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Polar Explorer Recounts Life on An Ice Cap

Author and Arctic explorer John Huston discusses his book 'Forward' at the Evanston Public Library Thursday. The book tells the story of his 2009 expedition to the North Pole.

Dragging a sled over Arctic ice on a 55-day expedition to the North Pole in 2009, explorer John Huston missed guacamole, eggs Benedict and his family.

But back home in Evanston, when the phone’s ringing or he’s stuck in traffic, Huston misses the mental simplicity of an expedition.

“I’m happy at home, but I’m a restless person in some ways,” says Huston, 35, who recently published Forward, a book about his expedition to the North Pole. “Every day I miss aspects of the expedition life and the wide open experience of living on an ice cap.”

Huston and his partner, Tyler Fish, traveled to the North Pole unsupported, meaning they traveled on their own power, packing all the provisions they needed so they did not need to resupply. They became the first Americans to complete the 475-mile journey unsupported, and are one of only 14 expeditions that have done so.

“To dance with the Arctic Ocean for 55 days and reach your goal is a feeling only shared by a very small group of people, ever,” he says. “To share that feeling is a very special thing.” 

“Preparation is the Expedition”

Born in Evanston and raised in Glen Ellyn, Huston became interested in outdoor exploration and education while in college at Northwestern University.  He deepened that interest after college, when he went to work as an instructor at the Voyageur Outward Bound School in Ely, MN. 

“From 2000 to 2005 I lived outside 200 nights a year,” Huston says. “As soon as I got behind a dogsled during the winter program, I knew I had found my mode of travel of choice.”

Huston made his first polar expedition in 2005, when he was asked to join a team of Norwegians re-staging Roald Amundsen’s 1911 expedition to the South Pole for a BBC/History Channel documentary. While on the trip, Huston decided he wanted to tackle the North Pole, too. Tyler Fish, a mentor at Outward Bound, was the first person he thought of as a partner. 

Training for the trip to the pole, Huston and Fish tried to simulate the motion of pulling a heavy load behind cross-country skis. Huston harnessed two truck tires to his waist, dragging them along the lakefront as he walked near the Lincoln Park Zoo. The motion was designed to create muscle memory for the long journey ahead.

“We say that the preparation is the expedition,” Huston says. “If we fail, then we can only blame ourselves, because we didn’t prepare and train properly.” 

Out on the ice, the motion feels “comfortable,” he explains, “because it’s the exact same thing, just a different location.” 

Boredom, Claustrophobia and Awe

On a day-to-day basis, one of the most challenging aspects of the expedition was the monotony of the activities. Fish and Huston skied for 10 to 15 hours a day, sometimes talking, sometimes listening to music. To stave off boredom, they made lists of things they wanted to do, places they wanted to go and things they wanted to eat. Every week, they called their family members on a satellite phone.

“In some ways, its kind of a mental game,” Huston says. “You don’t want to let yourself get too homesick, but at the same time it’s a great time to appreciate what you have in normal life.” 

Even the littlest things—like tying their shoes or eating a meal—were time-consuming, given the face mask, mittens and other gear they had to wear against the cold. Huston describes the feeling as “claustrophobic.” 

But when he got into the zone of pushing one ski in front of the other, time passed quickly. 

“There were moments when the light is just right bouncing off the snow, and you feel like you’re totally privileged to be out on the ice,” he says.

Fish and Huston skied for 90 minutes to two hours at a time, then stopped to eat. On average, he says, they burned 6,500 to 7,000 calories a day, meaning they consumed calorie-rich foods like deep-fried bacon, pemmican and pats of butter eaten plain. 

“There’s an insatiable animal that wakes up in your stomach on a polar expedition about 10 days in that says, ‘I want to eat as much fat as humanly possible,’” Huston says. “I had a lot of vivid daydreams about food.”

Approaching the North Pole was one of the most stressful and exciting parts of the trip. Fish and Huston had planned to hitch a plane ride out of the Arctic from a temporary air strip near the North Pole. But with just a few days to go before the air strip closed for the season, the constantly moving ice picked up speed and began drifting south at six to 10 miles every 24 hours. That meant Fish and Tyler had to figure out how to out-ski the drift in order to make any progress northward.

“Our sponsors our supporters, our families—we thought we were going to let everybody down,” he said. “The only way to make the pole was one huge push, with very little sleep.”

Finding the Pole 

During the last 64 hours, the pair slept only one hour out of every 16 hours. When they finally got close, they were able to locate the pole within 20 minutes using a GPS. The process can take up to two hours, Huston explains, because the pole is located 14,000 feet below constantly shifting sheets of ice.

“As soon as you get to the North Pole, you’re not there anymore, because the ice is moving,” he says.

After being picked up by a helicopter, Huston and Fish made their flight out of the Arctic with just eight hours to go. 

“That was a stressful one,” he admits.

Back in the United States, the explorers took some time to decompress before they got down to the task of writing. While they had always planned to write a book, Huston explains, “We needed a little distance from it to recover mentally and to find out what’s going to be interesting to the reader.” 

Published in December 2011, the book explains how they prepared for the journey and how they survived on the ice. Readers are treated to dozens of color photographs of a brilliant Arctic sun rising over mountains of snow, cool blue shadows on the ice and vast expanses of white as far as the eye can see. 

Return to the Arctic 

It’s the landscape, along with the physical and mental challenges of the journey, that draws you back, Huston says. In fact, he’s planning to return to the Artic landscape in 2013, when he and partner Tobias Thorliefsson will spend 70 days on Ellesmere Island, a huge landmass in the northeastern Arctic that is roughly the size of Great Britain.

“It’s the place where, when you're on the way to begin a North Pole expedition, you fly over and you say, ‘Wow,’” Huston explains. 

This time around, he and Thorliefsson are planning to make a documentary film about Otto Sverdrup, one of the first people to map the island. It is so untouched by people that animals will come right up to you to say hello, Huston notes. It is also one of the world’s hotspots for the effects of global warming. While that’s not the only reason for his next expedition, Huston says it makes it even more important to document what’s there. 

“How people manage this in the future will say a lot about our species,” he says. “We want to show people what it looks like.”

Huston will discuss his book Forward at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 31 in the community meeting room of the ’s main branch, 1703 Orrington Ave. For more information on his past and future expeditions, visit his website, forwardendeavors.com.

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