Jerry Kobalenko Ellesmere Island Ellesmere Adventure Arctic Travel Arctic Photography High Arctic Adventure Arctic Expeditions Axel Heiberg Island Devon Island Ellesmere Island History






December 29

Early in 2009, I reported on the problems I'd had trying to use a Nikon D200 camera and its accessory motor drive on an arctic expedition. On Ellesmere Island in March, I was able to take just a few frames before even the lithium AAs seemed to conk out. (The standard lithium ion batteries are useless in the cold.)

I've since learned that this motor drive is notoriously cranky -- a voltage issue, some say. (eg. ) Since then, I've done a firmware update on the camera and drive in the hope that Nikon was able to tweak this problem. Hard to say if it had any effect, although I did use the D200 in Labrador semi-successfully. I usually had to shut the camera off briefly after shooting a few frames, but as soon as I turned the camera on again, the lithium AAs were ready to go. Unacceptable for action or even self-timed stuff, but at least the camera worked in a rudimentary fashion. However, it was a lot warmer in Labrador in December, typically -14C, than on Ellesmere in March, -30 to -35C.

The real solution is to rig an external battery pack that you keep warm in an inside pocket. I thought this would be impractical on a long expedition, but some time after posting the note, I heard from a Finnish reader who had skied unsupported to the North Pole. Their team photographer, Kari Poppis Suomela, had succcessfully used a D200 on that trip, thanks to such a battery rig. (The same photographer is currently using a D300 and D700 on a South Pole trek.) So, with a little ingenuity, digital SLRs can be used on arctic treks.

December 28

Thumbs up to Arc'teryx's Bora 95, which carried a big weight well during my recent winter trek in northern Labrador. Although I used a small sled part of the time, I spent most of one day humping a full pack uphill in two loads, to get beyond the mountains girdling Saglek to the flattish interior leading toward Hebron. The suspension carried the weight comfortably, and the pack has enough smartly located straps to maintain a tight load, even with four or five bulky items on the outside. It's my new expedition pack.

November 26

One of the hardest items to find is a backpack that carries weights over 80 pounds. Almost no one makes them. Not surprising, since no one wants to carry those loads. But sometimes I have to. I'll be carrying 95 pounds in northern Labrador next week. That includes a shotgun for defence against polar bears, tripod, camera gear, 10 days of food. Plus the usual arctic gear.

For years, I've used a 20-year old North Face frame pack called a Back Magic. It was one of the first packs I ever used, and it actually carries 100 lbs pretty well. I liked it so much at the time that -- in a rare exhibit of foresight -- I bought several of them. When one wears out, or the frame breaks, I move on to the next one. The main problem with the Back Magic, apart from the external frame's vulnerability to baggage handlers, is that the volume of the pack is not great. I always have to strap too many things to the outside.

I've tried to find an internal frame pack to replace it. A guide who often toted big loads told me that Gregory and Dana Designs (now Marmot) made good expedition packs. I bought Gregory's biggest pack, a 120-liter behemoth, but I never liked it. The suspension system failed after 80 pounds, so that the hip belt became useless and I had to bear the entire load on my shoulders. I used it on three or four trips and suffered every time. I then went back to the Back Magic and never did try Marmot's Astralplane pack, which has now been discontinued. 

For this trek from Saglek to Hebron, I'm going to try a new pack -- the Bora 95 from Arc'teryx. It was lent to me by climber Will Gadd, who sometimes uses it for carrying big racks of gear to the base of his climbs. The "95" stands for liters, but in this case it's also the weight in pounds that it will have to bear. Tried it today; it felt pretty good; as good, anyway, as 95 lbs can feel. Will report on it when I get back.

Arc'teryx Bora 95, fully loaded

November 22

One of my most useful and well-used items of expedition equipment is a LifeSource bathroom scale. I first saw this precision scale in the lab of thermophysiologist Gordon Giesbrecht, aka Professor Popsicle, when we were testing various items of arctic gear in his freezer. The scale is accurate to 1/10 of a pound (or 50 gms, depending on whether you get the metric or Imperial version) -- more than precise enough for weighing expedition food. One of my favorite features is that if somebody under 150 lbs (eg Alexandra) stands on it before it's turned on, it gives a zero reading when activated. I can then hand her a floppy duffle or some other item that wouldn't sit well on a scale to get its exact weight. This ensures that all my airport check-in bags are under either 50 or 70 lbs. 

