We are on a long journey. We set off from Ellesmere Island with our Inuit survival guide, Panuk, and sail 508 nautical miles in a hurry. The seven of us are seriously worried. The temperature is warmer than we care to admit. No one responsible speaks when Panuk switches to khaki shorts and a straw hat.
The unease among us grows. What matters is the Arctic Circle is melting. It is 2:00 AM the next morning, and the sun won’t leave the sky. This is the expected hour of our arrival. Panuk, in whom we have complete trust, points at an ice berg. There it is then, the North Pole, at the top of the world.
All I say to Kumiko is, “There’s no resemblance to last year.” I happen to be with her on the bow. With our Danish skipper at the helm, the first mate handles the mizzenmast. The twilight is right for Kumiko. She sends her drones aloft. I already know she plans to photograph the North Pole from above.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” I ask. Kumiko doesn’t even glance at me. My camera is idle, as though being disgraced proves something. My object is to photograph marine mammals like sea lions, seals, and sea otters emerging where once a frozen sea thrived. No one knows which direction they take.
While everyone is doubting my judgement, I’m hoping to find one ice bound polar bear. Only Panuk looks at me with hope. Polar bears won’t be counted until I photograph one. If I don’t, and this is our fifth trip, most likely they’ve all drowned.
Aiming her camera, Kumiko says, “Shush.” Everyone on board is hushed.
The North Pole sits in silence, as if waiting for us to talk. It isn’t a candy-striped Santa pole, but dead reckoning at latitude 90 degrees north. This is the situation. Winter temperatures surge to 17 degrees above freezing. So here is a summary of this year’s expedition as noted in my diary:
Three months after 2048 gives way to 2049, in late March, we open our eyes to the Spring Equinox and Kumiko is prepared. The ice bergs are fewer and thinner and melting at a faster pace. That’s what we’re here for, ice and glacier observers, to monitor and photograph the end of the frozen Arctic Sea.
The five of us gather in the cockpit, our Danish skipper and first mate not included. Rumor is the first mate is a Russian spy. We suspect as much. The worst thing is to be wrong. He did suffer a strip search and return to our good graces after all his clothes and personal items were washed and mended.
Granted, the five of us are well known, a photographer, Kumiko from Japan; myself, Robin, a photojournalist, and a socialist from Wisconsin, and Panuk, our Eskimo. Also Chip, an ice chemist, with a U.S. Navy commission, and his wife, Clair, an oceanographer, who doubles as our therapist.
Most of the time we’re bored. We don’t even abide by the dress code. Taking off our heavy jump suits, our ear muffs, our googles, our mittens, our headlamps and moon boots, does absolutely no harm. We observe what we can and predict the decline of sea ice and its effect on our ecosystem and global weather.
Even now, we are setting up among ourselves an organized schedule, one of us on duty, the other on call, and the rest-r and-r. We all have our different roles and feel obliged to be here. Chip, the big brain, is our self-appointed leader and with a certain pride holds the highest position.
We are adrift in the Arctic, atop the world. It’s up to our skipper to interact our schooner, “The Envy,” with the ocean’s currents. Currents like the “figure eight” that distant us from the North Pole. Whatever direction we flow, skipper does everything he can, to maintain our position.
We can’t always be moored to the ice berg. But we try to stay at 90 degrees latitude north, uninterruptedly, every day. If our satellite system fails us, Panuk will solve the problem. He urinates off the stern and gets a little mean if it blows back. Each time, though, Panuk, points out our exact location. I note in my diary the North Pole lives in him.
As our morning ritual in the cockpit ends, Kumiko stays behind and shows the photos taken from her drones. As one of two competing photographers, I nod and we exchange bows. She has won awards for her exhibits featuring Greenland. Her book is about glaciers and ice sheets. Most of them are gone. What now, mud?
I’m really not a competitive person at all, but events like this require photographers to be at their best. I try to capture the last visible signs of mammals in the Arctic Circle. Polar bears, trying to figure things out. Not one seen using an ice floe as a hunting platform. Been five years.
