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August 5, 2011

A view from the bridge ... of the Lenin Icebreaker Museum.

Early breakfast, last-minute packing, goodbye to the staff and crew and new friends we have made. Three kisses, traditional Russian style, to Elya, the Poseidon representative who has taken so much time to explain the inner workings of the cruise, and whose camaraderie has meant a lot to me on the long voyage. And cheer-o to Vlad, me Anglo-Russo mate. We board buses for the trip into Murmansk and a city tour, which begins with the Lenin icebreaker museum. Some people are a little amused, or less so, about stepping off one icebreaker and onto another, but it’s a chance to compare the older ship, the first of its kind, with the modern vessel we have just left.

The Yuri Gagarin exhibit at the Murmansk natural history museum.

Then it’s off to the small natural history museum, which contains many interesting exhibits on geology, local life and the port’s role in World War II. I wander off from the group, which I’m often wont to do, and that is fortuitous, since time doesn’t permit them to see the entire museum. Alone on the fourth floor, I discover something that brings me full circle from the very beginning of this blog: A small room is dedicated to Yuri Gagarin, the first human being in space, including the parachute that brought him back to earth. It is almost as though his adventurous spirit was there to see me off at the beginning, and is now welcoming me back.

A gate beside the Meridian Hotel. Note the bas-relief of Lenin at top left. He's everywhere in Murmansk.

We ride the bus on a tour of Murmansk, which, if truth be told, is a drab industrial city with a declining population of about 307,000 people, down from 468,000 in 1989, which actually fosters a low unemployment rate. The city has historically been a military and commercial seaport. Because of its location so far north, it has a harsh climate and little or no daylight for six months of the year, which lowers the average life expectancy compared with Russians elsewhere. Residents are therefore allowed to retire five years earlier than the average Russian, at age 60 for men and 55 for women, and schools have a shorter year.

Many people in Russia are dissatisfied with the direction their country has taken since perestroika and the advent of capitalism, and for several years there has been a nostalgia of sorts for the old ways. Murmansk is in a time warp of sorts, something like an anachronistic living museum of Soviet history. The hammer-and-sickle and statues of V.I. Lenin abound, though there is no shortage of shopping malls and cell phone purveyors. Oddly enough, it has a sister-city relationship with Jacksonville, Fla.

The Monument to the Defenders of the Polar Region.

The colossal, heroic Monument to the Defenders of the Polar Region, with its eternal flame, is dedicated to the soldiers who defended the port in World War II.

In the afternoon we depart early for the flight to Helsinki, too early, some people complain, though the guides assure us that we have to beat the traffic, if any turns up. None does. Murmansk’s small airport is curiously deserted; it turns out that our charter is, believe it or not, the only flight scheduled that day. It is mainly a domestic airport; few international flights land or depart, mainly to Helsinki or Norway. I’m told that on some days, there are two simultaneous flights to or from Moscow and St. Petersburg, “which is really chaotic.”

“Really?” I ask. “Have you ever been to JFK?”

The Murmansk theater and concert hall.

To Helsinki and back

Helsinki by night.

Back in Helsinki, we are greeted by new Poseidon representatives, cheerful and efficient as usual, and smiling at our obvious fatigue. They will repeat the routine of checking in passengers and catering to their needs. Some of them will accompany the passengers to Murmansk and go back out on the next voyage. So the process will be repeated, like the movement of the tides, in and out, endlessly, beautifully, truly, madly, deeply.

My cabin mate Fred and I enjoy dinner at an outdoor café, where we watch the great, colorful show of socializing and flirting between tourists and the more attractive members of Helsinki’s population. The next afternoon, I will fly to New York and Fred will return by train to his part-time home in St. Petersburg.

Going to Helsinki with themselves.

We agree that it has been a marvelous adventure, made so much more enjoyable because we have met. We part like old friends, sure to reunite someday, perhaps soon. I venture off into the frenetic Helsinki nightlife for one last blast.

When I arrive at JFK on Saturday afternoon, Dina’s niece Katya is waiting for me at the next terminal. She has just arrived from Moscow, and will stay with us for several weeks, to soak up the experience of New York and America. So there is no time to miss the completed adventure; it is quickly on to the next one. This is our exchange program: one to Russia, one to the U.S., both of us bringing to each place a little piece of the soul of our homeland, and leaving behind in the new land a little piece of our heart.

* * *

So ends this blog and my trip, after 15 days, some 19,500 miles, an 80-degree swing in temperature, lots and lots of euros and countless shots of vodka. Thanks to Nikolay Saveliev of Poseidon Arctic Voyages for the opportunity to see the North Pole; to Alex Bout of Imperial River Cruises for his friendship and support; and to Dina for her love.

