When my alarm dingled, I left the gift shop front cash to Jeanette, walked across the bridge that connects the iceberg and the propeller vessel, took my seat in the front row and started pedalling with the rest—university students, Maritimers, Inuit—all of us young and carelessly fit in our It all goes South from here!™ shirts. The sky was huge and royal blue, but swirling wind made it feel cooler than what the thermometer read: 14ºC. The crowd was puny, fewer than 20. The cruise ship from which they’d come was moored a kilometre away. A few pasty guests were circling the mammoth vessel on jet-skis and stand-up paddle boards, like anxious exiles.
Folks love the pedalling part. My parents could have installed mechanical jets from the get-go to move the iceberg into place every day. But where’s the drama in that? my dad would ask. Where’s the high-viz, low-carbon emissions messaging, mi amigo? You can’t do that with a brochure! Like many things up here, it was a mirage. Other than propulsion, everything was powered by an underwater gas generator. Don’t ask, my dad would say. Don’t tell.
The iceberg, a white-painted, mostly oblong floating theme park called To the Pole!™, was made of steel and aluminum, about 150 metres across one way and 100 the other. Arctic nations were each allowed one such craft at the North Pole, and my parents had an exclusive licence for the next 15 years. It was a gold mine.
True to its nature, most of the structure was under water—offices, food storage and prep, animal units, bathrooms. Above sea level, the surface was open and flat to accommodate visitors who usually congregated near the snack bar, which sold hotdogs and multi-flavoured “iceberg” sundaes, or the gift shop, which was crowded with polar bear pillowcases and Arctic tchotchkes made by people in warm, impoverished countries. In the centre of the structure was a three-storey tall cylinder of baffled fabric painted with aurora borealis. It swelled pleasingly in the breeze.
We pedallers smiled and waved to the visitors’ phone-blocked faces and their bored, overfed spawn. They waved back with non-dominant hands, leaning hips into safety railings, careful not to drop expensive devices into the Arctic Ocean. They all wore wide-brimmed sun hats and baggy, blaze-orange To the Pole™ flotation suits. A chubby pylon army.
The Russians totally copied us but then took it up a notch. Instead of pedallers, trained rowers, ripped like doped-up medalists, moved their iceberg around. We were cutesy and painfully Canadian but it polled well on feedback surveys. At that moment, the Russians were stroke…stroke…stroking away from the pole because it was our turn. I spied Svetlana, third row middle, long brown hair in a messy bun and lean, tanned pipes. “Hey!” I yelled. “Prekrasnaya devushka!” When she blew me a kiss, I closed my eyes and inhaled the smell of salty seaweed and her sweat.
Faisal burst through a slit in the tall curtains dressed in a top hat, jodhpurs and boots. He’d told me about the ringleader costume over drinks the night before and he was right: it totally worked. He’d been Santa Claus for a while but people found the Christmas thing confusing. Before that, he was an Inuk hunter with sealskin smock and pants but the Inuit Federation threatened to pull our licence if he didn’t cease and desist.
“Ladieeeeees and gentlemeeen, welcome to the top of the world!” Faisal bellowed, his amplified voice overloud for a small crowd. “Thank you for joining us. Soon, hearty adventurers, you will arrive at a sacred place. Today you will make it To The Pole™!” The pylons whooped and applauded.
“As our human-powered propellers draw us toward our destination—thank you pedallers, on behalf of the environment!—let me introduce you to some of our Arctic friends. First up…Tuuga, the unicorn of the sea!”
Tuuga the narwhal. Last week someone asked about the brown patches on his skin so now he’s further away, his tusk rainbow painted for distraction, and Tytoosie is out narwhal hunting again. A narwhal’s tusk is porous and sends messages to its brain about water chemistry and temperature. Svetlana told me so. She’s studying to be a biologist. I’m not studying anything, apart from Svetlana and my dad’s accounting files, but still. Painting the tusk seemed unwise and also ridiculous.
Tuuga pierced the water’s surface with his clown tusk, and visitors cheered. At my mother’s command—she was head trainer—he breached and splashed and speared plastic rings tossed by some rich kid who won a contest. Kid had a good arm for once. The last ring was attached to a silk rope and when Tuuga swam away, the rope tugged a lever and fireworks exploded overhead, mostly invisible in the glare of polar summer sun. People were dazzled, but people are easily dazzled when fire and noise are involved.
