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Polar Ice Cap Thinning

An Unfinished Trek Through the Arctic

In Canada, Mourners Remember Japanese Man Who Died Doing What He Loved

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By DeNeen L. Brown

Washington Post Foreign Service

Sunday, June 3, 2001; Page A20

EDMONTON, Alberta, June 2 -- In the end, there was just a thin layer of ice between Hyoichi Kohno and death. The Japanese explorer who had constantly challenged nature took a step and fell through the ice into the chilly waters of the Arctic Ocean after walking 420 miles south from the North Pole. He was heading home on what was to have been a solo 9,300-mile journey, walking, skiing, and kayaking to Kawanohama, his Japanese village by the sea.

Last week, his body was flown to Edmonton. Family and friends came from Japan to celebrate his life. "He said to me, 'I won't die. . . . I will return,' " Kohno's wife, Junko Kohno, told mourners at a funeral service Friday. "I believe he feels great regret for not having done what he wanted. . . . He had great physical strength."

Kohno, 43, began what he planned as a six-year walk on March 27, having mapped out a route across the ice of the Arctic Ocean, then along the northern coastline of Canada and through Alaska. He was to travel over ice and land on foot and to use a kayak to cross melting ice in the Bering Sea, then walk down the Siberian coast. Along the way, he would pick up food and parcels left for him and study the environment and the movements of migratory salmon. He would talk with people he encountered and increase their "awareness of the Earth."

From the start, the trip was fraught with danger. The ice that covers the ocean near the North Pole is thinning, according to many scientific studies. On average, it has dropped from about 10 feet thick to six feet since 1975, scientists say, which to many suggests that the burning of fossil fuels is causing a "greenhouse" effect and increasing global temperatures.

Kohno had bicycled around the world, rafted down the Yukon River (a 52-day fight with loneliness and hunger), climbed to the summit of Mount McKinley, walked from Los Angeles to New York. "Walking is living one's life," he said in a posting on his Web site, www.reachinghome.org.

At the age of 29, he went to Pakistan to climb a peak of the Karakorum Mountains. A block of ice hit him in the face and knocked him off a mountain face. A rope saved him. But he did not quit. Three years later, he was walking across the Sahara, alone on "an endless expanse of desert, without water, sound or scent," he wrote on the Web site. That trip took 129 days.

In the middle of the desert, he began thinking of the North Pole. And so, in 1997, he became the first Japanese to travel to it alone and on foot. In 60 days, he walked close to 490 miles, from Ward Hunt Island in northwest Canada to the pole.

But there was another challenge -- this one greater, this one farther. "It is to travel on foot and by sea kayak from the top of the world at the North Pole to Japan," he wrote.

"Adventure," Kohno believed, "does not mean throwing one's life away. It is the courage to take a step forward from the position one is in."

Two months ago, he arrived in Edmonton, where he caught a flight to Yellowknife, then to Resolute Bay, the most northern airport in Canada. He began training in Resolute Bay for the cold walk home. The wind was frigid when he arrived, minus 29.2 degrees Fahrenheit. There were storms at the North Pole. He was impatient.

After 16 days of waiting for the weather to clear around the pole, after checking and rechecking his equipment, he arrived by air at the pole on March 27 at 2:35 p.m. Eager, he left walking on his solo journey at 3:15 p.m. The temperature was 43.6 degrees below zero.

But about a week later, he walked into Resolute Bay, with severe frostbite on his face and fingertips. He couldn't see. There had been a magnetic storm, a maelstrom caused by a temporary disturbance of the earth's magnetic field. He spent almost 20 days recovering from chilblains, an inflammation of the hands and feet caused by cold. He also resumed training, determined to get started again. The temperature was dropping.

"I decided I needed to regain my balance," Kohno wrote. "Securing a means of communication became difficult under the influence of a magnetic storm, and I got frostbitten. I have now recovered and am in good health thanks to the medical treatment in Resolute Bay. I walked 40 kilometers [almost 25 miles] out and back on the ice to make sure of my recovery."

On April 1, he flew again to the pole to try once more a journey of many miles that can have many beginnings.

He began walking south, moving an average of 12 miles per day. A blizzard stopped him. He waited in his tent for the weather to cooperate. On April 28, he made another start. "I can see the course ahead but just barely," he reported to his base camp. But there were frequent breaks in the sea ice where water was exposed, and he made slow progress.

In the Arctic, the weather can change without warning. The journey was dangerous, Kohno knew. So before he left, he had agreed to cancel or suspend the journey if he could not make contact with his base camp in Resolute Bay within 10 days, no matter the reason. He would return if he was injured, sick or frostbitten, or if his equipment got damaged.

He agreed to attempt to contact his support group each day by radio and to call on a satellite phone twice a week. On May 15, he phoned. "There's no problem at all with my equipment, food and health," he said, according to his Web site. "I spent this afternoon in the tent because of a white-out, but there is no need to worry. Although I saw some footprints of a polar bear I don't feel any immediate danger."

The next day, Kohno's location was confirmed with a radio beacon. The next day, May 17, no signal came at all, and the following day, a scheduled check-in by phone was not made. Soon his support team had declared him missing.

"I've been waiting for information at the expedition office since this morning," Mitsuru Miyazaki, president of the Kohno Support Group, wrote on the Web site May 20. "There has been no Mayday sent, so the situation could be very serious. I'm really worried. I pray with all my heart that he will be found alive."

On May 22, a chartered Twin Otter plane left Resolute Bay to search for Kohno. The wind was strong. The plane headed toward the last point of contact on Ward Hunt Island. At the site, it flew overhead, but people aboard could see no sign of Kohno. They flew east, following the route he was supposed to take.

Then they spotted something. A sled, a ski and two ski poles. The sled was on rotten ice. A few feet ahead was open water, with the sled's straps, which Kohno used to pull it, dangling in.

They circled, but did not see Kohno. The clouds were thin, and sunlight was leaving. It was too dangerous to land -- the ice was too thin.

Two days later, the Twin Otter left Resolute Bay again. People aboard spotted the sled again, but it was about 400 yards from where they saw it the first time, signaling unstable ice.

This time, they were able to land. But there was still no sign of Kohno. They began searching on foot. He was smart, they knew. He was cautious. They looked around for emergency shelters, thinking that maybe he abandoned the sled.

Three hours later, they found his body, in the water. When he fell in, he was alone. It would have been difficult for him to get back on solid ice, and in water that cold, he could not have lived more than two minutes.

The rescuers put the sled and Kohno's body on the plane and flew back to Resolute Bay.

On Friday in Edmonton, the chimes rang at the chapel, and his family mourned.

"My husband had knowledge," said his widow. "He was well prepared. He made sure of his situations so carefully. I cannot stop thinking one day he may show up at our doorstep and surprise us all. . . . He had mystic charm."

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