On March 30, 1988, explorer and educator Helen Thayer (b. 1937) becomes the first woman to trek solo to the magnetic North Pole. Accompanied by her dog Charlie, a husky mix trained to warn of nearby polar bears, Thayer completes her 364-mile journey despite starvation and incessant polar bear danger. The trip becomes the basis for her 1994 book Polar Dream.
Thayer first decided to embark on the trip in 1986, with the vision of traveling to some of the most remote regions in the world. Her budget -- roughly $10,000 -- was scraped together by Thayer and her husband, Bill, as no corporation was willing to sponsor a woman of her age -- 50 -- traveling alone.
The fact that she would be alone on the expedition didn't faze her. "Sometimes I find when I want to get something done, it's better to just go get it done," Thayer says. "If you want to come with me, get on board in a timely manner with the right enthusiasm and let's get this thing done. I don't have three lifetimes to wait for you to make up your mind if you want to do this" (Kershner interview).
Thayer spent two years planning and tirelessly training. A resident of Washington state, Thayer lives in the foothills of the western Cascades near Snohomish; 10-mile runs in the mountains supplemented by weight training, kayaking, and hiking acclimated her to the physical trials of the trip.
"I had decided to walk and ski to the Pole pulling a six-foot-long sled with 160 pounds of gear and supplies without resupply by aircraft or snowmobile," Thayer writes in her book Polar Dream. "Traveling the entire distance, living with only the food and equipment I could pull in my sled, appealed to me as a demanding challenge" (Thayer, 2002).
Setting Out from Resolute Bay
In mid-March 1988, Thayer began her journey from Resolute Bay, where she would train for several days before taking a 50-mile plane ride to Polaris, her starting point.
While in Resolute Bay, locals and guides insisted that if she didn't have a sled team, she must at least take one dog, not just as a companion, but to warn of and protect against approaching polar bears.
The area Thayer was traveling was, by all accounts, thick with the dangerous Arctic creatures, who would see a solo traveler -- plodding slowly, due to the lack of sled team -- as an easy target.
Relenting, Thayer decided to accept the dog from one of the Inuits who had trained the canine to be aware of bears. The 94-pound black husky mix, whom Thayer named Charlie, proved to be a lifesaver on her journey, and a beloved (and lovingly cared for) companion.
Blisters, Storms, Bears
It wasn’t long before Charlie had earned his keep. On only the second day of their journey, Thayer and Charlie came across three polar bears, each only kept at bay with Charlie's barks and growls and Thayer's flares and warning shots.
It wasn't only the unending stress of polar bears that made the trip physically difficult. Thayer's most enduring pain came from what she calls "the first lesson of her journey," when she allowed some well-meaning volunteers to help her put back together her once-meticulously packed sled after it was jumbled from the airplane ride (Thayer, 2002).
Knowing the placement of every item became extremely important, and on the first day of her trip, she struggled, growing colder and colder, to find the warmest gloves she had as she had started out with a lighter pair. Although she found the misplaced gloves before full blown frost bite set in, her hands became blistered, and they would crack and painfully bleed and ooze for the entire duration of the journey.
With temperatures that plunged below minus 50 Fahrenheit -- and steady winds to cut at any exposed skin -- Thayer's route was challenging enough. But several storms caused her to stop two or three days at a time without traveling. White-out conditions (with camouflaged polar bears possible at any corner) proved to impossible to ski through.
Surviving on 5,000 calories a day, Thayer used high-energy crackers, energy bars, oatmeal, granola, and (both her and Charlie's favorite treat) peanut butter cups to sustain their appetites. Although she carried fuel to melt water, she avoided over-use by treating herself to only luke-warm hot chocolate or oatmeal.
Thayer carried with her a prototype of a GPS system to help determine coordinates, but its alkaline batteries allowed it to be used only to check her coordinates at magnetic north. Relying on sun dials and Local Apparent Noon (LAN) charts, Thayer was able to determine her location throughout the journey. Her sled carried an odometer, but Thayer also perfected a two-mile-per-hour pace across ice to use in case of mechanical failure.
On the 19th day of her journey, Thayer made it to the magnetic North Pole, north of the Wallis River on King Christian Island. She left a few personal mementos, and planted a United States flag, a Canadian flag, and the New Zealand flag of her birthplace.
The Journey Back
The trip back to her rendezvous point would prove to be the most challenging days of the journey. Only a day after reaching the pole, Thayer was confronted by a sudden storm that not only badly cut her face with ice, but much more seriously, blew away her food supply.
With seven days to ski to her rendezvous point, Charlie had daily half-rations. And Thayer, much more depleted by the loss, was left with only a daily ration of five walnuts and a pint of water. Most of her fuel was gone, leaving her no way to melt the vast expanses of snow and ice around her.
From 5,000 calories a day, Thayer now had to survive for a week on 700 calories, total.
Thayer made daily evening radio calls to a basecamp, but she did not mention her losses. "I decided not to tell [the base] about the storm, my diminished food supply, and the problems with my eyes," she wrote. "I was on the last leg of my journey and I could see no point in worrying everyone now" (Thayer, 2002).
On the 27th day of their adventure, Thayer and Charlie finally made it to their rendezvous point.
Charlie, of course, traveled home to live with the Thayers. He happily spent his days as the undisputed alpha of the Thayers' other animals, enjoying his mountain home before his death at the age of 23 in 2004.