An Incredible Journey


text by Jason McNaught

photos by Richard Vandentillaart

Soldiers, CEOs and Olympians work together to secure the same goal: Making a harrowing once-in-a-lifetime trek to the North Pole. This fundraising expedition was organized by True Patriot Love and made possible through generous donations from several Canadian companies and individuals.

On skis, sleds and snowshoes, soldiers, top executives, Olympic athletes and guides — 52 in all — stretched out over a kilometre in Canada’s Arctic, pulling all of their food and supplies across the barren landscape. Their goal, 100 kilometres away, the Magnetic North Pole.

On skis, sleds and snowshoes, soldiers, top executives, Olympic athletes and guides — 52 in all — stretched out over a kilometre in Canada’s Arctic, pulling all of their food and supplies across the barren landscape. Their goal, 100 kilometres away, the Magnetic North Pole.

IT FELT SURREAL, striding through the entrance of the Chateau Laurier Hotel just after sunrise on April 19, to watch a team of ex-soldiers and CEOs prepare for a expedition to the Magnetic North Pole.

Piled on top of the Chateau’s polished marble floors was a mix of hiking packs and heavily-taped cardboard boxes, all waiting to be loaded into two waiting buses parked just outside. If it wasn’t for the people busily scurrying about in high-tech outerwear sipping complimentary Starbucks coffee, early 20th century explorer Sir Robert Peary would have felt right at home under the warm glow of the ornate chandeliers, tugging at his winged moustache in the reflection of the gleaming brightwork and polished wood adorning the walls.

But the days of Arctic explorers like Peary are long gone. The soldiers and CEOs filling the room with a thick mixture of nervous anticipation and excitement aren’t headed into the great unknown, like Peary and his contemporaries — they’re embarking on this trip because of the unknown.

A LITTLE UNDERSTANDING, PLEASE

Canadians generally revere their men and women in uniform, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they understand them all that well. Nestled into the corner of the lobby that Easter Weekend, taking in the scene of puffy jackets and constantly shifting supplies, one of the CEOs motions toward a group of soldiers. Many of these guys and girls, he begins, have had a hard time transitioning into civilian life, and one of the largest problems is finding a decent job.

A lot of people think soldiers are trained to fight in wars, not to excel in the office or the boardroom, and those popular misconceptions mean that a lot of former soldiers get passed over when hunting for jobs as civilians. This expedition isn’t just about overcoming mental and physical thresholds; it’s about building relationships and increasing understanding between some of the nation’s top CEOs and those who have chosen to serve their country as soldiers.

As the boxes continue to pile up and then slowly disappear through the brass revolving doors of the hotel’s front entrance, a prosthetic limb comes into view, laying on top of one of the bags. The soldiers about to embark on their journey to the North Pole won’t tell you they’ve been hard done by, but it is quite obvious many of them haven’t had it easy. When you’re missing body parts or suffering from severe mental wounds, life hasn’t been a cakewalk. After a career in uniform serving the best interests of the country, it seems almost unthinkable that veterans would have difficulty finding a job. But it’s a cruel world, and soldiers unfortunately see far too much of it — in and out of uniform.

A hockey stick was among Canadian Women’s Hockey Team Captain Caroline Ouellette’s gear. She and other members of the expedition played a game of pick-up hockey with some of the kids of Resolute Bay. The team spent three days there, acclimatizing to the conditions and testing their equipment. (jason mcnaught, esprit de corps)

A hockey stick was among Canadian Women’s Hockey Team Captain Caroline Ouellette’s gear. She and other members of the expedition played a game of pick-up hockey with some of the kids of Resolute Bay. The team spent three days there, acclimatizing to the conditions and testing their equipment. (jason mcnaught, esprit de corps)

An article by CTV News anchor Kevin Newman highlighted the challenges veterans face when trying to find meaningful employ­ment: “It’s the lower ranks who really need a hand extended: combat engineers, snipers, mechanics … What I’ve discovered in some recent research, however, is that these veterans are being released into civilian life wholly unprepared with the skills necessary to find civilian work. Even more troubling, Canada (uniquely) has no workable solution for employers to find veterans when they are committed to hiring them.”

