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Maralyn Rittenour: A Passion for Polar Places

Mon, 05/06/2019 - 15:34
Maralyn Rittenour aboard the MS Midnatsol

Already a seasoned traveler by the time she married her first husband at age 24 in Hong Kong, Maralyn Christie-Miller Rittenour seemed to have adventure in her blood.

She grew up in an English, Irish, and Scottish military family in India, Ireland, England, Austria, Germany, and Singapore, and was about to go off to the University of Fribourg in Switzerland at 16, when “my stepmother persuaded my father to cut me off without the proverbial penny,” she recalled. “My mother said, ‘Look on the bright side, darling, now no one will marry you for your money, only for love.’ ”

“I guess that happened twice,” Mrs. Rittenour said. “Lucky me.” 

Mrs. Rittenour’s mother was from the old Irish aristocracy and her stepfather a  Scottish brigadier general in charge of military medical services in Hong Kong. While visiting them there, she met a young British officer who asked her if she could type. By the following Monday she had a job at the Special Military Intelligence Section Hong Kong, typing top secret reports, mostly about Mao’s Red Army troop movements in China, that were transmitted to the NATO countries.  

While working for M.I. 6, she met Ian David Calder, a young English dentist who reported to her stepfather and whose hobby was exploring and canoeing in the Arctic. They married in Hong Kong and eventually went to live for three years in Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories of Canada. He did dental work among the Inuit, for which he was paid by the Canadian government. In his free time, they would often fly to the Arctic and canoe and snowshoe together. In the summer they sailed their Lightning sailboat on Great Slave Lake.

In 1967, Dr. Calder was part of a Canadian group involved in a yearlong celebration of the Canadian confederation. He and a Canadian friend, with the friend’s 16-year-old son, decided to be the first to navigate the Back River, which flows into the Arctic Ocean.

“He had wanderlust. It was channeled into a fascination with the Arctic,” Mrs. Rittenour remembered. Although they were experienced, after about 10 days of canoeing and camping, they ran into whitewater in a very wide section of the river and the canoe turned over. Both strong swimmers, the two men tried to steer the canoe to shore, telling the teenager to swim to safety. The boy survived, but her husband and his friend died of hypothermia. 

Dr. Calder was 32 and his friend, Peter Bromley, was in his 40s. The Canadian government named two lakes and two streets in recognition of their effort. The young widow eventually gave her husband’s collection of Inuit artifacts and carvings to the museum in Yellowknife.

She delivered the Super 8 film he had taken during his voyage and his diary to the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, England, where she was asked to stay on and administer an international symposium on Antarctic ecology, a project that lasted a year and that “gave me a new lease on life after my husband’s tragic death, and an abiding interest in Antarctica,” she said.

Living so near the Artic Circle was a formative experience for Mrs. Rittenour, albeit one with a sad end; nonetheless, that part of the world had made a deep impression on her. A trip to Antarctica “had always been in the back of my mind,” she said, “but it took 50 years to happen.”

After the job in Cambridge, and after tending to her terminally ill mother, she returned to Manhattan, where she had worked at Christie’s as a young woman and fallen in love with the U.S. “Hard to explain falling in love with a country, but I did. Particularly what I perceived as freedom and opportunity, especially from class-pigeonholing and for women, compared to Europe.” 

In 1970 she married her second husband, Charles Rittenour, a banker.

They built their house in Springs in 1973, and she has lived there part time since his death in 2010. 

After a brief stint at the Irish Export Board upon her return to New York, Mrs. Rittenour worked for the governments of the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, and Canada, helping them to promote their exports of goods and services in the U.S. She retired in 2000 as a commercial attaché in the Quebec Delegation in New York, and soon after that became director of the East Hampton Historical Society for a little more than two years.

Through it all, travel continued to be a big part of her life. In addition to traveling for work, visits with family in England and Ireland, and vacations with her husband in Europe, Mrs. Rittenour went on treks on her own in Morocco and climbed 17,000 feet up Mt. Kanchenjunga, between Nepal and Sikkim, India. 

Yet Antarctica, so long a fascination, eluded her until December, when, at age 80, she traveled there aboard a Norwegian expedition ship, the Hurtigruten vessel MS Midnatsol, on a trip she characterized as “the epitome of all voyages.”

She visited the South Shetland Islands, hiked the narrow passage of Neptune’s Bellows to Deception Island, where there is an active volcano and an old whaling station, and saw Drake’s Passage, where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet. She saw seals, penguins, skuas, albatrosses, and humpback whales. 

There were 400 people on the MS Midnatsol, but only 100 could go ashore at a time and only for a limited time. 

It is pristine, Mrs. Rittenour said, and people are not allowed to take anything in or out. 

Before tourists leave the ship for the Zodiacs that take them to shore, they must vacuum out their jacket and pants pockets and camera bags. A “polite distance must be kept from any wildlife,” she said, and visitors are prohibited from picking up rocks or eggs and feeding, touching, or handling the birds or seals.

“It is all about respecting scientific research,” she said. 

Antarctica is outside all national boundaries. Too cold for human habitation, the only people there besides the tourists during Antarctic summer (our winter) are 4,000 scientists from 30 countries working in 75 permanent or seasonal research stations scattered across the continent, studying wildlife, astronomy, climate, and geology. In Antarctic winter (our summer) that number falls to about 1,200 because of extreme cold and darkness. Tourists travel there between December and March.

For the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operations, “conservation is of prime importance,” Mrs. Rittenour said, the primary goal being to advocate and promote the practice of safe and environmentally responsible private-sector travel to the Antarctic.

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