I am a lover of all things Polar. You may not have known this about me, but this is true. As a college student, my favorite class was ‘Glacial and Pleistocene Geomorphology’, and one of the highlights of my trip to Alaska a few years ago was to be able to sail through glacial ice and get up close to a “live” glacier. Many of the books in my home library have to do with glaciers and such. I’m drawn to these areas.
Imagine how honored I felt when I realized that I would be able to see a presentation by Børge Ousland, modern day polar explorer, at the National Geographic Grosvenor Auditorium last time I was in Washington, D.C. in February for ‘National Geographic Live!’. This guy is incredible. He has made 18 expeditions to the North Pole and 6 to the South, and he’s retraced the steps of famous explorers who have gone before him. He has followed Fridtjof Nansen’s journey across Franz Josef Land and has circumnavigated the ocean around the Arctic, traveling the great Northern Passage. He also takes note (and collects samples and measurements) of the impact of global warming on polar regions throughout his adventures.
Ousland talked a lot about a certain mindset that he would acheive during these long, cold weeks and months of solitude and aloneness. He spoke of coming to a place where he felt at one with the beauty of the nature around him. He said, “I’ve started to feel the layers of civilization peeling away. I wake up, peer at the sun, perform the day’s chores, sniff the north wind, and automatically pick out the best route and the safest campsites—all without thought.”
I remember at time when I felt equally connected to my surroundings – the year I lived in the Northwoods of northern Wisconsin. There was a time in my life when I was aware of the wildlife around me (loons on the lake, bears in the woods, birds in the trees, squirrels everywhere) and I felt as though I belonged there as much as they did. I breathed the fresh, pure oxygen released by the red and white pines, smelled the layers of natural detritus on the forest floor (pinecones, leaves, needles, soil, rocks, and water). I saw the fresh snowfall as an act of beauty bestowed upon me and the world and everything in it.
I was also in college at the time and didn’t have a 40+ hr a week job. I wasn’t married, didn’t have kids. I didn’t even really have bills to pay…other than for college, but even then my work study program still had me in the midst of the Northwoods as I earned my keep. I was in a very controlled, almost isolated kind of program. I really didn’t have a care in the world beyond the immediate things of “today”, so I had the time I needed to connect with my surroundings in such a deep and vital way.
Now? Wow. To be there again…. The short story is that I’ve moved on. I only had the opportunity to live up north for that one year. After that, way lead on to way, and I moved to the suburbs of Chicago, then central Maryland, then western Maryland. I (eventually) finished degrees in Geography and Earth Science. I met and married my husband, then came two kids, family responsibilities alongside various jobs, and so on. All of this has kept me hopping. This is not to say that I have ignored my surroundings all this time; I have connected where and when I could and, quite frankly, I have thrown myself into whatever I’ve done with my life.
But I do wonder what it would be like to be apart from the world for an extended period of time. You can’t get any more remote than the poles. I’ve traveled apart from my family in recent years, but staying at a decent hotel, having a wi-fi connection most of the time, and using a credit card for all of my purchases and meals is hardly being alone, right?
There is a part of me that yearns for the adventure and the experience of something like a polar exploration. I’ve looked through the various “explorer” travel catalogs that we get at the house and have thought about some of the trips. Very expensive, though. My husband and I have talked about doing a Semester At Sea program (he would teach). I’ve very briefly looked into grants that would allow for some kind of travel to Svalbard, Northern Norway, and the Galapagos Islands. I don’t to the kind of research that would be appropriate. But I’m not sure that this kind of trip would be quite in the same vein as explorers like Ousland.
[This photo is what I imagine myself exploring in, by the way. A Mercedes, outfitted.]
All of this makes me think about my awareness of the world around me. Am I truely aware? Am I so involved in other things now that I am less aware? Or is the real experience that which I am living right now, right here – my family and work is my world.
One idea that kept presenting itself over and over again to me during Ousland’s talk was WILLPOWER. Now I am the first to admit that despite my love for all things polar, I am not going to ski across Antarctica or trek to the North Pole during winter’s darkness. There are areas in my life, however, that I can focus on and rethink how I am going about accomplishing things in my life. I got to thinking about this extra weight that I’ve picked up over the last year or so (can’t blame it on my youngest boy because he’s THREE now, plus I shed the baby weight after his birth and was down to 128 lbs). If Ousland can complete these challenges, surely I can find my own WILLPOWER to lose 20 lbs or so. After hearing him talk about the dangers he constantly faced (shifting pack ice, polar bears, dwindling food supply, temperatures well below zero, angry walruses, melting campsites, and so on), what would it really mean for me to give up snacking between meals and choose healthier ingredients when I cook? I mean, M&Ms vs. polar bears? THERE’S NO COMPARISON.
I claim to be a Doer of Stuff on this site. So I am going to lose this extra weight by using WILLPOWER. I am not going to throw out half the food in my house or weigh myself obsessively. I’m not even going to choose a target weight or weightloss date. I am simply going to make choices each day that improve my overall well-being. The weight will come off on its own if I make good decisions. I want this process to be for me and about me, not me against the weight. I may, for daily inspiration, tape a picture of an angry walrus to my refrigerator.