POLAR EXPLORERS TO TREK 500 MILES BY DOG SLED
By CHRISTOPHER WREN, SPECIAL TO THE NEW YORK TIMES
Published: February 25, 1986
One of five teams of dogs that started out for the North Pole. Photo: Bob McKerrow
In early March 1986 when the dormant winter sun first glimmers on the horizon, 58 hardy travelers will set out from the northernmost point in North America for the North Pole.
The grueling 500-mile trek from Ward Hunt Island in subzero cold will take seven men, one woman and 50 sled dogs through a maze of ice ridges and across channels of open water that appear and vanish as the ocean currents shift the polar ice.
In a throwback to the early years of Arctic exploration, the expedition is making the trip without outside support along the way, except for emergency two-way radio contact.
The American explorer Adm. Robert E. Peary reported that he discovered the North Pole on April 6, 1909. His claim was challenged by a rival, Frederick A. Cook, who said he reached the North Pole nearly a year earlier on April 21, 1908. Inconsistencies cloud both accounts, though Admiral Peary's is more generally accepted.
The North Pole has now been visited by airplane, snowmobile and even submarine. While the newest explorers would be the first confirmed travelers to arrive at the Pole on their own without mechanical means, the trek is as much a test of science as it is a test of their courage.
Each of the explorers will live for two months on a daily diet of 7,000 calories, three times the intake of a regular adult. The diet is deliberately high in fat as part of an experiment on the health effects of cholesterol.
''This pole trip is probably the ultimate in self-reliance,'' said Will Steger, the leader of the Steger International North Pole Expedition. Mr. Steger, a 41-year-old former science teacher who lives in a log cabin near Ely, Minn., has logged 12,000 miles of Arctic travel. He said the trip to the North Pole left little margin for error.
''The average person who'd go up there probably wouldn't last a day,'' Mr. Steger said at his base camp on Baffin Island in Canada's Eastern Arctic. ''The eight of us doing it are specialists. We've looked at the obstacles and we've developed systems to overcome those obstacles safely.''
The five Americans, two Canadians and one New Zealander have a 60-day ''window'' to reach the North Pole before the ice starts breaking up, meaning that they have to average about 15 miles a day. While the distance is 500 miles on the map, detours could double it. For that reason, Mr. Steger said, ''I wouldn't want it any warmer than 40 below.''
The expedition spent two months training on Baffin Island before setting off to the North Pole. Photo: Bob McKerrow
Three Major Obstacles
Mr. Steger foresees three obstacles. The first are the ''pressure ridges'' formed of ice thrust upward as plates of pack ice collide and buckle. He expects to confront ridges as high as 30 to 40 feet. His team must hack trails over them that five dog teams hauling two tons of supplies can follow. ''We look at this in a way as a road construction project,'' Mr. Steger said.
Another obstacle will be ''leads,'' or patches, of open water formed in ''shear zones'' where ocean currents crack and separate the ice. The leads can range from a few feet to several miles wide. The expedition is carrying a small boat to scout a way around the water, but may have to wait overnight for it to freeze. There is another risk that unstable ice could break up under the travelers, even while they sleep.
The last difficulty is finding the northernmost point on earth, which lies beneath a layer of moving ice. A point marked as the North Pole one day could be 10 miles away the next, putting an exhausted team in danger of missing its objective. The magnetic North Pole on which compasses rely lies south, and limited visibility or a storm would obscure a sextant reading from the sun.
Paul Schurke (l) and Bob McKerrow (r) taking a noon sunshot with a sextant on the training trip. Photo: Bob McKerrow
A reporter who traveled with the team for two days on a rehearsal run across the ice of Baffin Island's Frobisher Bay confronted more basic problems. In extreme cold the simplest tasks, from boiling water to erecting a tent, become clumsy, even painful. The enemy is not so much the cold as the bitter wind, which deadens exposed flesh like an overdose of Novocain.
The previous year, five of the expedition did a 1500 km training trip from the MacKenzie River delta in Canada to Point Barrow Alaska. Taken on that trip. Photo: Bob McKerrow
Carelessness Can Be Disastrous
Carelessness can prove disastrous. On one training trip, matches used to light the stoves that cook food and melt ice for drinking water were mislaid briefly.
''Moving along on a day when it's 40 or 50 below, your attention funnels down to a fingertip or an earlobe that's been bitten by the wind,'' said Paul Schurke, another Minnesotan who is a coleader of the expedition with Mr. Steger. ''We're working on taking an inventory of each other throughout the day, tuning in to each other's level of alertness.''
