Doctor to hike over Northwest Passage in journey for healthcare

An Alberta physician with a sense of adventure is getting ready to trek across the Northwest Passage alone — with only his rifle to protect against polar bears.

Dr. Bill Hanlon of Cochrane, Alta., plans to walk at least 900-kilometres over 5 weeks

Dr. Bill Hanlon, a family physician in Cochrane, Alta., has travelled the world on adventures, learning about community medicine. Here he is pictured on Mount Everest in May 2007 after a seven-day summit. (Bill Hanlon)

An Alberta physician with a sense of adventure is getting ready to trek across the Northwest Passage alone — with only his rifle to protect against polar bears.

Dr. Bill Hanlon, 63, has a family medical practice in Cochrane, Alta., but also has travelled the world, to places such as Afghanistan and the South Pole. He has even skied 700 kilometres across a frozen lake in Siberia.

Now he's headed north for 900-kilometre journey from Kugluktuk to Pond Inlet, Nunavut, expected to take five weeks starting in April.

"It could be a lot more, depending on the ice and the conditions, and how my aging body withstand the conditions, of course," Hanlon told the Calgary Eyeopener.

Dr. Bill Hanlon travels solo for the challenge, and for the peace and quiet of the experience. This photo shows him on part of a 700-kilometre walk on Lake Baikal in Siberia in March 2017. (Bill Hanlon)

Despite his travel experience, this one presents a unique challenge.

"The issue with polar bears is something I'm not really familiar with," Hanlon said, adding that's why he got his firearm licence before departing.

The doctor says he's taking this unusual and physically demanding trip for a few reasons — including to further work with his non-profit, the Basic Health International Foundation.

The organization trains midwives, nurses and other health professionals in small communities around the world.

On this trip, he'll pass by small hamlets and hopes to gauge local health professionals' interest in potentially partnering with him on some future projects.

"This is very much about listening, really. I'm not going with any specific agenda or to try and influence or impart my recommendation on health care on the Inuit people," Hanlon said.

"I think it's much more about listening at the grassroots level to the people in the nursing stations and people on the ground, the elders."

'Horrific health issues'

He said he's concerned that in Canada, residents of the North receive dramatically worse healthcare than the rest of the country. 

Tuberculous, food insecurity, suicide and diabetes rates are all prevalent, and families struggle to access timely, appropriate healthcare and healthy food.

"Having the experience again of working in the developing world for over 35 years, I see a lot of parallels with healthcare issues in our northern peoples," Hanlon said. "So within our borders we have [these] horrific health issues to deal with."

Dr. Bill Hanlon treated patients in a remote part of Tibet in 2000. (Bill Hanlon)

He hopes to trek a bit more over the next few years, to eventually travel the full length — 3,300 kilometres — of the storied Northwest Passage, from Tuktoyaktuk to Pond Inlet, Nunavut.

The trip is a physical challenge and mental opportunity for Hanlon through an often dangerous landscape.

"Travelling solo allows me listening to the wind and being exposed to the elements," he said. "It allows me time to think and get away from the phone and the busyness of life here, too."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.