Jerry Kobalenko receives Polar Medal

JK and GG2

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.

Medal1What 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.

sledding on Alex Fiord

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.

Nachvak kayaking8And 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.
hauling & sundog2b.jpg

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!

Exploration is for Everyone

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AC passengers enjoy the midnight sun while exploring Ragged Island, Nunavut

The June issue of Canadian Geographic magazine names Canada’s Greatest Explorers. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the minds of those who seek new horizons—and return to tell the tale.

In our epoch, the poles, the peaks, and even the moon have all been visited, mapped, and made familiar. Exploration is no longer just about being the first one there (and back). As editor Aaron Kylie, diver Joe MacInnis, and author James Raffan all note, today’s explorer also has a responsibility to tell stories.

Director, diver, and documentarian James Cameron understands this implicitly. Having created two of the great popular myths of our time in Titanic and Avatar, he has also delved the ocean depths, whose stories most of us can only know through such work.

Likewise, Jill Heinerth, who has explored the iceberg caves of Antarctica and swum with Team Sedna, an all-female snorkelling expedition from Labrador to Greenland. Team Sedna brought back a story of disappearing sea ice that affects us all.

It’s important who tells the story—and where the story came from. Louie Kamookak gathered oral history from Inuit elders that would prove essential to finding the Erebus, Sir John Franklin’s flagship, off King William Island. Louie’s work reminds us there is a vast web of indigenous oral tradition only now being given its due.

Too frequently, we picture an ‘explorer’ as a bearded man, pitting himself against the unknown. Women like ocean rower Mylène Paquette are changing that perception. We must remember that some of history’s greatest feats of exploration have been undertaken not by lone trekkers, but by family units, migrating, on foot or horseback or by boat, all over the world. The umiaq, or ‘women’s boat’ played a pivotal role in the pre-European exploration of the Arctic.

We must consider that when known places are visited in novel ways, new and important stories are born. Think of Rick Hansen’s Man in Motion tour, or the empowering trek of the Cree youth who walked from James Bay to Ottawa, at the height of Idle No More. Are artists who plumb the human experience, like Buffy Ste. Marie or Leonard Cohen or Margaret Atwood not explorers, too? What of the philosophical journey of Jean Vanier?

Ilulissat ice fjord, Greenland

AC passengers at Ilulissat Icefjord, Greenland

Most importantly, we must remember that exploration is not just for heroes. Every one of us faces the terra incognita of his or her own life, an exploration we symbolically enact when we travel. We are forever exploring not just the new places we may visit, but the vast frontiers of our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual geography as well.

As with the living legends among the 100 Greatest Explorers, it’s the stories we come home with that matter most. That’s what makes exploration for everyone.

Adventure Canada is proud to have worked with Louie Kamookak, James Raffan, Jerry Kobalenko, Mike Beedell, Edward Burtynsky, Geoff Green, Bill Lishman, David Pelly, Peter Rowe, Mark St-Onge, and David Suzuki—all listed among Canada’s 100 Greatest Explorers. Congratulations to all!