Sleds, Sleighs, and Sledges

Written by Nate Stewart

Mike and Chris operating the differential GPS mounted to one of five Siglin sleds we are towing on the traverse. Siglin sleds are made by David at Northern Sled Works, a one-man operation in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Mike and Chris operating the differential GPS mounted to one of five Siglin sleds we are towing on the traverse. Siglin sleds are made by David at Northern Sled Works, a one-man operation in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Although much has changed over the course of more than one hundred years of unsupported Arctic traverses, one notable character has changed very little. The brave and elegant sled, ever-silent beneath its burden, steadfast and unrelenting, has propelled, assisted, and saved the lives of men since our storied relationship with snow began. There is, perhaps, no tool more emblematic of the north. Often the very first piece of gear to be built, purchased, repaired, or revitalized in preparation for the ensuing winter’s travel, the sled has remained at the heart of polar innovation. Its evolution is the product of a living history of careful consideration, critical failure, and essential success and has involved the trials and ingenuity of a phenomenally diverse community of high latitude peoples. Trans-Arctic variation in sled design reflects the relative availability of flexible yet sturdy materials in an inherently sparse and resource-limited landscape. Over the years, optimal materials have included whale bone, fish skin, driftwood, shipwreck salvage, metal, plastic, and carbon fiber. Intriguingly, though materials of choice have changed and both time and space have separated local processes of research and design, general sled architecture has remained identifiably consistent. Snow and the universal need to glide over it has selected for the development of highly specialized yet strikingly simple creature. Despite the unerring devotion and praise these companions deserve and the sincere reverence and care all sled-users should bestow upon them, sleds have forever been heavily- loaded, lashed, and altogether beaten during their history of heroic travel. Those that faithfully follow us up here on the Greenlandic ice sheet are no exception. The seven sleds currently assisting us in our expedition are responsible for transporting over 4500 pounds of critical scientific and survival gear across 2100 miles of continuous snow. As we move we constantly check them, looking back over our shoulders at our own and further afield to one another’s, and every single time we stop we unload and reload. If we had a penny for moment we each spent handling them we would rolling in it not “sliding over it”. Here is how these seven stalwart vessels divide our awesome burden:

Chris attempting to streamline "the science sled".

Chris attempting to streamline “the science sled”.

Behind Mike fly two sleds linked in sequence. The first, “the science sled”, is roughly 4 feet tall and 10 feet long and is loaded with 800 pounds of critical scientific sampling gear.  Given the nature of the expedition we are required to bring our entire snow sampling laboratory with us. No chance to duck-in to the office next door to borrow a balance or a beaker from a colleague . . . our nearest collaborator is at least 2000 miles away and is likely sound asleep, warm, and already thinking about the summer.  Despite the high priority of our technical instruments and the irreplaceability of our snow density , snow crystal type,  snow surface area, snow temperature, and snow surface albedo sampling gear,  this is by far our jankiest sled. It’s a bird’s nest of ratchet straps, a tower of insulated ice core boxes, and a high speed insult to all things aerodynamic and graceful. It may well be the embodiment of the hungry scientific mind in motion: packed with elegant sensors sensing but outwardly apparently senseless. The resemblance to our own academic offices, labs, and ship’s wheel houses at home is simultaneously comforting and slightly embarrassing.

Mike’s second sled is entirely devoted to gas. We are talking 24 containers of gas each holding 5 gallons of gas. That’s 800 lbs of fuel. This “fuel sled” is one of three fuel sleds we are carrying with us. The second fuel sled flies like the serpentine tail of a Himalayan deity behind Chris. It is one of three sleds Chris is towing across the ice sheet. Unlike Mike, Chris’ fuel sled is not his final sled, it rides in the middle sandwiched between
“the food and camp stores sled” and “the ground-penetrating radar/differential GPS/Kovacs ice drill/Arctic Oven tent sled”. Like Chris himself, the fuel sled is far more complex than the stern and well kept frame it first appears to be. This fuel sled also houses the dimethyl phthalate(used in snow grain preservation), the tent poles we have been unintentionally freezing while sleeping beneath them and are unable to disassemble, and the active propane cylinder fueling our camp stove. One of the many outstanding features of this string of sleds is that it is actively collecting two forms of data while underway – one shooting up into space (DGPS) and the other shooting down deep into the ice itself (GPR).

Our two final sleds are linked up to my snow machine, Archimedes, and collectively make-up the rig you are actually following when you click on “Track Us” on the SAGE blog. We have a National Science Foundation “bread crumb tracker” mounted just behind the windshield on this machine. You can zoom in and out using the NSF map tool and watch the three of us proceed across Greenland in search of the warm, delicious, freshly baked loaf of bread that the bread crumb tracker is tracking. In addition to the third and final fuel sled, Archimedes is pulling what is undeniably our most iconic sled, “the canopy sled”.  The canopy sled was designed and built by John Holmgren of Fairbanks, Alaska and comes with us here to Greenland with a lifetime of Arctic adventure. If this sled could talk and tell the three of us the stories of where it has been, what it has been through, and the high latitude magic it has witnessed firsthand during its travels, we would be transfixed with awe and utterly unable to move in the way we actually need to up here. More on the life and work of the canopy sled in a future blog. In short, it carries our precious lofted goose down (dry sleeping bags and puffy layers), communications bag (satellite phone and laptops), generator (our vital power source), medical kit, and peace of mind. If the weather deteriorates to the point at which we cannot physically set up the tent due to wind or cannot safely operate outside due to exposure to extreme cold, the canopy sled will become an intimate home to three of us for as long as it takes for conditions to change. Thanks to its bombproof cover and seamless insulation we are prepared for these conditions should they happen. None-the-less it will be an all-out pile-in and “welcome to the womb with Mike and Nate, Chris” should we need to seek refuge in there.  The canopy sled is roughly  5 ft tall x 8 ft long x 3 ft wide and the three of us are 6’5″ x 2 and 5’10”, heavily layered, each wearing huge ridiculous white boots, and we are admittedly not very flexible . . . cozy would be a generous word to describe that shelter.

The canopy sled thawing at John Holmgrem's machine shop in Fox, Alaska.

The canopy sled thawing at John Holmgrem’s machine shop in Fox, Alaska.

Critical sled research and design. Nansen's team approaching the Greenland ice sheet.

Critical sled research and design. Nansen’s team approaching the Greenland ice sheet.

The success of our traverse hinges on our sleds and although we continue to drive them to fatigue we are active in our maintenance of them, conscious of their disproportionate contribution to our safety and scientific performance, and deeply thankful of their very innovation. To glide across this vast majestic landscape without genuine appreciation for and praise of the lineage of sled-driving Arctic natives, explorers, industrial enterprises, homesteaders, residents, and high latitude adventurers  that have contributed to the evolution of the sled, would be like driving with your eyes closed. Here’s  to all those sled driver’s, makers, and maintainers that have devoted their lives to refining the sled, passed on their wisdom, and in doing so, have enabled us to venture north as they did.

Nate manhauling a 50 yr old wooden, Norwegian built Nansen sled at summit station.

Nate manhauling a 50 yr old wooden, Norwegian built Nansen sled at Summit station.

This morning we continue, seven sleds in tow, to Camp 6.

2 thoughts on “Sleds, Sleighs, and Sledges

  1. c’mon, what kind of word starts with “phth”? You just made that up so you could visualize people spitting on their computers while attempting to read that word without moving their lips.

    rock on..

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