Wednesday, July 19, 2017

For the Last Time

July 5, 2017

For the Last Time

Today is Wednesday, July 5th, and we are sailing south across the Barents Sea, which is now completely free of ice. Gone is the constant vibration of driving through hard ice, and gone, too, is the ever present crunching sound, which made even normal conversation somewhat difficult. We will sail all day tomorrow through similar conditions in order to reach our final destination, Murmansk, Russia. From there, it will be a long journey home. So from where I sit today, the end is in sight. However, as I look back, I see that I last wrote on July 3rd, shortly after I had the incredible opportunity of driving this magnificent ship. So much has happened in the interim, that it is almost impossible to believe. Once we left the North Pole I think that most of us felt as if the trip was over, but that turned out to be far from the actual truth. So let us go back to the afternoon of July 3rd, and let me bring you forward on our incredible adventure.

By early afternoon on the 3rd, the low clouds and fog of the morning had disappeared, leaving a landscape of incredible beauty. The skies were a brilliant blue with wisps of white clouds. The sun was low on the horizon, all of which combined to produce stunningly beautiful photographs. The ship’s Expedition Leader clearly recognized the situation because just prior to dinner, he put our meals on hold, and commenced helicopter operations for a tour around the ship, in order that we could get photographs of the ship as it plowed through the ice. You will recall that once we start helicopter operations they go on for at least four to five hours; so we could hear the helicopter from our room as it roared long into the night. I guess using the word “night” is a little bit of a misnomer because it never gets dark. At around 10 PM, the ship entered the northern parts of Franz Josef Land. You will recall that this is a group of 192 uninhabited islands in the far northern reaches of the Russian Arctic, and that it is designated as a Russian National Park. So in addition to the incredibly clear skies and beautiful ice, we now had the magical vista of rising mountains partly shrouded at times in snow and mist.

As luck would have it, the morning of July 4th, “Independence Day”, dawned with the same clear brilliant skies as when we had gone to bed. No sooner had we all sat down and to have breakfast, then there was a “polar bear” call. Running from the table, grabbing our jackets and cameras, and running outside, we found a mama polar bear with one cub slowly walking along the ice. Our vessel, as it has done each time we encountered polar bears, turned in order to get closer. The mother and cub slowly continued to walk along the ice, and they seemed to be very much oblivious to our presence. We were able to get some very good photographs.

By early afternoon, conditions were so perfect that the ship decided to launch an unscheduled zodiac trip out across the clear water and towards the face of several glaciers nearby. We were out in the water for around 90 minutes during which we were surrounded with incredible beauty. I would really suggest that you take a moment to look at the photographs to appreciate what I am saying. As we cruised along, the sky was full of small black and white birds buzzing in all directions. It was then that I noticed that the waters around us were also full of these cute little creatures which were bobbing along like rubber ducks. They were in fact “Little Auks.” They were a really cute little bird, and they seemed to share some of the characteristics of a penguin. When startled or approached, they would use their wings to propel themselves rapidly across the surface of the water, or with a tip of their beaks, they could disappear underneath. At other times, they would take flight as we approached. Our zodiac driver explained that the little bird was trying to decide where the greatest danger was coming from. If they perceived it as being from above, then they would dive, whereas if they perceived it is coming from below, they would take flight. Whatever, they were adorable, and the water and skies were full of them.

Floating away from the glaciers were several large icebergs which we approached and photographed. I asked the zodiac driver if he could retrieve some pieces of glacial ice to take back to the ship and use later for our drinks. He did just that, and let me tell you that is it a tremendous amount of fun to use a 10,000-year-old piece of ice to cool your scotch!

During our ride, at times we would simply turn off the motor and float in the quiet stillness of the Arctic wilderness. You could hear the glaciers as giant chunks of ice would calve and fall into the ocean. Usually when that happened, you would hear what sounded like a rifle shot, followed shortly thereafter by the splash of ice as it entered the water. It was a magical land, but it can just as easily turn threatening, something I will come back to just a little later. To give you some idea of the situation in which I found myself, I took so many photographs that for the first time ever I completely used up the battery in my camera before returning to the ship. In fact, I have so many photographs, I simply do not know how I am going to get through them all – but I do know that it be a joy in doing so.

After a late lunch, the ship spent the afternoon cruising among the islands of Franz Josef Land. At one point, we pulled within 3 meters, or approximately 9 feet of the face of a gigantic glacier. Standing on the bow you almost felt as if you could reach out and touch the ice. Later we cruised further south to a famous site known as Rubini Rock. This rock is of a unique basalt crystalline structure, similar to Devil’s Tower in the US. Once again the ship was able to position itself to where it was almost touching the rock. The rock surface served as a nesting site for huge colonies of sea birds. All around the sky was full of birds flying, and the rock surface was itself alive with activity and nesting. It was really interesting to watch how the different species of birds each found a particular location to claim as their own. So you might see the Little Auks lined up in a row on a very narrow ledge, while just above them gulls would be nesting. I cannot begin to name all of the different bird species that we saw, but it was truly an incredible site!

In view of the fact that yesterday was July 4th, our table of five Americans requested a special cake so that we might celebrate our “Independence Day.” We had hoped to get a sparkler, but the ship felt that that would cause too many other groups to want something similar, so they were accommodating in providing the cake, but not the sparkler. We provided that! This is perhaps a good time to note that of the 113 passengers on this vessel, there are only five of us Americans. We eventually managed to locate each other, and now sit at a table together surrounded by groups of other nationalities. In fact, there are 28 different nationalities represented on this vessel. Whenever an announcement is made, or a lecture given, it is immediately translated into five languages. These are English, German, Japanese, Chinese, and Russian. Indeed the five of us seem to be just about the only people who booked our tours individually and directly with Poseidon Expeditions. Everyone else is here as part of a larger group. So for example there is a group from Australia/New Zealand who are here under the sponsorship of Captain’s Choice, a well-known travel agency in Australia; similarly there are groups of Japanese, Chinese, Germans, and Russians. It has been a little bit of a problem to be truthful because the tour leaders of these groups have taken it upon themselves to make arrangements with the ship to reserve groups of tables for those in their care, which pretty much means that those of us who are independent have had to fend for ourselves. In any event, we loyally celebrated July 4th, even as everyone looked on as if we were crazy.

