THE FATHER-SON ADVENTURE: BRANDON AT THE NORTH POLE
Brandon at the North Pole
It seemed like we were the only people on the face of the Earth. Just eight of us – Brandon, me, my four client-friends, our pilot and co-pilot – flying a few thousand feet above an endless expanse of sea-ice.
It had been a little over an hour since we had flown past Cape Columbia, the northernmost point of land in Canada on the tip of Ellesmere Island to head straight north over the frozen Arctic Ocean.
Now nothing else was down there, just the ice – but it was far from featureless.
I had to speak loud enough over the steady drone of our plane’s engines to be heard.
“Folks, we’re above 86, so Harry (our pilot, Harry Hanlon) is looking for a place to land and refuel. As we discussed in the briefing this morning, Harry is looking for an “old frozen-over lead” – a split that opened up a break in the ice last fall during the freeze-up that looks like a river. One that will freeze over the winter smooth, flat, thick and solid – forming a kind of ice runway we can land our plane on.”
This took skill and keen eyes – which I knew Harry had, as he had flown me to the Pole a half-dozen times. He’d fly low over a prospect, looking carefully at the edges on either side, wanting them to be white, not gray – gray meant thin, too thin to land on. For if you landed on a thin lead, the plane could break through and end up 13,000 feet down on the Arctic Ocean floor.
Our plane was a DeHavilland Twin Otter with two turboprop engines and hydraulic skis – a rugged STOL (short take-off & landing) expedition aircraft. Our seats were in the front, for the back half of the cabin was loaded with fuel drums.
Harry found what he was looking for, landed smoothly on the open frozen ocean. We got out, Harry and co-pilot Bob got the fuel drums on the ice, and began refueling. Once done, they turned a beacon on the unused drums, for we’d be here to refuel again on our return.
As we took off, everyone was amped. “Okay,” I said, “we’ve got about 200 miles to go, an hour and a half or so – everyone ready to be literally on Top of the World?” With cheers and thumbs up in response, I got down next to Brandon. “How are you doing, buddy?”
“Dad, this is so awesome! Wow, the North Pole! But…” he looked out the window… “how does Santa live up here? How does he feed his reindeer? There’s nothing for them to eat in all that ice!”
He looked at me carefully as I stammered for something to say. Then he burst out laughing at my trying to untie my tongue. “Gotcha, Dad!” All I could do was blink. “Dad, I figured it out – Santa’s a fun game for little kids, and I’m not that little anymore. I’m almost seven!”
Now I was looking at him carefully, then shook my head and sighed. “Brandon, you’re six. You must get those big brains of yours from your mother, that’s all I can say.” Then we both laughed together.
Twelve years earlier in April 1978, I organized and led the first commercial expedition to the Geographic North Pole — 90° North latitude – in history. It was through my company, Wheeler Expeditions, made possible by a number of national television appearances on the Johnny Carson Show, the Merv Griffin Show and others, promoting my new book, The Adventurers’ Guide .
Three years later, on April 15, 1981, I was able to set a Guinness Book of World Record for the “Northern Most Parachute Jump,” a solo free fall skydive onto the sea-ice exactly at 90 North – a record that Guinness says “cannot be bettered after setting.”
The summer after Brandon was with me in the Mara-Serengeti, that of 1989, my wife Rebel and I took Brandon with us to see friends in Europe. We celebrated his 6th birthday in Garmisch-Partenkirchen at the foot of the Bavarian Alps, and visited the fairy tale castle of Neuschwanstein built by King Ludwig II of Bavaria in the 1870s.
It was a wonderful family holiday, and at the end, Brandon said, “Hey, Dad – I’m 6 now… where do we get to go next?”
“Remember my promise before we went to Africa?” His eyes got big. “Yes …The North Pole.”
“Wow, cooool….. you mean like polar bears and Santa Claus?” He looked at Rebel. “Can Mom come too?”
“There’s a very good chance you’ll see both,” I answered. “As for your Mom…”
Her smile was one of regret. “I wish I could, buddy, but your father explained that the plane you fly in is half-filled with fuel drums to refuel the plane on the Arctic Ocean – and I have an allergy to the fumes, the smell would make me really sick.” Her smile turned gracious. “But I know you and Daddy will have such a fabulous time!”
