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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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°.
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°.
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 “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°.
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.
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.
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.
Tuesday, July 19
At 7:30, the bright sun illuminated the deserted ice, along which crept a layer of fog.
For the most part, the ice is now of a two-year thickness of 2.5-3.5 m, and it’s more concentrated, but fractures can still be seen. Cracks appear in the ice both parallel and perpendicular to the path of the icebreaker.
The ice floes pile one on top of another, break apart more and more, and turn over. It is then that one can see their thickness and layered structure. Fountains of water gush from the cracks.
On the ice, there are many meltwater puddles of a beautiful turquoise color, and when the cracks pass through a puddle, a current is created in it, and the fresh water flows into the sea in a small waterfall.
By 15:00 cracks have appeared in the ice, along which we plot our course. Our speed has increased; now there is hope of reaching the Pole as early as today.
Pre-dinner drinks with the captain of the ship. Wine, appetizers, many questions for the captain, who takes care not to promise anything, but offers hope.
At 1:38, we reached the North Pole, news that was met with general jubilation and the drinking of Champagne. The sun appears; over the Pole, the sky is blue. There is a wall of fog around us. It is as if the place is enchanted…
We decided to take advantage of the weather and fly around the Pole. Our group turned out to be last in line.
All of a sudden, Jan Bryde made the following announcement: “There is a Russian submarine seven miles away from us! And that is not a joke!” We ran out onto the bridge. The crew is laughing at him: it’s only a piece of dark ice. I look through my binoculars – and it’s a sub, there can be no mistake about that! I went down into the cabin and photographed it from the window. Though it was far away, the new lens allowed me to get a shot of satisfactory quality.
The helicopter made a flight around the submarine; it showed no signs of life. Yan addressed it via Channel 16 with the words, “Submarine, submarine! This is icebreaker Yamal!. After the third time, the sub finally responded; we invited the submariners to celebrate the arrival at the Pole, but received an assured refusal.
When the ladies from different countries stated inviting them to drink Champagne with us, they refused with evident regret. The information that among us there is a girl from Brazil aroused a real frenzy of delight in the American sailors.
That the sub belongs to the US Navy there is no doubt; though they did not introduce themselves, American pronunciation is easily recognized.
The Navy refused to tell us precisely which sub we saw: “I'm sorry but we do not comment on the movements of our submarines.” Internet searches did not turn anything up either.
Wednesday, July 20
We stand at anchor a mile away from the North Pole, moored alongside a large ice floe. Calm, 4 °С. The crew has put out tables and barbecue grills and created places for bathing.
The morning fog has dissipated. Sun, blue sky. The traditional circle dance around the “North Pole 90N” sign.
Swimming in the ocean. It’s not necessary to make a hole in the ice; the space between the icebreaker and the ice floe has created a nice pool. The water burns, the traditional shot of vodka, a second, a terry robe. To bare feet, the snow seems warm… Off with the wet bathing suit! In dry clothes, it gets hot.
The floe is covered with a thick layer of firn, under which the water shows through. Hummocks and hunks of ice are everywhere, as well as many meltwater puddles with astonishingly delicious water (the crew filled all the empty canisters). A complete ice cap does not exist even on the Pole – here and there, cracks and air holes can be seen. The ice does not stand in one place, but drifts westward with a speed of 3 miles every 24 hours.
Barbecue, mulled wine, wine, and beer.
At 16:00, the icebreaker shuddered, turned around, and began to retrace its course. We followed the old canal, blocked now by chunks and pieces of ice. The weather is windless, which is why the canal is well-preserved.
By evening, the fog has disappeared completely. The meltwater puddles flash in the sun. They look like countless small lakes in the tundra. Ridges of hummocks divide the ice into zones, the way stone boundaries divide fields in England. Openings in ice appear again, and there are many cracks going in all directions. The midnight sun shines from the stern, and the icebreaker moves toward a spreading rainbow (“mistbow”).
Thursday, July 21
At 10:45, fog; visibility 300-400 m, –2 °С, no wind.
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°.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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).
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…
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.
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.
Sunday, July 24
At 8:38, an absolutely calm sea, a cloud cover of ~200 m, no wind. Coordinates: N80°23'; E56°26'. We drift in the inner waters of Franz Josef Land.
The islands, covered with a cap of clouds, the islands are reflected in a mirror of water. We landed on Alger’s Island, next to Camp Ziegler. In the beginning of the last century, William Ziegler, president of the Royal Baking Powder Company (USA), financed two expeditions to the North Pole.
The second expedition (1903-1905), led by Anthony Fiala, mounted three unsuccessful attempts to reach the Pole, but gathered a broad range of scientific material and compiled the best map of the time of Franz Josef Land. The vessel of the expedition, the yacht “America,” did not survive the first winter, and the expedition was evacuated by the rescue vessel “Terra Nova” in 1905.
In the place of the camp, there are the remains of structures, barrels of rusted granulated iron used for the derivation of hydrogen for meteo-sounding balloons, boards, ropes, steel netting of an unusual weave, scraps of various pieces of equipment. Both the iron and the wood preserves well in this climate.
The shore terrace is a former sea floor: there is sand, small rocks, shells. Fairly high up, we saw a piece of driftwood that had lain here for several hundred years, which bore further witness to the raising of the island.
