Thayer and her best friend, Charlie.
RETURN TO TOP
Praise for Polar Dream
A compelling page-turner that kept this reader up
.This honest, straightforward tale puts to shame
the accounts of commercially subsidized and promoted polar expeditions
widely touted by books and television in recent years.
--The Miami Herald
A terrific chronicle of an extraordinary adventure.
An exciting story of human endurance and of a remarkable animal.
A solid no-frills adventure for women as well as men.
RETURN TO TOP
The following is excerpted from Polar
Dream: The First Solo Expedition by a Woman and Her Dog to the Magnetic
North Pole (NewSage Press 2002). This material is copyrighted
by Helen Thayer and NewSage Press, and may not be copied or excerpted
without direct permission from the publisher.
From Fear to Courage
At 6:00 a.m. I was awake but not rested. It had
been a tense night listening for bears. Charlie had made no sound
and I hadnt heard the dreaded sound of a bear. As I lay in
my sleeping bag trying to persuade my reluctant body to move out
of the tent into the cold to begin a new day, I thought about the
terror of the previous day. But my mind rebelled and I resolved
not to dwell on the past. No more thinking of the yesterdays, they
were gone, I told myself. Instead, I would save my emotional energy
to think and plan ahead. I needed to travel as many miles a day
as possible to move quickly through this heavily populated polar
bear area. With a firm course of action in my mind, I crawled out
of my warm sleeping bag into the bleak cold of the early Arctic
My first job was to take stock of my hands. The
blood blisters were larger and redder than yesterday and both hands
were more swollen. My usually large hands were now very large and
certainly were not candidates for a beauty contest. There was no
sign of infection. Surely no self-respecting bacteria would live
in this cold place, I thought as I gritted my teeth and squeezed
my swollen hands into my blue liner gloves that now seemed two sizes
I unzipped the tent door, grabbed my warm parka
and stepped outside. Quickly, I looked around for bears while I
walked across the ice in my camp booties, sliding into my jacket
as I went. Charlie had just gotten up and was stretching and yawning.
I hugged him good morning. Did you sleep OK, Charlie?
A lick across my face with his big soft tongue told me, Yes.
The first long golden rays of sun were already
washing over the tent, turning the tiny ice crystals covering the
blue nylon into dancing, sparkling diamonds. I fumbled around trying
to make my hands cooperate so I could light the stove. The pain
in the tips of my fingers made that out of the question. I had to
devise a method of using the palms of my hands and my wrists to
connect the fuel bottle to the stove. With some patience it worked.
The stove roared as loudly as a blow torch and I moved to where
I could see Charlie in case he warned me of a bear. It was impossible
for me to hear anything over the roar of the stove. Quickly I put
a pan of ice on the stove to melt while I fed Charlie. I was in
a hurry to leave this place and find smooth ice again with better
visibility. It was spooky in this icy forest.
The water was barely warm when I poured it over
my granola. I ate fast, then gulped down one cup of hot chocolate
and began packing my sled as more ice melted to fill my thermoses.
In another forty- five minutes all was packed and Charlie and I
were ready to leave.
The rough ice stretched ahead as far as I could
see but it was possible to ski around the mounds now. Charlie and
I zigzagged back and forth, finding narrow gaps between the pillars
of ice, which allowed our sleds to slide through without jamming.
Suddenly Charlie let out a blood-curdling yelp. My heart jumped,
thinking a bear had overtaken us. Then I realized I had stepped
on Charlies front paw with my ski. He stood holding his foot
up and I stopped and rubbed it to make sure it wasnt cut.
Im sorry, Charlie, I said. Then miraculously his
paw was instantly better. Amazing what a little attention can achieve.
Another hour went by and I could see about half
a mile ahead to where the maze of ice pillars appeared to end at
a long east-to-west ridge of ice. It was a ten-mile pressure ridge,
stretching snakelike all the way from Bathurst Island to Kalivik
Island, about ten feet high with some peaks reaching fifteen feet.
Pressure ridges form when the leading edges of two ice floes or
bodies of ice meet under tremendous pressure, crumpling and grinding
upward to form rough, jumbled, jagged ridges. Sometimes the pressure
is forced downward, creating a pressure ridge beneath the water.
I hadnt expected to find a ridge of this size in this area,
but the ice pack is unpredictable and changes every year. Here,
the ridge appeared to be at its highest, which was about half way
between the two islands. Off in the distance the ridge was lower,
closer to Bathurst and Kalivik. But it was a long way to ski to
the lower ends. Perhaps I could find a gap close by.
The tracks of a large polar bear and the tiny
tracks of an Arctic fox crossed our path. They looked only a few
hours old. I couldnt see any sign of the owners so I nervously
kept going. Charlie exuberantly pressed his black nose to the ice,
trying to follow the bears tracks. I yanked his chain as hard
as I could with my right hand to stop him from pulling me off after
the bear. It developed into a tug-of-war, but I gained ground after
shouting, No, Charlie and Come here, Charlie,
several times. He conceded victory, but he gave me a long sideways
look that told me I hadnt won any points for imagination.
