Interview 14 October

Sara Wheeler interview

Shoe-eating explorers, 'pee boxes' and reindeer-intestine suppers: writer Sara Wheeler reveals the glamour of Arctic travel

Writer Sara Wheeler likes extreme places. Having spent seven months in Antarctica as writer-in-residence in the mid-1990s (a period which produced the book Terra Incognita), she made eight journeys to the Arctic for her latest tome The Magnetic North. She talked to Wanderlust Editor Dan Linstead about her Arctic adventures and life in the world's freezers

What was the appeal of the Arctic?

Sara: When I was younger I spent some time in Antarctica, and as a continent it’s defined, pure, empty of people – it has the innocence of youth. The Arctic is none of those things: you can’t define it, it’s owned, loads of people live there – many of them drunk and miserable – and it’s the site of climate change Armageddon. I’m almost 50, and all these things seem more attractive in middle age: the Arctic is an image of what the world really is, not what it could be. I am the Arctic!

How did you conceive the structure of the book?

Sara: Quite early on I decided I wanted it to be a circumpolar journey – anti-clockwise from Siberia to Alaska to Canada to Greenland to Spitsbergen to Lapland and back to Russia. Russia has more Arctic territory than any other country, and it seemed sensible to cover the two sides – European and Asian – separately. The book starts in Chukotka, the most foreign place, but I can’t even remember the order I actually made all the journeys.

There’s a lot of science in The Magnetic North…

Sara: I’m glad you noticed!

Were you well-versed in the scientific issues before you started the book?

Sara: Not at all. I’m not naturally drawn to science when I was in Antarctica, that was the first time I met scientists and realised it could be interesting. But there’s nothing worse than an amateur ‘expert’, so I immersed myself in it. It helps that only the best scientists go to the polar regions, and they tend to be good at explaining things. But it’s a tough life for them. There are lots of graduate students at the poles studying a bit of algae or manoeuvring a drill bit – you have to do that for 10, 20 years before you get a headline.

What was it like being a ‘writer in residence’ on the Greenland icecap?

Sara: It was the most extreme environment I went to: there’s no water up there, it doesn’t sustain life, and we slept in tents called – rather misleadingly – Arctic Ovens. The temperature on my first night got down to -27. There’s something deeply horrible, trying to keep warm in those temperatures, and using a ‘pee box’, but there’s something I like about it too. I find it easier than running around at 8am at home, trying to find the kids’ rugby boots – I hate all that. I like not having to worry about domestic things, and being face to face with big things.

Is it an absence of clutter that appeals?

Sara: Yes… and bourgeois blandness. There’s no small talk; your choices are taken away; you’re living very close to the wilderness. I love that. Though I must say, I’m attracted to both sides – I like high-heeled shoes and parties too.

You’re obviously drawn to extremes…

Sara: Yes, I am. The first place I went after Antarctica was Bangladesh – the most densely populated place in the world. I wanted to get away from no people. I thought: Antarctica has been a tremendous passion and love affair over many years, and I need to get this out of my head – so what’s the opposite of Antarctica? Well, there are lots of answers to that, but one is Bangladesh. I went to Bengali classes in London to prepare – all the other students were English girls dating Bangladeshi waiters!

Back to the Arctic – which were your best and worst journeys?

Sara: I loved the Solovki archipelago in the White Sea [home to one of Russia’s greatest monasteries]: it’s a very spiritual place, so remote and exotic. On the other hand, Chukotka was brutal: nobody spoke English, and getting there was a nightmare – they basically don’t admit foreigners. I was paranoid I’d get turned away on the plane, which would have been disastrous for my plans. There was a hell of lot of mucking about, visa refusals and so on. It was hard going, and I was lonely.

Oh, the glamour…

Sara: Well my whole life is ‘Oh the glamour’! There’s isn’t any glamour! Even Canada was hard: I was in a science camp on the tundra below the ice line, and it was very unattractive. It rained a lot, and I was going out every day collecting rocks with miserable scientists. That was an important lesson for me: the Arctic isn’t all scintillating icescapes.

How did your travels affect your views on climate change?

Sara: I started out with an open mind, but finished up thinking there’s an enormous problem – anyone who says otherwise doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Something terrible is going to happen: not to the earth – which will regulate itself – but to us. What to do is the difficult question. I don’t think you can be depressed about something that’s so enormous, but it concerns me that we’re living in an unsustainable way.

Is polar tourism part of the problem?

Sara: If you made a list of all the environmental problems in the world, tourism to the Poles might rate as numbers 361 and 362. I went on a 6,000km cruise from Murmansk on the icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov, and I loved it. I don’t think that’s a crucial issue.

The Arctic has been a backdrop for such heroic endeavours throughout history: does it sadden you that it may be ice-free in a few decades?

Sara: Well, I hope that the Big Melt doesn’t happen, but an ice-free Arctic concerns me a lot less than the human consequences [of rising sea levels]. A curtain is falling on this stage of the Arctic: another will open. There’ll always be beautiful places for us to appreciate, wilderness to pit ourselves against. Things change in the physical world, and one accepts that. I don’t think there’ll ever be a shuttle bus in the middle of the Taklamakan desert.

What sort of reaction did you typically get when you arrive in these polar communities?

Sara: How do they react? Total weirdo. The Poles attract misfits and they spot me as one of their own! I suppose I’m an unusual proposition for them, an English female writer, and you have to break that down to properly communicate – it’s hard enough to explain what I do at home… But the biggest problem is having nothing to do. I’m always desperate for tasks, a way to muck in: science camps are good for that.

You refer to doomed polar explorers as the ‘shoe-eaters’. What kind of diet did you have?

Sara: I wish I could say it was like the old days, and we lived on dog biscuits, but it’s not. At the science camps there’s a lot of pasta and dry goods; you go weeks at a time without fresh food and one does start longing for… celery. People put on weight: there’s lots of food, it’s quite good, and when you’re working in the cold your body stores fat.

What about when you were staying with indigenous people?

Sara: When I was with the Sami in Finland, there were a lot of reindeer-intestine offerings – everything goes in the pot, big yellow chunks of fat, the hoofs, the lot. They tried to get me to wean my baby on it, but I thought that was a cultural integration step-too-far. I couldn’t have faced the health visitor when I got home.

What piece of advice would you give an Arctic traveller?

Sara: Take a head torch for reading at night. It’s too cold to take your hands out to turn the pages, so you have to put the sleeping bag over your head. It’s the only way.

Finally, where are your five favourite places on earth?

Sara: Chilean Patagonia – around Temuco. The top of the Greenland icecap – just white, no topographical features at all. Hampstead Ladies Pond – it’s fantastically beautiful, heaven on earth, like a green cathedral. The Aegean Sea – as seen from the Evia coast. And the West Country countryside, near where I grew up – in sunshine.

;