Arctic Circle No one had ever circumnavigated the island of Greenland until last month, when polar pioneers Lonnie Dupre and John Hoelscher completed a bone-chilling, mind-numbing, 6,517-mile odyssey

Oct. 15, 2001
Oct. 15, 2001

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Oct. 15, 2001

Inside Soccer

Arctic Circle No one had ever circumnavigated the island of Greenland until last month, when polar pioneers Lonnie Dupre and John Hoelscher completed a bone-chilling, mind-numbing, 6,517-mile odyssey

Eric The Red was a huckster at heart. Drop-kicked out of his
native Norway and then punted from his island of exile, Iceland,
he founded a 10th-century Viking colony on an enormous cake of
ice. After naming this grim, gray, brutally inhospitable place
Greenland, he returned to Iceland and rounded up boatloads of
suckers who expected warm pastures and leafy forests.

This is an article from the Oct. 15, 2001 issue

Lonnie Dupre had no such illusions. The Minnesota carpenter and
his partner, Australian electrician John Hoelscher, spent much
of the last four years circumnavigating the world's largest
island by kayak and dogsled, the traditional transport of the
native Inuit. To become the first adventurers to accomplish this
feat, they endured marauding polar bears, windchill temperatures
of 100[degrees] below, churning waters that scuttled their boats
in 30[degree] seas, jumbles of jagged pack ice that impeded
their path, and raging blizzards that kept them tent-bound for
up to five days.

The 6,517-mile journey ended last month in Tasiilaq, a flyspeck
town on the desolate east coast. Dupre and Hoelscher had
initially planned to complete the expedition in one bold,
continuous 15-month hit but were thwarted by sudden storms and
crumbling glaciers. In the end the journey would have to be
accomplished in eight segments totaling 21 months of travel.
"They had to make up their route as they went along," marvels
renowned polar explorer Will Steger. "Their trip was literally
puzzled and pieced together."

To an outsider it's hard to understand why anyone would want to
tackle the vastness of Greenland, nearly 85% of which is covered
by ice caps up to two miles thick. Although the island has been
mapped and its coastal waters charted, it still presents an Ice
Age impassivity. In the recent past a half-dozen explorers have
tried to circle the 836,327-square-mile land mass, but none have
succeeded. John Anderson, a Dane who has been coming up empty for
nearly two decades, told Dupre flatly, "It can't be done." That,
of course, made Dupre want to do it more. "There are fewer and
fewer geographical firsts left," he reasons. "The beauty of
Greenland was that it was life down to basics, as it was 5,000
years ago."

He's saying this while tossing back a Great Northern Porter in
the Pickled Herring, a saloon near his home in Grand Marais,
Minn. "Aside from my wife, Kelly," says the 40-year-old Dupre,
"beer and fresh greens are the things I missed most in

He and Hoelscher had to make do on oatmeal, rice, noodles,
potatoes, dried fish, dehydrated ham mixed with cranberries and
lard, halvah, chocolate bars and kiviaq, a local dish made from
itsy-bitsy birds called appats. The birds are snared in midflight
with hooped nets and fermented for six months in sealskin,
feathers and all. "They're greasy little creatures," says Dupre.
"They smell and taste like blue cheese. In fact, when you open
the sealskin, they're encased in cheesy, green mold." He and
Hoelscher also dined on seagull eggs ("kind of like a fishy Super
Ball," says Dupre), walrus ("stringy roast beef") and seal ("very
rich--a little goes a long way").

Dupre and Hoelscher not only ate these critters, they wore them.
Swaddled in his wolfskin mittens, sealskin boots, wolverine parka
and polar bear pants, Dupre looks like something out of an arctic
diorama at a natural history museum. "Polar bear fur gets so hot,
you can only get inside it during extreme cold," he says. "The
Inuit taught me that."

The Inuit, as everyone knows, have more than 200 words for snow.
They have only two words for Dupre: Mikisoq Americamiut, or
Little American. A short, stubby Thermos bottle of a man, Dupre
has small hands and feet, and a tidy beard reminiscent of the old
French-Canadian trappers. His mother traces her ancestry to
16th-century explorer Jacques Cartier, founder of Montreal. "When
I was a kid living in St. Paul, my family went 'Up North' to Lake
Superior for vacation," recalls Dupre. "I used to think that was
as far as north went."

He was astonished to learn north continued another 2,700 miles.
"I wondered how cold and dark it must be up there," he says. "How
could people and animals possibly live in such conditions?" Dupre
read the journals of famous explorers and, in the early 1980s,
attended a slide show of Steger's photos of the Arctic. "Steger's
photos captured my heart," says Dupre.