After dinner, the ship had intended to use the zodiacs to make a landing at Hooker Island. Located there was the Russian Polar Station of Tikhaya Buktha. It was established in 1929, by the Soviet Union, but it was later abandoned. Today it has been partially restored by the Park Service. Located there is a store which sells souvenirs, and a small post office for sending letters and cards. Of course, after the tourist depart, the last zodiac takes the mail back to our ship, where it is deposited in Murmnsk. Remember when I talked about the rapid variability of weather in this region? During the dinner hour, our beautiful sunny day rapidly deteriorated to a windy and overcast condition. The bay in which the former station was located had filled with ice, and the winds were too strong to allow safe operation of the zodiacs. Therefore, our vessel went on a one hour cruise around the region, returning to that location to see if perhaps conditions were more favorable for a landing. The good news was that the ice had blown away, but the bad news was that the winds had even grown stronger and thus, a landing at this point was not feasible.

We awoke this morning to a foggy, windy, and somewhat rainy day. There is however, no more ice on the horizon, and the temperatures outside are beginning to warm. From here it will be a day and a half cruise to Murmansk, and this fantastic adventure will of necessity come to an end.

I do hope that all of you have enjoyed traveling along with Lisa and me, and know that we look forward to speaking with you when we return.

Captain Jim

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Captain Jim Takes Helm of Icebreaker

July 3, 2017

**News Flash**

Captain Jim Takes Helm of Icebreaker

Now imagine my surprise when I hear a loud knock at our cabin door, which continues on without interruption. I finally get up and run to the door thinking there is some type of an emergency, only to find my charming wife standing there with a big grin on her face wearing a Russian Officer’s Hat. She promptly takes the hat and places it on my head while announcing that she has made arrangements for me to take control of the helm of the ship for 10 minutes! Needless to say, I was speechless. Lisa had just attended a charitable auction for the benefit of several well-known international funds which seek to protect the polar bear. She had apparently been the successful bidder on a package which would allow me to drive the ship for 10 minutes. Let us just say that it cost more than a dollar or two, but she was certain that this would be an experience of a lifetime for me, and something that she wanted to do for my benefit!!

Later at dinner “Captain Jim Taking the Helm” is all our little table could talk about. Everyone wanted to be there when I got to drive the ship, and so I made arrangements with the Expedition Leader to be on the bridge this morning at 9:30 AM. What I thought would be a low-key event instead turned out to be something quite different. A ship-wide announcement was made at 9:15 to the effect that at 9:30 “Captain Jim would take control of the vessel,” and that anyone who interested, should come to the bridge. Let us just say that my quiet little affair suddenly got ratcheted up – big time!

Everyone from my table met at our cabin at 9:25, and together we all walked up to the bridge where we were greeted by the Captain himself in full dress uniform. I was wearing the Officer’s cap Lisa had given me the night before on which the Captain had autographed his name on the brim in gold ink. He escorted me to the helmsman’s position, while all around the bridge large crowds of people began to arrive wanting to get a picture of this momentous event. After a few moments of explanation, the Captain signaled the officer at the redundant set of controls to turn the helm over to my position. All of a sudden I was actually driving the most powerful nuclear icebreaker in the world. With 75,000 horse-power behind me, I was plowing through the ice as if it was cheese. The Captain pointed out how we could use the open waters and pools to increase our speed, and I quickly got the hang of what was required. At one point, I made a comment that there was a huge lag between my input and the ship’s response, to which the Captain with a sly grin replied, “Well you are not driving a car you know.” Around me people were trying to snap my pictures until finally some of the staff had to push them back so that I could enjoy my moment. Many people seemed to think that they too could grab control of the wheel, and things were about to get out of hand.

The Captain allowed me to drive the ship for over 20 minutes, and I will truthfully admit that during that time I was actually sweating. It was not easy keeping the ship in the channel provided by cracks in the ice, nor was it easy to anticipate the delay in the control inputs and the momentum that such a huge ship carries with it. The Captain stood to my left side and frequently had his arm around my shoulder in a fatherly stance. He very calmly fed me suggestions and directions. Immediately behind where I sat was his personal assistant Irina. She was also his translator, who made sure that each of us understood the other. When my time was up, I turned to the Captain with a big grin to shake hands only to be awarded with a small official pin designating me as a “qualified helmsman.” At that point, I could not help myself, and so I asked for one more favor, “Could I please be allowed to blow the horn?” The Captain thought for just a second, and then took me to the side of the control panel, where he indicated a toggle switch and nodded his head with a smile. I managed to blow the horn on this huge vessel several times, at which point I raised my arms in joy as everyone on the entire bridge and down below on the bow, raised their hands in a raucous roar. What a morning I had!!

All the while this was occurring, unbeknownst to me, the ship’s photographer was recording the movement of the ship through the ice. She had set up a camera someplace atop the bridge and left it to record the entire event. Meantime, I did not know that she herself was on the bridge, and was frequently taking photographs in front of me. In a very nice gesture, she later offered to give me all of those pictures if I could provide her with an empty USB key. I cannot wait to see her photos.

