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Polar expeditions to fighting cancer: the story of explorer and former Grand Marais resident, Eric Larsen

Apr 06, 2023 01:13PM ● By Content Editor
All photos provided

By local writer and author 
Deborah Winchell - Boreal Community Media - April 6, 2023

Challenge, Risk, and Uncertainty: Begin with One Step

The kid was destined to explore wild places, push his limits, and take on challenges that most of us only read about. Born into a nature and wilderness-focused Wisconsin family, the call of the wild sugared off him. It began with one step, or more likely a rotation of the bike pedal. Polar explorer, Eric Larsen, spent his youth on the move, riding 70-80 mile bike trips in the eighth grade. His family vacations (which never included hotels or even state park campgrounds) usually took place in the BWCA. Who knew then that he’d go on to become one of the world’s leading polar explorers…and a survivor.

Finding a love for winter

Larsen attended college at St. Olaf’s in Northfield, Minnesota in 1993, where he discovered his love for winter during a winter biology class at Itasca State Park. 

After graduation, he worked as a backcountry ranger in the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska, coming up against challenges such as navigating through bear country, and finding joy in canoeing through the wildnerness. His canoe guiding experience took him toColorado after his Alaskan adventures (while also squeezing in a bike trip across the U.S). 

But his love for winter had its grip on him; he became committed to being immersed in the cold surrounded by snow and ice.

Landing in Grand Marais

There are numerous defining moments in Eric’s life, and moving to Grand Marais is one of them. He found his vibe and his community in its harsh winters, boreal forests, shards of lake ice, and like-minded people. 

That first summer he lived in a tent up the Gunflint Trail while helping friends build a cabin. Then the stars aligned when he applied for a job at the Gunflint Lodge, and they said the only opening was as a dog musher. Done! Not knowing anything about dog sledding (except from reading Jack London) didn’t faze the guy who never stopped moving. 

Larsen went home to Wisconsin to gather up his cotton long underwear and quickly teach himself how to be a dog musher (by watching the movie, Iron Will, repeatedly), before returning to Grand Marais.

Life as a dog musher

Dog mushing became his passion. Eric finally lived where he loved and thought, “You could stick a fork in me right here! I thought I’d be dog-mushing the rest of my life. I loved it.”

His weekdays were spent day-tripping with clients, and on the weekends, he’d haul a sled out into the wilderness to build a snow cave and camp, alone. 

Arleigh Jorgenson, owner of the dog team Larsen worked with, did trips in the barren lands of the Northwest Territory in Canada each April. Eric volunteered to help without pay and spent two years alternating between mushing throughout Minnesota and Canada during the winter months, and guiding whitewater rafting trips in Colorado in the warmer ones. 

Dog mushing is a hard, seasonal lifestyle: managing dogs, people, people with dogs, and expectations. Eventually, Larsen heeded the call for more progressively meaningful experiences…and money.

No Bad Experiences

Eric entered a graduate internship at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center from 1996-97. Despite not finishing the program, his time there did offer him experiences in public speaking, teaching, and curriculum writing. But Larsen still needed money, so he took a paid teaching position at the Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center in Lanesboro, MN, so he could insure his car and health, buy some underwear, and eat something besides Ramen noodles. 

But the location wasn’t a good fit and he found himself needing to be outside in the northern wilderness, so he made the decision to make his way back to Grand Marais.

While teaching, Eric would tell his young students, “There are no bad experiences; everything you do can lead to a good experience.” 

Heading back to the place he loved

On the not-so-straight road back to Grand Marais, he guided a few kid trips in Hawaii, substitute taught in Bayfield, Wisconsin, and then found himself “writing curriculum and leading expeditions in the Arctic with Nomads Adventure and Education!”

Eventually, he partnered with Will Steger for a few trips and did a dogsledding education program in Northern Ontario. Summers were spent doing the Grand Marais job shuffle--working at a bike shop, bartending at night, and dogsled racing with Robin Beal’s team in the winter. 

