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North Pole (2006)
In the Fall of last year, Quark Expeditions sent us a booklet in which various voyages to Arctica and Antarctica were offered. By that time, more that a year had passed since we had gone anywhere – we had been home with the twins, thinking mostly about diapers.     




All of a sudden, we desperately wanted to go. And why not? By summer, the kids will have grown, and we can leave them with their grandmother.


   Preparation

We reserved a cabin for the second voyage so that there would be more fresh water. We had the necessary supplies from our previous travels to high latitudes. A trip to a place as exotic as this one prompted us to buy new photographic equipment and a GPS.

The people participating in the trip were to gather in Helsinki in order to take a charter flight to Murmansk, from where the icebreaker would depart. The prospect of this wasn’t especially attractive to us: we didn’t feel much like getting a Finnish visa, and, as our Chukotka trip had demonstrated, traveling with a group is not a big fun.

Getting to Murmansk is simple enough, but there’s no way to get to the Atomflot base without a pass. Yuri Kalabin, in charge of customer service for the Department for the Exploitation of the Icebreaker Fleet of the Murmansk Shipping Corporation, helped us to obtain the necessary documents.


   Thursday, July 14

We arrived in Murmansk and stopped at the Russlandia Polar Auroras Hotel (Poliarnye Zori), a new hotel with cozy rooms and a decent restaurant.

To defenders of Arctic region
To defenders of Arctic region View big version
Alyosha
Alyosha View big version

The weather was hot; we strolled around the city, then took a taxi and saw the main sights. From “Alyosha” – the monument to soldiers who defended the polar region – there is a panoramic view of the city and the Kola Bay.

Murmansk commercial harbour
Murmansk commercial harbour View big version
St Nicholas church
St Nicholas church View big version

By evening, it had begun to pour; then, the midnight sun began to shine again.


   Friday, July 15

Following the example of Fridtjof Nansen, we visited the Great Bear (Bol’shaya Medveditsa) sauna before setting off for the North Pole. Spacious and clean, with a wonderful pool with a countercurrent, it was very much to our liking.

We reserved the same sauna for the day of our return. The rules of conduct, however, are quite strict.

Yuri Kalabin drove us to the territory of the Federal State Unitary Enterprise Atomflot in his car. At the entrance, our bags were inspected.  The photo and video equipment attracted the most attention.

The red bulk of the atomic icebreaker Yamal hung over the wharf. A few minutes of hauling our baggage onto the third bridge (without an elevator) – and there we sit, in a small, cozy cabin with three windows.

We unpacked our things and snacked on some wine and cheese. Using the new GPS, we determined our position to be N69°02.616'; E33°04.237'.

About two hours later, the other passengers’ baggage arrived; then, after another couple of hours came the buses, which, after some waiting, were allowed onto the enclosed territory.

A-ships on summer vacations
A-ships on summer vacations View big version
Nuclear icebreaker Lenin
Nuclear icebreaker Lenin View big version

At 20:30, a couple of tugboats dragged the icebreaker from the dock. The propellers began to work and the vessel moved toward the mouth of the bay.

Just north of our anchorage were moored the icebreakers Rossija (Russia) and Sovestkij Soyuz (Soviet Union), as well as the Lenin, which found its way into the textbooks of our childhood as the first nuclear icebreaker in the world. The historic vessel was decommissioned way back in 1989. There is hope that a museum will be opened there by the end of the year.

Exit from Kola Bay
Exit from Kola Bay View big version
The weather is beautiful, with the evening sun piercing the many-layered clouds – a marvelous palette!

A light dinner, a tome of F. Nansen before bed – and the day is over. Alas, my gout made itself felt this evening. I’ll have to do without meat.

The Yamal, the last of the five icebreakers in its series (project 10520), was set afloat on October 18, 1992. The vessel is 150 m long and 30 m wide; its height from the keel to the top of the mast is 55 m, its draught is 11 m, and its displacement is 23,455 tons.

The thickness of the steel in the bow is 48 cm; 11 m closer to the stern is located a steel ice knife 70 cm thick; the thickness of the walls of the hull is 48mm at the bottom and 25 mm above the line of possible contact with the ice.

Propulsion power is supplied by two OK‑900A nuclear reactors with 500 kg of highly enriched uranium (~40 % 235U), which use ~200 g of fuel in a 24-hour period, meaning that the icebreaker can operate for four years without refueling. The thermal power of each reactor is 171 MWt. The horsepower, delivered via three four-bladed propellers, is 75,000 hp.

The leader of the expedition, Lauree Dexter, is a Scotsman living in the polar region of Canada. He is a participant in several polar ski expeditions, including one from Severnaya Zemlya across the Pole to Ellsmere Island, another wich traversed the Greenland ice sheet, and another to the South Pole. He has run dozens of marathons, participated in 24-hour races…


   Saturday, July 16

It is 9:30 in the morning, overcast, clear horizon, light swell, 8 °С, wind speed is 2.5 m/s; direction, southwest. Coordinates are N72°28'; E35°20'. Speed 19.5 knots; direction is 12°.

Stern wake
Stern wake View big version
Safety briefing, alarm drill, the promise of a crew member to show the lifeboat from inside…

Supper, briefing on boarding and disembarking from the helicopter, Then, we were introduced to security – well-built fellows whose origins are not hard to guess…

The swell has subsided, but whitecaps have appeared. Decreased visibility, drizzle, fog… Nothing to photograph.

At dinner, we met Alexander Lebrick, the captain of the vessel. This is his 17th voyage to the Pole.  He was made to answer a wide variety of questions, and was evidently relieved when he was able to withdraw.

By 22:00 we had reached latitude of 77°.


   Sunday, July 17

At 10:43, a low cloud cover, fog, a calm sea, 2 °С, wind speed is 9 m/s; direction, southwest.  Coordinates are N80°12'; E42°28'.  Speed is 19 knots; direction is 13°.

First iceberg
First iceberg View big version
I stepped out onto the deck to smoke a cigar. At noon, the first iceberg appeared, a small one, but with a beautiful blue luminescence in its crevices.

Right above the water fly flocks of Brunnich’s guillemots (Uria lomvia), which beat their very rapidly, and northern fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis) and kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla) soar. We passed the zone of thin ice, and, while I ran from board to board snapping pictures, the cigar went out: I’ll finish smoking it later…

At 13:30, a bear unexpectedly appeared. We didn’t come too close, so I had to put a different lens on my camera. In hopes of catching a new bear as it appears, we prepared an “emergency bag” so that we wouldn’t have to return to the cabin. And they didn’t make us wait! One after another, seven more bears appeared: a mature ten-year-old male, an elderly one, gaunt and sick, as well as a very curious young female… Who has time for a cigar?

The lord of Arctica
The lord of Arctica View big version
The bear on the North
The bear on the North View big version

The “bear zone” ends, and we go on, breaking the ice. In two hours of observing the intermittent ice fields and vast areas of clear water, we noticed only one bear.

At 16:00, the ice begins to get more dense (5 points), but not yet thick (~1 m), with many cracks and fractures; On the ice floes are meltwater pools (lakes of fresh water), often overgrown with russet seaweed. The wind is fresh, the temperature around 0 °C, and it’s getting harder to take pictures…

Closer to midnight, we started to see stretches of thick ice that rose, like islands, for more than a meter; we went around these.

It has grown cold, and a light snow has started falling. It lies on the ice floes, creating shores ~20 cm high for the meltwater lakes.


   Monday, July 18

At 10:57, fog, a low cloud cover, 0 °С, the wind has changed direction to north-northeast with a speed of 8-9 m/s – it appears that we are on the posterior side of a cyclone. Coordinates are N85°16'; E44°49'. Speed is 15 knots; direction, 9°.

Close pack ice
Close pack ice View big version
“Water sky”
“Water sky” View big version

The ice fields are badly fractured; we struggle to the broad areas of clear water.  The ice joins and separates under the influence of the wind, even at such high latitudes. The “water sky” effect – when, over zones of clear water, dark stains that repeat the pattern of the fractures can be seen on the pale sky – is visible for us the first time.

There are fewer and fewer fractures as the ice becomes more and more concentrated. We have reached 86°30'; the sun is peeking through the clouds. He helicopter pilots have declared it to be flying weather and have decided to take advantage of it to fly around the icebreaker in the ice.

Heading North
Heading North View big version
Deck landing
Deck landing View big version

Hearing the roar of the MI-8, we open our windows, and the icy wind rushes into the room – it’s not as if we can take pictures through a grimy window! Fabulous!

This evening, among the ice and fog, we celebrated the festival of Neptune, for which we stopped for a couple of hours. The role of Neptune was performed by the boatswain, Sergei Chuprin – he has many years of experience in this area.

Above polar desert
Above polar desert View big version
Neptune's festival
Neptune's festival Enlarge photo

He handed the captain the key to the Pole and wished him good weather, which is extremely important here in the Arctic. The mulled wine flowed freely, and all, young and old, joined the dance.


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