|Wired in the wilderness|
|Written by Jonathon WatermanHits : 616|
|Tuesday, 30 November 1999 19:00|
Editor's Note: Jonathan Waterman has been testing out equipment for us these past two years in the brutal environment of the Arctic. He has taken three trips there: two summer trips covering 2,000 miles from the the mouth of the Mackenzie River (near the Alaska-Canada border) to the Gulf of Boothia in what is the new Canadian province of Nunivut; and one winter trip in which he stayed at Goja Haven to live and hunt with the Inuit.
In that time, he has faced tremendous adversity, and so has his equipment. He has capsized his kayak in the 35-degree water and lived to tell about it. He has braved dangerous conditions during the most severe summer weather the Inuit elders can remember. And he has had several encounters with bears and other wildlife that easily could have had him for breakfast. His equipment has held up in freezing conditions, despite salt-water immersion in the bowels of a kayak and jostling over rugged portages.
Today's technology has improved to the point where people can engage in remote travel and still stay connected with loved ones (or in Jon's case, his educational partners back in the States). The first set of equipment we lent him failed miserably. One year later, the options were much better, and his equipment worked quite well under the circumstances. Of course, what works in the worst of circumstances should work well in milder conditions. And this is the lesson to be had for the average reader: Start thinking in terms of very remote access. Technology for such access is here, and it will become easier and cheaper in the years to come.
What follows is his report regarding the equipment he brought and how it fared in the most difficult circumstances.
During my first summer crossing the Northwest Passage, I carried no radio or satellite communication gear because I wanted to be left alone. In case of an emergency, I figured, I could always walk out a hundred miles. This is how Roald Amundsen did it in 1906, the third year that his ship was wintered in, to let the world know that he had completed the historic passage from Atlantic to Pacific.
In place of a firearm, I carried small signal flares. Instead of a computer, I carried a spiral notebook. I was entirely self-sufficient, and close to the heart of adventure, just as the pioneers knew it.
Before I started the second leg of my long solo journey--a thousand miles from Tuktoyaktuk to Umingmaktuuq--it no longer seemed fair to make my friends and family worry. So in 1998 I invested in a satellite phone and a shotgun. While the shotgun merely served as a sort of insurance policy, for protection against marauding bears, I came to rely on the satellite phone in order to talk to my fiancée twice a week. But the phone was a failure. It took up too much space in the kayak, weighed me down (with nearly 10 pounds) during a 15-mile portage and, as a final insult, stopped working altogether. When I became overdue by a few days, and missed a couple of agreed-upon callouts, my fiancée initiated a search. Thank God I arrived in Paulatuk before the Royal Canadian Police started an air search for me.
A Sharp palmtop computer, with a miniature digital camera attachment, also seemed like an ideal tool. But ultimately, the shrunken keyboard was too small to perform anything but tediously slow hunt-and-peck typing. And the camera would drain its AA batteries before I could finish taking a photograph. Both the phone and the palmtop were sent home.
For the rest of the summer, I merely carried a brick-sized personal locator beacon, for emergencies only. If switched on, this satellite beacon would alert military officials of an emergency. Theoretically, a helicopter would be scrambled to my location within a matter of hours after being tripped. But the device made me nervous. If you signaled for help, short of a disaster, rescuers would subject you to public ridicule. So when the test switch showed that the battery had died on this unit, a hundred miles from the nearest village, I felt strangely vindicated. (At about the same time, my Sony VX-1000 digital camera was also shut down by salt corrosion; fortunately I carried a spare Sony PC-10.) In the end, being completely self-sufficient, as well as relying upon long-dormant instincts to avoid danger, were probably the best tools I could carry. Or so I thought, until the next year.
In February of 1999, I lived for a month in the villages of Gjoa Haven and Pelly Bay. In order to maintain an educational Web site--AdventureOnline.com--I needed to e-mail out weekly journals, as well as photographs. In place of a palmtop, I took a 3.5-pound notebook: the Mag Portable Tiny Note. With a PC camera card, I was also able to send back digital still images (shot from various video cameras). As for the Tiny Note itself, it outshone the large laptop computer I used at home, and within a week's time, my fingers learned to negotiate the 10-inch-wide keyboard. For a field computer, little was compromised: It had a 2 GB hard drive, with 32 MB RAM (which I quickly upgraded to 64), and a 200 MHz CPU. So the first test went fine, and I learned that the Tiny Note would work for me, saving me the trouble of transcribing out of the spiral notebooks, as well as surviving the rigors of travel by virtue of its well-padded case and its durability.
The real test of both notebook and communication devices came later that summer, while I was kayaking the last 500 miles in decidedly stormy conditions. In lieu of a cumbersome and unreliable satellite phone, I carried Magellan's 36-ounce GSC-100, which enabled me to e-mail from the field, miles from any village telephone connections. Although the tiny keypad and 100 word-limit kept me from sending more than my position and "I'm OK, no bears, love, me" messages, the GSC-100 was reliable and durable. But to power it and the Tiny Note, I needed more than standard batteries.
This is where Golden Genesis came in. The Arizona-based manufacturer supplied me with a small lead battery, which I periodically charged with five- and 10-watt Uni-Solar panels. The battery, which I carefully monitored with a volt meter, then was used to charge both the GSC-100 and the Tiny Note. During travelling days, all of this gear was carefully packed in drybags. Since the vinyl solar panels were flexible and nearly unbreakable, they fit quite well into odd corners of my kayak. Even though my kayak was often sloshing with 39-degree seawater (killing another video camera--the Sony PD-100), none of my most important technology let me down.
Since the GSC-100 could not transmit or receive lengthy messages or images, I would e-mail (via a phone line) out my journals and images when I arrived in the villages. Based on previous experience with corrosive salt water and bumpy portages, I expected to kill the Tiny Note or the GSC 100--but I was wrong. Both survived.
And did I compromise my ideals by taking along communication technology? Hardly, because I would have finished the trip with or without this gear, which merely allowed me to share my experiences. In the end, a computer or a satellite e-mail device won't power your kayak.
Although I'm through with hazardous solo journeys, the Tiny Note remains the single talisman of my passage, the only piece of gear that has made it from the Arctic to the rest of my life. It is now with me on business trips, is rerigged to a larger keyboard and monitor and has brought you these words--from the vast, tangled circuitry of my brain and out to my fingers, onto a monitor screen, then out through its ES56-1 internal modem and onto this paper before you. Sometimes the biggest miracles come in the smallest packages.