He began raising Inuit sled dogs on 40 acres of land he owned in
northern Minnesota and dreamed up places to mush them. In 1989 he
joined the Bering Bridge Expedition, a 1,200-mile peace trek
through Alaska and Siberia. Three years later he raised enough
cash to launch his own project, a 3,000-mile trip from Prudhoe
Bay, Alaska, to Churchill, Manitoba. Snow was scarce, though, and
a third of the way through, Dupre changed course over seacoast
ice. Lapping up salt-laced snow, the dogs became dehydrated.
Within a week 15 had died. Stranded on an ice pan and short on
supplies, Dupre and his fellow trekkers were down to their last
granola bar when a caribou hunter on a snowmobile rescued them.
"Unfortunately," Dupre says, "there is no adventure without

Although Dupre insists that "I never felt a need to redeem
myself," the misadventure still haunts him. "Lonnie wasn't
prepared for the conditions and had planned poorly," says Steger.
"But his mistakes allowed him to attempt Greenland and live
through it."

Dupre hatched the Greenland idea in 1995 while traversing the
Northwest Territories in the snowshoe tracks of explorer
Vilhjalmur Stefansson. He phoned Hoelscher, a veteran of several
Antarctic dog runs. "Hey, John," he said. "How'd you like to do a
little sledding around Greenland?"

"My heart spoke before reason and caution could engage," recalls
Hoelscher, 38, whose expertise on the journey lay mostly in
navigation and gauging sea conditions. These fateful words
slipped out: "Sure would, mate!"

According to Dupre's calculations, pulling off such ice capades
would require about $250,000. About a third of that would go
toward having planes and icebreakers drop off 168 cardboard boxes
of food and supplies at intervals along the route. Dupre worked
the phones like a ward heeler on election day. "Normally,
Lonnie's an easygoing guy," says Steger. "But when he raises
funds, he's as persistent as a dog on a bone. He doesn't let go."

On May 16, 1997, Dupre and Hoelscher put in off the icy shore of
the south Greenland village of Paamiut. They headed north in a
tandem kayak packed with 100 pounds of grub and gear. The
catamaran was essentially two 17-foot kayaks lashed together
side-by-side for stability in the iceberg-infested waters.

The q-heavy names of many Greenland towns would require at least
two Scrabble sets. To reach Qaanaaq in the short Arctic summer,
Dupre and Hoelscher figured they needed to cover about 18 miles a
day. "In that first 1,500-mile leg, we never thought of throwing
in the towel," says Dupre. "At least not until the third day."

Even though they paddled for 12 hours as fast as they could,
strong headwinds checked their progress. "It was demoralizing to
look at the same landmarks for two weeks straight," Dupre says.
"Then after 45 days and 700 miles, things started to get better."

The explorers soon realized they could kayak a lot faster at
night under the midnight sun, when the wind had eased
considerably. "Paddling inside a Ping-Pong ball" is how Dupre
describes the disorienting sense of gliding through thick gray
fog indistinguishable from soupy gray saltwater.

For three months he and Hoelscher heard the ear-splitting roar of
calving bergs and dodged their tipsy hulks. Upon arriving in
Kullorsuaq, they soaked in the village bathhouse and fortified
themselves with narwhal blubber and skin. Alas, the fjords of
Melville Bay were choked with pack ice, and they had to travel
the final 250 miles to Qaanaaq in an umiatsiaq, a small motorized
boat favored by Inuit hunters. The umiatsiaq pushed away small
chunks of ice and enabled the adventurers to travel farther out
in the sea. (Having pledged to complete the voyage in
nonmotorized fashion, Dupre and Hoelscher repeated this leg of
the trip in a kayak in July of this year).

The second, 1,450-mile stretch of the journey, by dogsled, began
on Feb. 18, 1998, the day the sun returned after a four-month
sabbatical. Dupre and Hoelscher skied alongside the sleds, while
the 12 dogs hauled provisions. "It was way too cold to ride the
sled," says Dupre. "At minus-60, you've got to keep moving. Every
time you stop to rest, you feel the cold creeping into your

The pooches--mostly misfits purchased from Inuit teams--were spread
out in a fan hitch that permitted them to move surefootedly over
ice and crevices. A pack of four brothers was dubbed the Oak
Ridge Boys. Another mutt became Ray Charles. "For obvious
reasons," says Dupre. Yet another resisted a harness and tried to
bite off Hoelscher's ear. Naturally, he was called Tyson, and his
equally pugnacious sibling was named Holyfield.