Does my portfolio include birds? Yes. I’m a fascinating guy if you ask me about penguins. Last year, my article in “Arctic Wild Life,” depicted six penguins; the payoff for my hard work and patience. That part of the story is my shame and disgrace. I’ll explain, but to be fair, they looked like penguins to me.
Kumiko’s work is all too shiny, all too perfect, and not what it is expected to be, as if seeing something else. Ice melts. People stare at her photos, amazed. Scares me to think from now on the rest of my work comes in second. I poke Panuk, and sounding like a first grader say, “She’s not that great.”
My article in “Arctic Wild Life,” on the genetic fitness of penguins is offset by a critical error. It seems right to blame me. Here is the reason. Six penguins on Baffin Island? The poor visibility is what it is. There are no penguins in the Arctic. I remind myself it is impossible to take a photo of them. Penguins only live in the southern hemisphere.
“Honest mistake,” I offer. Dumb.
And then, all of a sudden, I’m a national disgrace for circumstances that defy explanation. I set back photojournalism twenty years, someone writes. Me? I’m a conservationist, I’m not giving up. I just have to improve my methods of observing penguins in the field and get my hemispheres right.
Chris, the big brain, can’t expect me to sit back quietly without defending myself. Right in the middle of chow, he starts on me. Dinner is a plate of spaghetti with red cabbage. I mean a a ton of cabbage on top. A meal prepared by our first mate that will have to suffice because of the Russian spy thing.
Chip says to Panuk, “Do polar bears eat penguins?”
“Is he joking?” I say and everyone but Panuk laughs. Chip is the loudest, treating it like the disgrace I am. It’s easier for him to slap my back and harder on me. Seeing Chip’s laughing face, thick skull and all, I smile back, but don’t think it’s as funny as he does.
We turn our attention from the red cabbage spread all over our spaghetti dinner. Panuk eats it as if nothing else will do.
There is an opening for us. It’s natural for Panuk to make eye contact, we have such a good bond. Outside the galley, and in the arctic, Chip is as useful to him as a toad. Panuk stares him down which in Inuit means, “Him big ass. Too big for sled.”And I am grateful to Panuk for that.
When Chip sits back down, Claire, our group therapist, says to her husband, “Polar bears don’t eat penguins.”
“I’m not asking you,” Chip says. He turns, all hardheaded and growls at me. “I’m asking him.”
There is only one answer left. Claire beats me to the punch and turns everything against the big brain, absolutely everything and says, “Polar bears don’t eat penguins because there are no polar bears in the Antarctic.”
Chip is too stunned to close his big trap. This may affect the relationship between these two and shift the pecking order aboard, “The Envy.”
I see marital discord at the North Pole, but I stand with Claire. “That’s true,” I say and rub it in. “Polar bears live exclusively in the northern hemisphere.”
Chip pushes back and says, “For God’s sake, everyone, don’t ever tell me what I already know!”
This time Claire doesn’t do much to change his mood, and says. “You’re an ass-hole.”
I’m a little surprised it takes so long for everyone to realize Chip isn’t just an ice chemist. The big brain does a fine job for the Navy. Two Chinese nuclear submarines, under a cloud of secrecy, menace the Northwest Passage. One as big as an aircraft carrier. We know China knows we know where it is.
The other submarine, despite its capability to destroy the Western Hemisphere, is the size of a fin whale. Last four weeks it remains undetected. I can tell how angry the big brain is by how many times he loses track. At our daily mindfulness class, I hear Chip say under his breath, “God, where is it?”
The sub is under the North Pole, but it can easily relate to a whale. It may not be exactly the same, but down there the two look and sound like they’re related. He still doesn’t know.
Hundreds of whales plunge to the deep, filling every crev- ice at the bottom. One is all camouflage all the time. What does the Pentagon think Chip does wrong? If losing the most powerful sub in the world is hard on him, he still puts on a good face.
