Permafrost scientist snowmachining from Alaska to Atlantic

Permafrost-caused polygons in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. / Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Ned Rozell for UAFGI

Kenji Yoshikawa will soon sleep on brilliant, blue-white landscape that has never felt the imprint of his boots. Beginning on spring equinox, the permafrost scientist and a partner will attempt to drive snowmachines from Prudhoe Bay to Canada’s Baffin Island.

While traveling a distance equal to Seattle to Tokyo to Seattle over land and sea ice, Yoshikawa will camp outside villages in an Arctic Oven tent. Along the way, stopping at village schools in Canada’s far north, he will drill holes in the ground and snake in strings of thermometers to record permafrost temperatures.

Expecting no packed trails, he and Ullrich “Ulli” Neumann will make their own, compacting snow with two new Ski-Doo Tundras. Neumann is a German living in Svalbard who met Yoshikawa up there and has fun working with him. Among other adventures, Neumann has crossed Svalbard on skis. He didn’t hesitate when Yoshikawa asked him to be his wingman.

And they will carry wings. If Yoshikawa and Neumann have snowmachine problems, they plan to attach kites to themselves and glide toward help, while possibly towing a snowmachine behind them. Yoshikawa will kite-ski using a snowboard that splits into skis. Neumann will carry downhill skis on his sled.

“He is great,” Yoshikawa said of his 35-year-old partner. “He is hoping that something breaks down (so he can use his kite-ski setup).”

Though Yoshikawa has a list of extremes on his resume, including a ski/walk to the South Pole and a hike across the Sahara Desert, the 49-year-old Fairbanks adventurer says this “Polar Night Express Expedition” is the most extreme trip he has attempted in recent years. And the University of Alaska Fairbanks scientist has covered lots of ground during the last decade, traveling to most Alaska villages where snowmachining is feasible and motoring a small boat to almost every port in Southeast Alaska.

high arctic permafrost tundra
Crack pattern permafrost in the high Arctic, from helicopter. / (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license) attribution Brocken Inaglory.

His spring 2013 trip will have something in common with the time he shoved a cart of water across the Sahara — long distances between supply points. He and Neumann will visit at least one dozen northern Canada villages on their trip. The average distance between them is about 250 miles.

“Will be at least two or three days between villages,” Yoshikawa said in his equipment storage hut and command post, which doubles as a garage.

That room is currently a detonation of gear that includes a tin stove for the Arctic Oven, a hinged metal food cooker he will wedge near the snowmachine engine, and a rotation-percussion drill that weighs 70 pounds. With that, he’ll penetrate the rocky ground beneath northern Canada and will leave behind permafrost observatories as he has done throughout Alaska.

Kenji Yoshikawa in his garage in Fairbanks. / Photo by Ned Rozell.

Yoshikawa’s trip from northern Alaska to the North Atlantic is part of a three-year plan he will execute in upcoming springs. At the May conclusion of this year’s trip, he hopes to store the two snowmachines in Iqaluit, a village on Baffin Island. Next year, he plans to drive from Baffin Island to villages along Hudson Bay. In 2015, he will continue eastward to villages in Nunavut and Northwest Territories.

On all his journeys, he will stop in village schools in an attempt to engage students in his permafrost measurements. Yoshikawa hopes they will use them for science projects and perhaps help him retrieve data. Mostly, he wants to connect with kids and leave them something useful.

lake reflecting moon Selawik Refuge
Moon over Selawik National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. / Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In planning another epic adventure in a life that has been full of them, Yoshikawa is pursuing a dream he’s had for a long time. In the sailboat that brought him from Japan to Barrow in the 1990s, he hoped to continue in a circle just north of the land masses bordering the Arctic Ocean. But waters too shallow for his boat forced him to abandon that idea. He then thought a catamaran would be the solution for the shallow water. But that would restrict his travel to summer, a time when kids are not in school and he could not meet with them.

In choosing to shadow the Northwest Passage in spring, Yoshikawa is assured he will travel under moonlight, as did one of his heroes, Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen.

“I need the moon,” Yoshikawa wrote in his blog (, which, like him, is never boring and frequently updated. “I need beautiful orange full moon rising from frozen ocean! Travel without moon is less dramatic and feel like similar borehole without datalogger.”

The Alaska Science Forum has been provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research community since the late 1970s. Ned Rozell is a science writer at the institute.

Posted at University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute : Alaska Science Forum by Ned Rozell on March 07 2013


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