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John Dunn: Frozen Footsteps: Trekking in the Arctic

Susan Woodward

John Dunn: Frozen Footsteps: Trekking in the Arctic

Susan Woodward

Polar bears and landscapes of ice, fjords and 5,000-foot cliffs … perhaps no one understands the lure of the remote Arctic wilderness like Canadian-based explorer and photographer John Dunn.

"It gets in your blood pretty quickly," says Dunn, who has been enthralled with the region since he took a ferry up the coast of Greenland in 1978. "You can travel for months without seeing anyone."

Which is precisely Dunn's passion.

After several boating trips in and around Greenland in the 1980s, Dunn ditched engine power for manual and pulled together a team to traverse Ellesmere Island. In 1990, the four-man team successfully skied the island's 1,250-kilometer length, provisions and photography equipment hauled behind them on sleds. The 96-day expedition was the first human-powered traverse of Canada's northernmost island ever recorded.

"It was an immensely satisfying experience," Dunn recalls. "But the most important part was just being there in the wilderness, experiencing it on its own terms. It was a privilege."

Over the next three years, Dunn completed three more expeditions on islands in the Arctic Archipelago. The first was a lone 400-kilometer trek back on Ellesmere in 1991.

"Solo, you really feel the power — you feel pretty insignificant," he says. In 1992 and 1993, Dunn and his team completed two 600-kilometer ski expeditions, the first on Devon Island, immediately south of Ellsemere, the second along the Arctic coast of Labrador.

In March 1994, the team began its most formidable challenge when it set out to ski, kayak, and hike Baffin Island, the world's fifth largest island. Traversing the island was a 3,030-kilometer pilgrimage that took 192 days. It, too, was the first known human-powered crossing. In a land where the sun never sets, the explorers were bound only by their own physical limitations, often traveling at midnight in a light as bright as midday.

It was at the end of the trek on Baffin Island, which was recently returned to the native Inuit inhabitants as part of Nunavut, that Dunn and a team member stumbled upon a mother polar bear and her cub. Encounters with polar bears, or at least their massive frozen footsteps, are not unusual on these expeditions. However, the men were not expecting one in their location and they lacked the usual defenses, such as starter pistol, bear spray, and a last-resort gun. The bears were only 50 feet away.

"There wasn't any time for us to react if we had to, but luckily, she decided to leave us alone," Dunn says. "Polar bears are our biggest concern, but they're also what makes it a true wilderness experience. It puts you in your place and makes you really humble."

Some things — bears and cameras, for instance — belong in the Arctic, one of the few untamed regions remaining on the earth. Other things, such as hotels, resorts, and large populations of people, do not, says Dunn. He recommends ship travel in the Arctic and suggests the east and northeast coast of Baffin Island.

"It's inevitable that more people will want to go up there," he says. "Ships are a good way to do that because you're not establishing infrastructure on the land. You can go in and take a look and leave it pristine when you leave."

Footnote: When he's not on expedition in the Arctic, John Dunn lives in Calgary, Alberta, and gives lectures and multimedia presentations about his journeys to schools, societies and conferences worldwide. John Dunn's haunting photographic images have been featured in Canadian Geographic and National Geographic magazines. For more information, visit: www.Arcticlight.com.