Even in rough pack ice only a few feet high, sleds career, snag and tip, making them hazardous to ride. The dog handlers run or ski alongside to keep the weight to a minimum. ''If you're not alert or agile, it's easy to get your leg pulverized under the sled,'' Mr. Steger warned.
But such travel can also be exhilarating because of the dogs, which, once harnessed to a sled, pull so relentlessly in the white Arctic silence that a metal anchor must be thrown overboard to bring them to a halt. Left to themselves the dogs will trot for hours without coaxing. At night they sleep contentedly in the snowdrifts.
''The worst punishment you could do to our dogs is to leave them behind,'' Mr. Steger said. ''They live to pull. They live to travel on expeditions.'' The howls emitted by several dogs who were left behind on the practice trip proved his point.
Mr. Steger bred some of the the expedition's dogs in Minnesota. ''I took the size of the Eskimo and the spirit of the Alaskan dogs and mixed in a little wolf for endurance, intelligence and spirit,'' he said.
Another 35 dogs have been leased from two Arctic communities. The Eskimo dogs, at about 80 pounds, are a little heavier, shaggier and wilder than the American dogs. All those making the long trip are male - to minimize distractions.
Mr. Schurke, who has worked with dogs for eight years, called the relationship between man and dog synergistic. ''You draw a lot of energy from your dogs beyond the pulling power on your sled,'' he said. Dogs to Be Airlifted Out
Each dog team will haul a 16-foot wooden sled with 800 pounds of provisions and gear, most of it food. Once a sled-load of food is consumed, the sled will be left behind. The Peary expedition killed and ate its spare dogs, but Mr. Steger said he would not consider doing that. So, in the only departure from the self-reliance of the expedition, a plane will fly in after three weeks to carry out half of the dogs.
Dogs in the Arctic are usually fed frozen seal and other game, but on this expedition they will eat a special diet of dry meat rations developed for military dogs performing under great stress.
The humans will also be on a special diet of 7,000 calories a day, prepared in two bland meals a day of butter and peanut butter, cheese, fatty meat pemmican, noodles and oatmeal.
''Seven thousand calories is marginal, just enough to get you through,'' said Mr. Steger, who consumed 10,000 calories a day on a solo trip through the Western Arctic last year. ''We have no outside source of heat, so we're depending on our body heat to keep us warm.''
Fat accounts for 70 percent of the diet, and Mr. Schurke said the serum cholesterol level of team members was being monitored as an experiment. He and Mr. Steger have been on high-fat diets before, and when they underwent medical tests at the University of Minnesota before leaving on this trip, Mr. Schurke said, their cholesterol levels were found below the minimum for their age groups, suggesting that they had burned the excess cholesterol.
World class skier Richard Weber cooking pemmican in the tent. Photo: Bob McKerrow
Bob McKerrow, the New Zealander, pointed out that other medical tests had focused on the negative aspects of fat and cholesterol. ''I believe that we'll be better off with a high-fat diet,'' he said. ''Sugar carbohydrates are very fast release, but we want the slow-release effect that can keep us going for 24 hours.''
Bob McKerrow checking emergency radio equipment on a training expedition. Note his seal skin boots ( Mukluks) made by Inuit women at Frobisher Bay. Photo: Bob McKerrow
The team is leaving salt and sugar behind. ''Extra salt means drinking extra water. Extra water means extra fuel, and we can't carry it,'' Mr. Schurke said. The disciplined Mr. Steger also ruled out candy bars, over the protests of some members, arguing that the prospect of such a treat ahead might distract team members and contribute to an accident.
The sleeping bags, parkas and long underwear of the dogsledders are insulated with synthetic fibers developed by Du Pont, which is an expedition sponsor. But team members are sticking with beaver-skin mittens and floppy sealskin or caribou-hide mukluks. ''My alertness resides in my fingers,'' said Mr. Schurke said. ''If my fingers are warm, my head is where it should be.'' First Woman to Pole
Ann Bancroft, a 30-year-old physical education teacher from Minnesota, could become the first woman to reach the North Pole unaided, but the prospect, she said, ''is not something I dwell on a lot.'' On the recent trip she kept up with the men in moving her dogs and sled through the rough ice. ''I think if I pace myself and go steady, I can chop all today,'' she said.
The team members play down the notion that they may become the first people to prove that they got to the North Pole. Some scholars question whether Admiral Peary could have covered more than 30 miles a day in his final dash as he claimed, or whether he found the North Pole using limited navigational readings. Others have wondered why Dr. Cook referred to islands and other landmarks that do not exist.
Mr. Steger, who has studied the journals of the early Arctic explorers, avoided speculation about who reached the North Pole first. ''The main thing is that we do the trip unsupported,'' he said. ''This controversy will never be solved.''
The expedition at the North Pole, 1 May 1986.