After his performance, Tuuga swam wearily to a herring pellet dispenser inside a foam igloo before retreating to the area behind the kitchen where staff sometimes toss old French fries. Visitors always ask why the whales don’t swim away. We tell them it’s training and food that keep them close, which is sort of true. There’s an electric fence that zaps them when they try to swim beyond it. The animals learn pretty quickly how far they can go, so it only hurts for a short while as they’re getting used to it. That’s the training part.
“Thank you Chonglin,” Faisal said, patting the ring-thrower on the back. “You want a job?” The kid giggled, covering his mouth with his hand. “And now, my friends, say hello to Betty and Barney belugaaaaa!”
Mom says belugas are easy to train. She gets them to jump and twist and splash. Then they swim alongside the berg and spray the crowd with their quirky blowhole sphincters. As usual, visitors squealed with delight that day. When the whales posed and chirped for the money shot, Esther flipped on the snow machine and ice crystals filled the air, melting on the crowd’s upturned, well-moisturized faces. I convinced dad to buy the machine last year. I told him the North Pole needs snow. I’m good with stuff like that.
At mom’s signal, Barney and Betty hastened to the food igloo then, phantom-like, faded into the indigo depths. It felt like they couldn’t wait to get away from us. I didn’t blame them. I wanted to escape sometimes too.
Belugas and narwhals are the sole members of the monodontidae family, Svetlana says. Fraternal whale twins: one white and stuffed-animal cute, one stippled grey, mysterious and armed. I went through an Arctic phase when I was a kid and got stuck there. That polar yin-yang of delight and danger proved intoxicating. I wanted to be Knud Rasmussen, travelling across the Canadian Arctic by dog team, visiting Inuit clans, navigating by horizon lines and patterns on snow. Amundsen, Frobisher, Franklin—all of them moustachioed and blundering about for thrills and fame, their Inuit guides amused, skeptical, probably pitying. For outsiders like me, the Arctic has always been an amusement park, and now that it’s warmer, even more so. That particular day’s small crowd notwithstanding, business was booming.
“Aren’t they something?” Faisal shouted. “Fun fact: beluga skin, with its layer of vitamin-rich fat, is an Inuit delicacy.”
“Ewww,” visitors scowled.
“We’re getting close,” Faisal teased. “In just a few…” A wind gust sent his top hat tumbling across the fake ice surface and towards onlookers. A woman thrust her foot sharply right like a football goalie and stopped the hat cold. The crowd went wild. Faisal stood momentarily frozen, like a hatless Frosty the Snowman, and waited for the applause to subside. Then he sliced his hands through the air and shouted, “No goal!”
“Ha-ha-ha,” people laughed, myself included. What a ham.
“Get on with it!” some redheaded kid yelled.
Faisal retrieved his hat, bowed deeply to the insolent punk and then swept his arm skyward as though unsheathing a sword. After an awkward but brief delay—Esther missed her cue—a giant screen unrolled to show our fluctuating GPS coordinates. I checked my monitor: N 89º 99’ 41.78”.
Our destination, at N 90º, was the Geographic North Pole, a fixed point at the top of Earth’s axis. Magnetic North was totally different, a fugitive creeping steadily from Canada, where it once resided, to Russia. Maybe Russia was reeling it in, like Svetlana had done to me The two Norths, like the monodontidae, were also twins: one predictable overachiever, one shifty delinquent. I didn’t blame Magnetic for running away. Her brother had become something of a shill for trinkets and cheap spectacle. But it wasn’t his fault. It’s all he’d ever known.
“Arctic explorers before us trudged and skied and sometimes perished crossing vast expanses of ice to reach the pole,” Faisal said, bending deeply and shuffling toward an imaginary blizzard, falling to his knees, crawling. An aspiring actor, he loved this part. “Now, we can reach this remote area on the open sea!” Here, he held his arms aloft, triumphant. On the big screen, the longitude tracker spun like a slot machine as we approached the pole, the centre of the circle where all lines of longitude begin and end.
Visitors gaped silently, perhaps puzzled by the numbers or else distracted by Faisal’s melodrama. He rose slowly, milking it, then shook his finger at the screen. “We’re almost there, intrepid mates! While we wait, let’s meet a few more northern residents.”
