50 Years of Victory, the nuclear icebreaker that will take us to the North Pole.

As a writer, I have naturally always loved to read, and one genre I particularly enjoy is travel writing. I suppose reading a colorful description of a place is the next best thing to being there (and occasionally, when that place is a difficult one, preferable). The English are historically the most legendary and rugged of travelers, and decades of reading writers like Eric Newby (A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush), Freya Stark (The Minaret of Djam) and Pico Iyer (Video Night in Kathmandu) have left me with an insatiable wanderlust and led me to more than three dozen countries on six continents – far too few, I’m afraid.

Yet it is an American, Herman Melville, who wrote some words that best describe my feelings about travel, particularly the sea. In “Loomings,” the first chapter of Moby-Dick, his narrator, Ishmael, tells of how seeing “the watery part of the world … is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul … then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”

In another life I might have been a sailor, or even, like Melville, a whaler; that chance passed me by in this one. Only rarely have I had the good fortune to visit places, write about them and get paid for it, but that has sometimes made up for other things I’ve missed.

So when, in the middle of one of New York’s worst winters in memory, the call came – “You’re going to the North Pole” – I jumped at the chance, even if it meant giving up two weeks of precious, fleeting summer. I agreed to trade the warm beaches of July for the ice of the Arctic, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, the chance to stand at the top of the world, 90 degrees north, to walk around the Pole, cross every meridian and circumnavigate the globe, as it were. The chance to be, for a brief time, a sailor, of sorts.

The "walk around the world" at the Pole.

I recently attended the Educational Travel Conference in Providence, R.I. One of the speakers was Peter Matthiessen, the renowned novelist, naturalist, environmentalist and founding member, along with George Plimpton, of The Paris Review. He is the only winner of the National Book Award in both fiction (for Shadow Country) and nonfiction (The Snow Leopard), and his works have been adapted to films including “At Play in the Fields of the Lord.”

Matthiessen gave an interesting talk about his writings, often controversial, and wide-ranging travels in the Himalayas, South America, the American West, Antarctica and elsewhere. I asked him afterward what he, such a fearless explorer, would tell people who may be reluctant to travel in such perilous times, when their physical safety cannot be guaranteed.

“There’s always danger,” he said, “but you have to go. There’s so much to see in the world, you can’t just stay home. You have to live it, experience it.”

In a recent New York Times essay titled “Why We Travel,” the equally renowned author Paul Theroux put it another way: “The map of the possible world being redrawn right now – parts of it in tragic and unsettling ways – might soon mean new opportunities for the traveler who dares to try it. Travel, especially of the old laborious kind, has never seemed to me of greater importance, more essential, more enlightening.”

I’ve long had a personal philosophy: “See the world while it’s still there.” Many people have been to many more dangerous, or more endangered, places than I have. Some of my fondest travel memories recall places that have been altered forever. Tahrir Square in Cairo; the beaches of Phuket, Thailand; parts of the Amazon rain forest; the bayous outside New Orleans – these places no longer exist the way I remember them. But they go on, in the memories of the people who have visited them and in the lives of the people who live there. We owe it to ourselves and to those people to visit those places, to help preserve them, for they are the heritage of the world.

The North Pole is one of those places, as well. There is fierce political debate in the U.S. about whether global warming exists. Each side of the debate accuses the other of manipulating data and the truth for its own ends. The scientists and explorers who go there regularly, whom I will accompany on this trip, have no opinion on the subject; they have only facts. And the truth of their facts is that each year, the ice pack grows smaller and softer; the nuclear icebreaker 50 Years of Victory, which will take us to the Pole, has an easier time making it there each year. The animals that live in that part of the world, such as polar bears, have smaller habitats, less food and a more difficult time surviving. The ramifications for the rest of the world are clear, and the political and economic factors that are leading to environmental disaster must be rectified.

Polar bears face a shrinking habitat because of global warming.

I’m not a scientist but some things need to be said. It isn’t my place or my desire to politicize or preach in this blog. I just hope I can help make people aware of what we all can and must do to make the world a better place, both environmentally and socially. So please keep reading and leave some comments if you like.

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