Arctic Dreams

Such stuff as dreams are made on. "Herb's Watch" for October 14, 2009

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The gorgeous pastel light of an Arctic sunset will remain one of Herb McCormick¿s lasting memories of sailing along the Northwest Passage.Herb Mccormick

For as long as I can remember, I've been hooked on books about travel to distant lands, and I've wandered far and wide on the descriptive prose of such wonderful writers as Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin, Jonathan Raban, Bill Bryson, John McPhee, Jon Krakauer, and so many, many others. Several years ago, a friend who knew of my fondness for the genre loaned me a copy of Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez. It left a lasting impression.
Prior to reading Lopez's masterpiece-when I picked it up, I had no idea what a seminal, award-winning effort it was, though I certainly do now-I had no special, particular interest in the Arctic. I certainly harbored no great ambition to visit the place, never mind sail there. But Arctic Dreams planted a seed I've carried with me ever since. And when skipper Mark Schrader offered me a berth on his 64-foot cutter Ocean Watch for his Around the Americas expedition (www.aroundtheamericas.org), he didn't have to ask twice. The notion of voyaging down and up the length of South America via Cape Horn was intriguing, but the idea of sailing above the Arctic Circle and through the Northwest Passage was irresistible.

For thanks to Barry Lopez, I now had my own Arctic dreams.

When we sailed out of Seattle last May heading north for the Arctic, those dreams were nurtured by crewmate David Thoreson, who was on his third attempt to sail the Northwest Passage (he'd been turned back the first time but made it the second) and knew the territory well. Thoreson's own travels to the Far North had left him more or less addicted to everything about the Arctic: the people, the wildlife, the endless summer nights, the pastel twilight, even the ice. His stories and descriptions made it sound like nowhere else on Earth, like a planet unto itself.

And once we'd put Nome behind us and then, at 66 degrees 30 minutes north, crossed the line of latitude that represents the Arctic Circle, it wasn't long at all before I discovered he was right.

As I type, we've successfully negotiated the Northwest Passage and recrossed the Arctic Circle, though this time we were east of North America, not west. With each passing day, our summer in the Arctic is one step farther away. The day-to-day effort of dealing with the cold air and water, the shallow seas, the confounding ice, and the vast distances are over.

All that are left are the memories, but they're rich ones indeed.

I'll never forget those long, long nights; the sometimes puzzling but always welcoming Eskimos and Inuit; the rugged settlements they call home; the piercing air and the rugged terrain; the birds and the bears, the walrus and the whales; that first strange morning, in early August, when the sun at last set briefly beneath the horizon; and always, the clean, frigid waters and wondrous, lovely light.

I'm not sure if I'll ever get back there-it's one long, challenging trip-but if I don't, I'll be just fine. That's because, at least briefly, I realized my own Arctic dreams.