November 20

Moisture, not temperature, is the biggest equipment problem in the cold. How big a problem it is depends on how much you sweat. Those who sweat easily have to be much more careful about not overdressing, and sometimes even that is not enough. I've traveled with partners who sweat so much that their goggles fog up from the effort of sledding. Nothing they can do seems to prevent it. Anti-fogging agents don't work. Sledding in underwear doesn't work. These people are just moisture factories. (They also need to drink about twice as us non-sweaters.)

If fogged-up goggles are your fate, all you can do is tough it out. It drove one of my partners crazy; he couldn't endure it. He felt he was flying blind. He quit the expedition after a single day. Another one, just as sweaty but mentally much tougher, endured it silently for almost a month. He peeked out of whatever corners of the glasses weren't fogged. He got used to see the world in a haze. I don't know whether I'd have that equanimity. You can't take the glasses off, either: For much of the traveling season, you need glasses to prevent snowblindness.

The darkness of the glasses, incidentally, has nothing to do with the protection. Polar guide Paul Schurke once became snowblind wearing a cheap pair of sunglasses. On the other hand, I often wear just clear prescription lenses with a UV coating. (I dislike dark glasses.) It's the ultraviolet coating that prevents sunburning your retina. Because I don't know the minimum UV blockage required in a pair of glasses in polar conditions, I always use 100% UV specs.

October 31

For years, I resisted sewing a fur ruff around my parka for winter expeditions. Sure, the old explorers did it, but that was the problem. Too many modern quasi-explorers latched onto it as a status symbol. It seemed that the more lightweight they were, the thicker and handsomer the parka ruff. So in a wind, I just hid inside a plain GoreTex hood. It worked ok.

But I had an old bit of fur in a closet that someone once gave me. On a frigid winter expedition four years ago, I decided to sew it round the edge of my parka, as an experiment. The fur was ratty enough that it couldn't be taken for a fashion statement.

You can guess the result. The fur trim really did add to the warmth of the hood, especially in a cross wind. I no longer had to struggle to protect my long beak: The fur outrider did that.

So for the March-May trek up Ellesmere Island last year, Bob Cochran & I both went equipped with fantastically flamboyant fur ruffs. It was great, although when strong headwinds caught the greater surface area of the fur, it was often a chore to keep the hood from blowing off my head.

Bob of the Arctic, well-accoutered against the wind.

September 22

Jackets, gloves, hats are important enough, but what you wear on your feet often determines the success or failure of a long-distance trek. Some personal favorites:

Socks. Ultimax Ultimate Liner, Ultimax Cool-Lite Hiker Pro. Winter or summer in the Arctic, they keep my feet warm but not cooked -- and they last forever. I walk a lot, even in day-to-day, non-expedition mode. Most socks wear out prematurely. For example, when Smart Wool socks began to appear in outdoor stores everywhere, I tried a couple of pair. They were full of holes in less than two weeks. Besides the two Ultimax socks, the only other sock I bring on winter expeditions is Patagonia's expedition-weight sock, which I wear around camp and in the sleeping bag.

Paddling boot. Chota's Mukluk Light neoprene boots. My current ones are pretty chewed up by now -- and they're hard to patch -- but they've lasted for three summers of expedition kayaking.

Instead of a rubber boot. For stream crossings, dewy mornings, rainy days, snowshoeing in wet snow or just general sloshing, I no longer carry rubber boots or even Chotas when hiking. Instead, I just use Neos overboots (The Trekker model comes up the highest, almost knee-high.) They're essentially waterproof nylon bags with reinforced toes and heels and light rubber soles on the bottom. They fit over hiking boots or running shoes. Velcro and a couple of straps hold them firmly in place. They don't look like they should be totally waterproof, but they are. They don't look like they should last a long time either, but they seem to. I even wore them while de-quilling a porcupine during my snowshoe trek in Labrador's Mealy Mountains this past March, and to my surprise they escaped without a puncture. Many thanks (again) to Alfred Duller for alerting me to these.

