Polar Opposites

71-10-21 and 64-89-??

Points on a compass have little meaning to most people. Schoolchildren learn about the north and south poles, that the earth is tilted on its axis as it travels around the sun, and that the globe is divided into latitude and longitude lines. Most come to know that the equator separates northern and southern hemispheres, and that the latitude lines defining Arctic and Antarctic circles are set at 66 degrees thirty minutes north and south of the equator which is at zero. But it’s a fact long forgotten by most adults. In truth, there’s little reason to know exactly where one is on the globe at any given point in time, unless you have a precise need to navigate to a destination. Airline pilots and ship captains need that knowledge, but casual travelers really do not.

For what it’s worth, however, the coordinates of Hot Springs Village are 34.6720 degrees N, 92.9988 W. It won’t replace a street address, but if you’re interested in little-known facts, make a note! I once was tempted to have the coordinates of the tiny train depot in my favorite little village in Maine printed on a t-shirt, just to see if anyone would ask what the numbers meant. I didn’t.

Ancient mariners noted the crossing of that zero latitude line regularly, and it is an honored tradition still practiced by sailors today. If you have been lucky enough to sail across the equator, you may know about the good-natured and sometimes raucous festivities that mark that passage. Read about the Royal Navy’s Crossing the Line ceremony aboard the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth on the ship’s first equator crossing in 2021. I also have a certificate of passage across the equator. It is colorful and ornate, and it is not mine, but it is part of my family history.

The latitude is noted as 0000 — the equator. The longitude is left blank, as are other blanks for the name of the ship, the name of the sailor, and the date and time. On the back, however, is this handwritten note:

Longitude “Secret.” USS Admiral Benson. Destination: “On a Mission of War” Date: “Secret 1945.”

I find it fascinating that some traditions were kept even during wartime. Celebrations take place aboard modern cruise ships, to the delight of most passengers. And crossing the International Date Line can be a bit disorienting. At basically 180 degrees longitude, or half the globe away from Greenwich, England, at Longitude 0, the date line was only designated as such in 1884, to make timekeeping more consistent. The line, which designates the change of calendar dates, sometimes follows a zigzag path around political boundaries, as between eastern Russia and the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. Gaining or losing an entire day in an instant while crossing the International Date Line must be disorienting as well as exciting. Crossing from east to west means that travelers “lose” an entire day! You can gain that day back if you return later to your starting point. That must be disorienting as well as exciting. I don’t know if a certificate exists for that or not!

Some airline pilots will also announce the crossing of the equator, or the time-altering effects of crossing the International date line.

Breaking the Barriers

Tourists can easily venture north of the Arctic Circle on Scandinavian itineraries, whether on land, sea or in the air. Travel to Antarctica typically requires a sea voyage, and is only possible during the height of the southern hemisphere summer. A commemorative certificate is commonly awarded to passengers, denoting the actual southern latitude a vessel reached, but traditions vary. Most visitors to Antarctica do not actually cross into the Antarctic Circle. Most don’t get even to 65 degrees south latitude — the passages are too treacherous for all but sturdy scientific vessels with ice-breaking ability. There are no scheduled flights to the seventh continent from either South America or Australia. Scientists and researchers most often arrive by air at their remote research stations in late spring and depart the same way prior to the onset of the long Antarctic winter.

The earth’s magnetic poles continue to shift slightly, and the imaginary lines that describe the polar regions also vary somewhat. The boundaries of the polar circles are typically noted as 66-33-39 degrees North or South latitude. They are sometimes said to be situated at 66.5 degrees. There are only about 69 miles between degrees of latitude, so the difference is truly miniscule.

When my husband and I cruised along the coast of Norway in 2022, we entered into the Arctic Circle, according to our certificate, at 12:12 a.m. on June 17, at Latitude 66-30.1 N Latitude and Longitude 009-26.3 E. We continued north to Nordkapp, or the North Cape, at 71-10-21, the northernmost point of the European continent, and also to Skarsvag, a Norwegian fishing village with a population of 60, at latitude 71-06-47 N.

Approximately seven months later, we sailed from Ushuaia at the southern tip of Argentina across Drake Passage and along the Antarctic Peninsula, achieving a “most southerly latitude of 64 degrees 58 minutes.” The date and time are not noted on that certificate.

