Scotch and Snowdas On The North Pole (Audio)
WHAM! SMACK! WHACK! Smash! Thud! Shudder-creak-crash! I am nearly seasick in this coffin-size wooden box as it hammers relentlessly into ridges of ice atop frozen Barrow Strait. The coffin is sealed upon a komatik (Eskimo sled), the komatik is pulled by a snorting Skidoo, and I am buried under a caribou hide that would smell worse than bad drains were it not stiff with icicles.
Icicles have grown over the eye-slits of my goose-down mask, and its rubbery nose is bent to the side, making me suck hard for air. Blood throbs under my toenails, wanting to get out. All my bones ache from the endless pounding. Oh, no; now my sore shoulder bone is itching! An icy wind wails between the wooden slats and pierces through my parka like a jet of needles.
What, O Great Sky Father, am I doing here?
What I was doing was trekking to the North Pole, the real one, the geographic one, the one 1,600 miles north of the Arctic Circle, the one where Santa Claus lives and eats blubber for breakfast; what can I say?
Listen to audio story, recorded on-location by Georgia Hesse
(Originally featured on The Connected Traveler in 1995)
The North Pole is not a usual destination; I had been told I would certainly be among the first dozen women to set foot there. (Best guess by now is that I was number eight.)
The North Pole is a lonely abstraction, the coldest of calculations. It calls because it is there, and only the mad answer. (As expedition leader Mike Dunn had told his eight adventurers that first night in Alberta, “All of you have a screw loose. But it is the right screw.”)
While I was stretched in my coffin, we thumped across Barrow Strait from Resolute on Cornwallis Island to Beechey Island. Scheduled as a five-hour slide, it became instead an 11-hour ride aboard a battering ram. Storms had whipped the ice into upthrusts called pressure ridges on which the Skidoos skidded and coughed and our sleds faltered; nothing for it but to rise (miserably) from my coffin to help push.
Was I clumsy? Also lubberly and, face it, fat. I owed that (but also my life, I now know) to the outfitters of High Arctic International Explorer Services back in Resolute. I had felt stuffed as a sausage even before Resolute, squeezed into two sets of long underwear (one silk, one wool), ski pants, ski mitts, ski sweater, lined parka, socks in silk and socks in wool, feet encased in those Canadian Caribou boots that have stiff liners inside them. Then in Resolute, we were swaddled in U.S. military-inspired outer Arctic gear: thick powder-pants, parkas with fur-rimmed hoods, all-obscuring down masks, mittens larger than Yogi Berra’s catcher’s mitt. I could scarcely toddle; I looked like Bibendum, the Michelin man.
(What a joy and a coincidence to look up clumsy in the dictionary and to discover it descends from the Middle English clumsen, to be stiff with cold.)
As I slogged over the ridges, I remembered a conversation with my ophthalmologist: “And will my contact lenses freeze at the Pole?” I had asked. “Not,” he answered with a grin, “until your eyes do.”
“Well, now,” I thought in my best Pollyanna manner, “let’s consider something pleasant.” Like what? Like the Englishman of the Adolphus W. Greely expedition who hacked off his own feet to avoid gangrene? Like James Fitzjames of the fated Sir John Franklin party (off the happily-named ships Erebus and Terror) who wintered right near here in 1845-46 and watched his wretched comrades perish, only then to give up his own ghost? Nice going.
I heard somebody else’s voice in the almost tangible cold.
“Mush, you huskies,” it said.
Eventually, at 3:05 a.m., we spotted pointy Italian tents on the windswept beach of Beechey. We staggered, we tottered, we stripped off the few top layers and plopped down, asleep in our bags on the snow. Unlike Franklin, we were rescued next day by Twin Otters and flown back to Resolute in about 40 minutes, where we careered into the Arctic Circle Club bar.
In late afternoon, our Twin Otters skied down upon Lake Hazen, Ellesmere Island, about 1,200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, where a giant rubber quonset hut served as dormitory. Pilot Harry Hanlan radioed to a remote weather station. Crackles coming back told him the situation was fine and we should make our attempt for the Pole very soon. We flew off, refueled at Tanquary Fjord, and headed up the 70th meridian for the 560-mile push to the Pole.
It was twilight when we crossed the last headland of the North American continent and roared out over the Arctic Ocean. We were to land where there is no land.
The Arctic is a crinkled white desert cut by pressure ridges and studded with ice islands (not icebergs) unique to the Arctic; the first two discovered were larger than Guam.
