The Twilight Expedition
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Outside magazine, September 1997
The Twilight Expedition
It’s a bitter time to be a serious explorer. After all, Magellan circled the world centuries ago. Stanley hacked a path deep into the Congo back in the 1800s. And Tenzing and Hillary knocked off Everest two generations past. Which leaves history-book hopefuls like Lonnie Dupre in an awful bind. Yes he might become the very first person to
Lonnie Dupre can’t find his anorak. He wore the tan, hooded pullover with military pride while turbo-jetting across the white, frozen prairies of Baffin Bay on a 727. It exuded official splendor: the red-and-white “Dupre” splashed across the chest, the five radiant corporate logos popping from the breast and sleeves. Gawkers at the Ottawa
This was no ordinary jacket. It had the clean lines of an Eskimo parka, and those crucial logos — he wouldn’t even be here without the logos and the sponsorship money they symbolize — and a sleek, waterproof cotton no nonexplorer yahoo could hope to get his mitts on. “They sewed it special for me from a fabric used only by the Swedish
“I kept track of everything else,” he says, his north woods twang quivering. “I built the sleds and welded the polar bear cages to guard our food. I arranged all the sponsors, wrote the newsletters. I can’t believe this is happening.”
It’s not like Lonnie to panic. Even in the face of dismal setbacks, he usually rattles off snappy keep-your-chin-up adages: Doris Day with facial hair. There’s more at stake here, however, than just staying warm; any number of parkas can do that. But the missing logos from his corporate benefactors — who are footing the bill for this expedition in exchange for the
Lonnie attaches much personal meaning to this trip, too. It’s his shot at redemption. As a professional explorer, he spends most of his days dreaming up adventures, raising money to finance them, and then gallivanting off with faith that like James Cook or Vasco da Gama he will return with precious new facts about the world. “What I do is not that different from what the
But Lonnie, convinced he had become the scapegoat in a tragedy no one could have foreseen, slowly mounted a Travolta-style comeback. Two years ago, he began soliciting donations for this 18-month Greenland expedition, and he has accumulated almost $200,000 in equipment and promised cash. Frankly, the trip sounds horrible: kayaking 1,400 miles up the island’s west coast, which
Lonnie is short, not quite five-foot-five, and slim, with curly hair and a neatly cropped beard. He looks as you imagine a French-Canadian voyageur might, and indeed his mother claims sixteenth-century explorer Jacques Cartier, founder of Montreal, as a distant twig in the family tree. Lonnie grew up dipping Skoal, driving pickups, and thrashing about the thick stands of hardwood
Now, in less than 24 hours, the two members of the International Greenland Expedition will begin breaking trail through the icebergs in their kayaks, hoping their 4,762-mile lark will catapult them into the record books. And surely their chances for fame will only increase when the film crew arrives — it should get here any minute now, Lonnie says — to record the
After rummaging through every last duffel, Lonnie gives up on the missing anorak and pulls on a backup jacket belonging to his wife, Kelly. It’s not a bad-looking coat, but it’s trimmed with embroidered roses. Roses! Robert Peary, who wore caribou skin on his arctic trips, would no doubt cringe. Worse, if Lonnie’s sponsors catch a glimpse of him posing in his wife’s logo-free
Not that Greenland seems much more exotic at the moment. Fog is rolling in, and it’s drizzling. A backhoe pulls into the quarry and dumps a load of boulders into a giant steel funnel; then somebody flips a switch to start the bone-rattling business of crushing rocks into sand. A cheerful ten-year-old Inuit boy in a Nike sweatshirt circles the kayaks and gear on his bicycle,
“We…go…around…Greenland,” Hoelscher tells the man, slowly and loudly, as people do when they don’t speak the language. He holds up a hand to simulate Greenland and draws a circle around it with a finger.
None of this registers with the hunter, so Hoelscher tries a different angle. “This summer…we… go…to…Thule,” he shouts, hoping the man will grasp their short-term goal of making it to north Greenland by September. Blink, blink. Then a toothless smile spreads across the old man’s face. He starts to giggle. It is, he must know, 100-plus days to Thule, through ungodly, icy
Lonnie exhales and looks away. The Great Explorers of Yore didn’t put up with this kind of crap from the locals. They just didn’t put up with it. Riding all the way from Portugal to the South Pacific in those clunky fifteenth-century caravels and fending off saber-wielding vagabonds on the Silk Road had their unpleasantries. But this is most undignified. How could he possibly
“Thule?” The old man has calmed down enough to voice a question, a lone syllable of flawless English: “Why?”
