This is the journal I wrote to capture highlights from my trip to the Arctic. It notes wildlife, remarks on the environment, and includes tidbits about life on a Russian icebreaker. I include interesting (to me) facts about sea ice versus glacier ice, the job of an ice tooth, and the reason for “nuisance tides.” Since this was an expedition led by experts in environment, climate and politics, it includes a little bit on those topics too.
North Pole Adventure – Day 5
The 50 Years reaches 88⁰21 N at 7:45 AM. At 95 nautical miles from the Pole, the chill has a bite. The air feels and smells crisper than at any other time so far. It’s -3⁰C (26.5⁰F) on deck with a brisk breeze. Fabrice has already spotted Bearded Seal, Ringed Seal and Hooded Seal. I wonder if he ever sleeps. I see no polar bears, but scanning the ice with binoculars I spot tracks in the snow.
We take another helicopter ride over the ice. It stretches in all directions to the Earth’s curvature. Despite what seems to be limitless white, there is less sea ice is now than ever in recorded history. Today we seem to be watching Arctic habitat melt away before our eyes.
The excitement grows because later today the ship will reach the geographic North Pole. But just being at this place on the planet is special enough. The Arctic Ocean is the smallest of the Earth’s five oceans. The water is about 1⁰C (33.8⁰F) today. Warmer freshwater from Siberia’s rivers feed into the Arctic and contribute to the fragile food web here. As in all oceans, small invertebrates, fish and large marine mammals depend on the water’s upwelling to bring nutrients from the bottom toward the surface. The nutrients come from the decomposition over time of millions of sea creatures large and small. While marine mammals feed, they are always vulnerable to whalers, sealers, and fishing boats. The use of the Arctic’s resources is not as clear-cut as in the Antarctic. A complicated system of sovereignty was originally established among the Arctic Five: United States, Canada, Russia, Norway and Greenland, represented by Denmark. In 1990, it expanded to the Arctic Eight, adding Finland, Iceland and Sweden, so now all countries with land above the Circle are represented. The Arctic Ocean is generally considered the “high seas” beyond 12 nautical miles from land and open to navigation by any nation, but some of the Arctic Eight have claims extending much farther from shore.
Not every country has icebreakers, which are needed to cross the Arctic even with today’s limited ice. Russia, Finland, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Germany and the U.S. are the leading countries with icebreaker activity, but a large gap exists. Russia has a fleet of almost 50 ships; Sweden and Finland have 7 each; the US has 2. Canada has 7 Arctic icebreakers but only 2 are strong enough for the Pole’s thick ice. Icebreakers serve mainly to clear a path for large cargo ships and tankers. (Recently, for the first time a Russian tanker traveled the Northern Sea Route without the help of an icebreaker. CNN Money gleefully announced, “Climate change is helping create new opportunities for shipping by melting the ice around the North Pole.”)
At 6:30 PM everyone rushes to the bridge or the bow or runs to find a monitor showing our coordinates. We are nearing the Pole. (Besides the bridge, every cabin also has its own monitor.) At 6:38 PM we reach 90⁰00.0000N, the geographic North Pole. [I’m startled to learn that 4 North Poles exist. Our target, the Geographic N Pole, is a fixed location on the globe. The constantly moving N Magnetic Pole is located at the spot where compasses point. The N Geomagnetic Pole is a magnetic pole fascinating only to physicists. But my favorite is the one with the captivating name: the North Pole of Inaccessibility. It is the location in the Arctic Ocean farthest from land; 626 1/3 miles from any coast. No Internet connection.]
All passengers hurry to the bow for champagne and pictures. As we break up and head inside for dinner, Captain Dmitry Lobusov navigates toward a section of clear, flat pack ice for tomorrow’s Day on the Ice. As we sleep, he finds a good spot in the ice and parks the ship and then anchors to it with the ship’s ice anchor.
A DAY ON THE ICE – Day 6
At 9 AM the passengers bundle into parkas, wool, and muck boots. Down the gangway we go to step foot on the ice of the N Pole. Like all landings in the Arctic, armed rangers lead the way and set up a safety perimeter. For the day’s festivities, they will keep a sharp eye out for any polar bear intrigued by the smell of barbecue. The bears have a way of suddenly materializing out of the fog and ice. It has been fascinating to watch from the ship as the bears stroll across the ice, disappear behind ridges and into gullies, and then emerge in unexpected places. This is the only day we hope not to see a bear.
The passengers stand shoulder to shoulder to form a huge celebration circle around the Pole (our celebration point, which is a small distance from the real Pole). We stand on ice measuring about 1.5 meters (almost 5 feet) thick. David Serkoak of the Nunavut Arctic College performs a native drum ceremony to commemorate our trip and acknowledge the space we have been privileged to experience. Then we break up to wander in the snow, climb pressure ridges, investigate (and accidentally fall into) melt pools on the ice, and take lots of pictures. A couple dozen folks line up to make a two-minute call home from the Pole on a satellite phone.
It’s time for the Polar Plunge. Like trips to the Antarctic, anyone who wishes can jump into the water, which happens to be -1⁰C (30.2⁰F) today. A small pool of open water has been cleared near the ship’s stern. Our team leader, Kiwi Cheli Larson reminds the guys that they will go into the water as males but come out as females. With that warning, expedition members tie a safety line to each swimmer before they take the plunge and a zodiac, with armed skipper, waits nearby too. Each plunger amazingly comes out of the water alive. To no one’s surprise, every plunger immediately downs a shot of vodka. The cold water doesn’t discourage me, but I do try hard not to be caught in a bathing suit in public – with cameras nearby. And I tend to avoid swims that require both a safety line and an armed guard. I opt to watch from a distance with a cup of mulled wine. After that, I fill water bottles from the melt pools. This is a rare chance to drink water straight from nature. It is clear, perfectly chilled, and the best water I’ve ever tasted. (Finland also has lakes so clean, communities can draw drinking water without the need for purification.)
I grab a beer from dozens of other bottles chilling in the snow and join the barbecue. After baked apples, a motorcycle is wheeled from behind a drift. A group of riders, including my partner Marilyn, have interrupted their trip through Russia and Scandinavia to reach the Arctic by ship. They brought one bike aboard for the unique fun of riding at the Pole – equipped with special studded tires for the ice. (Ever the skeptic, I checked beforehand with Scotsman Colin Souness, our ice and glacier expert, and who also looks good in a kilt. He assures that no damage will be done to the ecosystem.) Marilyn becomes the first woman in history to ride a motorcycle at the North Pole. After a few others, the expedition leader Cheli takes a turn. She’s a dirt biker back home in New Zealand so the snow and ice present no problem. Cheli becomes the second women of all time to motorcycle the Pole.
The shadows lengthen, but of course the sun never sets. We climb back onto the ship. It and the ice had drifted 3.3 miles while we spent the day celebrating. From here, there is nowhere to go but south.
This post is Part 2 of a 3-part series. To continue reading, please visit Part 3.