Quest for the top: Denied chance to seek the North Pole, French explorer is going after Norway’s government for stopping him

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Gilles Elkaim’s latest dream is an epic quest to the North Pole in the spirit of Fridtjof Nansen. But the longtime French explorer’s free-thinking ways are considered a crime in Svalbard, so he’s following in the footsteps of the historic Norwegian explorer in another way: waging a very public war on what he calls cruel government repression.

This story is written by staff writer Marion Prudhon. Like it? Donate!

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Gilles Elkaim works aboard the Arktika-2. His frequent social media posts have largely shifted from exploration to politics following his detainment last fall. Photo by Marion Prudhon.

Elkaim, detained in Svalbard since mid-October along with his 47-foot Arktika-2 sailboat, is now in the middle of a rare trial in Longyearbyen. For the Norwegian government, it’s about his numerous environmental violations in remote areas of the archipelago he wasn’t authorized to travel to. For Elkaim, it’s an direct challenge to government restrictions on the right of people to sail freely in Svalbard’s waters.

“During the trial, we will unveil the environmental issue (violations) and accuse The Governor of Svalbard of being responsible for it with proofs,” he told The Independent Barents Observer shortly before the trial began. “We will argue the misinterpretation of Article 3 of the (Svalbard) Treaty by Norwegian government and the violation of Article 2 about environment.”

Behind the legalese is an emotional undertaking fueled by months and months of accusatory Facebook posts seemingly determined to point out every action by the government Elkaim considers a violation and/or incompetence. He’s also kept his oft-devout followers up-to-date on his explorations while being detained in Svalbard, along with details such as moving his boat to Barentsburg where “we have been most welcomed and got a lot of help to put our boat Arktika-2 in safety” (in contrast to being “treated like criminals” in Longyearbyen).

It all began last August when Elkaim, his wife Alexia Nezondet and crew member Grégoire Potot departed Kirkenes and set sail for Svalbard.

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Bad choices of route

The original plan was to replicate Nansen’s Fram expedition of 1893–1896. The Arktika-2 would sail through the Northeast Passage, from Kirkenes to Franz Joseph Land, then to the islands of New Siberia to catch the transpolar current toward the North Pole, and eventually freeze into the sea ice and drift with it. At some point they would depart the ship and reach the North Pole by dogsled. After that they would find their way back to the boat and sail down the west side of Svalbard to Longyearbyen.

But everything went wrong from the start.

Scheduled to leave in July, the boat was still in dry dock from the previous expedition because no crane was available to put it on the sea. Meanwhile, some aspects of getting permission from Russian administration were tangled in bureaucratize.

Elkaim, his two companions and seven dogs finally set sail on Aug. 22 for Bjørnøya. He said that allowed enough time to make contingency plans in case of damage.

“This boat is very technical,” he said. “It is self-sufficient for food and for energy for the entire winter. There is a lot of equipment, which means a lot of potential breakdowns, and a large part of it is doubled. I can repair most of the things, but for that, we need a quiet place where the boat is safe.”

The dogs required special authorization to come to Svalbard, which he said he applied for in July.

“All papers were in order, I got the clearance from the vet in charge, Harald Os, on the phone,” Elkaim said. “I got a verbal confirmation, but never got the official paper.”

It wasn’t just the dogs lacking authorization.

“We first thought we could go from Kirkenes to Longyearbyen to refuel, and then leave directly for Franz-Joseph Land,” Elkaim said. “But when I asked the governor for authorization to come into Longyearbyen, they told me refueling was not possible.”

Which meant there was no point in making a detour to Svalbard – or so Elkaim claims.

“I wanted to give the governor the possible routes I had selected in case of need,” he said. “But since we did not get the authorization for the dogs we could not rely on Svalbard to welcome us. Thus we simply decided to pass it as fast as possible, hoping that nothing happened on the beginning of the trip.”

