ice Parka, size XXL; large enough to fit over all my clothing. This is my last defense against the cold and is only for rest stops and setting up camp. At a little over 3 pounds it is well worth its weight and, in an emergency, I have slept sitting up in it.

To complete my clothing, I also carried,

OR Altimitts with VB liners,

Smartwool Liner gloves x3

OR Gorilla balaclava,

Feathered Friends down booties,

Norsewear wool balaclava

Alico Telemark Double Ski Boots

Austrian boiled wool socks x2

Madshus Epoch ski with Voille 3-pin bindings

Wildline insulated expedition gaiters

Food

I don’t care for the freeze dried foods and find many of them are too high in sodium so I took my usual fair of oatmeal and non-salted butter, powdered whole milk and homemade pemmican, which I like. Because of the nature of what I was doing and the intense cold my diet relied heavily on fats. I have travelled great distances on meals like this and never tired of it. I believe we should eat to live, not live to eat.

Besides the clothing I would normally wear and my skis, my pack totaled about 50 lbs. (I am just guessing here as I have never weighed my gear; if I can pick it up I can carry it, everything else can be improvised); everything was carried in my old North Face Alpha Aurora pack purchased in the early ‘90s.

I seldom take pictures these days, but for this trip carried a small video camera, (which I was forced to use sparingly to conserve battery life), and captured some stills for you. Captions are above the pictures.

My first week on the sea ice was dark but not too cold at around -30C.


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Crossing Franklin Bay, sun was still below the horizon, but the sky was brighter.


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Moving inland, ski trail in lower left of photo; the sun finally shows its face after a month; January 8.


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The easiest way out of the Horton River Valley, -48C. This was after a huge storm blew through from the north for two days. I was surprised my tent held up. You can see the wind-carved snow on the slopes. Skiing over the ridge and on to the plateau I could hardly inhale because it was so cold, but the sun was my reward. The snow was hard like Styrofoam.


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Me, travelling at night somewhere in the Arctic; as the days were short I would often travel at night to make up time. Even though I was without a compass I always knew generally where I was, especially on clear nights when the stars were visible.


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This time of year has long periods of twilight when the morning sky appears mauve and pink in colour. One’s perspective is altered by the soft light. I am looking generally south in this photo. How do I know? Just look at the moon.


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Caribou off in the distance; one never needs to feel alone if we know what to look for.


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Land of long shadows; the shadow of my tent and skis in the morning. By monitoring the changes of the shadows I could plot the movement of the sun and my direction of travel.


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Caribou. Notice the vegetation is becoming more prevalent; this is mostly Green Alder (Alnus crispa) and Bog Birch (Betula glandulosa).


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Anderson River Valley and caribou


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There were a lot of caribou on this trip; I saw several thousand. There were so many that they blocked my way at times. No sooner had I found a way around the first bunch when more came into view. They didn’t seem to care that I was there.


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The tree line off in the distance; that’s where I am heading.


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Wolf tracks and the remains of a caribou.


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In the trees. The forest was really a mixed blessing; it provided a nice shelter from the wind along with firewood, but allowed the snow to settle, accumulating into deep, soft drifts which were difficult to ski through. For this reason I would only use spots like this for camping and stay to the more wind-blasted, open areas for easier, but colder, travel.


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The last big lake and caribou tracks; almost home.


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The blue hills of home, finally. From here my trip was pretty much complete as I travelled over familiar ground. This is an old burn which occurred back in 1968; it had been large stands of White Spruce prior to this. Regen takes a long time up here.


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Looking North East


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There are more pictures which I will post later with my gear reviews.

Thanks all for taking the time to read this.

P.S. Dechinule means "Land of Little Sticks".

4:18 p.m. on March 3, 2014 (EST)
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Nice trip report, North1.

I am currently back in Jackson Hole WY my usual summer home, came back a bit earlier this year.

6:13 p.m. on March 3, 2014 (EST)
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North,

Now that is what I call a trip report.

That is exactly why your opinion carries a lot of weight.

May I direct your attention some time to GPamler's post about wolf introduction and its indirect affect on riparian habitats in the greater Yellowstone area.

6:31 p.m. on March 3, 2014 (EST)
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Wow, North...that is really an awesome adventure! Thanks for sharing this, it's much appreciated.

9:59 a.m. on March 4, 2014 (EST)
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Makes all the rest of us look like a bunch of weenies!

Some Qs for you: What kind of skis/boots/bindings do you use for something like that? Do you use a sled, or carry everything in a backpack? Total weight? What kind of game can you get in winter? What % of food or calories from hunting? Did you lose any days to wind/weather?

11:34 a.m. on March 4, 2014 (EST)
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Thanks everyone for your interest.

