Polar adventures can awaken your senses, rouse profound feelings of longing – and belonging – and stir up myriad emotions, leaving an indelible mark on the traveler. There's no denying that the polar landscape, with its almost indescribable beauty, sheer remoteness and pristine wilderness, works its magic on the visitor. But some of that magic emanates from the people you meet on those journeys, who stir within you the same shared feelings. It's about connection. It's about community.
Quark Expeditions guest on deck look up at ice covered hills in the Lemaire Channel. Photo by Acacia Johnson.
When the Traveler Craves Something Beyond
My friend Scott is a 35-year-old father to a charismatic little girl he takes as often as he can to the mountain streams and forests near Denver, Colorado where he lives in a community dominated by a booming tech industry. The natural playgrounds of the Rocky Mountains are just a short drive away. Like many of his friends in the Denver area, Scott loves being outside and exploring where he can, but he admits that he also often craves something beyond.
A few years ago, Scott and I met on an expedition to the Canadian Arctic, just a year or so before the birth of his daughter. We got along great on that voyage, and we've remained friends ever since, talking regularly by email and text, and connecting whenever I happen to be in Colorado. To this day, Scott continually brings up his trip to the Arctic. He remembers a wide range of details with remarkable clarity, from the various shades of greens, yellows, and oranges of the September tundra, to the sounds of a small flock of white fronted geese honking into the early autumn air as they flew over an ice-cold stream filled with spawning Arctic char.
The rocky beach of a Baffin Island fjord. Photo by Acacia Johnson.
We saw a few bears on our voyage, which have naturally remained sharp as a razor blade in Scott's memories. But he also speaks with an equal enthusiasm when he describes walking along a gravel beach and discovering a solitary set of bear tracks, leading far away into the sheer immensity of a northern landscape. Seeing, for the first time in his life, wild caribou, and wolverine tracks frozen into a cold, muddy riverbank. The anticipation of seeing the Northern Lights, and the disbelief when he finally saw them. The unfamiliar yet breathtaking scales of time and space in the High Arctic. And the smell of the clean, pure Arctic air, thousands of miles from the nearest major city.
When Scott talks, I too can see, smell, and hear the Arctic, and am transported back to those latitudes I love so much. His expedition, in his words, “was one of the most authentic adventure I've ever had.”
Addicted to the Wild and Pure
I originally met Theresa in Antarctica, which was her first expedition to the polar regions. Since then, she's traveled to Svalbard and Greenland, with dreams of one day traversing Canada's Northwest Passage and potentially Arctic Russia, should the right opportunity arise. Theresa is a 31-year-old woman from Buffalo, New York, who occasionally works contracts in Oregon and Washington. She's well-traveled and adventurous, always on the go in the hard-wooded forests of Upstate New York, the mountain ranges of the Pacific Northwest, or the ski slopes of Japan.
As with Scott, I also keep in touch with Theresa on a regular basis, as we became friends on that first expedition and have remained so ever since. I recently asked her what initially drew her to the polar regions, and what made her return several times to the Arctic. She explained that she's “drawn to places that are wild and pure,” and that she “thrives off the sense of wonder [she] gets when she's away from the crowds and influences of others and instead can stand on top of a quiet Arctic mountain and feel how wonderful our planet really is.”
Quark Expeditions guests walk along a rocky ridge in Kong Oscar Fjord. Photo by Acacia Johnson.
I told her about my friend Scott, how he remembers vividly all of the details of his Arctic voyage and carries those memories with him wherever he goes. I asked her if she does the same, and if she ever catches herself daydreaming about the Arctic when she's back at home, in her office, stuck in traffic, at the gym. She quickly replied, “Of course! All the time! And I think that's because, when I'm somewhere as wild and free as the Arctic, I feel happy. I feel connected to the sense of adventure, to exploration. Of sometimes being out of my comfort zone and being okay with that. With experiencing new things, experiencing a different world.”
Further paraphrasing our conversation, we talked about a specific word. “Authenticity.” How we recognize it when we feel it, and where on earth we've felt it the most. In our conversation, I learned that before she went to the polar regions, she had a sense of craving, but didn't know for what. And after traveling to the Arctic and Antarctic, she better understood that craving. The craving for authenticity. For something real and tangible that makes her feel simultaneously tiny and infinite. For something that makes her feel present in the moment, yet eternal in the natural cycle of things. I agreed and revealed my similar thoughts: I've been able to find that feeling in a few different environments, but for me, the Arctic is without a doubt where I feel it most.
