I first heard about Expedition AKOR about a year ago when Nicolas Roulx contacted me with questions about canoeing upstream on the Back and Kazan Rivers, and which canoe would be best to pull across ice (an Esquif Prospecteur of course). They were planning an epic, first-ever 7,600-kilometre self-propelled journey from the high Arctic to southern Ontario.
AKOR is the phonetic way to pronounce the French word ‘acorre,’ which means a steep, high coast that drops straight into the ocean. Now all their hard work and planning is paying off and they’re setting off on their expedition from Eureka in in the middle of Ellesmere Island by ski in mid-March. I had a chance to chat with Nicolas while he was in a two-week mandatory quarantine before being allowed to enter Nunavut to start the expedition.
Nicolas Roulx/Expedition AKOR
What is Expedition AKOR and why are you doing it?
The AKOR Expedition involves crossing Canada from north to south. We’re not crossing the entire country, as we're starting from Eureka, which is halfway down Ellesmere Island, instead of Ward Hunt Island which is farthest north. The whole journey will be 7,600 kilometres by ski, canoe and bike. We’ll ski the high Arctic ice floe for three months and then paddle upstream on the Back, Thelon and Kazan Rivers by canoe for two months until we reach the first road in northern Saskatchewan. From there we'll bike to Point Pelee National Park at the southern tip of Ontario.
We're doing the trip for ourselves first and foremost. Travelling across this vast landscape has been a dream for us for many years now, so we're doing it for fun even though fun sometimes mean suffering. We like to push our limits by exploring ourselves and also the land.
It involves a lot of financial physical and mental commitment—you know all these sorts of commitments very well, Frank. Also, we’ll be covering many different seasons—that's why we're skiing, canoeing and biking. The short distances we ski will be compensated by the long distances we can cover by canoe and bicycle. We also have a scientific and educational component to the trip so people can follow us along and learn from our journey.
How did you first get the idea for this expedition?
You probably heard of the Arctic traveller John Dunn—he was the original inspiration for this trip. We saw he'd travelled across much of the country from Elllesmere to Vancouver, but in many sections over many years. Crossing Canada on this axis has never been tried before in a single expedition.
We got the idea for this particular trip after we finished an expedition in Nain, Labrador three years ago. We met a guy there named Noah Noggasak. He's a young Inuk who did his outdoor guiding program at Thompson Rivers University but is from Nain. He told us if we wanted to do a really huge multi-modal trip, we should cross the country not from east to west but from north to south. So that piqued our curiosity and we already began to plan the trip as soon as we got back to Quebec City. We studied maps for months looking in detail at Google Earth, Worldview, etc. We lacked a lot of skiing and Arctic knowledge, so we communicated with experienced Arctic travellers like John Dunn, Jerry Kobalenko and Sebastien LaPierre. Jacob Racin is in one of our teammates—he’s our ski expert and he’s skied on Baffin Island and James Bay on past expeditions.
So, it's taken us two and a half years to plan this journey, which is actually quite a short time for a journey this long and complex. I think we could have used another year for sure, especially because of the logistics. Getting all the stuff to the resupply communities along the way and getting up to the start of the trip has been very expensive. It cost $30,000 just to get up to Eureka to begin the journey.
Expedition AKOR map
Who is on the team and what sort of experience do they bring with them?
I have a teaching background and I'm a high-school teacher in history and geography. I started a master's a few years ago in Arctic geography and I've been teaching for a few years now. Jacob Racine is a professional guide based in Gaspesie. He's been guiding for 18 years now and is our expert for the ski portion of the trip. He also brings a lot of fun and humour to our journey. Philippe Voghel-Robert and Etienne Desbois are expert canoe paddlers. Guillaume Moreau is a scientist and outdoor educator. Everyone on the team met at the same summer camp growing up.
What sort of equipment is required to undertake the expedition?
There's such a huge amount of gear we need for this trip, so we studied what the best possible gear would be for each sport we’re doing on the trip. I can't list it all here as we are essentially doing three completely different expeditions in one!
How did you gain access to Nunavut despite the pandemic restrictions still in place?
We only got the authorization to go into Nunavut two months ago. When the pandemic first arrived, we thought, well, we've still got a year until the expedition starts. But as the months went on, we started to think that we may not be able to leave for the trip this year, that we might have to push it until later. Then Covid cases started appearing in Nunavut three months ago so we thought that was it, there would not be a 2021 expedition. We thought it may be delayed until 2022 or 2023.
We finally got approval as a scientific expedition and there are three research projects we will be working on during this trip. The first is a forest ecology study being run by my friend Guillaume who is a post-doctoral fellow at Laval University in Forest science. He has an ongoing project in the Boreal forest tree line, so we are going to collect black spruce samples from that area to see how climate change is affecting the growth of that species. There are also two other studies we are carrying out for Laval University and the University of Quebec- Rimouski.
What do you think will be the most challenging section of the journey and why?
The most challenging section of the journey will be the ski portion which will be 82 days on the ice floe. We're going to ski on the sea ice next to the islands in very densely populated polar bear country. Overall, we’ll be in polar bear country for almost four months of the journey. We have polar bear experience from our trip down the Labrador Coast to Nain, but our exposure to the bears will be much longer this time, which brings a lot of stress to the expedition.Expedition AKOR
What are you most looking forward to on this expedition?
My friend Guillaume and I will be doing the entire AKOR Expedition, and we are both most looking forward to the ski part of the journey. Jacob, Phillippe and Etienne will only be doing portions of the journey. Jacob will only do the ski section, and Philip and Etienne will do the canoeing section. Skiing next to Ellesmere Island, Cornwallis Island and these other iconic places are a dream come true for us and we can't wait to get there.
What is your greatest fear about this expedition?
Our greatest fear will be the polar bears, of course, but moving ice and moving water is also a big concern. We’ll be paddling up the Back River during ice break-up and have to be hyper-vigilant during this section as it is very risky to do that sort of canoeing, as you know.
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