To answer BigRed's questions, I used the following:

"Alico Telemark Double Ski Boots

Austrian boiled wool socks x2

Madshus Epoch ski with Voille 3-pin bindings

Wildline insulated expedition gaiters"

I will post a review this weekend, but the short answer is the skis worked great.

I have used a sled at times in the past for much longer journeys, but chose not to for this trip. I travelled light with high fat foods and snare wire to trap snowshoe hares and ptarmigan. Maybe I will put together a little slide show demonstrating how to rig a spring loaded bird snare in a tree. Because the area through which I travelled is a vast, unpeopled wilderness I was allowed to hunt anytime of year.

I lost two days due to high winds and zero visibility along the coast. Winds were strong enough to knock me down. There were also some short days in the forest because of deep snow and slow progress. The days in which the temperature dipped below minus 40C were interesting! You have to move very carefully and deliberately. Sometimes I would turn around and see a faint vapour trail behind me hanging in the still air.

11:45 a.m. on March 4, 2014 (EST)
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This reminds me of my last trip...except it was 2-days, 50F, with plenty of day light. Otherwise, exactly the same. ;)

11:52 a.m. on March 4, 2014 (EST)
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Amazing report! 

4:18 p.m. on March 4, 2014 (EST)
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I am speechless...if I am ever forced to endure those conditions (please God no)...I will certainly keep your trip in mind:-)

7:52 p.m. on March 4, 2014 (EST)
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Six weeks without resupply in the artic!
That's hard. Oatmeal, butter, milk powder and pemmican.  

And only one liter of gas to cook and melt snow for water?

I am curious about your meals. Oatmeal, butter and milk is a no brainer but the pemmican was certainly frozen, so I imagine you cooked every meal. Did you fry or boil the pemmican? Did you have three meals a day?  

The 'ol whisperlight is a good stove, isn't it?  

I doubt I could carry sufficient calories to keep me going that long in that kinda cold.

Sounds like a great trip, thanks for sharing!

  “Now, dammit, we can holler for help and no one will hear us”.

Heh, I like that. Did Calvin Rutstrum really write that?

1:08 a.m. on March 5, 2014 (EST)
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Love the reference to Cal Rustrum! Great trip report. Butter is such a great ration when you need to fat to burn. Thank you for posting an doing it in the first place.

10:58 a.m. on March 5, 2014 (EST)
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Mmmmmmm.....Austrian boiled wool socks. Was that the main course? Wear em a few days to add to the flavor.

12:39 p.m. on March 5, 2014 (EST)
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EtdBob,

In answer to your questions, my cooking regime is quite simple: I carry a litre of water in my pack to use for supper; it is faster to melt ice if you have some boiling water first. I wouldn't normally use snow as it takes too much energy/heat for too little water. Cooking oatmeal was just a matter of pouring boiling water over it and sealing it up in my sleeping bag where it "cooks". It also helps pre-heat my bedding. Then I continue to melt ice until I have enough to refill my water bottle and make a cup of tea. By this time the oats are done and I am ready for breakfast or supper. I use a 500mL Nalgene container for the oats. The pemmican can be eaten as is. I made it into small squares so I could pop it into my mouth while skiing without impeding my ability to breathe. A little goes a long way. Since most of the water was removed in both the rendered tallow and meat, it remained relatively soft even in the cold. Sometimes, I would cook up some pemmican with oats to make a thick stew, kind of like pureed haggis.

Snowshoe hare is relatively lean, but Ptarmigan can have a lot of fat on them in the back and just beneath the skin. I don’t know how many calories are in either one, but obviously I am still alive so must have done something right. I find though that I don’t need to eat very much and that my work output remains the same regardless of how few calories I have consumed. My wife is always commenting on my eating habits: she needs to eat every few hours while if I eat every few days I am happy.

Two meals a day is standard for me. I also took a small thermos which contained tea. This was a real treat during the day! Once in the forest I would stop occasionally when the opportunity arose and build a fire to warm up and make tea. Problem with this though, it was hard to leave the fire at times.

If I were to go longer, I would have taken down a caribou. As I have said before, this is a vast area with a very sparse population. The NWT alone is about twice the size of Texas with a population of only 40,000 people.

12:44 p.m. on March 5, 2014 (EST)
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Impressive trip report!  I found your adventure inspiring.  Thanks for the beautiful photos and sharing your experience.  This place is spectacular!

10:25 a.m. on March 6, 2014 (EST)
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Generally I find that after working all summer and putting on more fat than I do when I am hiking or bike touring I tend to be able to go weeks without eating more than one good meal a day while living on my fat reserves. I starting calling it my winter fat like what we refer to in bears when they go into hibernation. 

I have gone on my first two week hikes after getting back to backpacking, carrying two weeks worth of food. Then after I have finished that first two week hike find when unpacking I have at least one weeks worth of food still left in my pack cause I ate so much less and lived off my winter fat.

