“Chemo Won’t Control My Life”: Baffin Island Winter Expedition with Explorer Ray Zahab

“Chemo Won’t Control My Life”: Baffin Island Winter Expedition with Explorer Ray Zahab

“Chemo Won’t Control My Life”: Baffin Island Winter Expedition with Explorer Ray Zahab

Written by Luke Marshall, photos by Howie Stern and Ray Zahab

As an ultra runner, explorer and guide to some of the most extreme environments on earth, Ray Zahab is no stranger to adversity. But a recent cancer diagnosis threatened to derail his 2023 plan to cross the Canadian Arctic’s Baffin Island on foot in February. So what did Ray do? He adapted and got it done. And it turned out to be one of the most rewarding expeditions of his life.

Not long after his return, Ray sat down with us to discuss his Baffin Island expedition and talk about why he believes it’s important to dream big. But first, a little bit of background.

Who is Ray Zahab?

At age 30, Ray was a pack-a-day smoker, living an unhealthy and passionless lifestyle. So he decided to do something about it. Through his younger brother, Ray discovered a love for the outdoors—learning to climb, mountain bike and trail run, which later led to 24-hour mountain bike racing and ultrarunning. In 2006, Ray embarked on his first expedition: a 7,500 km, 111-day crossing of the Sahara Desert on foot.

Today, Ray is a professional explorer and guide. He’s run over 17,000 km across the world’s deserts and has crossed, unsupported, some of the coldest places on the planet. A few notable examples of Ray’s expeditions include, among many others.

  • Trekking, unsupported, from Hercules Inlet to the Geographic South Pole in 2009 (1,130 km in 33 days, 23 hrs, 55 min).
  • Running across Mongolia and the Gobi Desert in the summer of 2013 ( a 2,000+ km journey).
  • Crossing Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic (for the 7th time), unsupported, in 2016.

When he’s not traveling the world, appearing in documentaries or speaking  events, Ray calls Quebec, Canada home. He is an Explorer in Residence of the Canadian Geographic Society, a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, a recent recipient of the Meritorious Service Cross of Canada and, in 2015, was recognized as one of Canada’s Top Explorers by Canadian Geographic.

Determined to give back, Ray also volunteers with impossible2Possible which, through youth-oriented expeditions, delivers experiential learning programs to schools and students around the world.

Our Q & A with Ray

Ray Zahab winter expeditionYou’re a professional explorer. Can you describe what that means?

I do expeditions across the hottest deserts on the planet at the hottest times of the year; I visit the Arctic, and Arctic regions of this planet, at the coldest time of year. I do most of my colder expeditions unsupported, meaning dragging all of my supplies with me. And while I’m on expeditions, I’m typically communicating with classrooms. So if I’m running across, for example, the Atacama Desert, which was 800 miles north to south in the middle of summer, I’m minimally resupplied every 20, 30, 40, 50 kilometers. And at those resupply points, I’m using satellites to communicate with classrooms to tell students what it’s like in the desert in the driest place on Earth in the middle of summer.

I’m also the founder of a nonprofit—a nonprofit in Canada and a charity in the US—called impossible2Possible. Through it, we take young people on learning-based expeditions around the world. We’re all volunteers in the organization, myself included, and everything we do is 100 percent free. So we take people 16 to 21 years of age on adventures where they learn about a certain subject, they learn about themselves and they explore a very remote part of the world. Those experiences are also shared with classrooms all over the world that are tuning in and following every step. So that’s sort of my passion piece of what I do.

And then lastly, I founded a company called Kapik1, which creates adult versions of the impossible2Possible youth expeditions.

Your most recent expedition took you to Baffin Island in February. Why there?

We started planning this expedition a year ago. It would be my 11th crossing of Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. The goal was to take 25 days, leaving from the Island of Qiqiktarjuaq in Nunavut, crossing over the frozen sea ice to a remote fjord and then across Baffin Island into the community of Pangnirtung. It would be a much longer route than my previous Baffin Island expeditions and cover an area I hadn’t explored.

I wanted to do this project because my Inuit friends from that region told me about a valley that I had never been through—they told me it was a beautiful and amazing place. Along the way, I planned to collect weather data: temperature, mean temperature, humidity, etc. I would then use that information on an impossible2Possible expedition—the subject matter being extreme weather events—happening in June. Because the measurements would be from one of the coldest places on earth, during the coldest time of the year, I thought this would be a great data set to compare with another I would be collecting in July [prior to Baffin Island] in Death Valley—the hottest place on earth during the hottest time of year.

Ray Zahab Baffin Island ExpeditionPrior to the expedition, you were diagnosed with cancer. How did this affect you? How did it affect the expedition?

Throughout the course of the last year, as I was planning the expedition, I started to feel more and more uncertain about my health: how I was feeling generally, and how I was recovering. As I left to go to Death Valley in July, I wasn’t myself physically. I knew something was wrong. I started seeing doctors and getting blood work done before I left, but it wasn’t until after I returned that my suspicions were confirmed—I have blood cancer. A rare form of Lymphoma.

That October, I began chemotherapy, which I would have to do every 25 days for six months. Each chemo and monoclonal therapy treatment goes on for a few days, then I have 25 days until the start of the next one.