My unsportsmanlike conduct in not joining in the bear chase was
clearly not appreciated. Charlie, were supposed to avoid
bears, I said, not look for them.
At a hundred feet away from the ice ridge, I still
couldnt see any real gaps but there were snowdrifts built
like ramps on the side of the ridge. Over to the left I spotted
a small cave that had been lived in, but was now smashed inward.
Bear and fox tracks ran everywhere. I saw a large splotch of blood
and a mostly devoured seal three feet in front of the cave. Charlie
was gleefully trying to pull me over there, so I gave in and joined
the investigation. It had been a ringed seal breathing hole that
had drifted over with blowing snow to form a cave, with the unfortunate
occupant having met a violent end.
Seals are a polar bears main food source.
The ringed seal, so called because of the pale rings on a dark coat,
is the most common seal in the area. They live in the sea under
the ice and come up for air through breathing holes in the ice pack,
usually in cracks or in the thinner ice. During the winter when
the ice becomes hard and thick, the seals keep their breathing holes
open by constant scratching with their strong, curved claws on their
fore flippers. Blowing snow drifts over the hole, camouflaging it.
The snow becomes deep and hard-packed enough for the female seal
to excavate a small snow cave or birth lair, in which she has her
pup in the spring.
The snow cave is supposed to protect the seal
and her pup from the prying eyes of a hungry polar bear. But polar
bears have a remarkable sense of smell, and they can detect ringed-seal
breathing holes beneath a thick layer of snow as much as two or
three feet deep. When a bear senses a seal breathing hole or birth
lair, he smashes it with massive front paws and in a flash grabs
the unfortunate seal or pup. The thick layer of fat beneath the
seals skin is the polar bears favorite meal. Arctic
foxes commonly follow polar bears, scavenging the leftovers of the
hunt. By the looks of this scene a bear and fox had eaten well.
Charlie was having a picnic scratching and chewing
the blood stained ice and eating a few scraps of leftover seal.
When he tried to roll in the blood I decided enough was enough.
A dog that smells like a seal might become an attraction instead
of a deterrent to polar bears. There were probably more seal breathing
holes around the pressure ridge, undoubtedly good hunting for polar
bears, in which case this was definitely a place I wanted to leave
as soon as possible.
To our right was a promising-looking ramp of hard-packed
snow reaching halfway up the pressure ridge. On each side of the
ramp the tortured, fractured ice was piled in an uneven mass of
jumbled blocks, some six feet or more across. Leaving my skis beside
my sled and using my ice ax for balance, I climbed the ramp looking
for a way over the top. At the top, four feet of unstable broken
ice still had to be crossed. The only thing to do was chop a path
over the top, pull my sled up, then lower it carefully down the
After twenty minutes of chopping I formed a useable
path. Climbing back down I tied a fifty-foot piece of seven-millimeter
rope onto the front handle of my sled, then, grabbing the sturdy
handle, I pulled it up the ramp. The tricky part. Was holding onto
the sled with one hand and balancing myself so that I didnt
end up at the bottom of the ramp again. I tied the rope around a
three-foot block of ice, then carefully stepped around the sled
to get behind it and push it over the top. Suddenly, my feet shot
out from under me and I somersaulted down the slope to land right
under the nose of an astonished Charlie, who jumped back in alarm.
Unhurt, I scrambled to my feet thinking dire thoughts about pressure
ridges and sleds. Climbing up again, more carefully this time, I
pushed the sled over the top, then slowly lowered it with the rope
down the other side. Charlies smaller, lighter sled, was quite
easy to pull up and over, using the same system.
The pillars of ice were behind us now; ahead lay
a smooth stretch of terrain. But as I was standing on top of the
ridge, I had noticed strange-looking bumps in the ice about half
a mile out. It was 11.30 A.M. when I started off in that direction,
with clear skies and the wind speed at twelve miles per hour. The
temperature had lowered to 33 below zero, sending the wind chill
to 60 degrees below zero. My face mask was covered with an inch-thick
layer of ice that molded the mask to the shape of my face and my
eye lashes were frozen. I was growing tired of looking at the world
through a row of miniature icicles that hung down in front of my
eyes. At first I tried to rub them off but each time an icicle came
off, it brought with it an eyelash. The thought of losing all my
eyelashes made me stop rubbing.
I was anxious to reach the icy, dark bumps I had
seen ahead of us. My curiosity was soon satisfied when I stood looking
in disbelief across a sea of ice that looked as if it had boiled
into giant bubbles, each bubble a solid mound of ice six feet across,
two-feet high, frozen in place. The snow had been swept away, leaving
a smooth, shiny, dark blue-green surface with thin strips and circles
of hard packed snow around the mounds. It was old, multi-year ice,
perhaps twenty feet thick, rock hard, worn smooth by the wind and
sun, with the salt and air squeezed out.
The synthetic skins on my skis were still performing
well, giving my skis the extra grip I needed to pull my sled. But
these shiny smooth mounds would be a real test. Charlie had had
no problem with traction so far but I wondered how his feet would
grip the hard, bare ice ahead of us.
