Ode to the Arctic

I give presentations from time to time, and am often asked what the difference is between the Arctic and Antarctic. On the surface, this is a simple question. The Arctic is essentially a body of water bordered by several different countries. The Antarctic is land surrounded by water. Polar bears in the north, penguins in the south, and never the two shall meet. But, for those who have traveled in both, there is much more to it than that.

Antarctica is immediately stunning; so much so that it’s beauty can sometimes be overwhelming. Wildlife is out and waiting for you, and when you venture ashore, the penguins often walk right up to you. In contrast, the arctic has a more subtle beauty that can take much longer to appreciate. Much of it has been glaciated, so instead of jagged peaks, you find mountains with softer lines and exposed layers of soil and rock. The arctic is full of wildlife, but it is spread out, difficult to find, and not always interested in you. In addition, the arctic also land predators like the arctic fox and polar bear, which keep the other animals constantly on the lookout for anything unusual.

The Arctic has people and cultures that have existed for thousands of years. Like the wildlife that lives there, these people eek out a living from this harsh land. Over the years they have learned to thrive where most would perish. The Antarctic has scientists, and though most would call them people, they are not indigenous.

Both polar environments can be brutally harsh to the flora, fauna, and even occasional visitors. Maybe it is the ever-present beauty of the Antarctic that distracts us from this, but not so in the Arctic. The starkness of the arctic can be a grim reminder of the raw nature that dominates the place. One look across the barren tundra fills you with awe that anything can survive in such a place. Yet when you get down on your knees and get a close up look at the land, you find plants, bushes and flowers thriving! Entire ecosystems right under your feet. Incredible! Visit a bird cliff teaming with thousands upon thousands of birds racing to raise their young and one asks how is this possible?

Perhaps it is because you have to work a bit harder to find wildlife in the Arctic that elevates the moment of excitement when you first spot something into pure rapture. How is it that people can spend hours on end, straining their eyes as they scour the pack ice to find a glimpse of a polar bear? These majestic bruins wander the shifting pack ice in search of seals to eat. Spotting one in the wild and spending a moment with one is a moving in a way that only those who have had the experience can truly appreciate. People have been brought to tears after visiting with their first polar bear.

Some who visit the arctic, never “get it”. For others, learning to appreciate the vast expanses, teeming wildlife, and subtle beauty can be a powerful experience. For those that do ‘get it”, the arctic is a place they will return to throughout their lifetime. Once it’s in your blood, you are hooked. The Call of the Arctic is a very powerful thing.