Edinburgh ‘eco’ explorer couple halted by Alaska’s climate change

Luke Robertson carries his kayak through a shallow lake in Alaska. Picture: Hazel & Luke Robertson
Luke Robertson carries his kayak through a shallow lake in Alaska. Picture: Hazel & Luke Robertson
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Two Scottish explorers had to cut short their expedition in the wilderness of Northern Alaska because not even satellite mapping showed the extent and speed of climate change, which disrupted their carefully planned route.

Hazel and Luke Robertson, explorers in residence at the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (RSGS), who set off on their 1,900-mile Due North: Alaska expedition in mid-May said they were shocked at the rapid pace of changes to the landscape.

Hazel and Luke Robertson cycling the Dalton Highway in Alaska

. The couple set off on their expedition in mid-May. Picture: Hazel and Luke Robertson

Hazel and Luke Robertson cycling the Dalton Highway in Alaska . The couple set off on their expedition in mid-May. Picture: Hazel and Luke Robertson

The Robertsons had aimed to create a world first by travelling the length of Alaska in 80 days – from the Pacific Ocean to the Arctic Ocean – using only “human power” by kayaking and biking. However, when they were on the final stage of their journey they headed inland to avoid pack ice, following an old Innupiat trading route, but were thwarted in late July after 1,500 miles because lakes and rivers they intended kayaking along had been reduced to deep mud or dried up by climate change.

Mike Robinson, RSGS chief executive, said findings showed exploration had moved on dramatically and that we are now in the era of “eco-explorers” going to remote areas to highlight and find solutions for the challenges facing large parts of the world.

The Robertsons, from Edinburgh, who self-funded the expedition, will give a series of public talks about their expedition as part of the RSGS Inspiring People event, starting in Kirkcaldy on 16 October before moving on to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dumfries, Galashiels, Ayr and Helensburgh.

Luke, 32, said: “Reading about the effects of climate change in Alaska was one thing. And although one of our aims was to witness, document and share this with others, we certainly didn’t expect to find ourselves up to our thighs in the sludge of thawing permafrost.

“We set out to see for ourselves and record evidence of a changing Arctic. Well, we’ve seen it. And it’s ingrained in our drysuits, our boots and our memories.

Hazel, 31, said: “The realisation about what was happening had been slowly building, each hour went by and it became more difficult and more and more dangerous trying to get through deep mud. We kept thinking the next one would be better, but it wasn’t.”

Robinson, who is calling on nearly 70 geographical societies worldwide to take what practical steps they can to combat climate change, said: “There have been very clear eras of exploration – from expansionism by the colonial powers, to filling in gaps in maps, then the speed records up to the mid-1960s, to the era of understanding and concern in the 80s and 90s, and now we are in the era of trying to find solutions.

“The days of mapping based on ground research is now much rarer and more expensive, though much needed to bring home the realities.”

By pedal and paddle

Started Due North: Alaska expedition, ie their first kayaking stage, from Surprise Point, southernmost point of mainland Alaska.

Their final destination for the expedition, aimed for before lake and river difficulties set in, was Nuvuk, approximately 12 miles north of a town called Utqiagvik.

First kayak stage aimed for Haines, but stopped at Petersburg due to storms.

Cycle – second stage of expedition – 1,200 miles: Haines to Alaskan coast of Arctic Ocean.

Second kayak stage, ie third and final leg of the expedition, was aiming for Nuvuk, (ie final destination of expedition) but made it to a point just before reaching Teshekpuk Lake.

Total mileage aimed for at start of expedition – 1,900 miles.

Total mileage actually covered – 1,500 miles.