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North Pole (2006)

   Thursday, July 21

At 10:45, fog; visibility 300-400 m, –2 °С, no wind.

Back southward
Back southward View big version
Coordinates are N87°40'; E40°47'. Speed is 10 knots; direction, 188°. We try to move along the old canal, which has drifted 6 miles to the west.

At times, the fog thickens, and the visibility becomes almost zero. Sometimes the field of vision increases to 1-2 miles. The sun shines through the fog. It illuminates the endless ice fields, which are crisscrossed with cracks and openings in ice and covered with meltwater puddles and hummocks.

The High Arctic is a lifeless place: there are neither animals nor even seabirds.

The festive dinner held to commemorate reaching the Pole astounded with its exquisiteness. Such a menu won’t be found in just any restaurant – truly fine cuisine!

   Friday, July 22

At 9:45, bright sun, haze, visibility 1-2 miles, –2 °С, wind speed is 8 m/s, direction is southwest. Vast ice fields are interspersed with large expanses of clear water.

Coordinates: N84°22'; E48°21'. Speed is 8 knots; direction, 186°.

We overcame our own laziness and visited the local pool early in the morning: the warm seawater was simply marvelous. It’s a pity the pool is small.

Visibility gradually began to worsen, and by noon, there was a “whiteout,” which is when any idea of distances is lost, everything shines, and nothing can be seen – a combination of snow, fog, and sun.

There are more and more zones of clear water, and fewer and fewer ice fields… Visibility improves at times, but most of the time, we move in dense fog.

   Saturday, July 23

Last night, we reached Franz Josef Land.

The archipelago was accidentally discovered by an Austrian expedition under the command of Julius Payer and Karl Weiprecht that was intended to find the Northeast Passage.  The wooden steam sailing ship “Tegetthof,” which had become trapped by ice near the coast of Novaya Zemlya in June of 1872, and, after many months of drifting in August of 1873, was carried to some unknown islands. As a result of the some sled expeditions in the spring of the following year, the first map of the archipelago, named Franz Josef Land, was compiled. Participants in the expedition were able to use lifeboats to reach Novaya Zemlya, where they encountered a Russian commercial vessel, which transported them to Norway.

At 9:42, decent visibility, we are traveling along the Yermak Strait, between the islands Hayes and Champ.

Coordinates: N80°40'; E57°48'. Speed is 13 knots; direction, 88°.

Arctic skua (<i>Stercorarius parasiticus</i>)
Arctic skua (Stercorarius parasiticus) View big version
Walruse in Yermak Strait
Walruse in Yermak Strait View big version

Most of the islands is covered by glaciers. The shores consist of, for the most part, ice or rock cliffs that rise up into the low clouds. We passed Champ Island. We were only able to get a good luck at the narrow Braun Strait between it and Salisbury Island only when we were athwart it. Ice floes float everywhere; on some of them are resting walruses. We come across some small icebergs.

We headed north to Cape Heller (Wilczek Island), where we found thick fog. Because of that, a helicopter landing is impossible. We decided to return to Hayes Island, where the weather continued to be good.

The polar station on Hayes Island
The polar station on Hayes Island View big version
Wreckages of the civilization
Wreckages of the civilization View big version

We approached the polar station (E.T. Krenkel integrated hydrometeorological station) and tried to get in touch using the radio – the shore does not reply… We sent the helicopter. It turned out that there are people on the station, they’re just not listening to the radio… We had expected a welcome with bread and salt, even wanted to take along a bottle of vodka. Alas, they were not glad to see us, and the place where we were allowed to land the helicopter was not the most convenient.

May be will sail?
May be will sail? View big version
First saxifrages
First saxifrages View big version

With interest, we discovered a post office. Apparently, this is the Arkhangelsk Region (we thought it was Murmansk). The station is located on Cape Observatory, around a small fresh-water lake.

Northernmost post-office in Russia
Northernmost post-office in Russia Enlarge photo
Before, this place buzzed with life. 120 people worked here and conducted glacio- and meteo- observation and launched meteosound balloons. From here, in synchronization with Molodezhnaya Station (Antarctica), they periodically set off meteorological rockets for measuring the geomagnetic field. There were regular planes bound for Dixon, Moscow, Leningrad…

One of these planes (IL-14) crashed either during takeoff or landing in the 80s, and it is still lying there among the tractors and cars that have had their day. Over the decades of work, the polar scientists have managed to crap up a huge territory – there is rusting metal everywhere, and, more than anything, diesel barrels.

The station was abandoned several years ago and restored on October 12, 2004.  There aren’t many people, and most of the houses stand empty.

We saw the ice floes floating in the Gidrosever Strait.  On the slope of the southern exposure, we found the first saxifrage (Saxifraga), the species of which we couldn’t determine. For the first time, we saw an ivory gull (Pagophila eburnea). It’s sad to wander about abandoned places. Better to have landed in a wild place!

Champ Island
Champ Island View big version
Markham Strait
Markham Strait View big version

The next landing is the island of Champ, untouched by civilization. A narrow valley leads down from the glacier to the sea, creating a gently sloping shore. It is filled with morainic deposits, which are covered with tundra in places. The north side of the gently sloping bank is bordered by the glacier; from the south, by rock cliffs with rookeries. Nests of the tiny-tailed arctic skuas (Stercorarius parasiticus), which attack anyone who dares to approach them, are hidden in the grass. We managed to notice only one chick.

Skua's chick
Skua's chick View big version
Arctic skua attacks!
Arctic skua attacks! View big version

In places, the moss creates a continuous multicolored carpet. In the short grass, we encounter strikingly pretty flowers: purple saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositofolia), arctic cinquefoil (Potentilla hyparctica), snow buttercups (Ranunculus nivalis), and arctic poppies (Papaver radicatum).

Purple saxifrages (<i>Saxifraga oppositofolia</i>)
Purple saxifrages (Saxifraga oppositofolia) View big version
Snow buttercups (<i>Ranunculus nivalis</i>)
Snow buttercups (Ranunculus nivalis) View big version

We ascended to the round rocks along the old moraine. All of them, from the small to the huge ones, according to Susan Currie, our geologist, formed in the depths of the earth, layer by layer, similar to the was pearls grow in seashells…

Northern carpet
Northern carpet View big version
Speres on Champ Island
Speres on Champ Island View big version

It was already late in the evening when a “whale alarm” was declared – three humpbacks within a mile and a half of the starboard beam. We, to tell the truth, saw only one. The whale was following a parallel course, without changing direction, probably feeding. He wasn’t up to any acrobatics.

Bowhead whale (<i>Balaena mysticetus</i>)
Bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) View big version
The dark tail, no patterns
The dark tail, no patterns View big version

His tail amazed me – dark below, without any kind of design of the kind that, like fingerprints, usually identifies humpbacks. And the shape of the tail was completely different – it’s more likely that this was a representative of the scarce tribe of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus), which live in the Barents Sea.

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