brains wired
Photo: Nick Cobbing/Greenpeace
Remember that scene in the movie Marathon Man when Laurence Olivier, playing the evil dentist, repeatedly asks Dustin Hoffman, "Is it safe?" That is a question I ask myself more and more with regard to my 14-year-old daughter, Gaia. The world, in my estimation, is crusting over with merciless consumerism. War gives birth to more war. Earth's temperature is rising. I find myself wondering, What will become of our planet—and my daughter, whose very name means earth?

My girl is a wild Blink-182 fan who values her independence and urgently wants a tattoo and a nose ring. Her mind is not necessarily occupied with such questions as whether the earth will survive. So when on a chilly February day in London, my friend Joanna Kerr, executive director of Greenpeace Canada, calls to invite Gaia and me on an expedition to the Arctic to observe the effects of climate change firsthand, I have mixed reactions. The first is a bit of nervousness about safety. Wasn't some young man devoured by a polar bear a few years back? Perhaps not the wisest choice for a holiday. And then there's the fact that while I like to think Gaia and I are pretty close—she still wants to join me in baking and reading and doing each other's makeup—the chances of her wanting to go to a place even colder than England in winter, where I will have access to her 24/7 and where she will have no access to the Internet, seem as slim as Kate Moss. But her mum is an environmental activist who's never taken no for an answer when it comes to this topic, so much so that at times I've managed to turn off entire dining tables full of guests, and I sense an opportunity to share something once in a lifetime with my daughter. I decide to give it a go.

"Hey, Gai-bags," I say in a voice that I hope suggests lighthearted fun. "What d'you think about global warming?"

"I think it's very worrying. Why?" She looks up at me with just the tiniest bit of suspicion.

"Wanna go to the Arctic with me for Greenpeace and check out what's going down?" Not sure where the "going down" came from.

She lets out an excited squeak, then hugs me tight.

"Where are my long johns?" she calls out, reaching for her duffel bag.

We're on our way.

At Heathrow Airport, we buy some magazines and whisky for the Greenpeace crew, who've been without such luxury items for months. Snickering to myself, I tuck in a magazine chronicling Prince George's first year, thinking, Ha-ha, it's easy when you're far from home to forget about the important things. But the joke curdles when I take a closer look at George's little face and realize he really is what's important. He's a baby. He'll be around to see what happens to the planet well after I'm gone. He might want to have babies of his own, which means we'd better hurry up and save the Arctic before global warming makes most of the world uninhabitable.

We board one plane, then a second, much smaller one, and finally disembark on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, where the sun is shining brightly. We shield our eyes and rub our arms against the bitter chill.

"Mum—it's midnight!" Gaia says, pulling on another pair of socks and a parka over her jeans and sweater.

We look around. The landscape resembles huge, sharpened black teeth set between molars made of ice floe glaciers, covered in white sugar. We've been to Borneo, to the Amazon, to the Galápagos, but Gaia and I agree that this is unlike anything we've ever seen. It is startlingly, terrifyingly beautiful.

"Sleeping in broad daylight is quite tricky," says Gaia as we leave the ship and allow ourselves to be spooned into an RHIB (rigid hull inflatable boat), and our exploration begins. Gaia is a grab-your-rubber-boots-and-run kind of gal. On her last vacation, her father taught her how to use a chain saw. I was terrified. I had to hole up in the kitchen with a vodka. My girl spends her summers out on the hills with farmers' boys; they gather sheep and cut their toenails along with other sheepy stuff. Steering the RHIB, she confidently whizzes around like Sir Walter Raleigh on his way to meet the Spanish. I don't know whether to feel proud or to throw up.

We reach our primary home for the next eight days, a ship called the Esperanza, nicknamed Espy, and get into a heated exchange about the sleeping quarters.

Gaia: "Mum, we are going to be together for ages. We are bound to get into a row, and I don't want to be on a boat where I can't get away from you. I want to share with someone else."

After some negotiating, we finally end up in a tiny four-bunk dormitory with two crew members, which somehow mollifies Gaia.

Soon we are back in the RHIB, called Daisy, to investigate the tundra. We disembark onto a shore of moss-covered quartz and shale dotted with alpine flowers. Guillemots crowd the cliff above us, their cries reminiscent of a massive, hysterical cocktail party. Reindeer wander about, occasionally flinging us disgusted looks.

Gaia traipses up a small glacier, alone.

"Stay within my sight!" I screech, convinced there's a bear behind every hill.

I notice a patch of snow that is glowing and flamingo pink. A guide named Jason, who seems to know everything about everything, informs me it's algae that grows only on snow, thanks in part to all the guillemot guano (bird poop). The ecosystems here exist in a delicate balance, he says. When nature alters that balance, species usually adjust, but when human intervention alters it, those changes can prove catastrophic.
Photo: Nick Cobbing/Greenpeace
Today we are visiting an international climate research center, where every summer up to 180 scientists from all over gather to evaluate what we've done to the planet. There we meet a toxicologist called Geir, who's spent his last 33 summers here, and who begins to talk about plastics. He's discovering toxins he'd never seen before in the carcasses of bears and foxes. Worse, he says, is something called microbeads, which are tiny plastic particles found in facial washes, body scrubs, and even some toothpastes and are now being detected in rivers, lakes, and seas. "Roughly ten million tons of plastic gets dumped into our oceans every year," he says. "A giant garbage patch floats in the Pacific. And we believe what we see on the surface is only about 20 percent of the rubbish. The rest lies on ocean floors."

That's our crap. All ours.

He goes on. It's hard to digest it all, but we remain rapt. Gaia is taking copious notes.