As if I had not had enough excitement for one day, about an hour later the ship spotted a mother polar bear with her cub in tow. The Captain was able to move the vessel fairly close before the bear became spooked and started to walk away. But I did get a few good pictures.

During the day we had been sailing south towards the western shores of Franz Josef Land. You may remember that on our trip north, I had mentioned that Franz Josef Land is a Russian National Park comprised of 192 uninhabited islands. Going north, we had passed the eastern islands, but now on our return, since we had made such a timely voyage to the north, we actually had almost 2 days to explore the western landscape.

As if this day has not already been full enough, just before dinner the sky cleared and we entered a realm of unsurpassed beauty. All around us were magnificent mountains and snow-covered islands. Some of these islands had bands of mist still floating at about mid-level, thus permitting you to see both the top and bottom of the mountains, but not the middle. The reflections across the water produced some outstanding pictures, and of course with the ever present sun, it was a truly magnificent sight. As a pilot, I was struck by the cloud formations. We had what are known as “standing lenticular clouds”, which I have been taught denoted strong winds across a mountain ridge. These clouds, however, were so high in comparison to the height of the mountains that clearly some other phenomena was at work. Also for only the second time in my life, I saw what I would call a spiral cloud. The only other time I had seen this was in Punta Arenas, Chile. A member of our expedition team was kind enough to explain to me that these types of clouds are formed above certain types of glaciers, and that she, too, had seen the spiral cloud only in the two locations that I mentioned.

At this point, dinner did not seem very important, as I was taking pictures right and left out of our room. Obviously the expedition leader came to the same conclusion, since he announced that dinner was being delayed, and that he was immediately commencing helicopter operations to fly out over the beautiful ice filled waters. Once started, helicopter operations take over four hours, which meant that beginning with the first flight at 7:30, the flights would go on until almost midnight. During the entire time of the flights, the ship continued to move slowly forward. It was announced that we would be sailing through this magnificent area all night long, and for those of us who chose to go to sleep, any time that a polar bear or walrus was spotted, they would make an announcement to wake us up.

Lisa and I had had such a full day, that we succumbed to the idea of a good night’s sleep. We both went to bed somewhat partially dressed, on the off chance that there might be a sighting, which would cause us to run down four flights of stairs to get a picture.

So what we thought would be a rather quiet day, has turned out to be one of the most momentous in my life. I do not think that I will ever forget the feeling of actually standing at the helm of one of the most powerful ships in the world while cutting through ice. I may have just been Captain for a day, but I will have the memory for a lifetime. After all, life is about moments, moments one right after the other.


Monday, July 17, 2017

In The North Pole

July 2, 2017

In The North Pole

Late yesterday morning excitement was running quite high on the ship. There was an overall general air of anticipation that we would actually reach the North Pole this morning. In spite of the difficult ice conditions we were encountering, our ship had been making remarkably good time. Many people had spent the entire morning outside in the biting cold awaiting the big event, while others, like Lisa and me, have stayed glued to our TV screen watching the slow count-up on the ship’s GPS. As we got within the last degree of latitude, they started counting down the miles over the ship’s loudspeakers. Sitting in our room, we could slowly watch the latitude climb towards the magic number of 90:00:00 N. When we approached one mile away, the ship slowed to a crawl as sheer skill took over in hand guiding the vessel to the precise point. Our first attempt was a failure, and the ship had to back off to make another attempt. Finally at around noon on July 1, 2017, our ship arrived precisely at the North Pole!!! The ship started to blow its loud horn, and blow, and blow until it seemed as if they left it on for almost 5 minutes. Everyone on the ship was jumping up and down and screaming for joy, and over the loudspeakers we were all asked to come to the bow for the official photograph. Once there, each of us was given a glass of chilled champagne so that we could raise our arms in toast to this occasion. I must say, I think that everyone on the deck was visibly moved and humbled to be standing at perhaps the most deserted place on the planet Earth.

I know in speaking for myself, I simply could not wait to get the opportunity to actually stand on the ice at the North Pole. I think everyone on the ship was equally anxious to do the same. They did advise us, however, that we should proceed with lunch as usual, and that it would take the ship’s crew around three hours to safely prepare the landing site.

Indeed it was around three in the afternoon when they asked everyone to proceed ashore. We had to descend to a lower deck to exit the vessel, and then climb down a very long and steep metal stairway, which was damp, slippery and where the stairs themselves tilted downward. Doing this in our large rubber boots was tricky to say the least. Everyone was then asked to stand with our feet, toes first, on a rope that had been placed in the snow forming a giant circle around the marker for the North Pole. This would be the second official photograph taken by the ship’s photographer. The day was still somewhat foggy and overcast, however, the winds were almost nil, and so it really did not seem that cold. Lisa and I finally made it to the bottom of the long stairway just as they were closing up the circle, but we did arrive in time for the ceremony. In the center of the circle was the Captain and his interpreter. He made a few remarks about the importance of this occasion, and he noted just how few individuals had ever actually achieved this experience. He then asked that we all hold hands and observe a minute of silence to commemorate those who died in their effort to reach the North Pole, and also to pray for eternal peace on Earth. During what seemed like the longest minute that I can recall, I do not think there was a dry eye on the ice.

When the ceremonies were over, it was time to play. Lisa immediately decided that she needed to do her “snow angel” before she lost her courage. So with a little help from friends, she was pushed over into the snow on her back, whereupon she started squealing and screaming as she made repeated snow angels. As a joke, our Expedition Leader came running from across the field yelling that there was an emergency and that the patient desperately needed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. He then knelt down on his knee and pretended to give Lisa the required treatment while everyone around was in a hilarious uproar.

By this point, we had actually been out on the ice for quite some time and the pain in my legs was becoming pretty intense, so Lisa and I took a moment just to sit down and take-in everything around us. All in all, it was amazing what the ship’s hotel staff had done to prepare our landing site! At the rear of the ship, they had prepared an area for people to take the famous “polar plunge.” This is where they tied a safety rope around someone’s waist after they had undressed to their swimming suits. They then jumped in the frigid water and were pulled back on shore and quickly wrapped into a towel. There is no amount of money that you could pay me to do that, but the line of people waiting for the opportunity was really rather astounding.

Where we were sitting, the ship’s crew had carried down to the ice and then setup tables that would accommodate all 113 passengers plus the Poseidon staff. They were busy at work setting up serving tables, complete with electric hot plates. Three giant grills were being prepared for a barbecue that afternoon, and the area where we were sitting was a beehive of activity. To our left in the distance, we could see another equally large group of people who had set out on a 4 mile hike out into the frozen wilderness. This would give them an opportunity to truly get away from the ship to experience the silence and the grandeur of these northern regions. As you can imagine, this is another activity for which I was not quite prepared to undertake. Sitting there, we decided we would do two or three simple things. We wanted to go over to the sign that designated the North Pole and have our pictures taken. As you might imagine so too did everyone else, so we waited a while for the picture taking activity to calm down before going to await our turn.

Next I thought it would be great to walk over to the ship’s anchor and have a picture taken. The ship had lowered both of its anchors each weighing seven tons, onto the ice. It is not very often that you could get to actually stand beside such a behemoth. At this point, I also became very curious about the hull of the ship which was now raised out of the water and sitting on the ice. The front of the ship, which had been bearing the brunt of our icebreaking journey, seemed to have been polished to a bright finish almost as if it were made of titanium. So in addition to simply wanting to see the anchor, I wanted to stand right under the very bow of the ship and get a picture as if I were pushing it back.

Thus having decided on our next big venture on the ice, Lisa and I set off to walk towards the front of the ship. Along the way we ran into the Captain. I went up to him and shook his hand in appreciation for a wonderful job of getting us to this location, and asked if Lisa could take a picture of us together. He put his arm around me while Lisa took the picture. I hope you get an opportunity to look at the picture. He absolutely could be a stand-in for Sean Connery in the movie “Hunt for Red October.” He is a very large man with a beautifully trimmed longish white beard. When he put his arms around me, my head virtually nestled in his armpit. I felt as if I had just been grabbed by some giant bear. Dressed in his beautiful blue jacket lined with a fur collar and his majestic hat, he really took quite a picture. His bearing was ramrod straight, and he was walking around on the ice in highly polished regular shoes. The epitome of a Captain.

After that excitement, I started to walk towards the front of the ship more rapidly, only to realize that Lisa was falling behind. It was silly of me not to realize that with her artificial knees, the surface on which we were walking was extremely difficult for her. I should point out that both of us were surprised by the amount of snow cover that we encountered. There were places where the snow would easily come up to the top of your boots. If you walked on an area where many people had been before, then you would find that it had quickly turned to slush, and just as quickly was trying to refreeze. The temperature outside was about -1.8°C, but with no wind it was not unpleasant at all. At this point, I suggested to Lisa to standstill and to take the picture from where she was, while I headed straight for the anchor. I had gone no more than about three steps when suddenly I dropped into the North Pole! My left leg literally disappeared into a hidden snowbank, and I dropped all the way to my crotch, entombed in the snow. If I tried to wiggle or move in an effort to free myself, my whole body kept sliding to the left and dropping lower. I had this sudden panic that I was caught in a quick sand, or what I would call quick snow hazard. A small man from China heard Lisa’s yells and ran to help me. He almost went into the hole himself, and with his size, there was no way he was going to get me up. Very quickly the Captain arrived and asserted his authority, organizing a group of five men to pull me out and roll me on my side on the solid ground. At this point, my glasses had been thrown to the ground as well as my camera, but most importantly I had lost my left boot; it was buried someplace deep in the snow. It took two gentlemen quite some time to literally dig the boot out. They managed to push it back on my leg somehow, but not without forgetting and leaving a little bit of snow on the inside. With the Captain’s help, I managed to get back on my feet, and even though I was very shaky, I thanked everyone kindly. Inside I was actually shaking like a leaf, and quite unstable on my feet, but equally ready to turn to make it to that darn anchor and let Lisa get a picture. After that however, it was very obvious that I just needed to sit down. As Lisa helped me, we got back to our little bench to sit. As the trauma began to disappear, my first question was to ask Lisa if she had managed to get a picture. “No!” she blurted out, “I was scared for your life and wasn’t thinking a bit about a photograph!”

It was quite obvious that it would be sometime before the ship was ready to serve dinner on the ice. People were spread out over a large perimeter, which was being guarded by armed Rangers on bear watch. Truthfully we had both achieved our objective, namely to stand at the North Pole, to observe a moment of silence, and to have our pictures taken. It really did not seem that important to us to spend the next several hours sitting on the ice, and so we decided to return to the ship. I am really glad that we did. First we had to climb back up that very long ladder. It was almost more than either one of us could do. But slowly, step-by-step, we finally made it to the top. The elevator which was supposed to run was broken and so after having finally made the ship, we then had to climb all the way to the top deck to our room 5 flights up. Once there, both Lisa and I began to realize that in our enthusiasm we had actually taken some shocks to our body. My left knee was hurting from where it had gone into the snow bank, and I was beginning to ache all over. Lisa’s right knee was swollen and needed to be iced down. So in spite of leaving the ice early, we both lay down to take a nap with big smiles on our faces for what we did achieve.