We had already passed Kalivik Island. I could
see nothing but mounds of ice to the east so I decided to angle
west, closer to Bathurst in search of a way around the strange mounds.
At first I kept to the packed snow bordering the edges of each mound,
trying to find extra grip for my skis. After spending hours weaving
back and forth through the rough ice we had just left behind, I
longed to ski straight ahead and make good time, so I decided to
tackle the mounds.
By standing solidly on the middle of my skis to
gain all the grip I could, I managed to walk my skis up one side
of a mound, then slide down the other with my sled teetering on
the top before it came flying crazily down the slope, catching the
tails of my skis. Meanwhile, Charlie was following at my side at
the end of his chain. I was concentrating so completely on staying
upright and dodging my flying sled that at first I didnt notice
the sideways tug on Charlies chain. Finally, he got my attention
by jerking at his chain, stepping out to the right onto a patch
of snow and stopping. I was thankful he couldnt put into words
what was on his mind. His eyes were gloomy and his ears drooped.
His expression told me that he was not going to put up with these
straight-ahead tactics any longer. He was having trouble gripping
the smooth ice of the mounds and the only way he was going to continue
was to follow the snowy edges.
Quickly I realized that my tactics werent
working. The flying sleds were dangerous. This was no place for
either Charlie or me to break a leg. I felt terribly guilty at being
so impatient and putting speed ahead of safety. It was time to stop
and put matters right with Charlie. The best way to ask for forgiveness
was with food. Releasing my skis and sled harness, I pulled the
days food bag out of my sled. Sitting on his sled with my
arm around him, I fed Charlie crackers and a few peanut butter cups.
I told him, Im sorry, and patted his head as he
ate. His gloomy look was immediately replaced with his begging look.
Once again, everything was all right between us. I managed to eat
a few peanut butter cups before he finished the entire days
On we went, pulling our sleds, following the snowy
edges around the mounds as we gradually angled over toward Bathurst
Island. Already I had marked Kalivik Island to the east off my map,
and now I could see Goodsir Inlet on Bathurst. The coast was still
very low, and according to my map the inlet appeared to be almost
at sea level for about a mile inland. The map also showed a river
mouth there, but it was frozen and impossible to see in the afternoon
white glare. I was a mile off shore and still angling in.
The glare was a problem. As the afternoon wore
on, I squinted more and more, trying to see through the bright reflected
light for landmarks and bears. My double lens goggles were a nuisance.
They kept fogging up and the fog quickly turned to ice. When I used
the mountaineering trick of wiping saliva on the inside of the lens,
the saliva instantly froze and had to be scraped off. The goggles
were not the wrap-around kind and seriously inhibited my peripheral
vision. They made me feel as if my world was closing in around me
and the thought that there might be a bear just around the corner,
out of sight, drove me to distraction. But every time I tried to
travel without the goggles my eyes burned in the bright light and
I was forced to put them back on. This was only day three and once
again the polar bears were making me ride the fine line of survival.
Frequently I reminded myself, Only emotional discipline is going
to get me to the pole. I have to push my fears behind me and think
ahead to my final goal.
About four hours after we first entered the ice
mounds, they began to decrease, replaced with longer areas of packed
snow. I was less than a half a mile off the Bathurst shoreline in
the transition zone between the rough fractured shore ice and the
older, thicker sea ice. Before I turned directly north up the coast,
I checked the measuring wheel that was attached to the back of my
sled. Each revolution of the metal wheel moved a counter that gave
me the number of miles I had traveled. It was already four-thirty
and the days mileage, so far, totaled only five miles. All
that work for so little gain.
To make matters worse I could see more rough ice
ahead. This area was supposed to be smooth, at least those were
the reports from last year. I was the only expedition to travel
to the magnetic North Pole this season so I hadnt been able
to get any current ice conditions. The only reports available were
from the meteorological office and observations from two of Bradleys
pilots, who reported, The ice seems to be more broken and
pressured this year along Bathurst. So far they were right.
Bezal at base camp had also warned that the ice might be rougher
this year. He was just as concerned about wind, describing the route
to the magnetic North Pole a wind tunnel. So far, the wind had not
been of any significance, perhaps I would be lucky for the entire
journey. I decided to travel two more miles, then camp. My mask
was cold and beginning to freeze to my face. Even so, it still protected
my skin from the cold wind.
Soon, we reached another pressure ridge, this
one only three or four feet high with long easy gaps between the
blocks of ice. This is more our size, Charlie, I said
with pleasure. But on the other side all I could see was a field
of broken, jumbled ice stretching north, east and west. The sun,
low in the sky over Bathurst, was spreading a golden glow over the
western sides of tall pinnacles of ice that cast long, dark, ghostlike
shadows to the east. A fog of ice crystals, turned golden by the
setting sun, was also spreading softly over the low coast of Bathurst.
The scene before me was unreal, unearthly. A photograph could never
capture the cold, naked beauty of a land and icescape untouched
and uncomplicated by humans.
