'Get across Canada or die with all my teeth': Solo hiker tackles Nunavut in walk spanning decades

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'Get across Canada or die with all my teeth': Solo hiker tackles Nunavut in walk spanning decades

'Get across Canada or die with all my teeth': Solo hiker tackles Nunavut in walk spanning decades

Peter Vacco re-checks his expedition gear — a polar bear alarm, walking poles and, most importantly, foot powder.

This ritual he's been perfecting over three decades is mixed with trepidation and excitement.

"Years ago I stopped being scared of what's out there," says Vacco in his hotel in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.

"Now I just fear the failure. That's what takes a chunk out of you."

The 64-year-old industrial technician from Stockton, Calif., is solo walking across Canada. Last week, Vacco left Cambridge Bay to make his second attempt to walk to Gjoa Haven on the Northwest Passage, over the ice, land and snow.

It's part of a patchwork of treks he's taken over the last 30 years. From Mexico's border, through the U.S., Canada and Alaska, Vacco's tallied roughly 20,000 kilometres on his two feet — most of them alone.

"I just beat myself to shreds," Vacco says, about his first attempt to walk from Cambridge Bay to Gjoa Haven last year. Weeks in, he pulled the plug because of treacherous ice conditions.

"I swore I'd never do it again," he laughed. "Two months later, you're buying a set of gloves for next year."

'Alone in your own little world'

The seed was planted after kindergarten, Vacco says of his solo walking obsession.

Growing up, his parents encouraged him to camp outside by himself in the summer months so they could have "alone time."

"I got to sleep outside and my buddies didn't. It's kind of the dream."

He says it feels normal to be alone out on the land.

"You are alone in your own little world. Now and then it will come home to roost there really isn't anybody in 100 miles in any given direction."

He says you just have to keep those fears at bay.

"If that starts to bother you, you need to keep that animal on a very short leash."

As an adult, Vacco tackled the Continental Divide Trail, a 5,000 kilometre line north from Mexico, through the U.S. and Canada. He's also soloed the N.W.T.'s grueling 355-kilometre Canol trail — in both directions.

More than a dozen of Vacco's adventures have been in the Arctic.

"The farther north you go you start running out of plants. That's good. It travels better. The vistas get bigger," said Vacco.  

Still, it took him five attempts to walk from Inuvik to Paulatuk.

'Everything is in stereo'

Vacco's 33 kilograms of gear, which include a custom-made polar bear fence, sled, and an inflatable raft, will help him navigate surface ponds and rotten ice on the 300-kilometre walk from Cambridge Bay to Gjoa Haven.

The trek will take three to five weeks, Vacco says, but it's all a guess.

He's tried to walk away from walking, but those years are a blur, he says.

"As soon as I plan another trip... Technicolour. Everything is in stereo."

Just weeks after his 64th birthday, Vacco plans to venture to Naujaat, Nunavut, and head farther east across the country.

"I'm timed out. I'm six years from 70. I only have two goals: get across Canada or die with all my teeth."

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