Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 12, 2017
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A Nunavik safari

How to freeze your butt off and live to tell the tale

As my airflow was cut off, my eyes began to bulge and my cheeks turned redder than tomatoes at harvest time. Then, it dawned on me: I was actually on the verge of passing out. Or was I about to suffer a far worse fate? Was this how it was going to end, way up in the unforgiving Arctic, thousands of kilometres from home, enduring the same awful fate as John Franklin and Henry Hudson and all those other mad-dog Englishmen who perished while looking for the ever-elusive Northwest Passage?

It certainly felt as though the Grim Reaper was tapping his bony, frigid finger upon my shivering shoulder. I instinctively knew that if I did not act soon and with great conviction, the folks back home would be using my moniker in the past tense.

My near strangulation took place on day 12 of Polar Safari, a cool-sounding name for what is actually a hellacious, two-week expedition into nature’s deep freezer. Believe it or not, in this day and age of extreme travel and extreme physical contests, and even extreme chewing gum and deodorant, there is indeed a market for such an excursion according to John Davidson, the fortysomething organizer.

In any event, I was one of three journalists conscripted for an April excursion, which entailed a gruelling, 1200-kilometre snowmobile trek though the wicked winter wonderland that is the Richmond Gulf in Nunavik, the northernmost region of Quebec.

As vacations go, it was tantamount to a condensed version of Survivor, albeit without the hot babes parading around in sweat-soaked halter-tops. This was due to the abundance of days in which the wind-chill factor exceeded -30°C; and the dearth of babes, hot, lukewarm, or otherwise.


Dancing with Polar Bears

Polar Safari looked good on paper: go on a hot-air balloon ride over majestic, ice-capped vistas! Interact with the Cree and Inuit peoples! Observe a profusion of wildlife such as caribou, wolves, seals, beluga whales and polar bears, all tearing one another apart in their natural habitat!

We were especially cautioned about the polar bears. Notorious ambush hunters, polar bears have been known to lay in wait for lackadaisical tourists. Should any of us happen to bump into a polar bear by accident, we were told not to play possum (the bear won’t be fooled and it will eat you).

Nor were we supposed to run away (a polar bear can chase down a juiced Ben Johnson if need be, and there really is nowhere to run). Instead, the idea is to make a beeline straight for the hulking carnivore, always ducking to its right upon getting within clawing distance. Evidently, all polar bears are left-handed; by dodging to its right, the southpaw’s paw will merely swat thin air.

“Um,” I asked, somewhat sheepishly, “After you duck right, then what do you do?”

Everybody laughed.

I asked the question again. “Seriously, guys, then what do you do?”

They laughed even louder, and soon, the subject had changed. Alas, I never did receive an answer.

But I digress. Because, on day 12 of Polar Safari, it was not a large, cream-coloured bear that was choking the life out of me. Rather, my assailant was a 28-year-old mountain-climbing journalist from Laval, Quebec. Inexplicably, my French Canadian colleague decided to invoke his best impression of Mad Dog Vachon by administering the mother of all camel clutches.

I wasn’t looking for an altercation. The incident started out all smiles and chuckles, and then proceeded to get downright horrid. I recall offering him a Jack Link’s meat stick, a food staple I stockpiled at Quebec’s version of the Last Chance Gas Bar.

Shockingly, he conveyed his gratitude by punching me — a wee bit too hard for my liking — on my right shoulder. I responded with a shot to his solar plexus (the fool ducked right, no doubt believing that, similar to a polar bear, I was a lefty, too.)

The next thing you know, I’m prone on the frozen tundra, gasping for air while enduring a chokehold that would’ve snapped the neck of a pit bull.

The truth is, I likely would have succumbed, if not for the fact that my would-be assassin was a 77-kilo vegetarian, as opposed to a one-tonne member of Thalarctos maritimus.

Oh, he had me good. But the very idea of being vanquished by a vegan seemed too inglorious an ending for a red-meat eater such as yours truly. Even in death, I’d never live it down.

So with the last vestige of my willpower, I managed to wriggle my hands free. I grabbed his right pinky finger, bending the digit back so far it very nearly snapped in two.

“Gaah!” he screamed, now sounding like a bear caught in a leg-hold trap. “You fight like a girl!”

“Hmmm, that looked pretty serious,” said Davidson, ringside.

It was at this precise moment I had an epiphany. Namely: the line between male bonding camaraderie and Lord of the Flies anarchy is razor thin.

I mean, hanging with the guys is a wondrous thing. A weekend fishing trip with Joe and Erik and Bill can be a blast. But we men really must not be separated from the maternal, caring and nurturing attributes of womankind for any great length of time. If we are, we simply end up wanting to kill one another for no good reason at all.

In fact, the only near-fatality on the trip was not due to an avalanche or even a right-handed polar bear, but rather cabin fever mixed with an excess of testosterone.


Cold Shoulder

Thankfully, we did have wonderful native guides chaperoning us. Otherwise I fear we’d still be up there strangling each other into submission.

