The dog Nemo was on the boat as an experiment. We were 27 artists on a residency in the Arctic, sailing on a tall ship 500 miles from the North Pole to observe, learn and make art. Nemo’s owner, one of our guides/ guards, had asked if he could come along. At least, that’s what I think happened. Fifteen years earlier, I had been to Antarctica on another ship, and this trip was on the path to being an equally amazing and inspiring experience.
“You’re so brave!” people say to me. “To go to the ends of the Earth and explore must be exhilarating and terrifying.” I’ve even been asked if I was the first woman to go to Antarctica (by a fifth-grader during one of my presentations). Answer—not by a long shot, although with the exception of one or two women, this history is fairly recent.
Antarctica has no land-based mammals. This means no rabbits, no foxes, no caribou, no wolves, no polar bears. You can roam the landscape without much worry of being bothered. Yes, you will encounter thousands of penguins who are inquisitive and captivating in person. And, if you’re lucky, you’ll see potentially threatening leopard seals, but if you don’t bother them, they’re not that interested in you.
In addition, dogs are not allowed on Antarctica; they’ve been banned since 1983 due to their potential to introduce diseases to the seal population.
For the animals you encounter on Antarctica, our presence doesn’t add to their diet. The Arctic is a different story.
On Svalbard, affectionately known as the Island of Polar Bears, you don’t travel anywhere without the knowledge, in the back of your mind, of the threat these giants pose. All tour guides carry guns, and in the supermarket in the “civilized” town/city of Longyearbyen, there are racks to store your rifle while you shop.
I didn’t realize how uncomfortable I’d be with the idea of a bear over my shoulder or just behind my back. Nemo became my superhero.
Every time we landed to work ashore, a safety inspection group with Nemo at the helm checked to see that the area was “polar bear free.” Once it was cleared, we were shuttled to the shore in Zodiacs. We landed in small groups, then gathered around the guides/guards. As we were changing from waterproof gear to land gear, we were instructed to note that the guns were being loaded. These were high-powered rifles with bullets more than three inches long.
Then the guides/guards created a triangular space within which we were required to stay. Nemo would hang with his owner, Sara, as she took her post at one point of the triangle.
Nemo was a working dog, a Husky-based mutt who took his job very seriously. We weren’t allowed to give him treats or disturb him while he was checking the place out for bears. Believe me, I wanted to get down on my hands and knees and give Nemo a truckload of treats so he’d focus on protecting me, but I played by the rules.
Still, I could predictably be found closest to the triangle point that Nemo guarded. And if there were hikes that went beyond our “safe” working triangle, I would only go on those that included Nemo. As a short, sort-of-fit older woman, I assumed that if the weakest would be culled from the group by a bear, I’d be it. I stuck to Nemo like glue during those hikes.
When Nemo was off-duty, he could be found sleeping on the deck in a cozy sleeping bag. We sailed from one destination to the next at night, and Nemo stood guard throughout. We often stopped early in the morning so he could get a pee-break on land.
I’m pretty sure no one in the group saw my inner fear, and passed off my fixation on Nemo as the behavior of a regular dogloving artist (which, in fact, I am). But the way Nemo helped me through the Arctic was nothing short of heroic. I’m sure he’d say he was just doing his job.
I was in the Arctic for a month, two weeks of which I relied on Nemo to be our protector. For me, the experiment was a success.