Esther cued the circus music and four ringed seals waddled out from under the giant curtain wearing branded pillbox hats on offer at the gift shop. Their trainer, my twin sister June, followed behind in a sparkly bodysuit and long blonde braids. She betrayed no hint of a hangover despite the endless whisky shots she’d done with Faisal and me the night before. Our evening’s sloppy conclusion was hazy but I remembered her declaring repeatedly that she was so done with this place. “How could you turn your back on easy money,” I slurred around midnight, feigning disbelief. What I meant was: How can you leave me behind?
The seals nosed multicoloured balls back and forth to each other as they undulated through a figure eight formation, arf-arfing and slap-slapping their front flippers on the metal surface. Up came the face-eating phones. Tap, tap, tap.
“Another fun fact: animal rights activists temporarily destroyed the Arctic economy and a generation of subsistence hunters late last century because they decided seals were too cute to eat,” Faisal said, pausing and nodding to the crowd before delivering the zinger. “Imagine how cows felt!”
“Ha-ha-ha,” people laughed.
“Thank you, June,” Faisal winked. Those two were always flirting. June curtsied, cleavage offered, before parting the curtains for the seals and disappearing. “Don’t forget to sample our new seal burgers at the concession!” he said. People grimaced. I told dad they would be a hard sell but he didn’t listen. “Our next entertainer loves seals too … but not because they’re cute. Aaay-Ohhhh … Nanuuuuuq!” he howled, sounding like a wrestling announcer.
A Viking in a plastic chest plate, horned cap, and ratty fake beard emerged from behind the curtain holding a big chain attached to a polar bear. Geoff, the Viking, was recently promoted from dishwasher to bear handler because of his bulging deltoids and square, Norse jaw.
Visitors gasped and took a few steps back. Nanuq was thin, slow-moving and groggy. His eyes were ringed red and his right hip was balding where he’d been rubbing against his cage. He swung his heavy, flat head back and forth like a pendulum, stopping periodically to sniff the air. Nanuq was one of the last legal polar bears in captivity, grandfathered until he died, which always seemed imminent. His death would be a huge loss. Erasing him from the promo materials alone—and designing new ones—would take weeks.
“Vikings were the first explorers to trade with Arctic peoples,” Geoff said out of nowhere, going off script. Faisal raised an eyebrow but nobody was listening anyway. They were transfixed. “Say hello to Nanuq, King of the Arctic!” Geoff said, cracking his whip. Nanuq reared up onto his hind legs and roared, wheeling his front paws lazily as though swatting flies and then falling back down to all fours with a thump.
“He looks drunk!” the redheaded brat yelled, and he lunged at the bear with his arms in the air.
Then a bunch of things happened.
The bear roared and swiped at the kid with a massive paw, catching and tearing the fabric of his survival suit with a claw. The kid screamed. His parents screamed. Everyone else screamed, and ran, but there’s nowhere to run really, except to the perimeter railing. Geoff zapped Nanuq’s electric collar with a remote control which left the animal swaying and bawling like a human child. Then Geoff unholstered a tranquilizer device and pressed it to the bear’s neck. Nanuq opened his mouth wide, in either a yawn or a lazy snarl, and exposed an armoury of sharp, yellow teeth before laying his chin between his front paws like a dog and passing out. My dad, who must have been watching on screen from his desk, suddenly appeared with a medic. They lead the boy and his parents to our office behind the snack bar.
“No need to fear. Nanuq will be dreaming for hours,” Faisal said, a little too buoyantly, I thought. He turned up the corners of Nanuq’s mouth in a smile to prove his point. “A helpful reminder of why it’s important to follow the safety rules outlined in the waiver, am I right?” Visitors whispered and pulled their children closer. Great, I thought. Another early morning debrief from my dad tomorrow about risks and best practices.
I checked the GPS and realized we’d drifted away from the pole. Faisal caught my eye and wound his hands in reverse but we were already back-pedalling. We only had an hour before the Norwegians came knocking, and time was ticking down. With Viking Geoff standing beside Nanuq like a proud hunter, Faisal beckoned the reluctant crowd to come closer for the finale.
