ELLESMERE ISLAND, CANADA. — Time is whatever you want it to be within the living quarters of Eureka Weather Station on Ellesmere Island.
Someone called his mom in Alberta, and she said it was 15 minutes past the hour. That's why the clocks were set 15 minutes fast. No one cares, as long as the forecasting balloons are released into the atmosphere twice a day; once in the afternoon and again at 7:15 P.M. Eastern Standard Time.
There is also something timeless and other-dimensional about the Twin Otter airplane which is to fly us 692 miles to the North Pole from Eureka. Twenty-five years old with a well-worn interior just dark enough to be cozy, she flies low and slow with a minimum of turbulence.
Seven stalwart tourists, four from the West Coast, two from Mastic, Long Island, and one Baltimorean, are this year's adventurers with Arctic Odysseys, Inc. We are bundled into layers of clothing topped by parkas, face masks and outrageous headgear, and surrounded by fuel fumes from four red and orange drums strapped down at the back of the cabin.
Only narrow bands of blue, purple and gray at the horizon distinguish between land and sky in the frozen northern landscape. Leaving the last bit of land, Yelverton Point, at 2 p.m., we enter a white vacuum streaked at intervals with gray and edged in the distance with palest turquoise.
The Inuit have 50 words for snow and 15 for the color white. We begin to understand why as we look down on a white-on-white scene, sometimes lacy and sometimes squiggled like the drippings from Jackson Pollock's paint tubes.
Black, curly clouds with vaporous emanations appear low on the horizon. These are harbingers of a polynya, a wide shifting area of open sea. We look down and see only sharp-edged slabs of ice floating on an inky sea. Arctic explorers who traveled on foot ++ or by dogsled had to wait days at the edge of a polynya for the ocean to re-freeze so they could continue their journeys. We of the air age fly past it in moments.
An aqua smile beckons in the ice. We have learned about the colors of ice. Crevasses or icebergs lined with aqua or pale green are safe because these pastel shades indicate that layers of air are trapped between layers of ice, creating a strong surface. A few days hence we are to walk on some of these layers at lonely Beechey Island where the 19th century Franklin Expedition perished from eating food preserved in cans containing lead. Our footsteps make hollow, crunching sounds. The rusted cans, open-ended and filled with snow, are still in the ground near desolate tombstones.
We take turns piloting the Twin Otter. During my turn we are
enveloped in a blanket of fog. I can only fly by watching the instrument panel: Keep the little airplane on the horizon, the ball in the center of the turn coordinator and the compass needle on 90.
Pilots Danny and Mike spot the brightly colored drums, our fuel cache, which they left on the sea ice at the 87th parallel yesterday. We land on clattery skis 180 miles from the North Pole. This is the only pit stop of our 11-hour flight. The men go behind an ice ridge. The three women stay on the plane, open Ziploc bags, and pull out lidded containers.
It is gray outside, -15 degrees Fahrenheit, with a minus-50 wind chill. We descend for photographs. The lady from California says she is warm as toast, but the rest of us suffer from aching fingers and toes and return to the plane. The pilots unstrap the nearly empty fuel drums, haul them overboard, install the replacements as quickly as possible; stamping, running and blowing frost all the while.
We return to the sky. The co-pilot takes over while Danny refuels in mid-air, working in the aft section, splotching the ice below with orange and red.
''We might not make it to the Pole,'' Danny warns. There is total cloud cover.
A hazy sun appears and droops a few feet below the left wing, giving us hope. As we drop down a thousand feet over the Pole, the sun vanishes.
We have learned from tour leader Skip Vorhees that there are no unique vistas at 90 degrees north. If Admiral Robert Peary planted an American flag there, or if any memorial plaque was placed, they would be in the wrong spot, for the sea ice shifts three to ten miles a day. There is no pole at the Pole.
There is no landing strip on this landless ice cap. The compass needle rapidly passes 90 degrees and we cross briefly to the Russian side of the Pole. It looks just the same as the Canadian side. There also is no opening in the cloud cover.
Danny rules that it is not safe to land on shifting ice that may get swept into pressure ridges or form crevasses or other uneven places that cannot be seen under low cloud cover. He turns back. We tourists are momentarily disappointed, but grateful for having a responsible pilot. Andy anyway, our landing on the Arctic Ocean at the 87th parallel was at least physically, if not psychologically, similar to what we would have experienced at 90 degrees north on a cloudy day.