Next month, I will travel along the Dalton Highway, which runs north from just outside of Fairbanks to end at Deadhorse, Alaska, close to the Arctic Ocean. There’s a simple wood sign at about milepost 115 on the roadway, at which vehicles traditionally stop for photos. The sign, depicting the earth as viewed from the North Pole, simply reads “Latitude 66 33”. The 414-mile highway, some of it still only hard-packed gravel, was built to facilitate construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. The pipeline itself stretches for 800 miles, from Prudhoe Bay in the north to Port Valdez, where the is loaded onto tankers for shipment to market.

Why do I do these things?

Well, for one reason, like Captain Kirk, I like to go where few other people have been. Secondly, I am especially fond of quirky destinations, and I will go out of my way for the photo ops and the unique experiences they provide. I like to stand at points where the land ends and the sea begins, and imagine what lies beyond. Many of these “furtherest” points fill me with a sense of wonder that past explorers, sailors, and adventurers stepped out into the unknown not knowing where exactly their journeys would take them, when they would end, or if they would ever return.

Just for the fun of it while we were boating in Maine, my husband and I visited Lubec, Maine, the easternmost point of the continental United States. Nearby are the distinctive red and white striped West Quoddy Head Light in Maine, and the historic East Quoddy Head Lightstation which stands at the most northern point of Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada. The names confused us until we consulted our navigational chart and realized that they designate opposite sides of Quoddy Narrows, and make perfect sense to local mariners, as they have for nearly two centuries.

We have returned to Key West many times to stand at the southernmost point buoy. Just for reference, latitude and longitude readings there are 24.5465 N, 81.7975 W. The northwesternmost and most western points of the contiguous 48 states are near Cape Flattery on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. Despite living in Washington for many years and boating in the waters around Puget Sound and the peninsula, I have not been there. Maybe someday.

Trips to Gibraltar give us reason to look longingly across the Staight that separates Africa from Europe — a mere eight miles. A trip to Portugal several years ago found us enthralled with the lighthouse at Cabo Sao Vicente, the southwesternmost point of Europe. It is said that it can be seen from 60 miles out to sea. And, yes, I have an ongoing fascination with lighthouses!

It is at these times, as I stand in these faraway places, I realize anew just how vast and beguiling this earth we call home truly is, and just how many places remain for me to discover.

Note: If you’re interested in random facts, have time on your hands that invites mindless armchair exploration, or are in need of trivial conversation starters, visit Wikipedia’s List of extreme points of the United States.

71 10 21– and other points on the globe

Magnetic North, the point on the globe where all other locations lie to the south, is commonly known as the North Pole. But it’s moving, sometimes pretty rapidly, according to scientists.

Despite romantic notions to the contrary, the North Pole is not a physical point on the planet, but it’s also not a figment of the imagination.

It’s not where Santa Claus hangs out. It’s not a very hospitable place. And, no, I have not been there. In fact, I haven’t been even close. But, last summer I crossed into the Arctic Circle as a passenger aboard a lavish modern cruise ship, Princess Cruise lines Island Princess. It was a unique adventure, and the trip is spectacular. My husband and I were there during “polar day,” which lasts from about the time of the Spring Equinox in late March through late September. During those days the sun never completely falls beneath the horizon and one can read at midnight with no need for a lamp.

At 66 (plus a little bit) degrees north latitude, the Arctic Circle forms a ring around what is known as the Earth’s North Pole. The certificates we received to commemorate the crossing, signed by Ship’s Captain Paul Slight, attest that on “Friday, June 17, 2022 at 12:12 am,” we crossed that fabled line. In our minds, we had become Arctic explorers.

We traveled further north. Nordkapp lies at Latitude 71°10′21″ N, a high plateau on a spit of land that rises almost 400 feet above the swirling Arctic Ocean below. It is cold, windy and forbidding on the best of days. In the winter, the road to Nordkapp is often impassable, and not even reindeer remain on the surrounding fields.