Just six months earlier, it seemed Lonnie’s dream excursion might never happen. After a year of proposals pleading for companies to help, not one had agreed to provide him with any cash. “Some expeditions immediately hook up with a sponsor that drops a million,” he said at the time. “Others have to piece together $10,000 donations. It’s looking as though our trip will be more of
the latter.” Thor-Lo had sent a case of socks — more than he and Hoelscher could use on the trip — so they planned to sell them to neighbors for $10 a pair.
Another contributor, the Seelye Plastics Company of Duluth, kindly agreed to pitch in with some pro bono plastic welding on the kayaks. “We live in a plastic world,” said a Seelye sales rep. “Thanks to Lonnie, our plastic — polyethylene, the finest plastic known to man — is now going where no plastic has gone before.”
Exploration is a particularly western pursuit, an expression of the belief that chaos is intolerable, that the unknown is ultimately knowable, and that fame and riches await those souls willing to crawl into the breach. But what happens when hardly any blank areas remain on the map? In Columbus’s day, maps charted three-tenths of the globe fairly accurately. Now, someone has
That’s not to say adventurers have no challenges left. The sea bottom still beckons; dozens of Himalayan peaks remain unclimbed; central Africa has managed to bar from a few swatches of jungle most of the industrialized world. “Siberia, Pacific Canada — hell, even the American Southwest: All are home to decent-size patches that still need serious exploration,” says Alfred
But as historian Daniel J. Boorstin writes, exploration is not exploration without the bringing back of new, groundbreaking observations about the world. Is civilization really advanced by trips dreamed up solely for the sake of being “first” to do something — anything — so the outcome can hastily appear on the World Wide Web? Compared with the findings Meriwether
The events of July 20, 1969, didn’t help matters. Nothing made probing the earth’s more desolate corners seem more blasë than the sight of Armstrong and Aldrin hopping around and swinging a golf club on the moon. At the same time, and perhaps more significant, scientists were peering into the microscopic crannies of cells. Last year, astrophysicists in England discovered
Greenland, for instance, still sounds isolated and forbidding, and ice covers most of it. But 55,000 people live there. Though some still pursue semitraditional Inuit lifestyles, hunting seals and whales, most live quite modernly. They drive Toyotas, play computer games, sue their neighbors, eat fresh mangoes from Africa, phone their girlfriends, deliver pizzas, and in Nuuk,
Wild or not, such places this year will draw close to 1,000 expeditioners backed by sponsors (who will chip in anything from a sleeping bag to $3 million cash). And one group hangs onto the grand old pastime as tightly as explorers themselves: the corporations that support expeditions. For them, exploration is big business — the “exploromercial” industry, you might call it.
Companies donate money and/or equipment to outgoing expeditions. In return, explorers assist their sponsors in various ways, from testing gear to wearing a logo to touring the country afterward giving slide presentations and motivational speeches to frumpy sales forces.
The age of the exploromercial arguably began in the 1980s. Corporations, flush with cash during the precrash Reagan years, were touting a new buzz phrase, “integrated marketing”: using means beyond conventional advertising to sell product. (A trend that reached full fruition when college football’s Independence Bowl became the Poulan/ Weedeater Bowl.) Around 1985, a former
DuPont agreed to give Steger about $100,000. Corporations had sponsored expeditions before in hopes of benefiting from the hype surrounding them — most notably, the New York Herald’s bankrolling of Henry Morton Stanley’s African hunt for Dr. David Livingstone, and Eddie Bauer and the National Geographic Society’s backing of the first American ascent of Everest in 1963.