All the creek beds are blocked by snow. Rivulets can only be seen somewhere.
The sparse alpine azaleas (Loiselauria procumbens) inspire amazement: how can they grow in this lifeless arctic desert? Firedot lichens (possibly Caloplaca feracissima) burn fiery on the rocks. The local basalt is corroded by the frost, creating interesting compositions.
We were forced to reject our original plan of going south along the narrow Negri Strait because of the thick fog. Along the Aberdare Strait, we moved into the open ocean and approached Cape Flora. Thick fog and strong wind. We decided to try our luck under the protection of the islands.
We met the icebreaker Captain Dranitsyn, which greeted us with a blast of its horn. The Yamal replied in a much more powerful bass.
Along the Mayers Strait, we went north. The mirror-like stillness of the sea, the ripples of clouds, illuminated by the sun, views of unimaginable beauty. Many birds: guillemots, kittiwakes, arctic fulmars.
Shortly after dinner, we reached the Tikhaya Bay, where we landed on an abandoned polar station.
Next to the helicopter pad, there is a cross dedicated to the two winters spent here by the participants of the expedition led by G. Y. Sedov on the vessel Saint Phocus (Sviatoj Foka 1912-1914).
The station was established in 1929. At that time, it was the northernmost (80°20') polar station. Most of the famous polar explorers of the 30s have been here.
In 1959, the polar observatory was moved to Hayes Island, and in the 90s, the station was closed.
One doesn’t get such a dispiriting impression here as one does on Hayes Island, possibly thanks to the spring flowering.
On this more western island, it seems, the climate is milder – there is an abundance of flowers: arctic poppies, snow buttercups, purple saxifrage, tufted saxifrage (Saxifraga caespitosa).
Reindeer lichen (Cladonia rangiferina), which was not found on the other islands, also grows here
We did not immediately understand the nature of the current, which carried the ice floes and small icebergs from the bay with great speed; it is probably caused by the low tide.
Next to the bay stands the Rubini cliff, on which a great many birds nest: guillemots, kittiwakes, fulmars, little auks (Plautus alle), glaucous gulls (Larus hyperboreus).
Birds fly out of and return to their nests, there is an unimaginable din, and the smell is strong as well.
Monday, July 25
At 8:28, fog, a temperature of 1 °С, no wind. Coordinates: N79°58'; E49°06'. We drift in the inner waters of Franz Josef land. We await the appropriate weather for a landing on Bell Island. There is always a chance that the fog will sink, and we will be stuck on the shore. The decision to make an overflight of the islands without landing is made.
On the northern end of the island there stands a house built by the expedition of Benjamin Leigh Smith in 1881 to serve as a base. As a result of the labors of the expedition, Aleksandra Land, George Land, the British (Britansky) Channel, and a set of small islands were discovered, and valuable scientific collections were gathered.
In August of 1881, the yacht was crushed by ice floes near Cape Flora, and the difficult circumstances did not allow the crew to reach its prepared encampment. They had to spend the winter in a refuge built from wreckage and rocks. In the summer of the following year, the expedition successfully reached Novaya Zemlya on lifeboats.
And so we also drew up to the historic Cape Flora on Northbrook Island. The wind did not permit us to make a landing, but we came close enough to get a good look at the memorial cross and the remains of the structures of the base of the expedition of Frederick George Jackson (1894—1896). It was here that Fridtjof Nansen and Frederick Johansen landed after their unsuccessful attempt to reach the Pole and half a year of wandering about the drifting ice floes and wintering in the north part of Franz Josef Land. In 1914, this base saved the life of the navigator Valerian Albanov and the sailor Alexander Konrad – the two surviving participants of the expedition on the schooner St. Anne…
Tuesday, July 26
At 8:39, we sail on the open sea, 2 °С, the wind is north-northeast 8m/s, the sky is gray, the visibility is good . Coordinates are N76°47'; E43°14'. Speed is 19 knots; direction, 200°.
Head mechanic Aleksandr Kuz’min led an excursion through the “bowels” of the ship… Not even in our most audacious dreams could we suppose that we would get to see a nuclear reactor with all its control elements!
Everything is gigantic: the boilers, the generators, the axles of the propellers, the bearings that are greased and cooled with seawater, the colossal mechanism of the steerage…
That evening, a charity auction was conducted for the project of preservation of polar bears organized by the World Wildlife Fund. The most expensive lot – a map of the Arctic with our route superimposed on it and with drawings by Lucia de Leiris and a bunch of signatures and stamps – went for $17,000! We had never seen such a thing before…
Wednesday, July 27
At 8:47, we sail on the open sea, the sky is the same gray, the wind has shifted to the north with a speed of 11 m/s. In spite of that, the temperature has risen to 6 °С. Coordinates: N71°00'; E34°42'. Speed is 14 knots; direction, 201°.
We moored the ship with the help of two tugboats. Farewell dinner, time to pack our things – the night is so short.
In the morning, we loaded our baggage into the bus that carried us beyond the gatehouse. With a group, leaving is easier. Yuri Kalabin kindly drove us to the hotel, where we left our things. A stroll through the city, a marvelous sauna – and then, home…
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