On Top Of The World

by Jack McClintock

Call me, Ishmael. My wife and I had taken a berth aboard the Ioffe, a converted Russian spy ship, in order to pursue my dream of visiting that legendary part of our planet. We boarded at Resolute Island well above the continental landmass and traveled north for seven days.

During the two weeks we spent in the Arctic, we landed at places that never before felt the presence of humans. The temperature remained at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and the sun never left the heavens. The ocean was perpetually calm, and the weather fair. Our surroundings were usually cloudless, and fog or snow squalls, when they did occur, typically burned away by mid-morning.

The sky was brilliant azure, the sea a deep cerulean blue, and, at some point nearly every day, they would merge imperceptibly along the horizon, giving the sense that the vast ocean flowed into the sky, or the vaulted canopy overhead curved to slide noiselessly into the sea. This was a pristine, crystalline world of indescribable beauty, where you could see hundreds of feet into the depths, and the sun sat like an all-seeing eye that warmed and illuminated everything from the tips of your toes to the deepest reaches of your soul.

The water there is cold enough to kill a man in ten minutes, but that was nothing to the polar bears we saw hunting seals along the way. In late August we met the southern face of the Arctic ice shelf as it retreated between Ellesmere Island and Greenland. Our coordinates left the captain and scientists aboard incredulous, because those coordinates were the highest ever sailed by any surface vessel in history. During the silence which accompanied that realization, all of us – sojourners and sailors, adventurers and recreational explorers – recognized that we were in a part of the ocean never before open to navigation.

We were witnessing the reality of global climate change, and at that moment, in this most unlikely location, something happened to explain what we were seeing. Like a symbol of man’s impact on the planet, an emissary of progress came fluttering by in the light breeze. There, at the very top of the world, we watched as a solitary four-quart plastic shopping bag blew slowly across the water less than a hundred feet off the bow. Arctic vessels aren’t allowed to carry such things, and so it hadn’t come from our ship, but there it was as if it had been waiting to greet us since the beginning of time.

The plastic bag floated in the breeze like some tiny white sail as it skipped away into the unknown, unexplored, uninhabitable reaches. In the absence of heat, manmade materials like plastic don’t degrade. Encountering such a thing, in so remote a place, was shocking. It was as if Mary Shelley’s monster had come alive, paid us a brief visit, and then slowly receded back into the frozen wilderness from which it came.

""Jack McClintock has practiced psychotherapy for decades. He’s worked in rehabilitation among hardcore substance abusers and in psychiatric hospitals with patients too distressed to be released. He’s worked in maximum security prisons with some of the most dangerous people alive and in urban schools with kids K through eight.


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