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August 4, 2011

An early wake-up call for breakfast, followed by our disembarkation briefing. It’s sunny and cold in the Barents Sea, much colder than it was at the North Pole, though we will arrive in Murmansk by midnight. After days of relatively calm water, the sea is very rough, and the ship is pitching and rolling amid huge swells. More than a few people are looking a little green around the gills, and walking through the ship is an adventure in keeping your balance. At times it approaches weightlessness, as the ship rides the crest of a wave and drops down suddenly.

Rough seas, mate.

As the afternoon wears on, the boredom that anyone may have experienced dissipates a bit under the assault of the rough seas. I venture out onto the deck for some photos and video, and it is one of the most spectacular things I’ve ever seen. The ship rides high on the waves and seems to take an elevator down one or two floors, tilting to each side. The wind blows hard and the spray seems like rain, yet the sun is shining brightly from the clouds on a patch of sea ahead. The ride is like an exhilarating roller coaster, the difference being that you’re safe on a coaster, and here you, or your camera, could easily get pitched overboard.

Before dinner we view the video presentation of our voyage, a copy of which we are given on DVD, then have a champagne reception with the captain and applaud the staff. Photos are taken, phone numbers and e-mail addresses exchanged, warm memories toasted, all to the lulling (or sickening, depending on your point of view) rhythm of the ship.

A pilot boat prepares to guide the ship into Murmansk harbor.

After dinner we head for our cabins to pack for the 6 a.m. wake-up call, then a good number of diehards make one last night of it in the bar.

We reach the Kola Fjord, where the land gradually gives way to a few dwellings. We have returned to civilization. In the evening, pilot boats pull alongside and crew members come aboard to guide us into the port of Murmansk. I notice something very strange – it is twilight, the first darkness we have seen in almost two weeks. At midnight it is gray and foggy. By 1 a.m. we are in port, and officials come aboard to check passports while the passengers sleep. They are there well beyond 3 a.m., when I finally give in and go to sleep. Outside, on the decks, there is an eerie silence, the water calm despite the immensity of the ships docked there. A few fishing boats prepare for the day’s work; for me, it’s time to go to sleep for a couple of hours before the 6 a.m. wakeup call.

The Kola Fjord and Peninsula, which leads into Murmansk.

August 3, 2011

The fog has lifted, too late for us. The air is cold this morning, the sky overcast though there are areas of clearing and sun behind us and ahead. We’ve been informed about the possibility of mirages, and the eye is fooled by the combination of sea, sky and clouds. Sailors have sometimes been known to surmise land where there is none. I think I may see land, but we are in the Barents Sea, far from any; land is two days away. Just before we head into the final expedition briefing, I see a couple of passengers looking out the window and focusing their cameras. I get up just in time to see a ringed seal pop up from the water and dive right back in. We rush out onto the deck, where a few more people are scanning the water intensely to find more, but none resurface. But it’s a good sighting and gives hope for perhaps more.

In the briefing, some of the lecturers summarize some of what we have seen. James Cresswell, a geologist and glaciologist, tells us that 7 percent of the earth’s surface is covered by sea ice, “but so few people have seen it the way we have.” Susan Currie says only between 12,500 and 14,000 people in all of human history have visited the North Pole. “We’ve walked on Franz Josef Land in places where perhaps no human has ever walked,” she says.

By dinnertime, the weather is foggy, windy, rainy and cold. This is more what we might have expected from the Arctic, so more than ever we count ourselves lucky to have done what we did. The night is punctuated by a spectacular, blazing sunset, sunset being what it is here, the sun never actually setting.

August 2, 2011

We are scheduled to visit Cape Tegethoff, which has spectacular views. The weather is mild, the sea dead calm, but we are socked in with fog. The captain decides to wait it out for a few hours, about two miles off the coast, to see if it lifts. Visiting another island is an option, but we may get there, eight hours away, and find fog there too. And if we go there, we will not be able to come back, because it will take the next two days to return to Murmansk. So we wait. It’s part of what makes the Arctic so unpredictable. We need to be patient, and to accept that some things just can’t be done, if it comes to that. But everyone agrees that for the most part, nine days in with three to go, the trip has been successful. Still, it is a long, long wait, sitting in the same spot. The stillness of the water is eerie. The passengers have to make do with Russian lessons, impromptu lectures, DVDs, a movie in the aft saloon, the swimming pool (heated with sea water so salty you can’t sink in it) and sauna, the gym, a massage and, of course, the bar.

Russian night dinner.

