Travels with Charlie
02/22/1993 at 01:00 AM EST
DEATH BY POLAR BEAR WAS NOT PART OF Helen Thayer's game plan. But when, on the fifth day of her solo trek to the magnetic North Pole, she found herself 20 feel from a hulking member of the species, she feared her time had come. As the bear charged closer, Thayer cocked her rifle and released her 93-lb. husky, Charlie, from his chain. "Charlie raced to the bear's leg and hung on," she says. "The bear tried to bite him, but Charlie twisted away. When the bear broke away and ran off, Charlie was in hot pursuit. If I hadn't taken him with me, I might not be here today."
And an Arctic record might still be awaiting a woman tough enough to achieve it. Thayer's 27-day, 364-mile odyssey on skis, which she undertook in 1988 at age 50, was the first solo trip to the magnetic Pole completed by a woman. With the faithful Charlie at her side, she endured minus 45°F temperatures, hurricane-force winds and storms that confined her to her tent for days, and no fewer than seven ravenous polar bears—adventures she has detailed in a just published memoir, Polar Dream. Yet not once did she consider turning back. "I had to overcome all my fears," she says. "When I finally stood at the Pole, I felt I could do anything in the world."
Not that she'd ever had reason to doubt it. The daughter of New Zealand sheep farmers, Thayer climbed her first mountain at age 9, was a prize-winning discus thrower and, after moving to the Slates, became U.S. national luge champion in 1975. Both alone and with her husband, Bill, 66, a commercial helicopter pilot, she has scaled some of the world's highest mountains. "Ever since Edmund Hillary went to the South Pole in 1958,I had promised myself I'd go to one of the earth's poles, she says. It was while climbing the 23,405-foot Lenin Peak in the former Soviet Union in 1986 that she decided to head for the top of the world.
Back home in Snohomish, Wash., where she and Bill ran a dairy farm for several years before quitting to spend more time climbing, Thayer put herself in training. She ran, skied and practiced shooting. To raise the $10,000 she estimated the trip would cost, the Auckland University graduate worked as a lab technician and ski instructor. Bill, who did his part as a bush pilot and aerial crop sprayer, was supportive but concerned about polar bears, widely feared for their tendency to stalk and kill humans. It wasn't until shortly before Thayer left the Arctic base camp at Resolute Bay in Canada that she acquired her best defense. At the urging of a local Inuit, she took along a 4-year-old husky-Newfoundland mix who was trained to ward off polar bears. She named him Charlie because, she says, "he looked like a Charlie." On March 30, 1988, she tethered him to her waist harness and set off with her 160-pound sled in tow.
Initially, Charlie didn't seem a necessity. The first three bears she encountered lumbered away when she fired her flare gun. Charlie proved his mettle with the fourth, though, and Thayer soon realized he could help banish loneliness as well. He trotted close to her right leg, getting a free rub with every swing, and soon was sharing her crackers and peanut-butter cups and sleeping inside her tent.
But some challenges even Charlie couldn't help with. The subzero Arctic temperatures routinely froze Thayer's face mask, and her eyes sealed shut the one time a bear scare frightened her to tears. More than once, the constantly shifting ice they were crossing broke up around them, threatening to pitch them into the killing waters. Just seven days before her journey's end, a storm blew away most of her provisions, leaving Charlie with half his kibble and Thayer with a handful of walnuts and enough gas to melt only a pint of ice a day. In her nightly radio calls to Resolute Bay, she never complained. "If they knew about the trouble I was having, they'd send somebody to get me—the last thing I wanted," she says.
Finally, Thayer's charts and instruments told her she had reached her goal. "The ice didn't look different, but winning the fight fell good," she says. Weak from hunger and dehydration, she pushed on another 15 miles to her planned pickup point on Helena Island and radioed base camp for a plane. When the pilot offered her fruit juice and a sandwich, she went halves with Charlie.
Today, Charlie has a new home in Snohomish, where he wanders the nearby woods, enjoys the status of being top dog to Thayer's other four canines and sleeps in Helen and Bill's bed, hogging all the pillows. "After what he did for Helen, he has the run of the house," Bill says.
For his mistress, retirement is nowhere in sight. Last April, Thayer skied and walked back to the Pole with Bill, the oldest man to make such a trip pulling his own sled. The couple's next feat—a trek up the Amazon—is already in the works. "We won't have to pack as many clothes, but we'll have to deal with creepy crawlers," Thayer says. "Our cameras won't freeze, but fungus will grow in them." She flashes a grin. "Doesn't it sound delightful?"
CATHY FREE in Snohomish