There were no radio broadcasts or Guinness World Record titles to be had when our team snowshoed 100 km across the Akshayuk Pass in the Arctic region of Baffin Island. We were a party of 17 women, 6 military veterans and 11 civilian business leaders.
We started our trek a few days before April 6th, 2019 – the same day 50 years earlier, in 1969, when Dr. Ken Hedges radioed:
“I have the honor to inform Your Majesty that today, at 07.00 GMT, the British Trans-Arctic Expedition, reached the North Pole, 470 days after setting off from Point Barrow, Alaska.”
The broadcast to the Queen signaled his team’s successful surface crossing of the Arctic Ocean by dogsled over the top of the North Pole. The Sunday Times and patron, HRH Prince Philip, sponsored the 3,800-mile trek that crossed 11 times zones and moved these men from continent to continent under extreme conditions over the Arctic Ocean.
Dr. Hedges’ four men team included Wally Herbert, Allan Gill, and Fritz Koerner who braved temperatures of -54C, predatory bears and great periods of darkness on moving blocks of ice that put them and their dogsled teams in constant survivor-mode before as they crossed over the Polar Cap.
When the men returned to London, their feat was hailed as “one of the greatest triumphs of human skill and endurance.”
Dr. Hedges is the only surviving member of the four-man team. He lives a quiet life in northern Ontario, Canada. Before our team embarked on our life-changing trip, which to date has raised more than $900,000 in funds for Canadian members of the armed forces who need help with job reintegration and special needs like PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder), Dr. Hedges shared his wisdom and encouragement with our tight-knit group.
Ken, as we now call him, has seen the travesties of war and understands the fundamental drivers that bring out the best of our human experience. As former member of the British Special Air Service (SAS), the Royal Geographical Society, a Commander in the Order of St. John and a Polar Medal recipient from HM Queen Elizabeth, Ken has explored the reaches of our existence – physically, mentally and spiritually.
Dr. Hedges encouraged our group to contemplate the uncompromising beauty of life and the nature that embodies our human existence. He asserts we must respect the delicate balance of these forces in our world, to ensure peace and freedom and to advance the progress of mankind.
“This is the human spirit, a vessel of discovery for the meaning of life and of how we should live it. The spiritual question is what sustains us. Our 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.”
Accepting the hardships is something many of us are loathe to do. We prefer a smooth road and when we are forced into difficult situations and hardships, we find it hard to navigate life and may doubt or second-guess ourselves.
Ken faced innumerable challenges that depended on 10 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. We are most vulnerable in this 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, Ken says the men were dependent on each other’s goodwill and their 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. Ken moved quickly to protect their sole means of transportation by firing a shot to stop the bear. But the bear dove into the icy water and resurfaced, jumping onto the ice and nearly knocking Ken off his feet. Forced in several circumstances to kill these magnificent creatures, Ken never forgot the enormous grief this caused.
By the end of their expedition, the men had completed the longest dog-sled journey on sea ice, covering 6,000 km. But of all the trials that tested the men, Ken is convinced that strength and skills will always fall second to the attributes of “close friendships; personal trustworthiness; unsentimental compassion for those in difficulty or oppressed by circumstance; understated courage; dogged determination and an appreciation of peace; and above all, loyalty.”
At a time when so many of us retreat to the isolation of our phones or question what we owe one another in this frenetic world, it’s inspiring to consider our duty to each other.
The needs of my neighbor best define the coordinates of my neighborhood.
We returned from the great north changed by its magnificent beauty and the knowledge of what we had endured together. As we gathered to celebrate our success with Ken, members of True Patriot Love*, family and friends, I was home.
*True Patriot Love is a non-profit organization raising money for military veterans and their families. Learn more at TPL.