Hiking boots. I still haven't found the perfect hiking boot, but I prefer one of the light, low-cut models from The North Face. I've never needed a heavy boot: a couple of trips I've carried a 100-lb pack on Ellesmere Island with just running shoes. Boots, of course, are better in mixed (ie dry/soggy) conditions. TNF's boots tend not to last very long, but their last fits my foot well. It fits Alexandra too. Often the right gear depends on personal abilities -- do your feet get cold easily, etc.? -- but the right boot brand often depends merely on the shape of your foot.

May 21

I owe this dinner recipe to fellow sledder Graeme Magor, who introduced me to it years ago. He says he originally found it in Recipes for a Small Planet. It's an ideal expedition dinner, tasty, satisfying and super-caloric. Most people like it, although it's too heavy for a weekend trip. It's made for long, hungry expeditions. I eat it every second day, alternating with freeze-dried fare or some alternative.

Potato Gruel

Serves 18, or one person 18 times


11 cups whole milk powder

10 cups potato flakes

45 tblsp whole wheat flour

23 tblsp onion flakes

23 tblsp garlic powder

23 tblsp wheat germ (optional)

23 tsp parsley flakes

23 tsp dill weed

23 tsp oregano

11 tsp salt

dash of pepper & nutmeg

powdered shortening or margarine for extra calories (optional) 

6+ lbs cheese


I carry the gruel in medium Ziplocs. 1.4 lbs of gruel mix = 4 servings. My preferred cheese, for its calorie/weight ratio, is a Swiss raclette with 48% fat, available at a local deli. (Supermarket cheeses are typically only around 25% fat.) For cold-weather expeditions, I ask them to remove the rind, cut the cheese in 1" cubes, then vacuum-pack it for freshness in 2-lb bricks. The cubing is important, because otherwise you'll be whaling away with an ice ax at cheese frozen hard as cement. That takes forever, and you lose a lot of cheese splinters that way. You need 1/3 lb per person-day of cheese. As a treat, budget for a little more after a particularly long day, somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 lb per person. This is a monster bowl, for trenchermen only. Note that the rind does not count in cheese weights.

Add 1/3 lb gruel powder per person to enough cold water to make a thickish soup. (Whole milk powder doesn't mix well with hot water.) Heat over medium heat, stirring constantly. As the gruel nears boiling, it will thicken. The final gruel consistency should resemble a medium porridge. Hitting this ideal balance is just trial and error.

Add the chunks of cheese when the gruel is almost boiling, and stir constantly over low heat, if your camp stove allows such a refined setting, until some of the chunks are melted in but you have enough melting, still-visible chunks to give you several good cheese hits. Add some powdered shortening or margarine, if desired, to further increase calories.

One disadvantage of this recipe: No matter how diligent the stirrer, the pot bottom will inevitably be messy with burned-on gruel. Scrape it off with the screwdriver piece on a multi-tool.

April 28

Alfred Duller, the Labrador traveler who invented the polar bear alarm fence described below, recently mentioned to me that he'd be willing to build the occasional alarm unit for a modest fee. Alfred travels a lot and doesn't have much time, but he's also remarkably generous and willing to share the device with kindred spirits. Send an e-mail to describing where you're going and I'll forward your note onto him.

April 18

I took my first photos on my first winter expedition across Labrador. Since it was a solo journey, and I wanted to do a magazine story about it, I had to put myself in the picture for interest. This meant some sort of self-timing set-up. I avoided a tripod -- too heavy, I felt -- in favor of a little C-clamp that I'd bolt to a ski, snow shovel or snowshoe stuck upright in the hard snow. I'd trip the camera's self-timer and scoot into position. It worked fine, in a limited way.

                                 The original self-timing rig. Picture taken by a second little camera that screwed into a ski pole.

I continued to travel solo or more often with one other person, so for variety in photos, I continued to need a self-timing rig. I took to carrying a tripod as well as an infrared receiver/transmitter, so I wouldn't be limited to the manual timer's 10 seconds. (The Nikon radio transmitter/receiver was not available in Canada; an airwaves licensing thing.) This was much better, although in sunlight you had to carefully aim the transmitter at the receiver to trigger the shutter. Automatic cameras with programmable self-timers allowed me to stash the transmitter away before the camera fired. Still, the distance was limited to 20 or 30 meters.

