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Interview 8:44 - 36:40 Play 8:44 - More
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Paul Schurke, Elizabeth Arnold  







Arctic expedition discussion.  

NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
1 May 1999

  • Canada
  • Resolute
  • 74.6841088   -94.9040222
  • Stereo
    Sampling Rate
  • 48kHz
    Bit Depth
  • 16-bit
    Equipment Note
  • DPA4006 omni mics; Sonosax preamp

Show: North Pole
Log of DAT #: 11
"Back in Resolute #3"
Date: 5/1/99

ng = not good
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1:07 -7:42
traditional throat singing (cassette dub)

EA 8:46
Tell me who you are.

PS 8:48
Paul Shurke.

EA 8:49
And where you're from.

PS 8:50
Ely, Minnesota.

EA 8:52
How are you feeling about the, I mean I know it's probably a weird time to be asking this because it's just over and you're probably going through some mind decompression or whatever, but how are you feeling about this trip?

PS 9:05
Well, this trip was a very fulfilling leadership experience for me. The, bringing a group of people together who come from a wide variety of backgrounds and all of whom are essentially starting from scratch to tackle an endeavor of this magnitude presents immense leadership challenges. So I'm very grateful we all came off the nice not only successful, but more importantly, safe. We've got a few folks that are tending to some ailments, but I think they'll rebound nicely and for the first day or so you're simply in the rebound mode where you're getting your engines recharged, but I think we'll all savor a real sense of personal satisfaction in having pulled this off, both individually and as a group and for myself in particular, what I draw most from this is an opportunity to sort of polish the art of leadership and that becomes particularly compelling when you're doing it with an adventure of this magnitude and with a group of people for who this is, truly represents a peak life experience.

EA 10:18
What's success, in terms of a trip like this?

PS 10:22
Well, for me, from my perspective as a leader, success is to see the chemistry happen where a group of disparate individuals with differing personal and professional goals suddenly all meld. Somewhere halfway down the trail there's a bonding that takes place. It takes some immense challenges, group challenges, for that bonding to happen and so I, you know, I look for those kinds of opportunities on the trail. I mean, obviously, they come with the territory on a trip of they type, this type. They happen every day out there and it, I think it accelerates the bonding process as well, but if I feel and see that happening with a group, then for me, success has been achieved from a leadership perspective. And I certainly savored that on this trip when there were significant challenges early on to foster bonding and the chemistry where people begin to see that one, the synergy that comes from a team, that one plus one is a lot more than two, that people can complement each others' skills and experiences and resourcefulness and we saw elements of that on the trail out there and that, that truly is the beauty of the team process.

EA 11:42
Can you give us an example?

PS 11:45
Well, I think the sterling example of this trip was the fact that our team included a fellow, Corky Peterson, who's 69 years old, and frankly, when I presented the team profile to the group, months back, a few folks winced at the reference to Corky's involvement and particularly because of his age, wondering if someone who's half-again as old as any of us could really pull this off, but Corky was an amazing spark plug throughout this entire journey and I think helped pull other folks who were wrestling with self-doubts about their ability to really make, to pull this off. Really pulled them to the fore as well and the, and he rose to challenges that others shied away from. For example, of course, one of the potentially serious incidents on a trip of this kind is taking a plunge in the Arctic sea, and more than a few folks got a foot or a knee wet on the trail, and one of our team members, Doug, took it through a plunge and ended up virtually swimming across an open lead in the ocean to reach the far shore ice and clamber up on the surface, but Corky jumped to the rescue and was Johnny-on-the-spot to give Doug a tug out of the drink while others watching that scene were just so shell-shocked by the horror of that that could have been them in there that they didn't quite know how to respond. But to see Corky keep, keep his head together and do the right thing at the right time inspired the rest of them to think accordingly in the days that followed instead of first and foremost just attending to their own needs, I saw everyone in the group begin to attend to the group needs as well.

EA 13:40
You were saying he pulled people. He literally pulled Doug out the water.
PS 13:36
Pulled him out of the drink, and then through his inspiration pulled the others along and in the two days that followed it, I saw several folks sort of finally getting into gear. The first few days, everyone's just so shell-shocked because it's truly like landing on the dark side of Pluto for them and it took the first half of the trip for a number of people just to even get their feet on the ground. But then through the inspiration of those who did get a handle on what needed to happen, the rest of them got it together as well.