This was bold new territory, and DuPont struck gold. By May 1, 1986, when Steger and company reached the Pole, more than 400 newspapers were carrying regular updates of their travels. By journey’s end, DuPont reported 240 million “brand impressions,” meaning the name DuPont or Quallofil had been seen 240 million times in print or on TV. That much exposure via conventional
The Internet and low-priced digital cameras gave sponsors new tools to milk more out of their expedition investments. With laptops, cell phones, and Web pages, expeditions did not have to unfold in silence thousands of miles from nowhere. Now they could be beamed live into classrooms, homes, newsrooms, and boardrooms. The explorer could work toward better brand awareness with
“You hear a lot of whining these days about there being nothing left to do,” says Steger (whose Antarctica patrons actually included an official jazz musician, Grover Washington Jr., who composed a song in honor of the trip). “But electronic communications have created a new frontier for us to pioneer: real-time exploring. Everybody — from Ph.D. candidates working on a
Just as the flow of corporate money was surging, global positioning system units arrived in stores, making it harder to get lost in the backcountry and easier to imagine oneself an expeditioner. Proposals asking for handouts — from seasoned alpinists and freeloading Mittys alike, each fancying himself the next Steger — flooded into companies’ mailrooms. To
“Some of the proposals are so absurd,” says The North Face’s Anker. “We pull them out of the stack and post them on the wall.” Anker says he sees dozens of pitches a week, from well-planned attempts to put up new mountaineering routes to “Joe Schmoe looking for somebody to bankroll his hari-kari mission.”
Even well-financed proposals can descend into self-parody. In 1993, a 35-year-old British parachutist named Nish Bruce planned the world’s highest free fall, a sky-dive from a ten-million-cubic-foot helium balloon 23 miles aloft; Loel Guinness, of the well-known British banking family, would fund it. “Fiber optic cameras in [the parachutist’s] helmet and a microwave
Enough is enough, decided one successful adventurer, Paul Schurke. A coleader of Steger’s 1986 team and a friend of Lonnie Dupre, Schurke in 1990 quit corporate-sponsored expeditions altogether and now leads dogsled trips for paying clients instead. “Expeditions aren’t resonating with people in Seattle or Peoria anymore,” he says. “The only people who care about all these
Five months before departure: Lonnie lands his first big fish, a smeared fax from Greenlandair offering 75 percent off airfare. “Timex gave us a big no,” he reports. “But they said they thought the trip was really valid. They think we’re onto something.”
Four months before departure: “Who in God’s name is Lonnie Dupre?” says the annoyed voice on the phone, a marketing executive for Victorinox, a maker of Swiss Army knives. “I’ve got a stack of proposals in front of me, and I don’t see any by — what’s his name? Lonnie Prudhomme?”
Lonnie’s proposal seems to have slipped through the cracks. So he faxes another barrage of info to Victorinox, this time offering to haggle about his $100,000 asking price for lead sponsorship. He also gambles with a common sales trick: feeding the illusion that the expedition is reaching critical mass, that your company might miss the boat if you don’t sign up today — even
though practically no one has pledged money yet. “A documentary is in the works,” he says. “Outside magazine has shown some interest. We’ve got a major airline lined up.”
It works. Weeks later, Victorinox comes aboard, for a mere $37,000.
“They either say it’s too early for next year’s budget or too late for last year’s,” Lonnie says. “There’s a real art to figuring out how these guys allocate their money.”
It’s a blustery November afternoon in Grand Marais, Minnesota, months before takeoff, and Lonnie is in the basement of the International Greenland Expedition’s headquarters, a peeling clapboard cottage he’s purchased, just up the street from Buck’s Hardware.
Epoxy fumes clot the basement air, and Lonnie is scrunched over a pool-cue-size piece of stainless steel, slicing it with an electric circular saw. The resulting shriek is earsplitting, and white-hot sparks from the carbide blade pelt him. Lonnie plans to bolt the steel rod onto the chassis of a training sled that’s taking shape atop two sawhorses. So far, his dogs have taken
Upstairs, the Team IGE nerve center — formerly someone’s living room — is humming. The motley sales staff, in worn jeans and plaid flannel shirts, consists of Hoelscher, Kelly Dupre, and Gary Atwood, a local who helps out part-time. With a ping and patter of typing, phoning, and faxing, the crew is urging corporate America to cough up some free gloves, or hats, or
Unlike Lonnie — the romantic of the group — Hoelscher, a redheaded, goateed wag, seems to view the expedition as an extra-long semester at electronics camp. An electrician by training, he once spent a year and a half wiring a research center in Antarctica. He’ll be hauling a veritable Radio Shack with him in Greenland: laptop, satellite phone, two radios,
“I think circumnavigating Greenland is definitely one of the remaining grails,” Lonnie says.
Hoelscher: “No doubt whatsoever.”
