Noosa’s John Cantor recalls his harrowing solo journey down Brooks Range in Alaska.
Noosa’s John Cantor recalls his harrowing solo journey down Brooks Range in Alaska. Contributed

Noosa man's trip to hell and back

NOOSA'S John Cantor was in a world of hurt in one of the loneliest and most intimidating places on earth - sleep deprived with his inner demon stalking him all the way, more threatening than the wild grizzlies roaming those parts.

His tortured Achilles tendons was screaming for him to give up again on a magnificent, but possibly misplaced obsession to traverse the Brooks Range in Alaska solo.

Now back in Australia after his amazing mid-year journey, the 27-year-old extreme adventurer relived becoming just the fifth known person (and the first non-American) to walk and kayak 1600km of raw nature at its most confronting.

With the ABC's Australian Story last night retracing his personal redemption after three epic Brooks failures in the past six years, John is still nursing the sore ankles to attest to how close to hell and back he went.

And all the while his worried family - including Dr Chris Cantor, mother Becky and TV host Liz Cantor - willed him to succeed and end their long-distance ordeal. They hoped that John would at least survive his personal Everest.

"It's a very intimidating place - you're dropped off by bush plane hundreds of kilometres from the nearest road, house or town," John said.

"So there's no easing you way into it. Most expeditions start and you gradually get yourself further away from safety, but with this, the start point is the furthest point (from civilisation).

"The first four days there was a voice in my head constantly telling me to quit."

John said he knew this voice quite well from his past attempts, but those stinging capitulations had finally provided him with the steel and the strategy he needed to block all else out and just keep going.

"The first three times I had seen the expedition as one big challenge, whereas this time I broke it down into little battles.

"So that when I told myself to quit, I was able to just able to go over each element and realise there's no reason to quit.

"The Achilles tendonitis started on the fifth day, and from then on I was just in agony for the whole expedition."

But somehow John mustered the mental strength to refuse the past "easy" options that he had found so hard to live with.

"Six years of my life ... I'd put so much into this.

"One of the mantras I kept saying over and over was 'I've suffered so much, why not suffer a little bit more and make it all worthwhile'."

John's agony and ecstasy challenge started by reading what should have been a cautionary tale.

"I was studying film and television at QUT in Brisbane in 2006 and read 'Into The Wild' and decided that I would do something similar without the dying part.

"So I dropped out of uni and entered myself in a two-and-a-half month wilderness course in Alaska. I had an idea I was going to do something similar to Chris McCandless, and live off the land."

This is a reference to the young American who turned his back on civilisation to live in the Alaskan wild, which finally claimed his life. John went cold on the idea when he found out he would not be able to hunt without a guide, so: "I read an article on the first guy to traverse the Brooks Range and the idea went from there".

"Mum and Dad were against it, but were supportive, which is a bit of a paradox really. They knew I was going to have a go regardless, so they made it clear they did not want me to go, but they'd be there for me."

"Psychologically it was more about dealing with being so far away from everyone and in such an imposing environment with animals everywhere and it's so dangerous," John said.

But he was his own worst enemy the first three times due to over-training and, on the first attempt, wrecking his chances by trying to put on body fat on his lean 68kg body.

"Most long-distance expeditioners put on a large amount of fat - but I wrecked my liver from eating too much fatty foods.

"The second two attempts I had were just a waste of time because I had tendonitis in my knees from over-training.

"I had the feeling after the third attempt that I would go back there one day, but I didn't know if it would be five years ... 10 years."

He moved to Sydney to do a masters in media arts production, and after four months of not training too much, his body started feeling good again.

"I started flirting with the idea again."

So that's how he found himself way out of his comfort zone on July 4.

His Facebook entry that day tells a compelling tale: "Tomorrow I set off on the last hiking section of this six-year dream. I can't say I'll definitely make it, as my ankles are so bad, but I'm going to fight. This trip has been so much more then I could have imagined. From throwing up a dozen times on the first night, from being so freaked out, and not being able to eat solid foods for the first four days. Then having an amazing birthday and breaking down in tears (on camera) at how happy I was. Getting lost on day eight, and travelling through a death valley of snow bridges and loose rock."

John hiked for 19 hours to complete 1000km on that final day before taking to the broad water for a 600km Noatak River paddle to be greeted by nightmarish headwinds.

"It got to the point where I was alternating between dragging the kayak along the bank of the river and then paddling because it was so bad.

"I was pretty messed up by the end. I had a big meltdown the day before and I came across a native guy in a cabin.

"He turned on the weather forecast and it was for the wind to keep getting stronger over the next few days, so I didn't even know if I'd make it.

"A huge headwind started 10 hours after I got to the end."

John said apart from the relief, achieving his goal felt strange.

"Mentally I had prepared for being out there for two months - that's how long the expedition was going to take. So finishing in 31 days - it didn't feel real."

John said he had loved lapping up the creature comforts of a warm bed and chairs to sit on while he plans his next wild expedition, which is still under wraps.

"I'm getting into motivational speaking and I'm trying to get funding to go back to Alaska to do a really hardcore, underground 180 mile adventure race.

"This year the winners took four days, and they only slept for six hours in that time."

So it looks like John has found something else to lose sleep on - along with his stoic family.

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