It was a revelation when I picked up a pair of Pocket Wizards a few years ago. With the receiver hooked to the camera by a custom-made cord from Paramount Cords in New York, this radio-trigger kit let me shoot self-timed images up to half a kilometer away -- more than enough to do just about anything. It's a pain to have to put yourself in the photo, but if the group is small and you have to double as both photographer and model, this is the way to go.

Pocket Wizard & Paramount cord system, and self-portrait with Alexandra from Labrador's Torngat Mountains.


April 8

In Labrador, the GV snowshoes worked perfectly on packed snowmobile trails and uphill climbs to the Mealy mountaintops. But in the deep, soft snow of the woods, no alpine-style snowshoe could give the flotation of a pair of traditional round Innu snowshoes. Sometimes I tried to follow our guys as they searched for porcupine, but it was impossible. They floated; I floundered. On the other hand, they struggled uphills, constantly taking off or putting on their snowshoes as the grade steepened or lessened. Only in the softest powder did the Innu snowshoes also sink knee-deep.

                                        Lightweight Innu snowshoes float in the airy powder of the protected woods.

March 5

I mainly use skis in the Arctic but sometimes I also bring snowshoes for backup. In deep powder, snowshoes let you tamp a trail for the sled, which otherwise pulls like a sack of potatoes. In the subarctic, snowshoes are more maneuverable and give better flotation in the bush, while skis are faster on the windblown lakes. For the same reason, snowshoes are better in rough sea ice, where the snow also tends to be softer because the jagged blocks act like small windbreaks.

Since snowshoes have been secondary transportation until now, I've put up with binding systems that are a nuisance. Often, the lashings work their way loose or the heel strap slides down off the boot. While in Quebec's Chic-Choc Mountains last month, I had a chance to try a pair of GV snowshoes. Their binding system, reminiscent of a snowboard binding, was a revelation. The bindings were easy to put on, and for once, my boots held tight. That's how snowshoes should work.

Later, I discovered that a colleague, Richard Weber, used GV snowshoes on a trek to the North Pole two years ago. When we chatted earlier this week, he agreed that snowshoes are faster than skis when the ice is rough. Maneuverability in tight spaces, again. The built-in crampon also lets you haul a sled over pressure ice much better than a ski/climbing skin combination.

At first, he used their high-end Polar Trail model. The expedition was successful, but he found that the crampon on the Polar Trail was so aggressive that it stuck in hard snow. "You had to lift your foot straight up before moving it forward," he said. So, on an expedition the following year, he changed to a different GV model called the Snow Aerolite. Its slightly more modest crampon was more effective for general snow walking. "It made a difference of half a mile an hour," he said.

                                                         GV snowshoes at work in Banff National Park

February 28

Most experienced travelers parse their gear carefully, but the North Pole -- like Mount Everest in the last 10 years -- tends to attract ambitious beginners who haven't quite got the gear thing down. A few years ago, I had the chance to visit Ward Hunt Island, just off the northern tip of Ellesmere Island. Ward Hunt has been the classic starting point for modern North Pole expeditions, and some of the expedition garbage lying around was itself classic. At least, during their final packing job before setting off, they decided to leave the worst behind.

Top row, L to R: can of beans; shoe polish; anchovies; can of margarine; shark repellent (this had to be from a British expedition!); jar of honey. 

Second row: Concentrated pineapple juice

Third row: root beer; Borwick's baking powder; yeast packet; "brown sauce"; asparagus tips (truly historic; supposedly from the 1968 Plaisted expedition, the first surface trek to the pole); curry powder

Fourth row: stock cubes; Camel cigarettes (expedition from France?); Kodak developer; frozen green beans.

Beneath everything, a box of military combat rations from the 1950s. The canned bread and Chiclets gum were still pretty good.

Still, it was not great to have all this stuff lying around. When I was there, an arctic wolf haunted the area, scavenging the questionable food. The wolf later turned up dead. Its teeth had worn down to nothing from chewing open the cans to get at the food. I helped the Quttinirpaaq park wardens gather up the garbage, and we burned it. I've always regretted not bringing back the shark repellent as a souvenir.

