Out on the Edge Above the Arctic Circle

by Gary White

The differences were apparent from the onset. My wife, Elyn, and I booked a trip to Northern Finland to view the Aurora Borealis with the appropriately named Aurora Service Tours. Elyn was in a state of eager anticipation, but I felt a growing sense of dread when we acquired all the extra layers of inner and outer clothing, and while we prepared for our journey north, very far north.  I attributed it to concerns about how safe we would be in that land of ice and snow so far from civilization. What if I had a health emergency? What if I had an accident? Was it a premonition? This trip was Elyn’s 70th birthday gift, an important event, so I just stuffed my anxiety and got on with the program. 

Photographing the northern lights in Finnish Lapland. 

Photographing the northern lights in Finnish Lapland. 

There were minor glitches in our trip from Barcelona to Helsinki, but nothing we couldn’t handle. The hour-long flight north to Ivalo went smoothly, and we soon found ourselves in Lapland, above the Arctic Circle, in a frozen landscape. Our tour guide, Daniel, picked up our small group for the two-hour drive north to base camp in a 16-passenger Mercedes-Benz minibus with studded snow tires. It seemed capable of negotiating the Arctic roads, and Daniel was an expert driver. But an hour down the road we encountered high winds and an ice-coated highway. Our minibus was pulling a large, luggage-filled trailer and it began to fish-tail dangerously. Most of the passengers seemed unaware of this, but my experience with icy roads in my native Kansas alerted me to the danger. Daniel handled the situation competently, but he had to pull over and stop to regain his composure after a particularly harrowing episode with the cross winds. We arrived at our camp late, without further incidents, but my anxiety meter was climbing into the danger zone. Stepping out of the bus, I realized that my footwear was totally inappropriate for the terrain and I slipped and fell on the ice. After several false starts, I got enough traction to reach the cabin, where I could unpack my much-needed snow boots.

Our accommodations were very different from the primitive lodging I had imagined—we had a comfortable, private cabin equipped with cell-phone service, WIFI, our own private electric sauna, and everything we needed for our comfort. Daniel was trained in first aid and quite able to take care of us if we needed help, but still I felt out on the edge. I was aware of being somewhere that was totally foreign, almost off the planet. Did the icy roads and my subsequent fall increase my anxiety? Yes, of course, but that wasn’t enough of an explanation. After all, nothing bad had happened. 

The remainder of our time in the frozen land of the midnight sun passed without incident, but my internal climate was barely tolerable, and my anxiety was unabated. I had no energy, and I gradually developed a strange allergic reaction, with a runny nose and itchy eyes. I couldn't identify the source of my reaction and quipped–-at least I still had a semblance of a sense of humor– that I must be allergic to the far north. Our five-day excursion soon ended, and my symptoms disappeared as we drove back to the airport at Ivalo.

A week later, in the security of our home in Girona, I scoured my mind for a logical explanation for my reactions. The words that stuck out were, “the Arctic Circle.” What was it about the Arctic Circle that had me flummoxed? The Arctic Circle is simply an imaginary line that marks the point where the sun never sets on the longest day of the year and never rises on the shortest. It is the imaginary border of the “land of the midnight sun.” Why would that terrify me? 

Then I “heard” the answer in my imagination: the stirring opening theme of Reznicek’s overture to Donna Diana, followed by the stern voice of Sergeant Frank Preston of the North-West Mounted Police: “On, King! On you huskies!”  I was suddenly transported back to Cedar Vale, Kansas, where, as a ten-year-old boy, I sat week after week in front of our brown wood Philco radio console in the living room and listened to the children’s serial “Challenge of the Yukon.” That exciting program featured the daring adventures and hair-raising escapes of Sergeant Preston and his lead sled dog, Yukon King. I understood that they lived somewhere beyond the Arctic Circle in a very dangerous, primitive place called the Yukon. In every episode, Yukon King saved Sergeant Preston from the bad guys or from impending natural disaster.

Now I knew why I had felt so unsafe in Finland. I was north of the Arctic Circle! No modern conveniences, professional guides, or cell-phone service would be sufficient to save me if I had an emergency. Only Yukon King could do that. And where was the canine savior? He was back there in my boyhood imagination, behind the glowing dial of our radio in the middle of Kansas, but he was not in Finland. We were on our own if something terrible happened, with no lead dog to save us. 

With this understanding, I began to realize something about the nature of irrational fear. I’ve been told that “fear” stands for False Evidence Appearing Real. And those FEARs, acquired in childhood, run very deep and have effects on me beyond what I could access through conscious, rational awareness. But perhaps Yukon King was able to save me after all, by teaching me that maybe next time I’ll probe more deeply into my FEARs before they consume me and I end up out on the edge.

As a coda to this tale about the fears of a ten-year-old child that are still active in an eighty-year-old man, I want to tell you something else I discovered. Several years ago I needed introductory music for a series of podcasts I was creating. So I clicked on my symphony orchestra computer program, wrote the score, and recorded opening and closing music, as well as interludes to connect sections of the podcasts. This is not as far-fetched as it might sound. I spent over forty years of my life as a professional composer, and composing for symphony orchestra was something I did regularly.

Now, in recalling the opening theme from that long-ago radio program “Challenge of the Yukon,” I suddenly realized that I had unknowingly taken one motif from that theme and used it as a basis for my podcast music. The borrowing was totally unconscious, but the relationship is now very clear to me. The same show that inspired me also terrified me when I was very, very far north. The music was perfect for the podcast, but the show was a disaster for my danger-infused mind. 

I am grateful that I will carry with me a lot more than irrational fears into my dotage. Luckily, I can also call upon a vast storehouse of knowledge, skills, and memories that propel me forward with joy.  My land of the midnight sun adventure has taught me that I need to be a bit more aware of the impact of my past on my present. And perhaps in the future, I can be my own Yukon King and get myself out of dangerous anxiety zones that bury the joy of the present. 


Gary White blogs at www.FandangoLife.com. Together with his wife, Elyn Aviva, they write and publish a series of guidebooks with the general title of “Powerful Places in . . .” (www.PowerfulPlaces.com)  If you want to see highlights of their trip to see the aurora borealis and hear the podcast music Gary describes in this article go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dRPsg3Pw6aE

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