Wednesday, August 13, 2014

It’s An Adventure, Stupid - Not A Cruise


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When I awoke yesterday morning and looked outside, the ship was surrounded on all sides by icebergs; some many times larger than our ship. We were carefully picking our way through the ice covered waters, but that was complicated by the patches of fog, sometimes severely reducing visibility.


It has just been announced that a Humpback Whale is just starboard of the ship, and we are turning to approach ----- I’ll be back soon. “It is an adventure!” as I said.

What an incredible experience. The Captain maneuvered the vessel close to the whale and then shadowed it for some time. At one point, the whale was jumping completely out of the water to feed, and the Captain stopped the ship. We drifted in silence completely enthralled by the spectacle. Eventually the giant whale rolled on its back, and for the longest time beat its giant flippers against the water; each time producing a loud thunderous “smacking” sound. The sound of clicking cameras was likewise somewhat thunderous as everyone, and I mean everyone, was outside snapping away. Having just now come back to the room, I simply could not wait to take a peek at my pictures, and “hallelujah,” after all these years; I finally got my picture of a broaching whale! In fact, I got quite a few and I am so happy--I could – smile!


So back to my narrative: we planned to go into Ilulissat in the morning and have a walking tour. Then in the afternoon, local boats were going to take us on a two hour cruise among the icebergs. Nature, however, had other plans. Eventually, the fog cleared where we were located, but it never cleared in the small town – not even enough that the local boats could come out to our ship. So in a creative “tour de ’force,” our Captain used the Explorer itself to give us a wonderful tour of the ice in the morning, and in the afternoon, they lowered the zodiacs (the small motorized rafts) and we got to ride in them among the giant icebergs. What a thrill!

I need to provide a little more in the way of explanation about the icebergs and why Ilulissat is important. This community, which is the third largest in Greenland, is immediately adjacent to the most active glacier in the northern hemisphere. Greenland is one giant ice cap. In fact 81% of Greenland is covered by this massive body of ice. As new snow is continually added to the top of the glacier, the pressure slowly forces the ice sheet to spread outwards. It is somewhat similar to the way in which the lava flows from a volcano. In some cases, these ice flows reach the ocean and when that happens, the ice being pushed forward eventually breaks off in big chunks and falls into the water; there to find its balance point and float away as what we call an iceberg. The glacier next to the town of Ilulissat is called the Jakoshavn Icefjord. This glacier alone produces nearly 20 million tons of ice each and every day; and as such it is known as the “birthplace of icebergs.” Historians are almost certain in fact that the iceberg which was hit by the Titanic originated here.

So yesterday and today we have been cruising among massive structures of ice which have all been generated by the Jakoshavn Glacier. When we eventually turn to the West and travel to Canadian waters, we will leave the glaciers behind and instead have to deal with sea ice. This is ice that is formed when the very ocean itself freezes during the cold winter months.

This then brings me to an important briefing given to the entire ship yesterday afternoon. At the current time the sea ice in the northern reaches of Canada is too thick for safe passage, even in a vessel that has an ice hardened hull. However, the Captain and the staff are all in agreement that it does appear that in a few days’ time, we should safely be able to make our journey. At the current time, a Canadian Icebreaker is attempting to transit along our future route and information from her passage will provide us with valuable information on which to base a decision.

Therefore – forget the beautiful schedule carefully printed up by Home Office, it is time for an Adventure. It has been decided that we will remain in Greenland waters for the next three days and then hopefully start our journey to the West to Canada. Last night we remained out at sea near Ilulissat with the hope that perhaps first thing this morning, we could finally go ashore. However, that did not materialize. So the ship has traveled north to the small and remote village of Saqqaq where we got to go ashore and walk around this morning. The village is home to perhaps 150 people; there were almost as many people on the ship as lived in Saqqaq.

It was a colorful location, and the bay in which it was located was loaded with icebergs – gigantic icebergs. Apparently as the icebergs move off the Jakobshavn Glacier some of them are blown by the winds northward into the fjord which leads to Saqqaq. Here they become grounded, and so they will stay until they die – meaning eventually they will melt away. But for now, they provide a fantastic backdrop to the picturesque little village.