Polar Expeditions Begin 

All of Larsen’s life experiences dogsledding, exploring the wilderness, and especially his developed love of snow, cold, and ice, led him toward his first big --- and extremely difficult --- expedition with Lonnie Dupre in the early 2000s. From that expedition came others, as shown in the general timeline below. 

2006: After 62 extremely difficult days on melting and moving sea ice, Dupre and Larsen successfully completed the first summer crossing of the North Pole during their One World Expedition. It was Eric’s first major expedition, and it placed him on a path to bigger ones. 

2010: He was confident in his Midwest training and experience for polar trips, but he needed mountaineering experience. He reluctantly left Grand Marais and moved to Boulder, Colorado. There, he met and fell in love with Maria Hennessey, owner of SMAK Strategies - a Colorado marketing agency, and got the altitude experience he needed. From there he embarked on his Save the Poles Expedition. 

As part of that expedition, Eric was the first person to reach the South and North Poles and summit Mt. Everest within a 365-day period. He also started getting gigs as a motivational and educational speaker.

2012: In October of 2012, Eric and Maria welcomed a baby boy, Merritt. A couple of months after Merritt was born, Eric attempted to be the first person to bike 730 miles to the South Pole. Fighting katabatic headwinds (wind that blows down a slope because of gravity) while climbing to 9,000 feet in whiteout conditions—and missing his son’s first Christmas—convinced him to turn around at 250 miles. He considers the expedition one of his failures to both his family and his record, but it offered him an opportunity to realize what was most important to him. Even bad experiences can lead to good ones.

2014: Ryan Waters and Eric crossed the Arctic Ocean from Northern Ellesmere Island in northern Canada to the geographic North Pole. The Last North Expedition was an apt name; it might be the last one to the North Pole because of climate change. Eric chronicled the trip in a book titled “On Thin Ice.” 

2015-2018: Larsen and Waters were the first to ascend to the Himalayan peak, Jabou Ri. Three years later Eric attempted a speed record solo expedition (skiing and pulling a sled) to the South Pole,  but his effort was aborted due to unusual polar weather. Never one to quit or stop moving, he led trips to Antarctica and hiked, biked, and pack-rafted across the state of Colorado.

Unfortunately, the problem with expeditions is they don’t bring in any money as income. Once the fundraising has finished and expenses are paid, an explorer still needs to support his family. So, Eric circled back to his abilities in developing curriculum and creating experiential learning opportunities by sharing his love of snow, wind, and ice. 

Maria and Eric’s daughter, Ellie, was born in 2016 and the family decided to move to Crested Butte in Colorado from Boulder--home of Backpacker magazine and adventure-minded people--but it was the stoplights that got to Eric—too many. He missed that Grand Marais vibe of being engulfed by wild lands, living in a place inhabited by artistic people, and small enough to really feel part of a community, and Crested Butte filled that missing piece.

The Biggest Challenge Yet

January 2021: The start of 2021 brought an unplanned expedition and the toughest man-hauling Eric Larsen had ever done. It didn’t involve slipping through sea ice, worrying about hypothermia, or dodging polar bears. 

He knew something wasn’t right internally. It wasn’t one of his expedition team members who saved his life; it was Maria. She convinced him to get a colonoscopy. The man who sought challenges his whole life was faced with one he could never prepare for or want. 

“You have Stage 4 colorectal cancer,” and a finite number of years. 

It’s inconceivable what that diagnosis and the grueling treatments/surgery did to the man who never stopped moving. Overnight he was thrust into an unknown environment of a complicated and confusing medical system, which sliced him to his core. Eric, the man who sledged a 325 lb. sled across the Arctic could barely walk across a room. Eric, the man who embraced and thrived in numbing winds and extremely frigid temperatures, couldn’t even walk into an air-conditioned store. The medications he now needed to survive caused cold neuropathy---stinging stabbing needling pain that can make a grown man cry. What a slap in the face. This might be the most heartbreaking thing of all. Devoting your life to cold, ice, and snow. Gone.

