He didn't see the candy cane forest or the swirly twirly gum drops.
But Kevin DeVries of Grand Rapids, Mich., remembers well the groaning sound of the ice moving, the low flat landscape, and the magnificent desolation of the real North Pole.
"You are in a place out of time," says DeVries, 43, who skied to the pole in 2005. "It's just a slab of ice. There's nothing there except cold and snow."
When it comes to polar tourism, Antarctica is the darling. In 2010-2011, it had 19,445 tourists, about 300 of them reaching the pole itself, home of the busy Amundsen Scott South Pole research station, which houses 150 scientists and staff in season. In contrast, the lonely North Pole attracts fewer than 1,000 visitors a year, estimates Annie Aggens, director of Northwest Passage Polar Explorers based in Wilmette, Ill.
But did you know that you can take a boat to the North Pole? Or a plane? Or skis?
That's almost as good as a flying sled.
"Seeing is believing, but sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can't see."
—"The Polar Express," 2004
For most of us, the imaginary North Pole — the one with the candy canes and Santa's workshop — is all we need.
But for others, seeing the real North Pole is a once-in-a-lifetime genuine experience.
For several weeks in the summer — between June 25 and Aug. 23 — the Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker 50 Years of Victory will take visitors from Murmansk, Russia, to the pole in comparative luxury.
"You can combine these fantastic experiences with the comfort of your cabin, restaurants, bars, pool and even a sauna," advertises the Best Russian Tour company.
Several American firms such as Geographic Expeditions (www.geoex.com), Quark Expeditions (www.quarkexpeditions.com) and Polar Cruises (www.polarcruises.com) are selling this tour. It costs $22,790-$34,000 per person, which is probably why it's not packed like a Carnival cruise.
But a trip to the North Pole, wow. For the guy or gal who has everything, it would make a great gift.
"You ever try to make an iPod?"
—Santa, in a 2010 episode of "Family Guy"
If the North Pole were cheap, its jolly image would likely attract throngs of visitors. But you can't get there for less than about $20,000, and the season is very short — April for skiing and June to August by boat.
In addition, the North Pole is an existential destination — you'll see no footprints of those who came before you. There is no permanent marker. No statues. No flags.
While the pole is a fixed point, 90 degrees north, you actually walk on thick ice miles above it, and the ice constantly drifts.
If you were to pitch a tent at the exact North Pole, "by the end of the night you could be 200 yards or 10 kilometers away from the pole," says Aggens, who has been there many times. "You are going to see white as far as the eye can see."
So it's not like Everest. It's not like Antarctica. It's fragile. And changeable. And whimsical.
Some think a warming world will melt the ice.
"I think it will disappear in my lifetime," says DeVries, who owns Cruise Holidays in Grand Rapids.
But for now, there is time to visit.
"Jingle, jingle reindeer, through the frosty air they go. They are not just plain deer; they're the fastest deer I know."
—Johnny Marks song, "Jingle, Jingle, Jingle," 1964.
Alas, no flying reindeer will transport you to the real North Pole. However, in April you can visit by plane out of Longyearbyen, Norway. Planes land at 89 degrees latitude at the Russian ice station Barneo, then passengers take a helicopter another 40 minutes to the North Pole. One company offering the trip is the Russian firm Victory In Arctic & Antarctic Research, April 2-7 (http://norpolex.com, $17,500).
Of course, the classic way to approach the pole is by ski or dogsled. Some trips fly you within a few miles of the pole so skiers can get there in a day or two. Other trips last two days, a week or more.
In 2012, Polar Explorers is offering a "Last Degree" ski expedition, where you ski from the 89th to the 90th parallel, from April 10-23. That's the trip DeVries did in 2005. It's $32,400.
"Pure white plates, whispering endlessly/ Across horizons/ Sighing into the edges/ Of the curving earth."
—Poem by Quark Expeditions North Pole visitor Allison Webb
The mother of all North Pole trips is the Full North Pole Expedition. Although they are not certain it's going in 2012, Polar Explorers' Aggens says if enough people are interested, it will run late February through April. The 49-day trip leaves from Ward Hunt Island and retraces the 470-mile route taken by explorers Robert Peary and Matthew Henson in 1909. Cost? About $100,000 per person, depending on how many participate in the arduous ski journey.
Of course, all that slogging doesn't leave much time for playing reindeer games or doing North Pole-style activities that Buddy the Elf suggests:
"First we'll make snow angels for two hours, then we'll go ice skating, then we'll eat a whole roll of Tollhouse Cookie dough as fast as we can, and then we'll snuggle."
When you think of the North Pole, do you envision a place where little elf houses are covered with marshmallowy-white powder, reindeer frolic and Santa is hard at work? Here's what it's really like. Note: There aren't any candy canes or gingerbread.
Image: A fixed, snow-covered land with a house and workshop.
Reality: No fixed land, but rather drifting ice.
Image: Reindeer, penguins and elves.
Reality: Seals, polar bears and arctic birds.
Image: Santa can be in all time zones at once.
Reality: True! All latitudes and time zones converge at the North Pole. Walk around the pole and hit every time zone. This may explain how Santa can fly around the world in just one night.
Image: Santa's in daylight except when fog requires the help of Rudolph's nose to light the way.
Reality: In December, it is pitch dark 24 hours a day at the North Pole.
Image: It's cold.
Reality: True! It's a chilly 30 degrees below zero in winter.
Image: The North Pole isn't owned by anyone, even Santa.
Reality: True! Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark and the U.S. have each argued for possession of the pole, but nobody owns it yet.
For more information on polar expeditions, please call 1-800-RECREATE or visit www.polarexplorers.com.