But now we’re all serious. Kumiko is thinking about some-
thing else. She is always cordial to me, but makes every topic about herself. “The Arctic,” she sighs, “was the most incredible frozen landscape on earth. My photos, the very yardstick…”
“We get it, Kumiko,” the skipper interrupts her. He is our unofficial referee. When skipper finishes eating he leans back. “We can’t trust the weather. Can’t trust global warming goes away. Most of all, trust it doesn’t melt the North Pole. We all cherish the ice here.” Our silence is punctuated with, “Right?”
Our eyes do a quick glance at Chip. Whatever our business might be, we’re subsidized by the Navy. We’re trusting, too, the Navy will preserve the region and Chip doesn’t do something stupid and start a war. “Right,” we answer simultaneously.
Chip is quiet. Then he says. “Trust me.”
Skipper is smiling. “I’m afraid to ask what’s for dessert.”
We all turn, our eyes on the first mate. I notice sunburn on Panuk’s forehead. I want to tell him, but with his fondness for a straw hat, I won’t even do that.
It never gets dark. I fall asleep in the bright twilight and dream of my wife. This is the night I want to be with her. I feel this way at the top of the world and float with the sea like never before. All of us hear a loud splash, the ice berg calving and the schooner engine starting.
The skipper is busy and will not allow the “Envy” to drift away. Chip says the conditions are good. It is cold out, no more and no less. Others think it is, quite simply, not cold enough. The first mate, tasked with mooring our schooner, tells us a piece of the ice berg broke off, which takes our breaths away.
“Oh, Lord, no!”
There is no change in our morning routine. Kumiko goes ashore with the first mate, getting her drone ready to launch. The ice berg is in big trouble. A chunk, the size of an office building, is missing off one side.
Must of us are on deck, facing the North Pole. Whatever we say, the ice berg is breaking up sooner than expected. We’re unable to believe our eyes. “We left it last year right here. We thought it’d be here the next five years. What a shitter.”
Chip, eager to locate a sub, joins us topside, wearing a head phone. His face is all tense. “SILENCE!” he demands. “I can’t hear a thing. There are dangerous fish down there.”
Panuk says, “Do they bite?”
Chip glances over at him. “Be quiet!” We’ve heard Chip demand this before.
I tell the big brain to alert the navy, ice calving, but around here everyone knows the North Pole is melting.
“Calm down,” Chip instructs everyone. “The ice isn’t going anywhere.” He doesn’t convince me, but I keep in mind his adrenaline is pumping. “Nobody say a word. I’ve got this sub down cold.” We nod. “SILENCE!” Chip snaps and retreats below. I hear his office has a million worth of listening devices down there.
Panuk is asking for my opinion. “Something at the bottom of the pole is as ugly as Moby Dick and sounds like a sub?”
I give him my standard answer. “That’s for shit sure.” In one day and ten hours, one quarter of the North Pole is gone, and that’s the only thing that matters. We want to brainstorm, but have no bearing on the outcome.
“Just keep silent,” Claire says; “remember? And everyone stay calm. It goes with the job title.” This is precisely what we’re all saying. Calm.
“Yes, Claire. You’re right.” But as oceanographer who deals with nothing but water she is reassuring as hell. We barely make a sound and try to look as normal as her, except none of us want to make everything appear fine, while Clair, our group therapist begins a mindfulness class.
She looks right at us while we sit down, totally still, and close our eyes. We are in the moment, right here and right now. A little cramped, I’m afraid, because we take up the whole deck, which is all we’re able to do. Panuk looks puzzled and doesn’t sit with me. I put it down to he likes to be close to Claire.
Whether he’s serious or not, I can see he’s determined to get this right. It’s almost as though Panuk came out here and joined our group seeking our way of life. I try to help out, but this is the way we do things now. He looks over at the ice berg and our instructor informs him to keep his eyes closed.
“See?” I tell Panuk. “This is how our world ends.”
Claire says, “Shut-up, Robin.” I won’t explain right now, but the total amount of my counseling is keep my mouth shut.
