Adventures Alone: First Solo, Unassisted Ski Across Antarctica

Antarctica glacier
Felicity Aston’s biggest challenge during her adventure was dealing with the solitude. ©Colin McNulty

In January of this year, a British woman, Felicity Aston, accomplished an incredible feat for adventure annals: She skied solo and unassisted across Antarctica. She is the first woman — and first human — to do so. Dragging two sleds carrying 187 pounds of supplies for 1,084 miles, she completed the trip in 59 days powered only by her own strength. There were no sled dogs, parasails, or snowmobiles to help her. Although in 2010 an Antarctica expedition team consisting of a Norwegian woman and an American man had skied across Antarctica without kites or machines, Aston is the first to do this alone.

Formerly a meteorologist stationed in Antarctica with the British Antarctic Survey, the thirty-four-year-old Aston is no stranger to subzero treks. She reported, however, that her biggest challenge during her record-setting exploit was dealing with the solitude. Polar adventurers have typically traveled in teams, taking care to watch companions for signs of hypothermia, which is easier to diagnose in others than in oneself. And alone in such an extreme environment, the smallest mistake can prove treacherous, and the mind can play tricks.

But a big part of Aston’s sense of accomplishment came from succeeding all by herself. Luckily, this time, things turned out well. There are plenty of other solo adventures, however, where they don’t.

So, you might ask yourself, do adventures that are undertaken alone prove to be more meaningful, and when are they worth the risks? Continue reading Adventures Alone: First Solo, Unassisted Ski Across Antarctica

Ten Reasons Why Adventure Travel Is Good for You

ice walker
One of my favorite scientific findings: Take a hike, get a bigger brain. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

For the past two-and-a-half years, I have been writing about adventure topics for The Adventure Corner travel blog, on everything from the merits of bumpy roads to tracking devices on narwhals. From my own thoughts on adventure to the latest scientific research, we’ve covered a lot of ground together.

Looking over all of these articles since my first appeared here on February 9, 2010, I realize that one theme keeps showing up: Adventure travel is simply good for you. So I’ve compiled a Top Ten list of the reasons why.

While there are several physical health benefits to adventure travel (see Nos. 1, 2, and 3, below), the advantages for your mental wellness are just as impressive (Nos. 4, 5, and 6). Too, adventure travel can enlighten your soul (Nos. 7 and 8 ) and even help save the world (Nos. 9 and 10).

Can you think of anything else that can do all that? Continue reading Ten Reasons Why Adventure Travel Is Good for You

Are Paper Maps Obsolete?

It’s on the “blue highways” that you’re likely to encounter the things you didn’t plan on. ©Steve Morello

Interstate rest stops are some of my favorite places when it comes to getting ideas for new adventures. Inside their doors are racks filled with printed brochures and colorful maps that promise excitement just down the road. It’s a banner day when I can replace my old, well-worn, highway map with a brand-new, up-to-date one, indicating where freshly laid blacktop can now take me and previously unheard-of natural areas have been set aside — and where the “blank spots” still exist.

According to a recent article in the Associated Press, however, paper maps supplied by government agencies and private businesses may soon be displaced by our own GPS units and the built-in navigation technology on our smartphones. You and I could soon walk into a rest stop on I-94, let’s say, and find nothing inside but bathrooms and canteen machines.

But is there still a value to paper maps that our electronic devices haven’t yet been able to duplicate? Continue reading Are Paper Maps Obsolete?

World Tour of the Arctic Tern

When you hear about the great journeys undertaken by some of nature’s smallest creatures, you can’t help but feel inspired to step into adventures of your own that may be outside your comfort zone. And no odyssey is greater than that of the Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea).

Weighing only 3.2 to 4.2 ounces, Arctic terns travel more than fifty thousand miles, from pole to pole, every year. In fact, the Arctic tern sees more of our planet — and more daylight — than any other creature on Earth.

In order to document this feat, Carsten Egevang, a researcher at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, fitted fifty Arctic terns on Sand Island, off Greenland’s coast, with geolocators. He waited a year; and when the birds returned, he attempted to find the same Arctic terns he’d banded amid a thousand breeding pairs in the Greenland wilderness. He recovered ten.

I first wrote about the Arctic tern’s incredible migration in this column in 2011. Today, however, you can see the ten, tagged birds’ individual journeys on a map created by Google Earth. Watch the short, six-minute video below.

Egevang’s research not only serves to record the Arctic tern’s annual adventures, but points out the importance of what are called “hotspots” in the ocean: places that are especially rich in food that are not only essential for Arctic terns and other seabirds, but for marine mammals, as well. This knowledge can help us decide which parts of the ocean are especially in need of conservation efforts and vigilance.

Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,


Does Adventure Today Mean Going Retro?

Arctic girl
The “furside” is on the outside. ©Eric Rock

British explorer and Royal Navy officer Robert Falcon Scott reached the South Pole on January 17, 1912. A hundred years later, on January 17, 2012, in honor of this historic adventure, the National Geographic Society exhibited some rare photos of the expedition, taken by Herbert Ponting. A former rancher out of California who was originally from England, Ponting’s flair for photojournalism led to his being signed on as expedition photographer aboard Scott’s ship, the Terra Nova. It marked the first time a professional photographer had been included on an Antarctic expedition.

Photos taken of intrepid adventurers during the Golden Age of Exploration always astound me. With little more than wool pants and shirts and leather boots with protruding nails for added traction, these steely men achieved amazing feats — without knowing of the fleece, Capilene, and Gore-Tex we have today.