Ray Zahab Baffin Island expedition

At this point, I realized that my Baffin Island plans would have to be dramatically changed, or canceled altogether. But I also decided I wasn’t going to let the chemo totally control my life. I would be respectful of the disease and the doctors treating me, but I would continue to live and guide expeditions in the time I had between treatments.

For about a week to ten days after each treatment, I feel horrible. That leaves me about ten days of feeling good in between, so I decided to make the best of it and go to Baffin Island for the good days I had in February, modifying the expedition to my current condition.

Ray Zahab Baffin Island expedition
Ray and his team relied on MICROspikes® footwear traction in brutal Arctic conditions in order to haul their gear sleds.

The new plan would still be to cover the original route, but we would compress the timeline by bookending it with travel by snowmachine. First, from Qiqiktarjuaq to the fjord, which we originally planned would take us 15 days on foot. From there, we explored the fjord on skis, before the snowmachines picked us up again for the final 120 km into Pangnirtung. That was very, very grueling. There was very little snow for vast sections, and we had to push and pull the machines over rocks. Ironically, this was more physical than skiing.

In the end, I had to accept that this was going to be a mixed expedition, on skis and on snow machine, but out of the 30-plus expeditions I’ve done and close to 20,000 kilometers I’ve covered on foot across the planet, this was one of my most rewarding projects.

Ray Zahab winter expedition Kahtoola MICROspikes® tractionCan you talk a bit more about why this was such a rewarding experience?

Yesterday, I was doing a podcast and somebody asked, “What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?” I said, “Well, gosh, it always seems to be my last expedition!.” Because it’s the one that’s the freshest in my mind. But what made this project especially difficult was that I had a finite amount of time to work with.

Ray Zahab Baffin Island expedition Kahtoola MICROspikes® traction
Ray has relied on MICROspikes® traction for multiple expeditions, favoring its packability and reliability.

Leading up to the expedition, I was concerned, worried, apprehensive and not sure of my decision to do it, but I was very proud of myself that I did. Just getting on the plane was a win, as was managing myself on the expedition so that I didn’t get frostbite, and therefore no infections, which could be a really bad ending for me out there. I was being as careful as I possibly could and, through that challenge, I completed my goal and made it back in time for my next chemo. Was it physically the most difficult thing I’ve done? Probably not. But it was extremely challenging logistically—and unique—because of the parameters I was under.

Did you learn anything new about yourself during this expedition?

I did. We were stuck in our tent for 40 hours in a windstorm at one point. And I laid there thinking to myself, “If this was last year, I would have said, ‘to hell with it,’ and pushed through this wind, risking frostbite.”But this time, I was able to say to myself, “You know what, that’s not the mission this time. You cannot get frostbite here.” I was able to slow things down in my mind and realize that in this period in my life—in this six-month period—if I want to do these things that I love so much, I have to be willing to modify the way I do them and be open to change.

I learned that under a unique set of circumstances, I’m able to be humble about my approach—not be a bull in a china shop—whereas, previously, I didn’t know I had the capacity to do that.

Why do you believe it’s important for people to dream big and go on adventures?

I see it in both of my daughters. They do sports that my wife and I don’t do—my wife, Kathy, is an accomplished ultrarunner. But my daughters have taken on their own sports with their own identities. They’ve found passion in things like biathlon, Nordic skiing, sprint kayak and sprint canoe. Through their own adventures, they’ve discovered their own sense of pride and self-esteem.
Ray Zahab winter expedition Kahtoola MICROspikes® tractionOn top of that, I think people gain a lot of self-awareness from being outdoors. I see it in our youth expeditions. When you’re pursuing something you’re passionate about, you gain an appreciation for the outdoors and for the environment. You fall in love with the outdoors and want to preserve it. We’re creatures of the outdoors and I think it should be available to everyone; it enables you to learn things about yourself, and challenge yourself in ways that perhaps you wouldn’t otherwise.

What is some advice you would give people who want to follow in your footsteps?

First, the most important piece of advice I would give is to stop talking yourself out of doing things. Instead, talk yourself into doing things. I spent the first 30 years of my life with my glass, basically, half empty—I was afraid to try things for fear of failure. Now I’m spending the second 30 years of my life taking chances!

We live in a society where many things seem to get distilled down into the popularity of a social media post. Instead of seeking perfection, I think it’s better to be willing to take a chance. And who cares if you fail? Because, really, there is no fail. There’s only a first attempt and learning.

Number two, go after your dreams, but understand that there needs to be a process attached to it. If you want to climb Everest, it’s not going to happen in a day. What you need to do is build a process through which you can achieve your goal—going from one base camp to the next. Learn and take things one step at a time. Don’t rush it, but be sure to take those steps—if you’re not moving forward, you’re never going to get to your destination.

Ray Zahab Baffin Island expeditionWhat’s next for Ray?

At the time of this writing, Ray is looking forward to finishing his last chemo treatment and is using the time window he has to scout his next big adventure to the Mojave desert.

If you’d like to follow Ray’s adventures, check out his website at rayzahab.com. To learn more about his work with impossible2Possible, or to donate, visit their website at impossible2possible.com.