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.

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.