I recently got the chance to sit down and talk with adventurer, author, and Emmy Award winning documentary film maker Sprague Theobald about the book he wrote chronicling his experiences navigating the Northwest Passage, The Other Side of The Ice: One Family’s Treacherous Journey Negotiating the Northwest Passage. It’s the second book he’s written on this subject, the other one being The Other Side of the Ice.
Negotiating and navigating through the Northwest Passage has been a difficult, almost impossible challenge that has faced many explorers and scientists throughout time who have wanted to learn more about, sometimes exploit, and sometimes save the Arctic and the world’s polar ice caps.
Douglas Cobb: Your book The Other Side of The Ice: One Family’s Treacherous Journey Negotiating the Northwest Passage is a fascinating account of your journey with your family through the Northwest Passage.
Would you please tell the readers of The Guardian Liberty Voice what month and year it was that you embarked on your voyage through the Northwest Passage, Mr. Theobald, and why did you decide to do it?
Sprague Theobald: After over a year of preparing for this we finally left Newport, RI the first week of June, 2009. The Passage had always been in my thinking, ever since I was a boy. When I first read about The Franklin Expedition of 1845 I was hooked. John Franklin took two 100’ ships, which were state of the art and ice proven, and 120 men and set out to find and transit this Arctic Grail, The Northwest Passage, something that no one had been able to do to that point. This theatrical shortcut between the two major oceans would shave thousands of miles off of the traditional route of going around Cape Horn.
Once in The Passage, Franklin, his ships and crew were never seen or heard from again. To this day we have no idea what happened to them or the ships. As a film maker and professional boater with over 40,000 offshore miles to my credit I decided that I wanted to try and do what he attempted to do.
Douglas Cobb: What were the average temperatures during the daytime and at night when you made your journey with your family? Did you wear protective gear against the cold?
Sprague Theobald: Once we got into The Passage proper the temps varied anywhere between 25 and 45 degrees. It was a very dry cold and when the winds weren’t blowing it was manageable. Once the winds kicked up and we had to contend with the wind chill factor it became brutal.
We all had many layers of thermal clothing and foul weather gear. At times though being outside for more than half an hour was pretty tough. In the documentary you’ll see some amazing underwater footage. To dive under the ice and get these shots we had to endure water temps of 25 to 28 degrees. Even the thermal protective and dry suits couldn’t compete with these temperatures.
Douglas Cobb: How many of your family members went with you? Were they as excited about traversing the Northwest Passage as you were?
Sprague Theobald: Out of the crew of six there were three of us; my 25 year old son, Sefton – my 32 year old stepdaughter Dominique and my 35 year old stepson Chauncey.
The amazing part of this story is that I didn’t set out to make this trip with family. After a divorce of 15 years prior we had all spent very little time, if any, together as a family. One by one they approached me and were able to do the trip. What was originally to be a story about exploration and climate change turned into a powerfully intimate look at the reuniting of an estranged family while trying to contend with one of the most powerful and rough environments on our planet.
Douglas Cobb: Why do you refer to the Arctic as “ground zero for climate change,” and what do you think the chances are that the polar ice caps will completely met in the next few decades?
Sprague Theobald: The Arctic is considered “Ground Zero” as it takes only the smallest of temperature changes to see dramatic results. It helps if you look at it like this; if temperatures rise .25 of a degree in the Mojave, there won’t be much visible or recordable change. But take that very same increase in temperature in the Arctic and you’ll see an immediate difference.
By no means am I climatologist or environmental professional, but I personally don’t feel that we’ll lose the ice caps. While there’s no denying that a change is occurring and that man certainly isn’t helping, closer examination shows a trend which has been seen occurring several times on our planet.
It’s also very hard to come up with a concrete conclusion to the fate of the ice caps as it’s too soon to see exactly what is going on. Perhaps in another 50 years when we can stand back and see what the numbers say can we get a more precise overview. There are so many conflicting numbers out there now it’s very hard to be precise about the fate of the ice caps.
Douglas Cobb: What type of boat or ship were you and your family using to make the trip? How large was it, and were you conducting any scientific measurements or investigations?