Later that evening, the Hotel Director sent drinks to our room, while the party was ongoing outside. Then he, himself, brought plates of food to our room which he had put together for our dinner. This is typical of the kind of genuine hospitality that we have experienced on the ship.

Now that I have been to the North Pole, let me tell you some of the crazy things that I saw and learned. For one thing, if you have a magnetic compass, it does not simply spin at the North Pole, but instead it points to the magnetic North Pole. We, on the other hand, are located at the true geographic North Pole, which is the point on the Earth’s surface about which the axis of the Earth spins. The magnetic North Pole on the other hand is where a magnetic compass will point, and is located about 500 miles West, somewhere in the area of Greenland.

I would like to proudly boast, that Lisa and I both circumnavigated the globe yesterday. Now how did we accomplish that? Well, by walking in a circle around the North Pole, it can be said that we did indeed “circumnavigate” the globe! Also, when standing exactly at the North Pole, any direction we would head will of necessity be directly south. Also if you stand directly at the center of the pole and close your eyes, you can feel the earth slightly spinning on its axis. (That is actually a joke folks!). Those that I spoke to before coming on this trip know that I intended to meet Santa Claus. I actually wrote him a letter letting him know exactly when I would arrive. Unfortunately he and Mrs. Clause were away on vacation, but he did actually leave me a small gift in the snow, a picture of which is below.


Today everyone seems a little tired and muted after the exhilaration of finally having achieved our objective. So the ship is proceeding south at a very good speed as it is following in the path that it created on our passage northward. At some point, we will break away from that track and go towards the eastern side of Franz Josef Land, where the ship hopes to offer some zodiac cruising in some of the most remote regions of the northern Arctic. We are, of course, once again on watch for any wildlife.

I will certainly make an addendum to this blog should anything of consequence happen, but for now know that Lisa and I are safe and headed home. The ship on which we are traveling is really an incredible machine. It had better be, because our very lives depend on its reliability.


Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Last Degree

July 1, 2017

The Last Degree

At the time of our briefing yesterday afternoon, we had reached 85° North latitude on our way to the North Pole which is of course 90° of latitude. Each degree of latitude represents 60 nautical miles, so at the time of our briefing we were approximately 300 miles from the North Pole. There were a number of very interesting statistics presented during the presentation. It was observed that over history 129 known vessels have reached the North Pole, of which 107 of them were nuclear icebreakers. As of this day, a total of 25,405 people have actually set foot on the North Pole, but in truth, that number is actually somewhat inflated. For example, our expedition leader has visited the poll on 30 occasions, and on each of those occasions, he is counted as a new person visiting the Pole. The same would hold true for members of the ship’s crew, and other members of the Poseidon, and expedition teams. So in reality the number is less than 25,000.

It is expected that we will arrive at the North Pole shortly after lunch, and that it will take the ship’s personnel several hours to prepare the area for us to go ashore. For one thing, they have to insure that the area is free of polar bears, although a polar bear this far north is a rarity, it is not unknown. In addition, they have to ensure that the surface on which we will be allowed to walk is safe. One of the first things that the ship will do after reaching the North Pole is to have it verified by the ship’s photographer taking a photograph of the onboard GPS. Then the ship will be repositioned into firm ice that will allow us to have a ladder put down so that we may actually walk on the ice. Prior to us doing that, each of the ship’s anchors will be lowered to the surface. Since each anchor weighs over seven tons, if the ice will support the anchor, then it certainly will support our weight.

When we arrive they have requested that all passengers gather on the bow so that the ship’s photographer may take one of the official photographs of our arrival. After that, the actual North Pole will be identified by a decorative stake, and we will all then be asked to go outside and form a giant circle so that a group photograph may be taken by our photographer using the helicopter. At that point, as I understand it, we are free to walk anywhere that we wish. To me it would be very exciting to walk right underneath the bow of the ship, but for many they want to grab a rope that is hanging down from the front and have a photograph taken as if they are pulling the ship through the ice. Lisa has secretly admitted that her hope is to be able to make a snow angel, but we are not sure how much snow they actually have. Whatever, our time on the ice is a time to reflect on why we came to this most desolate of locations on the planet Earth, and to just take joy in the fact that we are here and safe. At the end of the day, the ship intends to offer a cookout on the ice before we depart for our return southward.

I have had to continually remind myself when I look out the window that this is truly a destination through which I will pass only once in my lifetime. They will have each of us stand in a circle holding hands, and after the Captain gives a short speech, there will be a moment of silence so that each of us may reflect on why we are here, and what it means to us. When I thought about that, it actually brought tears to my eyes. It has taken me a while to understand why the emotional outflow, and I think it goes back to when at age 26 I was told I had only a short time to live. Somehow the idea that almost 50 years later I would be standing on one of the most desolate places on the planet Earth brings out emotions that I had not reflected on in many years.

So this afternoon should be quite an adventure. I can tell you this, last evening was certainly an adventure. During dinner it was obvious that the ship had become stuck in the ice on several occasions, and it had to back up and go forward again. About halfway through the meal the ship came to a complete stop and there was a general announcement advising all passengers to go to the bow immediately. Everyone dropped what we were eating, and ran out front to find that the ship had notched up close to an iceberg that was perhaps twice our size. This is a most unusual sight in these latitudes. What the ship deals with for the most part is sea ice. In other words the water is so cold that the salt water actually freezes into layers that are 2 to 3 meters thick. Each year during the summer, the ice melts around the edges, but the oldest and hardest ice remains in the center mostly around the North Pole. Over time, this ice can build to be quite thick, and as large pieces run into each other they form giant ice ridges, which is the problem our ship is beginning to encounter. But, an iceberg is another matter altogether. Icebergs are formed in glaciers, where they break off and eventually float out to sea. There is no way to know where this iceberg was actually formed, but clearly it somehow got caught in the northern currents and is drifting around in the far North.