Standing next to Charlie, surveying the landscape,
I was hesitant to go through those silent, dark shadows that lay
across our path. I wouldnt see a polar bear in there until
he was too close. A feeling of vulnerability and fear swept over
me and thoughts of Bill sprang into my mind. He knew about the three
bears yesterday and he would be worried about us. To add to my fears,
Charlie had been sniffing the air to the east for the last half
hour. I could see nothing, but did he know something was out there?
As I stood leaning on my ski poles looking ahead to the shadows
we must pass through, I spoke to Charlie, in an effort to talk away
my fears. This is spooky, Charlie, but to get to the pole
we have to cross through here. A few bears and a few shadows shouldnt
The sound of my voice bolstered my courage. I
put my arms around Charlie and hugged him tight. Now, those shadows
ahead didnt seem nearly as ominous. It was time to move forward
and enter the first long shadows. Once again, I felt in control
despite the foreboding terrain.
I kept going until we had passed through the shadowed
area. Meanwhile, Charlie was still looking due east. He had me worried.
What was he looking for? If there was a bear out there, it must
be keeping abreast of us. Perhaps it was a fox. I decided that until
proven otherwise that unknown presence out there would be a fox.
That was easier for my mind to handle.
There were a few smooth ice pans, some two or
three hundred feet wide, between the leaning towers and blocks of
ice. An iceberg, thirty feet high, lay ahead. It came from a distant
glacier and stood trapped in the crushing grasp of the ice pack,
a prisoner until the summer thaw. A wide apron of smooth ice surrounded
the the ice pack, providing a good camping spot with high visibility.
The sun had slipped away and the temperature was dropping, although
still only in the minus thirties. The extreme dryness of the air
made it seem colder. I eased my face mask off without tearing my
skin. It was a cold, frozen lump. Tonight I would have to thaw my
mask and fix my jacket. Ice crystals had built up between the jacket
lining and the outside fabric, making it difficult to bend my arms
as if I were in a straight jacket.
Immediately I fed Charlie, and went to working
setting up camp, cooking, and eating dinner. Charlie was still uneasy.
He ate a little dog food but left the rest in his bowl as he stood
looking eastwardly into the distance. Something was bothering him.
Even after the long day Charlie wouldnt sit or lay down. I
arranged my skis, ax, and spare ski poles in a circle fifty feet
out from the tent. My theory was that a bear might be curious enough
to stop to examine these strange objects before investigating the
contents of the tent. The idea was just a little silly, because
if a bear got that close, Charlie would have a fit and would warn
me. However, my circle of defense was a psychological
Inside the tent I kept an eye on Charlie while
I thawed my mask over the stove, which sat in the doorway. The jacket
was next. It had a hood and was made of a red-and-black windproof
fabric with a zipper all the way down the front. A thick layer of
ice along the zipper caused the zipper to jam throughout the day.
The jacket could almost stand up by itself because of the thick
layer of ice between the lining and the shell. As I thawed it out,
a cloud of steam froze almost instantly into ice crystals that formed
a frozen fog inside the tent. When I pried open the zipper I had
to be careful the zipper teeth didnt break. The lining was
sewn shut so I slit the sleeve endings to allow the ice to fall
out as soon as it formed. The jacket looked a little ragged but
would now be much more functional. It was a good traveling jacket,
but when I stopped, I always put my thick down jacket over the top
of my clothing in an effort to keep the cold from creeping in. However,
the down jacket was too bulky and warm to ski in, so I relied heavily
on my lighter jacket.
At eight oclock I called base camp to give
Terry my position. Terry told me Bill had telephoned and sent his
love. In turn, I sent Bill a similar message. These daily messages
relayed by radio and telephone were a comfort that I looked forward
to. When I signed off I noticed that Charlie was still standing
guard. Sleep was out of the question for me until I found out what
was out there. Wearing my big down parka, I sat on my sled with
the rifle and flare gun close at hand facing Charlie and wrote in
my journal. The minus 33 degree temperature had frozen my pen so
I took out one of the many pencils I had brought with me. My aching
hands made writing difficult. As I held the pencil between the inside
edges of my index and middle fingers, my usually bad writing was
worse, but it was important to write details of the events and my
thoughts for the day. After experiencing such awful mind consuming
fear continuously for three days, I wrote, I wonder
if the real definition of courage is the ability to deal successfully
with ones fears. At the end of this expedition I hope to be
not only alive, but also be able to say that I have courage.
Suddenly Charlie growled softly. Dropping the
journal, I grabbed the rifle and flare pistol and moved quickly
to his side. I squinted through the gray light but could see nothing.
Charlie growled louder. Then I saw a movement to the side of a small,
car-sized block of ice. It was a large adult bear standing about
two hundred yards away, looking straight at us. Charlie was motionless
and quiet. I stood still and waited. When the bear began to walk
toward us, Charlie sprang to life with a fierce snarling growl.
The bear immediately backed up and seemingly satisfied, Charlie
stopped growling. The bear, still two hundred yards away moved to
the south of us then stopped, as if to come forward again. Charlie
was ready with another ear-tingling snarl. The bear appeared to
think better of the whole situation and left, moving at a fast lope,
going south. The bear had probably been following us for some distance
for several hours. Charlie knew the bear was there but sensed that
he was just curious and only growled when the bear took the liberty
of moving toward us.
