Explorer, writer, photographer and Adventure Canada resource staffer Jerry Kobalenko recently received the Polar Medal for his achievements in Canada’s Arctic regions. We reached Jerry to congratulate him and to learn a little more about this unique distinction.
What is the polar medal?
The polar medal is one of the Canadian honours given by the Governor General, and comes technically from the Queen. You could have knocked me over with a feather when I heard about it – the GG’s office left me a discrete message, about wanting to “talk to me about a nomination for a polar medal” and lo and behold, they said congratulations: do you accept?
Why are you surprised?
You know, I have always in many ways been an outsider. I have funded my own journeys. I have really rarely had institutional support. I’m sort of a dirt bag who has scrounged together ways of doing these expeditions affordably. And I certainly didn’t do anything to solicit it. You’re this weird guy who’s done everything his own way, and then suddenly they’re pinning a medal on your chest and saying thank you for your service!
What made them pick you?
That too was discrete. Somebody nominated me and I don’t know who! I’m very aware, working for Adventure Canada, that many other people are deserving of such an honour. These sorts of things normally go to northern politicians, prominent Arctic scientists and a small number of northern community workers.
During the investiture, there was a short paragraph which they read… “in recognition of your love, passion and knowledge of Canada’s north with you have shared with national international audiences through your many publications and lectures.” So that was nice, it has love, passion and knowledge… presumably that is the reason for the investiture. But again I am very aware there are a lot of people who would equally fit into that category.
The ceremony itself was at Regina, at the RCMP academy on October 20. We were hoping to hold out for Ottawa but I wanted to get that medal in my possession before somebody realized they’d made mistake! But it was quite appropriate, because 2 of my heroes were RCMP officers; Harry Stallworthy, who circumnavigated Axel Heiburg island while looking for a missing German explorer in 1932. (I’d still like to do that journey!); and Alfred Herbert Joy, who dogsledded 2900 km across the Arctic with another of my heroes, the great Inuk guide Nookapeeungwak.
What do you think deeply motivates you to do this stuff?
Physical restlessness and intellectual curiosity.
What would you list as some of your more extraordinary journeys?
The first one was the hardest one – I threw myself into the deep end. I had no experience, really. I just had the idea and the Arctic was deep enough in me that it bubbled to the surface. I skied alone from Churchill Falls to Nain, Labrador. I prepared as well as I could, but it was very cold and very alone and my gear although adequate at the time was not as good as it would be today… I suffered a lot with the temperatures going to -40 one night in three.
Ellesmere Island from Eureka to Grise Fiord, I wanted to see how fast you could go while man-hauling. It was a pure physical trip. I learned nothing about Ellesmere. I just wanted to burn rubber and see how it could be done. 12, 13 hours every day, moving very fast. That was quite a pure trip.
And a lot of the kayak trips I’ve done on the lab coast, many with with my wife Sasha – they’re difficult in a different way. The winter is not dangerous. The cold is a bogeyman. But the open sea is not a bogeyman. It is dangerous. Kayaking is one of those situations where you have to follow the positive power of negative thinking. You always have to worry, because worry keeps you safe.
And other trips of course are noteworthy because of the wonderful partners I’ve had. It hasn’t always worked out but I have found wonderful partners because you very quickly get close like you’re five years old again – where within a week you’re best of friends. And that’s how Sasha and I became close – our 6th date was two months alone on Devon and Axl Heiberg islands. Sasha was the brave one on that rip. She had no experience but she just went into this with all senses open.
What do you tell other people, when they admire you and think it’s adventurous and interesting?
Unlike most wildernesses, the Arctic does not have a lot of objective danger. It doesn’t take technical skill. It takes an equipment list and a certain attitude. You’re doing something you enjoy, and the discomfort is jut part of it. If you don’t want to do something, everything is a hardship But if you do want to do something, nothing is a hardship. The cold included. It’s a commitment, of time, money, energy. It’s a lifestyle. But it’s not like a lot of people couldn’t do this.
What’s next? What do you dream of?
I’ve dreamed of the Axel Heiberg circumnavigation in the footsteps of Stallworthy. In 2020 a friend and I are going to go from Clyde River to Pond Inlet. That’s a route that’s been done before, but it’s just an excuse to man-haul again. A definition of heaven for me is man-hauling through the Arctic. So I could do that forever.
Does the profile of the Polar Medal allow you a new platform?
Well, in a month or so I’m going to China, because someone heard about me… they want me to talk abut picking your own direction in life!