And so we come to “the last degree.” When I awoke this morning, the GPS on my TV screen shows that we were at 89° 31 minutes north latitude. That means that we are about 30 miles from the North Pole. As they explained to us last night, the last degree is perhaps the most difficult for the ship to navigate. The ice at this latitude is at its most thick, and the weather is highly unpredictable. You would think that it is a simple matter for a ship of this size and capability to simply drive straight for the North Pole. In reality, it weaves wildly from left to right seeking cracks in the ice and small Polynyas where the ice has started its summer melt. Because of the intensity of the navigation and the maneuvers involved, this is the first time since leaving port, that the bridge will actually be closed until we reach the North Pole itself. Another complexity in the navigation is the fact that we are sailing within a huge mass of ice that is itself moving. So if the ship simply stops and does nothing, over time it will drift as the ice mass itself is drifting. Add to the effect of drifting ice, the surface winds, which can be quite variable, and you can get a sense of the difficulty in putting the ship at exactly the 90th latitude; the stated goal of this cruise. I gather that there have even been a few occasions in the past when it was impossible to actually get to that point, only nearby. So we will keep our fingers crossed as we move forward.

The other thing, of course, that all of us are hoping for is a beautiful sunny day with light winds. Right now we have anything but. It is very foggy with limited visibility, but it is our hope that this will break up in the early afternoon.

So stay tuned there is a lot more to share.


PS Our ride at times during the night has been quite violent, which has made sleeping difficult. At the best of times, the ship is merely vibrating constantly. At other times it hits large pieces of ice and can lurch in any direction and without any warning. Since our room has a window that looks out front, I can see how the ship is maneuvering left and right in an attempt to follow the best ice patterns possible for its transit. Then I began to wonder how in the world the ship operates in the dark of night? I am reminded that this is the summer season, with 24 hours of daylight. However the primary operational environment for the ship is during the dark of winter with no daylight at all. During winter temperatures can range from about -50°C to -13°C. I can see in looking around the vessel how it is designed to be completely closed to the outside world so that the people operate only within the safety of its heated and sealed interior. Tomorrow should be interesting!!

Friday, July 14, 2017

Pushing Through the Pack Ice

June 30, 2017

Until now, our journey northward has been relatively benign. Our trip through the Barents Sea was largely ice free and the ship was making a steady 18 knots. Initially we began to encounter some light or what I would call moderate sea ice, but our vessel still moved forward at a steady 18 knots as if the ice was not even there. However, starting with late afternoon yesterday, and continuing into this morning, things have become a little bit more interesting.

We are now at 85° North latitude, which means that we are only 5° from reaching our destination, the North Pole. The average thickness of the ice in the polar region is 2 to 3 meters, or up to 9 feet in thickness. As we have begun to encounter the thicker ice, the ship is beginning to vibrate and ride very erratically. The best comparison that I know how to give is for you to imagine that you are on a train speeding down the track a little faster than you would like on a rail line that has not been maintained for years. The train would sway back and forth violently enough that drinking a cup of coffee is virtually impossible, and trying to walk requires both hands on the walls to keep from falling down. That is the situation in which we find ourselves this morning. There are, of course, chunks of ice greater than 9 feet thick, and while the ship has tried to navigate around them, from time to time it will hit a very large chunk of ice which feels as if we have indeed hit something quite large. While our passage will have shattered the ice into many pieces, the vibration goes all the way down the ship as if we indeed had a collision.

Last evening the ship pulled up into the ice and stopped so that the Hotel Department could treat everyone to a barbecue party on the aft deck. I must say that the entire staff really went out of their way to make the evening a spectacular success. Most people seemed to be having a wonderful time, but in all honesty by the time that Lisa and I arrived, there was not a seat to be had. They finally placed a bench over by the side rail which gave us a spectacular view, but by the same time, it exposed us fully to the evening breeze coming off the ice. By the time I had finished about half the food on my plate, my fingers were so frozen that I literally could not feel them. This, in spite of the fact that halfway through my meal I had actually put on a pair of gloves. Shortly after we left, the party moved inside to the bar which is directly beneath our room, and I can tell you from the loud sounds and the vibrations, that the party continued well past midnight.

I would really be remiss if I failed to share with you the significant number of wildlife sightings that we have encountered. Whenever the ship’s personnel sees a polar bear, walrus, or whale they will make an announcement, and stop the ship whether it is day or night – which in this part of the world really makes no difference since it is daytime all the time. So far we have had numerous polar bear encounters, and in turn, I have gotten some very good pictures. We had one encounter with a large walrus who had a beautiful pair of tusks, and the ship was able to get quite close before we spooked it into the water. The whale sighting unfortunately occurred so quickly that I was not able to get outside to see it.

Considering that we are only a few days into our trip, the number of polar bears that we have encountered is really quite amazing. To see them in their natural habitat, as they wander these icy frozen landscapes is to truly witness the magnificent animal perfectly suited for its environment. Unfortunately, everyone agrees that with our current climate change towards warmer weather, the environment for these wonderful creatures is rapidly disappearing. They live on floating ice packs, and if they disappear, then what will become of the giant polar bear?