EA 14:17
You truly seem to be someone who loves to be out on the land, or I guess, in this case, out on the water, the land, whatever, the frozen water. And you could do what Jerry does, I'm sure. Is the element, is it because it's a challenge to bring folks, why wouldn't you just choose to do that? What you used to do, actually.

PS 14:39
Yeah, I have no interest in traveling out here solo, for example. I mean, there's tremendous personal growth that, that travel of this kind brings and I greatly admire those folks who choose to do it alone and sort of recoil into a world that is just the Earth and a single beating heart out here against the great white unknown, but that's not the calling that I feel for being out here. The, for me, it's the group process and it's the art of leadership and I have a real passion and love for, for the beauty of the place, the compelling silent beauty of the Arctic and I don't know that I can have the wherewithal to engage everyone in that same passion, but I find it, I enjoy the personal intrigue on each trip of seeing how many in the group I can not only have them savor the adventure element but also the aesthetic element of being in the Arctic. So to see what you can do with a mixed group of individuals on the trail is sort of the inventive, creative process that comes with adventure, that you're visiting a place but you're also visiting a state of mind and you multiply that many times over when that state of mind involves not one person, but a dozen people.

EA 15:57
So you get something out of seeing someone else find what you find in the beauty of this place.

PS 16:04
Absolutely. It reconfirms, it reaffirms the validity of what I find out here, too, because, some folks say, gee, you're just crazy to feel like this is a place you have a centering point, but if I can bring others out here who may be complete neophytes and may in fact have no particular compelling drive to go in the Arctic but yet they're here with me and they start to see the same things I see, well, obviously, that is going to be very reaffirming of what it is that I've come to know and love about the place.

EA 16:30
Reaffirming, that seems to be the word. What do you think about all these expeditions? I mean, I was so surprised we were, we come all the way to the North Pole and oh, there's the Italians over here, and oh, let's go see the Spanish guys over here, and oh yeah, they're skydiving over there.

PS 16:48
Well, it is a bit of a circus out there, but, it, you know, the North Pole represents by far one of the Earth's most significant geographic landmarks and among the great geographic landmarks of the planet, the North Pole is by far the most remote of the bunch. So it stands apart as, if you're seeking to set and mark and doing something significant in terms of a physical challenge and something significant geographically, the North Pole still reigns supreme.

EA 17:21
I guess there's something that connects all these expeditions.

PS 17:24
Well, there is, and I think, you know, those of us who enjoy extreme adventure. Extreme adventure for me and for the people you've met out there, our Spanish colleagues and others who are out there this year, if you talk to them, you'll hear this from them as well, that adventures and expeditions for us is life in fast forward. Most of us who do this sort of thing are Type A personalities, driven folks, and, in fact, find that expeditions are so demanding and require complete, your complete faculties, spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and physically virtually round the clock. And for me, it comes, funny little twist of fate for me, I call it the nail-biting test. If I've been biting my fingernails, I know that there's a few missing in my day-to-day, workaday world, but out here on the trail, beautiful long nails, so I know that I'm fully engaged at every level as I need to be to feel fulfilled, and expeditions grant you that because they're challenging on every possible level and you're all up your resources and there's few other things in life and, even with family and jobs, that offer something as demanding and fulfilling as life on the trail does.

EA 18:46
And yet after all the planning and all the logistics and all the headaches and nightmares and phone calls and everything else, you finally do get out and you're reminded of how small you are and how vulnerable you are.

PS 18:58
Oh absolutely, yeah. It reminds me of an experience I had on the sea ice, not on this trip but an earlier one. One of the phenomena of the polar sea is, of course, the ice is always moving and when it shatters and cracks, that is preceded by a low throb as the tension mounts from the sea ice from pressure building below with shifting tides and currents. So that low throb, you can always feel to coming up through your feet as a telltale sign that the ocean's about to give and so you sort of look for a firm sheet of ice on which to hold tight until the movement and the tension's released and you can sort your way through the cracks and carry on. And one such episode occurred a few years ago and I felt that low throb occurring about and I was some way from our camp. I had taken a stroll in the evening and became concerned that if the ice cracked and broke I might be separated from the safety and shelter of our group and our tents. So I was scurrying about out there in an ever increasing panic 'cause the throb and the sound grew ever louder and suddenly I gave pause and stopped and thought to try to pinpoint the source and realized what I was hearing was just my own heartbeat against the entire silence of the Arctic Ocean and mistaken that for the sense of throbbing sea ice, but that brought home so clear to me, which is, just me against this 5 million square mile expanse of shifting ice and just the warmth of body that separated me from that environment. But that truly, of all the experiences I had out there, really grippingly made me aware of how insignificant and minuscule we are against places as big as this up here in the Arctic.