February 15

Once in a while, a great idea comes along that can transform how you travel in the outdoors. LED headlamps were one of those. In the early years I had to light my winter camps with candles, because I couldn't bring enough lithium D-cells to power a tungsten headlamp for 4-5 hours a day. Now, the LEDs eat so little power that one set of 4 AA lithiums can keep my Petzl headlamp shining for about 35 hours in extreme cold.

The latest great idea I've bumped into is the packraft. It's been around for a few years now, used mostly in Alaska. Made by an Alaskan company called Alpacka Raft, they are serious inflatable boats rather than pool toys. And they weigh less than five pounds.

The main question with a craft like this is how reliable is it? With only one air chamber, you don't want it to suddenly spring a small leak in the middle of a big lake. It turns out that these rafts, made with modern urethane, are incredibly tough, despite their feather weight. Alaskan paddlers use them for bashing down icy rivers littered with sharp rocks. They're even good in winter. I brought one last year on our expedition retracing the footsteps of Frederick Cook, planning to float the sleds behind if we hit a barrier of open water that we couldn't ski around. We didn't use it in the end -- there were always other ways around the open water -- but the raft material never got brittle or unreasonably stiff in the cold.

Alpacka's largest two rafts are big enough for two (crammed) people, and two is best way to go. Even with a kayak paddle, the raft is so responsive -- being made for whitewater -- that it tracks poorly. Two paddlers are able to go in a straight line much more easily.

The raft inflates in a couple of minutes with an ingenious 3-oz nylon bag with a nozzle at one end that screws into the raft. You inflate the raft by using the bag like a bellows. 

The beauty of the packraft is that hikers and backpackers can now be amphibious. Need to cross a lake or ford a river? No problem. The raft is compact and light enough to fit in a backpack, along with the rest of the camping gear. And it's tough enough for expedition use.


February 10

A Russian expedition to the North Pole is currently taking place during the polar night. A very tough project, although it's already been done two years ago by Borge Ousland and Mike Horn. (The fact that Ousland & Horn reached the Pole a couple of days after the official end of winter does not, in my mind, give this first winter expedition to the Pole an asterisk.)

Reading the occasional reports on, it's clear that the Russians are underdressed, at least in their camp gear. This has forced them to use their camp stove not only to cook and melt drinking water, but to keep the tent warmer during the evenings. Not only is this tricky -- you have to leave the tent door partly open to vent the carbon monoxide, and constantly monitor yourself to ensure that the CO in your system is not affecting your sledding performance -- but on an extreme expedition like this, where ounces count, it's a huge waste of fuel.

On my first winter arctic expedition, I had a very spartan camp and averaged .18 liters of fuel/day. Now my winter camps are a little more genteel -- hot chocolate every morning, soup every night or two -- but I still average only .22 liters/day on -30C and -40 trips. How much fuel you need depends on how much you need to drink. I don't drink much -- a liter during a seven-hour sledding day, 1.5 liters during a nine-hour sledding day -- but I've traveled with partners who sweat a lot and need almost twice that.

Since fuel is vital for melting water, I add a margin and bring .25 liters/day, which leaves me some left over for warming the tent as a luxury -- especially useful when making notes. But for the sake of a couple of extra pounds of clothing, the Russians could have saved themselves much more in fuel.

I'm going to assume that every arctic expeditioner brings a huge down parka. (Mine is the Rock & Ice from Feathered Friends.) The two other ingredients for a warm camp are a pair of insulated pants (such as the 40 Below pants, also from Feathered Friends) and a pair of insulated camp boots. You've seen smaller versions of these before: they're similar to the down booties some people wear in alpine huts or for less extreme cold-weather camping, but the ones for arctic use are twice as thick and reach up to the knee.


A company in Quebec used to make these commercially, using synthetic insulation, which is where I got my first pair. But they worked so well, that I've had them custom made ever since when the old ones get ratty.

The addition of insulated pants and these superbooties creates a kind of bivouac suit that lets you adapt comfortably to an arctic winter camp. You don't have to protect your lower half inside the sleeping bag when you're cooking. I can relax in an unheated tent even at -50C. And I don't need to waste fuel taking the edge off the cold's bite.