"Atmospheric CO2 concentrations have increased by nearly 40 percent since the Industrial Revolution. We can't unring that bell, but we have to figure out how to prevent the situation from getting worse. The temperature in the Arctic has risen at almost twice the average rate of the rest of the planet. The old, ancient ice is reducing in mass far more quickly than projected. The consequences for the ecosystems here—for the earth as a whole—are disastrous."

Geir concludes with an understatement: "It's a lot of bad things, I tell you."

Gaia sums it up differently: "It's like a Martian attack, only we're the Martians."

Reeling from information overload, we stagger out of the center and encounter something much less alarming at this point: polar bear paw prints. "You see, Gaia? They're everywhere!" If there are bears around here, I'm prepared to stay in Mama Bear mode.

Now we are passing icebergs that have calved off the glacier, some the size of a school bus. The RHIB stops by the side of a berg about ten meters square, and Gaia leaps off the boat without a second's pause, eager to scale the ice. How slippery is a gigantic ice cube? Very slippery indeed, it turns out, as I slither, trying to keep up with my fearless daughter. The meltwater bubbles through channels in the ice and sings to us, an exquisite sound that calms me. Gaia and I lie down next to each other on our stomachs and drink the purest water on earth out of a daiquiri-blue hole.

We get back to Espy just in time for supper. Later we four bunkmates swap stories, lit by the midnight sun. I ask Gaia how she's enjoying the trip.

"It's the best place I've ever been," she says with a sigh. She holds up her tube of toothpaste. "But how am I going to brush my teeth?" It's so cold that the toothpaste has frozen. We snuggle up. This 24/7 thing isn't working out too badly.

Every morning on the trip, we are required to clean the crew's living quarters. At first I suspect we are more trouble than we're worth—rushing about screaming, "I need a mop!" or "What do I do with all this dust?" But finally a rhythm emerges, and there we are, my daughter and me, housecleaning harmoniously. Later in the day, the ship enters a gigantic proscenium of ice—at least ten glaciers surround us—that resembles the protective fingers of giants, their icy hands holding the earth safe.

We are enshrouded in fog, which makes our captain, Vlad, a bit tense. It is difficult to navigate these waters, and people are beginning to say things like, "Captain, you have a floe approaching portside." We encounter a huge piece of ice. We hit it, rise gently up onto it. After a moment, it splits apart. The cleave enlarges, and we sail through. Gaia runs out to watch from the bow. I stay inside, where it's a little warmer. When she returns two hours later, her bangs have frozen.

"I can't feel my legs," she says happily.

I stop myself from saying something motherly about how she should have come in sooner. When Vlad advises her to warm up so she won't get sick, I want to hug him.

Gaia says, "I can't not be out there. I have to see it now. What if it disappears?"
Photo: Nick Cobbing/Greenpeace
Tonight Gaia and I prepare dinner: eggplant and roasted peppers with garlic and anchovies and potatoes. The ship progresses slowly. Later I venture up to the crow's nest, watching us rise up onto floes that are too thick to break, reverse course and sail around them. I see why drilling up here is so problematic. If there were a spill, it would likely be impossible to clean it up before the area froze over, oil and all. If that happened, the Arctic ecosystem would be decimated.

When I climb down, I find my ice maiden on the bow, wrapped in a blanket, her eyes wide. "When can I join up as a volunteer?" she asks Josh, a crew member. "You have to be at least 18," he tells her, sealing the deal with one of those fist-bump things. I don't know how to feel. While I'm dying with pride at how she's taken all this to heart, can't I get a few more years before I have to start thinking about my daughter alone in the Arctic with no mum to protect her from polar bears and thin ice? On the other hand, I think, Thank God—she might not become an actress!

A guide asks if we'd like to venture out onto the sea ice. My stomach tightens. For now I can keep my girl safe. "I don't think so," I tell him.

"Mum," Gaia says, "remember what Grandpa always said: 'You only ever regret the things you don't do.'"

I'll kill him, I think, forgetting he's been dead for 30 years.

"We have to," Gaia says gently. "We might never be here again."

When did she get so wise?

I watch my strong, adventurous child, who is almost a young woman, it must be said, bound ahead of me across the Arctic ice—something that is so solid but so temporary—and a flower of pure, happy pride blooms in my chest. We won't regret this. Ever.

We spend most of the day in a little fjord dotted with ancient bergs. Not too far from us, on an island covered in pebbles, we see the bum of a polar bear. Trying not to die of excitement, we get as close as we can. From 100 or so feet away, strangely unafraid, we examine him. He's a young one—nicely fed, relaxed. He's so relaxed that he settles his head into his paws and goes to sleep. All around us, the glacial ice is blue, like sooty-veined quartz. We can hear it crackling, singing. Between the bear and the ice, we are silent, awestruck.

It's our next-to-last day, and in the grand Greenpeace tradition, we design and paint banners on yellow cloth, in this case writing ACT FOR ARCTIC. We hang them on the ship and take photographs, which will be sent around the world. Our goal is the creation of an Arctic sanctuary, protected in perpetuity. That means saving the animals and ecosystems in the high Arctic from oil drilling and commercial fishing. I watch my daughter work. She is crying.

"Ma," she gulps through her tears. "Please, can't we stay? I don't want to leave my people." I realize that in this intoxicating blend of place and purpose, she's found something bigger than the bond between the two of us—bigger than herself. She's found her moral compass, a conviction that may even guide her for the rest of her life.

Is it safe?

Yes, I think. Yes, it is. Gaia and her tribe will have it covered.

For more information, go to


Next Story