Gilles Elkaim was born in 1960. After completing his graduate work in physics, he taught in France in 1983 and in Australia from 1985 until 1987. In 1984, he joined an Inuit community in Greenland for one year, hunting and fishing on the ice field to feed his eight sled dogs. Since then, he has devoted his life to traveling the world in search of forgotten civilizations, marveling at their adaptability to the most hostile environments.
In 1987, he traveled across Papua New Guinea by foot and down the Sepik River in a dugout canoe. Four years later, (in 1991), he biked from France to Niger, crossing the Sahara on an Arabian camel. From 1992 until 1999, he worked as a documentary director and lecturer, collaborating with the press agency Sipa-Press. His work has been published in many reputable magazines and his audiovisual documentaries have won awards at numerous festivals.
From 1992 to 1994, he crossed the Siberian taïga from Lake Baikal to Kamtchatka, following the Evènes nomads in their transhumance. His photos and videos documenting the experience were adapted for the multivision show, Siberia, Giant of the Ancient World (1994). After studying the nomads of the Mongolian steppe from 1995 to 1997, he published an audiovisual fresco, Mongolia, the Eternal Blue Sky (1998) and an illustrated book, Mongolia, Nomads of the Steppe (1999).
From 2000 to 2004, he made the first passage across the Eurasian Arctic by dog sled and kayak. For this feat, he was awarded the gold medal from the Société de Géographie en France (2004) and was elected Adventurer of the Year in Russia (2003), having already won the Polartec Challenge in the U.S. in 2000.
Several films have been inspired by this expedition: Vingt millions de pas sur la neige (52 min, 2005), Escape from Civilization (52 min, broadcast on The National Geographic Channel, 2004), Virus Stransvy (16 min, Russia, 2004) as well as the book, Arktika, nomade dans l’Arctique pendant 4 ans (2005) and the collective work, Oxygène (2002). He currently works with the press agency Gamma.
Having led such an extraordinary life, Gilles Elkaim is an exceptional explorer, one who is more concerned with the integrity of exploration than the recognition for it.
1. The Last Conquest : Crossing the Eurasian Arctic
In 1908 or 1909, the North Pole was reached. Cook or Peary? The jury is still out. In 1911, Roald Amundsen planted the Norwegian flag in the South Pole. Robert F. Scott of England discovered it a month later but never made it back. From 1921 to 1924, the half-Danish, half-Greenlandic Knud Rasmussen crossed the American Arctic from Greenland to Alaska by dog sled. A Russo-Canadian team of skiers crossed the Arctic Ocean from Siberia to Canada in 1988. Two years later, an international team crossed the Antarctic continent by dog sled.
No one had yet succeeded in crossing the Eurasian Arctic from Norway to the Bering Strait by way of Siberia until 2004, when the Frenchman Gilles Elkaim completed the four-year 12,000 km solo journey by dog sled and kayak.
This odyssey is not only considered to be the longest non-motorized polar journey in history, it is above all an incredible story of the discovery of a people and teamwork with the dogs.
2. The Situationin the Great Northern Siberia
At the dawn of the third millennium, there are people in the world who still live in teepees, shepherd deer and hunt walruses and whales with a harpoon. How have these indigenous peoples of the Siberian Arctic survived the upheaval following the fall of the Soviet Union? How can one be a nomad, trapping, hunting and fishing for a living in today’s world? Siberia is an economic utopia. The underground wealth of natural gas, petroleum and all sorts of minerals, while abundant, is exploited without great humanitarian or ecological consideration.
3. The Notion of Adventure in the 21st Century
Is the term ‘exploration’ still relevant in the 21st century, even though the entire planet has been covered and mapped out? It no longer simply refers to the discovery of a people or a place, but to the more complex and subjective level of observation that the human mind and spirit bring to the experience. The eye of a satellite will never replace that of a human. The explorer’s gaze is both broad and precise. To explore a region is not only to travel, but to pave the way for others to make the discovery.
What then is the motivation for walking through the ice and snow for four years? How does the mind cope with the stress of risk, solitude and permanent darkness? How does the body adapt to the extreme cold? What technology and equipment (both modern and traditional) have been adopted? Realizing one’s dreams, testing one’s limits and discovering oneself are quests which are not made without sacrifice or risk. Is it really worth it?
Such adventures, because of their cost, have become a real business. Do the fame and sponsorship taint the purity of the experience?