ASSISTED BY KEVIN TRAGESER
STYLING BY MICHELLE CAMERON
IMAGE RETOUCHING BY PRIMARY PHOTOGRAPHIC
The Arctic isn’t at the top of most people’s holiday destination list. Whether you picture a treacherous, frozen wasteland or the spot where Santa’s elves get everything ready for Christmas, chances are you’ve never planned on going there. But for environmental advocate Sebastian Copeland, who visited frequently in his childhood dreams, the Arctic means something else. The North Pole was the destination for a real-life exploration to mark the centennial of Admiral Robert Peary’s 1909 expedition and to experience the rapidly vanishing environment first-hand. This remarkable endeavor was captured on film by Sebastian and can be seen in Into the Cold: A Journey of the Soul. This cinematic account of his four-week, 400-mile frostbitten trek sees Sebastian and adventure junkie Keith Heger trade civilization for the physical challenge of minus fifty-degree temperatures and the mental hardships of isolation and endurance. Through stunning visuals and ambitious musical accompaniment, the documentary captures the tragic beauty of this desolate place while delivering a poignant message about our gas-guzzling, RIP-planet lifestyles. Sebastian continues to convey that message with his most recent kite-skiing adventure to Greenland. Arctic pilgrimage partner Keith caught up with Sebastian while he was packing up for the expedition to talk environmental impacts, internal peace, and their incredible (and incredibly cold) journey.
KEITH HEGER—Sebastian, how are you doing?
SEBASTIAN COPELAND—I’m good, buddy. How are you?
KH—I’m well. Where are you at right now?
SC—I’m in LA.
KH—How is it there?
SC—It’s fantastic. I’m in the final stages of preparation for the Greenland trip, so I’ve got clothes hanging all over the house and packs of food, technology, and camera equipment. It’s a mess out here. I leave in a couple of days… How are you doing?
KH—I’m very well. I’m here in Chicago. It’s warm and sunny and I’m wearing my Canucks shorts and thinking about Into the Coldand your next journey to Greenland.
SC—I’m bummed that I’m not doing this trip with you. You’re going to be missed on this one. We had such an amazing time in the Arctic. It was as amazing a time as you can get while you’re trekking across, you know, frozen icescape.
KH—Yeah, it definitely was amazing.
SC—It’s time to do an expedition to Los Angeles, Keith, and come visit.
KH—I know it’s about time. Some place warm.
SC—But now you’ve got another little kid coming and I can’t help but think of the responsibility that this means in terms of climate change and the responsibility we have to the generations of the future. I want to have a child, and hopefully in the next couple of years it’ll be on the table, but I can’t disassociate the responsibility of a child with the responsibility that we have for advocating on behalf of the planet.
KH—Every time I go traveling in the Arctic with team members, there’s no stronger sense of purpose in me than encouraging people to be ambassadors. When they go home, they can share the story of the Arctic, however they make that story up. Certainly with Into the Cold you told a compelling story. You’re so focused on the journey and the accomplishment, the hardships and the daily challenge. It takes a moment to step away and recognize your sense of place. That’s the question I have for you: how does traveling to the Arctic and these inhospitable corners of the world strengthen your space in LA? How do you relate the two to each other?
SC—I come back with rich content about these places, which are often perceived as the corners of the world. They seem so far away and almost otherworldly, and the reality is that they’re very much part of our world. They’re an inherent, necessary, symbiotic part of our existence on this planet, and as we see the melt occurring – as we see these regions being impacted so dramatically by climate change – many see that as a sentimental tale, but in fact it’s really a cautionary one, because as the ice goes, so goes humanity.
KH—I’ve never been as cold as holding that metal body of the Canon camera. It goes all the way right through you. How fitting is the name of the movie? We were immersed in the cold.
SC—We really were, and really digging deep into the depths of the soul for all kinds of answers and internal peace. One of the things that I value so much about these trips is that they’re sort of monastic and mostly silent. It takes a certain type of partner to really find complete harmony in that kind of isolation; that’s really what I take back from Into the Cold. This whole North Pole trip with you has just been a really synergistic, harmonious, and monastic type of journeying.
KH—Yeah. I don’t think you can find that anywhere else on any other expedition. On a mountaineering expedition, you’re always consulting your partner, “Is this the route? Is that the route? What’s the weather look like?” And for us, we spent 14 hours walking and hardly saying anything to each other and a year later I can easily snap back into the bond that was created in the tent, on the trails.
SC—It really is. It’s true. Everything that you say, I echo enthusiastically, because there’s also this notion of feeling completely at peace because we have each other’s back. Of course this became vividly clear to me when I fell through the ice. I’m not easily rattled, but I have to say, in that moment, panic struck me. I remember the ice breaking from under me and sinking clean to my neck in the Arctic water and having this moment of sheer panic. In retrospect I look at it calmly and go: you fall in the water, you pull yourself to the edge, you come back up, you roll onto the ice and you change. But you do this in 35 below with clothes, skis and sledges and it really takes a partner to help you out of a situation like this.