This would be my 11th time to the top of the world. As it would be months away in next April, I had ample time to explain to Brandon all the amazing and weird things about the North Pole – like there’s only one day and one night every year, that it’s any time of day or night you want, and you can run around the whole world there is a few seconds.
He thought I was crazy at first, but after a while, he got it – and was more excited than ever to be going there. We started with the map above.
The North Pole is defined as 90 North because the Equator is 0 degrees. Lines of latitude – also called parallels – increase going north and south until you get to a straight up right angle from 0. That’s 90 degrees, as any which way you go from there is headed back down towards the Equator. So the North Pole is 90 degrees north, while the South Pole is 90 degrees south.
Those lines you see going up and down are called lines of longitude – also called meridians. They are at their widest at the Equator, then get narrower going north and south until they meet at – you guessed it – 90 North and South, the Poles.
We use the meridians to tell time around the world according to time zones – because of Earth rotates moving east, which is why sunrise is in the east and sunset in the west. The Sun isn’t actually rising or setting, it just looks that way, as we on Earth are moving around towards the sunlight in the morning and away from it in the evening.
We want our clocks to reflect this, since the sunrise will come several hours earlier where we lived now in Virginia than where we used to in California. As there are 24 hours in a day, you’d think that there would be 24 time zones, one for every 15 degrees of longitude (360 degrees in a circle divided by 24). But governments often don’t agree, so we get this map of world time zones.
With this, our watches in the US will tell pretty much the same time of day as the sun moves across the sky – people in Virginia will see sunrise in October at 7:30 in the morning and sunset at 6:15 in the evening, while those in California almost the same.
But not in China, for example, as the government there wants the whole country (about the same size as the US) to be on Beijing time. Imagine that for people in Los Angeles, sunrise was at 10:30 in the morning, sunset after 9 o’clock at night. That’s the way it is in Kashgar, far western China.
What’s so interesting about time at the North Pole is that as all the meridians come together, so do all the time zones. At 90 North, it’s any time you want! Same with the 90 South, the South Pole.
The other amazing thing about time at the North Pole is that there is only one day and one night all year long. Each one of six months. Sunrise at the North Pole is on March 21st and never sets until September 21st. (It’s the exact opposite for the South Pole – one day and one night, each six months long, with the dates reversed.)
How is this possible? Because the Earth doesn’t go around the Sun facing straight ahead but at an angle – the Earth is tilted towards the sun, thanks to the gravitational pull of our Moon. This is why we have seasons – days get longer and warmer in the summer, shorter and colder in the winter.
And the seasons are different below or south of the Equator than above or north. When it’s summer for us, it’s winter in Australia. Our longest day is June 21st, for Australians it’s the shortest, and vice versa. What’s more, the days get longer the more north you go in our summer, and shorter in our winter – until at the North Pole the sun is always shining in summer and never in winter.
Now Brandon was smart, but still only six so I tried my best to explain this as clearly as I could. It took him a few times to absorb it all. Then he pointed to the first map that says “Arctic Circle” and “Tropic of Cancer.” “What are these, Dad?” he wanted to know.
“Well, summer days get longer the more north, right? Finally, you get to where the sun will shine all day long, for 24 hours, for at least one day – the longest day, June 21st. The Arctic Circle is where that happens. On June 21st, as the Earth rotates in a circle, the sun will shine there for 24 hours.”
As he was nodding, I added… “and yes, there’s also an Antarctic Circle at the bottom of the Earth, around which the sun shines for all 24 hours on the longest day there, December 21st.”
“So,” I continued, “what’s this ‘Tropic of Cancer’ thing? Have you noticed the Sun is higher in the sky in summer and lower in winter?”
He thought for a moment. “Yeah, I think so.”
“You have to trust me on this, it is. It gets so high that there’s almost no shadows of things at noon – almost where we are. But there are places where the Sun is straight up in the sky, no shadow at all when it shines at noon. Where that happens for at least one day in the summer – June 21st – is on that “Tropic” circle.”
