Thrill-seeking threatens fragile Arctic environment


IQALUIT, Canada -- Peter Clarkson's heart sank when he saw the March issue of National Geographic. What doubtlessly struck southern subscribers as yet another full-color love letter to the Canadian arctic read to him like a death threat against a part of the planet he serves as a wildlife biologist.

The offending article told of a team of Norwegian cross-country skiers who had recently raced a rival British group to the North Pole and won. The Norwegians said that they had been charged by a polar bear along the way and had regretfully shot the magnificent animal. To make matters worse, when they reached the pole, they celebrated their victory with a feast of fried polar bear meat.

Mr. Clarkson, a so-called "bear-people conflict specialist" for the Northwest Territories, is a man in the front lines of the effort to spare the closely monitored polar bear from outdoorsmen's whims and bullets. He has devoted years to the study of red-pepper sprays, plastic bullets, camp-perimeter detection systems and other devices to help people survive encounters with hungry bears without killing them.

"Each year, several bears die in the name of polar and arctic exploration," he said. "Some explorers almost look at it as part of their adventure that they're going to have to kill a polar bear. Rather than learning how to prevent [shootings], they'll take along a firearm."

But maybe not for much longer.

The Canadian government is looking into ways of forestalling depredations against northern nature by arctic adventurers. It is a delicate goal: The officials say that they want to slap controls on what they see as mere thrill-seekers and troublemakers without hampering legitimate scientific researchers or well-behaved vacationers.

"When we deal with explorers, we have different classes," said Andy Theriault of Canada's Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. "There are good people and bad people, and people who just don't know. We don't want to jeopardize anything the well-learned, well-read, safety-minded individual might do. It's the people who don't know, and don't realize they don't know, that we're trying to reach."

But however big-hearted and open-minded the government may in its campaign, it has already roused the tempers of those who work in, play in and profit from the high arctic.

"There are certain crazy [adventurers]," said Richard Weber, a seasoned explorer who has been to the North Pole three times and conducted scientific research en route. "There were some people who wanted to ride horses to the North Pole -- those are the kinds of things [the officials] want to avoid. [But] for the rest of us who pursue expeditions, I feel we are getting sort of a bum rap."

"It's stupid, what they're trying to do," said Bezal Jesudason, an arctic-expedition outfitter working out of Resolute Bay, the staging ground for most North Pole treks. "When bureaucrats have nothing to do, they sit down and make rules for other people. I have no use for them."

Each year, as Earth tilts on its axis and the sun briefly sets to work on the frigid northernmost latitudes, scientists, explorers and Indiana Jones types begin to arrive to try their skill and luck against nature at its most brutal. Some adventurers shoot for the North Pole; others settle for the more southerly magnetic pole, while still others try to kayak the fabled Northwest Passage. Scientists sample the glacial ice or the sediment of northern lakes. Anthropologists try to retrace the travel routes of ancient shamans.

All such trips are fantastically expensive.

"Just to take a person [by light plane] from Resolute Bay to the starting point [for a North Pole attempt] on the northern end of Ellesmere Island costs $10,000," said Mr. Jesudason, an

immigrant engineer from India, who says that all airplane fuel must be flown in from the south and cached beforehand.

"And if you get sick or forget your matches or something, it will cost you another $10,000 to bring the equipment up the very next day. So you're looking at $20,000 to $30,000 just for a failed attempt."

The deeper an explorer's pocket, of course, the likelier he is to win his arctic gamble. That means a would-be explorer must line up big-dollar backers before he boards a plane for Canada.

To attract such backers, some adventurers assert that they are going in the name of science or the environment -- the thinning polar ozone layer and the greenhouse effect being popular current hooks -- when in fact sheer adventure is foremost on their minds.

Others come up with novel transportation methods in hopes that if they propose to be the first, say, to reach the North Pole by pogo stick, a pogo stick manufacturer will step forward to sponsor the trip.

Thus, in 1987, Shinji Kazama of Japan became the first person ever to ride to the North Pole on a motorcycle.

Australian millionaire Dick Smith made it to the top of the world in a specially equipped helicopter, while two Frenchmen arrived by ultralight aircraft "after a few million dollars," said Mr. Jesudason.

A group of Swiss traveled to the magnetic pole by mountain bike. There have been hot-air balloon flyovers. A Toronto travel agency flies golfers to the North Pole by light plane once a year, to drink champagne and play one hole in each of the five national sectors -- Greenland, Norway, the Soviet Union, the United States and Canada.

"The businesses that sponsor [the stunt] are even more ignorant than the people who are doing them," says Mr. Clarkson.

The Canadian arctic does possess some authentic archaeological sites -- places left with stone shelters, whalebone poles for caribou-skin tents, graves, harpoon tips and other tools.

"Many of these sites are very sensitive to damage," said Doug Stenton, an archaeologist at Arctic College in Iqaluit. Since the arctic is essentially a desert, with scant precipitation, it is not unusual to find 1,000-year-old artifacts in plain sight on the tundra, he says.

"You might find a piece of an ivory harpoon head, or more likely, stone tools," Mr. Stenton said. "They're very easy to pocket. I once heard of an individual -- I don't know where he was from -- who showed up with a green garbage bag [containing] artifacts that he had picked up around southern Baffin Island. He was trying to sell them, blissfully ignorant of the regulations. It's the kind of thing that just sends a chill up your spine."

So far, Canadian officials have done little more than debate what protective controls might be put into place. One idea is to require arctic adventurers to post a bond against their possible rescue -- at tremendous cost -- off the arctic ice.

Others want to publish a sophisticated how-to packet for distribution to Canadian embassies worldwide.

But even that idea provokes controversy.

"You have to be very careful when you are providing information," said Mr. Theriault. "Once you have provided information, you have invited somebody."

Which is just what Mr. Jesudason wants to do.

"The taxpayers should be welcoming these guys," he said. "North Pole expeditions have generated maybe $50 million for the Canadian economy over the last 20 years. If they want to go by llamas, that's fine with me."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad