By Theresa O'Hagan, Fort Jackson FMWEROctober 6, 2011
FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- At age 50, Helen Thayer became the first woman to travel alone to the magnetic North Pole. And after a car accident that she was told would leave her unable to walk, she -- at 63 -- went on to become the first woman to walk all the way across the Mongolian Gobi Desert.
She lived a year among arctic wolves. She went on a kayaking expedition of 1,200 miles in the remotest areas of the Amazon. She was the first woman to walk 4,000 miles across the Sahara desert.
This adventurer, story teller, educator and conservationist told her inspirational and motivational stories to Soldiers and children at Fort Jackson on Sept. 26. She began her visit by taking a short tour of Fort Jackson and then spoke with Soldiers in the Physical Training and Rehabilitation Program at the 120th Adjutant General (Reception) Battalion, followed by the 2nd Battalion, 60th Infantry Battalion.
Thayer is a best-selling author, international speaker and National Geographic explorer who has been named one of the greatest explorers of the 20th Century by National Geographic and National Public Radio.
Thayer spoke about her trek at age 50 across the Arctic to the magnetic pole, alone, except for Charlie whom she calls the real hero of the story. Charlie was an Inuit wolf-dog mix she bought from the Inuit people with whom she lived for several weeks before for her expedition. Charlie was specifically trained and bred to protect the village from polar bears.
During their time together, Charlie protected her from seven polar bears. The last one, a large male, charged at Thayer. She released Charlie from his harness and he leapt onto the bear, biting him on the hind leg.
The polar bear swung around in desperation trying to get the snarling, growling canine off him, but the tenacious and brave Charlie hung on and stayed clear of the bear's huge teeth and powerful claws.
The polar bear broke free and raced across the ice with Charlie in hot pursuit. Thayer watched as they disappeared over the horizon fearing she would never see Charlie again. Would he get lost? Would he be injured or worse, killed by a polar bear? She waited for half an hour.
"I saw this black speck coming toward me," she said. "I hoped it was Charlie and then I thought, 'Of course it is, Helen, he's the only black thing out here.'" She said she was so glad to see Charlie that she almost wept for joy. "I learned early in my expedition you do not cry in the arctic," she said. "My eyelids froze shut."
Along her journey, she and Charlie battled extreme cold -- Thayer had nine frost-bitten fingers -- polar bears, storms and thin ice. With only seven days left in the journey, Thayer lost all her food, most of her water, and half of Charlie's food in a severe storm.
"I still had my daytime snack bag," she said. It held only walnuts. She carefully counted out five walnuts per day. "I only had enough water for a couple of mouthfuls a day," she said. By the second day the hunger and dehydration were testing the limits of her body. "Your mind is stronger than your body," she said. She pushed on, and she and Charlie reached the magnetic North Pole.
After hearing her story, children in the Child, Youth and School Services After School Program had many questions, such as: "How did she bathe?"
"You don't," she said. "It's too cold. The water would freeze." And perhaps the best question of all: "Did you ever ask yourself, 'Why am I even doing this?'"
Now at age 74, Thayer continues to explore the world and meet challenges that others would simply rather avoid. After a lifetime of record-breaking expeditions, after walking the planet's extremes from the poles at 70 degrees below zero, to the Sahara and Gobi deserts at 126 degrees, and kayaking the hot and humid Amazon,
Thayer is planning her next inspirational expedition, to live among the Afar people in Danakil Desert in Northern Ethiopia. There, she and her husband, Bill, 84, will learn to mine salt in the traditional manner of the Afar people.
Thayer started Adventure Classroom as a way to bring her experiences to young people all over the world. Now, through modern technology, a child in South Carolina can talk to and learn from a child in the Gobi Desert.
Thayer's visit was sponsored by the Mast General Store and Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation.
As for Charlie, he went on to have more adventures with Thayer and her spouse, living like a king at their home in Washington state. Charlie died at 23.
To learn more about Thayer or Adventure Classroom, visit her website at http://helenthayer.com/ and http://www.adventureclassroom.org/.