“What about south?” he asked, pointing his finger down.
“Same thing. Down south it’s called the Tropic of Capricorn, where the sun is straight up in the sky for at least one day – and that day is…..?”
Big smile. “December 21st!”
“Thumbs up, buddy, you got it. Okay – you want to know how we get to the North Pole?”
“Sure! And what about polar bears, and Eskimos, and Santa Claus?”
“Well, we don’t want to get anywhere near polar bears on the ground. They have no fear of us and we smell like food to them. Almost always though we see them from the air out on the ice pack – not anywhere near the Pole though, they don’t get that far away from land…
We’ll meet a lot of Eskimos, though – we even visit a hunting village of theirs. But they don’t like that name, almost an insult. We call them how they call themselves – Inuit (in-ooh-wit). You’ll get to play with the Inuit kids…
Now about Santa…”
He gave me a gimlet eye at this. Oh-oh, I thought, he’s started to figure it out, better be careful. “Well, since he’s supposed to live at the North Pole, you’ll find out when we get there.”
I figured out how to do this in 1977 by calling up the office of a bush plane operator in Resolute Bay on one of those islands (Cornwallis) in far northern Canada. It was called Kenn Borek Air Services, that used ski-equipped Twin Otters to service the far north Inuit communities like Pond Inlet and Grise Fiord, weather stations like Eureka, and various mining operations (gold and other minerals).
The office manager was a friendly guy named Tom Frook. I told him about my book and that I had a question for him: could he fly me to the North Pole? It hit him cold. “Wow, no one has ever done that, hey?” he said with that Canadian lilt. So we talked, about how to place a fuel cache up on the ice, and where to stage.
“There’s Eureka on Ellesmere at 80 (North) – but we have a summer fishing camp up at Lake Hazen at 82, 120 nautical (miles) closer. We could open that up for you – we should be able to land on the lake ice, I’ll check with the pilots. It would be easier to ferry the fuel drums up on the ice from there, say around 86,” Tom explained.
Let’s pause here to understand what’s going on. First is, the North Pole is in the center of the Arctic Ocean:
The North Pole is not a geographical feature like a mountain peak – it is an invisible mathematical point inside 5½ million square miles of seawater on top of which floats frozen sea ice several feet thick. And because the ocean has currents and waves moving through it, so does the ice – breaking up, splitting apart with rivers of open water called “leads,” smashing together in crumpled piles of ice called “pressure ridges,” — constantly changing.
That means there’s nothing permanent at the North Pole, it’s a place on the ice indistinguishable from any other – you only know where you are by your navigational instruments. Early polar explorers used a sextant and artificial horizon like sailors at sea to determine where they were by the position of the sun. Now we use satellites with atomic clocks.
So if you want a red-and-white candy-striped pole at 90 North, you have to bring your own – as anything you leave there will drift away on the moving ice, and sink in the ocean when that ice breaks up. I made one back in ’78. Now it was time to wrap it up in a sheet once again.
It was a busy Easter Sunday, April 15, 1990. The night before with Brandon sound asleep, Rebel and I made some three dozen wildly-colored Easter Eggs, and I had to get up at dawn’s light to hide them all over our back yard while she stayed guard in case he got up too soon.
We had invited a few of Brandon’s first-grade friends at the Chesterbrook Elementary School in McLean over for an Easter Egg Hunt, and by mid-morning the kids were racing around joyously discovering what the Easter Bunny had left for them.
With the hunt over and his friends headed back home, I said to Brandon. “Okay, man, time to pack.” We would be leaving in two days. I had him all geared-up with thermals, Thinsulate ski suit and hooded parka, the works. We flew first to Ottawa to overnight, then on to Resolute. “Say goodbye to green,” I told him as we boarded, “get ready for nothing but white.” Resolute was more than a thousand miles north of the tree line.
Greeting us as we got off the plane were my dear friends, Bezal and Terry Jesudason. Bezal was unique, an ethnic Tamil from Madras, India and devout Christian, as a skilled engineer the Canadian government hired him to maintain its installations in the High Arctic. Stationed in Resolute, he met a Canadian schoolteacher – Terry – whom he married. Together, they started High Arctic International Explorer Services to organize just about anything explorers wanted to do up here. I was their first customer back in 1980.
