Above the Arctic Circle
We sat precariously on the edge of a rubber Zodiac boat, all suited up in four layers of warmth, as hues of our royal blue expedition parkas bounced off the sun. Positioned at 78°N and 15°E above the Arctic Circle, 22° latitude shy of the North Pole, we faced the Samarinbreen Glacier. Our boat driver, Arctic Expedition Leader, Chris, asked for five minutes of Arctic Silence, a slice of time I treasured during our journey to the “top of the world.”
Arctic Silence is magical. High-tech cameras and phones stop clicking, chatter among Zodiac companions cease, we listen to the hush of nature, we hear the living glacier breathing, heaving, and calving. These periods of total silence felt like the most impactful moments of peace and quiet I have experienced in 75 years.
The international expedition team of 17 knowledgeable, rugged men and women choose to live in Longyearbyen, on Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago, with 2,500 other souls in this most northern, inhabited town in the world. I sensed why they have given up their fast-paced lives to work together like a humming machine, to share the mysteries and the harsh realities of this majestic, remote, treeless place. Imposing mountains, pristine water, glacial ice, diving birds, cetaceans, pinnipeds, polar bears, and land mammals fill the Arctic, not people. Although a seasoned travel writer, I feel unequipped to capture the magnificence of this complex biosphere in words. One must caress the vastness, the desolation, the changeable, at times dangerous, conditions, the bite of the wind whipping against your face, or the joy of a sun’s ray warming it.
The small ship M/V Ocean Diamond, chartered exclusively by Overseas Adventure Travel for five separate Arctic expeditions over summer 2022, is designed for both North and South Polar voyages. It served as our home base for nine days, the last of the expeditions before the cruel Arctic winter and the dark months-long, polar night sets in.
We spent five days in Oslo, Norway’s sophisticated capital, before our flight to Longyearbyen, the gateway for all tourists going on Svalbard expeditions. Complaints about my prisoner window seat on our chartered flight melted like cotton candy, when I spotted a huge pod of white Beluga whales, skimming along the surface of crystal waters; my first encounter with Arctic life even before we landed.
Once settled into our cabins, we tried on our pre-ordered knee-high rubber boots that felt like they weighed five pounds each and thin, non-cumbersome life jackets made for Zodiac travel. No one was allowed into the rubber crafts without these items. Boots that fit comfortably over insulated socks, and water-resistant outer pants became the most important pieces of expedition gear.
Twice daily Zodiac launches required travelers to suit up, clomp down two flights of stairs and safely board the boat without tipping it over. Wet landings meant stepping into shallow, icy water to reach the shore. Svalbard regulations prohibit more than 100 travelers on the outcroppings at one time. Travelers were divided into seven different color groups and each small unit had an assigned OAT Trip Leader to monitor his/her “color.” Our mentor, Laura, from Argentina, had earned her “bi-polar” status by leading Antarctica journeys, Jan.-Mar. and Arctic expeditions in the North’s season of perpetual sunlight. She was dynamite, but watched over her “purple” group with gentle and unobtrusive vigilance. I called her our mariposa, our butterfly.
The launch team wisely used this color scheme to schedule Zodiac send-offs at each site, with the timing precision of a Rolex; 10 guests to a Zodiac, one filled after another, with an expedition guide steering each motorized craft through the sea.
The only definite thing in the Arctic; nothing is. Carefully planned landing sites evaporated quicker than sweat from the skin. Changing weather, a rolling fog, unsafe swells, or a polar bear sighting required the team leader to expedite plan B. The polar bear, this “King of the Arctic” is the most feared and the most revered of any being. Before every landing, the scout team went first, climbed to the topmost points, and scanned the horizon with high-powered binoculars, their ready rifles slung over their shoulders. No traveler stepped foot on a landing site until the perimeter had been established, the bear alert team posted at pivotal positions. Their surveillance never ended until every traveler was safely back on the ship. They were first to arrive, last to leave, least in the spotlight, and aside from the expedition team leader, most important.
Landing sites included visiting an abandoned, marble-mining settlement, traipsing among Arctic reindeer, observing lazy walruses, examining a deserted cabin once overwintered by two female researchers, hundreds of Beluga whale bones, exploring Wanny Wolstad’s cabin, the legendary female trapper of polar bears in the 1940s, and hiking to the stunning nesting canyon for thousands of black-footed kittiwakes.
The ultimate encounter happened on Day 7 of the expedition. An excited Chris announced, “My dear travelers, we have spotted a young, male polar bear along the shore. Everyone, suit up warmly. We will begin loading Zodiacs in 15 minutes.” My husband and I managed to don long underwear, two pairs of socks, jeans, boots, water-resistant pants, fleece shirts, parkas, gloves, beanies, binoculars, cameras, and life vests in under three minutes. I didn’t think golden agers could move so fast. Soon, 16 black Zodiacs, filled with ubiquitous blue parkas, were positioned offshore in direct line with this “superbly adapted, top-of-the-food-chain predator of the Arctic.”
He moved with grace, despite his massive size and lumbering paws. A curious bear, he stopped often, gazed with dark eyes toward the strange black crafts dotted with a blur of blue-coated creatures. We continued to follow him, cameras snapping, binoculars straining to capture every strand of white fur, his every step. We had inched so close, we could see the twitch of his ears, his black nostrils sniffing the air. He plunged into the icy waters, stood erect, and his upper torso emerged, as if to announce, “I am king here.” After a refreshing dip, he returned to the shore, shook the excess water from his coat and strained his neck backwards to check on his pursuers. He surveyed the upcoming glacier and apparently spotted the bearded seal lazing on an ice float. The bear disappeared into the water, without a sound or a splash. He emerged from his dive onto the occupied slab and pounced on his prey, food he needed before the winter set in. But the seal was too quick, gone, denying the bear his catch. Enthusiasm spilled from the expedition team. Never had they observed a polar bear’s behavior to this degree. We had the thrill of tracking his movements for six miles, an iconic, privileged three hours.
Excitement about the unexpected “bear” miracle at the evening briefing faded as the ship’s somber captain revealed the devastating news. The ship’s boiler providing hot water and heat had failed and could not be repaired. The ship’s interior did feel much colder that day. Our Arctic exploration had to be cut short, return to Longyearbyen required. Disappointed blue parkas were now worn inside the ship. We cocooned under piles of blankets during the night. One full day “at sea” allowed the expedition team time to wow us with lectures on north pole climate change, and past polar bear encounters.
When we left Longyearbyen a week before, the brown permafrost landscape looked dirty, muddy tracks from summer thaw, cloudy skies threatening. Upon our arrival back in port, the backdrop took my breath. A sense of peace and a fresh mantle of snow had fallen over the settlement, weighing on simple frame structures, the mountains more majestic. Now I understood the signs posted at the edges of town: Polar Bear Alert: Do not pass this point without a firearm.
Chris arranged two, final launches near port, the Tunabreen glacier and the cathedral cliffs at Skansbutka. A sadness prevailed as we donned our Arctic layers for the last time.
Now, back on Mexican soil, with earthquakes rattling, snarled traffic, and responsibilities clamoring for attention, I crave that Arctic silence. The things that demanded notice there seemed so innocent. Polar Bears prowling for food, blubbered walrus groans, squeaking bearded seals, shorebirds, buntings, gulls and geese squawking and dizzying heights of mountain peaks that projected us as specks. We had previously explored Antarctica. Now, with images of an Arctic expedition, my husband and I can truly call ourselves Bi-Polar.
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