Once again I was thankful for Charlie and relieved
beyond words. Relaxed, Charlie ate his dinner, seemingly satisfied
that another bear episode was over. I gave him a good night hug
just before he curled up to sleep. How I wished I could figure out
these bears the way he did. Obviously Charlie could sense the difference
between an aggressive, dangerous bear and one that was only curious.
It was eleven oclock. The pale light of a full moon sparkled
across the ice. Confident that we had seen the last of the curious
bear, I climbed into my sleeping bag for my best nights sleep
on the ice so far.
Everything was still when I awoke at six a.m.
Fortunately, I began my journey during a period of high pressure
which brings cold temperatures and light head winds, but also good
visibility. The nearby iceberg looked like a medieval castle with
its smooth sides and a crest of jagged spires. Yet there was a forlorn,
lonely look to this ice castle, as if it had wandered away from
its neighbors and found itself trapped, unable to return.
As I stood there, the only human amid the ever-changing
beauty of the Arctic, I was in awe. Yet, I also felt very small
and alone in a space that seemed endless in all directions. I was
growing accustomed to the changing Arctic light and its various
effects on the surrounding ice. The evening shadows were soft at
first as they settled silently over the ice, then dimmed to a cold,
harsh gray. After a few hours, the grayness of the spring Arctic
night relinquished to early mornings soft, golden glow, which
changed into the harsh glare of midday.
I sat on Charlies sled, my map on my knees,
discussing the days plan with him. He sat on the ice in front
of me, loudly crunching his dog food, appearing not to really care
about my map and plans. An hour later we were on our way. Today,
I hoped to find an easy path through the ice to reach at least as
far as Black Point, eleven miles away, on the edge of Goodsir Inlet.
This would put me in a good position to cross the fifteen-mile Inlet
tomorrow in clear weather. Halfway across I would have to travel
through Polar Bear Pass, an area known for polar bears. If
youre still going when you get to Polar Bear Pass, the
Inuit had warned me, you can expect trouble this time of year
around there and to the north and south of the pass. Considering
that I had already had more than enough trouble from bears, I couldnt
wait to put Polar Bear Pass behind me. The very name of the place
made me nervous, so I resolved not to think of it until it was behind
Soon I was about half a mile off the eastern shore
of Bathurst. I couldnt see any improvement in the ice conditions
to the east so I decided to go straight ahead and hope that it would
be easier later. We crossed several bear tracks, some were large
but one was gigantic, measuring almost a foot across. I hope
we dont meet the bear that fits into these tracks, I
Now and then Charlie stopped to dig frantically
straight down into the ice. His front paws were like backhoes. Whenever
we passed over seal breathing holes concealed by a thick layer of
snow, Charlie could smell them with his sensitive nose and wanted
to investigate. I spoiled his fun by insisting we keep going. The
last thing I had time for was excavating seal holes. We passed a
few open holes where the ice had broken apart, leaving cracks that
froze over with thinner ice, making it easier for a seal to maintain
a breathing hole. One such hole was surrounded by bear tracks. I
wondered if the seal had escaped in time.
Several foxes, each one alone, skittered quickly
in and out of the blocks of ice, keeping their heads and bodies
low with fine, white fur coats and long bushy tails held straight
out behind them. Their little pointed faces seemed too delicate
for such a harsh place. Sometimes they stopped briefly to look us
over, then silently disappeared behind the ice. I am sure we were
being watched more often than I realized. Charlie displayed only
a mild interest in the foxeshe would much rather find a polar
bear. Being more faint of heart, I found the foxes to be quite enough.
As the morning wore on, a northerly wind increased
to fifteen miles per hour, blowing dry, fine, sandy snow toward
us, sliding over the ice, staying low and not affecting visibility.
My eyelashes were covered with the usual icicles and my mask rapidly
iced up, but I was learning to accept these things as normal.
By now, on day four of the expedition, I was finding
it impossible to relate to the things I had left at home. It was
becoming difficult to imagine a hot shower, a soft bed and living
in a house. My mind could no longer grasp the civilized task of
shopping. Out here the only task was my emotional and physical survival.
I had become completely one with my new environment. This, coupled
with the concentrated effort I needed to continually watch for bears
and plan ahead so that I didnt make any fatal mistakes, left
no room for any other life. My sense of time was quickly dissipating.
To combat that, I stopped every so often and said aloud the date,
the time from my watch, and the day number of the expedition. I
resolved to go through this ritual every morning as I started out
so that my sense of time would remain intact. I had had no warning
of these psychological changes, but I took them as a good sign that
I was totally engrossed with survival, in which case I could expect
The ice hadnt improved. It was difficult
to pick out the low-lying landmarks on the shore of Bathurst to
my left. I was making good progress, according to the mileage counter
wheel on the back of my sled. It was only noon and already we had
traveled seven miles. Then I began to have doubts. I could see a
point of land extending from the coast of the island with a frozen
river mouth in the middle. But the river I was looking at on the
map was only half the distance along the coast that the mileage
counter indicated I had already traveled. I couldnt tell which
one was right, the map or the counter. I hoped it was the counter.
