Some thoughts from friend of the site Sarah Outen about youth expeditioning in the wake of the recent fatal polar bear attack on a young boy in the Arctic.
I would be really interested to hear your own thoughts on this subject in the comments below as these are important questions:
- Is it wrong to do expeditions that infringe on the environments of endangered animals such as polar bears?
- Is it wrong to take such young people into dangerous situations?
- Would it be wrong to stop such expeditions because of the small risk of occasional disasters?
This week the family of schoolboy Horatio Chapple faced what I imagine was one of the toughest days of their lives: his funeral. He was seventeen years old when he was fatally mauled by a polar bear earlier this month on a remote glacier in the Norwegian Arctic. The attack has been widely publicised and I expect it will continue to attract attention for a while yet. There are two major investigations underway into the events and failings that led to this small party of campers on a youth expedition being attacked by the bear.
Until those findings are released I wouldn’t want to comment on them, other than to say that it was tragic on many levels. It is tragic that the bear was allowed to venture so close and attack before anyone noticed, before it was too late. It is tragic that equipment used to scare and injure the bear failed to function as expected. And it is a tragedy that both Horatio and the bear died because of these events, and that four other young people were also badly hurt.
With all due respect to Horatio’s memory and his family and friends, I believe, however, that there is the potential for an even greater tragedy. Potential for even greater loss.
As I see it, the greatest possible tragedy here is the risk that we might never let our children go exploring and expeditioning to wild places again and that this may herald a reduction in the number of expeditions by, with and for young people to remote wildernesses.
Adventure and exploration are inherently risky and necessarily so – without it, they would be nothing. That risk and the adrenaline and challenge that it whisks up is part of what makes these things so exciting. Overcoming them is part of what makes the achievement so special and the satisfaction so sweet. Importantly, for the most part, most expeditions happen smoothly and without significant injury and death and participants return home having had fabulous and often life changing experiences.
Our young people are already (I think) mollycoddled, spoon fed in a sanitised, prescriptive world which is forever telling them to be this or be that, do this and look like that. Expeditioning and exploration forces them out of their comfort zone, challenges them and beats them down a bit and makes them sustain a puffing effort towards a common and hopefully arduous goal, all the while building confidence, widening eyes and growing perspectives, in an environment where their true character is allowed to shine through without the normal boundaries and confines of modern society and its expectations and, perhaps for the first time in their young lives, the immediacy of social media. For many, it may well be a road to increased awareness of others’ needs, almost definitely a growth in self-respect and undoubtedly a broadening of knowledge and skills. All of these will be invaluable as said youngster bounds into adult life and all the challenges and trials to be found here. There is nothing quite like an expedition for making a shy youngster stand tall, a naughty one show herself and her peers that she does have a good side, or the mediocre kid who never gets noticed for anything really blossom and find their talent. For young people of all ages, sizes, colours and outlooks, an expedition experience can be invaluable.
I have spent many hours in the saddle recently thinking about this and truly believe that if the Svalbard tragedy leads to restrictive legislation or even bigger mountains of paperwork and red tape when it comes to expeditioning by young people then this will be the greatest tragedy of all. I am all for learning from the mistakes and making the findings and recommendations for safety provision in future expeditions as widely known as possible, but please, for goodness sakes -and for Horatio’s sake – let expeditions for young people go on.