A little over a week ago, a small chartered plane dropped five French Canadian men at the Eureka meteorological base on Canada’s northernmost island, Ellesmere. At this time of year, on the northern tip of Nunavut, average temperatures hover around -30 degrees Celsius, the sun shines for 10 hours a day, and polar bears are a common sight.
The five men, Nicolas Roulx, Guillaume Moreau, Philippe Voghel-Robert, Étienne Desbois, and Jacob Racine, each had with them a pair of cross country skis and a sled, loaded with supplies, weighing approximately 300 pounds. Their goal is to spend the next seven months traversing the 7,600 kilometre journey between Canada’s north and south axis using only human force.
To do this, the team, which calls itself the AKOR Expedition—akor being an Inuit word for a fjord, according to Nicolas Roulx’s brother Dominic Roulx—will cross country ski for three months across ice floes in the Canadian High Arctic Archipelago. When they reach Nunavut’s mainland, the team will spend the next two months using canoes to navigate the rivers and lakes of Canada’s tundra. Finally, upon arrival in northern Saskatchewan, the team will cycle the last 4,000 kilometres to their end point at the American border in southern Ontario. In total, the trip will cover 19 per cent of the earth’s circumference.
“They’ve been preparing for this trip for two and a half years now,” says Dominic Roulx, who handles the team’s media outreach. “It’s never been done a trip this long with only human strength. There are people who have done it, but they’ve done it with motors.”
Roulx says the idea for the expedition started in 2018 as the team wrapped up a 70-day trip around the north end of Labrador through the Torngat Mountains. During that trip, the team met Noah Noggasak, an Inuit guide who lived in a nearby community. Roulx says Noggasak was the one to suggest the north-to-south expedition, and had planned to accompany the team until a last-minute family obligation forced him to back out.
Inuit culture has been a major inspiration for the team. That’s why Roulx stresses that the Nunavut-leg of the trip is in no way an attempt to ‘map’ unknown territory, but is instead the team’s way of expressing their reverence and respect for the Inuit people who live there.
In preparation for the trip, the team members had to gain weight to deal with the frigid temperatures and extreme energy output. Roulx watched his brother eat Cheetos and drink cooking oil, packing on an extra 40 pounds. “He’s really a slim guy. I’ve never seen him with that amount of fat,” he says.
The diet may sound extreme, but during the cross country ski portion of the trip, Roulx says each member is burning between 7,000 to 8,000 calories a day. “This much calories, you cannot eat enough to gain that back,” he says. The team records how their bodies are feeling each night in a log on their phones. Roulx says this data will be used by a biologist who studies how the body reacts to intense physical training.
To keep tabs on the team, Roulx and friend Jean-François Fortin, receive a phone call every Monday. They talk to the team members for approximately 10 minutes, assessing their physical and mental wellbeing. Roulx and Fortin take these calls seriously. They have to, because if something goes wrong, their first call is to the army.
But the team is doing really well so far, Roulx says. Their one complaint is the weight of the 300-pound sleds they have to pull. “That’s what the guys have been telling me since they left,” Roulx says. “It’s so heavy, it’s the hardest part. You know, the cold isn’t that bad because they have really good equipment, but the heaviness of the sleds, it’s really the worst.”
Despite the extra weight, the team is seeing improvements. At the start of the expedition they were skiing for six hours a day and covering 15 kilometres. Now, they’re up to nine hours a day, covering 20 kilometres. But to finish as scheduled in October, the team will need to ramp their skiing up to 23 kilometres a day.
“The bike is going to be the easy part, that’s what my brother always told me,” Roulx says. “The bike is nothing to worry about. It’s the skiing. That will be the most difficult part.”