Story Untold: “The Arctic is Melting Twice as Fast as Anywhere on Earth”

Kevin Vallely on Story Untold

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Kevin Vallely remembers well when he first felt the call of the Arctic. As a child growing up in Montreal, the architect and adventurer’s father would regale him with stories of working as a radio operator in northern Labrador.

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“It was just a brutal, harsh place, yet strangely enticing and magnificent as well,” says Vallely. “He talked about how lonely, and quiet, and desolate it was. It intrigued me: this place that is part of our country, yet so completely out there and inhospitable. It just painted a scene of something so adventurous and unique.”

He would get his first experience with the Far North in 2000, strapping on a pair of skis to traverse Alaska’s Iditarod Trail. Competing in the first ever Iditasport Impossible — described by Nerve Rush as “the Ironman’s badass uncle who did a tour in Vietnam and went back for vacation” — Vallely and his companions travelled over 1,000 frozen miles from Knik to Nome.

“I had no idea what I was getting myself into at all,” he laughs. “I mean, the banner across the start line — their motto for this race was ‘Where cowards won’t show and the weak will die.’”

Vallely completed the race, and three years later, he was back: this time, riding a bicycle from Dawson City, Yukon to Nome, Alaska. Over the ensuing years, the Vancouver-based adventurer would embark on over a dozen expeditions around the world, becoming a World Record-holder for his trek to the South Pole and earning the title of one of Canada’s leading adventurers by the Globe and Mail.

Still, one elusive ‘first’ remained: traversing the Northwest Passage under human power. Vallely had first entertained thoughts of the crossing twenty years ago, while swapping stories with a friend.

“Traversing the Northwest Passage solely under human power in a single season was something that no-one had ever even come close to achieving,” says Vallely. “At the time, we both laughed and said it’s impossible.”

The melting sea ice gave him an opening, and a purpose: If Vallely and his fellow expeditioners could row the Northwest Passage unimpeded, perhaps they could draw attention to the urgency of global warming. Along with three other adventurers — two Irishmen and a fellow Canadian — Vallely set off in 2013 in a custom ocean rowing boat, intent on completing the crossing in a single season. The story has become Vallely’s first book, Rowing the Northwest Passage: Adventure, Fear, and Awe in a Rising Sea.

“It’s the classic canary in the coalmine. The Arctic is melting twice as fast as anywhere on Earth,” says Vallely. “I don’t think we realize how profoundly [things] will change … We need to do something about it.”

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Story Untold: “All Travellers Are Freaks, Really”

Chris Urquhart on Story Untold

Photo of Chris Urquhart by Alex Berceanu.

Few have captured the experience of life on the road as Chris Urquhart has — not the family vacation kind, but the dumpster-diving, punk house-squatting kind. At age 22, Urquhart, the author of Dirty Kids: Chasing Freedom with America’s Nomads, set out to follow young, often homeless, teen and twenty-something travellers across the United States.

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A student at McGill University at the time, Urquhart and Kitra Cahana, a photographer friend, were on assignment for the Italian magazine COLORS, profiling the young nomads who congregate at Rainbow Gatherings across North America — setting up camp en masse in U.S. National Forests for a festival of hippies, punks, runaways, and vagabonds. Over the course of a week or more, as many as 30,000 people attend Gatherings, complete with camp kitchens, jam sessions, and sanitation systems — set-up and torn down to leave no trace behind.

“What I was really interested in with Rainbow was that a community could get together […] They had this whole society, right? And it was all free,” says Urquhart.

“I was completely overwhelmed when I first entered Rainbowland […] Everyone was screaming how much they loved each other; there were naked people everywhere; there was a topless woman riding a horse with a baby in a sling… there’s just all this crazy stuff happening, and I was like, Wow, this is great.”

“I hadn’t encountered people living so rebelliously, so openly, so chaotically and sustainably. It was really such an inspiration.” – Chris Urquhart

Enthralled with the community they’d found amongst the runaways at Rainbowland — “we kind of met on a friendship level and and just went from there,” says Urquhart — the Toronto-based author continued following their stories, through Burning Man festivals, Ann Arbor’s Punk Week, New York City’s nightlife, and post-Katrina New Orleans. Along the way, Urquhart slept in treehouses and on forest floors, packed like a sardine in punk houses and flea-bitten on public beaches — all the while, gathering stories from the penniless young travellers who lived this life sometimes by choice, but often by circumstance.

“A lot of the people that I ended up living and traveling with, and interviewing, were queer and LGBTQ-identified, as I am. And a lot of them were quote-unquote ‘hitting the road,’ not because [they wanted to], but basically because they had been kicked out of their family,” says Urquhart.