TRUE PATRIOT FRANCIS

Enter True Patriot Love (TPL), the organization responsible for bringing together veterans and CEOs in the lobby of one of Ottawa’s most famous landmarks. True Patriot Love is a national fundraising organization that directs funds to military charities that have the infrastructure and expertise to deliver focused programming.

Shaun Francis, a co-founder of the organization, is a tall man with dark, short-trimmed hair and accompanying beard. He looks younger than perhaps he actually is, which is a good thing, considering he’s the CEO of his own health care company. As the mass of people in the lobby move from the hotel and form lines to board the two white buses waiting for them on the side of the road, Francis goes with them and heads for the bus at the rear. He dips his head while walking down the aisle, and then piles into one of the seats in the back by himself. Despite being partially responsible for 52 people about to trudge their way through miles and miles of snow and ice in sub-zero temperatures, dangerously isolated from the outside world, Francis seems unusually relaxed.

He leans over the seatback and politely introduces himself. Since graduating from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, he appears to have not wasted a minute squeezing the ever-lovin’ shi* out of life. As a poster boy for incredible time management, Francis divides his time between TPL, running his own company, serving on various boards, and occasionally lecturing in the astute world of academia. He’s like a concentrated version of Tony Robbins without the self-help books.

Francis is passionate about the mission of TPL, and the fact that his organization is there for soldiers where government programs or funding is inadequate. For all his attributes, his ability to fill a room with a veritable collection of Canada’s most powerful and influential people willing to pay a princely sum to support our troops, ranks among the best. Just how powerful? At TPL’s inaugural dinner in 2009, every living Canadian prime minister attended, welcomed by none other than the Big Cod himself, former Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier, who served as chair for the evening.

Members and their gear were loaded onto smaller aircraft — a retrofitted DC-3 and a Twin Otter — and shuttled in small groups from Resolute Bay to the team’s base camp, just north of King Christian Island.

Members and their gear were loaded onto smaller aircraft — a retrofitted DC-3 and a Twin Otter — and shuttled in small groups from Resolute Bay to the team’s base camp, just north of King Christian Island.

As the bus rolled along the Airport Parkway, away from the EY Centre’s vast empty parking lots and the National Research Council’s marshmallow-like white wind tunnel, Francis continued to talk about the important work TPL is doing for Canada’s soldiers. Since their first dinner, the organization has raised a total of $18 million, which is applied towards family health and support, physical health and rehabilitation, and mental health and wellbeing. That’s a lot of money, but it also inadvertently sheds light on just how much our soldiers — particularly veterans of the Afghan war — need the help. This expedition, the largest one of its kind, raised over $1.8 million for the organization.

DEPARTING DEMONS

The bus takes a left before reaching the Ottawa International Airport and snakes its way through a few industrial buildings before pulling up to the private Esso Avitat terminal. Someone gets up, gives some quick instructions about where to stack the gear, and the soldiers immediately jump into action. Francis continues to speak passionately to me about TPL until he’s off the bus and then, with a handshake, is off into the crowd. Duty calls.

As soon as the first members of the TPL group make their way through the sliding glass doors of the terminal, they’re mobbed by a small contingent of reporters, armed with microphones, digital recorders and impossibly large cameras. The large windows directly in front of the entrance show a huge expanse of weathered pavement stretched out beneath a clear blue sky, but curiously, no plane. A large German shepherd roams around freely, his crate parked in the middle of the floor; but no one seems to mind. One of the guides later explains that the friendly pooch, sidled with the intimidating moniker “Demon,” will be making the trek alongside the group of soldiers and CEOs — just in case any polar bears happen to get a little too curious.

Some people take their places on the oversized leather furni­ture, others take to their cell phones, and some head right back out into the frigid air to grab a smoke, staying out of the crowd.

The Royal Canadian Regiment’s Sergeant Bjarne Nielsen (centre), 34, lost his left leg and left elbow when he was injured by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2010. Seated on a specially designed sled, Nielsen is assisted on this stretch of the journey by Canadian National Women’s Hockey Team Captain Caroline Ouellette (left) and teammate Geneviève Lacasse (right).

