The irresistible appeal of polar travel.

The irresistible appeal of polar travel.

The irresistible appeal of polar travel.

Passions and the people who pursue them.
May 5 2009 12:43 PM

Bipolar Disorder

The magnetic appeal of the poles.

Click here for a slide show on polar travel.

I had been in Antarctica for about a week when I first felt it, and when I did, it was unmistakable. We were walking up a glacier in a place called Charlotte's Bay, a deep, blue sea surrounded by a giant circle of falling glaciers. It was time to turn back and return to the ship, but I suddenly felt a strange impulse to stay forever. I thought about running away from the ship, scrambling up the glacier, and heading south, way south, toward the South Pole itself.

What I felt was a small jolt of the polar obsession, a neurosis that makes people spend their lives and money, against all reason, getting to the poles or as near to them as possible. I wasn't in Antarctica looking for new obsessions; I was on my honeymoon. But as we sailed away from Charlotte's Bay, and the continent, I was hit by a sense of loss, as if mourning the death of a pet I didn't think I cared for. I began to understand why, for some, the poles are not geographic but magnetic. People who crave the poles don't just like them. They can never get enough.

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It should be obvious that no practical person would bother with polar travel. Times are tough, and there are much cheaper and easier ways to see ice or a bunch of fat birds. California alone has enough stinky seals for anyone. Traveling to the North Pole in particular makes no sense. It costs $30,000 or so for a trip breaking through flat, boring ice as far as the eye can see; skiing to the North Pole, for two, costs $150,000. To want to spend the time and money, you must be driven by something. And yet people go. The boats to the North Pole sell out.

On any trip to the polar regions you will meet polar nuts of various extraction. The leader on the trip I took was an explorer named Laurie Dexter, a clergyman who moved to the Canadian arctic as a young man in 1970 and never went back. Dexter never really said what motivated him to live for more than 30 years in the extreme north, though he mentioned that living on Baffin Island with the Inuit was more fun than anyone could imagine. Still, I got the sense that despite a sense of humor and calm exterior, Dexter tastes life's flavors only in their extremes, like a Szechuan diner for whom most food has no flavor.

For Dexter is not like you or me. He once ran 10 marathons in 10 days, and he was a member of the first team to ski from Russia to Canada via the North Pole. During our trip, he at one point wanted to reach an island surrounded by thick ice. After a discussion, the captain steered the ship, no icebreaker, directly through the ice, in a bold attempt to smash our way through. It was violent, a little shocking, and utterly delightful.

But the desire to conquer, the same instinct that drives people up mountains, is not a full explanation for the polar effect. Total escape is the other great temptation. Antarctica is a continent-size version of Walden Pond, about as out of touch as it gets. When you are there, the rest of the world melts away. The world's credit system could collapse in your absence, and you wouldn't know—in fact, that's pretty much what happened while we were away. Some of the scientists who winter on Antarctica can go months or even years without seeing other humans, in an isolation more perfect than that of the Indian holy men who live in caves.

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But for me, the lure of the poles resides somewhere else. It lies in the remote possibility of regaining something lost, in the slight chance of finding that place on earth where our lost friends, possessions, and experiences are waiting. Maybe what I mean is that you might catch a glimpse of life before the Fall. In a word, Eden.

True, the search for Eden can be the unspoken motivation for a lot of extreme travel, particularly to places like the inner Amazon or outer Mongolia. But even those places, whatever their attractions, are inhabited in a way the North and South poles are not. If you really want to get back to Adam and Eve, you must seek the poles.

The signs of Eden are everywhere in Antarctica. The penguins and seals don't seem to have learned, as most animals have, that humans are fallen creatures, best avoided. In the far south, the penguins spring out of the sea and waddle over to meet you, acting more like kindergarten children than wild birds. You feel you're at a reunion with lost friends and wonder why we have such bad relations with most animals.

Every so often, an iceberg floats by that is grander and more beautiful than any cathedral, though it lacks any history or even a name. What's almost as shocking as its appearance is its anonymity: beauty untainted by fame. Most of these perfect objects will never be seen by human eyes. They float around and slowly melt by themselves, unappreciated and utterly indifferent to that fact.

Unnamed, plentiful beauty feels unearthly and almost decadent, like Sinbad the Sailor's cave. It is alien to the typical human experience of finding everything we really desire to be scarce, expensive, or behind some temple curtain. It has always struck me that no one bothers to build museums in places of extreme natural beauty, and in Antarctica the effect is magnified. If an iceberg the size of Manhattan showed up outside town one day, why would you bother going to an art exhibit?

No one, finally, can deny that the lure of the far north and south is enhanced by a proximity to death, the forbidden salt that makes travel more tasty. It is not so clear that humans are meant to go far north or south, as most of Jack London's stories confirm. The story of English explorer Robert Falcon Scott sets the theme for all polar travel: Scott drove himself and his men to their deaths in a failed, meaningless race to be the first to reach the South Pole.

Scott provides a lesson in the common relationship between polar travel and a certain suicidal instinct. While polar travel isn't necessarily dangerous, death surrounds you as a possibility, especially in the sea, which is perfect, beautiful, and deadly.

Last year, one of the passengers on an icebreaker to the North Pole walked out of her cabin, climbed up on the railing of her balcony, and leapt into the Arctic Sea. Someone saw her jump, and the captain dutifully turned the ship around to retrieve the body before proceeding to the North Pole.

I took a very brief swim in the polar waters myself, aware that organ damage begins after just a few minutes. The cold is so absolute it wipes your mind clear of thought and forces you into a meditative state. Recovery is a little like being born again, a sort of polar baptism. One passenger, Lisa, felt so drawn to the polar waters that she insisted on plunging into the waters three times in a row.

After the swim, Lisa and I had a brief chat that seemed to capture something. She asked me, "If aliens came to take you away, would you go?"

"Hmm," I said, "maybe." I thought for a moment. "Sure, it might be interesting."

"OK, but what if you don't get to come back?"

"Oh," I said, biting my bottom lip. I thought about family and friends. "No, I don't think so."

She eyed me, and paused. "Oh," she said in a whisper. "I'd go."