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Omaha Magazine

To the End of the World and Back: Peter Bolay’s Arctic Adventure

Oct 29, 2020 08:55AM ● By Sean Robinson
Peter Bolay in his woodworking shop

Mr. Oliver is on high alert. The Welsh terrier has spotted something a smidge bigger than his 35-pound frame. Outside his tent is an American black bear, massive in size and, likely, in appetite. 

Gulp. Tail flat to butt. 

There’s not much stopping the bear from turning Mr. Oliver into a late-night snack. It’s just the dog and his owner, Peter Bolay, camping alone amid hundreds of miles of tundra. Technically, this duo are guests in the bear’s home. On hind legs and silent as a petrified pooch can be, Mr. Oliver’s strange behavior catches Bolay off guard. Then, the man also realizes they have a visitor to their campsite. So, he follows his dog’s lead and keeps quiet until the bear continues his stroll to some other twilight-lit stretch of the vast nothingness. 

Exhale. 

Bolay and his four-legged traveling companion can now catch some zzz’s in peace. After all, they have another big day tomorrow. They’re in the midst of a 7,000-mile journey up to the tippy-top of North America. Adventure—and the Arctic Ocean—await. 

“Is it courage that keeps me going? No, it’s not that,” said Bolay, a 73-year-old retired investment adviser who is proud to call Omaha home when he’s not coming face-to-face with some of nature’s wildest. “The world is out there. I think you’ve got to go out every day and embrace life.” 

During summer 2019, embracing life for Bolay looked a lot like an episode of Discovery Channel’s Expedition Unknown. Instead of lounging beachside, going the all-inclusive route, or becoming a cruise vacationer, Bolay’s summer trip was a 7,000-mile trek spanning from Anacortes, Washington, to Tuktoyaktuk, a hamlet that borders the Arctic Ocean in Canada’s Northwest Territories. 

As if all that didn’t sound daring enough, this was a completely self-reliant, 100% vehicle-dependent type of odyssey called overlanding—a hybrid of camping and off-roading. It was Bolay, a tricked-out Land Rover that included a tent mounted to an attached trailer, and thousands upon thousands of miles ahead of him. Of course, Mr. Oliver kept him company through the entire two-month ride. 

“He’s a good guy, Mr. Oliver. He did a lot of traveling in his life,” Bolay said of his now-late dog. 

Overlanding isn’t as easy as booking flights and packing bags.

Bolay owned the Land Rover for 15 years, but it took six months of planning to fully prepare before his journey north began. First came hours of online research, followed by a bit of elbow grease to transform his trunk into a mobile galley kitchen. 

Bolay constructed wood drawers for storage, had a propane stove and refrigerator installed, bought tires tough enough to stand the wear and tear of gravel arctic roads, and even took a pre-trip to California in May to mount a roof rack for extra storage. Also placed atop his vehicle were lights to pierce desolate darkness at night and a solar-heated road shower. This is a tank of water and an accompanying jet nozzle to provide the convenience of pressurized water, even when in the middle of nowhere. 

After California, Bolay continued his prep in Oregon, where he got his clamshell-shaped tent, and then motored on to the ninth annual Northwest Overland Rally in Plain, Washington. This annual four-day event is part expo and part roughin’ it 101, with expert-ran courses to help guide travelers like Bolay.

“Peter is one of those guys who sets a goal and does it,” said Jim Holley, a longtime friend and former travel buddy. “There were definitely more logistics to this trip and a little more danger. However, it doesn’t surprise me he would do it. Really, I was in awe of him.” 

The journey from Anacortes, Washington, officially began—much of it proving to be slow-moving and teeth-rattling—on July 7. Beyond Dawson City, Yukon, Bolay drove the mountainous Dempster Highway onward. While there was remote beauty, wide-open spaces, and incredible scenery abound, the rough state of the roads meant he could only drive 10 miles per hour at times for an average of 230 miles per day. 

After this path, he took the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway in Canada’s Northwest Territories, a road made famous for its treacherous turns featured on History Channel’s Ice Road Truckers

“The last part of the Arctic, I got stuck,” Bolay said. “It’s this large marshland, so I pulled off to take a couple pictures. Apparently, my right side was too pulled off. People in a nearby town had to get me out.”

It’s these people—those who call one of the most isolated regions on Earth home—that made the trip all the more memorable. Bolay met an indigenous man who could fillet a fish faster than he’s ever seen, shared drinks in small town bars with others from as far as Germany, and loaded up a young long-distance biker with water when he saw the traveler only had two water bottles. 

“Part of what drives me to travel is the beauty of the world we live in, but it’s also about the wonderful people who make it up,” Bolay said. “I like meeting new people while discovering new places.”

Of course, for most of the trip, it was just Bolay and Mr. Oliver. 

Those days consisted of nine hours of driving, with energy bars and cups of instant coffee to keep him going. As evening crawled over the horizon, the man and his dog would pull off the road to camp for the night. A small fire was lit, the durable tent folded down from the trailer, and the two rested before doing it all again in the morning. 

Things were far from mundane, though. The natural sights along the way kept it all exciting.  

“I saw glaciers. Just gigantic glaciers. Mountains split two ways. Waterfalls. Bald eagles as prevalent as robins. Bison in big herds,” Bolay said. “There were many times I’d come around a pass and it was nothing but oohs and aahs.”

As for the Arctic Ocean itself, the water wasn’t too different from something he could see right here in the Metro. 

“It looked like the Missouri River. Kind of like chocolate milk, but more greyish, blackish.”

Bolay finally made it home in mid-September, motoring a total of 11,000 miles when including travel for preparation. That’s the equivalent of driving across the continental U.S. four times over. 

However, what’s exhausting for most is old hat for Bolay. Adventure and him are old friends, going back to his childhood when his family would pack into the station wagon to go fly fishing or make short trips around Pennsylvania. 

Since then, he’s lived in Italy, roamed through much of Europe, sailed extensively across the Caribbean, fallen in love with the lush greenness of New Zealand, and motorcycled to Nova Scotia. There seems to be hardly a corner of the globe he hasn’t covered. 

“Traveling is in my blood,” Boulay said.

As evidenced by all the wheres and whats he has experienced, Bolay is very much a variety-is-the-spice-of-life type person. That spontaneity is also shown in his wide array of hobbies.

When he’s not smoking cigars with his pals at the Old Market’s Havana Garage, he’s woodworking, creating everything from bowls to chairs to 15-foot boats. If he’s not doing that, he might be sailing up the coast to Alaska on the Dobro. Translated to “good” in Croatian, Dobro is the name of the trawler boat he docks in the northwest of Washington state. 

Somehow, between it all, he still works part time as a managing partner for NAVIQ Wealth Management. Following a career of managing equity portfolios, he retired as first vice president of investments from Wells Fargo Advisors in 2018, but keeps his passion for all things financial alive. 

“‘You’re never too old to set a new goal or start a new dream.’ I live by that C.S. Lewis quote,” Bolay said. “I think life is full of lessons, and I want to learn as many as possible.”

Lessons that come in the form of tundra stretching and sprawling beyond the Arctic Circle. A 35-pound Welsh terrier turned expert traveler. Even curious black bears who disappear as quick as they arrived. 

This article first appeared in the 60 Plus section of the November/December 2020 issue of Omaha Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.