The nearest town is approximately 22 kilometers distant. Oslo, Norway’s capital, lies about 2000 kilometers to the south, and the North Pole is about the same distance further north. At the easternmost end of the virtually uninhabited land, there is a 121.6-mile land border with Russia, established by treaty in 1826. But few travelers cross at the single border station, and the boundary between the two countries continues through the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean. As the furthest north point of land in continental Europe, Nordkapp attracts visitors who harbor the same dreams that have lured explorers to points unknown over the centuries. Their stories are captivating.

Early visitors had to arrive by boat on the sea below. They scaled steep, rocky cliffs to reach the point above. There was no visitor center then, and the path back down the cliff had to be even more difficult than the climb up.

Today, the draw of this stunning promontory is so powerful that tourist buses sometimes follow snowplows to bring visitors to the point. Our trip in June, however, entailed a pleasant drive along modern roadways, punctuated by native Sami settlements and the sight of reindeer grazing on the barren windswept land. They and their Sami masters invariably return to the mainland in the fall, prior to “polar night,” when the sun does not rise above the horizon for a period of months. We also visited a northern fishing village, which must feel terribly isolated during the winter.

Another northern port, sadly, was canceled. We had been scheduled to call at Svalbard, the island that houses the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, an underground facility that stores millions of crop seeds from throughout the globe, protecting them against disasters of all kinds, including global warming. We had anticipated visiting Longyearbyen, the largest settlement with a population exceeding 1,000 in the Arctic region, but the visit was canceled at the 11th hour.

Our trip through the coastal fjords was spectacular, relaxing and enlightening. We are grateful to have had the opportunity to visit a far-away landscape that is awesomely beautiful, to drink in the natural beauty of the far North, and to meet the people who inhabit this extraordinary landscape. Those who live here are accustomed to strangers, but no one remains a stranger for long!

Now, another adventure awaits . . .

In January 2023, my husband and I — barring unforeseen circumstances — will experience another polar day. We will reach approximately 65 degrees south of the Equator and cruise among the ice shelves and along the shoreline of this unique continent. Our 16-day itinerary with the Sapphire Princess promises to be a unique adventure. We are not likely, given the size of our ship and current regulations, to cross Latitude 66°33′49.3″ which is the official Antarctic Circle. Only smaller expedition ships and scientific teams routinely venture further into this ice-covered environment.

We are scheduled to fly into Santiago, Chile, and embark from the port of Valparaiso for a journey that will take us to the southern reaches of Patagonia, and to Ushuaia, “the southernmost outpost in the world” at the tip of Argentina. We expect to sail in Beagle channel, as did Charles Darwin, and round Cape Horn just as previous generations of seafarers did on their voyages to the new world. Then, we look forward to spending four full days cruising the waters of the Antarctic Peninsula, leaving Ushuaia at the southern tip of Argentina and traversing Drake Passage, hopefully without incident, and with minimal turbulence from notoriously rough waters where the currents of three oceans collide. It’s a voyage I have long envisioned!

Just days ago, however, on December 2, 2022, I learned of the rogue wave that struck the Viking Polaris in nearby waters, resulting in the death of a passenger, injuries to four others, and damage to a well-equipped modern cruise ship. I realized once again that we humans have little control over the forces of nature, much as we would like to be the “powers that be.”

Does it concern me? Not enough to change our existing plans, but I cannot claim it didn’t give me pause. This trip to the bottom of the world, just as our trip to the Arctic Circle, will be during a polar day (or summer season) due to the inclination of the earth in relation to the sun. When my husband and I travel in late January to the southern reaches of the globe, will it be calmer in those waters? I do not know.

There are no permanent settlements in Antarctica, and the various research stations are located further south than our journey will take us. We will not set foot on Antarctica, the seventh of earth’s continents, but to gaze out at the barren expanses of snow-covered terrain and cruise past glistening icebergs, larger even than the ones we encountered in Alaska, will be enough. I, for one, am enthralled by the thought of being (relatively) close to another of earth’s legendary places — the South Pole. Like the North Pole, it is not a fixed point — it, too, shifts, even though there is a land mass below. If we are fortunate enough to spy seabirds, seals, penguins, albatross, and other wildlife in their natural habitat, we will count it as a bonus.

And, if our travel through Drake Passage is a calm one, I am certain we will be forever grateful. This trip to the “bottom of the world” is not only the culmination of a long-held dream, it also seems a fitting “second act” to last summer’s Arctic adventure.