Explorers Connect

Explorer of the month: Bert Poffe

CommunityJames Hipkiss

Ever wanted to know how to become an explorer? Or how your contemporaries do all the things they do (and get away with it)?

Each month Explorers Connect interviews one of its members to find out everything you need to know. This month: have you ever thought there was more to exploration than being the biggest, fastest or first? BERT POFFE.

What are you working on right now?

Within days we are leaving for Lapland, in Arctic Finland for our Inari Canoeing and Hiking Expedition 2012. The last few weeks before departure are always hectic and nerve wracking. The physical preparation is done. Our Ally foldable canoe and the rest of the gear are already on-site in Ivalo, so everything should be fine. But, just in case, you go over and over the preparations list again, you check, double and triple check, killing time and nerves. We'll be on the water on September the 10th, until than we try to be as Zen as possible. It's not unlike the days after an expedition where you need some time to cool off and come up with the next one. Of course I have about a 1000 more ideas, only time will tell whats going to be next.

How did you become an explorer?

I think I've always been one. As a kid I imagined myself being an explorer and a nomad, travelling from one place to another, and I basically never stopped doing that. I was always strolling in the woods, building campsites and exploring, very much convinced that I was discovering one or other faraway wilderness. I have always been interested in First Nations and aboriginal people and their skills and knowledge of the land and the remote and wild places they live in. I like to get out of my comfort zone and learn how to live in wild and sometimes harsh places and climates. So little by little you go on trips and adventures and you go learning from former experiences, step by step the trips become longer and the challenges become sometimes bigger.

Why do you do it?

I like to spend time in the wilderness, in inspiring places, and places where one has to learn to adapt. It makes you humble, seeing things from a different perspective. Getting out of your comfort zone teaches you lots about yourself.

What scares you the most?

Once I am out there I'm quite laid back, but organising can often become quite stressy. Every time you aim for a new adventure you know getting it all organised will be the toughest part of the story.

What is your greatest moment so far?

The greatest moment is again and again, the very moment your realise that your next expedition gets a go and that it will happen for sure. Your next expedition is always the most important one.

What's the most dangerous situation you've ever been in?

A far too long day-hike in Belgium. At 22 below zero, although we were less than 10 kilometres from the nearest road, a snowstorm made progress almost impossible. Then hypothermia took hold of my hiking buddy. The thin ice on certain lakes when we did the Algonquin Winter Crossing 2006 was another challenge I still remember.

What makes you smile?

Seeing my kids - or other people's kids - enjoying a hike or a canoe trip, or running barefoot around a camp site. What are the biggest obstacles to expedition success? To me an expedition is a success when my explorers heart has been satisfied, when I have been challenged by the natural elements and when I have the feeling I have learned a lot about the world, about people living in that particular area and about myself. Doing it for the wrong reasons I think are the biggest obstacles for success. With all respect for other opinions, expeditions seem to be more than ever about bigger, higher, deeper, faster, further, I think getting caught in the wrong type of motivation can become very dangerous.

What's the worst injury you've ever had?

When I did the Atacama Crossing 2010, a 250km ultra-marathon an atypical adventure for me - my feet were pretty messed up and I had lost lots of weight in only six days competing, thats about it. One thing to be aware of is to not overdo training when preparing for a challenge. I have seen many people injured at the starting point because they had been punishing themselves way too hard during the preparation months.

What's the greatest thing about succeeding?

The greatest thing is coming home after a successful trip, rebooted and full of mental energy, spending time sharing your adventure with others (pictures, lectures, campfire stories) and keeping that little secret in your head that only you know where you want to go next.

What's the meaning of your life?

I am very happy to be alive and want to live it at the fullest. And if I succeed in being a good person to my family and others, I feel accomplished How can I do what you do? My advice? Stop watching National Geographic (Nothing against NG) and thinking how impossible it is for you to achieve doing what all these adventurers do. Go out and start exploring! It doesnt have to be the North Pole. The Scottish highlands can be a nice challenge as well.

How do you balance the adventurous life with your home life?

There is no need of a balance. Its not being here and being there. It is just, in a very natural way part of the life of my family and myself. Many times my kids are around when I am training or preparing for a next trip. We talk about it, we learn about new places etc. I also like to go on trips with my wife and kids. Never had more fun than when preparing for the Atacama Crossing during an exceptional cold and snowy Belgian winter. Both my kids, sitting on a sled, pushed me to train harder and harder, for hours a day. Hard work out for daddy can be tremendous fun for the kids. What's the one thing you do better than anyone else you know? I am just an average guy with average capabilities who read too many books about the First Nations and explorers when I was a kid. That said, I think I am mentally quite strong and stubborn. Maybe one thing I am good at, being a sort of a border collie when on a trip with a group, listening to every individual, massaging away possible tensions or irritations to create a good atmosphere. I also know pretty well how to motivate people to dare to dream about a personal challenge or quest. What one thing couldn't you live without on expedition? My knife. When I put on my belt with my nessmuk knife I admit its a love affair I feel pretty much ready for about anything.

How can fledgling explorers fund what they do?

Exploring doesn't always have to be expensive. Start small and don't take too big financial risks. Build up your career slowly but surely. I respect a lot of low-budget expeditions, as long as they don't compromise safety. You can cut out all the nice-to-have things, but never ever save on safety.

Is there anything left to explore?

There is more to (re)explore than ever before. The whole planet has been discovered and almost anything can be found on Google Earth. And yet we seem to find ourselves further away from nature and our planet than ever before. We have lost our connection with nature. More than ever people need to go outdoors and enjoy it. To me exploration is not about discovering unknown places. There is a whole planet out there to be explored. When I explore I do it through my eyes, when you do the same exploration through your eyes you will have a completely different view and experience. Everyone should be able to experience and see for himself how powerful and beautiful nature is. One of the most special explorations I have ever done, the Khuvsguld Dogsled expedition, people have been there before, it was certainly not a first, but, as an explorer of that remote place, I came back with lots of impressions and experiences to share.

Why does the modern world need explorers?

When you explore nature there is no doubt you will start to like and embrace it. You put yourself and the world in a totally different perspective. I do my best to inspire through exploration. If I can motivate another person to go out and start exploring and read the book of nature, my mission is completed If you could only do one more expedition what would it be and why? If there would be only one more I guess I would return once again to what I love most, exploring the skills and knowledge of the First nations of Northern Canada, being it canoeing, snowshoeing or dog sledding.

What's your life time ambition?

If I can, in a humble way, inspire people through my own exploration, to go outdoors and explore nature, I will be very, very, satisfied

How can readers learn more about you?

We do speeches and presentations. On http://www.inuksuk.be they can learn more about past and future explorations. We also like to use Facebook and twitter where we comment on more things than just expeditions, such as running barefoot, edible plants and herbs, healthy food and workouts.

Bert Poffe was interviewed and edited by Frank Coles, a writer and broadcaster with a taste for adventure. You can find out more about him on Explorers Connect or at www.frankcoles.com. Frank Coles | Riding High Ltd 2012"