Incredible vistas in Greenland. Photo by Sam Crimmin.
Finally, I asked her what about the Arctic she loves the most, as the list of things to love is nearly a mile long. She of course mentioned the wildlife. The iconic bears and walrus and musk ox, the elusive belugas and narwhals and bowheads. But what she loves the most about the Arctic is that “people live there. They have survived and thrived in such a harsh and severe region, and they've done it beautifully. Which is nothing short of incredible. And to think of the major transformations that the region goes through. Winter to spring, spring to summer, summer to winter again, and how the wildlife and the people dance with those transitions year after year. It really is a place like no other on earth.”
I'd consider Scott and Theresa to be good friends of mine now. I've been on many expeditions where that shared experience of authenticity serves as catalyst and a glue, bringing people together from around the world. There's something about going on a journey and being open to the unknown that breaks down barriers, that creates fertile grounds for unexpected friendships that last well beyond the life of a given voyage. It's about the magic of creating a community of adventurous spirits who share something unspoken, undefinable, real.
A Sense of Community for a Solo Traveler
Claire was a young, solo traveler in her 20's from Virginia whom I've loosely kept in touch with since her expedition. She was on a relatively long voyage of more than two weeks, traversing great distances and completing a once-in-a-lifetime adventure in the icy seas. On her voyage, there were more than a dozen other young travelers from around the world: Scotland, Ireland, England. Boston, Seattle, Calgary. Portugal and Australia. A cosmopolitan cast of youthful spirit and excitement for whatever was around the next corner.
I stay in contact with Claire, reaching out to her from time to time to get her reflections on her voyage, which occurred more than a year ago. In her words:
“One of the things that surprised me the most from my trip to Antarctica was how much the people I met impacted me. Being isolated on a ship, at the far reaches of the earth, forces you to truly disconnect from technology and social media – and in turn connect with the people who surround you. Yes, there was the option to purchase internet access, but almost none of our cohort did and I'm glad. Nineteen days on a ship with no Internet meant we were actually socializing with one another instead of looking at emails, bingeing Netflix, or scrolling through Facebook. Whenever we weren't on a Zodiac outing or a landing, you were sure to find friends in the lounge or the library. As a solo traveler, this was wonderful for me. If I felt like being social all I had to do was leave my room and I would be sure to find people who were more than happy to play a game of cards or chat over coffee and hot chocolate (or something a bit stronger!). The friends I made on the expedition – both staff and passengers – are people I've kept in touch with and will remain friends with for years to come.
Quark Expeditions guests snap a quick photo of a piece of ice. Photo by Acacia Johnson.
“In addition to the social impact, being disconnected also affected me personally. It is much different than being disconnected when backpacking or when you're at a remote cabin. Somehow the feeling of being disconnected is significantly stronger on a polar expedition. It is a deeper sense of calm and presence. Even when I didn't feel like socializing, instead of filling my down time with technology, I could sit on the navigation bridge or walk around the outer decks, watching the ocean and reflecting on my thoughts.
“The combined sense of isolation and an intensely strong community was one of the most moving and healing experiences I've ever had. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about my expedition, and the feelings it left me with.”
The Arctic Presence
Immense polar landscapes surround you in the Arctic. Photo by Hugo Perrin.
Personally, I feel most at home when I'm in the far north, and I often ask myself why that is. Similar to my friends who've described their experiences to me, it must boil down to that feeling of authenticity, of participating in something real, in a landscape that is equal parts beautiful and severe, soul-enriching and unforgiving. A place that operates by the most ancient rules on earth, rules that often get lost or forgotten in the busy pace of 21st century life. The Arctic is somewhere where we can feel the natural world. The moody weather and infamous sea ice, the unique clock that operates from midnight sun to polar night, the master predators and long-distance migrators, the intensity and the calm, the present moments. These forces remind us that there are realities on earth that are different from our own, that are independent from us, that are real and wild and continually engaged with the Old Ways. In a strange way, traveling to the Arctic can put our own lives into perspective, and can make us feel more connected to our shared existence on this planet even if we live thousands of miles away. Indeed, the Arctic has a powerful presence, one that will embed itself in your soul and stay with you forever.