“I have the honour to inform Your Majesty that today, at 07.00 GMT, the British Trans-Arctic Expedition by dead reckoning reached the North Pole, 470 days after setting off from Point Barrow, Alaska.”
This was the radio broadcast from the Alaska basecamp to the Queen on April 6th, 1969. Four men – Wally Herbert, Allan Gill, Fritz Koerner, and Dr. Ken Hedges – were the first to cross the surface of the Arctic Ocean and successfully cross over the top of the North Pole on dogsled.
The Sunday Times and patron, HRH Prince Philip, sponsored the 3,800-mile trek that crossed 11 times zones, lasted 470 days and moved these men from continent to continent under extreme conditions.
Temperatures of -54C, predatory bears and great periods of darkness on moving blocks of ice put them in constant survivor-mode. When they returned to London, their feat was said to be “one of the greatest triumphs of human skill and endurance.”
Dr. Hedges, the only surviving member of the four-man team lives a quiet life in northern Ontario, Canada. I recently, along with a team of other women, had the honor of meeting him. He is a former member of the British Special Air Service (SAS), a member of the Royal Geographical Society, a Commander in the Order of St. John and a Polar Medal recipient from HM Queen Elizabeth.
In a few weeks, I will travel with an all-women team of military veterans and civilizations on April 1-14th, trekking 100 km to raise funds for military veterans and their families. Dr. Hedges attended our last group training session and offered to share his experience and insight. The doctor is much younger looking than his 84 years but hidden under his broad, beaming smile is a man who has likely lived a thousand lives.
The impact of Dr. Hedges was so meaningful that I felt he deserved the distinct honor of being WomanScape’s first feature article about a man. His journey of exploration and new frontiers is in keeping with WomanScape’s “New Adventures” theme for the month of March. But more importantly, his understanding of the human experience and what drives us to explore transcends gender, nationality, time and place – literally and figuratively.
In this spirit, today’s article is dedicated to Dr. Hedges. The Baffin 2019 team is grateful for your words, your guidance, your honesty, and your support. Our WomanScape readers will travel north with me as our team visits with Indigenous brothers and sisters, and we will stand behind those who have served from sea to shining sea. Dr. Hedges talk reminds us to discover the uncompromising beauty of life and the nature that embodies our human existence and to respect the delicate balance of these forces in our world.
On February 28, 1968, Hedges and his teammates left base camp. Each was equipped with a team of 10 extremely powerful dogs purchased from Inuit hunters in Greenland.
The group had no maps, no satellite phones, no weather devices, or any special gear to protect them from the cold. The threat of ice cold melt pools and fissures made it important to stay mobile, as the men faced extreme conditions.
Remaining unphased in months of bitter cold and total darkness during the winter tested their patience. Like life, we are at our most vulnerable and natural state when we are pushed beyond our comfort zone: we fight with each other and we fight with our self. Spending so much time in isolation, Hedges says the men were dependent on their goodwill and ability to withstand stress and danger.
This was especially true when life-threatening situations arose. On one occasion a polar bear threatened to take out one of the dogs. Facing disaster, Hedges moved quickly to protect their sole means of transportation. After firing a shot to stop the bear, it dove into the icy water and resurfaced moments later nearly knocking Hedges off his feet. Forced in several circumstances to kill these magnificent creatures, Hedges never forgot the enormous grief this caused.
When the men finally completed their surface crossing of the Arctic Ocean, they had completed the longest dog-sled journey on sea ice (actually covering 6,000 km). What’s equally interesting is that after sharing so many details about his trip, Hedges turned his attention to talking about the human spirit. Carefully chosen literary references bolstered his testament to will power, fragility and our search for meaning.
Hedges spoke about the essence of life’s journey and our desire to understand. “This is the human spirit, a vessel of discovery for the meaning of life and of how we should live it.” For Hedges, the spiritual question sustains us. Survival, in Hedges words, is a temporary reprieve from an immediate threat. We may or may not survive. But we learn to be aware, adaptable and accepting of the good and the hardships. Paying tribute to our soldiers and their commitment to our survival, Hedges most beautiful words embodied the best of all men and women:
“The qualities that make the warrior are not primarily the skills and tactics of battle but attributes of close friendships; personal trustworthiness; unsentimental compassion for those in difficulty or oppressed by circumstance; often understated courage; dogged determination and an appreciation of peace; and above all, loyalty.”
Quoting from Lord Tennyson, Hedges inspired our group with these words of encouragement:
“To seek, to serve, to strive and not to yield.”
At a time when so many of us retreat to the isolation of our phones or question what we owe to one another in this noisy and fast-paced world, it’s inspiring to consider our duty to each other.
Dr. Ken Hedges will be with us in spirit as we head north to Baffin Island. Like the North Pole, where there is no north, east or west, with all direction pointing south, time stops. Its conventions are suspended just like Hedges’ words which will follow us long after our trek is complete:
The needs of my neighbour
best define the coordinates of my neighborhood.