At 2:11 a.m., in noon-bright light, we landed at 89.07 degrees latitude and stepped out of the Otter, smack (well, 90 degrees is smack) on top of the world. My heart threatened to beat itself away. Burdened with cameras and my own bulk, I clambered out of the plane into the white-glaring light, stepping on my sunglasses, then sticking them sideways in front of my tired eyes. I looked like a loony.
What does one do at the Pole? First, I tried to find a bathroom behind a pressure ridge. My fingers refused entirely to rezip my Arctic pants and as I looked up toward our little plane the pilot was standing on the wing, doubled over, laughing.
So what else does one do at the Pole? We did something neither Peary nor Cook accomplished, that was not contemplated by Fridtjof Nansen or Roald Amundsen or even Prince Luigi Amedeo of Savoy, Duke of Abruzzi. Raising the candy-striped pole we had brought along, we popped open bottles of Mumm’s Cordon Rouge and downed it before it could turn into slush.
I toppled over and sang “Sittin’ on Top of the World.” From me, all directions stretched south.
At 7:18 a.m., we skied down again at Hazen and spotted the tracks of wolves that had lapped around our camp during the long night. Carried away with the courage of conquerors, we feasted on Arctic char caught through the lake ice, drank Scotch chilled with pieces of glacier (Scotch-and-Snowda), and so to bed.
The temperature sank and the winds whipped up, and as I snugged into my sleeping bag I wondered whether anything would ever be exciting again.
I needn’t have worried. Winging from our Lake Hazen base south to Grise Fjord on the south tip of Ellesmere Island, we looked down upon solitary peaks poking up like frozen islands adrift in an Arctic snow-sea.
The town of Grise, a straggle of houses along the ice-bound sea, is the northernmost nonmilitary settlement in the world and home of 111 independent souls, most of them Eskimos (properly, Inuits) who survive largely on a subsistence hunting economy. Nearly every household owns at least one Skidoo.
The call of the wild has a peculiar power over some psyches. “Who wants to sleep in an igloo?” Mike inquired one noon over lunch in the perfectly adequate prefab that serves as the Grise Fjord Lodge. I raised my hand. It was the only one.“
‘Fraidy cats,” I thought, and looked expectantly toward our pilots. “No way,” confessed John Brechin, or maybe it was Peter Milne. “I got a good, warm bed in there.” Both eyed me warily, as if I had become unhinged.
Later, in the fading light of 11 p.m. that serves as summer’s poor excuse for darkness, I waddled out over the sea ice toward the igloo and bellied inside its low entrance. I stripped down to long underwear and slid into my well-chilled bag. Dunn, photographer Wolfgang Kaehler, and a teacher who was passing through town (why?) decided to join in the adventure. Dunn had brought Scotch and Kailua as ice breakers.
Sleeping was O.K.; waking at 6 a.m. and scurrying out of my bag cocoon into the chrysalis of the igloo at a temperature of 11 degrees below zero was not. My fingers tried with only partial success to dress me; they refused entirely to touch the heavy zippers of the outside Arctic pants or to tighten themselves around the laces of my boots. As decently clothed as they would permit, I stumbled-ran back across the ice toward the small hotel that looked, suddenly, like Italy’s Villa d’Este.
There was, as it happened, no hot water in the hotel that morning (fortunately, coffee had been made before the power gave out), so I washed my contact lenses in melted snow and tried to think how some brave Brits subsisted on sea birds, ptarmigan, foxes, seals, and algae through a bleak, black winter 250 days long.
Amazing how much better one feels when contemplating the catastrophes of others.
It is over. I have traveled poles apart and now can put both feet on the table after dinner. (Jeannette Mirsky began her To the Arctic! thus: “Not so long ago there was a custom among sailors that accorded to all those who had sailed ’round Cape Horn the right to put one foot on the table after dinner, while those who had crossed the Arctic could put both feet on the table.”) First one big Caribou boot and then the other.
Georgia I. Hesse was born on the 28 Ranch on Crazy Woman Creek at the foot of Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains. A B.A. graduate of Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota, she then studied political science as a Fulbright scholar at Paris’ Sorbonne, then at the University of Strasbourg University in Alsace, France. She became the founding travel editor of the San Francisco Examiner (flagship of the Hearst chain) and then of the Examiner-Chronicle. Georgia holds the Ordre National du Mérite from the French government and the Chevalier l’Ordre de la République from Tunisia. Her articles have appeared in many national magazines and newspapers and she is the author of travel guides to France and California by three publishers, and a contributor to several anthologies.