Adventure Magazine – Q&A with Peter Mather
On an expedition to a remote North Western corner of Canada, Peter Mather found out about the hardships of a winter expedition. As an adventurous conservationist and photojournalist, Peter had long known about the annual Porcupine Caribou migration and his dream was to capture the perfect photo of them on their annual journey. In order to get there however he faced a daunting ski expedition that would test his physical and mental limits. We spoke to Peter about his story ‘In Pursuit’ and what happened when he was faced with a 120km ski expedition he wasn’t expecting.
When did you first start going on expeditions of this scale, like the one to photograph the caribou?
I have been doing expeditions since I was 20 but those were usually smaller scale, month long canoe trips in the height of summer. This was the first winter expedition I had ever done. It was a pretty big thing to tackle as a first trip, but things went amazingly well in terms of safety and equipment.
What caused you to initially be interested in the caribou and their migration?
I grew up in the Yukon, in Northwest Canada, where I spent a lot of time hunting with my father. Everyone who grows up in the Yukon hears about the caribou. They’re larger than life and anyone who has seen thousands of caribou moving together, says it’s something you could never forget. I’ve hears many stories about them over the years which has built my interest.
This was a pretty big expediton and must have involved a lot of planning. How did you plan for an expedition of this scale?
The planning was the hardest part. The longest ski trip of this type I’d done before was just one night, whilst my partner Marty didn’t have any winter experience at all. It was therefore an expedition that required a lot of planning. Fortunately, I am friends with the most experienced ski trip expeditioner in the Yukon – a man called Peter Heebink – who has been doing trips like this for 40 years. I managed to organise several meetings with him and was able to learn a lot of him and his wealth of experience. Without his knowledge, we would never have been able to do this expedition. He was the one who advised us not to use a tent, that all you need for an expedition like ours is a good winter sleeping bag and a sleeping mat. This was invaluable advice. Tents fill with condensation in winter and are a huge hassle without providing you with much warmth. Our sleeping bags are so efficient that when it snowed on us, the snow wouldn’t melt on the bags because the outside of the bag is still minus 10, while inside we are at plus 20.
You and Marty came up against some quite difficult hurdles on your trip, like unexpectedly warm weather, injuries and technical trouble. Did you expect difficulties of that scale? Are problems like the ones you faced something that you have experienced on previous expeditions?
We expected to be dropped off at Margaret Lake in Ivvavik National Park where we would be able to set up a base camp and simply wait for the Porcupine Caribou herd to pass through. Skiing 120km with 700lbs of gear was never on our agenda but we had no choice after the plane that was supposed to drop us off had a fault. We were pushed to our absolute limits while we were skiing. We have been pushed to our limits before, through sports and small expeditions but only in small doses. This expedition was the most intense physical and emotional journey either of us will ever experience and I never thought expeditions could affect you quite that much.
You say you were pushed to the limits both mentally and physically. What did you find hardest to cope with, when it seemed like everything was going wrong?
Physically, the skiing was exhausting. It took every ounce of energy we had to keep going but it is hard to do so when every muscle in your body aches. I found these times the hardest, when I’d been leading the way for hours, praying the snow underneath me wouldn’t break. I’d sink metres down into the snow, having to push even harder to dig out of the hole which my skis and pack had made. It is a good thing Marty and I make a good team. Whenever I got to breaking point Marty could always tell and would offer to take over as lead, as I would with him.
In the end, you decided to ski overnight to take advantage of the harder snow. Were there any safety concerns, skiing overnight?
We didn’t have any concerns skiing at night as it never got totally dark. The days get really long in April and the sky goes dark blue for a few hours. If something went wrong with an accident or a bear attack, we could get a helicopter to our location within a day. Not something we wanted to think about! But there were contingencies in place.
On this particular trip, you weren’t successful in getting the photograph of the migration that you wanted. Do you find that disappointment hard to deal with? What drives you to keep going, to keep trying to get the shot you want?
I didn’t find the disappointment hard to deal with. Failing is simply part of the process. I know that I may spend a month chasing a perfect caribou photo on skis and not get it, but I may be driving down some remote road a month later and get the best caribou photo of all time. It is all part of the process and things always work out in the end. All you can do is put the work in.
Are you planning on venturing back out on another expedition to try and get the photograph you want?
Marty and I made a pact to always look back on this expedition with fondness and good memories. However, we also made a pact to remember the hell which we went through in order to ensure we never try something so stupid again. However, that pact has already been broken, as we have already had another failed attempt at this expedition. The chase will always continue!
Have you got any expeditions planned for the future? What are you concentrating on at the moment in terms of your photography?
I’m doing a long-term project on Wolverines in Northern Alaska. It involves spending three months in the Arctic in Winter, but it is mostly done on Snowmobile and I’m loving it.
Do you have any advice for young photographers who are just getting started and are looking to find their niche and style?
It is important to just go out and find your own stories and passion and just photograph it to death. It is the only way to learn. Simply go and do it. If you are passionate, you will have success even if there are hundreds of failed photographs in between.
To read more about Peter’s expedition in the Yukon, click here