They just announced that shortly they will commence helicopter operations for this morning which will allow us hopefully to take pictures of the ship as it plows through the ice on its way to the North Pole. For right now, I am going to take a pause in writing while I get dressed for our expedition, and hopefully I will have time this afternoon to bring you up to date on this incredible experience that is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Well we did get our helicopter ride around the ship, slowly circling in both directions. Even though the ride itself was six minutes long, it gave us a view of the ship plowing through the ice in both directions. I cannot wait to look at the photographs to see how they turned out. During our entire flight the ship was plowing through the ice. In other words the helicopter had to take off from a moving deck, circle our ship while it plowed forward, and then returned to and slowly settle down on a still moving ship. All of this has to be done in accordance with a very strict schedule so that all 113 passengers can have the same opportunity.

In about an hour there will be a briefing for what we can expect tomorrow when it is anticipated that we will reach the North Pole itself. For now I am going to conclude this days adventures, but will be back tomorrow morning to give you an update on our long-awaited arrival at the North Pole.

It’s getting better, so hang on.


Thursday, July 13, 2017

Riding The Ice

June 29, 2017

Before being allowed to go below to the engine room, we were provided a detailed briefing on our ship and how exactly it operates in some of the harshest environment on our planet. I did come away with a couple of interesting facts: The front hull of the vessel is shaped very much like a spoon so that as it plows through the ice, it literally rises up onto the ice, and at the same time pushes it aside. The steel at the front of the vessel is 55 mm thick or almost 2 ½ inches of hardened steel. In addition to the shape of the hull and its thickness, the ship has a few tricks up its sleeve for allowing it to slide up the ice. One of these is that from the bottom of the ship under certain conditions it will a blow large amounts of air under extremely high pressure. This escaping air will quickly form bubbles in the water surrounding the hull, and as they float to the surface, they will provide a kind of lubrication allowing the ship to glide more smoothly through the ice filled waters. The vessel’s normal cruising speed is 18 knots, although it is capable of up to 21 knots. It can maintain its normal cruising speed up to an ice thickness of slightly under 9 feet presuming that the ice is basically smooth. I can bear witness to that statement being true this morning since during the night we had had almost constant ice. I did eventually find the channel on the television that I suspected had to be there which shows us a map and our speed. Indeed, our ship is pretty much maintaining 18 knots and is plowing through the ice like a knife through butter. Occasionally, if we hit a patch of ice which is thicker, our speed slows down, but just as quickly, we returned to our 18 knot cruising speed. It is an amazing sight to behold, and even more amazing site to experience viscerally. Of course, it helps that the ship has three propellers pushing us forward.

In the very center of our ship is the nuclear core. As it was explained to us, this is the most heavily protected structure on the vessel. It produces heat which in turn is converted to steam which in turn drives giant turbines which in turn produces electricity for the electric drive motors. It might sound simple on paper, but to actually go down below and to witness what is involved in making the ship operate is quite another thing.

We started our tour at the back of the vessel by walking down several flights of stairs until we were actually witnessing the hydraulic systems that operate the rudder. From there, we continued forward and down until eventually we were standing on the bottom of the ship almost 9 meters below the waterline. Besides the noise of the giant turbans, I was struck by how cool the engine room was maintained. Large amounts of cold air from the outside were brought in so that most of the machinery was operating in normal temperature conditions. We continued our walk forward into all compartments of the ship. As we walked by the reactor core you could feel the heat radiating off the walls. Eventually we climbed up what seemed like an impossible number of stairs before the conclusion of our tour. While I was exhausted from all of the descending and climbing, I was absolutely fascinated to finally have an opportunity of seeing the interior of the working ship!

Before walking up another four flights of stairs to our room, I needed a restroom, and so I stopped at one of the public facilities available in the hallway. When I turned around to flush, I found that the toilet had no mechanism for that. Instead it had a long black hose which was about 4 inches in diameter which was running from a pipe. On the wall there was a black handle which appeared to put water through the hose in order to flush the toilet. In all my years I have never seen such a mechanism. Of course, I am game to try anything, the only problem is I am not strong enough to turn that black knob, and so I admit I left the deed to someone else. Course I might mention that I found the John and it had been used before me, so that person must have had the same problem.

The ship has a policy that if we spot either whales or polar bears they will make an announcement over the public address system day or night. Yesterday we had an opportunity to stop for several polar bears, but most of them were at some distance from the ship, and none seemed particularly curious enough to approach the vessel. However, what you should know is that there was another announcement this morning just as I was entering the dining room. I did not have my jacket, and I did not have my camera – both of which were four levels above. So I shrugged my shoulders, and said what the heck I will have breakfast instead. It turns out that was a really dumb call. There was a polar bear outside, and it was right next to the ship. People came back in and showed me photographs that they had taken on their iPhone no less that were absolutely wonderful. I guess I am just “gonna” have to start carrying my camera with me no matter where I am on the ship. We also stopped for whales once or twice, but none of those were apparently great sightings and at the time I was someplace that I could not get to my camera.

Yesterday we entered the Western regions of Franz Josef Land. This is an area of 192 uninhabited islands which constitute the only Russian National Park in the Arctic. On our vessel, we have four Park Rangers to both monitor our activities, and also to serve as bear guides in the event we are successful at some point in making a landing on our return from the North Pole. The ship did, however, make a stop at Northbrook Island in order to offload six scientists and their 3000 pounds of gear. They will spend the Artic summer conducting research, and then at the end of the season they will be picked up.

Last evening the ship pulled into solid ice and stopped. After that they announced that they would commence helicopter operations at 9 PM, and as I mentioned in my blog yesterday, it will take over four a half hours to complete the operations once started. Lisa and I were fortunate to be in the first group to enjoy this opportunity. Our six minute flight took us along the front of the nearby glacier. First, we went in one direction, turned, and then came back the other direction giving everyone in the helicopter an equal opportunity to photograph the glacial face. While that was exciting, what I had really hoped for was to be able to take a photograph of our ship as it set locked in the ice. Unfortunately in our six minute ride my side never got to see the ship, whereas on the return Lisa was able to get such a photograph. They did tell us that time permitting, they hope to have another two or three opportunities for us to do helicopter sightseeing. All things considered this is a real bonus in any event.

