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Beyond the North Pole

Q&A with Diane Schetky ’61

In 2004, Scott Browning ’95 and his mom, Diane Schetky ’61, traveled to the North Pole on a nuclear-powered, Russian icebreaker. Browning documented his experience of the trip in “The North Pole”; here, he talks with his mother about her impression of the journey.

A little background about Schetky: in addition to being an intrepid world traveler who has been to every continent, she had a 35-year career in adolescent forensic psychiatry, publishing multiple books on the subject. Now retired, she volunteers at the Restorative Justice Program in Maine and helped start a hospice volunteer training program for inmates at Maine State Prison.

BROWNING: Your travels often take you to geographically remote and inhospitable locations—ones where historically the favorite pastime has been awaiting rescue. What draws you to such places?

SCHETKY: I have always opted for novelty-seeking and adventure over sitting on a beach. I love to observe nature in the wild, and I suspect I come by this, in part, through my genes. My great, great grandmother was the first woman naturalist in the US and served as a role model for me when I opted to pursue a career as a professional woman, at a time when few women did so.

BROWNING: Just about every polar narrative ever written is, to some degree, about the insanity-inducing qualities of such harsh environments. You demonstrated remarkable mental fortitude in not succumbing to the cognitive drift so common on such expeditions.

SCHETKY: I’m more into micro-survival. I got grounded by whatever scraps of nature I could find—I am in awe of anything that survives in these climates, be it a spot of red algae growing on a massive iceberg or a little wildflower growing amidst shale and surrounded by snow. Because there is nothing else to focus your attention on, you zoom in on these magnificent little bits of wildflower. As a physician I am interested in survival and what sort of adaptations, be they physical or emotional, are needed to stay alive in harsh environments.

BROWNING: There certainly seem to be parallels to your professional work.

SCHETKY: That’s very true. I am about to meet with someone from the Maine Civil Liberties Union to discuss the impact of solitary confinement on prisoners—a practice they are trying to ban. Up there [above the arctic circle] is it is different kind of confinement because there are no visible barriers. It’s sensory deprivation, in terms of color—it’s mostly white, grey, and little blue—and in terms of routine and time, the usual parameters. You are confronted with nothingness, which is also true if you are in solitary confinement. So what do you do for stimulation and to orient yourself? What do you do if you are illiterate and you’re in solitary confinement—you can’t read books, so what the heck are you supposed to do all day? Those are the ones who start cutting themselves, acting up, and throwing feces by way of expressing their helplessness. It becomes a very primitive form of defense.

BROWNING: I imaging that to endure, one would have to have a pretty highly refined set of coping skills…

SCHETKY: Which most inmates don’t have. You need a strong sense of self to keep your bearings in places that seem to be without place or boundaries.

BROWNING: On our trip, a euphemism that got tossed around a lot was “achieving the pole.” Did you feel any sense of accomplishment at having made it there?

SCHETKY: No. They liked to point out that we were the first mother/son duo to ever set foot on the pole—and we should be proud about that? It means we had money enough to go on this nuclear powered icebreaker.

BROWNING: Having now been to the “top” and “bottom” of the world, both rather abstract destinations, what have you come to understand of people’s motives for doing so? Is about visiting an actual place or does it have something to do with the idea of place?

SCHETKY: As many of the extreme places I’ve visited are accessible only by ship or icebreaker, I have had the opportunity to meet traveling companions who come in all stripes. I’ve seen a few checking off countries/continents like birds on their lifetime list. This genus of traveler tends to be affluent, bored, and boring, with table talk limited to travel.

Then there was the economist on a trip to Antarctica who was looking for material for his next murder mystery while writing off the trip as a business expense. I never found out which of us became his next victim. On the same trip, a retired chemistry professor in her 80s was making her 17th trip to Antarctica. When asked why, she replied, “To see the penguins again, of course!”

I would venture that most people are drawn to this type of travel by the thrill of adventure and by the opportunities for contact with wildlife, extraordinary photos, and learning from experienced naturalists on staff.

As for sense of place—as you so aptly note in your essay, the North Pole is really not a place at all, just a point on a GPS. The shrinking ice that covers it is forever shifting, and so we left no footprints.

Scott Browning '95 and his mom, Diane Schetky '61

Related:

The North Pole