January 25

When I began shooting digital in 2006, the main question was how to charge the camera in the field. makes a great little 12-V charger than runs off 8 AA lithiums that I use to recharge an Ipod or sat phone. In cooler weather, about -20C, I could charge both devices about three times on one set of AAs. But a digital camera gobbles up a lot more power. It seemed a sad solution to just keep throwing AA lithium batteries at the problem. An electronics friend calculated that an eight-pack of AAs would charge the D200's proprietary EN-EL3e battery roughly once.

So I tried solar. The Brunton Solarroll14 is strong enough to charge a laptop. It comes with several connectors, but I focused on the 12V, which looks like the female end of a cigarette lighter socket. It was relatively easy to find a third-party charger for the Nikon battery that came with a cigarette lighter plug. eg. Since the Solarroll can charge two devices at once, I ordered an extra connector from Brunton and also an extra charger from Blue Nook. Finally, in case of long travel days or dark weather, I packed three lithium-ion batteries.

The system worked beautifully on our month-long paddle down the coast of northern Labrador. The flexible panel wrapped neatly around a Thermarest and didn't take up much space, despite its four-foot length. And it fully charged a D200 battery in about three hours, not much longer than a wall socket takes. Given the long summer days in arctic Labrador, we had plenty of daylight before or after paddling to keep both cameras charged.

January 17

Many great travelers are also equipment inventors, and I tip my hat to them. I can improve an idea that already exists, but designing a piece of gear from scratch is beyond me.  

So when I meet someone like Alfred Duller, I'm both envious and humbled. Alfred is a schoolteacher from Austria who has been traveling northern Labrador for 27 summers, by foot and kayak. He doesn't promote himself, he just keeps returning to a place he loves. Sometimes he has traveled solo, sometimes with fellow Labrador devotees Katherine Suboch or the late Andy Rudzitis. Over the years, he's become the most knowledgeable person alive about the Torngat Mountains.

Alfred is a talented inventor, and one of his inventions, which he's shared with me, is a polar bear alarm fence. "The fence saved my life several times," he says. It weighs just three pounds, including batteries, poles, wires and the alarm itself. It sets off a shrill alarm when a bear or other animal breaches the perimeter of your camp. The noise may scare off the bear, but most importantly, it wakes you up and buys you time.

For the first 15 years of arctic travel, I had only one close polar bear encounter, but recently it has seemed as if I can't go anywhere without being threatened by a polar bear. Last year, I had five close calls. All bears and all people survived. On one of those encounters, a polar bear broke into my sled (the yellow and blue one below) while my partner and I were sleeping on the sea ice of eastern Ellesmere Island. The alarm both woke us up and scared it off.


I won't venture into polar bear territory again without the fence. It's so light that it would also be good to carry while backpacking in grizzly country.

Here's the recipe for the polar bear fence. The first two ingredients are the trickiest.


- a small alarm unit, such as a Sonalert. Basically, this is a circuit board and small electronic horn for making noise. In the real world, they're used as security alarms. The precise units that Alfred uses are now out of production, so it'll take a little shopping around.

- an electronics friend or local electrician who can create a homemade switch for the alarm unit, which includes battery and fence inputs and a test button.

- for cold-weather arctic expeditions, I use Stuart Cody's Li-77 lithium battery pack, available from Stuart also provides the female part of the plug that is integrated into the alarm unit. Alfred travels mainly in summer, when even a 9V battery can power the fence for a multi-week trip. (see five models below) You can protect the circuit board in a casing but the entire unit can never be waterproof, because that would muffle the horn.

- 2 banana plugs in two colors that attach to a lead wire that runs about 60 feet from the tent to the fence, where it is spliced onto the lighter perimeter wire. The banana plugs fit into the fence jacks on the alarm unit.

- 8 carbon fiber poles about 50" long and about 1/2" in diameter.

- 8 lightweight aluminum arrowheads as points for the poles. The arrowhead should slip into the bottom of the pole without too much play. Epoxy the arrowhead into the bottom, as below. For added strength, I had a machine shop drill a hole through each pole and arrowhead and glue a metal pin holding the arrowhead more firmly in place.