EA 20:36
How do you describe it to someone? You know, I was only there for a little bit and I was walking around in circles trying to figure out how to explain it to people. What, how beautiful it is, and you've probably, you've had many, many, many, many hours to think about that. How do you describe it?

PS 20:53
Well, the single most powerful aesthetic quality of the Arctic is the light and it's really a theater of light. And even in our few days up at the North Pole there, I think we all got a taste of that because the sunlight, 24-hour sunlight veiled to differing degrees by a sea of fog and clouds and the dust of light snow that sometimes falls and the sparkle of the frost ferns on the sea ice and the sparkle of sunlight glistening off the flurry that's falling casts such delicate hues of color. Folks, of course, find it hard to imagine that the Arctic is anything but white, but there is a very subtle colors throughout the polar sea. Of course, there's the beautiful neon blues of the fresh ice, but then at times, too, early in the season when the sun does fall right close to the horizon, it casts a sunset orange hue across the entire surface and then everything glows in these pastel colors of blues and greens and reds and oranges and it's an immensely colorful place. So that theater of light which, you can't capture it in photographs or film and it's difficult to relay in words and it's really one of those things that's so subtle that you need to be there to experience it, but that of all the things that lends beauty to it is the light that's ever changing and subtly painting of the landscape that could be considered very monotone, but in fact, I find it to be quite the opposite. I find it to be just rich with a variety of delicate colors, but all of them, surprisingly, pleasing and in many ways warm colors, too. It never, except on days where you have whiteouts where you're trapped in blowing snow sea fog and can barely see the skis on your feet, the other days when the sun is apparent, the ever-changing colors out there I find immensely beautiful.

EA 22:50
Have you been to Antarctica?

PS 22:51
No, I haven't.

EA 22:53
I wonder if it's completely different. I don't know. I'll have to find out. I mean, what's your sense? Do you think that this, it can't be like this?

PS 23:00
Well, much of Antarctica, of course, is just the bald dome of undifferentiated ice with no topography. I mean, there are spectacular mountain ranges along the coastal areas, but the magnificent thing about the high Arctic, and in particular the polar sea, is that it's constantly changing and people have a hard time reckoning with that because a journey to the North Pole obliges you to travel over a moving surface to reach an invisible target. It's, to that extent, it's more a journey in the mind than it is in the flesh out there, 'cause there is no physically, physical identifying feature at the Pole. Unlike a mountain top, there's nothing there to tell you you've arrived except for the fact that it's the one spot in the Northern Hemisphere where the sun cuts a perfect circle in the sky as it spirals up and down between seasons. And the, that ever changing surface for me has meant that on my five journeys to the Pole, has been a completely different experience each time because the trail is completely new and different and the challenges are new and different every day and on some days, when the ocean's moving rapidly, the challenges are new and different every hour. So it's a remarkable experience in that regard. There's no other place on the planet that has that element of constant change and the unknown to it like the Arctic Ocean does.

EA 24:23
And the Pole's different every time you get to it.

PS 24:25
The Pole's different every time you get to it. It was a very, it was a very soft, welcoming, and pleasant Pole when we were there the other evening. I've been up at the Pole in times past where you arrive there and it's a massive shatter zone of fractured rubble ice piled up dozens of feet above the surface and it looks like the most forbidding, awful spot you could ever imagine and yet, here we see it this time around and it was as pleasant as could be.

EA 24:48
It was funny, Corky was saying, you know, he said, he felt like when we ran into all these people up there, he thought, well, if you ever get lost up here, just get to the Pole and somebody's bound to come along. Switching gears completely, what do you think about iridium phones and pagers and thing, I'm sure this was an issue when GPS's came out.