Lonnie’s quest for the Big One, the trip that will make him a legend, has gone on for more than ten years, ever since his first Alaska trip, a 73-day backcountry trek that he christened the Brooks Range Experiment. Soon after that, he started raising Inuit sled dogs and thinking up places to take them. In 1989, Schurke invited him on the Bering Bridge Expedition, a 1,200-mile
Three years later, he’d raised enough money to launch a project of his own, the Northwest Passage Expedition, a trip that will likely haunt him for the rest of his life. Lonnie and three others set out by dogsled from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, in midwinter, headed for Churchill, Manitoba, 3,000 miles east. Midway through the course, poor snow cover forced them to reroute over
In the aftermath, Lonnie got hammered. Animal welfare groups criticized the expedition. DuPont and Natural Life pulled their sponsorship. Steger publicly urged Lonnie to quit. But he continued and eventually made it to Churchill. “I’ve loved every dog I’ve ever owned,” he says, recalling that gruesome winter. “It killed me to watch them drop.” It seemed to kill his market value
But Stevens underestimated Lonnie’s willpower and bulletproof optimism. The explorer lay low for a couple of years, running stripped-down arctic vacations. In 1995 he hatched the Greenland idea and started working the phones again in his relentless, down-home style. “Hello, this is Lonnie Dupre,” he says, raising the pitch and volume on the e in “Dupre” like a character in
By Lonnie’s calculations, it will cost $225,000 to circle Greenland. The heftiest expense, about $68,000, involves getting 168 cardboard boxes dropped off along the route. Puffy with oatmeal, dried noodles, dog food, and spare sled parts (and some of them tucked inside steel-girded polar bear cages), these boxes traveled in the musty holds of ships from Minnesota to Iceland.
Communications taxes the checkbook, too. The team is borrowing a $20,000 satellite phone, but it costs $4.95 per minute to use. And in the far north, it will only pick up static. Thus they’re also bringing a satellite transmitter, so Lonnie can file weekly diary entries with his Web site designer in Minneapolis and occasionally chat with sponsors, for $10 a day. Team IGE will
In the long run, what does Lonnie get out of all his blood, sweat, and panhandling, besides a long, frigid exile? “If all goes well, you come home alive, and companies really know who you are,” he says. “They know you’re a trustworthy explorer. Next time, it should be easier to raise money.” But money, he adds, is secondary. “Man’s obsession with the last frontier hasn’t
After putting away his tools, Lonnie drives the 24 winding miles to a log cabin he built atop a ridge shadowed by maples. “Out here, nobody can hear the dogs,” he says. Good thing, because the dogs, chained to the ground in a 30-yard-long line the way Inuit hunters chain theirs, are jumping out of their matted gray-brown skins and baying like wolves at the prospect of a run.
For the first time today the muscles in Lonnie’s face loosen. The air is cold, and tiny grains of snow click against the chassis. In front of him, the dogs, their breath hanging in wet cloudlets in front of their noses, pull in the direction of the North Pole. On afternoons like this, away from the phones, the fax machine, and the chilly marketing-department receptionists,
Three months to go: free long underwear and socks from a Norwegian company, but no cash. “We’ve got to start thinking big,” Lonnie says. He and Hoelscher flip through Time, looking at ads. “Insurance would be a good area to explore,” Hoelscher says. “The company could say, ‘Hey, look at us. If we’re willing to insure a risky arctic endeavor, we’ll certainly provide good
While adventurers sniff around for ways to cover their bases, so do sponsors. The North Face and Sector, an Italian watchmaker, have sought to cut their risk of having a single project backfire with bad publicity by launching adventure “teams.” “We hedge our bets by always having somebody out in the field,” says Jonathan Nettelfield, Sector’s director of marketing. “If somebody
“This guy is crazy, wacky,” says a tall, athletic man with short hair and big teeth. “I mean out of control — a real screw loose.” He’s kneading Lonnie’s knotted shoulders like a corner man prepping a prizefighter. “Lonnie’s going to be putting our product through a real test, takin’ it to the edge.”
Lonnie is in Las Vegas, standing in a sterile, orange-carpeted sales cubicle amid a sea of booths at the convention center, two blocks off the Strip. It’s the annual Ski Industries America trade show, where makers of winter sports gear peddle their wares to retailers. The show also draws droves of sullen teens, girls with bare midriffs and boys with peroxide buzz-cuts and
It’s two months before liftoff, and Lonnie badly needs cash. He’s raised $28,500, enough to get to Greenland but not enough to stay for long. So he’s courting Frisby Technologies, maker of ComforTemp foam insulation for wetsuits and ski gloves. Two weeks ago he tested a pair of its mitten liners on a dogsled trip, and he’s here to report back — and hopefully to squeeze
“Lonnie, you took ComforTemp to Canada, didn’t you?” the salesman says, surrounded by three or four colleagues. “Tell us, how’d the product perform for you?”
