Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Most Remote Places

Sitting in the pub The Laurel one evening I overheard a visitor telling his companion about how remote some of our moors were from roads. Checking my map the following morning identified the centre of Baysdale moor, SW of Westerdale, as being 2.5 miles from the nearest road and you might just get 3 miles if you went further SW toWhorlton moor on the Cleveland hills.

Of course, if you went to Scotland you just might find yourself with a longer walk. A couple of places in the highlands are about 14 miles from public roads.

To find extremely remote places on earth we must travel much further.

The most remote uninhabited island in the world is Bouvet island in the South Atlantic. It is 1400 miles from Tristan Da Cunha and 1000 miles from Queen Maud land in Antarctica.

The most remote inhabited island is Tristan Da Cunha in the South Atlantic with a population of a couple of hundred people. It is 1400 miles from Antarctica, 1600 miles from South Africa and over 2000 miles from South America. There is no airport, access is by sea from Cape Town a few times a year. There is no harbour to speak of. A few ships stop by, weather permitting, for the boats to ferry people to and from the island. I visited it on a dull, cold, wet & stormy day 40 years ago. It is a truly remote and desolate spot, several days sailing across a bleak and empty ocean.

On land the most remote places are difficult to identify. Some places in China, Russia, Mongolia & Tibet are remote, but these have been populated for a long time so settlements, villages, towns and cities occur along with roads and travel links.

It is Canada that has just about the most remote inhabited & uninhabited places on earth. To give you and idea of scale, Canada is 3/5ths the size of Russia and larger than Australia. It is bigger than both USA, China, Mongolia & Tibet and a little larger than Europe, but without the roads or the people. Some of its lakes and bays are bigger than the North Sea.

There cannot be many places in Europe where you’d be more than a few miles from the nearest human. But Alert, in Nunavut inside the Canadian arctic ocean is a small weather and radio station 500 miles from the north pole. The nearest town is Iqaluit, 1300 miles south and 2600 miles from the City of Quebec. There’s no public travel service but it is visited regularly by military transport. It’s a long way to do the Christmas shopping.

In the far north of Canada lie The Barren Lands, an area of half a million square miles of rolling tundra (almost the same size as Europe) with a population of just a few thousand in remote settlements. It is the most sparsely populated area of land outside of Antarctica. It forms the largest single wilderness remaining in North America and one of only a few fully intact wild ecosystems on our planet. It is a place of stunning beauty. There are no roads, railways or airports. Hundreds of rivers and countless hundreds of thousands of lakes are un-named. The nearest accessible settlement to the Barren Lands is Fort Smith, about 300 miles away, a small town of 2000 Cree Indians and Europeans. To get to Forth Smith involves a 12 hour drive from Edmonton in the south over a rough road in summer only, or a 3 hour flight from Edmonton. The only planes that can land in the Barren Lands are floatplanes. Due to the distances, this sometimes means another float plane has to travel with you to take extra fuel for your return flight. If you fly to the Barrens it'll be the most expensive plane trip you'll ever make!! You fly for hours over endless boreal forest, tundra, lakes, sand hills and twisting rivers stretching from horizon to horizon. Bears, wolves, musk oxen and many thousands of caribou inhabit the land. It is the summer breeding grounds of many millions of geese, ducks and wading birds. Mobile phones, Sat Navs & normal radios don’t work here.

Flowing for hundreds of miles across the Barrens is the Thelon River. No one lives here. A few have tried it and failed, notably the Hornby party. In 1927 three Englishmen, (John Hornby, his cousin and a friend) thought they could survive out there. They came, built a cabin at an isolated group of spruce now called Hornby Point and starved to death in their first winter, their story recorded in a journal one of them kept throughout the ordeal. Their graves and remains of their cabin lay beside the river, a reminder that this is a land of extremes where the winter temperatures drop well below –40oC It is extremely remote and hauntingly beautiful. It would be impossible to get here on foot in the brief summer due to the thousands of lakes & rivers. The skilled can make the long journey over many days by dog team, over the snow & ice after the freeze up in winter or by canoe in summer. The nearest settlement is a further 250 miles down river by canoe. There are no roads, railways or man made objects between you and the north pole, nor between here and Russia, over 1500 miles away to the west. It is 700 miles to the south before the nearest railway or road. Rescue by plane is not an option for there is nowhere suitable to land.

Trish and myself made the long journey to the Barrens in 2007, we spent 11 days canoeing and camping along the Thelon river and visited the cabin at Hornby Point. More people have climbed Everest than canoed here and Trish is probably the only Englishwoman ever to have seen this place.

Remoteness and isolation are relative. The visitor in the pub came from London!

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