Scott led a party of five that January day, reaching the South Pole only to find that he had been preceded by Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian expedition. On their return journey, Scott and his four comrades all perished from a combination of exhaustion, starvation, and extreme cold.

It seems to me that in Scott’s day, adventure meant going to an unknown place and living long enough to come back to talk about it. With no real terrestrial frontiers now left and the gear advances we have, how will we redefine adventure? Continue reading Does Adventure Today Mean Going Retro?

The Art of Adventure: Cartographers and Paleoartists

For many, a fascination with the world unknown began with huge, glowing-green dinosaurs. ©Illustration by John T. Andrews

In 1719, when cartographer John Senex was drawing a map of the English empire in America, there was still a lot that was unknown. The little information about this “new land” that he did have came from the accounts of various Jesuit and French explorers, and not much of it matched. So, he did what all artists who have ever tried to put a face on what’s “out there” had always done: He invoked his creative license.

Senex filled in part of this unfamiliar territory with a nicely drawn mountain range that extended from the northern tip of Michigan down to Florida. It converged with the Appalachians in the environs of about present-day Tennessee. The map looked good, so the topographical error continued to show up on maps well into the nineteenth century.

Today, however, in a world of widespread, digital photographic images documenting everything we do and everywhere we visit, it’s hard to imagine a time when we depended on artists to tell us what exotic and foreign places looked like. But drawings — no matter how fantastic or flawed — sometimes have the power to inspire our wanderlust more than any realistic photographs can. Continue reading The Art of Adventure: Cartographers and Paleoartists

Every Great Exploration Probably Began with a Laugh

Antarctica blue ice
Did the bold dreams of people such as S.A. Andrée play any part in the subsequent successful bids for the North and South Poles? ©Colin McNulty

Big dreams of exploration were not uncommon in the late 1800s and early 1900s. But one explorer may have taken such aspirations to the next level: In 1895, at a London conference on polar exploration, a Swedish engineer named Salomon August Andrée declared his intention to reach the North Pole via hot-air balloon.

You can imagine the laughter in that stately company upon the announcement. However, Andrée was not to be dissuaded. Off he went, with two fellow aeronauts. In 1897, they cast off from the Arctic island of Spitsbergen in a 1.5-ton, 97-foot-tall balloon. Unfortunately — and predictably — they never returned.

It could be said that Andrée’s dream was just a footnote in the annals of big adventure dreams gone bad. But are the craziest exploration ideas truly foolhardy, or are they just the first, necessary steps to more levelheaded adventures into the wild world? Continue reading Every Great Exploration Probably Began with a Laugh

First Explorers: The Siberia-Native American Connection

Inuit drummer
Future studies are needed to better understand the relationships of Inuit populations living on both sides of the Bering Strait. ©Eric Rock

When early, intrepid European explorers first began trekking through the New World in the late 1400s, they were awed by the strikingly different cultures they encountered. But they also came to notice something else: remarkable physical similarities between the Asian peoples they had seen during their many travels and these new, soon-to-be-known-as “Native Americans.”

Now, some genetic evidence is showing these observant, long-ago explorers weren’t too far off the mark. DNA analysis of ethnic groups living in the Altay Mountains of southern Siberia have revealed a unique genetic mutation that also occurs in modern-day northern Native Americans.

So while an Asian-Native American biological connection has long been suspected, this could be the first hard evidence we have that pinpoints where our country’s indigenous peoples originated, suggesting their true genetic “homeland.” Continue reading First Explorers: The Siberia-Native American Connection

Baffin Island’s Wandering Canadian Arctic Foxes

Arctic fox
Wanderlust isn’t limited to just the human species. ©Mike Bruscia

An arctic fox off the coast of Baffin Island has recently proved that wanderlust isn’t restricted to humans. Apparently, this little canid — and some others of her kind — has a propensity for it, too.

In spring 2008, Canadian biologists fitted twenty-nine arctic foxes with tracking collars and began monitoring their movements by satellite. The foxes were living on Bylot Island, a landmass of mountains and glaciers located just north of Baffin Island in the Arctic Ocean. By fall, one female seemed to have gotten the travel bug — and the result amazed the people watching her.

She began to venture far and wide. In all, within one year, she logged more than 3,100 miles across jumbled rocks and sea ice, probably in search of food. If her extended tour ends up proving that one of the secrets to survival for an arctic fox is to have a healthy desire to wander, what will happen when climate change causes sea ice to disappear? Continue reading Baffin Island’s Wandering Canadian Arctic Foxes

New Outdoor Apps — Bring Them with You Outdoors

Newfoundland birds
Bird identification apps will help you learn the names of your favorite neighbors. ©John T. Andrews

It’s less than a week before Christmas, and I’ll bet by now you’re beginning to feel “gadgeted out,” tired of being bombarded with all of the e-mail, internet, and TV ads for nifty electronics, smartphones, e-readers, and apps. I think nature lovers, in particular, feel the commercialization of the holidays even more than others.

That’s probably because when we imagine ourselves doing what we like best — getting away to some wild, remote place filled with wildlife — we rarely picture laptops and iPads as part of the mix. But at this time of year, inspired by all the attention and news time being given to the many gizmos out there, maybe we can allow for a little “charity” and let a gadget work its way into that lofty ideal we hold of our unplugged selves alone in the wilderness.

Because, could it actually turn out that some of those devices that we tend to think will drive us crazy in the great outdoors bring value to our wild wanderings? Continue reading New Outdoor Apps — Bring Them with You Outdoors