European pair heads into the frozen Yukon wilderness
Mike Thomas/Yukon News
For decades, the Yukon has been a popular destination for adventurers longing to find a sense of purpose.
They’ve come from all corners of the world, for brief periods of time: sometimes they interact with us, sometimes not.
But Hendrik Kersten and Matt Lazenbury’s walk across the territory is about more than self reflection. The two Europeans also hope to learn from Yukon First Nations along the way, and bring those lessons home with them.
“The trip is about leaving the comfort zones of our home but it’s equally about learning as much as we can from these First Nations,” said Kersten, 25.
“Typically it’s the North American and European way to teach our cultures to others, but we want the reverse. Now in terms of climate change and environmental issues, we think it’s a good time to learn from them.”
On Friday, the pair will set off on a two-and-a-half month trek across the frozen wilderness from Whitehorse to Old Crow, with planned stops in Carmacks, Mayo, Dawson City and Eagle Plains.
The pair’s original destination was slated to be Inuvik, N.W.T. but they decided against walking the Dempster Highway, which they deemed too boring.
Preparations for the grueling trek got underway last week, as the pair hiked from Annie Lake Road to the Alligator Lake area, a distance of roughly 40 kilometres.
It was a good opportunity for them to test out their gear, which includes a tent, waterproof sleeping bags, Spot GPS tracking devices, pots and pans, warm clothing and skis.
They plan on hauling the equipment, about 140 kilograms of it, on sleds.
But the recent cold snap made them realize just how brutal a Yukon winter can be.
“The first night we slept in the tent and condensation was a huge problem,” said Kersten.
“It was about minus 45 degrees Celsius. The second night we made a fire and carved out some beds, then insulated them. And we saw the northern lights, which was amazing.”
Most of the equipment was donated from sponsors but the pair had to fork out the rest of the funds for the trip out of their own pockets.
They also have camera gear and hope to turn the entire experience into a documentary someday.
As Kersten explains it, the goal upon their return is to communicate positive values to children about the importance of having a relationship with the environment.
“We want to give them more insights on how nature should play a role in their lives,” the Parisian said.
Workshops and presentations have already been lined up at a school in Paris, and Lazenbury, 28, has contacts with the Army Cadet Force in England, which teaches children survival skills.
There’s also a plan for students in Paris to communicate with schools in the Yukon, as part of a cross-cultural exchange, Kersten said.
Kersten and Lazenbury met six years ago while studying at Lancaster University in England.
After they graduated in 2011, they began brainstorming destinations to explore around the world.
They finally settled on the Yukon because Kersten had spent some time here a few years ago, when he travelled from Whitehorse to Dawson City over 34 days.
He wrote and published a book about his experience, called Un Trek en Or, meaning “a golden trek.”
During that trip, he forged relationships with citizens of the First Nation of Nacho Nyak Dun.
“In Mayo we learned how to fish, how to prepare, smoke and dry it for the winter,” he said.
“They make sure nothing is wasted. It’s these ideas that we want to bring back to Europe.”
Lazenbury said another important objective is to convey the importance of elders and the roles they play in First Nation communities.
“In Europe, elders are seen as a burden to the younger generation and we just put them in retirement homes,” he said.
“But here, elders have such an important role for children, teaching them about life and how to survive. That’s something we want to bring back too.”
Kersten suffered a minor setback on Monday when he sprained his ankle playing soccer.
The pair now plan on leaving Whitehorse on Friday.
“Maybe it was a good omen,” Kersten said, walking around with the help of a ski pole.
“We still need to prepare a lot of things and talk to people before we leave.”
You can follow Kersten and Lazenbury’s progress on their website, www.expedition-polaris.com.
Contact Myles Dolphin at