Working in restaurants as a Prep cook I have to as part of my job to taste test all my cooking. And also being I am working in a kitchen with dozens of different foods available I tend to munch on a variety of items all day plus my employee meals. I do walk a long way around the kitchen all day and cycle home but do not burn off many calories to stay as thin as I was after 6-9 months of backapcking when I have returned to work.

5:18 p.m. on March 6, 2014 (EST)
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wow, your story is rather humbling...

3:16 p.m. on March 7, 2014 (EST)
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North, did you carry a firearm?

I dunno what the danger from polar bears might be -

No way in heck I could have done that trip. I don't care how much winter fat I got on my butt!

Six full weeks is 42 days. Pure butter has about 3,200 calories per pound. That's probably the low end of the calories I'd need for a day in such cold weather and that much work ( I eat like a bird, twice my body weight every day! ).

Even with a ration as calorie dense at butter, I'm looking at 42 pounds food weight for a trip like that, and of course that wouldn't work. Pemmican is probably close though, and will sustain a feller long term. 

But I just can't get around needing maybe as much as 20-25 pounds of gear ( 4 season tent, skis, extra warm clothing, sleeping bag, thick sleeping pad, stove, fuel, an ax?  ) and 40 pounds of food on top of that.   

I reckon acclimation has allot to do with it.

4:04 p.m. on March 7, 2014 (EST)
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EtdBob---Ergo it's why my "short" 24 day trips include almost 50 lbs of food, along with 44oz of fuel and the 20-25 lbs of winter gear you mention.  Of course I do not hunt, can't use a pulk, etc.

In my style of wilderness travel and backpacking I couldn't go much more than 30 days on one food load---42 days would be a real challenge.  The general rule is 2 lbs of food a day so 84 lbs of food for 42 days?  No way, but then like I said I do not hunt and don't even eat meat.  Anyone for some tree bark?? 

Brown rice, peanut butter, cashew butter, pecans, mac and cheese, goat cheese---my "meats"---and more than willing to carry.

5:38 p.m. on March 7, 2014 (EST)
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Here's to Calvin Rustrum, Townsend Whelen, Bones Taylor, Jake Hoover, Bill Mason, Sig Olsen, John Burroughs, Izaak Walton, and all the others that blazed the trail before us.

6:54 p.m. on March 7, 2014 (EST)
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Thanks for all the interest.

To answer your questions; no, I did not take a rifle this trip as there are no bears on Darnley Bay, my start point, during the winter months. Polar bears are mostly hunting seals out on the sea ice, far away from the coast. I took brass snare wire and set snares when the opportunity arose. Sometimes I got half a dozen hares or ptarmigan while other days I got none. That’s just the reality of living out here. I find, when travelling day after day that snaring small game in this fashion is the most energy efficient.

For this trip an estimation of my pack, to the best of my knowledge was 54 pounds, of which 27 pounds was food, leaving me with a pack weight of 25.5 pounds towards the end. This food weight would include the wax paper used to wrap the pemmican in which later was used as fire starter. I took some tea bags which doubled as face cleanser after steeping.

Parka                                    3         3

Tent                                      6         6

Sleeping Bag                          6         6

Pad                                    1.28      1.28

Stove, etc                            1.5       1.5

Pack                                     7          7

Camera, etc.                        0.7        0.7

Food                                    27

fuel                                      1.5

                                          53.98    25.48

My tent weight included ice screws and snow stakes.

My Sleeping Bag included VBL and bivy bag.

These estimations may be off a few ounces, give or take, and do not include my clothing which I was wearing, skis, poles, goggles, or the accumulation of ice.

I have worked outdoors for the majority of my 50+ years and find that, with my metabolism, I do not need a steady intake of calories to maintain blood glucose levels nor do I need more calories during the winter. If we dress appropriately it shoud always be summer in our clothing.

2:35 p.m. on March 8, 2014 (EST)
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North,

Totally awesome trip & great report. Thanks for sharing, though, my life feels a little more boring & mundane now.

Can't imagine being solo for six weeks in a place that desolate. I crave long term solitude at times but that seems like something of a Zen journey mixed with nightmarish overtones. You ever start seeing or hearing things that you know weren't there? Caribou start talking to you as you're walking by? I'd probably start off pretending I'm the only person left on the planet, then by the end I'd be freaked out that it might be real.

"If we dress appropriately it should always be summer in our clothing." - Well said. Acclimation has a lot to do with it I'm sure. Our winter here has been particularly brutal, compared to most. Nothing like the arctic, but we've had so many more days down in the single digits & below zero that working outside, I'm so used to the cold, when it goes in the high teens, I'm walking around with just a long sleeve shirt & light fleece, thinking what a nice day it is.

12:07 p.m. on March 9, 2014 (EDT)
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Wow, what a trip!  Great report, too, and thanks for all your responses to the questions.

September 20, 2014
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