I skied on, looking for more landmarks through
the white glare. The jagged teeth of the sharp wind bit into my
body, even though the sun shone. At ten miles I decided I would
gain a better view toward the east, and hopefully find smoother
ice. I was heartily sick of the rough, jumbled ice blocks. My pace
was slow and frustrating, and I was confused about how far away
Black Point really was.
The coast of Bathurst rose over one hundred feet
in elevation, making it a good place for a better view of my surroundings.
I veered in that direction and the ice became thinner and crossed
with cracks, creaking and settling as I skied over its uneven surface.
I headed toward a snowy ramp leading up from the sea ice onto the
ice-covered land. Hooking Charlie to the back of my sled, I pulled
the sled up the ramp by hand, while he pulled his sled behind me.
At the top of the ramp about fifty feet up, there
was a wide, level ledge. Ahead was another rise of about seventy-five
feet, up to an even wider ledge. The wind blew stronger the higher
I went. In order to spend as little time in the stronger wind as
possible, I decided to leave Charlie with the two sleds while I
hurried up the slope to get a better view. I had only gone five
yards when I was stopped in my tracks by a loud, mournful howl.
Charlie was upset that I was leaving him. I couldnt take another
howl like that and felt guilty that he was so unhappy. So I unclipped
his chain and we hurried off together. Delighted, he jumped all
over me and rolled on the ice. He knocked me down twice. I picked
myself up and said, Charlie, I think Ive had all the
joy I can stand. We bounded up the slope, Charlie out in front
at the end of his chain. My right arm, which was attached to the
chain, stretched like elastic.
On top of the ledge I found a glorious sight.
There, a quarter of a mile ahead, was Black Point and beyond I could
see right across Goodsir Inlet. I had skied and walked twelve miles
and was relieved to find that the distance shown on the wheel counter
was right. The river I had seen on the map was much closer to Black
Point than I thought.
The sterile, rocky land I stood on had wide patches
of frozen, sharp gravel, which would make it impossible to haul
my sled across the island. To the east and to the north was smoother
ice. About a mile offshore the sea ice appeared to have longer stretches
of smooth pans between the jumbled areas.
It was too cold and windy to stay any longer on
the ledge so Charlie and I returned to the sleds. I slid them both
backward down the slope onto the sea ice again. By now it was 3:00
P.M. and I had grown cold in the increasing wind. I didnt
want to start across the Inlet this late in the day. In the morning
I could start fresh and push hard to reach the other side in one
day so I skied northeast until I was a mile off shore, a good starting
place for tomorrow. The ice was still rough, but the jagged piles
were only about two or three feet high and spread out, making visibility
possible for Charlie during his bear watch that night.
I made camp and discovered my evening and morning
chores were becoming routine. My fingers hadnt improved and
remained very painful. The dark-red blisters were still intact and
looked grotesque. But there was no infection and I hoped they would
improve with time.
After dinner I sat in my sleeping bag writing
in my journal. How glad I will be to be past Polar Bear Pass,
I wrote. We crossed at least eight sets of tracks today, each
one making my heart race. Charlie loves to find tracks and would
like to explore each set to find the owner. Polar bears are the
most magnificent animals I have ever seen, but just now I hope I
never see another one in my life. After pausing for a few
minutes, I added, This is the first expedition where at times
I have had cause to wonder if I will survive. But of course I have
no option but to survive. There is Bill, Mother and Dad, and of
course, I must take Charlie home.
I lay back in my sleeping bag and thought about
Bill, and my parents. Their love and friendship was especially important
to me now. I looked forward to taking Charlie home and showing him
off as a new addition to my family. I had grown to love him and
knew everyone else would fall under his spell. Our other three dogs
wont mind this big boss dog taking over, I thought, hopefully. I
knew Charlies nature would accept no position other than first.
Finally, I pushed away thoughts of my family.
This was no place to become homesick. On a solo expedition such
as this where I felt as if I was traveling through Polar Bear
City, downtown, at rush hour, I had to think only thoughts
that were good for me. All others had to be ignored. With polar
bears for company, crossing Polar Bear Pass and beyond to the pole,
I reminded myself again that emotional control was essential to
my survival. It would have made such a difference to have someone
to talk to and help watch for bears. But then my sense of reality
took over and I said aloud, The facts are, Im alone,
Im on foot. Ill deal with things as they come.
With that said, I felt more relaxed and optimistic.
I decided to visit Charlie once more before bedtime.
Calling his name, I walked over to him. Charlie raised his head
briefly, opened his sleepy eyes, then dropped his head back down
and tucked his nose under his tail. Well, I thought,
not much conversation here, I might as well go to sleep myself.
I patted him good night and went back to my tent.
The wind had dropped. It was a clear evening and
I marveled again at my good fortune with the weather. Tomorrows
weather looked promising, too. Before turning in I decided on one
last visit to the restroom. Considering the temperature,
I relied on zippers in strategic places and, of course, speed was
of the essence. At least privacy was no problem.