Tonight a Russian dinner is held, with traditional dishes like salmon, pelmeni, borsch and kapusta, as well as some folk songs sung by the wait staff, dressed in traditional Russian garb. And vodka. At the end of the dinner, an announcement is made: After sitting in the same spot all day, we will, unfortunately, have to forgo the landing at Cape Tegethoff. The fog has shown signs of deepening, and with regret, the captain has made the decision to head back toward Murmansk. The helicopter pilot has even contemplated getting as close as possible in lighter fog, but it never lifts enough. (A joke: We’re not able to get off at Tegethoff. It takes a lot to explain that to Russian speakers. Another one of those things that gets lost in translation. But it’s OK, I don’t get all of their jokes either.) There is some disappointment in the air, but most people are philosophical about it, and feel they have seen and done things on this trip that most people live a whole lifetime and never see or do, and they accept this as the uncertainty and thrill of the Arctic.

Size isn't everything, unless you're talking about the anchor of a nuclear icebreaker.

Over the course of the last few days, I’ve asked a few tough questions of crew and lecturers. One involved the nuclear power plant that powers the ship, converting water into steam and electricity. What would happen in the worst-case scenario, if an accident caused the plant to malfunction? Would there be a meltdown, with radiation released? Would the passengers be in jeopardy? The head engineer, who speaks through an interpreter, is reluctant to answer, but pressed, finally says the damage would be minimal, not at all like what happened to the reactor at Fukushima, Japan, in the earthquake last March. Part of the problem there was that the reactor could not be cooled fast enough, but on the ship, the scale is much smaller, and being surrounded by icy water, there would not be a problem in cooling it down.

Another question: What if we struck an iceberg the size of the glacier we pulled so close to the previous night? Would this be a disaster like the Titanic? The ship’s hull is made of a special steel alloy 45 millimeters thick, with spars reinforcing it every few feet. This is basically the most powerful ship in the world. According to Susan Currie, one of two geologists aboard, we would make short work of an iceberg the size of the one the Titanic struck. We would just plow right through it, she assures me. We have seen over the past week how easily we crash through and push aside ice floes the size of basketball courts, carving them up like birthday cakes, the sound a series of loud cracks and crunches as the pieces collide and rumble under the ship. That sound and the vibration kept me awake for a good part of the first couple of nights, like a demolition team working on the house next door, but it has mostly been over for a while, and I’ve gotten used to it.

So now we will settle in for two long days at sea, on the journey back to Murmansk. In the evening there is much of the usual celebration in the bar. We have learned much over the last few days, about the region’s geology, about global warming, about each other. This place has brought us together like few places I have been to ever could. We have met the Arctic, and it is us.

August 1, 2011

Champ Island glacier.

Cruising in the morning, waiting out the fog that has lingered and deepened since the night before. A couple of lectures on geology, glaciers and global warming, punctuated by sightings of beluga whales and a baby seal.

In the afternoon the fog lifts and the weather is pleasant. The helicopter takes us to Champ Island, which contains large, perfectly round boulders, called concretions and nicknamed cannonballs, that are found nowhere else on earth and seem to have been deposited from somewhere else. They are about 1 million years old and developed like pearls, as tiny sea creatures and their shells were bonded together with natural cement from layers of surrounding mud.

Round boulder on Champ Island, ship offshore.

Tiny, colorful mosses, lichens and flowers pop up all over the rocky terrain. A few formidable-looking peaks stand before us, and the challenge will be to reach the top of one of them before the three hours we are allotted on the island are up. As part of the expedition, passengers receive a bright red parka, suitable for all kinds of cold and foul weather, which is theirs to keep, and they are loaned a pair of rubber boots and liners for excursions ashore.

Purple saxifrage.

The boots protect feet from the ice, water and mud, and the liners help with the cold, but they are not much help on the rough terrain we frequently encounter. On this island, the ground starts out soft and sandy, which is misleading, because the trip up the mountain quickly turns rocky and steep. Still, many of the passengers are making the climb, and from the ground it looks easy, so I decide to give it a try. It is between 150 and 200 meters to the top, and they seem to be making it slowly but rather effortlessly. So off I go.

Early on it is rocky but not too bad, something like climbing a broken, rickety staircase. But the higher I go, the looser the rocks become, and the footing becomes unsteady. Concentrating on where I’m walking means looking down most of the time, so when I come to a turn or stop to rest and take in the view, I’m surprised at how steep and precarious my position is. I push on.

Nowhere to go but up.

