Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Polar Dream

Book: Polar Dream, The First Solo Expedition by a Woman and Her Dog to the Magnetic North Pole
Author: Helen Thayer
Edition: NewSage Press, 2002
Read: Feb 2012
183 pages
Rated: 3 out of 5

This is Helen Thayer's journal of her trip to the magnetic north pole and back. She acquires a dog at the last moment before leaving Resolute Bay in northern Canada. It tells of her preparation and why she wants to do this trip. As a mountain climber, she uses her compass to figure out where she is during a white out condition, which  probably saves her life(2). She becomes very interested becoming the first women to reach the Magnetic North Pole, solo.  Not only that, she is fifty years old and will be pulling 160 pounds of sled, with only a dog to accompany her

She talks about her pre-trip and the local's thoughts on what they felt was her ill fated effort to accomplish her solo task. How one local Inuit musher provided her a dog after she thought over how was she going to protect herself from polar bears.  Which he does and becomes her friend and companion on the trip. The book tells of her adventures with polar bears, storms, ice, and helpful strangers.


Thayer was a world class athlete before this adventure, as well as an experienced mountaineer. She had been an international athlete for New Zealand—her birth country, the United States—her current country, and Guatemala. There is no mention why she competed for Guatemala. But she competed in the luge and the discus. (3) She climbed major peaks on all continents, including those above the 24,000' mark.

One of the reoccurring themes of the book is the need to set goals and plan for all contingencies. She does this over the two years prior to her adventure, with details on what to bring. She takes a two weeks tune up on location,  where she gets to know the people of the area and the environment she will be living in for a month.  But planning can does gets tough when you get conflicting advice. Such as what gun to bring along to stop a polar bear (12). It sounds like in reality, you probably will not be stopping a polar bear with a gun before it is able to hurt you bad. But it does seem like a needed weapon, if for no other reason that you do not feel defenseless.

The eating supplies were pretty basic—wondering what we should or could incorporate into our backpacking experience. Dehydrated rice, whole-milk powder, chocolate powder, oatmeal, granola, graham crackers, peanut butter cups, walnuts, and cashew nuts. Also some sort of high carb drink—maybe Cytomax? (13)  But as she admits, camp cooking is not her forte, nor her need. In her training, she would bring along a loaf of bread per day for her meals. (110)

The main character in the book, besides Thayer, is Charlie. Thayer acquired Charlie from a sympathetic Inuit who was much relieved to find that Thayer would bring a dog. She named him Charlie. This is where you wonder where she came up with the name. While vastly different from Steinbeck's book Travel's with Charlie, part way through the book, I had the feeling of the book should be called Thayer's Travel with Her Charlie. (15)  A good deal of the book is how she developed a trust for Charlie's instincts and the response which Charlie had. An example of this is found on page 96 where she says, It was a precious gift to be trusted and loved by a dog who had never learned trust and had never known human kindness. You can argue about what the Charlie was intending, but this is what Thayer felt. But I do think she goes over the top when she says that Charlie's good opinion was valuable. (127) Or again the thought of betrayal if she used some of his food in the hour of her need. (162) Both of these seem more to do with her than with Charlie's impressions.

Thayer does do a great deal of anthropomorphizing of her relationship with Charlie. Such as when Charlie takes a misstep and gets tangled up with Thayer. Thayer falls and gets made at Charlie. Charlie looks hurt. She resolves not to get upset with Charlie. (66) That in itself is a not possible reaction—if it was, wouldn't we be more patient with our spouses?

She describes her husband with the phrase he had a curiosity to see over the other side of the hill. (3) I think this is great. I like the guy.

She says that one of the reasons for her expedition was to learn to exist alone. (84) This was in context of a snowmobile expedition which was also going to the Magnetic North Pole. They turned back in a storm. She expressed relief that she would not meet up with them with the above sentiment. There is a couple of things which I find curious about her reason. First, did she exist alone? She did have radio contact and I assume the ability to call in a rescue flight, if possible. Also there was her companion, Charlie who was at her constant side. If she meant without human companionship, yes she did and you could tell the effects throughout the book. There was the part of knowing herself better and her capabilities. But there are also places where a second opinion would have served her well.

But even more so, the term, learn to exist brings in even more of a question. Do we do things which stretches our limits to exist or to learn about ourselves? To do more than just survive?

One of the interesting thing brought out by this book is her talking about what is the Magnetic North Pole. Evidently it moves around an area, sometimes a hundred miles in a day. So when scientists talk about the magnetic North Pole's location, they talk about the mean. (4)

One of the favorite items which I enjoyed is her bringing in the history of an area. Such as when the Franklin expedition got stuck in the area and perished. (25) Since this past summer I have found more and more abut Franklin and his wife. This was an interesting tie-in.