KH—I felt like time had slowed down and we were both very calm in those 20 minutes afterwards, more so than we were, let’s say, setting up the tent in the first five days, struggling with those poles.
SC—That’s so true, and what I especially love about this type of extreme journeying is this notion that you are completely in charge of your destiny with no time-outs, no moments of putting your hand up in the air and asking for a replay, or for a warm blanket.
SC—In moments like these, not only do you need to be completely self-reliant, but you also depend on teamwork. It really requires every single resource you have: mental, physical, and social. And it’s quite remarkable; we remained very calm, very focused. I got naked in 35 below…
KH—Ooh-ee! Did you!
SC—… changed my clothes, and it went seamlessly and then we were dressed and we were like, “OK, let’s keep going.”
KH—“…into the cold!”
KH—I want to know, how would Sebastian Copeland set up a North Pole recruitment advertisement to be placed in the newspaper?
SC—… To engage people to come on a North Pole expedition, you mean?
KH—Yeah! You’re looking for your next partner, just like [Admiral Robert] Peary and [Matthew] Henson were.
SC—Oh, just like Peary and Henson. Well, there’s that great ad that Shackleton had placed for his mission to the South Pole, which was, “Looking for brave man… Low pay… Return uncertain.”
KH—That’s exactly what I was thinking about. How would Copeland craft his advertisement?
SC—Wow! That’s a really good question. I think it would invariably entail something to the effect of, “A really difficult, miserable experience that will change your life for the better. Forever.”
SC—How would you advertise that one?
KH—I think there’s a portion of misery that you have to imply, but it’s all about the journey. And you know very well that the North Pole that we stood at was ours for those five seconds.
SC—That’s right, because of the drift. It’s the equivalent of having a piece of cork floating on the surface of the ocean. It’s just constantly moving. That’s the beauty of the North Pole compared to, say, the South Pole. The South Pole is static and the North Pole is yours for that one instant and then no more… I always get comments like, “Oh, did you see any penguins up there?” Or, if I’m down in Antarctica they’ll go, “How do you defend yourself against polar bears?” It’s one of the reasons that I think it’s important to advocate and to educate and to inspire because, obviously, there are no polar bears in Antarctica, and there are no penguins in the Arctic. It’s also indicative of how foreign these environments are to people. They don’t look at these regions as vital, and that’s a big error. These are the environments that regulate the seasonal crop cycles that have been in place for 15,000 years, and that basically balance our economies, and that allow us to plan our foods and plan our farming and all of those things…
KH—Something that you share in your message with Into the Cold, is that at some point, the powers that be are going to be looking at the loss of Arctic Ocean as an opportunity to exploit the natural resources, rather than, “How can we make changes to sustain the current levels, or increase the amount of ice that’s growing each year?”
SC—That’s so true. What can come from exploiting fossil fuels is a way to perpetuate the melting of these environments. Especially, now with this tragic oil spill that is ongoing, it’s really disheartening to think that people are still contemplating drilling in the Arctic. These regions are susceptible to spills, because the forces generated by the movement of the ice make a drilling platform very, very vulnerable.
KH—For the layperson that seems so farfetched, that there’ll be platforms up there, but it’s a lot closer to happening than they probably realize. I think that what may occur in the short term is that since these shipping lanes are now open through the Northwest Passage [A sea route along the northern coast of North America that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans] you’re going to have huge tankers moving cargo up there. Every season is different up there so nothing is a guarantee. You get a cargo ship that runs aground or hits an iceberg and breaks up, now you have all this waste and that’s a reality that could be happening soon, in the next couple of years, this summer in fact.
SC—There’s no question. Why, last year, a German shipper managed to route some of their cargo through the North East Passage. [Otherwise known as the Northern Sea Route, this shipping lane runs along the Russian Arctic coast].
SC—Not to mention the fact that it’s very disruptive to the ecosystem. This environment has never been encroached upon by this type of industrial activity and this will happen.
KH—In the film you briefly mention that you were looking to achieve some peace. For the followers of your Greenland trip, what sort of peace are you looking for?
SC—That’s a great question. When you travel cold and inhospitable desert regions like Greenland, you’re entering a world that is very void of features…it’s literally like walking into a blank canvas. There are outside forces, of course, temperatures and wind and light, but by and large it’s empty of all the clutter that we experience in our daily lives. So the peace that you get is by rearranging your internal processes and reshaping yourself in the way that you would like to be… and you have a lot of time to reflect on that. It’s as much a philosophical journey as it is a physical one. That’s the peace I refer to, and every time I go journeying that’s always the one take-away experience I have. I spend a lot of time in my head, I get to re-arrange the world, I get to rearrange myself, and I come back with a sense of internal peace and a wisdom that serves me the rest of my time outside the ice.
KH—Hey, awesome talking with you, Sebastian. I look forward to our next adventure.
SC—Likewise, Keith. I love you, brother, and you’re going to be with me, definitely in spirit.