Chilling out: an interview with Polar Explorer Eric Larsen
By Megan Kellin
The grips of Winter are upon us. As the digits drop to below zero and we find
ourselves scraping the snow and ice from the windshield and plugging our cars in at night. No doubt we could all use an inspiration to get through yet another long Minnesota winter.
Meet Eric Larsen. Arguably one of the most accomplished polar explorers known to man kind.
Sit down Lake Timer's, plug in that electric blanket, build a fire...it's about to get COLD!!
Q Tell us about all the years you spent on the north shores of Lake Superior and how your experiences have shaped you into the rock star expeditionist that you've come to be?
A Northern Minnesota, the Boundary Waters and Lake Superior have played a huge role in shaping my life. Some of my earliest memories were from canoe trips with my family to the BWCA. High school and college canoe trips were my first real adventures and we simultaneously looked forward to the next trip while reminiscing about the previous one. I moved to Grand Marais in the fall of 1994 and stumbled into a job as a dog musher. That experience was easily one of the more defining moments of my life. I also found a community of like-minded people for the first time ever.
Q What brought you to northern MN and what are a couple of your best experiences/memories here?
A I moved to Grand Marais for the first time in the fall of 1994. I had just finished a stint working as a bike mechanic for a cross country bike tour and wanted to be somewhere with a lot of snow. I randomly stopped into the Gunflint Lodge looking for a job. They needed a dog musher. I had never seen a sled dog before. That winter was one of the best of my life - living on the shore of Gunflint Lake, running dogs nearly every day. Lots of snow. I have so many great memories it's hard to pick out just one or two. For awhile, we were focused on doing all sorts of random adventures. One in particular found us riding our bikes across Cook County in the evening and night. When we got to a lake, we inflated inner tubes, put our bikes on top and swam across. I spent nearly every day for three years training and racing sled dogs, which was incredible as well. Of course, there's also Lake Superior. It's hard not to look at that big water and not be inspired.
Q You say Minnesota has been fundamental in the shaping of the person you are today? Do tell more.
A I spent over 15 years of my life in Minnesota including college and various jobs. Minnesota is cornerstone to who I am as a person because so many important things happened to me in Minnesota - jobs, adventures, friends. I love the people, the values and the work ethic.
Q No matter the country or origin, you are a true inspiration. How did you first get started and who is your inspiration?
A I don't really have one singular moment, where all this started, rather I just sought a series of experiences that were interesting. Over time, I wanted to learn new things and gain new experiences and skills. I had always been fascinated by adventure and exploration, having read countless stories of historical explorers. When I stumbled into a job as a dog musher, however, it all started coming together. Of course, it would still take 10 more years to put all the pieces together in any sort of discernable picture.
Q You clearly have a long track record, what top 5 expeditions have put Eric Larsen - Polar Explorer on the map?
A It's funny because I think one of the things that 'put me on the map,' so to speak, wasn't any one expedition in particular as much as it was the fact that I try to do more unique adventures - to places no one has ever been previously. My philosophy about adventure these days is that it's not so much where, but how.
Expeditions eric has accomplished
Summer North Pole Expedition - 2006
Save the Poles - 2010
Cycle South - 2012
Last North - 2014
Rolwaling First Ascents 2015
Q You're 10 days into the "Last North" expedition, paint a picture for us?
A 10 days into my 'Last North' - Oh man, do we really have to go there? Tough, tough times. I know I was feeling overwhelmed. And scared. I was very pessimistic about our chances of making it to the North Pole. Just two days prior, we had one of the worst storms I had ever witnessed in the Arctic and we were forced to take a 'storm day' and not travel. Our sleds were so heavy that we had to 'double pull' each sled - both of us hooking up to one sled, pulling it north, then going back to get the other sled. That meant for every mile we traveled, we were actually covering three miles. But our progress wasn't nearly that speedy, we were averaging 2.5 or so miles per day. It was a cold -35 (not cold for Minnesota though), the ice was very rough and pressured. I wasn't going to give up, but I was so exhausted.
Q You put yourself in incomprehensible and uninhabitable conditions for such long periods of time... why do you do it? Why be cold?
A That is a very good question and one that I'm not sure I have a really great answer for. I kind of gave up asking myself 'why' a long time ago. In some ways, this is just who I am. Still, I like the physical and mental challenges of expedition travel. I find that there is an engaging process prior to even departing, in terms of putting together a major expedition (fundraising, marketing, equipment, etc). There is an aesthetic to traveling in these harsh environments that really pares life down to its basic elements. I also think travel like this requires more thoughtfulness and the expedition unfolds like a chess game, where moves that you made on day one or week one could have huge ramifications later on. I like that slow, drawn out challenge.