The Royal Canadian Regiment’s Sergeant Bjarne Nielsen (centre), 34, lost his left leg and left elbow when he was injured by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2010. Seated on a specially designed sled, Nielsen is assisted on this stretch of the journey by Canadian National Women’s Hockey Team Captain Caroline Ouellette (left) and teammate Geneviève Lacasse (right).

The whole area, longer than it is wide and not much larger than a three-bedroom apartment, fills quickly. The reporters drag their victims from the clogged artery of the lobby to less crowded areas, and the rest mingle together chatting about what the next few days hold in store. It’s obvious that the group hasn’t really gelled yet. There’s some friendly chatter, but there is a marked divide between soldiers and CEOs. For some of them, this expedition is just about the only thing they have in common. The warrior of the boardroom is a much different animal than the warrior of … well, war.

SNOW BOUND

You could hear it when it finally arrived: a mammoth First Air 737 pulling up to the terminal. After the stairs touched down on the tarmac, it all began to seem real. Bjarne Nielson, or “B” as they call him, had enough of waiting. When asked about the expedition, he remarked, “I’m really looking forward to it, but right now, I just want to go.”

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, a small lady in navy coveralls and a safety yellow vest appears at the glass sliding doors leading out to the tarmac. It’s go time.

Everyone ambles out of the building in a hurry, weighed down by carry-ons as the media rush to get out ahead of them. Some clutch iPads, others snap pictures with their cell phones or cameras. The mood really isn’t what one would expect. You’d think — finally — after all the preparation and waiting for this moment, people would be pumping their fists into the air and high-fiving, but there really isn’t too much of that. Maybe anxious­ness is giving way to nervousness. After all, the plane is taking them one step closer to one of the most inhospitable regions on the planet. All the high-tech gear in the world won’t change that.

Francis and the team arrive in Iqaluit for a brief stopover, and then board their First Air 737 for Resolute some hours later, finally bedding down for the night after gobbling down chilli and garlic bread at their hotel, the South Camp Inn.

OLYMPIAN OUTREACH

One of the most northerly hamlets in all of Canada, with an aver­age temperature wallowing around -15 degrees Celsius, Resolute Bay is but a smattering of houses clinging to existence on a desolate spec of Cornwallis Island, overlooking the Northwest Passage. If that sounds bleak, it should. Even Inuit didn’t live here until the government forcibly relocated them to the location in the 1950s — from northern Quebec — in a misguided effort to bolster Arctic sovereignty during the Cold War.

Day Two of the expedition was more about community outreach than it was about trying to keep your eyelids from freezing together while skiing into blinding sunlight. Two of the group — neither soldiers nor CEOs — had a little work to do.

Geneviève Lacasse and Caroline Ouellette, members of Canada’s National Women’s Hockey Team, took a trip over to the gymnasium and gave local kids an Olympics presentation. The gold-medal duo must have seemed like superheroes to the young crowd as they handed out hockey books, pins and lined up for pictures. If that hadn’t already placed the kids on cloud nine, the Bauer-sponsored hockey game at the rink that followed definitely put them there. Says Lacasse, “One of the kids on the bench told me that it was the most amount of people he’d ever seen in the arena.”

THE WAITING GAME

The excitement of Day Two gave way to the feeling of disappoint­ment on Day Three, as the group opened their hotel blinds to less than ideal conditions. High winds and reduced visibility meant another day in Resolute, watching Jaws reruns, playing cards, checking (and re-checking) gear, and enjoying the gener­ous hospitality of the locals. But by Day Four, soldiers, CEOs, Olympians and the film crew were getting a little antsy. Low clouds and increasing wind at the starting point, a short flight away, was deemed too risky to attempt.

Some returned to the rink, laced up their skates, and played pick-up with the locals. The more ambitious among them set out on a hike up a nearby mountain, while others continued to test out their gear or relax in the warmth of the hotel.

