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ISBN 0-939165-45-7
288 pages
$15.00 US
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Polar Dream:
The First Solo Expedition by a Woman and Her Dog to the Magnetic North Pole
By Helen Thayer Foreword by Sir Edmund Hillary

At the age of 50, Helen Thayer walked and skied for 27 days in the Arctic, pulling an 160-pound sled for 364 miles in order to become the first woman—and the oldest person to travel on foot, unresupplied, to the magnetic North Pole. Her only companion was a 94-pound dog, Charlie, adopted three days before she began her expedition. Charlie is a Canadian Eskimo husky, trained by the Inuit to warn of approaching bears. Thayer faced and survived seven confrontations with polar bears thanks to her own quick wits and the keen senses of Charlie.

Thayer also endured hurricane-force winds and unimaginable cold of minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit (with the wind chill factor) that could freeze her eyes shut. During the last week of Thayer’s trip, an Arctic storm blew away most of her supplies and food. For seven days she lived on a handful of walnuts each day and a pint of water. She was forced to chew frozen ice that blistered her mouth in order to fend off impending dehydration and starvation.

This honest, straightforward story of a solo trek, funded with $10,000 of the author’s own funds, puts to shame the accounts of commercially subsidized and heavily promoted polar expeditions widely touted in today’s high-tech, well-financed, largely male expeditions. Reviewers describe Thayer’s book as a “page turner that kept the reader up all night.” As one reviewer, Frank Ramirez, wrote, “This is not a male tale of conquering nature. It is an epic of living with creation. Though there can be no question several polar bears wished to make a meal of Thayer and Charlie, the author grows to cherish the bears’ niche in the Arctic.”

In addition, Polar Dream is as much the story of a unique bonding between dog and human as it is the saga of Thayer’s heroic trek through the Arctic wasteland. Charlie’s courage proved as essential to survival as Thayer’s skills and endurance. Polar Dream is a true story of high adventure as well as a powerful story of the human-animal bond--how a world class explorer and her dog became the best of companions and one another’s lifelines in the hostile Arctic.

Includes 30 dramatic and breathtaking photographs taken by the author on her expedition to the Magnetic North Pole.

VIEW THE MAP AND JOURNAL ENTRIES FROM THE POLAR DREAM TREK

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Helen Thayer with Charlie

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CONTENTS

  • Foreword by Sir Edmund Hillary
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1
    Inspiration
  • Chapter 2
    Charlie the Polar Bear Dog
  • Chapter 3
    The Terror
    of Bears
  • Chapter 4
    From Fear
    to Courage
  • Chapter 5
    Arctic Storm and Grinding Ice
  • Chapter 6
    Thin Ice
  • Chapter 7
    Bear Stalking
  • Chapter 8
    In the Middle of Nowhere
  • Chapter 9
    A Raw Desire
    to Survive
  • Chapter 10
    Starvation
  • Chapter 11
    Journey’s End
  • Chapter 12
    Unshakable Friendship
  • Epilogue
    Reflections

Helen Thayer has been an adventurer and world-class mountain climber most of her life. She climbed her first mountain at age 9, inspired by a local bee keeper and family friend in New Zealand, Sir Edmund Hillary.

As an adult, Thayer was an international discus thrower, who represented three different countries during her career. After moving to the United States, Thayer became U.S. National Luge Champion in 1975. She has scaled some of the world’s highest mountains, and while climbing the 23,405-foot Lenin Peak in the Former Soviet Union in 1986, she decided to trek solo to the magnetic North Pole.

Other expeditions by Thayer include the 2001 trek on foot with her husband, Bill Thayer, 1,450 miles across the entire Mongolian Gobi Desert. Thayer walked solo for 400 miles in Antarctica to celebrate her 60th birthday in 1997. Her adventures have also taken her to the Amazon for a kayaking expedition of 1,200 miles through remote jungle; four months living next to a pack of Arctic wolves; a 2,400 mile trek across the Sahara Desert; team leader of the first Soviet-American Women’s Arctic Expedition, and more.

Thayer’s worldwide expeditions and subsequent education programs for school children have won her special recognition from the White House in 1999 at a reception honoring twenty-five top women athletes in the U.S.

Photo Credit: Helen Thayer

Helen Thayer among pinnacles of ice on her expedition.

Helen Thayer photographed her expedition either with a handheld camera, or by using a tripod with the camera on a timer.

Visit Helen Thayer's website

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Thayer and her best friend, Charlie.

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Praise for Polar Dream

A compelling page-turner that kept this reader up all night….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.

--Booklist



An exciting story of human endurance and of a remarkable animal.

--Publishers Weekly


A solid no-frills adventure for women as well as men.

--Kirkus Reviews



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Charlie.


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.

CHAPTER FOUR

From Fear to Courage

Day 3

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 hadn’t 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 morning.

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 too small.

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 Charlie’s front paw with my ski. He stood holding his foot up and I stopped and rubbed it to make sure it wasn’t cut. “I’m 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 hadn’t 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 couldn’t see any sign of the owners so I nervously kept going. Charlie exuberantly pressed his black nose to the ice, trying to follow the bear’s 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 hadn’t won any points for imagination. My unsportsmanlike conduct in not joining in the bear chase was clearly not appreciated. “Charlie, we’re supposed to avoid bears,” I said, “not look for them.”

At a hundred feet away from the ice ridge, I still couldn’t 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 bear’s 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 seal’s skin is the polar bear’s 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 other side.

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 didn’t 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. Charlie’s 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 didn’t notice the sideways tug on Charlie’s 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 couldn’t 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 weren’t 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 day’s 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, “I’m 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 day’s supply.

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 day’s 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 hadn’t been able to get any current ice conditions. The only reports available were from the meteorological office and observations from two of Bradley’s 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 wouldn’t 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 shouldn’t stop us.”

The sound of my voice bolstered my courage. I put my arms around Charlie and hugged him tight. Now, those shadows ahead didn’t 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 wouldn’t 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 help.

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 didn’t 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 o’clock 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 one’s 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 o’clock. 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 night’s sleep on the ice so far.

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Day 4

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 morning’s soft, golden glow, which changed into the harsh glare of midday.

I sat on Charlie’s sled, my map on my knees, discussing the day’s 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 you’re 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 couldn’t 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 us.

Soon I was about half a mile off the eastern shore of Bathurst. I couldn’t 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 don’t meet the bear that fits into these tracks,” I told Charlie.

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 foxes—he 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 didn’t 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 to survive.

The ice hadn’t 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 couldn’t 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 couldn’t 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 I’ve 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 didn’t 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 hadn’t 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 Charlie’s 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, I’m alone, I’m on foot. I’ll 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. Tomorrow’s 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.

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Day 5

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 hair’s width and others perhaps six inches across. Charlie didn’t 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 be fatal.

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. Charlie’s 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 Charlie’s 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 Charlie’s 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 couldn’t 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.

Bear encountered by Thayer at Polar Bear Pass.I wondered what would have happened if I had fired a single shot into the bear’s 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 didn’t want to share the same space with him again. Once was enough.

Much to Charlie’s 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 Charlie’s 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 couldn’t 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 Charlie’s 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 Charlie’s photo by himself.

At five o’clock, with the sun setting in the west, I could see Rapid Point. It was so flat I couldn’t 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 didn’t like it at all. There were too many cracks in the ice for his liking. But we kept going until the ice flattened. I didn’t 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 o’clock 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 didn’t wake up until I had set up camp, cooked dinner, and made the nightly eight o’clock 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.

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