“People will yell at you; people will spit on you. People will also take you out for dinner and buy you things. It’s luck of the draw, really. But a lot of people take their anger out on transients, or people they see as homeless, just because it so threatens them — they’re so unhappy, and they see these people pursuing whatever they’re pursuing.”

In Dirty Kids, Urquhart delves into the lives of these transients, sharing their stories and reflecting on how the road has changed her own life:

“I hadn’t encountered people living so rebelliously, so openly, so chaotically and sustainably. It was really such an inspiration […] They’re joyous, and they’ve made another life for themselves out of crap.”

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Story Untold: “Arthur Has Changed Everything for Me”

Story Untold with Mikael Lindnord

Photo credit: Krister Göransson

Few stories are as timeless as a man and his dog. For Mikael Lindnord and his mongrel, Arthur, the story is one for the ages. Few could have predicted the circumstances that would bring them together: a chance encounter during the 2014 Adventure Racing World Championship in the mountainous jungles of Ecuador.

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An extreme endurance athlete from Örnsköldsvik, Sweden, Lindnord and his Peak Performance team had entered the race with an eye on the podium. For the ever-competitive Lindnord, the race represented his team’s chance for a major breakthrough after years of steady improvement.

“I did everything to win [this race]. We had spent all the sponsorship money, all our savings, everything to go to Ecuador,” he says.

Over the course of 700 kilometres, the race would take its contestants through mountains, jungle, marsh, and river — running, cycling, and kayaking nearly nonstop for days on end. Lindnord’s team from Sweden had been preparing for months.

A race of such magnitude is difficult enough to finish without curveballs, but sometimes, fate intervenes. On a designated transition area midway through the race, Lindnord’s team had paused to refuel on food when he spotted something out of the corner of his eye: a stray dog looking at him from across the courtyard.

The first reaction I had is, like, don’t come close to me — because I [could] get all the diseases in the world,” says Lindnord, now the author of Arthur: The Dog who Crossed the Jungle to Find a Home.

Covered in dirt, and with an open sore on its backside, the dog was clearly hurt — and as Lindnord dug into his pouch of cooked food, a pang of guilt hit him.

“I looked at him again, and I thought, no one has ever been nice to this fellow. I took some meatballs and put them in front of him on the ground — two, three meatballs at most, because I was eating.”

With that, he and his team were off on the road again — out of sight, out of mind. It wasn’t until later that night that Lindnord and his team learned they had picked up a follower. In the dark of the night, his headlamp flashed across the figure of a dog — the same dog as before. He had followed them for kilometres — hours of travel — through the jungle.

Even as the way became increasingly difficult — the trail turning to knee-deep mud, and then river crossings — the dog followed, and a bond grew between him and Lindnord. It became clear he was coming along for the journey. So began Arthur’s journey from stray dog in Ecuador to Swedish celebrity.

Arthur finished the race with Team Peak Performance — despite his ill health, and despite the race’s kayak segment. The team missed out on a podium finish, but they had picked up a new member — and caught the world’s attention in the process. In the days after the race, Lindnord called home to his wife: he wanted to bring Arthur back to Sweden.

“He put everything on this golden ticket. He [risked] his life to [follow] us,” says Lindnord.

Now three years later, Arthur still leaves Lindnord with a catch in his throat.

“Arthur has changed everything for me,” he says. “He didn’t give up. He never gave up.”

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Story Untold: “[We] Need Curious People to Ask the Right Questions”

Story Untold with Eric Drozd

Mention the name Eric Drozd in Waterloo Region, and you’re bound to get a reaction. For close to three years, the Mississauga native hosted the Region’s biggest talk radio show on 570 News, drawing callers from across Southwestern Ontario.

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At 28 years old, Drozd stepped into the host’s chair and carved a lane as a measured moderator in a medium of malcontents. Taking over the reins from the longtime popular one-two offering of Gary Doyle and Jeff Allan, Drozd weathered early criticism and became something of a favourite in time. And then, three years into a role many spend a career hoping to land, he did something few would dare.

He walked away and became a police officer.

“I had no idea where [my radio career] was going to go. I just kinda thought, ‘hey, I’m gonna do this,’” says Drozd.

“I’ve always wanted to be a police officer. Broadcasting, I had never thought about until oddly enough, I was working in a job to try to further my goal to become a police officer, and I was driving a car around at night, listening to the radio to try to keep myself awake […] As weird as it sounds, a paranormal show was one of the first reasons I started thinking about broadcasting.”

Fresh off of a criminology and sociology degree from the University of Windsor, Drozd was working as a security guard at the time, trying to plot out the path it would take to become a police officer. He came across Coast to Coast AM — an American late-night radio show exploring all things paranormal, hosted by George Noory.

