The complete story of this adventure is now available as an E-book, entitled Standing on the Ocean: A Layman's Arctic Adventure.

Letters Home: Notes on an Arctic Sabbatical

In early 2004 I let it be know among friends that I was looking for a “sabbatical opportunity,” a chance to do something different. I had three criteria:

I meant by the latter that I wanted to go someplace where English wasn’t the native language. I think I had a nice safe place like Germany in mind. But like Lily Tomlin learned when she wished to “grow up and be somebody”, I should have been more specific. I certainly wasn’t thinking about the middle of the Arctic Ocean!

“Hi, Dave. I have a oceanographer friend who is going on a cruise to the Arctic Ocean in April. He needs someone to help him with the equipment and water sampling. Would you be interested?”, said my friend, Ben.

“Uh, well, gosh...where? The Arctic Ocean!? Isn’t it, like, freezing cold up there?”, I stammered, playing for time.

“Well, the average temperature that time of year is about -20 degrees Farhenheit. But John says it’s pretty easy to dress for that”, Ben reassured me.

“Well, gosh, yes, I guess I would be interested then”, I said, recalling how your nose hairs freeze and it’s hard to take a deep breath on cross-country skis at temperatures far higher than -20 below zero.

I sent off an e-mail to John, the principle investigator on the project, expressing my interest and outlining my qualifications (basically none, but I had once freezed my tush off on a week-long winter skiing excursion into Yellowstone National Park.) I didn’t mention the collapsed snow cave and the nearly frost-bit toes of my travelling companions. When several months passed without a reply, I assumed I was off the hook and forgot all about it.

Then, in early March, I answered the phone and it was John.

“I’m heading up to the Arctic Ocean in three weeks and I could use another person to help with equipment and sampling,” he said. “We fly 75 to 125 miles off shore in helicopters, land on the sea ice, drill a hole, and drop our sampling equiment down on a winch. Pull it up, move to the next station, and so on. We try to sample four and six stations per day, but there are always complications.”

“What kind of complications?”, I asked.

“Oh, you know, weather sometimes, equipment malfunctions, open water where we are suppose to sample, that kind of thing,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said. “Do you ever see polar bears?”

“Yes,” he said cheerfully, “there is a good chance of it. We saw one last year.”

“Well, alright then,” I said, “you don’t see polar bears where I live. I’m in.”

But as I hung up, I was mentally subtracting the cost of outfitting myself for these cold temperatures from the meager pay he could afford to offer me. Oh, dear, how was I ever going to sell this idea to my wife!


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