A NORTHERN WOMAN
March 16, 2020 | Weber Arctic
Josee Auclair, polar matriarch and co-founder at Weber Arctic, shares stories on her humble beginnings into polar exploration and the thrill for adventure that keeps her coming back.
Sometimes a pair of skis changes everything. “I was a really, really busy kid,” says Josée Auclair, matriarch of the Weber family, describing herself as a very high energy child. “Thanks to a school program, they had some old skis in the back of the gym, and one day the teacher told me, why don’t you try those skis? I went around and around and around the back of the courtyard there at school, and he says, well, why don’t you register for the races next weekend? And I went to those races, and a year and a half later I was on the national team.”
Growing up as one of four children in a family of modest means in Quebec, Josée might not have expected to end up spending major swathes of her life exploring the Arctic. But her parents, who came from farming families, had unwittingly prepared her for her unexpected destiny by instilling in her an unshakeable work ethic. “My parents gave me the greatest gift they could,” she says, “which was to keep telling me, if you want to go anywhere or do anything, don’t expect the world to give it to you. You have to roll up your sleeves and get to work.”
She got to work on skis, focusing her energy and earning the opportunity to travel and compete internationally. Through skiing, she met another young skier, Richard Weber, who intrigued her with his seriousnesses and focus. He was different from the other boys on the team—and from her. He was an Anglophone to her Francophone, and his father, the scientist and mountaineer Hans Weber, was frequently away in the Arctic. Josée and Richard attended the University of Vermont, and, soon after graduation, Richard embarked on his first North Pole expedition. In what proved to be another useful legacy, Josée’s mother had taught her to sew and to cook, and she started sewing clothing and tents for Richard’s expeditions as well as prepping the highly specific food supplies. “But,” Josée says, “then you look enough at the pictures, and you hear enough stories, and I decided enough of that support business. I happen to think I’m quite strong, so I want to go, too.”
Her first trip to the Arctic was a ski and dogsled expedition with Richard and two other guides on Baffin Island, transiting 400 kilometers from Broughton Island (Qikiqtarjuaq) to Clyde River. For Josée, the Arctic was love at first sight. “I’m an intense person,” she says, “and the Arctic is nothing if not intense.” She loved the beauty of the place, the bright clarity of a sunny day, the power of an Arctic storm and the way the wind would grab her, how the Arctic didn’t do anything halfway. Nor did the Arctic discriminate among people. “It doesn’t matter how much money you have in your bank account or who you are,” she says. Rather, the Arctic rewarded toughness, knowledge, critical thinking, and teamwork. “I really, really like that. It brings you back to basics.”
Before long, Josée and Richard added two sons, Tessum and Nansen, to their family, and the boys first visited the Arctic when they were small enough to be carried in backpacks on summer treks. Meanwhile, Richard’s North Pole expeditions were continuing and, in an era before iridium phones, when communication could only be done by radio, Josée had to get used to living with uncertainty. “I didn’t even know when my husband was going to come back from the expedition,” she says, “and I had young kids at home—whew! That was an interesting time.”
To make matters even more interesting, in the late 1990s, Josée started joining Richard as a guide on commercial expeditions to ski the last degree of latitude to the North Pole. She eventually served as expedition leader on an all-women expedition in 2001 and again for a different, mixed-gender group in 2006. The following year she led an all-women group in skiing the final degree to the South Pole. When Josée first started going north, women were still an anomaly, as the High Arctic had long been perceived as a proving ground exclusively for men. “When I started,” she says, “there were almost no women. It was really frowned upon. Like when I was in Siberia with Richard guiding a group to the North Pole, the Russians would look at me and say, what are you doing here? A woman! A woman has no place in the Arctic. The Arctic is a place for strong men, and a woman shouldn’t be here. I thought, the hell with you guys.”
Although attitudes have shifted, finding female guides in the Arctic remains a challenge, a shortage Josée attributes to the discouraging effects of historical chauvinism. Women are less likely than men to assume they’re up for the challenges of the Arctic, but she has always had faith in her own physical strength and mental hardiness, which has served as a powerful example to others during her guiding career. “If you are a good guide,” she says, “you figure out which strings to pull to motivate people, and you also make sure they are okay.”
The same applied to parenting. From the beginning, Josée was determined to raise her sons in the north and to instill in them a love of the outdoors, something she felt she could accomplish simply by bringing them along on her own adventures. “When Tessum and Nansen were up north,” she says, “they had a lot of liberty, but they knew the boundaries, and I was very strict about the boundaries. They never crossed me. It was a real joy to see them going out and exploring. You just have to wrap up the kid and make sure he’s okay.” Often, of course, she was wrapping up the boys in clothes she’d made herself - this was well before the outdoor industry started to make proper kids clothing.
Eventually, seeking more longterm stability even as they continued to guide expeditions, Josée and Richard started investigating the possibility of establishing an Arctic lodge. (Read more here.) They wanted a wild place for the kids to grow up, and, despite having no business background, they wanted a business that would let them work together as a family. When the abandoned whale-watching lodge on Somerset Island that would become Arctic Watch came to their attention in 2000, Josée recognized it as the place she’d been dreaming of. The acquisition, though, made for a frightening financial leap, particularly since no equivalent lodges existed for reassurance. “People thought we were totally loony,” Josée says. “Everybody said we would never survive with this concept.” But loyal clients provided advice and support, which mostly boiled down to: trust your passion. Even though starting a remote lodge proved far from easy, the believers turned out to be right. As Josée says, “We kept forging ahead because we loved the place. If you are passionate enough about a dream, and you have a strong vision, it’s amazing how things come together.”
Twenty plus years down the road, the family has exactly the business Josée wanted, and, in the early days, her skills were imperative to its success. Her experience prepping food for expeditions came in handy when, initially without even a fridge or freezer, she oversaw meals and baked massive quantities of bread for guests. Her ingenuity as a parent helped, too, when she figured out how to enlist the boys in laundry duty. Tessum would drive barrels full of soap, water, and dirty laundry up a hill on an ATV and, with a kick, start them rolling down to where Josée and Nansen were waiting to catch them. Gravity’s spin cycle.
Nowadays, a chef runs the kitchen at Arctic Watch, but Josée is still the boss. “It’s a family business,” she says, “and now it’s much more than that. I have an amazing team that helps us function up in the Arctic. As I get older, yes, I’m going to do different things in the lodge and different kinds of trips, but I’m still going to go back to the Arctic. I don’t believe in retirement. I’m still going to put my hiking boots on, and we’re still going to go and explore. My country is so big, I could spend a whole lifetime just exploring.” Her love for Canada’s epic geography and human diversity goes hand in hand with her commitment to showcasing domestic wines, meats, and cheeses. And while her role has begun to evolve, she takes satisfaction from her sons’ eagerness to contribute. Every week the family sits down to brainstorm new ideas and concepts, and the latest Weber venture, heliskiing on Baffin Island (more here), was spearheaded by the second generation. “My kids aren’t kids anymore,” she says. “They’re leaders. It’s quite fun to sit back and see how the vision we had so many years ago has kept going and gotten bigger. And if I complain my kids are intense, I have to remember that I was intense.” She laughs.
Part of Josée’s enduring love for the Arctic is the way every year there is different, how change is a constant. By embracing change, she has been able to harmonize her work life and her life-life into a dynamic and fulfilling existence, and she’s been able to introduce countless people to the landscape she loves most. “We have brought people from all over the world to see the Arctic, and I think that’s very important because the Arctic is a very fragile place. It’s a beautiful place. You can read about it as much as you want, but you have to go and experience it, the beauty and the quietness and the expanse. ”