“I was working two jobs, and all I remember for like three years is not seeing the sun.” – Eric Drozd

“He wouldn’t agree with much of what his guests would say, but he would let them talk,” says Drozd. “And then people would call in, and he would let them make their own decisions. And I really like that.”

After his first attempt at becoming a police officer in Mississauga was cut short — “they basically said go get more life experience,” says Drozd — he sent an application in to Conestoga College’s radio broadcasting program. So began a six-year detour into the fun, frenetic, and fast-paced world of radio.

His first break came after applying to be a board operator at the local news station, 570 News.

“I remember thinking that when I got turned down: ‘what does life experience mean?’” – Eric Drozd

“I got an email from the news director at the time, saying, ‘hey, I know you applied to be a board operator. Do you have a news demo?’ I didn’t, so I ran back into the station and recorded a news demo […] Sure enough, I got a call back,” says Drozd.

Starting as a part-time reporter and occasional evening or weekend anchor, Drozd joined the full-time ranks as morning traffic reporter. In 2014, he took over as the station’s main talk show host, taking over the airwaves from 10am-2pm each weekday.

“Four hours is a long time to do a talk show,” he admits.

The run lasted until April of 2017, when the news broke: Drozd was joining the Waterloo Regional Police Service. By August, he had taken the oath. Drozd may not fill the airwaves anymore, but he insists not much has changed: like his old job, his new one is all about communicating and talking things through with people.

There is a small matter he’ll concede, with a laugh:

“The one thing that’s changed is my social media presence, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”

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Story Untold: “My Chance to Live Was Pretty Much Zero”

Keagan Girdlestone on Story Untold

They say you never forget how to ride a bicycle. South Africa’s Keagan Girdlestone is living proof.

At 19 years of age in 2016, the Pretoria native was rising fast in the world of cycling, already the youngest ever champion in the history of New Zealand’s Le Race, and a former under-16 national champion in South Africa. Competing against cyclists from around the world at Italy’s Coppa della Pace, and racing to catch up to the pack after an earlier collision, he crashed head first into his team car, slicing open his jugular vein and carotid artery.

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“I didn’t even comprehend what had happened by the time it had happened. The next thing I know, I woke up three days later in the hospital,” says Girdlestone, now 20. “I knew when it had happened, I’d cut my throat. I could feel this warm liquid running down my neck. The last thing I remember was a spectator going, ‘Piano, Piano, Piano,’ telling me to take it easy.”

The first reports from the scene pronounced Keagan dead. Blood covered the road, staining the pavement for over a month. The rest of the race was cancelled in the aftermath.

“I lost pretty much my entire blood supply. I don’t know the exact number, but I think it was something like eight pints of blood. My chance to live was pretty much zero,” says Girdlestone.

“The first reporters that were [on the scene] and saw the aftermath of what had happened, they were just like, ‘nah, this guy’s dead. That’s so much blood.’ My blood stained the roads for a few months. They couldn’t actually clean it off.” – Keagan Girdlestone

The teen was rushed to hospital, where doctors predicted he wouldn’t survive the next 24 hours. His parents — thousands of miles away in New Zealand — scrambled to catch a plane to Italy, where they were told that if Keagan survived, he would likely be braindead for the rest of his life.

On day three, Girdlestone awoke from his coma. So began a months-long process of recovery. First feeding through a nose tube and barely able to sit up, the young cyclist worked on sitting, then standing, before eventually taking his first steps nearly a month after the incident. Five months later, he was back on a bicycle in his adopted home of Christchurch, New Zealand.

This year, Girdlestone competed at Le Race for the first time again, the same event he won as a 16-year-old in 2014. More ambitious plans lie ahead in the future.

“I doubt myself a lot, but at the same time, I believe 100 percent that I can make it back as a professional,” he says. “It’s a very complicated sort of self-process, where you believe in yourself, but you’re also like, ‘what if?’”

“It’s definitely made me a stronger person,” Girdlestone adds. “I want to achieve the top level of the sport again, because I want to be a role model to people. Things always go wrong… it doesn’t matter who you are. Whatever happens, it’s not going to define whether you live your dreams or not. It’s how you react to it, how you respond.”

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Story Untold: “If I Knew [Airport Security] Any Better, I’d Have to Send Them Christmas Cards”

Mike Spencer Bown on Story Untold

Few and far between are those who can lay claim to visiting every country on the planet. Even rarer are the likes who can swap travel stories with Mike Spencer Bown.