Day Five showed a lot of promise, noted expedition director Hil­ary Coles. Gear was loaded up on smaller aircraft — a retrofitted DC-3 and a Twin Otter — in preparation to shuttle small groups off to base camp, just north of King Christian Island.

If the arriving party expected to be greeted by a sense of euphoria and excitement upon arrival of their long-awaited destination, the guides warned otherwise. Francis blogged, “We are told by our guides that many of us will experience serious anxiety once we are deposited on the ice and after our plane departs, leaving us in dense silence, thousands of kilometres from other human beings.”

Only a fraction of the group would experience this solitude on Day Five. After ferrying two loads of people to base camp, the weather window closed, splitting the group and leaving the aircraft stuck on the snow-packed runway at Resolute. Half would spend another night in the comfort of the hotel, while the other half would toss and turn in tents pitched atop a frozen sea.

The 52-person True Patriot Love – Arctic Circle 2014 expedition team celebrates after reaching their destination: Canada’s Magnetic North Pole.

The 52-person True Patriot Love – Arctic Circle 2014 expedition team celebrates after reaching their destination: Canada’s Magnetic North Pole.

AND SO, IT BEGINS …

The weather gods were smiling as the contingent rose up from their soft pillows in the early morning hours of the expedition’s sixth day. It wasn’t long before they joined the rest of the group, who undoubtedly were still a little bleary-eyed, having huddled in their mummy bags in the frigid cold while trying to keep out the ever-present daylight that invaded their tents.

Reunited, they all set to work right away, soon forming a long column spread over a kilometre in length over the expansive white terrain.

Each day of the expedition unfolded like the next. As each ski lunged forward, the group faced the same expected challenges: wind, terrain, cold, and exhaustion. It didn’t take long to settle into routines. But something else was happening. Life had been reduced to its simplest form. It no longer mattered who’s a solider, who’s an Olympian, or who’s a CEO. Material possessions, social standing, and bank account size won’t help anyone in the trek to the North Pole. Everyone’s equal, and everyone’s needs are the same: shelter, warmth and nourishment. The playing field has been levelled — and it’s equally unforgiving. There’s nothing like a common goal and the threat of freezing to death to bring people together.

After a day of skiing over miles of snowpack and ice, muscles burn and shoulders ache while setting up camp. Richard Weber, the lead guide, introduced everyone to his own “Weber Cocktail,” what sounds like a disgusting combination of maple syrup, powdered milk and whiskey.

Preparing dinner, Francis explained, “is a ritual that can take three hours.” Putting up the tents takes 20 to 30 minutes. Melting the snow for cooking is a process than can take two hours. Eating the meal, a social occasion in a heated tent, may last an hour.

After the kerosene heat is shut off, the temperature in the tent begins to plummet, and everyone races for their sleeping bags. With food and shelter covered, warmth takes precedence over everything else. Each person tucked in for the night is armed with a pee funnel and a bottle, so that the need for a little midnight relief doesn’t amount to a frozen willie before being munched on by a polar bear.

LASTING MEMORIES

As the 52 trekkers came within a few days range of the Pole, a line of Canadian Rangers appeared in the distance. However, they arrived with bad news. A storm was approaching. If the team wanted to reach the Pole before the storm hit, they’d have to double-up a day, skiing a total of 24 kilometres on weary legs and strained backs.

At 1930 hrs on Day 11 of the expedition, equal parts exhausted and elated, the long string of skiers arrived at their destination, breaking out into a rousing rendition of O Canada.

Less than two weeks before, 52 trekkers boarded a First Air jet in the Nation’s Capital encumbered by all the stereotypes society indiscriminately heaps upon them. The wealthy executive and the battle-scarred soldier would otherwise rarely cross paths, let alone create meaningful relationships with one another in the “real” world.

As soldiers and CEOs stand interspersed and wrapped in insulated red and white parkas at the culmination of their journey, there are no guarantees that their bonds won’t weaken when plunged back into the daily rigours of their lives. Hopefully, their memories won’t. Because it’s those memories — the ones carved out in the most adverse conditions — that show the world just what soldiers can do when they swap their camouflage for a suit as a civilian.