Equally important to me is the act of story telling. My goal is to connect people to places. Cold places specifically. The world is an amazing place and the more we know about it, the more we care. Not everybody has the ability to do these types of expeditions, but that doesn't mean people aren't interested in learning more. I think there is a huge need in our daily lives (myself included) for inspiration and wonder.
Of course, then there is simply the fact that I grew up in the midwest. It's what we all know. We are good sufferers.
Q How do you maintain your sanity and focus for the expedition ahead of you...let alone the inspiration to follow it up with two more extreme expeditions to the poles?
A As physically challenging as these adventures are, the mental aspects are way more of a challenge. I have a simple expedition philosophy: Begin with one step. Basically, I take the big problem and break it down into manageable pieces.
Q With will power, anyone can do anything. From the making it to the Monday morning board meeting to climbing the world's largest mountain, we all possess an innate will...few of us know how to unlock this to do better and dare greater. This is an example of human will. What's your secret to harnessing this amazing gift?
A My secret? Put yourself in a situation where you don't have another choice. Seriously, my will power ebbs and flows. On a big expedition, your priorities can also change and you start to realize, very quickly, what is important and what isn't. Therefore, I try to set myself up for success by relying on a variety of expedition systems to keep moving forward - travel schedule, camp routines, etc. Equally important, is to minimize the variables ahead of time - training, equipment testing, similar experiences. Ultimately, dealing with of all this is simply a skill that I am constantly refining. Learning from mistakes and trying new things. At a certain point, you start to become more comfortable with fear and uncertainty and can deal with unknowns better. A big part of all of this is simply being physically comfortable as well - having a good diet, trying to get enough sleep, staying warm throughout the day, etc.
Q How many times have you stood there in the cold and felt like giving up...and why didn't you?
A I always feel like giving up. It's very hard dealing with big objectives with ambiguous time lines and constantly changing conditions. For my part, I am committed to trying. I understand that reaching the objective is not 100% certain, however, I am willing to put all of my energy into trying. I also really believe in my overall mission. I feel that it is important to go to these places and tell their story.
Q You have a young family at home, do they make your mission stronger or how does that affect the value of your purpose?
A I want to make the world a better place for them.
Q I imagine any exposed skin is subject to frostbite in a matter of seconds. What are the logistics of taking a tinkle?
A Run backwards as it freezes - ha ha ha. Bottom line? Nothing at 40 below is easy. Worse, the colder it is, the more you have to pee as your body naturally tries to remove fluids, so it's a double problem. I've definitely had some frozen urine on my skis for several days before it chipped off.
Q Do you still have all of your digits?
A All my fingers and toes.
Q What's been your most rewarding journey?
A Picking a favorite expedition is like picking a favorite child. They all have unique aspects and qualities. I'm really proud of my effort in Antarctica in 2012 with a fat bike, even though I didn't make it to the South Pole, because I tried. It's so easy to sit in a chair and wonder, but without ever putting in effort you'll never really know. My 2014 Last North expedition was easily the most difficult expedition I've ever undertaken and filming the entire journey was even harder. However, telling the story of the Arctic Ocean has been a goal I've been working toward for over 10 years so I am very excited to have Animal Planet feature the documentary we produced.
Q When you're out there for 45 days, what goes through your mind? What's the most random craving or desire that you've had?
A I think one of the reasons I am able to do what I do is that I don't have random cravings. I'm pretty good at eating freeze-dried mush and energy bars for nearly two months at a time. The things I miss? My family, of course, but also simple things like sitting in a chair.
Q What would consider to be your top three most important things you take with you.
A DeLorme inReach Explorer - two way satellite communicator and tracking beacon, MSR XGK EX - Stove, Granite Gear stuff sacks -- keeping everything organized.
Q How do you top your last expedition?
A I'm working on a multi-year series of expeditions to some of the world's coldest places.
Q What happens when you dream a dream, then live it?
A You get a little more confidence, a little more experience and a little more wisdom. Hopefully, you can translate the experience into being a better person, a better friend, a better partner and a bit more motivated to make the world a better place.
Q What's your next adventure in Minnesota?
A Actually, I'm planning on a canoe trip this summer in the BWCA. I want to bring some of my 'extreme' athlete friends on a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters. My goal is to create a short film about northern Minnesota and the role of 'nature' (and taking things slow) from a new perspective.
Q You bring us all along from the comfort of our own homes but the viewership of LTM are hardy folk here in northern Minnesota...where are we going next?
A Antarctica. The South Pole. On a Fat Bike (yay!). I leave 12/26.
Q How and where can we follow you?
A When I'm on an expedition, my DeLorme inReach beacon is usually on and sending out tracking points.
Twitter, Instagram, Yonder: @ELexplore