Terry swept Brandon into her arms and soon we were all ensconced in their comfortable home. Terry carefully checked Brandon’s gear and pronounced it okay – but was concerned about the boots I had for him. “He needs kamiiks,” she pronounced, Inuit seal skin footwear that keep your feet superwarm. Before we knew it, she had secured a pair that were Brandon’s size from an Inuit family neighbor.
During a great dinner of Terry’s cooking, Bezal asked, “How would you guys like to go to the Magnetic North Pole?”
It was a rhetorical question. The “mag pole” is where all compasses point to. When you get there, if you had a compass with a needle that could move not just back and forth but up and down measuring magnetic “dip,” the needle wouldn’t move back and forth at all but just point straight down.
Where it is depends on the churning iron in the Earth’s core. When I was first there in 1978, it was about 160 miles north of us here in Resolute, below King Christian Island (see map above). Now, 12 years later, it had moved one full degree further north (60 nautical, almost 70 statute miles) near Ellef Ringnes Island.
So the next morning off we went to land on a featureless frozen sea, flat as a pancake protected from arctic winds by the surrounding islands.
“This is it, Dad?” Brandon asked. “There’s nothing here.”
“Actually there is, buddy, you just can’t see it or feel it. Our plane’s instruments can, though. Being here teaches you something about how our planet works – it’s one huge magnet, and like all magnets, it has two poles. We’re at one, while the other is the Magnetic South Pole in Antarctica.”
He reacted dubiously at this, so I took a photo of him being so.
I told him where we were going next would be awesome.
That would be our base camp at Lake Hazen at almost 82 North near the tip of Ellesmere Island. As we approached, I asked everyone to look out their window as Harry circled around.
“Folks, you are about to see something truly astounding. This entire region of the Canadian High Arctic is not like the Ice Ages, it still is the Ice Ages here – nothing but snow, ice, and rock for a million square miles. Lake Hazen is the northernmost lake of any appreciable size in the world. It has an outlet to the sea, Ruggles River, the northernmost river in the world. Harry is about to fly over it, and you won’t believe your eyes. Ruggles River never freezes – the northernmost river in the world never freezes. I’ve been here when it’s 40 degrees below zero. There’re no hot springs. It’s pretty mysterious. Nowhere else in the High Arctic does this happen, only here is there open flowing water all winter long.”
And sure enough, there it was, a ribbon of dark blue spurting out of Hazen that was frozen so thickly we could land on it next to our camp. It was a comfortable insulated Quonset hut, Bezal and Terry quickly had it warm and set up, and very soon we were outside again to go fishing.
With makeshift stick-poles and a line with a salmon egg on the hook, we jigged for arctic char that live in Hazen at the Ruggles outlet. A cross between salmon and lake trout, they swim up Ruggles as their birth river from an arm of the Arctic Ocean separating Ellesmere from Greenland to spawn in Hazen.
We all made sure Brandon caught the first one and cheered when he did. It wasn’t long before we had snagged over a dozen plump foot-long fish for Terry to cook our dinner. Arctic char filets are bright orange and thoroughly delicious. With black plastic bags taped over the hut windows to keep out the 24-hour sunlight, everyone slept like a log that “night.”
“Dad, this is really cool.”
In more ways than one, I thought, as we were standing in 50 degrees below freezing cold. But we were warm in our arctic gear, it was a sparkling clear sunny day, and we were transfixed by the view – the white ice sheet of Hazen glinting in the sunlight with the snow-clad peaks of the United States Range of mountains beyond.
We were in complete isolation, no human presence nor sign of it except us and our small group here for thousands of square miles around us. It was completely calm and peaceful, with this feeling of total serenity flowing deeply through you. It was sheer magic.
I looked down at Brandon. “You feel it too, don’t you?” He didn’t look up nor say a word, I just saw the red hood of his parka nod forward. “Being here is like we’re the only people on Earth.” The red hood silently nodded again.
