Canada has a peerless international reputation: friendly, progressive, spectacular landscapes and world-class cities. It's also a stepping off point, along its northern lands, to the Arctic Ocean and for North Pole expeditions. Many will have visited the likely spots - Toronto, Vancouver, or the ski resorts in the Rockies. In limiting themselves to these handful though, visitors are missing out on the true, vast, wonder of Canada.
The Dark Ice Project team and I, set to make a winter attempt on the North Pole, were earlier this winter training amidst one of the the greatest unsung destinations of Canada: Northwest Territories and in particular, the tundra, forest and frozen lakes north and east of Yellowknife, a hidden urban jewel of the north. Aside from all the testing, filming and innovation tasks we had to complete, the near-two month stint was about immersing ourselves in the cold wilderness. Old teammates on past journeys, James, George and I had yet to work together as a three, so there was plenty to be ironed out in our polar routine, albeit tested south of the Arctic Circle. The continental winter of northern Canada was however perfect - avoiding the $10k flights needed to reach the extreme airstrips of Greenland or Nunavut, yet guaranteeing months of sub minus-thirty degree conditions. More than that though, it was a new wilderness for us all. Irresistible.
Using a ride from a local Yellowknife friend with a typically oversized pickup truck, we were free of gravel roads and found our magic trump-card, the Ice Road. Made famous by the first series of the trucking TV show, the annually formed ice road to diamond mines hundreds of miles north were vital for us. Whilst the thousands of lakes, many wonderfully named (Desperation Lake for example), are deep frozen and snow covered for excellent ski and sledge travel, the forests are as impenetrable as they are beautiful. The barrier of dense conifers covers almost all land, so the ice road's clearings as it snakes relentlessly north helped the three of us haul towards the Barren Grounds.
Our days were long and although timed around the daylight that bathed the landscape in reassuringly cloudless days, we made time to work in the dark too. It was training, not a holiday, and the skills we'd need on the Dark Ice Project are centred around the stresses of polar darkness.
A couple of hundred miles north of Yellowknife finds the forests thinning gradually, and this opened up sledging possibilities. We hauled, camped, lived and learned. We also found time to kick back - building a camp fire is a rare luxury for polar travellers used to being north of the tree-line. The resourceful and ever-cheerful ice road builders were occasional companions too, adding an unexpected dimension to our winter. Time constraints and a dead-end along the stunning yet frustrating Smoky Lake saw us turn tail weeks later and head south, finally again hitching a ride with a new friend back along the maintained roads and into town. It was during this initial backtracking that we picked up a tail. A pair of large wolves followed us for two or three days before moving onto tastier fare.
It was the turn then of science survey prep-work and Great Slave Lake, a mammoth expanse of stable ice, almost icecap-like, to the south. We ventured far and wide for our remaining weeks, recuperating at the tail end at a secluded cabin on our own little island. The conditions, often below -35C and even down to -42C and with occasional windy periods, took their toll on equipment and team but never ran the risk of damaging morale. On our coldest morning, the reaction to seeing the thermometer was to fill the tent with laughter, not complaint. While a few peripheral items didn't survive the cold and toil, our Alpkit gear, from drybags to clothing to cultery, completed the mission in the same state it began in, ready to fight another cold day.