Now the climb becomes more difficult. The rocks are looser and occasionally give way. There’s probably no danger of setting off an avalanche, but I’m not an expert, and a stray rock goes tumbling here or there. The climbing is becoming strenuous. My knees, never in good shape, are starting to feel it. The boots, sort of glorified galoshes, are not much comfort on the sharper rocks, and I’m afraid I’ll turn an ankle. A false step here or there causes the rocks to give away and I slide back or slip into a crevice. It’s getting harder, but the view, of the ocean, the ship in the distance, the mountains and the glaciers, is terrific.

But now I’m breathing hard, and my knees are starting to ache. I stop to assess the situation. I’m thinking, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, and I should turn back. Meanwhile, women are passing me. Children are passing me. People who are older than me are passing me. This will not do. Oh, well, I think, you only live once. And you only die once. So I look up at how steep the climb is becoming, and I keep going. Reminding myself, what goes up …

A view from on high.

I hear someone say that higher up, you have to use your hands as well. Good thing I’ve got heavy gloves. I bear down. Sometimes there are a few feet of relatively smooth terrain, and I make the most of it, moving quickly, as though that’s going to make it any easier. Three-quarters of the way up, this is still not a done deal. I am scrambling up, holding onto rocks, slipping, tilting backwards but not falling, breathing hard, sweating heavily. My back hurts. My knees hurt. My feet hurt. The view is about the only thing that doesn’t hurt. Some of the climb is not much more than a difficult walk uphill. Some involves more actual climbing. I am seriously thinking about quitting, turning around and going back down, which is going to take a long time. Then I think of Cecilie Skog, climbing her mountains all over the world. She would think I’m weak.

Above me, I hear someone calling down to a mate, “Go, go, go.” I think about a bike ride I did, long ago, from Boston to New York, for an AIDS-related charity. Three days, 260 miles. It alternated between exhilaration and torture. On the first day, a century (100 miles), the 98th mile was the steepest hill I’ve ever ridden. Most of the riders were spent, and so was I, and I was pulling over to the side to join them in walking the rest of the way. But just before I did, a few people started to chant that same “Go, go, go.” Others took up the chant, and that, and the thought of the people I was doing the ride to help, gave me the strength to go on. This climb is not so dramatic, but the memory of all that is enough to propel me the rest of the way. I scramble to the top. “I’m the King of the World.” First the Polar Plunge, now this, but no certificate this time. The walk back down is much slower and more difficult, but gravity can make it much faster, disastrously. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen.

Security men fire flares to frighten off a polar bear that came dangerously close to passengers on the beach at Champ Island. Click and magnify for a better view.

The word spreads that a polar bear has been sighted. Jonathan Geier, the well-traveled young man whom I wrote about earlier, is the first to see him, on the beach, perilously close to him, his dad and other passengers, who all take off running. A close encounter of the polar kind, unexpected, but then, expect that here. One of the security men who accompany us on every landing fires some flares to scare off the bear. As the helicopter flies passengers back to the ship, it makes a few detours to get a closer look at him. He’s in the water, swimming from iceberg to iceberg. Soon we are all back aboard, and it’s time for me, once again, to hit that sauna.

Wilczek Island glacier. Click and magnify.

In the evening the captain maneuvers the ship close to Wilczek Island and a huge glacier, thousands of years old, so close we can almost reach out and touch it. It is several stories high and reaches up to the bow deck. With a little mist and the strange, beautiful shades of aqua blue of the water and ice, it seems like anything might come out at us: a polar bear, Frankenstein’s monster, maybe. But it is just a quiet, spectacular moment, and when it’s time to leave, the passengers assembled on the bow give an ovation to the captain, who looks over us from his perch high on the bridge.

July 31, 2011

A Russian Orthodox cross in memory of Russian explorers of the Arctic.

The helicopter takes us in groups to Cape Fligely on Rudolf Island, the point of land in Russia and Asia closest to the Pole. A Russian Orthodox cross commemorates all of the Russian explorers who have died in the Arctic.

The glaciers and mountains on the island are staggering in their beauty, their immensity in contrast to the tiny red flowers that dot the landscape. It is a land of harsh, rugged, savage beauty. The fog rolls in and we depart. Back on the ship, the rest of the day is spent cruising in rain and fog, the ice eventually disappearing into open sea. Visibility is limited, no more than about a quarter-mile. This is truly what can be the most monotonous part of a sea voyage.

Glacier on Rudolf Island.