Magic moments are normally fleeting and this was no exception. A voice behind us called out, “Hey, Jack! You ready to go for 90?”
“Captain Hanlon! And how are you this beautiful morning?”
“Couldn’t be better – and neither could the weather. Got a call from Resolute – the sat photos show clear all the way. Bob and I will prep the Otter while you round everyone up. Liftoff in less than two hours.”
We had spent the last two days in this idyllic isolation – hiking along the lake shore, fishing and gorging ourselves on arctic char, and enjoying each other’s company. Now it was time to gear up and be ready to roll. I gave everyone a final briefing.
“Folks, we’ll be flying straight north along the 70th meridian aiming for the Pole. We’ll be landing three times on the sea-ice – to refuel at around 86 or 87, at 90, and back to refuel again. To do so, we first must have sunshine to see shadows on the ice blocks so we can avoid hitting a ski on one. If there’s ice fog or ice crystal haze obscuring the sun, we have to look elsewhere.
Next, Harry will be looking for a certain configuration on the ice called an “old frozen over lead.” The ice, as you’ll discover, is a crazy-quilt hodge-podge of pressure ridges where big pancakes of ice buckled up against each other in last winter’s freeze-up, riddled with fracture lines of open water called ‘leads.’ They freeze back up, making for a smooth runway. Harry wants an old thick one safe to land on, which he is very good at – we’ve done it together several times now.
Lastly, a prediction. This is a day you will never forget for the rest of lives. At sometime during it, you will say to me that you’ve got a problem, and I in turn will pretend not to know what it is. You will say, ‘Jack, my problem is that I haven’t the faintest idea of how to explain what we’re experiencing and how unbelievable it is to all my friends back home.’
I know you will have this problem because everyone I take to the Pole over the last 12 years has had it, and you will too. The answer is always the same – you can’t explain it. That’s always the mark of a great adventure. You have to experience it yourself directly to understand. And now, you are about to do just that.”
April 22, 1990, 2:30pm (1430 hours) GMT, Greenwich Mean Time
I looked at Harry’s cockpit instruments. Giving him and Bob a thumbs-up, I turned to call out, “Ladies and Gentleman, we are above the North Pole, 90 North!” Cheers and applause. “Even better, it is a bright perfect sunshine day. Harry will now drop low to find the right place to set the Otter down.”
Harry, Bob, and I searched carefully along the edges of old leads as we swooped over them. We found one that satisfied Harry and made me happy, as it was as close to 90 as our Global-Nav satellite navigation said we could be. We landed smoothly.
Initially, we were quiet and subdued – in shock and awe over where we were – as we disembarked onto the ice, covered as usual with only an inch or two of snow, so dry it blows off any flat spot easily. Bob handed me a box I had hand-carried all the way from home, and my candy-stripe pole wrapped in a sheet. Of course I also had a American flag.
Brandon and I walked over to a small pressure ridge where I set up – erecting the pole, and extracting from the box several bottles of Moet champagne, a set of plastic champagne glasses, jars of Iranian caviar and a box of melba crackers.
“Hey, everybody!” I called out loudly. “Are you ready to celebrate being on Top of the World?!?” Even without the champagne we were all giddy and overcome with excitement. I gave one of the bottles to Wisconsin Jack and wife Mary who promptly and discretely went behind a large pressure ridge to be unseen.
It was -25F, so we had to drink our champagne before it froze in the glass – but we were all equal to the task. I gave Brandon an eensy sip eliciting an awful grimace and “eeeyew!” Then I pulled out a small can of Coke I was hiding – he was happy with a glass of that.
By now, everyone was exceedingly happy, taking pictures, marveling at the joy of being here. Don from Michigan told me how he felt:
“You know, Jack, I didn’t know what to expect. You’re right, this is truly indescribable. I wondered why come all this way just to be here for a short time, celebrate a bit, and then leave? Now I realize it’s like climbing a wonderful mountain – all the effort to get to the top, and what do you do when you get there? You celebrate, then climb back down!
But that’s the whole point. This is an amazing achievement to have gotten here, to be at the actual North Pole. Just like you have to summit a great mountain to understand why, so you have to experience this yourself to understand. Wow – and thanks, man.”