Protected areas

A map shows shaded areas of Svalbard where travel is restricted or banned. Gilles Elkaim is accused of illegally traveling to Bjørnøya and parts of northwest Svalbard. Map by The Governor of Svalbard.

His GPS tracker, however,  shows that instead of heading directly toward Franz Joseph Land they continued toward Bjørnøya. When asked about the readings, he said he prefers to make detours in order to keep land not too far away in case of emergencies.

The problem is Svalbard has strict traffic regulations and many areas are off limits. Including the southern part of Bjørnøya during August where the expedition found shelter.

“The purpose of the regulation is – among others – to ensure safety for individual visitors to Svalbard outside Management Area 10, to ensure that travel plans do not violate Svalbard’s untouched environment with respect to continuous areas of wilderness, landscape, flora, fauna and cultural heritage and to ensure that laws and regulations are followed,” said  Lt. Gov. Berit Sagfossen.

According to the GPS track, the Arktika-2 reached Bjørnøya in two days and stayed there for 36 hours before heading north. They subsequently reached Sørkap Øya, Kvalvågen, Agardh-Bukta, Kapp Payer, Svenskøya (at Kong Karls Land) and Andreeneset (at Kvitøya), stopping at each for a day or more.

Elkaim said they had to learn how to sail differently.

“We had to make several stops to repair a leaking pump and met bad weather,” he said. “Sailing with dogs is completely different. We have hands and can cling to something. Dogs simply slide on the floor and bump everywhere. The tolerance is low and you have to sail by good weather or to seek for a quieter place and wait.”

When the weather was good and the sea calm, the dogs were tied on the deck, lying on comfortable cushions that make them stable, wearing safety suits. When the sea was moving, they were sheltered in the wheelhouse.

None of them had proper training before the expedition. One became seasick and others initially refused to relieve themselves on the deck since they were living there, the latter of which led to one of the violations Elkaim was charged with.

He didn’t need permission to travel through Svalbard with dogs – as long as they didn’t set foot on land. But forcing the dogs to stay aboard while anchored to the deck became one of the man arguments he raised on his Facebook page.

“They can’t take animals hostages,” he wrote. “My dogs were hurt and I will not forgive this.”

But that was just the warm-up for his trouble with authorities. The Arktika-2 tried to depart from Kvitøya on Sept. 9, but would spend the next 11 days in turmoil.

“When we managed to leave Kvitøya, we faced a huge storm” Elkaim said. “Wind speeds was more than 50 knots; in this case, the sea seemed to boil. The boat’s parts were damaged and we were really between life and death. But we managed. We were pushed back to Nordaustlandet and found shelter in Duvefjorden.”

By now it was Sept. 20. As Elkaim tells it, he realized his hopes of reaching the North Pole during the coming winter were over.

“Once the boat was stabilized and we could think clearly, I contacted the governor to give our position and to ask for the permission to spend the winter here. I even wanted to do some work for the Norwegian Polar Institute and collect weather data. Meanwhile, I would find a way to get the parts I needed, make repairs and we would leave Svalbard when the ice melted.”

But his first attempted contact with the governor after the breakdown was Oct. 8. Which meant the Arktika-2 spent weeks in an area where only authorized scientific research is permitted. Elkaim said there was no response to his first message or others he sent during the next several days.

Instead, the governor’s helicopter arrived and officials confiscated the dogs and passports of the crew.

“The governor was informed about a sailing vessel north of Nordaustlandet, and that the vessel had problems with the engine,” Sagfossen said. “We wanted to investigate this to find out if they needed assistance.”

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Confronting the authorities

The governor decided two days later to tow the Arktika, to Elkaim’s great ire.

“I want also to point out that I haven’t sent any message for rescue,” he stated in a message to the governor Oct. 15. “I also don’t understand the urgency of such an operation. Our situation is stable, there is no emergency for anybody on board and my boat is safely anchored in a well-sheltered inlet near Innvika.”

