July 29, 2011

No lectures today – only action. Up early for breakfast, and at 9:30 a.m., out onto the ice.

FULL DISCLOSURE: Because of the ice conditions, we could not stop and leave the ship at the Geographic North Pole, so our excursion onto the ice and “circumnavigation of the earth” was symbolic, not actual. We disembarked at 89º02.7300’N, 57º28.3240’E, slightly less than a degree, about 69 nautical miles, south of the geographic Pole. But for convenience’s sake, I will use the term “Pole” to refer to where we were.

Off the ship and onto the ice.

Everyone is bundled up and excited to be here. Our first order of business is to form a circle for the “walk around the world,” which at the true Pole would have us actually circumnavigate the globe, around every meridian of longitude. Then a moment of silence, to contemplate the extraordinary feat we have achieved.

The capsule ceremony. Lighted torches accompany the stainless-steel capsule, which holds messages from the passengers. It is tossed into the Arctic Ocean, to sink miles to the bottom for all time.

Then the capsule ceremony. The previous day, the passengers were invited to jot down their thoughts or greetings for inclusion in a sealed stainless steel capsule. Jan, our expedition leader, says that if the earth were ever destroyed and the capsule survived it would hurtle through space for all eternity, bringing our greetings to whoever finds it. It’s a bit of hyperbole; if the earth were actually destroyed, the capsule probably would not survive, but it’s nice to think so. It is carried, in a procession with lighted torches, to the water and hurled in, to sink, perhaps several miles, to the bottom. More about this here.

The Polar Plunge

One of the advertised features of the Arctic expedition cruise is the Polar Plunge, the chance to go for a swim at the North Pole. I’ve been thinking about this for months. Do I actually have the nerve to jump into water that is about -1 degree C., about 30 degrees F., with the air temperature only about three degrees higher?

This fellow from Kazakhstan not only took the plunge, but also had a snack and worked on his tan.

Everyone is talking about this, about the record for staying in, said to be a minute, about swimming from the ice to the ship, about 50 feet, about organ shutdown, about whether they can do it at all. I’ve been telling people for a long time that I’m honor-bound to experience it, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve thought that it’s just better not to think about it.

The colder it gets, it seems, the greater the Russian sense of humor.

And suddenly, the moment is upon us. People begin to strip off, with all sorts of flashy and funny swimsuits on display. A ladder has been lowered into the water, and a belt and tow rope are attached to the first brave soul. He plunges in, and the assembled crowd cheers. In all, about a third of the 125 passengers take the plunge. I am at the end of the line of about a dozen people. This gives me more than enough time to back out. Meanwhile, my feet are freezing, even though a thin green carpet separates them from the ice. As the brave take their turns, I move closer, shivering, wondering if I’ve truly lost my mind. Some people stay in only long enough to say they’ve done it; others swim a few strokes; three or four actually manage to swim to the ship and back. It’s reassuring to see the crew members manning that tow rope. At least they’ll know where to ship the body.

A painting of the ship, done on board, by the German artist Ulli.

Finally, it’s my turn. I love the beach; I spend at least a day of every summer weekend there, swimming in the warm, gentle water and tanning in the sunshine. I like to stand at the shore before I get in, mesmerized by the waves. Standing here, now, is not my idea of summer at the beach. But they are strapping me in. That’s done a lot quicker than I hoped. There can be no lingering looks. It’s now or never, as Elvis sang. The ship doesn’t look so far away. Maybe I can make it …

I’m sorry to report that I am weak. I dive in, completely submerged, and try to swim a few strokes, but within seconds of jumping in, my entire body goes numb. For all I can tell, I am just a head bobbing in the water; I feel as though I have no body. I am trying to move but there is absolutely no feeling. It’s actually a moment of mild panic; I feel unable to move my arms, as though I’m not even going to have enough steam to get back to the ladder. The water there is about three miles deep, and I picture myself sinking, sinking, slowly, inexorably, permanently. I decide that the ship will have to do without my touch, and I turn and limp back to port. I have made no impression whatsoever on the onlookers, but as I struggle to climb out, I give them their money’s worth and a few laughs, cursing in four languages.

Flags of all nations.

A towel and a shot of vodka are waiting. I dry off and my frozen brain manages to follow the instructions I’ve been given previously, to head for the sauna. On several occasions I’ve experienced the Russian banya, the hot sauna/cold water treatment, but that water was nothing like this. One of our experts tells me that even after you leave the water, the body’s core temperature continues to drop for a while. As I walk along the ship’s deck, the DJ is playing the Beach Boys through the loudspeaker, for crying out loud. I still feel like a disembodied head. I can’t feel my hands or feet, and I’m beginning to worry whether I ever will. A couple of Russians in the sauna, one of whom swam to the ship, assure me that the feeling will return, eventually. Gradually my extremities begin to sting. I’m wondering if I’m going to suffer permanent damage. After 15 minutes in the 106-degree sauna, my feet are still cold to the touch. After about an hour, I return to normal, though my feet tingle a little for the rest of the day.

Barbecue on the ice.

Then it’s back outside for a barbecue on the ice. I’m not a breakfast person, and usually eat a light lunch, but I need to refuel. By noon I’ve already ingested a piece of toast, a couple of pieces of cheese and bacon, orange juice, five sausages, about a half-pound of salmon and four shots of vodka. We go for a long walk on the ice. In pictures and even up close, it looks like snow, but it is actually ice crystals forming a powdery coating. We are not actually on land, but walking on the frozen Arctic Ocean, and the pools of water below are various beautiful shades of blue. At one point I have to jump over a crack in the ice. I picture myself cracking through the ice and back into the water, for the second time that day, but I make it, though it’s a hard landing, right on one of my two bad knees. Then it’s time for a nap before leaving the Pole and heading back to Franz Josef Land. Turns out to have been a pretty good day, even if it was about the coldest damn thing I’ve ever experienced in my life.

And just in case you don’t believe I did this, here’s the proof (photos by Elya Shakhmurzayeva):