Call of the Wild: Filmmaker, explorer plan arctic adventure

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Santa Claus is about to get visitors – unless they are eaten by polar bears and orcas.

By Ernesto Rivera and Mason Masis

Former professor of anthropology Jose “Pepé” Aguilar has spent the past 16 years preparing for an epic journey to the North Pole. He will be joined by SWC film student Carl Thiessen to document the adventure.

Aguilar is a veteran of the frigid north. He has made five trips into the Arctic Circle, alone and unsupported, using only a pair of skis and what he could carry. The added companions only increased the danger involved in the journey.

Thiessen said he approached Aguilar last year and asked to join the expedition with the intention of documenting the entire trip. Aguilar said he has been asked to take others before but always said no.

“I trust Carl with my life,” said Aguilar.

“We aren’t going with a huge group,” said Thiessen. “If one of us gets hurt we don’t have a helicopter. If we call in a rescue it’s gonna be a good $10,000.”

Thiessen is no stranger to the cold, he said. He has made numerous trips into the mountains of British Columbia where temperatures can plunge to polar levels.

Challenges abound, but the first is to raise $150,000 to support the two explorers. In addition to travel expenses, Aguilar’s team must purchase special jackets, astounding amounts of food to combat the caloric burn associated with Arctic travel and camera equipment. He said he has always run a small operation, paying for most of his trips with his own money or with donations from relatives. Thiessen said the duo has to have certain items for survival, but will not be extravagant.

“We are not working on a National Geographic budget,” he said.

Temperatures could reach minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit with a wind chill that will make it feel like 130 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, Aguilar said. At these temperatures the filmmakers will need to know special techniques such as when to remove lenses and how to acclimate cameras so condensation cannot destroy the internal structure. Even a photographer’s icy breath could badly damage cameras at Arctic temperatures.

Members of the expedition will also be dragging about 300 pounds of Arctic gear and food in sleds as they cross-country ski toward the North Pole. A delicate balance of weight and clothing must be maintained in order to keep from sweating, Thiessen said, because perspiration can ruin the gear and cause death by hypothermia. Aguilar said if the team members do not take enough food they will not be able to replenish the 7,000 to 10,000 calories burned daily in the Arctic.

“I remember a trip I took where the cold temperature re-broke ribs that had been broken and healed well before the trip. Pain killers will constipate you and I just had to push through it,” said Aguilar.

Dangerous wildlife in the Arctic is also a real problem. Aguilar will be armed with a shotgun to protect the team from polar bears which may see members as food. He said he had to abort a previous solo expedition because his bear alarm stopped working.

“It’s necessary because after skiing all day with all your gear you will not wake up until it is too late,” He said. “I have never encountered a polar bear on any of my expeditions, (but) orcas have been known to break through ice and take people.”

That last part was new information to his comrade he said with clear consternation.

Aguilar said the team plans two practice runs to Northern Canada before their assault on the North Pole. Explorers must travel in the dead of the Arctic winter when the ocean region that is the North Pole is frozen over. Practice runs will test how team members interact with each other in challenging conditions and if the filmmakers will be capable of dealing with the environment. Rehearsals are important because they test the team for the complete journey.

“If we all get an A we are good, if we don’t, we will need to rethink things,” said Aguilar.

“Annoyances will only be compounded in the Arctic.”

Intense training is necessary to bulk up for the journey, he said. Footage of Aguilar training on the beach with tires and weights to simulate the load he carries in the Arctic will be shown in the documentary. So will an Arctic right of passage.

“We are going to the Franklin Expedition grave site,” he said.

British knight Sir John Franklin and his entire team of 128 died on King William Island in 1845 on what is now the far north of Canada. It is considered one the great tragedies of modern exploration and was all the more gruesome when evidence of cannibalism surfaced. Searches for the Franklin party gripped British and American citizens for decades and evidence of ships, equipment and human remains were discovered over a period of 150 years.

Though the journey to the graves of this failed expedition can be done with a tour guide on snowmobiles, getting there on cross-country skis is a bucket list must for Arctic explorers. Danger and intrigue are fueling the team, Thiessen said.

It still won’t be easy, Aguilar said.

“Anguish is the name of the game.”

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