We toasted to that.
Ellen from Ohio and Brandon were now chasing each other around ice blocks. This was turning into a fun party. But I had to get a few pictures of him here, so he happily posed.
Then everyone began running around the pole to run around the world – through all 24 time zones and all degrees of longitude 0 to the Date Line (180 East & West) and around back to 0 – in ten seconds.
And one last photo to capture what the very top of our planet is like…
All too soon came Harry and Bob’s summon to clamber back in the Otter. We lifted off to head south – every which way was south here – back along the 70th meridian to our Hazen base camp home.
Our High Arctic adventure was far from over, however. From Hazen, Harry flew us across the Nares Strait to Greenland and its northernmost community, the Inuit community of Qaanaaq. It sits on a rise overlooking Inglefield Fjord, at the head of which is the massive Inglefield Glacier.
In the summer, icebergs calve off the glacier and float out the fjord into Baffin Bay. But by the freeze-up in late fall, many icebergs don’t make it, remaining stuck in the frozen fjord until next summer. That was the scene for us in late April.
Greenlander Inuit are more traditional than those in Canada, avoiding skidoos to preference to dogs and sleds called komatiks. Kitted out in polar bear skin pants, they took us out across the frozen fjord past towering icebergs with skyscraper high walls of blue translucent ice shimmering in the 24-hour sun. The only sound you hear is the panting of the dogs, and the slide of the sled over the ice.
The highlight is stopping at an iceberg suitable for climbing. We scrambled up and slid down. “This is way better than Disneyland, Dad!” Brandon exclaimed. We all agreed. “Yes, and this is real, not some amusement park,” I exclaimed back.
As we were riding back to the village on the komatik, I mentioned to Brandon, “You know, buddy, almost everyone you meet in your years to come will know what an iceberg is, seen pictures of them, some even seen icebergs from a ship. But just about no one you’ll ever meet has climbed on an iceberg like you have today.”
He agreed. “Yeah, and with an Eskimo guide wearing polar bear pants!” “Inuit,” I had to correct him. “Oh… Inuit guide, right.” More than thirty years later, Brandon has yet to meet anyone who had done what he did on this day.
Our final adventure was to fly back to Ellesmere, to the Inuit hunting community of Grise Fiord on its southern shore. Here was my friend and one of the sweetest human beings I have ever known, Looty Pijamini, who has now become a renowned artist.
Grise Fiord is sustained by hunting. As we walked through the village, we counted 17 polar bear hides drying out on stretcher boards. Down by the still-frozen shore, were a couple dozen musk-ox heads and huge walrus carcasses. Every home was adorned by the spear-like tusks of narwals – the unicorn of the sea – which they hunted by kayak in the summer sea.
Pijamini’s young children took Brandon in as one of their own. Kids are kids everywhere. They raced all over the village having fun for the plain fun of it.
That’s one of the enormous benefits of taking your kids on an adventure in remote and really different cultures than their own. It’s an education in understanding humanity that they’ll never get sitting in school or reading a book.
Only through an actual experience like playing with Inuit kids in a high arctic hunting village with polar bear skins and musk ox heads all over – and finding out they are just as much fun to play with as the kids back home – will they viscerally learn the common humanity all of us share all across our world.
When Brandon and I got back home, Rebel – being a Mom – immediately saw the difference in her son. “This was an important experience for him,” she told me, “deeper than even Africa.” She looked at me with cautious curiosity. “What are you thinking of next?”
I took a deep breath. “The Soviet Union is on its last legs. I know many of the people helping to push it over the cliff. I was thinking of taking him next summer to witness the death of the USSR – one of the most momentous events of the 20th century.”
Now she took a deep breath. “Let’s talk about it.”
 . 86 degrees north latitude. The North Pole is 90 degrees at a right angle from the Equator at 0 degrees. There are 60 nautical miles to the degree, with each mile called a minute, and each minute having 60 seconds or about 98 feet. A nautical mile is about 1.15 statute miles. See Appendix A.
 At 40 below, Fahrenheit and Centigrade/Celsius are the same.