After landing, we slowly walked to the top of a small hill to the town church, and inside found a surprisingly serene and warm atmosphere.DSC01370 After the church, we walked around the town and I walked a little further than Lisa to reach a wooden scaffold on which were hung about seven skinned harbor seals. These were hung to dry and cure, and will be used as a food source. Even though the little harbor was filled with small ice chunks everywhere, there were a large number of small fishing boats at anchor. From what we could see, fishing is the main income and food source for the natives. We never saw a car, but only dirt bikes. The “roads” if you can call them that, do not go to any other town. There is no airport, although there was a helicopter pad. The native-peoples were friendly, but shy. Essentially they paid us little attention as they went about their day. The only things that paid any attention to us were the young puppies of the working dogs and the mosquitoes. First the dogs: dogs here are considered “working dogs” and once they reach a certain age, they will be chained to the ground and will spend their entire lives outside. If a working dog is taken inside, I have been told that it is ruined as a working animal. As for the mosquitoes: we had been warned that even though it was late in the season, it was still possible in the right conditions for them to swarm around us. So far I had not encountered any, and even when we arrived at Saqqaq there were no signs of the little darlings. Suddenly conditions must have changed, and before I knew it, I was surrounded by a swarm of them. There were so many, I could not swat them away, and I even inhaled one by accident and I could not get it out of my throat – I almost threw up, but managed to get back on the boat without embarrassing myself.

After this visit, our ship turned north, cruising for about 3 hours before reaching an abannoned coal mine and the rather large town that surrounded it. If we wanted, they would take us ashore for what is known as a “wet” landing, and we could walk around. To tell the truth, after grabbing a quick lunch I lay down for a quick nap before this second visit of the day, and when I woke up I found that the visit had come and gone. When I ran outside to get some pictures, the zodiacs were bringing guests back to the ship and we are now moving on.

I can’t tell you exactly where we are going next nor how we are going to get there. The comment was made yesterday that this ship will arrive into Nome, Alaska exactly as scheduled, but how that gets done remains to be seen.

Oh, I did ask yesterday if we were the “first” passenger ship to traverse the North West Passage as I had heard; it seems that we are not the first to make this trip. It has been done by several icebreakers, but I would not exactly call them passenger ships. A few foreign ships carrying passengers have made the trip, but in over 20 years, probably no more than 10 times. So while we may not be the first, we are one of the early adventurers, and I can guarantee you, we are on the most luxurious ship to ever make the trip.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

Say It Ain’t So!

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Well, we found our ship in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland! And no, I still cannot pronounce it!

Believe it or not, our experience leaving Denmark was actually civil. I screwed up my alarm, and we were awakened by a phone call announcing both that our car was ready to take us to the airport and that room service was on their way up. Grrrrrr!! So we skipped any breakfast, slammed things into our suitcases, and ran like hell for the waiting car for fear that at 6am in the morning if it did not wait, it might not be easy to get a quick ride to the airport. All of this was my fault, but hey, I am human. We did make the airport in time for our flight on Air Greenland. Security in Denmark is actually an efficient and civil affair. We did not have to take our shoes off, and while they did check our carryon bags, they did not frisk Lisa. In fact, the entire process was in stark contrast to our TSA.

Our flight to Greenland was six hours, and I was so exhausted that I fell asleep before we even left the gate and only woke up as we were about to land. Lisa tells me that the flight was extremely rough with what she would describe as extreme turbulence at times – all of which was news to me. Anyway, we left Copenhagen at 9am and landed at Greenland at 9:40am. The only problem with landing so early in the morning is that the ship has not had time to disembark its passengers, and in turn, clean the ship and have it ready for the new arrivals. Since this voyage is full, turning the ship over, is a big deal. Just to add to the fun, our ship was not able to actually reach the dock. The runoff from the glaciers this year has been so great that the harbor was silted over and so the ship had to anchor several miles downstream. This meant that every piece of baggage going on and off had to be put on a barge and transported to and from the ship. The passengers, meanwhile, got the thrill of immediately having to join the ship by small motorized rafts known as Zodiacs. None of us were dressed appropriately, but everyone was up for an adventure. Interestingly, at our first gathering, rather than asking for a show of hands of people who had sailed the Explorer before, they instead ask for a show of hands of first time members. Almost no hands went up, meaning that virtually everyone on this cruise has been on the ship before.

So, in order to allow time to prepare the ship, arrangements had been made for us to tour the “town” and surrounding areas for almost 3 hours. Everyone was dead tired, it was cold, windy and there was a heavy drizzle. All in all, it was not a fun experience, but everyone took it in stride, understanding the situation.

I did learn some interesting things. For one thing why is there a town at Kangerlussuaq anyway? As we found out on our drive there really was not much there – except one thing: the airport. The airport has a runway capable of handling almost any size aircraft. It was built by the United States during the Second World War and was kept active until sometime in the 80’s. At that point, the base was sold to Denmark for $1. Service to and from Copenhagen is provided by Air Greenland using its one and only Airbus 300. From Kangerlussuaq, Air Greenland then provides local flights to the small communities around the coast of Greenland. The terminal is not much to look at, and many of the old buildings have been abandoned. Air Greenland maintains a maintenance hangar as does the Danish Government. Even though Greenland is part of Denmark, it has achieved a large measure of independence. It has its own Parliament and handles its own affairs. They defer to Denmark for defense and foreign policy.