Our Cree guides were George Snowboy, 67, and his eerily quiet son, Paul, 32, who never met a ptarmigan he didn’t like to blow out of the sky with his always-loaded shotgun.

Our Inuit guide, meanwhile, was Jimmy Paul Ansatookalook, who excelled at getting us around terrain festooned with ominous-looking open water. Hypothermia-in-seconds open water, that is.

Davidson told me that, with several Polar Safaris under his belt, he’s so familiar with the terrain, he doesn’t really need native guides anymore — but I doubt it. Besides, I have long thought it prudent to defer to the locals when getting around intimidating terrain.

In truth, there was a certain degree of monotony to Polar Safari, due in part to uncooperative wind conditions. Although we spent two weeks towing a hot-air balloon as well as our tent, food, and fuel (although we lost our tent-heating kerosene supply on the first day) on sleds over 1200 kilometres, we only got to experience a half-day of actual ballooning.

Other activities — all of which are weather dependent — include Northern Lights viewing and star gazing, snowshoeing, winter hiking and ice fishing, as well as the opportunity to build and sleep in an igloo, view wildlife and learn about Inuit and Cree cultures.

Clients are provided with most of the arctic-appropriate equipment during the expedition and get to keep the thermal underwear and socks, the arctic boots, winter gloves, scarf and goggles.

While a 1200-kilometre jaunt might not sound that daunting, when one is perched on a Ski-Doo Tundra, it is a bona fide odyssey. In fact, when riding a snowmobile for hours on end across a landscape resembling a vanilla milkshake, the mind tends to wander.

Sometimes you think of your loved ones. Sometimes you think of those you do not love (and what you’d like to do them). Unfortunately, I was tragically cursed with having the chorus of Styx’s Mr. Roboto running over and over in my head. For those who don’t remember this practical joke of modern songwriting, the chorus of Mr. Roboto goes exactly like this: “Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto, domo... domo.” (Repeat.)

The worst pop song ever recorded was stuck in my head like it was frozen there. Then again, it should be noted that just about everything freezes this far north: ketchup, mustard, the chainsaw. Even an outhouse is a luxury. Indeed, answering the call of nature meant squatting behind a snow bank. The sensation of sub-zero wind billowing up the tradesman’s entrance is not something I care to experience again anytime soon.

But there was at least one tangible benefit as a result of the frigid temperatures: after several days without bathing or even using cologne or deodorant, surprisingly, no one’s stench was overpowering. In the Arctic, no one knows you reek.


Bare Bones

For those who have a hankering for a “posh” safari —wherein one is chauffeured into the wilderness and is wined and dined via transplanted, portable luxury — this is definitely not what the Polar Safari is all about.

The Polar Safari is truly tailor-made for those who crave “roughing it.” Accommodations consist of portable tents and or any abandoned shacks found along the way (of note, nobody locks their abodes this far north in case dazed, confused and chilled-to-the-bone strangers require shelter from the elements.)

And for what it’s worth, an abandoned shack with a wood-burning oven is going to seem like the presidential suite at the Four Seasons compared to a tent that can resemble a sail in a hurricane if the wind howls mercilessly come nightfall. 

As for food, the Polar Safari is definitely not a trip for gourmands. On this particular safari, one doesn’t live to eat; rather, one eats to live. And by that I mean eating anything that is remotely edible. Instant coffee and instant hot chocolate served as coveted warm beverages (melted snow served as our drinking water supply). As for food, anything that could easily be cooked in a pot over an open flame (i.e., chili) kept starvation at bay. A word to the wise: bring your own “stash” (meat sticks, nuts, chips, chocolate — anything that fits into a parka) just in case hunger pangs emerge; there are no 7-Elevens this far north.

Weeks later, after making it safely back to my warm abode in Richmond Hill, Ontario, Davidson sent me an email outlining ways he planned to improve future Polar Safaris. He referenced an earlier conversation in which he noted that Americans expect too much pampering (and tend to complain loudly when they don’t receive it); Canadians tend to go with the flow but really don’t want any life-and-death stuff; whereas Germans virtually demand that their odyssey should be as extreme as possible: the colder and the harsher the better.

“Also, we do not believe that our market for this trip is young, energetic who can often discover the world better without our help,” Davidson wrote, likely in reference to my hardcore companions.

“Our market will also likely not include persons who expect a high level of service on their tours,” he wrote, in reference to, well, me I guess.

Davidson also quite wisely decided that future Polar Safaris shall be co-ed affairs.

“We believe our demographic will be couples between the age of 45 and 65, close to or in retirement, with substantial disposable income, who were active throughout their lives and are still interested in experiencing an adventure well beyond the relaxing pace of most tours,” summarized Davidson.

Bottom line: if you hail from Cologne or Frankfurt or Berlin; if you want to experience frigid cold like you’ve never experienced before; if your significant other also craves the joy that is slicing a frozen block of cheddar cheese with a chainsaw; and if you’re keen to roll the dice upon coming in contact with a polar bear after ducking right, well, folks, has John Davidson got a dream vacation for you!

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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