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The Japanese ‘Tunnel Man’ of Alaska: Not quite life on Mars, but pretty out-there

by

Special To The Japan Times

Having had his morning coffee, Kenji Yoshikawa, a man with broad shoulders and a broad smile, puts on his skis and goes out to look for traces of wolf and lynx in the surrounding spruce forest. Running alongside him is Shiro, a watchdog that looks more like a cuddly polar bear.

Shiro has only had to warn Yoshikawa of predators a few times, and most traces of animal activity in the forest come from moose, but living in the Alaskan wilderness outside of Fairbanks, his reindeer are always potentially at risk. They are fenced in on the slope beneath Yoshikawa’s cabin, a single room with a loft and no connection to power or water lines.

For three years Yoshikawa, 54, has been raising reindeer here, patiently trying to teach them to pull him in a sled.

“Dog teams are great for pulling sleds because dogs want to please people,” he explains. “If the owner wants the dog to stop, it stops. But the reindeer don’t care about the owner. They don’t know their own name, and they don’t know left and right.”

The idea of using reindeer for transport came to him 23 years ago while he was overwintering in his boat outside Barrow, the northernmost point of Alaska, having become stranded in the ice after sailing the 4,500 kilometers from Tomakomai, Hokkaido: How fast can reindeers pull a sled? How heavy and how far?

A drive to answer questions

In many ways, Yoshikawa’s life can be divided into a series of episodes, each driven by his need to answer a question gnawing at his mind. While reindeer transport is his current fixation, Yoshikawa has already gone to extraordinary lengths to answer other posers. For example, what would it be like to walk on Mars?

Since the 13-year-old Yoshikawa saw the first spacecraft land on Mars in 1976 on his family’s TV in Tokyo, he has been attempting to find out. After coming to the sad realization that traveling to Mars wouldn’t be possible in the near future, his compromise became to find the place on our planet that could best create a sense of Mars.

That’s why he decided to push a cart full of water across the Sahara Desert.

“There were no plants, no animals, no bugs there. It seemed a totally different planet and when, at sunset, I looked back at the horizon, I could see my footsteps all the way to the sun,” Yoshikawa remembers. “It was so beautiful, but at the same time I felt a new question growing in me: Was this really the most beautiful place on Earth?”

Understanding that life was too short to explore the whole planet properly, he decided he would try experiencing different climate extremes in the hope of understanding the beauty of Earth.

So after tramping the hot, dry desert in 1985, Yoshikawa tried paddling up the Amazon River to experience the rain forest landscape, and then went skiing across Antarctica.

Having done all that, he was 23 years old and tired of just traveling.

“When I traveled I had to save money. If I saw somebody without money I couldn’t give them any, and I didn’t like that feeling. Everyone had been so nice to me and I felt so sorry I couldn’t do anything for them,” says Yoshikawa. “I didn’t even know their names or addresses.”

With that, Yoshikawa decided to set three new goals for his life: He was going become a scientist, learn to speak English well and do something that would help other people.

Still dreaming of Mars, his career choice was clear. Yoshikawa became a permafrost scientist because Mars is frozen and his knowledge could therefore be useful there.

He was right. Between 2001 and 2005, instruments he had helped develop were on the surface of Mars collecting data. He had come as close as any early 21st-century human being could get to fulfilling the dream of going to Mars.

What’s more, having lived in Alaska with his American wife since the sailing adventure to Barrow, he could also tick off the English box. But his goal of doing something for others remained.

Tunnel Man: the origin story

A stocky man in a body suit with a big red T on his chest comes racing into view on a snowmobile, so fast that his black cape flutters in the wind, all accompanied by a voice singing the superhero’s name: “Tunnel Man”!

In the next scene of the quirky education outreach video, two kids head into a mining shaft where they meet Tunnel Man. He gestures and shows pictures as a woman sings the story of how a permafrost landscape develops, to the tune of an Alicia Keys song.

“I don’t know if Alicia Keys is upset that I used her song, but my dream is that she agrees to sing my song instead,” says Yoshikawa. He then proudly shows a picture of himself with a group of children who had recognized him as Tunnel Man in a supermarket a couple of days before.

Since his discovery of a passion for education outreach, Yoshikawa’s colleagues at the University of Alaska Fairbanks haven’t seen much of him. He has been to every single village in Alaska to teach the children about permafrost.

Yoshikawa says the children are always excited when he arrives out of nowhere on his snowmobile. He drills holes in the ground to show them the permafrost and leaves instruments there so they can keep track of the ground temperature and its thaw.

After he had been all over Alaska, Yoshikawa wondered why he should stop there, when Canada also has communities living in a permafrost environment. Of course, being the man he is, it wasn’t long before he was traveling by snowmobile along the northern coast of North America, from Prudhoe Bay in Alaska to Canada’s Baffin Island, visiting villages along the way. The average distance between the villages was 300 km, or two to three days on the snowmobile.

“I rushed to go to the next place while my travel partner wanted to enjoy the trip more. The problem is that my focus is always on reaching the goal. Traveling with me can be a painful experience, but looking back, 10 years later, everybody involved feels that the trips have been significant,” says Yoshikawa, narrating the story of his life by the kitchen table in his cabin.

A pile of hats and gloves are drying by the fireplace. Sometimes he can see Denali from here; it’s the highest mountain in North America, and one of several around the world where Yoshikawa has placed his measuring instruments.

His book “Permafrost in our Time” lies on the table in front of him. Every one of the 200 villages he has visited in Alaska — even the ones with a student population of less than 20 — has a page in the book, giving the world an opportunity to see and read what Yoshikawa and the students found when they drilled holes in the ground and took measurements.

Yoshikawa is currently working on the Russian edition of the book. Because, of course, he didn’t end his education outreach mission after crossing the North American continent on a snowmobile. There is permafrost in Siberia, so why wouldn’t he also teach the village children there about it?

At 50, a time for reindeer

Through the contacts he made in communities across Siberia, Yoshikawa met traditional reindeer herders. Now aged 50, he felt the time was finally right to pursue his own reindeer dream.

He traveled with the herders of the Evenki people on the Siberian tundra, where the temperature dropped to minus 50 Celsius, and learned how to drive a sled pulled by reindeer.

Today he has 11 reindeer of his own, four of which he has been training for the past two years.

“It’s maybe the most ancient way to travel in the Arctic, but not even the people who still do it today do it long distance,” he says. “I want to use the reindeer for fast, long-distance traveling.”

Yoshikawa puts on his boots and a down jacket patched with duct tape and walks through the glistening snow to the pen, passing the igloo he and his Russian assistant built for fun earlier in the winter.

The reindeer flock around Yoshikawa, hoping to find food. But when he tries to harness one of them, it takes two people to hold it still. The whole walk down to the trail where the sled and the bucket of treats await is a struggle. A reindeer is far from as compliant as a dog on a leash.

Yoshikawa manages to attach the sled, and off he goes, with speed but seemingly not much control. He sees progress, though.

“Last year this would have been impossible,” he says.

After the short ride he leads the reindeer back to the pen, careful to avoid any stress that might undo all the painstaking training and taming.

“I believe snow machines are the best mode of transport in the Arctic, but I want to test all the ways to travel,” he says. “Reindeer are what I have left. I just have to do this.”

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