Sprague Theobald: At the time I lived aboard a 57’ trawler, Bagan, and had put in over 15,000 sea miles on her. She was strong and fully capable of doing such a trip so she was the obvious choice, all 57 feet of her. Do to the aftermath of the economic crash of 2008 I lost all my funding so wasn’t in the position to do anything more than try to complete the 8,500 mile trip and produce a documentary about it. While I would have loved to do scientific investigations it simply wasn’t affordable. As it was the cost of the entire trip came out of my pocket, something I’ll be contending with for many, many years to come.
Douglas Cobb: What was some of the wildlife that you saw from your boat? Did you see any polar bears or whales?
Sprague Theobald: On our way to The Passage there was wildlife a plenty; whales, sea birds, seals, and porpoises. While in Greenland we saw muskox, fox and all manner of small burrowing critters. Yet once in The Passage almost all of that disappeared. As I wrote in the book, it was like Alice going through The Looking Glass; once in The Passage nature seemed to “disappear.” We did, however, have many encounters with polar bears; close encounters of the worst kind.
Douglas Cobb: Who, if anyone, “owns” the Arctic? What does it mean to the fragile ecosystem of the Arctic?
Sprague Theobald: That’s a great question. From my untrained eye it clearly belongs to Canada.
But through various interpretations of the U.N. Council on The Law of The Sea (basically a treaty which would protect not only the Arctic but many of our oceans), a treaty that the U.S. still hasn’t signed, other countries are determined that they, too, have a piece of this oil-rich prize. The U.S., Russia, Denmark and Norway all feel that it belongs to them. Unless we get some protection into place immediately that area is a devastating accident waiting to happen.
Douglas Cobb: Congratulations on the Emmy that you won for your documentary of the voyage, called “The Other Side of the Ice,” which was released in March 2013.
How did it feel to win the Emmy? What film was the first Emmy you won for?
Sprague Theobald: Thanks!! While every film maker always has this goal in the back of his mind it was truly an unexpected pleasure! My first Emmy was for the historic America’s Races of 1983. The Australians made maritime history by breaking the U.S.’ 132 year stranglehold on the America’s Cup.
Douglas Cobb: What are some of the hazards facing the Arctic today?
Sprague Theobald: Simply put, us; mankind. That area is rich in natural resources. Besides oil and natural gas the ground holds an unprescedted amount of lead, magnisum, nickle and gold. Profit always trumps protection The Arctic is such a pristine and fragile ecosystem that it wouldn’t take much to destroy it.
Douglas Cobb: What are some things that the more advance countries of the world can do to prevent these hazards from occurring?
Sprague Theobald: We need to get “boots on the ground” and identify exactly what is up there. After this a Protection Plan needs to be drawn up and put into place. Ideally this plan should be monitored by an international group, monitored to the strictest of standards. This is an area that, once destroyed (think of the fragility of a skim coat of ice on a pond) will never come back.
Douglas Cobb: I just have one more question for you, Mr. Theobald — great answers so far, by the way — what are a few of the top things that most people don’t know about the Arctic?
Sprague Theobald: Thanks! Does my passion for the future of the Arctic come through?
One fact is that the Arctic Ocean, an ocean that very few people would be able to point to on a map, is a major ocean. It covers over 5 million square miles; it’s larger than Europe! Something that I find potentially encouraging is that it’s made up of Russia, Greenland, Canada, USA, Norway, Iceland, Sweden and Finland.
Maybe if all eight of those countries put their heads together, realize what we have to lose up there, we’ll be able to protect the area for generations to come.
Douglas Cobb: Thanks, Mr. Theobald, for agreeing to do this interview with me! I have always been interested in the Arctic, since the time I read Shackleton’s Voyage when I was in my early teens. Your book, The Other Side of The Ice: One Family’s Treacherous Journey Negotiating the Northwest Passage, is sure to be an instant classic on the subject. I wish it, and you, much continued success!
(Also, to the readers of The Guardian Liberty Voice, below is a video trailer from Mr. Theobald’s excellent documentary film, and a link to where you can purchase his book at Amazon.com.)
Written by: Douglas Cobb
The Other Side of the Ice Video Trailer
You can purchase The Other Side of the Ice: One Family’s Treacherous Journey Negotiating the Northwest Passage at Amazon.com.