State of the Teaching Profession 2005:
"It was just like getting to know a new class," says Hugh Dale-Harris affectionately, when describing the team of dogs who led him to the North Pole.
"My role was dog sledder - to get the teams going so we could make good time.
"Getting to know the dogs was my biggest challenge. What are their strengths? Who are the leaders? Some dogs will shine and some will have problems. You have a class clown and jesters. You definitely have different personalities.
"As in class, for team teaching, how you pair them up is important. You want them to run as efficiently as possible. For example, the lead dog has to be comfortable out there. And the leader of the second team has to follow the track of the first team."
By comparison, the human dynamic "was not challenging at all. That's part of what made us successful. The five of us worked well as a team. We had clear roles and a clear idea of our goals."
The goal of the Ultimate North Expedition was to test the record set by explorer Robert Peary in 1909. Peary and his partners travelled from Cape Columbia, the northernmost point on Ellesmere Island, to the North Pole in 37 days and four hours.
Over the last century many critics have viewed Peary's claim with suspicion - saying that it can't be done, it wasn't done. But, at 9:32 am on April 17th, Dale-Harris and his companions proved the sceptics wrong. With an exhausting final sprint, they showed that it is possible to reach the North Pole by dog sled in 37 days. They even shaved four and a half hours off Peary's time.
The Ultimate North Expedition was organized by a British mountaineer and led by Matty McNair, an American-born guide who lives in Iqaluit.
McNair had never worked with Dale-Harris when she approached him to be assistant guide. She was looking for a physically strong, cool-headed musher, someone with dog experience who would back her up but would speak out if something wasn't right.
McNair and Dale-Harris were a good fit.
Every day McNair skied out ahead, picking the best route through rough ice, weighing risk and safety. Dale-Harris and the others followed.
"I was always aware of where the teams were," McNair says. "Hugh was very good with the dogs, very patient, and the dog-team was my life line. We worked fine together. We never had to go aside to say, 'You said this, I said that.'"
Hugh Dale-Harris graduated from Queen's University with his BEd in 1995. He worked in outdoor education centres but wanted to do longer canoe trips and spend more time in the wilderness.
In 1996 he signed on with Outward Bound, an organization that uses wilderness experiences to teach leadership and personal growth.
"When I got there they had a yard of 30 dogs," he says. "I was really engaged by them." Soon after, he began dog sledding.
In 1998 and 1999 he lived in Iglulik, where he taught high school. He taught an alternative Grade 8/9 program for kids who were not succeeding in school. Some had returned to school after dropping out. Others had been incarcerated. Many were parents.
But he was drawn to outdoor education and returned to Thunder Bay to a full-year job at Outward Bound.
"I believe in their philosophical approach, using the wilderness as a vehicle to learn about yourself." He has seen people do things they didn't think they could do, both in a personal and a group context. By day five of a wilderness outing, Dale-Harris points out, "not only are they comfortable and open to the beauty around them, they're about to set out on a solo overnight experience. When they come back, they can't believe they did it!"
Dale-Harris brought together his passion for outdoor education, his love of dog sledding and his enthusiasm for the North during a five-month expedition in 2004. He was a member of a team that travelled more than 3,000 km, from Yellowknife to Pond Inlet on Baffin Island.
The purpose of that expedition, Arctic Transect, was twofold: research and education. As they travelled they interviewed Inuit elders about the effects of climate change. Every week they'd take a day off from travel to post updates on their online education site.
"Our number-one goal on Arctic Transect was online education. Our gauge of success was the number of students we had. We got notes of encouragement from all over the world, including Japan, Australia and all over the US."
Arctic Transect prepared him for the endurance test of the Ultimate North trek to the Pole. "I was comfortable. I had seen Arctic storms and difficult conditions. I had mushed dogs over long distances and honed my skills."
The terrain around him was ever changing, treacherous and beautiful.
Thin flexible ice, like a waterbed underfoot, makes a bow wave in front of the sled. "The sled almost melts through sea ice," he says. "It's not like going over fresh water ice, which is more rigid. Salt water ice has other properties. It flexes."
The team experienced no mishaps, aside from soaked dogs, wet feet and the flu. Both Dale-Harris and McNair were ill, scarcely able to travel yet unwilling to stop. For several days they battled a serious viral infection that left them weak, nauseous and chilled.
"Hugh had a temperature of 105 one day," McNair remembers. "If we hadn't travelled he would have felt guilty. It was a delicate balance between pushing ourselves and the dogs too hard and taking care of ourselves."
"Looking back, the things that affect me as an educator are kind of clichéd: Anything is possible. At Outward Bound or anywhere I've been teaching, I try to get students to pursue their dreams. 'Push your limits. Improve your skill set. Expand your comfort zone. Your dreams are achievable if you try.'
"As a teacher you may not have a chance to do that yourself. But with these two trips, I was able to."
For the next year or two, Hugh Dale-Harris plans to focus on his family. But Matty McNair is sanguine: "I'm waiting for the Arctic addiction to kick in."
Hugh Dale-Harris runs Fallingsnow Wilderness Education in Nolalu, outside Thunder Bay (www.fallingsnow.ca) and is pursuing an MEd. He and his partner Amy have a three-year-old daughter and a second baby due in October.
At the Pole
It was a strange feeling looking around at the North Pole and seeing a scene no different than countless others we had seen along the way. Is this the place we have been struggling so hard to find for the past 36 days? Then the reality of what that place was started sinking in - the axis of our earth, the farthest north, the only direction is south, time zones converge, the sun sets and rises once a year.
- Hugh Dale-Harris