July 28, 2011

The Arctic is a place of legend, literary, cultural and otherwise. Santa Claus has his workshop there, of course. Mary Shelley wrote of how Frankenstein pursued his monstrous creation across the ice. Generations of children have perused comic books in which Superman retreated to his Fortress of Solitude there.

When you stand on the decks of 50 Years of Victory, you begin to appreciate and get a sense of the vastness of the Arctic. Ice floes the size of baseball infields float in the astonishingly blue water, and it seems you can see the curvature of the earth. When the ship is moving they crash against it and get pushed aside, split and crushed by its staggering weight and the power of its nuclear plant. Sea spray spits up as the ship races toward the Pole, its 75,000 horsepower propelling it as fast as 21 knots per hour.

Construction of the ship began in 1989 and was not wholly completed until 2007. It is the most powerful icebreaker in the world, 160 meters long, 30 meters wide, 11 meters draft and a displacement of 24,000 tons. Its nuclear reactor converts steam to electricity and is powerful enough to enable it to go anywhere in the world. It carries a crew of 140. Its name comes from the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, in 1995, although the ship was not in operation at that time.

The icebreaker 50 Years of Victory acts like a giant icecrusher on floes the size of basketball courts.

More lectures, about the ice itself and what we can expect when we reach the Pole, and some Russian lessons (Severnii Polus – North Pole). Jan, our expedition leader, tells of a previous voyage in which the ship encountered a strange object at the Pole, which turned out to be a U.S. submarine. The sub ignored several attempts at communication but finally a crew member spoke to Jan, refusing to divulge the purpose of its mission but exchanging greetings. We don’t expect to meet anyone here – Cecilie Skog and Rune Gjeldnes, after all, had to abandon their effort to meet us – but one can never tell what might happen at the North Pole.

Part of the ship's engine room.

We take a tour of the engine room and its massive inner workings, including the nuclear power plant, generators and seawater desalinization plant, then settle in. The bridge is open 24 hours, and passengers wander in and out, watching the crew steer, chart the course and perform numerous duties that are, to the lay person, unfathomable, to coin a phrase.

The bridge.

The first couple of days have been a novelty, seeing the great expanse of sea and the archipelago of Franz Josef Land, but now there is nothing but ice, ice and more ice. You come to understand what sailors and merchant seamen of old went through on long sea voyages, the tedium, and the myriad ways they had to find to occupy themselves when they weren’t working.

This journey lasts only 12 days; it’s difficult to imagine being at sea like this for months at a time. But then, of course, the monotony would be broken by the adventure of sighting a great whale, harpooning it, bringing it in (or dying trying). It’s common for the passengers to take naps throughout the day, and to be up late at night, because the vibration and noise as the ship breaks the ice, and the midnight sun, sometimes make it difficult to sleep. In the distance we see an icebow, basically a rainbow formed by ice crystals, its colors much more muted.

We have reached the North Pole; a celebration at the top of the world.

Not to get too philosophical about it, but nothing in life is certain. Weather and nature are far more powerful than anything man can devise. Even with the 75,000-horsepower of a nuclear icebreaker, you’re not guaranteed that you’ll reach the North Pole. But after several more hours of sailing and breaking ice, at about 10 p.m. ship’s passenger time, it is a great moment, with everyone on the deck as the captain sounds the horn upon our arrival at the Geographic North Pole, 90º00.000’N, 107º58.596’W. The top of the world.

It's a feeling of wonder, achievement, awe, and a great party.

Triumphal music blares through the loudspeakers as people congratulate each other. Some unfurl the flags of their countries and pose for pictures. It’s a wonderful feeling. The sky is a little overcast, the sun a dull white ball in the sky, and what seems like snow but is actually ice crystals begins to fall. After much celebrating we go inside for dinner, and the ship continues on its way to find a suitable parking spot so we can go out onto the ice the next day.

The flags of Sri Lanka and Italy, from opposite ends of the earth, together on this day.

 

 

Finding a place to stop with enough wide and sturdy ice proves to be more difficult than expected. The ship must sail for another eight hours before it will find one, at 6 the next morning.

Russians celebrate.

 

 

 

At 2 a.m., after still more carousing in the ship’s lounge, I go outside to take pictures and observe the ice, which I find fascinating and mesmerizing. The air is warm and the sun is shining brightly. The desolation of the Arctic seascape is awesome and beautiful.

 

The ice at the North Pole, the top of the world, 90 degrees North.

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