I’m a little annoyed when we never say anything, and we never do anything, and I’m supposed to get this good feeling. Panuk’s mental discipline is perfect. The beautiful Claire is the first person to put his mind at ease. No one is on my right, where I leave room for the skipper.
It’s all about minimizing our thoughts and anxiety and ignoring everything else. My thoughts scare me to death. We are losing the Arctic ice sheet. It takes me a second to let it go. The session is familiar and I remember to stop thinking. The practice lasts for two hours and some people find the experience totally amazing.
My satellite phone vibrates. Then it rings and this makes it worse. My wife is calling from Wisconsin. I reach in and take it out and by the time I’m ready she doesn’t answer. I think of how many times we miss our calls. But I stay put, stiff as a board and return to mindfulness.
I still wait for skipper to sit in. He looks as if we’re all being kidded. Without making a sound, I get back up and join him at the gunwale. We look at the arctic sea, and the varying ice floes passing by. Skipper turns to me and I know he thinks about the North Pole as much as I do.
It’s hard to believe, but none of us are ever ready to leave. “Who discovered it?” I ask. “Was it Peary?”
“Peary set out in 1909,” Skipper answers, “followed by Cook, who claims he discovered it first.”
“What about Byrd? Didn’t he reach the North Pole by plane? Whoever got here first, that must have been grand.”
“I’d love to see that,” Skipper says. “The glacier back then. But none of them ever made it. And we’re too late.”
I could tell he wished they had. We look over at Kumiko, who is on the last ice berg that saves the sea from being bare. Time is running out before everything is lost. Time for me to make as much use of my camera as possible.
“Don’t worry about her,” skipper advises me. “Make sure you get a photo of Panuk, as the last Eskimo standing at the North Pole.”
Before I can answer, my satellite phone rings again. I respond and speak to my wife. “How’s my big bird?” she asks me. When we first meet at a banquet, she tells me I look like a penguin. She points out I’m squat, with no neck, and cute, and that explains what happens next. We fall in love at first sight.
I hold the satellite phone close to my chest. Skipper smiles at me and walks away.
“Robin, I can’t hear you,” she says. “How’s it going?”
“We’re fine.” What else can I say? “And you?”
“Fine.” There is something wrong. It’s been raining non- stop in Wisconsin, but it isn’t that. “Your web page says this is the last time for ice bergs at the North Pole. I want to know why, and what it all means.” She’s always asking me. “How in the world will we get through this?”
This is what no one can answer. I think of my wife back home, looking at rain never stop, and I say. “I’m making an entry in my diary. There’ll be a whirlpool of ocean out here.”
This is my wife listening. I open my mouth and scream, “THIS SHOULD HAVE NEVER HAPPENED!”
A door opens from below and we all hear Chip shout at me. “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING? SHUT UP, ROBIN!” It’s the only rule up here and I’m working on it. Obviously he’s trying to detect Moby Dick doing some un-whale like things.
But nothing gets in my way. I fuss with my camera, I take pictures in black-and-white, and they all look into the past. This is one reason for our journey. The sign of our times is right here. The North Pole. I’ll remember to go over with Panuk and I’ll hold onto his straw hat.
This is how we’ll see it, when the twilight is perfect. Panuk will be Panuk as Panuk is supposed to look. The strands of hair on his head will be sweaty. A fine sight, ice bergs. The final reason is something else. They’re all melting into not being.
When the ice at the North Pole reaches the limit of its endurance, I’ll take his last picture. Wisconsin will deal with the rain and the next drought coming in their direction.
“I miss you,” my wife says, “bring home some ice cream.”
LE Norton is a graduate of the University of Buffalo and received an MFA from UCLA. He has worked in the film industry, abc, and written a screenplay, “The Smoking Nun.” When not crafting short stories for his collection “Slow Men Working,” he is revising his novel. He lives in Amity Harbor, Long Island,—and is still rebuilding after a tidal surge from Hurricane Sandy destroyed 75% of his home.
If you enjoyed ‘Sailing the Arctic Circle’ leave a comment and let LE Norton know.
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