Eric was engulfed in a non-Arctic discontinuance journey that needed lots of support. But it was he who unknowingly offered support to so many people who are suffering and fighting through their own pain, no matter where it comes from. 

May 25, 2021: He let the world know, “I have cancer.” Both Eric and Maria began posting on Caring Bridge. His posts were sometimes so dark, so heart-wrenching, but he needed to tell us, and we needed to listen. The honesty he shared about the darkest days brought many of his fans and followers to their knees. In appreciation, prayer, and sending whatever positivity the universe could muster—it was another defining “moment” in the life of Eric Larsen, Polar Explorer. 

The move to the small mountain town of Crested Butte was providence. Eric and his family have been supported by the community, and in particular by Living Journeys. Living Journeys is a non-profit offering food, financial assistance, transportation, advocacy, and other support to cancer patients and their families in Gunnison County, Colorado. 

After that initial diagnosis and biopsies, Eric’s cancer was downgraded to Stage 3b. That soul-zapping year of intensive chemo, radiation, and surgery and all its challenges, risk, and uncertainty now find him with no evidence of disease today. 

Moving forward

Eric recently told me that the old internal fire to push the limits has burned out since his cancer diagnosis, but his appreciation for family and wanting to help others has been ignited in its place. He’s still moving, but this time it’s toward training the next generation of polar explorers. He’s also in the process of creating funding opportunities through his Polar Training Scholarship for underrepresented adventurers, particularly African American explorers. He wants to pull the curtain back on Black explorers who have historically been overlooked (like Matthew Henson from the Heroic Age of Exploration). 

The man who got stopped in his tracks is moving again. Eric’s leading Level 1 Polar Travel Training Courses on Minnesota’s Lake of the Woods. He said it’s the perfect training ground with incredible winds and exposed surfaces that are as harsh as the North and South Poles. 

Just prior to this interview he was finalizing plans for back-to-back Level 2 Polar Training Course and Level 3 Svalbard Expedition, and scoping out an Arctic location for fat bike tours.

 His clients range from wealthy, accomplished professionals who need another good challenge, adventurers seeking to train for polar trips, to folks who want to see what it’s like to travel unsupported in harsh, frigid conditions. 

Veer to Clear – Navigate toward Nice

Larsen knows how to break an expedition and a fight with cancer into manageable pieces while still appreciating what is around him. When Eric and Ryan Walters were huddled in a thin tent protecting them from the worst Arctic storm Eric had seen in 25 years, it helped to remember that they were safe—for protection--and in a beautiful place--for solace. That ability to be in the moment in the most unforgiving environment is necessary on an expedition…and life.

Eric was recently interviewed by CBS correspondent, David Begnaud, and asked if he “was still searching to find himself." Expeditions, cancer, and sometimes life itself can take a lot out of a person. He told Begnaud that he doubted he’d ever know everything he needed to know, but “…the search has value, the effort has value, and the coming back has value.”  

Update April 2023

 'Last Degree' North Pole Season Cancelled: On April 5, 2023, Larsen shared an update that he was not going to the North Pole this year as planned. He said: “The season has been cancelled at the 11th hour due to political reasons. While Barneo, the company that runs Last Degree North Pole logistics is officially registered as Swiss, the majority of knowledge, man power and equipment is Russian. Despite receiving a confirmation letter on February 20th that the season was officially a 'go', the Norwegian CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) denied the permit to operate from Longyearbyen in late March. It’s a devastating blow for Eric: all the hours of planning, finances, and most importantly it was going to be a triumph for the guy who was only given 4 years to live. 

About the author

Deborah Winchell is a Duluth area freelance writer who has spent years visiting the North Shore and Cook County. She met Eric Larsen and Lonnie Dupre in 2005 when she hosted one of their fundraisers at Mayo Clinic. Years later, she invited Eric to Cornell University to speak about leadership to students, faculty, and staff.

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