But while Elkaim insisted all was well, he also stated Potot was suffering a herniated disc and would need to be evacuated when conditions were better. Even if everybody had been healthy, the governor wasn’t about to let the Arktika-2 remain in a protected area for the winter.

“Since the Arktika-2 had anchored in Duvefjorden, which is a protection area with strict rules and regulations, and because the vessel had engine problems the Governor decided to tow the Arktika-2 to Longyearbyen.”

Elkaim would late fume at length about that decision in interviews and Facebook posts, arguing using the governor’s large Polarsyssel service vessel to tow his boat through the rough sea could cause further damage or even sink it. Worried about his boat, about the decision to tow it and what was coming next, Elkaim and his crew were reassured by the policeman on duty.

“He told us that it would not take long, that everything would be over a few days,” Elkaim said. “We thought, ‘this is Norway. They are used to maritime laws and this is a country of human rights. We will explain, understand what we did wrong, face the punishment, and that’s it.’ But when we arrived in Longyearbyen we started wondering about the fairness of this administration.”

He was immediately summoned for an interview, where he presented the Arktika-2’s logs and detailed the steps of his journey.

“I’m an explorer, not a bureaucrat,” he said. “My goal is to lead an expedition. I take my responsibility and I have the life of my crew in my hands. I make decisions for safety first.”

Months later, Elkaim is still arguing frequently and angrily he’s right and Norwegian officials are wrong.

“We were treated as criminals,” he said. “Passports, computers were taken, interviews lasted more than 40 hours. Dogs were not allowed to go out of the boat for ten days, even on the pontoon, even with all the papers OK and the check from local vet. It took ten days to get a temporary permission for them.”

“Meanwhile, we faced bad manners and were told my messages were lost because of various issues in the system. I wonder if they did not answer and did not contact with my expedition leader, only to catch us doing something wrong. When I ask what law is applied, I have no answer. They don’t know the maritime laws, but this is an island. They should know them.”

However, e-mails received from the governor in July detailed the rules the expedition needed to follow. Also, while at the governor’s office they were provided with folders of texts about Svalbard’s regulations.

The governor imposed a 25,000-kroner fine on Elkaim, which he refused to pay, thus resulting in the scheduling of his trial this month. Not wanting to leave his boat unattended, that meant spending fours months in Svalbard, but he said he wanted the government’s actions challenged.

“If I made a mistake, I assume it,” he said. “I followed maritime laws and good sense, safety rules. Let them explain my fails and my rights. I agree to face the consequences of my mistakes, but now they have to prove them to me by the law.”

“I’ve gone to a restricted area, yes. Under specific circumstances. But they made mistakes too. Big mistakes regarding safety, human and animal rights. I’m ready to acknowledge my mistakes, but they should also do it.”

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Taking on a new quest

Elkaim has spent those four months going to great lengths to convince the public of Norway’s errant ways. Among other things he’s attacked the government for allowing pollutants to affect the health of polar bears, declared future oil drilling will be allowed in Bjørnøya even though he was denied access, accused the French press of being silent about his case due to political pressure from Norway, declared Longyearbyen “a city without souls” and stated the governor’s office is withholding information about his situation “to humiliate us, to crush us and thus to assert the supreme power of an authority in default.”

And while accusations of lies, negligence, rigged jurors and more are being expressed as his trial begins, his memories here won’t be entirely bitter regardless of the verdict.

More upbeat posts started appearing intermittently on his Facebook page when he was able to relocate to Barentsburg in early January, with more traditional visitor observation such as taking his dogs out on excursions under the Northern Lights and sharing meals with a variety of residents and visitors.

“This convivial evening was the opportunity to get to know each other better by tasting some spiritual foods, but also gastronomic since each one generously brought some small delicacy,” he wrote in a Jan. 19 post. “Simplicity, humanity, humility, fraternity are indeed the characteristics of this end of the world too ignored of the world. So thank you to all who were present for bringing us a little of this light missing so much outside.”

Icepeople Editor Mark Sabbatini contributed to this report.

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