Polar bears check out hikers. (Contributed)

Seniors conquer the arctic

Pitt Meadows guide led 35-day trek

For Pitt Meadows paddler, climber, hiker and skier Chris Cooper, the days of leading excursions into remote wilderness are over. Just too many things can go wrong in the wilderness where people are days from help of any kind, says the veteran of dozens of ventures.

Which is probably why he felt so good when the last 35-day trip wrapped up in June.

The Geri-Arctics 2019: Ellesmere Island Expedition, involved four men and three women, from 63 to 75 years old, skiiing and snowshoeing on sea ice around an inlet on Ellesmere Island, Nunavat, at a latitude of 77 degrees, or about 1,100 kilometres from the North Pole. Only two of the group, one of whom is Cooper, had been to the arctic before.

As with any trip into the wilderness, the unexpected was never far away.

The arctic weather didn’t disappoint, by being its usual frigid, hostile self.

“We were pinned down in a storm that lasted eight days,” said Cooper.

“That was hair raising to say the least.”

Instead of making their way across the ice, the group were stuck in their tents, somewhere near Tern Cove, literally hanging on them to keep from blowing away in the 80-kilometre-an-hour winds. Tent flaps sown along the bottom edges of the tents proved invaluable in keeping them in place, added Cooper who said there was no snow around to weigh things down.

Another occurance brought to full consciousness the risks the team was taking so far from any help.

When one team member was trying to hop across a short gap of water, his foot slipped and he plunged into the frigid ocean, still with skiis on and still tethered to his sled. That sled could have dragged him down to the bottom if a fellow traveller hadn’t quickly unhooked the lines connecting him to the sled.

“That’s how close it was,” Cooper said, adding other members of the team couldn’t reach him quickly.

Fortunately, the team member, a veteran of 18 excursions, was also able to remove one of his skis, allowing him to scramble out, soaked, scared and cold but otherwise OK. With the arid climate, the member opted to let the arctic winds dry him out.

Cooper said everyone enjoyed the 35 days in the barrens. One member of the group, a 75-year-old who has Alzheimers, “did really well,” he added.

The trip wouldn’t have been complete without a visits from the local wildlife, that included three sitings of polar bears. “They came in pretty close. They are curious, for sure.”

Cooper was back recently in Pitt Meadows before starting a more relaxed trip, hiking around Scotland and Ireland.

“I felt quite good when I got home,” he explained. Part of that came in the relief at getting everyone back in one piece. Cooper said it’s a huge task organizing such ventures and making life-and-death decisions where people’s lives are at stake in an area where so much can go wrong.

Which is why Cooper, at 71, is stepping back, and no longer organizing such excursions. “I’m definitely not taking any more big trips.”

He knows time is catching up on any kind of outdoor ventures. “I guess the day will come when I’m not able to do that anymore.

“It’s been an incredible life of adventure.”

Maple Ridge News

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