- about 20 yards of lead wire and 80 yards of much thinner perimeter wire on a plastic spool. At first, I used the extremely light perimeter wire that Alfred uses in summer, but in the cold, it was constantly breaking and the pieces had to be twisted back together -- a time-consuming and miserable job in the cold. On the next winter expedition I will try a more expensive silicon-coated wire, also very light, that supposedly will not break easily.

- shrink tubing for the top foot or two of each pole and a wire spring that slips over the tube and holds in place nicely by the friction of the tubing. You should still be able to move the spring up or down the pole along the shrink tubing, so the wire sits at the right height, no matter how deep the snow. Add a drop of epoxy on each end of the spring to keep it from snagging clothing and to hold the wire more securely.

- a wire stripper, either a store-bought one or a homemade superlight version, below left.

- Set up the fence at home before using it. The final chore is to break the perimeter wire roughly midway between each of the eight sections of the perimeter. Alfred then strips off the insulation and twists the wire lightly together -- enough so that it holds with some tension but flimsily enough so that if an animal pushes against a section of wire, it comes apart easily at that pre-broken point. On Ellesmere, we found this very finicky -- the broken sections were often coming undone and were a pain to put back together in the cold -- so I've been looking for an alternative. Next time I will fix a male and female mini-plug (above right) to the wire at the breaks of each section. These plugs can be inserted halfway or one-third the way into each other, creating just the right tension, and should be easy to reassemble if they come apart. Of course, you know when they come apart, because the alarm rings.


January 10, 2008

Digital photography is liberating, although it enslaves you for hours in a dark room in front of a computer monitor. Film enslaved for years too, since photographers started scanning their work. But despite its advantages, digital still fails in a few serious ways. For one thing, it can't handle cold.
I mean real cold. I mean being outside in that cold for weeks with full-sized equipment, not with a little point-and-shoot kept warm in an inside pocket or with batteries likewise protected and attached to the camera with a messy cord. If a camera's going to do serious work on an arctic expedition, it has to live in the cold, like the traveler does.

Last March, I brought my Nikon D200 to Ellesmere Island. A typical day was -30 or colder.

It was my first time trying to shoot digital on an arctic expedition, so I backed it up with a film camera. Good thing.
The Canadian Rockies, where I live, get cold in December and January, so I had a chance to test the camera before I left. I put it in the trunk of our car on the coldest night. At first, I was afraid the liquid crystal display would freeze. LCD displays froze in early cameras, like the vintage F3, but they're better now. But would the big display on the back of a digital camera work?
It was clear from the trunk-of-car test that the D200's proprietary battery was useless in the cold. It went from fully charged to zero after just one night outside. Then it refused to charge from my big solar panel, which worked great in summer.
But the D200 comes with an optional pack that runs off AA batteries. For years, lithium AA and AAA batteries have been the arctic expeditioner's salvation. Even at -40 or -50șC, they'll power a headlamp or a camera flash. The six AA batteries in the D200's pack lit the LCD display even after that cold Canmore night. The camera itself seemed to work fine. So, armed with about 10 changes of batteries, I brought the D200 to Ellesmere.
Once out on the land, reality set in. At -30șC, the power demands of digital were too much even for AA lithiums. A fresh set of six AA batteries let me take one image before needing to recover. The LCD panel didn't freeze but it needed so much power that it stayed blank. The cost of film aside, checking the results & the exposure histogram on the LCD panel are the main advantages of shooting digital. 
I couldn't even take two pictures in a row. I had to switch off the camera and let the batteries recover for a couple of minutes before shooting the next frame. A set of six AAs lasted a measly 10 shots. Then I had to put in a fresh set. It's impossible to shoot under those conditions. This is not a criticism of the D200, which is a great camera, but of the limitations of digital under those extreme conditions. So few people shoot in Pluto temperatures - why would the manufacturers bother building a camera that can handle it?
I limped on with the D200 for a few days, before switching to my old F4 film camera for the rest of the expedition. I managed to get several functional and one decent digital shot,

but film would have done a better job. The sunstar would have been cleaner, a sharp, glittering diamond rather than a blob of melting ice cream. But digital's lousy sunstars are another story.


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All words and images ©2008-10 Jerry Kobalenko. Unauthorized use strictly prohibited by law.