Explorers are dreamers by nature. Why else would they leave comfortable, safe environments and risk everything to search for something few, if any have ever seen? The high Arctic is one of the last places on earth where vast areas have never been explored, and this is where the story begins, at the north end of Ellesmere Island, Canada.
It all started with a phone call…. “Dick, I’ve got a kayak expedition at the end of August. Ellesmere Island. Want in?” Of course! In about a week I got the normal expedition disclaimers to sign. You may die. You may drown. You may get attacked by a polar bear. Or walrus. Or wolves. Medical assistance is not available and help if available is often days away. It looked pretty standard to me, so I signed it, and had my assistant sign that I understood everything. I remember saying “Just sign it like all the others in the past.”
The trip started with a problem, the jet flying into Resolute, Canada (the farthest northern outpost) could not land; bad weather caused us to fly south 400+ miles to an airport with good weather. A few days later, we left Resolute on a small Twin Otter aircraft to fly to northern Ellesmere Island. The Twin Otter plane is called the “work horse of the arctic”, since it is reliable and is known for its short take off and landing requirements. (1500 ft.) What the Otter lacks are modern features…like…de-icers. Enter problem two. Flying in the mountains and the wings are icing up. I ask the guy in front of me if what I’m seeing is correct. His reply… “Its damn ice. We better get down.”
Not wanting to panic anyone I crawled over the gear (in the Otter you sit on a cot with your gear around you) to the cock-pit and tapped the pilot on the shoulder and said “We have ice on the wings.” “I know, I can feel it,” he replied. With that he told me to tell the others to hold on, he is going to dive and twist to try to shake it off. I remembered that being in a death spiral was not on the disclaimer! Thank God the ice came off and one hour later we landed.
The next week and a half was great; decent, if not great weather with excellent partners exploring the area. Three days prior to a scheduled pick-up, the weather changed to freezing rain and sleet. It could not have happened at a worse time since we had a major Arctic Ocean crossing ahead to get to Alexandra Fiord where there was enough land for the plane to set down. The crossing started great – then the waves picked up; after four hours we were soaking wet and our survival suits were 40 pounds heavier with water. The head guide had the five 2-person kayaks rafted together so we could float a little and rest. At this point we saw a spot on shore where we could land and stretch our legs; it was time to make a break for it.
Problem three hits. About 40 yards off shore a big bull walrus popped up in front of us. The guide instantly blew a whistle which means raft up fast. The idea was for the kayaks to look like a big target and deter the walrus from attacking. Suddenly about six inches from the edge of my kayak, a walrus surfaced. At this point, your mind races, and I thought “I can’t hit him with my paddle; he is over a thousand pounds.” My second thought was to jam my paddle down his throat, gag him and save my own head. I waited until his tucks were inches from my head to jam the paddle down his throat. It worked! The walrus jerked back away from me.
While all this was going on, the head guide was shooting a shotgun at the walrus. Unfortunately, he shot me, taking off the back of my hat and my survival suit. We made a mad dash to shore where we were trapped for two days, while the walrus colony remained feeding in our exit path. At 2 am on the third day, the guide woke everyone up and said the walruses had moved down the fiord, so we made a dash to the landing strip.
Paddling to the strip, all I could think of was the disclaimer now needs to include being shot by the guide.