And then, sometime around 11 p.m., we stop. I wander out from my cabin to see if anything is going on, and behold the magnificent sight of Koon Island, looming before us in the distance, about a mile south. I go out and take some pictures, and spend some time in the lounge talking to crew members. About 1:30, before going to bed, I go outside for another look. Small icebergs dot the sea, which is calm, almost still. The air is mild and warm enough that a long-sleeve shirt suffices. A thin, wide layer of fog is descending on the island, and sea birds flit by. There is no sun, though it is daylight, of course, and with the exception of some patches of blue on the small icebergs, the entire scene looks as though it has been created in black and white and shades of gray. The absence of color is eerie, as is the silence. The island looks like an alien planet, and in a sense it is, for this is truly another world.

Koon Island, rising like an apparition in the fog.

July 30, 2011

An ocean voyage can be thrilling, but when the tides are against you, it can be a long, monotonous haul.

Another long day at sea. Fog and ice, nothing but, and ice crystals falling like snow. Searching, searching, searching for something else, but only the occasional bird, which means there must be some land somewhere out there. Sometimes the ice is dirty, brown or black, which also means it must have broken off from land and drifted away. Or a piece may be sticking up, and the shadows make it look like a seal, or something living, a piece of flotsam, anything, but it is nothing but ice.

After breakfast we have a lecture by one of the ship’s geologists, Susan Currie, who tells about the formation of the Arctic and the continents. In keeping with the varied and fluid nature of the region, there are four poles:

  • Geographic North Pole – 90 degrees North, the northern axis of rotation of the earth.
  • Magnetic North Pole – where the compass needle points. It is moving and is currently in the Arctic Ocean off northern Canada.
  • North Geomagnetic Pole – the north end of the axis of the geomagnetic field surrounding the earth and extending into space. It is where electrons from the sun are concentrated, producing the Aurora Borealis. Located over northwest Greenland.
  • The Pole of Inaccessibility – the farthest point from any land, about 1,100 km away, in the Arctic Ocean near the International Dateline.

There are also three methods of defining the Arctic:

  • The geographic definition is everything bounded by and north of the Arctic Circle. This eliminates places such as parts of Greenland and Siberia that are frozen and should be included.
  • The tree line or line of permafrost. This also excludes places that should be included.
  • The definition most geologists use is the points at which the average July temperatures do not exceed 10 degrees C.

On several afternoons there have been informal Russian lessons, attended by a few German and Taiwanese women. Today there have been a few highlights on the social calendar.

Captain Dimitri Lobusov

First is a reception in the quarters of Captain Dimitri Lobusov. He is a large, bearded man, exactly the type you’d imagine to be piloting a nuclear icebreaker. We have a glass of wine and he answers questions through an interpreter and poses for pictures.

In the evening the World’s Most Northern Charity Auction takes place, to raise money for Arctic- and polar bear-related charities.

Jan Bryde, our expedition leader, conducts it with all the skill of an experienced auctioneer, as well as a good deal of humor. He frequently asks survey questions of the passengers, who raise their hands, Simon Says-like, only to find he has tricked them into bidding.

Numerous items are sold, such as oil paintings done on board, a model of the ship and a captain’s hat, which also includes the opportunity to steer the ship for an hour. An iPod Nano with pictures and music heard on the cruise goes for 2,000 euros; the final and most lucrative item is a chart of the voyage, done by the ship’s artist, which a young Russian oilman obtains in a bidding war with a Swiss woman for the staggering sum of 24,000 euros. In all, the auction nets 47,000 euros.

This chart of the voyage was auctioned off for 24,000 euros.

After dinner, a dance is held in the aft saloon lounge, with music by the pianist-singer-DJ Benny. A few waltzes and tangos are sprinkled in among the oldies and contemporary dance music, and the party goes on till the wee hours.

I have met so many interesting, well-traveled people from so many different places on this voyage, with such a wide variety of experiences, that telling all their tales would take a long, long time.

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):

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

July 27, 2011

Getting closer.

A day at sea. No landings, only fast cruising, lectures on the archipelago’s geology and polar bears, some Russian lessons and art sessions, a swim, sauna or massage. Life at sea: calm, swift, mysterious, beautiful, and gradually getting rougher as the ice gets thicker and the ship barrels over it. When we stop in the late afternoon so the crew can set up for the evening barbecue on the deck, the stillness and quiet of the ice is eerie, beautiful and white.

The whimsical Poseidon party. The god of the sea welcomes us to the Arctic.

In the evening, as every evening, a party in the bar, but first, on this evening, a whimsical welcome ceremony staged by Poseidon, god of the sea (and patron of Poseidon Arctic Voyages, the parent company of Expedition Cruises), and his mermaids, polar bears and assorted hangers-on. Then the barbecue on the rear deck, with veal and beef, chicken, hot dogs, wine, beer and vodka – lots of all of it.

A barbecue on the rear deck keeps everyone warm. Vodka helps.