PS 25:08
Yeah, yeah. Well, you know, being of the old school myself, I had significant reservations about incorporating pagers and telephones on this expedition and in fact, though on the first evening out on the trail, as our group held our first huddle together to lay plans for the trip, trying to have a meeting and pagers are beeping and buzzing and vibrating in people's pockets and I'd had my fill of it and I said, "Listen, gang. Right here and now we're gonna put an end to this pager madness. We're turning these things off. We didn't come out here for this." And the group kind of hemmed and hawed 'cause I was downright angry. And, but they got the last laugh, because as it turned out, a day later, when my pages started coming and somebody showed me how to use the stupid thing and I realized, "Jeez, there are wonderful, warm messages from my wife and my kids," what an amazing source of support and energy to have with me on the trail, to have this connection with my family still. I soon became one of the biggest fans of the whole deal. So, and the pagers, I think it's gonna be a radical change in the whole nature of adventure travel and expeditions to remote places, the satellite telephone route, experiences ever since the turn of century, while radio communication has been available, even though it's 1990s here, the state of the art radio technology available for an expedition like ours, oh, is a very difficult process, stringing those delicate copper wires across the sea ice and warming the batteries in a teapot and screaming into the mic and wondering if there's sufficient propagation for someone to hear you or not, and it still is awkward and difficult and uncertain as it was ninety years ago when radios first came out. So the telephone has now changed all that. The, it also, one of the things I sort of personally dread coming back from a long trek, weeks of duration, is that first phone call home, as determined as I am to reconnect with family and friends, I know the first thing I'll hear is a long litany of all the problems that occurred while I was gone and need to be dealt with when I get back and world issues that need to be wrestled with and you just wondered, you know, did New York go up in flames or did the plumbing break down at home, and, but yet on this trip, we were getting little bits and pieces of news from the home front by way of the pagers en route and for this trip in particular, it was particularly poignant because we caught bits and pieces of news about the horrific tragedy with the incident in Colorado and the worsening crisis in Kosovo and had we not known about that, we would have come off the trail, called home in a real celebratory mood, tried to share that with family and friends, and then we in turn would have heard what they were wrestling with, with the horrible events that happened back on the home front with the tragedies. And yet, through the pagers, we were able in part to share in that grieving process even on the trail, which makes our transition to the real world a little more seamless than it might have been.

EA 28:12
You don't dread that call. But, you know, at the same time, you can have Craig falling into the drink and literally phoning it out right after it's happened.

PS 28:23
Well, yes, and the other example there is the one team member who truly, physically and mentally on one day of this trip, hit the wall, Dave Golibersuch, who was suffering mildly from frostbite and then at one point was sprawled across a dogsled in a hypothermic delirium and a very serious state of affairs for him in a day with biting cold headwind and all, we were obliged to just get him on his feet and get moving one foot in front of the other to warm himself from the inside out, but there was a moment that evening when it appeared that we may be looking at an evac flight to get him out of there, and he was willing, after we got him warmed up and comfortably settled into camp that night, he reflected on the experience with the group, as to how he was mustering the personal resolved to pull himself back together. And he shared that, those thoughts on the phone that night in a piece that went on the website. Well, the next day his pager went off like wild and dozens, dozens of supportive messages came from people all over the world to Dave and to see his eyes glistening as he read those messages that morning, that next morning in the tent, made all the difference in the world in his ability to pull it all completely back together and go to the front of the pack and plod on right up there with Corky on skis to lead the charge that day. So it was amazing transition, and it had a lot to do with the support he got from these anonymous folks out there that were really keen on what we were doing.

EA 29:49
So they had heard about what happened to him and then how he was doing and then messaged him? Is that how it worked? And then that helped his mentally?

PS 29:57
Oh, absolutely, yes. There were some wonderfully warm, supportive messages that came from school kids and there were a couple of folks from South Africa and England and as he read those in the tent that next morning over breakfast, you just saw this warm smile and he commented several times how meaningful it was for him to know that others out there were rooting for him.

EA 30:21
Is there a hierarchy, like, you know, a caste system, you know, of the toughest venture, this the group, the tourist adventure, the, do you¿

PS 30:34
Well, I don't know if there's a hierarchy. We're definitely separated into different camps, so to speak. There's the mountain climbing camps and there's sort of the Arctic camp and there's the Antarctic camp, and there's a little crossover. I mean, I'm familiar with some of the leading lights in the mountain climbing world and familiar with and met and spoke with some of the folks who lead in the charge in terms of Antarctic exploration and such and then, as you've seen up here, those of us who enjoy the Arctic have our own little coffee klatch as well, but there's not a lot of crossover amongst us and so therefore is not a hierarchy in terms of whether the folks that do Everest stand a notch above the folks who do the North Pole and so forth. We all just sort of have our own niche there and operate within that.

