A dog’s life, Alaska

Tom and I started the educational segment of the documentary a couple of months ago in the heat of Africa. We then headed to a school in New Jersey, USA and a then a special school in my home town of Coventry in the UK. This was the final piece where we would observe the culture and daily lives of students in Fairbanks, Alaska. At just under 200 miles south of the the arctic circle it’s a very cold and very snowy place, what I LOVE! But first a slight detour to another passion of mine – dogs.

Copy of _Even if something is left undone,everyone must take time to sit still and watch the leaves turn._ (2)My first experience of Alaska was 10 years ago when I met with two great mushers, Cody Strathe and his wife Paige. I was filming for a schools program I had created to inspire students in the UK to highlight the amazing relationship between musher and dogs. Alaska was new to me then and my only objective was the dogs. When I saw the area where they lived; the culture around dog mushing and how close the dogs and mushers were, the short films came together naturally. I left for home knowing there was a bigger story to tell.

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Squid Acres Kennel is around 40 minutes outside of Fairbanks. A wooded forest area in the wilds where Cody, Paige and their 55 dogs call home. This secluded area has nothing but a couple of wooden lodges which, I was amazed to discover, were hand built by both Cody and Paige. When times were tough and their skills were lacking they turned to Google for construction advice. Literally building their home from the ground upwards – a life changing experience. The wooden building constructed above the the dogs kennel area serves as a home and the other is a workshop, both made from trees in their local area. Cody builds custom dogsleds for other mushers through his company, DogPaddle Designs, he also builds custom handcrafted paddles and wooden boats. Cody’s creative side was born after his father bought him an electric hand jigsaw for cutting wood and designing – he was 6 years old.

Over the years Cody and Paige have broken trails through the woods and into the open areas around them, over frozen lakes and around mountains to run their dogs. The dogs are taken out on sledge runs every single day where they run from 5-8 hours or more… At first this practice of running them for so long struck me as a little strange and perhaps harmful to the dogs, but it quickly became apparent this was not the case – actually, quite the opposite! I saw for myself how much the dogs love the freedom of running! In fact, if the dogs are given a couple of days rest they are literally jumping up and down to get back out. Running is clearly in their nature and what they hunger for.

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Cody and Paige know their dogs very, very well – all their individual, quirky characters and also their nature, strengths, intelligence, personality traits and temperance. This deep knowledge and understanding allows them to work out the position of each dog in the team so the pack performs to it’s optimum and natural strength in a race. Picking a team for 1000 mile races like The Yukon Quest or the Iditarod is like selecting a premiership football team. Positioning the dogs in the correct running order is important but the relationship of the pack leader to the musher is vital. Pack leaders are highly skilled and intelligent dogs. Some say the bond between a musher and their lead dog is almost telepathic.

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I must mention one last thing before I end this instalment. I went into Squid Acres Kennel knowing how much these dogs are loved. However, there has been some negative press in dog racing over the years that I feel I must address.

The press are prone to picking up a success story and finding a negative angle – even with Everest. This can be a good thing, of course, as controversy leads to investigation. Every angle should be covered to allow for adjustment of actions and justice. The heart of the story is this; the bond between a musher and their dogs is incredible. Dogs are not fooled, even a subtle change in demeanour can be picked up by these highly intelligent, socially aware animals. If there were any impropriety that connection would be lost before crossing any start line.

These dogs are simply adored by their owners and running is something they crave. The only way they can be kept happy is by running them out in natures wilds. No walk in the park or jog on the beach would be enough. Dogs aim to please their owners and these dogs do that by pulling sledges with their musher while in their natural canine pecking order – with the leader at the front. Cody and Paige have given up everything to build a life based around dogs. They have designed their perfect life away from Fairbanks, a major city (although quiet) away from urban society. They swapped that for a bucolic relationship with the environment. They are able to sustain their alternative lifestyle through complete immersion – something I envied.

familyshotTheir way of life only reinforces my belief that, while we live in cities and feel like we’re the ones affected by climate change it’s easy to assume it’s out of our control or being handled elsewhere? No. Places like this should be seen and visited to understand how people are truly connected to their environments. There was meant to be deep snow while we were filming but there was hardly any. Vehicles were often used to run the dogs instead. The snow is disappearing. The seasons are getting shorter and that affects everything from crops, wildlife, landscapes and the people who make their lives here – even to the way the land is shaped through seasonal changes. It’s these people who rely on and work with nature who understand best how important seasons and migrations are. These environmental issues are affecting communities everyday and impacting the way they live in these wonderful, natural places. Alaska is a pure way of life and it was beautiful to experience it with Cody and Paige… and 55 dogs!

 

All picture credits to Tom Martienssen – more information here

Protecting Africa’s wildlife heritage

Their enemies are the poachers – poor locals, attracted to a bloody job with the promise of money – 18+ months wages for one nights work. They enter protected areas heavy handed and heavily armed, killing elephants and rhino in shocking hits of up to 9 at a time. The poachers take the horns and disappear. However, the people who make the real money are waiting at the other end ready to deliver the stolen goods to a waiting market – exported to buyers in eastern countries. A brutal and violent business.

africatwitt.pngOur trip to Africa was the start of a two year project filming for a documentary. Tom Martienssen (IMDB) and I were in Africa to meet and talk to a school we’ll be connecting with from Everest. We wanted a deeper understanding of the people, area and culture we were working with.