Bears, polar bears specifically, are Thayer's chief nemesis. She talks about what polar bears mean to the Inuit people (5). But also the dangers associated with them. She already knew how to use a gun from her upbringing. What she did not know was how to read the intentions of a polar bear. She got that training from the Inuits. (14). But as it turned out her best warning device was Charlie. She also realizes that the best plan for survival against the bears is to make it to the Pole and back, quick. No lagging around. (71)

Other problems she faced were:
  • Depth perception. Not only during white out conditions, but when the sun was blocked. She could not see the little shadows we all take for granted when we walk around things. At those times, she had to slow down so she would not stumble. (73)
  • Storms. To most of us, a rise in temperature brings relief from the Winter cold. To Thayer, a rise in temperature means a storm is approaching. So she prefers the cold of -45F to the warmth of -5F because of the winds and the storms which will come. This comes to a head when she nears the Magnetic North Pole. A storm slams into her when she is unprotected, tearing much of her supplies away. It also leaves her injured enough where she has blurry vision. (149)
  • Hunger. After the last storm, she needed to complete a week's worth of her journey with a water of the amount of water desired and about a day's worth of food.
  • Foastbite. This was from the first day when she had to search for her heavy gloves.
  • Thin or cracking ice. In most cases,  could use her ski's to balance out the stress over a crack in the ice (98). But in one case, where Charlie tried to warn her, the crack in the ice was more like a see-saw, where her weight sank an end of the floe. (142)

For a person who is a mountain climber, she makes a puzzling statement—she wanted to get away to a place where she was no longer dwarfed by her surroundings. This was around Sargent Point, where the cliffs loomed high over her, and to her were intimidating. Maybe because she was alone, or the particular characteristics of the cliffs, they were frightening, but it does seem like a strange reaction from a mountain climber. Or it may be because of being alone, every sense took on a stronger perspective. (98)

Part of Thayer's desire was to bring the Arctic experience to school age children. From the book, this was her first endeavor in this area. The book does not explain why she felt a strong need to do this. But since her return, she has started up a web site dedicated to bringing the Arctic to schools-see below.

She talks about lessons learned. The first was because during the plane trip, her sled got jumbled up and things were thrown around. She let some well-meaning people reload her sled. This lead to the first major crisis when she stopped on the first day and could not find her heavy gloves. Her first lesson was to learn to say No when she needed to. (20).  The payment for the lesson was frostbitten hands, which she had to deal with the entire trip. Another lesson is that fear is part of life, but you do not need to be overcome by fear. (23). This became an issue as she faced several polar bears over the course of the first several days. She learned that fear can beat you down and weaken you. But when confronted, you can stand against the fears and negate the wear and tear on you. Her mantra became 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. (51) This, in part, is aided by routine, such as her skiing and navigational work. (79) Also another lesson for my own experience is that doing things in the cold or wind, and I will add rain, takes longer to do and your are more prone to mistakes. (66)

She also learns to face the physically tough challenges of a major expedition is one thing when you are part of a group. There is both the rigor of trying to uphold your end of the task and not let people down. But there is the comfort of having others around when you face doubts and obstacles you have a hard time overcoming when alone. But when you are alone, you have no one else to share your fears and concerns, to help with the chores, to let you take a little time off. This can be wearing on a long trip. (41) She notes that there is no way to prepare for the mindset required to be totally alone in the polar desert. (79)

One of the things she does to combat the mental exhaustion is to look back on her successes as well as the current moment of failure. She calls this her debits and credits. When she is down, she pulls from the credit stack. (70) But she also notes that a critical factor in an effort like her's is the to push on through discomfort and deprivation. It is the goal which pushes you. (134)

One of the debits is an incident of a fox which turned into a polar bear cub which turned into a full sized  polar bear. This was under a low light situation where Thayer was seeing outlines rather  images. The perspective was lost. So the size of the animal was lost until she started to approach the bear. After methodically backing away and firing her flare gun to scare away the bear, she decides that all animals are full sized polar bears until proven different. (80-81)

Religion does not seem to consume too much of Thayer. Except for a few “calling on the Lord” times of trouble, and a reference to the only reading material was a new Testament, (110) the book does not have any religious bent to it.

She concludes the book with the realization that even as she left her pickup point on the plane, looking back, her tracks were being swept away by the wind. There was little physically remaining of her trip. The only thing left was her memories, and Charlie.


This is not one of those great exploration books. The prose is written pretty singular, along the lines of this is what happened. Which in some ways is a relief to some of the self-examination books on an adventure or the why in the world did this person take off like that. This is a women of experience talking about her adventure in her own words. So in that respect it is refreshing.

Notes from my book group:

The book group thought that Thayer was a bit crazy for doing this. Also we had a discussion about was she or any other activity like this putting other people's lives in danger? There was talk about other explorers who did die—where they not just as crazy?

New Words:
  • nanuk(5): polar bear
  • kamotik(13): wooden sled
  • lenticular (108) stationary lens-shaped  clouds, that form at high altitudes, normally aligned perpendicular to the wind direction.

Good Quotes:
  • It was the learning experience and the struggle to overcome the challenges that made the journey rewarding and the prize previous. (154)


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