Sunday, November 19, 2000

Mind is in Maine

Published in the Antarctic Sun

On the windowsill above Ted Dettmar’s desk sits a picture of him taken five years ago. He looks every bit an old-time Down-East farmer of Maine. His ballcap is pulled down over unruly hair, his long red beard hanging over a canvas jacket. His feet are sunk deep into a pair of rubber Wellington gumboots, and he sits atop a piece of farm machinery that has seen better days.

In the picture, Dettmar has one horse reined in very tightly and the other let all the way loose. That’s how he handles his world, letting things go along their own way and then taking charge at specific moments that make all the difference.

Dettmar, 36, grew up in suburban Arlington, Virginia, the youngest of six children in a military family. His family lived all over the world while they were growing up and have all settled near the home their parents retired to, the one in which Dettmar grew up.

It’s Ted who is now wandering the globe, with this picture and a very specific goal.

“I want to live as close to the land as possible,” Dettmar said, “to get to know every tree, every bush, the soil types, the rock types.”

Here in Antarctica, that may seem a very easy dream: No trees, no bushes, no soil. And there’s not all that much rock, either. But he’s talking about New England, and a vividly simple life on a

Dettmar knows it’s a long way from the Ice, where everything is imported by cargo plane or container ship from the rest of the world, where the landscape can and will kill.

“The irony is not lost on me,” he said.

Now known as one of McMurdo’s eminent historians of the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration, Dettmar didn’t know much about Antarctica until just a few years ago.

The first thing he read about the Ice was Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s book, The Worst Journey in the World.

“That’s the typical first book,” Dettmar said. Just as he finished that, he came across another book.

“Somebody handed me a copy of Endurance and it had the crew list,” he said. One of the names on that list was Thomas Crean, a name he recognized as having been part of Scott’s Terra Nova
expedition from 1910 to 1913.

“I found out there were these guys who were just indestructible, just made of stone,” Dettmar said. They just kept coming back to Antarctica on expeditions.

When he got to McMurdo as a GA in 1994, he took a tour of the Discovery hut, given by someone who didn’t know what he was talking about.

“The tour guide was abysmal. The guy knew nothing,” Dettmar said. A history major in college, Dettmar bristled.

“People deserve to know more. These are interesting stories,” Dettmar said. “I thought, ‘We need people who can bring these places alive.’ I said, ‘That’s going to be me.’”

After working in waste management and now for the Field Safety Training Program, Dettmar now shares with people not only the history but also the practical lessons learned by polar explorers.

Even so, he doesn’t claim to be following in the footsteps of early explorers like Scott and Amundsen.

“There’s no comparison,” Dettmar said. "Amundsen’s story is the story of what people can accomplish," he said, likening it to the construction of the George Washington Bridge over the
Hudson River.

“Scott’s and Shackleton’s stories are the story of what humans can endure,” he said. “Everything they did was a close call.”

That’s not how Dettmar likes to do things, though some might disagree.

“I do not consider myself to be adventurous in the least,” he said.

He has been doing search-and-rescue since his junior year in college, recovering light aircraft crashed in the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia, and lived for five winters in the Harvard Cabin in Huntington Ravine on New Hampshire’s Mount Washington.

With that experience, Dettmar got out into the deep field quite a bit as a GA, and was a rare first-year selection for the secondary SAR team. He’s been on the primary SAR team since his second year.

Now he’s the lead field safety instructor, in training his coworkers to do their jobs as best they can. He still takes the lead in sea ice training, which is his specialty, and keeps watch while
the rest of the instructors teach and learn and do.

“I think I can do it as long as I’ve got people underneath me who are more qualified than I am,” Dettmar said.

As much as the job, he really likes being here and being part of history.

When he leaves for the last time, he said, he expects he’ll be bawling. “I’m always ready to come back down here.”