EA 31:10
So they're different disciplines.

PS 31:12
Very different. Very different set of skills. And we saw that in such striking contrast in our trip here as well, because several of the team members in this group came to our team by way of significant mountain climbing experiences. That was their sort of credentials to be selected to be part of our group. And yet, as it became apparent from day one, significant mountain climbing experience does not necessarily translate into what's needed to make it work on a trek to the North Pole. Frankly, some of the mountain climbers in our group had by the far the toughest physical challenge of the bunch because they were, they came on board extremely confident. What they had gained under treks to Everest and Akenkagwa and other major world mountains would give them what they needed to do this trip as well. It simply didn't. It didn't translate at any level, really and they really scrambled to pull it together when they realized it was a whole different ball game.

EA 32:05
No base camp.

PS 32:06
No base camp, that's right. That was a big part of it, yeah. And mountain climbing, it was interesting, because I've done a little bit of mountain climbing, very little, actually. Not enough to get a real sense of what comparisons could be made between Arctic trail and mountain climbing, but we did talk about that then quite a bit among the group, just to get a sense for, "Jeez, why doesn't this translate?" You'd think it might. But mountain climbing is a very different sort of game. You're traveling relatively short distances, maybe 1000 feet a day, and for climatization purposes, you're often spending weeks at a time in a camp, just resting and recharging, waiting for your next assault on another tier of the mountain. On an Arctic trek, you're basically obliged by the cold and the elements to go every day and to go significant distances because to go is to stay warm, to stop is to suffer, so there's no week long stretches at the base camp or R and R between, between marches, so for those folks who were accustomed to a much more segmented trip, this trip in here, traveling to the North Pole represented tremendous physical grind. But that's the nature of the game here.

EA 33:16
Have you experienced or are you worried about or fear the opposite of the reaffirming experience? I mean, if you draw so much out of bringing these folks together and their success, if someone gets seriously hurt or has a really bad experience, that must be really tough for you.

PS 33:33
Well, it is very tough for me and I worry about that immensely, obviously, first and foremost. These trips have to be done safely. And, you know, we've got a couple folks in this group now, virtually all of us took a hit with superficial frostbite. A few folks, a few members of our team have more significant frostbite and one has an issue with his back. We're waiting to hear how serious that might be. If, for example, I don't this will be the case with this group, but if, for example, one of those injuries resulted in a disability, I would be forever plagued by that, because even though those people made a free personal choice to endeavor in a project of this magnitude, I nonetheless had set the stage for that to happen. You know, I would wrestle with a sense of personal responsibility. But that's part of the leadership challenge of this as well, that you, you know, you undertake risks of that type, and with the risks, if they're handled appropriately, come the rewards.

begin walking during questions

EA 34:44
What's the, do you think you're gonna keep doing this?

PS 34:46
Well, I think so. It's certainly the most fulfilling professional challenge that I've found in my life. Fortunately, I'm in a family and business situation where I'm not obliged to do these back to back, year-round to make a go of it. For me, these really become a treat, something I'll do once or twice a year and then with the other elements of our livelihood that fill out the balance of the season for us back home in Minnesota. But because this is one way, a centering point for me where I feel fulfilled on every level, mentally, spiritually, physically, and emotionally, it's hard to imagine a time when I would no longer be doing these. And, of course, on a trip when we're having somebody along like Corky Peterson who was half-again as old as I am and doing something of this type and doing very well, that truly was an inspiration for me, too, to know that even 20 years from now, there's really no reason why I can't continue to do this very thing.

EA 35:52
You think if you'd had some wild adventure when you were younger, like in the desert or Mojave or someplace in, do you think you'd have the same feeling that you have for this place or do you think there's some special sort of draw to this, to the Arctic?

PS 36:04
Well, there's definitely a draw to the Arctic, but for me, it has a lot to do with growing up in Minnesota, where winter's a way of life and it comes with territory there and Minnesota winters, you know, are legendary in their own right, a challenge to be met year, every year. But I love the snowscape and I learned to love snow sports early on, so that's a big part of it for me, too, is that being out there on skis, being out on skis is such a fluid, graceful, artful activity that I'll spend day upon day on that and if the Arctic is a place that lets me do it for long expanses, then that's the place to go.

end of interview

37:35 -38:12
2 people walking away in snow, talking, getting in truck, door slammed

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