They live in a protected area for zebra, lions, rhino, elephants, leopards – all the iconic animals of Africa. The preservation of these animals is vital as their populations have been severely depleted over the last 30 years – rhino protection being very high on the preservation list as they are literally down to the last couple of hundred animals. We had a strong feeling this story should be told.

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Borana is under the protection of an anti-poaching team called For Rangers. The person who trains the rangers is Pete Newland – one of the chaps climbing Everest with us next year on Expedition 8848. It made sense to film Pete in his work environment while also giving us great access to expand our story working with the rangers during training. Fortunately we arrived at a time when Pete was already on a 10 day training event which was perfect.

We spent valuable time with the rangers in training; eating and drinking with them, seeing their very basic military accommodation, how they lived from day to day. We got to know them pretty well and got a great understanding of how they lived together on the range, they openly shared their hopes and desires as people of Africa and also their concerns. We learned about their families and reasons for wanting to be rangers. We saw a committed, passionate team of people with a strong desire to protect their land and wildlife heritage.

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Their enemies are the poachers – poor locals, attracted to a bloody job with the promise of money – 18+ months wages for one nights work. They enter protected areas heavy handed and heavily armed, killing elephants and rhino in shocking hits of up to 9 at a time. The poachers take the horns and disappear. However, the people who make the real money are waiting at the other end ready to deliver the stolen goods to a waiting market – exported to buyers in eastern countries. A brutal and violent business. The rangers are outnumbered by poachers but stand their ground at the front line as a deterrent – they’re dealing with a huge problem and sometimes a heavy hand is required.

We were able to witness, first hand, the level of training the rangers are put through. High level training delivered by specialist soldiers from the UK. We joined them for helicopter drills – flying low over the African plains, jumping out of the helicopter and going to ground. The helicopters are used to distribute the teams to various locations on the plains quickly. Once they’re on the ground the rangers walk to their position for night patrols – so the helicopters are well away from them. The rangers have to walk 2/3km to get to a high position to see across a particular location. Their aim is to protect the rhino but also keep an eye out for any poachers coming through.

This modest group of men are regularly called upon to defend Africa’s wildlife from the constant threat of, well funded and well equipped, poaching groups. 

One night we were able to drive into a location with three rangers to witness their activities first hand. One person to guide and the other two on patrol for the night. They got into position and guided us in while checking the area for enemies – the poachers. They got to a site with a clear view for the evening. With them, they had a rucksack with dry food only – they can’t cook or start a fire, any light could alert the enemy to their presence. They can’t put up a tent for shelter because this would be seen as a break in the skyline – Africans have a great eye for seeing these things. These guys are able to spot an animal 3km away, hiding in a bush when we would need binoculars! The poachers are the same – if they spot soldiers operating an area they gain an upper hand so the rangers need to be very, very careful. Equipped with night sights and weapons these highly trained, elite units protect their land 24 hours of the day. The results of this drastic action are positive. It’s proven that over the last 5 years there hasn’t been any animal killings by poachers so the message is truly getting through – it’s not a good idea to be involved in poaching on any level, no matter the financial reward.

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The time we spent with these guys, not only, gave us perspective but a new view. Their need to protect and support their environment, animals and their families is deeply ingrained. Fighting a perverse war between humans against animals, versus humans protecting the animals – a bizarre situation.

There is a brutal truth to this story and in my opinion, my personal view on this subject as an explorer? The only way to combat the slaughter is to send clear messages. Messages about destruction of the environment, animals, protection of our beautiful creatures on this planet. Humans act like we own the planet, there’s an arrogance about it – we lead busy lives and have an economy to run – not everyone of course, but some people do, too many people. I can’t tell you how great it is to see awesome teams like the rangers who are committing their lives to do the right thing. I have been honoured and humbled to be allowed into their world. They work to protect their lands but really they’re working for us all.

The Spirit of George

Introduction to Mallory 

As an explorer my interest isn’t just about heading out on expedition into the extremes – over the years I have been inspired by the great pioneers who left their homes and families to literally step out into the unknown. One such explorer is British mountaineer, George Herbert Leigh Mallory.  

Recently I was invited to George’s home village in the UK – for me moments like this are humbling as I get to see the life behind the legend…

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GM – back row / second from left

 

George was born 18 June 1886 in the small village of Mobberley in Cheshire UK. He was the son of Herbert Leigh Mallory, a clergyman who changed his surname from Mallory to Leigh-Mallory in 1914. His mother was Annie Beridge, the daughter of a clergyman in Walton, Derbyshire. George also had two sisters and a younger brother who were raised in a 10-bedroom house on Hobcroft Lane in Mobberley. Continue reading “The Spirit of George”

Inspiring teachers and students

6 years ago after my solo expeditions to the North and South Geographic poles I ran an education programme called “My Life in a Freezer”

Part of this was to hold one day where schools could meet our polar teams, understand modern day exploration – learn about environmental issues and have fun. We did this at the Coventry Rugby Club / UK. This is the first time I met the students and teachers of Sherbourne Fields Special school. Continue reading “Inspiring teachers and students”

Favourite Photographs

I arrived back into the UK late this evening and for the next 3 days I’ll be staying at the Frontline Club in Paddington / London.

I have meetings with various companies about the work in Nepal and on the 14th I’m going to attend The Explorers Club – Great Britain and Ireland Chapter evening function.

On reflection I have chosen 20 of my favourite photographs from the Himalayas. I hope you like them.

Continue reading “Favourite Photographs”