“We are seconds from reaching 90º North latitude. Watch the screen and count down with me. Ten … nine … eight …” Staff passed out plastic flutes of champagne to the adults and grape juice to the kids, and I tethered the pedal craft to a shared floating dock at the pole to hold us fast. Then I walked across the little bridge to the iceberg to shoot videos for the website.
When the countdown expired, Faisal declared our arrival, pulled a rope, and the curtain fluttered down to reveal our giant pole, white with a red swirl like a candy cane. Faisal raised our To The Pole!™ flag, Ode to Joy blared out of the speakers, and confetti canons blasted their corn-based, biodegradable ammo.
Reaction from the still-stricken crowd was muted. Some visitors tried to applaud but couldn’t because they were holding phones and champagne so they just murmured praise, hugged hesitantly and took pictures of themselves with forced grins. The music faded out at the two-minute mark leaving nothing but quiet chatter and the gentle lapping of waves. A pod of orcas appeared outside the containment field and I held my breath as they passed, their shiny black skin glistening in the sun like wet liquorice. Sometimes, when I can’t sleep because of the infernal sunlight, I imagine swimming with orcas, holding their dorsal fins as they skim the surface of the sea and plunging with them into the cold, viscous ocean.
“It’s just a stupid pole!” yelled the redheaded kid, yanking me out of my reverie. He’d been miraculously revived with a deep fried pogo and blue slush drink. We all turned to him and his parents.
I’d never admit it to my dad but, well, the kid had a point. It was just a pole. But it was our pole and it would eventually be my pole. When I allowed myself such fantasies, I imagined Svetlana and I taking over the business. Maybe June would be there to help run it. Maybe we’d set the animals free and make it more science-y and educational. You know, or not.
Unfazed by the remark, Faisal smiled his way over to the boy and knelt down to meet him eye to eye.
“Darn,” he sighed, producing a gaudy golden badge from an inside pocket. “And I was just about to make you Arctic Ambassador.”
“I wanna be the ‘bassador!” the boy cried, looking up to his parents and then back at Faisal.
“Well, you have to believe in the magic and promote this sacred place,” he said gravely.
“I will! I will!”
“That’s my boy!” said the father. Faisal pinned the badge on the kid’s orange suit.
“Well, that’s our show for today,” he said, rising with a flourish. “Thank you for being our guests at the North Pole. Be sure to tell your friends about us.” He shot me a brief, stricken glance, as though, given the bear attack, he probably should have skipped that last part, but it was too late.
The redheaded ambassador and his parents approached Nanuq for a photo. The kid posed, giving the bear the finger. His parents laughed and laughed. Then a girl of about ten went up to Nanuq and gently combed his fur with pale fingers as a tear ran down her cheek.
“Don’t worry,” Faisal said, placing a hand on her back. “He’s just sleeping. He’ll wake up later.”
“I know,” she said. “That’s why I’m sad.”
After our allotted time at the pole was done, we pedalled back to our corporate dock as the Norwegians slid soundlessly into place with their sleek, solar and wind-powered iceberg. I didn’t care for it. Too post-modern.
Our guests climbed into a couple Zodiacs and returned to the cruise ship with their free Arctic Explorer Certificates, and staff set to work shutting down for the day—retracting the pole and screen and transferring Nanuq back to her undersea pen with an industrial forklift. I grabbed a broom and helped sweep up popcorn and plastic and then attached the garbage bins to drones for mainland disposal. When everything was locked up, I took a water taxi back to the International Polar Station where we all stayed in summer, alongside scientists and research nerds. I sat at the back of the boat and stared at the churning wake where manufactured waves collided with natural ones in a bubbling tumult.
I met Svetlana at the bar. We ordered chicken wings and took our vodkas to an outdoor table on the deck.
“How’d your day go?” she asked.
“Some kid got whacked by the bear.”
“Holy shit. Is he OK?”
“Oh yeah. We plied him with junk food and made him ambassador.”
“Oh, ha-ha. Yeah, he’s fine,” I lied.
Svetlana unclasped her bun and her brown hair tumbled down around her shoulders. She ran her fingers through it like a shampoo model. It’s hard not to be aroused by such exotic beauty. Hard to resist the desire to possess it. The sun loitered on the horizon like a relentless surveilling eye. She sipped her drink and frowned. “Needs more ice.”