Adventurous couple test northern limits

Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell speaking tonight at VIMFF

- Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell: Northern Limits: A 7,000 km human-powered journey from the Pacific Rainforest to the Chukchi Sea, VIMFF Great Traverses, Friday, Feb. 15, 7: 30 p.m. (doors at 6: 30 p.m.), Rio Theatre (19+ adults only). Presentation will be followed by the Australian film Crossing the Ice. Tickets $19/$21.

RAVENOUS mosquitoes sucked them dry, aggressive moose pursued them across the Beaufort Sea and a summer blizzard forced them to seek an alternate route through the mountains. Outdoor adventurers Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell are used to the trials of Mother Nature, but they were not entirely prepared for what she would throw at them when they embarked on a 7,000-kilometre human-powered journey.

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From March to September 2012, the married couple, who live in Anchorage, Alaska, eschewed all comforts of home and travelled from Bellingham, Washington to Kotzebue, Alaska by rowboat, canoe, pack raft, ski and foot. They averaged 40 kilometres per day. "We were travelling through some incredibly wild places and every single day there was some kind of surprise, often in the form of wildlife, which kept us really interested and excited," says Van Hemert, a 34-year-old wildlife biologist.

Along their road-less, trail-less route, they rowed the length of the Inside Passage, skied through the Coast Mountains, hiked and pack rafted across the Yukon Territory, paddled among Arctic Ocean icebergs and traversed the Brooks Range.

The pair will speak about their six-month adventure tonight at the Rio Theatre in Vancouver as part of the 16th annual Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival. They will share photographs, video footage and some remarkable stories. One such tale involves a 30-minute standoff with a predatory black bear, which only backed down after much shouting, pole-throwing and a quick blast of pepper spray. Hair-raising wildlife encounters, a calorie-rationed diet and days spent waiting out an August snow storm in the Brooks Range all posed little challenge compared to the gruelling journey across the Mackenzie Delta.

"It took a lot of mental fortitude to get through it; it was pretty incredibly miserable," Van Hemert says. "The mosquitoes were absolutely horrendous, we had a terrible headwind the whole way, and I guess it was the first time on the trip that we were thinking to ourselves 'Why are we doing this?'" But they forged ahead, buoyed by the occasional wildlife sighting and their joint determination to reach a goal they had set for themselves two years prior. It took months of intense logistical planning to turn their dream trip a reality. "There's a lot of mountain ranges, a lot of rivers, a lot of potential obstacles that would make it completely impossible if we didn't have our route reasonably well figured out," Van Hemert says. "We had these different regions we were really interested in and so the challenge was figuring out how to link them without using motors or airplanes." Preparations took place during an already-hectic time for the couple. Van Hemert was finishing up her PhD, while Farrell, who owns a design-and-build company with an emphasis on green building techniques, was finishing construction on a house. When mapping their route, they planned to every so often pass through a town with a post office where they could drop off bulky supplies and pick up food parcels.

"Packing the equivalent of about 800 pounds of food into little bags takes a lot of time," Van Hemert recalls.

Stopping into those remote towns left an unexpectedly enduring mark on the couple.

"We didn't meet many people because the communities are so far apart and pretty sparsely populated," says Van Hemert, "but almost every place we went, when we had a chance to talk to folks, we had really positive experiences and learned a ton about the local area." When Van Hemert and Farrell finally completed the last leg of their journey, the overwhelming feeling was bittersweet. Exhausted, and with the 24-hour darkness of winter fast approaching, they were relieved to be going home. But at the same time, they knew they would miss eating breakfast against a different landscape every morning. "We never really knew at the end of each day where we would end up, so that part kept us really interested and engaged," Van Hemert says. Five months after her return home, she says she is still adjusting to life in society. At today's speaking engagement, Van Hemert and Farrell hope to share more than just images and anecdotes. They also want to fill the audience in on their biggest discovery, which is just how connected the seemingly endless mountains, rivers and oceans of the North really are.

"These wildly diverse landscapes are pieced together in really interesting ways," Van Hemert says.

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