Egle Procuta

Toronto - Daily grind getting you down? Try getting stuck in a boat in the polar ice with a toddler, no sunshine, the wind howling and temperatures around 40 below.

Those are normal conditions for veteran Canadian Arctic explorer Graeme Magor, his wife Lynda and two-year-old daughter Keziah as they retrace the century-old footsteps of Norwegian explorer Otto Sverdrup in the Canadian polar ice.

Keziah, whose middle name is Winter, is probably the world's youngest polar explorer. Her parents are making the trip with two other couples in the 23-ton Northhanger.

"Conditions are getting a little bit dramatic," Magor told reporters by satellite phone from his ship off Ellesmere Island, about 1 000km from the North Pole.

"On a daily basis we're having to make decisions that are pretty grave. The consequences for getting lost here are fairly severe."

Magor, 44, heads the expedition to commemorate the accomplishments of Sverdrup, who helped produce definitive maps of the Arctic island in expeditions from 1893 to 1902.

Sverdrup's boat was frozen in the ice while searching for a shortcut to the Pacific from Europe in 1898. Because of the ice, Sverdrup changed his plans and concentrated on exploring the west coast of Ellesmere Island over the next four years.

Magor's team will conduct scientific research during its year-long odyssey. A major objective is also to raise the public's awareness of the Arctic region.

The expedition sailed from Oslo in June and arrived at Hourglass Bay, off Ellesmere Island, in August. It will stay in the bay until it starts the return trip to Norway next summer. In the spring, some team members will ski across the tundra looking for traces of Sverdrup's travels.

Having a child on the voyage "is a whole new wrinkle on expeditions" and required special preparation, Magor said. "As anybody with a 2-year-old knows, you have to be equipped with all sorts of diversions."

Team members alternate between living on the 16-metre yacht, designed to withstand the pressure from polar ice, and a three-by-five-metre hut nearby.

With the essential work of setting up camp for the winter completed, the team is dealing with the physical and psychological stresses of the harsh conditions - especially the dark, Magor said.

"We lost our sun on October 31. We try to telepathically lift the sun a little more with each passing day," he said. The sun will rise again on February 11. Until then, outdoor work is done by moonlight.

Magor and his wife are self-professed "exercise addicts" and have assembled a bicycle on rollers to use on the ice. "The more meaning is conveyed in daily living, then the more morale stays together," Magor said.

He admitted the weather can be daunting at times, recalling a day when the heating stove in the hut failed and the outside temperature dropped to minus 20 with winds of 45 knots.

"We're expecting in the low minus 40s in the bottom part of the winter," he added.

Polar bears are also a threat, but none have been spotted since one was seen swimming near the boat when they arrived in Hourglass Bay in August, Magor said. But members do take care and arm themselves with noisemakers and pepper spray.

The Otto Sverdrup Centennial Expedition has set up an extensive programme on the Internet for children wanting to follow its progress. Indeed, email and phone links with the outside world make Arctic exploring easier than in the past, Magor said. "There's an illusion of everything being at hand."

But that is no reason to be lulled into complacency. "We have to realise that the situation, while not precarious, is still quite sobering." - Reuters