Today from my camp at Black Point I hoped to travel
fifteen miles across Goodsir Inlet to Rapid Point. Nine miles deep
by fifteen miles wide, Goodsir Inlet cuts into the eastern shore
of Bathurst Island. And to reach Rapid Point I had to cross the
outlet of Polar Bear Pass, a wide, low lying valley stretching about
twenty miles between the western and eastern shores of Bathurst,
dividing the island into unequal north and south sections. The floor
of the long, sheltered valley averages only ninety feet above sea
level. Many streams and rivers flow from the rolling hills on each
side of the valley into the large Goodsir River, which during the
summer thaw, flows swiftly eastward into Goodsir Inlet. The sheltered
valley is home to a variety of Arctic animals, including denning
female polar bears and their cubs, musk-ox, Peary caribou, lemmings,
Arctic hare, Arctic fox, and ermine. But in April, the river is
frozen solid and the valley is used by polar bears crossing from
the sea ice on one side of Bathurst to the sea ice on the opposite
shore. Hence the name Polar Bear Pass.
My observations of polar bear tracks during the
first five days of my journey, revealed no tracks in areas of multiyear
ice, such as the area of frozen mounds I had passed through on day
three. However, I saw many tracks in areas of cracked and moderately
rough ice and pressure ridges, especially around the minor ridges.
No doubt the areas in which seals can maintain breathing holes dictate
where the polar bears hunt in their never ending quest for food.
We started out at 7:30 a.m. and I decided to take
advantage of the clear visibility and cut straight across the Inlet
instead of following the coast. There were a series of ice pans,
some several hundred feet wide, surrounded by rougher ice caused
by the pressuring of the pan edges. When one pan ended I crossed
over the rough edges to another smooth pan a few feet away. I was
making good time, skirting some large mounds of ice over fifteen
feet high sprinkled here and there. They were all different shapes,
streaked with the now familiar tints of pale blue.
We crossed over several cracks in the ice, some
only a hairs width and others perhaps six inches across. Charlie
didnt like to cross the wider ones. He always hesitated but
followed in response to a sharp tug on his leash. He was afraid
of falling into the water. I wondered if an Arctic dog instinctively
has respect for the cold, chilling waters, knowing that a dip can
We were crossing Polar Bear Pass and as I skied
I remarked to Charlie, I wish they had called this place Squirrel
Pass. I could handle that. I had seen two sets of bear tracks
as we set out in the morning. Now it was close to 10 a.m., almost
time to eat. There was a larger hummock of ice ahead about twenty
feet high that looked like a small iceberg. I decided to stop to
eat on the other side.
About twenty feet in front of the iceberg, Charlie
stopped, and began growling loudly, his back hair standing on end.
I had no doubt that it was a bear. I tore my skis off, unclipped
the sled ropes from my harness, grabbed the rifle and flare gun
and stood waiting with Charlie at my side still clipped to my harness.
He was at the end of his chain, snarling, staring straight at the
wall of ice. Every nerve in my body was tense.
Suddenly, a full-grown male bear stepped out from
behind the ice, paused momentarily, then with unbelievable speed
bounded straight as an arrow for my sled. He flipped the offending
object to one side with a mighty swipe of a massive front paw as
if it were a tooth pick. Terrified, I stood rooted to the spot.
Charlies growls were deafening. Then the bear, only twenty
feet away, apparently saw me for the first time and partly raised
up on his hind legs, dwarfing me as I stood there. The bear began
to charge and I was jolted into action. My right thumb on Charlies
collar clip pressed down and instantly released him. I dropped the
flare gun and raised the rifle to fire point blank at the bear as
Charlie raced to its right rear leg and hung on with all the strength
in his powerful black body.
When I fired, the bear dropped down onto all fours
and the bullet zinged harmlessly over his head. Now, mouth open,
he desperately tried to reach Charlie, but my fierce friend was
hanging on, twisting away from those vicious bear teeth. Around
and around they went until finally, the powerful bear tore away
from Charlies grip and raced off into the distant ice with
Charlie in hot pursuit.
Glad to be alive, I stood there watching Charlie
and the bear disappear into the distance. But my relief was short
lived. Charlie was gone. Would he come back? How could I find him?
It was useless to go after him. Would the bear turn and injure him?
My mind raced frantically with questions but no answers. I had never
been so afraid in my life, but now I felt numb. I turned my sled
right side up and still holding the rifle, sat down, praying that
Charlie would come back. Then I walked around to keep warm, looking
into the distance, hoping to see Charlie. I had no idea how long
I could wait. At that point, it was impossible to consider what
I would do if Charlie didnt return. The bear had expressed
an anger I had not seen in the previous bear encounters. He moved
swiftly and silently except for a moment before he appeared ready
to charge. At that moment, I was sure I detected a slight hiss from
his partially opened mouth. The Inuit had told me that sometimes
as a last warning before bears charge, they expel a puff of air
from their open mouth.
Suddenly I saw a black spot away in the distance.