Having backpacked nonstop since 1990, the Ottawa-born, Calgary-raised Bown has hitchhiked through warzone Iraq and Afghanistan, explored the underground party scenes of Iran and Eastern Europe, and hunted with the Mbuti pygmy tribe while evading genocidal rebels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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The author of The World’s Most Travelled Man, a tale of “wilderness wandering, sea voyages, and overland treks,” Bown’s hunger for travel began after a months-long trip to Central America in his twenties.

“I had a very strong interest in reality. I wanted to know how things really work and what things are really like — and of course, I had to go out and find this [out] for myself,” he says. “Once I got [started backpacking,] I noticed that everything I’d learned in this academic sense was mostly useless — and a good part of it was wrong.”

So began a decades-long odyssey of backpacking around the world, hopping on flights from one distant corner to the next — and boarding chicken buses from small town to smaller town. Passports would fill up in the span of a year and a half — or else be replaced sooner after a few too many eyebrow-raising stamps showed up.

“I knew the [border] police quite well,” he laughs. “I was joking at one point, if I knew them any better, I’d have to send them Christmas cards.”

In Somalia, Bown made headlines as the country’s first tourist in decades. In Arctic Russia, the Yakut people taught him to drive a reindeer sleigh while drunk on vodka.

“Travel is such an excellent filter — the large number of boring people are sort of filtered out, and you end up being around a larger number of adventurers, and people who have quite fascinating views of the world,” says Bown.

Even before his travels outside of Canada, Bown had a taste for adventure and the wilderness. Once, while living in British Columbia, he spent 86 days in the Selkirk mountains without any human contact — hunting for food and foraging for berries.

“My parents were quite inclined to just sort of get in the car and say, ‘let’s drive across the continent.’ We’d just drive around, looking at the sky for wherever was sunniest. Of course, I’ve taken it much further,” Bown laughs.

Along the way, the World’s Most Travelled Man author says he’s gained an appreciation for the hospitality of strangers, no matter where he’s travelled.

“I was quite surprised at how kind and humane people are, even in the most violent, warlike countries […] I think there’s a commonality to humanity that makes travel possible,” says Bown.

“It’s very satisfying for a human, because I think it’s naturally what we’re supposed to be dealing with. I mean, we’re a people who were evolved to be able to handle giant ground sloth, and mammoths, and cave lions. Early on, it was quite an adventure to survive as a human — and that was 95 percent of our evolutionary history.”

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Story Untold: “Life Is Too Short to Worry About Getting It Wrong”

Story Untold with TiRon & Ayomari

In a music industry driven by fitting the mould, TiRon & Ayomari defy easy categorization.

Not exactly hip-hop. Not quite R&B. Ditto for indie and pop music. In the midst of this landscape of carefully-curated brands and genres, of target audiences and defined demographics, the Los Angeles-based duo’s music raises a question: can one be all of the above, instead?

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“We legit had A&Rs tell us, ‘I love [your music], but it would be better if y’all were white. It’d be easier to sell this thing if you guys were white,’” says TiRon. “We used to get talked out of a lot of shit.”

The experiences come out on the duo’s latest offering, the full-length W.E.T. (Wonderful Ego Trip) — a follow-up to 2015’s The Great New Wonderful. The album comes after a two-year period in which, after earning fans out of the likes of hip-hop luminaries in Q-Tip and Diddy, and reaching new heights in commercial success, the duo’s manager, Dominique Trenier, passed away.

“We kind of shut down,” says TiRon.

Ayomari adds, “where do we want to go from here as a group, you know what I’m saying?”

After the early success of 2011’s A Sucker For Pumps, dubbed an album about boys and girls for men and women; and TGNW, an album about self-love, the two — who originally connected online as aspiring artists — felt as though they’d reached a breaking point. What began as an ego-check turned into a spark for TiRon & Ayomari’s new music: a chance to harness that ego and put it under the spotlight.

“It was really just grabbing the bulls by the horn and realizing that we had something to say,” says Ayomari. “Realizing that we were on the path ourselves, and we were growing ourselves. And regardless of what we were going through, it doesn’t mean that we should stop doing what we do.”

“Really connecting with all of that anger, all of that frustration,” says TiRon. “We have to look at the evils and the negative of who we are and deal with it. Because the more we sweep it under the rug, the more we hide it, the stronger it gets.”

“It’s that, and it’s also dealing with the ego within yourself,” Ayomari adds. “Ego doesn’t always come in the form of anger; it could come in the form of self-loathing or self-doubt.”

In the end, the Chicago native concedes, W.E.T. carries the torch from their previous albums.

“This is another album about relationships,” Ayomari laughs, “the relationship with the ego.”

Photo provided by TiRon & Ayomari. Photo credit: Ed Cañas Photography.

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