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Expedition to the Last Wilderness

630 miles across Ellesmere Island, retracing the great explorers


In March 2013, American John Huston and Norwegian Toby Thorleifsson will take part in the New Land 2013 Ellesmere Island Expedition, a 72-day journey across 630 miles of one of the last untouched wildernesses on Earth, the Canadian Arctic. With sled dogs and on skis, the four-man party will retrace historic expedition routes of Norwegian Otto Sverdrup (1854-1930), who led a team of 17 men between 1898 and 1902 in discovering and mapping more than 150,000 square kilometers of Ellesmere Island, the northernmost landmass of North America.Few people have ventured there since, according to a presentation at the Norwalk (Conn.) Maritime Aquarium on Nov. 29.  

"It's a land that some people call 'Arctic Eden,'" Huston said. "It's largely untouched."

Fewer than 150 people live on the island, which is the size of Great Britain. But animal life includes Arctic wolves and foxes, musk oxen, caribou, lemmings and polar bears.

Goals of the 2013 expedition are to film a documentary about Ellesmere Island and celebrate Sverdrup's accomplishments.

"It's one of the least-known of the Norwegian expeditions of that time period, but it was one of the most successful," Huston said.

Huston, 36, from Evanston, IL, is a polar explorer, cross-country ski racer and photographer whose major expeditions have taken him to Greenland and both of the earth's poles. From 2000 to 2006 he estimates he's slept outdoors for 200 days a year. He's passionate about relatively unknown historic winter expeditions. "These are lesser-known because they were successful."  

Huston explains, "The humble explorers are the ones who live, the ones who are successful. We call it being 'smart tough.'"  

Huston continues, "I am a huge fan of the early polar explorers and the lessons they can teach us. They were the astronauts of their time."

In 2005, Huston was the only American to join a Norwegian team's restaging of Roald Amundsen's 1911 expedition to the South Pole for The History Channel using only 1911-period clothing, equipment and food. "I like to dive into the pages of my favorite history books by exploring in 100-year-old gear - no Gore-Tex, no plastics."

A training video shown during the aquarium presentation was rather amusing - team members were shown dragging five truck tires at a time through a Chicago park.  

"We kept hearing the same sarcastic remarks," Huston said.

"Hey, dude! Where's your car?"

"Is your wife punishing you?"

Huston's recent book co-authored with Tyler Fish, Forward (Octane Press, 2011), recounts a two-month adventure in 2009 where he and adventurer Tyler Fish became the first Americans to walk to the North Pole without help from support crews. They hauled 300-pound sleds holding everything they needed.

His New Land Expedition partner, Tobias Thorleifsson, 33, from Oslo, is a polar explorer, historian, photographer, and consultant to the Norwegian Ministry of the Environment. After completing his naval service in the Norwegian Arctic, he joined several major Arctic expeditions, including a sailing voyage to Franz Josef Land in the Russian Arctic and a 65-day dogsled expedition on Ellesmere Island.  

On the coming trip he's keen to employ kite skis. "Won't that subject the team to the potential of catastrophic injury?" EN asked.  

Thorleifsson replies, "During the coming expedition we'll be on flat terrain, not over the frozen ocean. Besides we will be supported in case of emergency."

Additional sponsorship funding is being sought. (For more information: www.forwardendeavors.com)

Scheduled to speak next at the aquarium is oceanographer, aquanaut and author Dr. Sylvia Earle on Jan. 24 (www.maritimeaquarium.org).

This article originally appeared in Expedition News.

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