Could that be Charlie? It had to be. The black spot rapidly became
larger. Charlie was flying over the ice with long graceful strides
straight toward me. I dropped the rifle and ran to greet him. We
met twenty yards away in a flurry of black fur, hugs, and kisses.
He was panting hard. I buried my face in his thick neck fur and
wanted to cry with joy, but didnt dare. I had learned my lesson
on day two when my eye lids froze shut from my tears. Instead, we
returned to my sled and had a short celebration party of crackers
and peanut butter cups. On the way back I picked up the rifle where
I had dropped it on the ice.
While feeding Charlie, I kept thinking of my encounter
with the bear. It seemed to have lasted a lifetime, but couldnt
have been more than five minutes, perhaps less. When I fired at
the bear I felt at the time I had to use my last line of defense,
but now I was thankful the bear had dropped down on all fours and
the bullet missed. It was better that way. The bear was unhurt and
Charlie had chased it away.
wondered what would have happened if I had fired a single shot into
the bears chest. Now, I understood beyond a doubt, that at
close range it would be highly dangerous to wound a bear. This bear
had demonstrated more power, anger and speed than I could have imagined,
especially when he reared on his hind legs. I shook my head when
I thought of what little protection I had against a bear charging
out from behind the ice at close range. Charlie had shown no fear.
He was on his mettle. Now that he had stopped panting, he wore a
big doggy smile. This was fun to him. Not for me. My hands were
still shaking. The energy was drained from my body and I felt sick
to my stomach.
Obviously I had chosen a bad place to stop and
eat, so I gathered things up to leave. Later we went past the iceberg,
where I was surprised to see a partly eaten seal lying not far from
a breathing hole. The head was intact but looked crushed. The skin
and fat along the back had been eaten. Apparently we had disturbed
a feeding bear. No wonder he had been so angry.
Charlie chewed on the seal. I let him eat for
a few minutes as a reward. Then it occurred to me that the bear
might come back to finish his meal. If so, I definitely didnt
want to share the same space with him again. Once was enough.
Much to Charlies disgust I pulled him away.
He tried to drag the seal with him and I imagined him thinking,
What a waste. But it was time for us to leave as fast as possible
and without Charlies seal. We continued our journey through
the Polar Bear Pass outlet. It was almost noon and we were only
half way across. I kept looking nervously over my shoulder. I couldnt
get that wild, violent scene out of my mind.
We ran out of smooth ice pans at about the middle
of the Inlet. During the short summer thaw, the full force of the
river flows out into the center of the inlet, pushing the ice into
a chaotic jumble. After another hour we were through the worst of
the jumbled ice and back to the smoother pans. But the afternoon
glare had settled over the ice, cutting visibility down to about
a mile. Trying to see ahead to Rapid Point I could only guess where
it was. My map showed it to be a point of flat, sea level land,
about five miles ahead. The gain in elevation was only one hundred
feet three miles inland. There appeared to be a large river mouth
there, so I could expect rough ice at Rapid Point.
I skied from one ice pan to another. In one place
the ice became a smooth highway and I could see a tall slender pillar
of ice standing by itself in the far distance. It was in line with
Rapid Point so I aimed for it and in no time we were alongside it.
At least thirty feet high, the pillar was white and graceful. I
stopped to eat and take a photo. I lined my sled and Charlie up
in front of the pinnacle and set my camera on the tripod I carried
with me. With the timer set I ran to stand at Charlies side.
I had my mask off and was smiling at the camera but there was no
click. The camera had frozen again. Oh, the joys of Arctic photography!
After a few more tries I gave up and with painful cold fingers took
Charlies photo by himself.
At five oclock, with the sun setting in
the west, I could see Rapid Point. It was so flat I couldnt
tell land ice from sea ice. I veered out around the point into a
haunting, desolate, lonely moonscape. The strong sea currents swept
around the point and were pulled into the inlet we had just passed.
Huge plates of ice a hundred feet wide were lifted up onto each
other. Some plates had ridden up over their neighbors, leaving their
sharp edges pointing to the sky. As we worked our way around the
point, I could only guess where the land began. The ice creaked
and groaned as it protested the abuse it was being dealt from the
sea currents. I kept to the less angled plates but my skis still
slid sideways to the bottom. Charlie didnt like it at all.
There were too many cracks in the ice for his liking. But we kept
going until the ice flattened. I didnt want to camp on the
unstable ice near those swift currents and I was glad to get away
from that strange, lonely, ghostly place.
It was six oclock by the time we stopped
It had been a long, emotionally exhausting day. More than anything,
I wanted to get into my sleeping bag and go to sleep to give my
mind some relief. Charlie was happy now that we had passed the broken
ice of Rapid Point but he was tired. As soon as we stopped he curled
up and went to sleep even before eating his dinner.
He didnt wake up until I had set up camp,
cooked dinner, and made the nightly eight oclock base camp
call. Then he was ready to eat. He enthusiastically crunched his
dog food, ate three crackers for dessert, then curled up again.
He, too, had had a long day. It was hard work chasing polar bears
and protecting me. With a last pat and a Goodnight, Charlie
I crawled into my tent, slid into my sleeping bag and slept soundly
without a single dream about bears.