“Let’s see how to put it,” Lonnie begins. He pauses, groping for words. The reps gawk and smile. “I’d wake up in the morning and put them on,” he finally blurts out, “and I couldn’t move my fingers. They really stiffen up on you.”
The sales reps exchange quick, darting glances. “I mean, really stiff,” Lonnie says. Then he notices the nervous looks all around him. “But boy, were they warm once they got loosened up!”
Just under two months to go: Despite the awkwardness in Vegas, Lonnie signs with Frisby Technologies for $30,000. “I can’t believe this opportunity is still available,” says Greg Frisby, owner and CEO. “It amazes me that other companies aren’t begging him to be a part of this. The fit is perfect for us, since we’re about providing comfort in the extreme. You could say that our
On the evening before the team leaves for Greenland, a dozen blue, red, and green nylon backpacks and duffels form a pyramid by the front door of headquarters, but no one seems very enthused. Lonnie, his eyes drooping from lack of sleep, sits at his desk, plowing through a pile of bills, signing check after check.
He’s managed commitments for $73,000 in cash — good news. But a few…inconveniences have arisen.
(1) About an hour ago, Hoelscher crunched some numbers and realized they don’t have enough food headed for the ice cap. If they don’t get another box up there, they’ll run out. So Hoelscher is frantically faxing Denmark, trying to spark a Danish warehouse crew to unload oatmeal and kibble from one box, which has too much, and fill another box with it.
(2) Two weeks ago, the production company told Lonnie that because of budget constraints, they couldn’t send a sound crew, just a cameraman and a producer, but the documentary was a go. Lonnie left a blizzard of messages with the company this week with directions to the launch point, but curiously, nobody has called back.
(3) The dog problem. Greenland’s national veterinarian has just ruled that Lonnie can’t bring his sled dogs — his well-trained, finely prepped sled dogs. The country doesn’t want to risk foreign dogs fouling the health or lineage of its own. This is awful news. It means Team IGE will have to buy new dogs — about $2,800 for a fleet of 14 — four months into the
There has been additional vexing news from the Danish Polar Center, the agency that oversees travel across Greenland’s ice cap. In April, Lonnie received a fax in broken English stating that his plan to cross the ice by moonlight during the long polar winter was unacceptable. Basically, the DPC didn’t want to risk having to fish anyone out of a crevasse in the dark. Thus the
Odder still, the DPC also informed Lonnie, again out of concern for the safety of the team and the welfare of the ice cap, that he must now take along a former member of the Danish military. An escort! The International Greenland Expedition had suddenly become a chaperoned tour.
Still at his desk, Lonnie signs one last check, a hospital bill from when he nearly sliced off two fingers working on the dogsled. Hoelscher proposes a toast and pours two glasses of rum. “To Greenland,” he says.
“To Greenland,” Lonnie answers. Then he adds, “I’ve got to get up early. Mrs. Mahoney wants me to check on the door I rebuilt for her. She says the frame is settling and she can’t get it open.”
One month to go: Shagging down every last freebie he can muster, Lonnie scores a goat milk sponsor. The Santa Barbara-based Meyenberg dairy agrees to supply him with 45 pounds of powdered milk to pour over his morning oatmeal. “Hopefully, Lonnie can mention us a few times when he’s talking to the press,” says Bob Brownson, a Meyenberg spokesman. “Maybe he can say how pleasantly
May 16, departure day: Lonnie is eating canned sardines, which he bought yesterday in the quick-shop up the road from the Paamiut quarry. He’s wearing his custom-sewn, logo-festooned anorak; it seems he left it at the indoor rec center in Nuuk two days ago, and someone turned it in. He mops up the mustard sauce in the bottom of the tin with an unyielding hunk of baguette. Gray,
At two in the afternoon, after a last-minute run to the store for kerosene, Lonnie and Hoelscher slide their kayaks into the water. Despite the press release he received, the governor of Paamiut hasn’t come to see them off, though two thickish Inuit guys from the loading dock have stopped by. Lonnie makes a quick call on a borrowed cell phone, letting a sponsor know Team IGE is
Brad Wetzler is a former senior editor of Outside.
Photographs by Craig Cameron Olsen; Brad Wetzler