Finally, we made the ride out to our ship, and I must say that it felt very much like coming home. We know a fair number of the crew and officers. The afternoon was a whirlwind of activity. A quick lunch, unpacking for a 90 day voyage, 30 min. to nap, mandatory safety briefing, a lifeboat drill, a briefing for tomorrow’s events- quick shower, dinner and finally we collapsed into bed dead tired. Apparently after we traveled down the fjord from Kangerlussuaq to the open sea, the ship encountered rough seas, but once again I was so dead tired that I was completely unaware until this morning I awoke to find things moved around the cabin.

The really big news that came from our briefing is that our ability to make the transit through the so called “northwest passage” is far from certain at this time. In fact, if the decision had to be made today, then we would not be able to complete the journey because of the heavy ice remaining after this past winter. Our Captain is the gentleman I have known from previous trips, and there is no one that I trust more to make sound judgments. In addition, the Staff Captain is a woman that we got to know from previous cruises, and I know she has made this trip many times in icebreakers. In fact, she learned to be a helicopter pilot in order that she could scout ahead of the ship to locate the best route. Not only that, but Canada requires that the ship take an additional ice captain certified by Canadian authorities, so we will have plenty of expertise on the bridge to hopefully get us through. So far no one has explained what happens if the ship is not able to complete the journey – that could be interesting.

So departing Kangerlussuaq as I mentioned, the Explorer traveled down the fjord and entered the Baffin Bay. Then it headed north to our next destination, Sisimiut. This site has been inhabited for over 4,500 years. Today it is home to around 5,600 people, which makes it the second-largest town in Greenland. Its primary importance comes from the fact that it is the northernmost year-round ice-free port in Greenland.

When we arrived early this morning, the city was shrouded in a thick mist and constant drizzle. The ship offered several walks ranging from 3 miles to less ambitious, but equally interesting shorter strolls. We went for one of the shorter walks, and managed to get some pictures, but conditions were not good. Sadly we got to watch a beautiful home on a hilltop just above our ship catch on fire. The response from the local authorities was impressive, and luckily they were able to save the structure but it was badly smoke and water damaged

Shortly we will be departing for our next destination up the coast of Greenland. With any luck I will get this published before we lose internet.

Keep your fingers crossed…..


Friday, August 8, 2014

The Thrill Is Gone

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The Thrill Is Gone

Once upon a time the mere experience of travelling across the Atlantic to new destinations was in, and of itself a really thrilling adventure, and it was something to look forward to. Sadly, those days are gone only to be replaced by a floating anxiety about having to tolerate all the indignities that attend air travel today.

That being said, days before our departure both of us were becoming a little nervous, but poor Lisa was afflicted the most. She went through days of extreme anxiety, while I tried to calmly and sagely explain that “it would all work out.” Well, damn if she was not right and I was wrong.

On Wednesday, we headed off to the airport for our 22 hour journey to the city of Copenhagen in Denmark. Believe it or not, it took almost an hour to “check in” because the guy at the counter did not know the airport code for Copenhagen, and thus our boarding passes and luggage tags were all wrong. It is not a simple matter to correct those items once printed, and when he tried to do so, he had our departure date to Copenhagen all wrong. He thought we were spending a night in Chicago and then going on, rather than having us go straight on.

Once that was all completed, neither Lisa nor I were 100% sure that our routing was correct, but most importantly he had messed up our luggage tags so many times, and then in the end forgot to attach the “Priority” tags, that for all we knew our bags were going to Istanbul.

Finally out of excuses, we both approached the TSA screening with some anxiety, even though on both of our boarding passes it clearly stated that we were TSA “PRE-CHECK,” that should have insured a pretty painless screening. In reality, Kansas City is not setup for “Pre-Check” services so the only benefit I received was that I could leave my shoes on. Otherwise, it was the same rushed experience, but for me it was no more obnoxious than normal. When I finished the line, I looked behind to find Lisa, and found that she had been directed over to a personal screening area because with her metal knees, she could not go through the metal detector without setting off the alarm. Two TSA employees immediately descended on her. The first went off to tear into her carry-on items, while the other – well “the other” was a piece of work. She had been enjoying her donut when the call came, and she reluctantly put it up with a look of relish on her face at the coming encounter. She could not have weighed less than 350 lbs. and could barely waddle across the floor towards poor Lisa, who looked to the woman like Lisa was a slab of beef in a meat market. The big woman had a mean glean in her eye and as she “snapped” on her latex gloves, you could see that she was going to enjoy every minute of this “pat down.” I looked on from outside the screening area at this tragic play unfolding and could do nothing. Poor Lisa was stressed to say the least, and all I can tell you was that the screener was “extremely” thorough and there was no doubt that she was enjoying the “encounter.” Because of her extreme size, she could not reach around Lisa, and so she had to slowly circle to reach her victim, and when it came to bending down to inspect Lisa’s legs, why she could get only so far down; at which point Lisa had to sit down and put her feet up in the air so the woman could reach her knees and feet. I kept thinking to myself two things: “where do they find these people” and secondly “how in the world have we gotten into this mess?”

