Expeditions make cool buck in Arctic, but officials want to chill off-beat ideas

March 29, 1992|By Chicago Tribune

RESOLUTE BAY, Northwest Territories -- Nowadays, to Canada's consternation, the dawning of expedition season in March also brings with it more modern explorers and entrepreneurs who tackle the High Arctic with high risks, high technology and highly unusual transport.

Examples abound:

* One U.S. polar promoter, who earned an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records by being the first to sky-dive onto the North Pole in 1981, has worn a Santa Claus suit to delight tourists he flies up every year to the globe's northern axis. British environmentalists held a balloon flyover in 1989 to publicize ozone depletion.

* A Japanese frontiersman rode a light motorcycle to the North Pole in 1987 -- repeating the feat at the South Pole this past January. Five Swiss explorers tried to reach the more southerly Magnetic North Pole on mountain bicycles last year, but got only about 65 miles outside Resolute Bay, the staging point for most polar expeditions.

* A group of Britons wants to use 4-wheel-drive vehicles to motor around the Arctic Circle. Two Frenchmen flew ultralight planes to the North Pole in 1987. And three other Frenchmen even brought horses to ride the High Arctic in 1990. The Canadian horses circled Cornwallis Island and survived but they lost 200 pounds apiece.

"Some are rather amusing, but they're dangerous. Some of the scientific expeditions are equally retarded," complained Mountie Staff Sgt. Jack Kruger in Iqaluit, the regional hub of the Eastern Arctic. "If these types of things get out of control up here, we're in a world of hurt trying to deal with them."

Concerned about the costs of rescuing ill-equipped, ill-prepared, amateur explorers, the governments of Canada and the Northwest Territories have established a committee that is considering curbs on Arctic adventures and is drafting new guidelines for polar and northern expeditions.

One proposal being considered by the Arctic Expeditions Committee, of which Sergeant Kruger is a member, would require Arctic travelers to put down an insurance deposit as a bond to cover liability for emergency search, rescue and medical costs, if needed. In Greenland, for example, all expeditions must be bonded and licensed.

"Polar expeditions are historically well-organized. It's the other, off-the-wall types that concern us," added Sergeant Kruger, who supports the insurance deposit idea. "We're not trying to deter polar exploration or regulate tourism."

The panel was formed by federal and territorial officials in 1990 to address concerns that the growing number of expeditions may hurt public budgets, Arctic wildlife or the fragile environment. It drew outrage from some outfitters in Resolute.

"Bureaucracy is like a cancer spreading to the Canadian Arctic," said a disgusted Bezal Jesudason, 50, originally from sweltering Madras, India, who now lives in Resolute and is one of the world's foremost experts on polar expeditions.

He came to the north in 1969 and learned much from the Inuit, including how to hunt, build an igloo and speak their language. He enjoys remote living and has visited the pole six times by airplane, but worries that regulation will deter tourists who come north looking for the final frontier.

"In my experience, nobody's died and not one penny has been lost rescuing tourists. On the contrary, these people from outside bring a lot of foreign exchange into Canada," said Mr. Jesudason, sitting in his cozy living room in Resolute Bay, a hamlet of 160 people lying about 1,050 miles south of the North Pole.

But another committee member, Bonni Hyrcyk, acting director of the Polar Continental Shelf Project, a federal logistics agency supporting scientists and research in the Arctic north, advocates the idea of a bond. Her agency, whose Resolute base has dispatched aircraft to rescue stranded adventurers in the past, has had difficulty collecting payment, she said.

The Arctic expedition industry draws some $2 million a year into the local economy, Mr. Jesudason said, while other High Arctic adventures bring in a further $8 million. An expedition to the pole can run from $100,000 to $200,000 or much more, most of it paying air charters to resupply and pick up explorers.

"If you plan it properly and have enough financial support, anything is possible," Mr. Jesudason said. "I think one day, someone could even go to the pole by elephant. Why not? They went over the Alps with Hannibal.

"Most people are so dreamless. We need some who are a little different. Maybe some are a bit crazy, but it's nice that some people still have dreams. Where would we be without them? The pyramids wouldn't have been built. There'd be no Taj Mahal, no Empire State Building. We never would have gone to the moon."

A friend and U.S. collaborator, polar trip organizer Jack Wheeler, agreed, pointing out: "With all expeditions, there has to be an element of risk, and that's why you do this. The challenge is overcoming that risk."

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