My Midlife Crisis as a Russian Sailor

I’m heading to the Arctic thinking about death.

Lying facedown in the top bunk of an overnight train inching from Saint Petersburg toward the Russian port city of Murmansk, I have a berth waiting for me on an August expedition sailing north.

I’m working on a book about Arctic explorers, and that means swimming in a sea of sorrow. In my train compartment, dead adventurers haunt me: Faithful sled dogs eaten by humans or swallowed by chasms in the ice. Sailors devoured by polar bears or their own shipmates. Even when no animals or people are stalking them, polar explorers have a tendency to starve or freeze or succumb to disease.

I’ve come to Russia at age 51 to re-create parts of William Barents’s third voyage to the Arctic from 400 years ago. Crossing and recrossing the sea northeast of Scandinavia, Barents, a Dutch navigator, went looking for a passage to China, but he and 16 men were trapped by sea ice during the summer of 1596. For nearly a year, they were stranded hundreds of miles above the mainland on Novaya Zemlya, a pair of large islands extending all the way to 77 degrees north. Five sailors died, including Barents himself, who perished at sea after they abandoned their ship and he and the remaining crew tried to get home on small boats. His quest to find the lucrative route to China was a brave but dismal failure.

Once we leave Murmansk, our boat will sail the same formidable waters. Setting out with a Russian crew aboard a yacht called Alter Ego, I’ll follow in Barents’s wake over the sea that now bears his name. 

But Barents isn’t the only thing on my mind. Other grim news is preoccupying me as much or more. Arctic sea ice is collapsing, with few signs of reversal. I’ve been to the far north twice to report on climate change, and in the meantime it’s only gotten worse.

My family seems equally vulnerable. The night before I left home, my cousin Joe messaged me about the trip. As kind a man as I’ve met, and a traumatized veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, he had checked himself in for alcohol rehab earlier that summer at the age of 47. By the time I was packing my bags, he’d been sober for more than a month. On the last day of July, I sent my love and told him to hold down the fort while I was gone. 

But I’m wondering if the fort will be standing when I return. Weeks before, my father and stepfather were diagnosed with cancer; my mother is now deep in the throes of paranoid dementia. My two teenage children are fine, but I feel bad about leaving my husband parenting solo for so long while he’s working full-time. Meanwhile, the contract I signed before all this happened says my book is due by Christmas. 

I feel both grateful and ashamed to have a chance to go off the grid to focus on research. I’m running from looming family mortality into the arms of historic—and historical—tragedy. Part of me thinks I shouldn’t go. But I know it might be the journey of a lifetime.

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