Shaken and embarrassed, Lisa was finally let go, and if her anxiety was high before, it was not out the top. The agent meanwhile went back to her donut and to await the next female victim. It took some time, but eventually we laughed because as I convinced Lisa, our crisis is out of the way – what else could go wrong. Those were famous last words.

The time comes to board our first flight, and I present my boarding pass first, with Lisa right next behind me in line. By the time, I got to the aircraft and turned around to help her lift her bag into the overhead – there was no Lisa, just a steady and relentless surging mass of people anxious to grab space in the overhead bins. Like a deranged salmon swimming upstream, I tried to exit the aircraft to find Lisa, but I was told that if I did so, I would not be allowed back on board. So I was stuck trying to figure out what in the world could have gone wrong now. Finally, Lisa is the last person to board and one look told me that she was close to losing it. With some effort, I finally got her to explain that they had taken her carry­-on bag and insisted it be checked to Copenhagen. “Why?” was my question? We had never had that problem before. We each carried a standard roller board. In addition, Lisa had a purse, and I had a small bag containing my CPAP breathing equipment. What was different about this trip was the fact that we had one addition small bag that contained some of the medicine for our 90 day trip. The gate agent was claiming that this was too many bags, and so one of them had to be checked.

Now a couple of things to understand: we have a house rule that only items that cannot be checked are put into carry-on. What is in the bags we carry is considered essential. By way of example, cameras, medicine, laptop, iPads, money, etc. To let one of those bags out of our possession is a BIG DEAL. What are the chances that a bag with a nice camera in it will go through Chicago get transferred to SAS air and that it will arrive into Copenhagen? You can answer the question for yourself. In addition, we had carefully checked in advance the baggage policy of every airline we were flying, and both my CPAP machine and Lisa’s purse were excluded items. This was a disaster in the making--BIG TIME. Once everyone was seated the gate agent came to the cabin door and I ran to her to see if I could reason some sense into her. She finally threw up her hands and said “if you can find a place to put that bag in the cabin, I will get it for you.” Thinking she had me, I ran to our overhead and pulled out a small bag, located the owner, and asked permission to put it under out seat. He agreed, and then I went back to the agent, who reluctantly had one of the line agents go and locate Lisa’s bag and bring it to me. Just before the door closed, she once again boarded the aircraft and gave me a big speech in front of everyone about how she was breaking every regulation in the book, and that if an FAA inspector should see this, the airline would be fined. She admonished me to solve this problem before we tried to board our SAS flight later that evening because we would have this problem all over again.

Seeing how many bags most people manage to carry onto an airplane, I just could not imagine what was driving this agent. I asked the cabin attendant, and she did not know the answer, but she agreed to go look it up when she had time and get back to me. When she did it appears that “Republic Airlines” does not recognize a CPAP device as an excluded item, and that was the problem. Whoa----Republic Airlines? We were flying American Airlines to Chicago, holding American Tickets, flying on an aircraft painted in American colors, BUT being operated by Republic. No, we had not checked the policy of Republic on cabin bags.

Our flight to Chicago was over an hour late, but that did not matter because we had allowed on purpose a 5 hour layover. During dinner, we decided to ignore the lady’s suggestions for the simple reason: we had already looked into the policies of SAS and could see no problem.

After a quick airport style dinner in Chicago, we had to change to the international terminal, which meant that once again we had to go through the TSA screening. The lines were many and breathtakingly long. Here, however, there were no fat ladies lying in wait for Lisa and because they had the newer screening machines, we both sailed through without incident. By the time it came around to boarding our 10pm flight to Copenhagen, we both literally fell asleep in our seats and stayed that way until they awakened us for breakfast.

We arrived into Copenhagen around 2pm and when we reached our hotel at 3, we both fell asleep. A quick dinner and then back to bed- we just do not handle these time changes too well anymore. We awoke this morning to a beautiful day. DSC00654Temperature around 73 degrees and sunny skies; so we walked around some this morning, got lunch, and now we are getting ready for an early departure tomorrow.

As incredible as this may sound, we flew 9 hours East to Copenhagen just so we could catch a flight tomorrow that will take us 6 hours back to the West to Kangerlussuaq in Greenland (and no, I do not yet know how to spell it!).

So wish us luck on another “thrilling” day travelling by air, and by the next time I write, hopefully we will finally have found our ship.