Less than a week into Stage 2, Dupre and Hoelscher were caught in
a gale so fierce that Dupre says merely standing erect would have
been suicide. They huddled in their tent as snow piled on the
nylon shell, pressing the walls closer and closer. "To keep the
tent from collapsing," says Dupre, "we put our backs against one
side and our feet against the other. We felt like we were being
buried alive."

Holed up for nearly a week, they slept (17 hours a day), read
(Hoelscher had only one book: It's Fun to Speak Danish) and
memorized the nutritive content of Clif Bars. High-frequency
radio allowed them to field questions from students in some 300
American and Australian schools participating in a
hands-across-the-ice Internet effort: How do you fit all the dogs
in your tent? How do you go to the bathroom when it's 60 below?
"Very quickly," replied Dupre. "And when it's windy, I try to get
behind the tent."

He and Hoelscher waited out the storm, thawed and trudged on.
Before long they crossed a set of very large and very fresh polar
bear tracks. Tyson, Holyfield and their sparring partners caught
the scent and bolted. Hoelscher vainly yelled "A-a, a-a"--the
Inuit command for stop. Dupre dived onto the sled and hung on.
"The dogs had been trained to hunt bears and keep them at bay,"
he says.

Fortunately, the sled caught on a ledge of ice. "Maybe 100 yards
away, a 10-foot bear was pulling away in huge strides," says
Dupre. "If the dogs had reached him, and their ropes had gotten
entangled in his legs, he would have killed half of them."

Three hundred and twenty-five miles into the trek, the 30-foot
pack ice of Kennedy Channel forced Dupre and Hoelscher to pack it
in. As frustrated as they were exhausted, the mild-mannered
explorers had their only heated exchange of the entire

Dupre: "John, you're the slowest s.o.b. I've ever met."

"Lonnie, you're the most impatient s.o.b. I've ever met."

That was that. "Each of us felt sorry for being rude," Dupre
says. "Not immediately: more like two hours later." Reluctantly,
they spent the next 10 days retracing their path to Qaanaaq.

Four months passed before Dupre and Hoelscher eased into their
kayaks again on the southeast shore and began a long, exposed
voyage to Qaqortoq. Afterward, they took a breather, skipping
1999 entirely to raise more money from sponsors. The expedition
resumed in February of last year, with an 1,800-mile mush up the
north coast. While skijoring over the frozen Arctic Ocean, they
stumbled upon three rock cairns erected in 1900 by the great
explorer Robert E. Peary and rediscovered the world's most
northerly and elusive patch of land, Oodaaq Island. A foot-high
bar made of quartz and slate, it's often concealed by taller pack
ice and hadn't been sighted in years.

This year's final push covered about 1,100 miles; the last 700;
by way of kayak, were in a dangerous open-water crossing that
required squeezing between huge, frightening floes and granite
cliffs that lined the sea. While picking their way through a
shifting seascape of ice near the end of the voyage, Dupre and
Hoelscher were spied by a pair of polar bears that scrambled down
a bluff for a closer look. "Locked down in our kayaks, we were
feeling kind of vulnerable," says Dupre.

As he fumbled with the flare gun, Hoelscher rummaged for shotgun
shells. "About 20 yards downwind, the bears got a whiff of us and
ran off in another direction," Dupre says. "We hadn't bathed for
25 days, but we didn't think we smelled that bad."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LONNIE DUPRE/GREENLAND Midnight madness Dupre learned that the kayaks traveled fastest in the favorable winds that came with the midnight sun.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LONNIE DUPRE/GREENLAND Fjord explorers For Dupre (right) and Hoelscher the tidal flats of the fjords weren't especially daunting, but they made for slow going.COLOR MAP: MAP BY JOHN TOMANIOCOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LONNIE DUPRE/GREENLAND Dog days Hoelscher and his partner covered more than 1,450 miles by sled, often in near darkness through raging snowstorms.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LONNIE DUPRE/GREENLAND Banner moment Even after a trying first leg of the journey, in '98, the spirits of Dupre (left) and Hoelscher were unflagging.

In 1997 Dupre and Hoelscher began the first leg of their voyage,
a 1,500-mile jaunt by kayak up the west coast of Greenland. They
soon recognized the impossibility of circumnavigating the island
in one continuous 15-month effort. The rest of the trip was
broken up into seven noncontiguous segments in which the duo
could cover one stretch, such as the Kennedy Channel in the
northwest, then move on to another, such as the Tasiilaq-Qaqortoq
route in the south.

"In that first 1,500-mile leg, we never thought about throwing
in the towel," says Dupre. "At least not until the third day."