As we are beginning to encounter heavier ice, and it is becoming difficult not only to stand, but to try to type or believe it or not even to dictate. I think I will take a pause, come back later to report on how we are doing during the day. I will point out that when we started our trip at Murmansk we were on the 79th latitude. Our goal is to reach the North Pole, which is 90° of latitude. Today I see that we are currently at 82°, thus we are making good progress.

Back at you later.


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

A Day on an Icebreaker

June 28, 2017

A Day on an Icebreaker

Before retiring last night, I forgot to set my alarm clock. But not to worry because I was awakened this morning by the sound of ice hitting against our hull. Taking a brief look outside my window, I was greeted with a beautiful sunny morning, but the sea was full of loosely floating ice. As is my habit, I quickly shaved and jumped in the shower only to be jarred by a ship-wide alert to the effect that a polar bear had been spotted just to the left side of the ship, the side on which we have our room.

Obviously, there was no time for me to throw on more clothes and get to the deck to take any pictures, but it dawned on me that I could simply take pictures through our window. Thus, grabbing my camera, and running in my birthday suit to the front window, I rapidly started to take pictures as best I could through the glass which had now become encrusted with salt. Then I remembered that I could perhaps still open the window in Lisa’s bedroom, and as our ship had slowed to match the pace of the polar bear, perhaps I could catch some pictures from the side of the ship with the window open. I was standing there literally freezing, but getting good pictures. After shutting the window and turning with camera in hand, I was greeted by the site of our female room steward standing in the doorway! Let’s just say that she received the “full Monty,” and leave it at that. I doubt that we will see her back in our room anytime soon.

The ship lingered for a while with the polar bear in the hopes that it might climb up on an ice flow where good photographs could be had. However, it seemed quite content just to walk along with the ship; however, we needed to move on. According to our expedition leader, it is really unusual to encountered such large amounts of floating ice this far south, and even more unusual to see our first polar bear this early in our voyage. I hope that this is a harbinger of good things to come.

We do have a television in our room, and so while getting dressed I thought that I would turn it on to see what was available. I know that we are in a situation of digital detox since we have extremely limited communication with the outside world. There is no cell phone coverage, nor Internet coverage. The ship, of course, can use satellite phones, but they are not always particularly reliable. Nonetheless, I thought that at least the ship would have a channel which showed a map of our location and information on our speed and so on. In point of fact, there is absolutely nothing that we can do with the television except stare at a screen of static. So much for that amenity.

After breakfast, I was very excited to have an opportunity to visit the bridge which is but one level above our room. I was amazed at just how large the bridge on this ship really is. Even though the door to the bridge was locked, as promised a gentle knock brought someone who welcomed me inside. During the time that I was there, I was the only passenger, and I was given free rein to walk the entire bridge being careful, of course, not to touch anything. I will admit that they have a very impressive array of equipment. Of course, no one was actually driving the ship, since all that is done automatically.

When that was over Lisa and I had to attend our mandatory helicopter safety drill. The ship is equipped with a rather large helicopter that they will use to transport all passengers on short sightseeing trips around the ship and across the glaciers if that opportunity presents itself. Even though the helicopter is designed to carry a large number of people safely, they will only fly six passengers at a time on each flight, thus ensuring that each passenger has a large window view in front of them. They were explaining to us the simple logistics involved in ensuring that all 113 passengers receive time in the helicopter. While we may do several flights during our cruise each one should last for no more than six minutes. Even at that pace, it will take the ship and its crew roughly 4 ½ hours to complete helicopter operations for everyone once they begin. Nonetheless, when you see the photographs that can be taken of the ship as it breaks through the ice and the sun coming across the water, you’ll take any helicopter time that they are willing to offer. To say that I am beginning to get really excited would be a mild understatement!

This afternoon, believe it or not, our group will be the first scheduled for an engine room tour. In all of the time that I have been aboard ships, I have never once been allowed to visit an operating engine room, much less an engine room on a nuclear vessel. Our passengers have been divided into six groups, and Lisa and I are in group number five. Our group, however, will be the first one to have the opportunity to visit the engine room. They will then rotate this opportunity through the other groups during the remainder of the voyage. I know that I am going to have some significant difficulty climbing up and down, but even if I just get to stick my head in, it will be a really exciting moment that I cannot wait to share.

For your information, I did check the distance between our departure point at Murmansk and the North Pole which turned out to be 2,700 miles. I also checked to see how far we were from Kansas City, and a rough estimate is around 3,700 miles.

More to follow tomorrow, so stay tuned.


50 Let Peobedy

June 26, 2017

There is great excitement in our hotel this morning, as about 100 of us are awaiting the opportunity to board our home for the next two weeks, the ship known as 50 Years Of Victory or 50 Let Peobedy. The ship is the world’s largest nuclear powered icebreaker currently in operation. A new and larger vessel was launched in 2016, but will not be operational until 2020. I am sure that once we are onboard I will have a lot more interesting information to share, but for now there is a general sense of excitement. Visible from our hotel room is the Lenin. That ship was the world’s first nuclear icebreaker, but it was retired several years ago, and now it sits as a museum.

While waiting to board our vessel, we have had an opportunity to do some touring of the area, and my general overall opinion was that it reminded me very much of an old communist town with the tall drab buildings and the run down infrastructure. The city has five basic sections, and each is home to a war Memorial. Our guide reminded us that the city is new, having been started in only 1916. At that time, the Russian government recognized the importance of the waters in these regions, which essentially remain ice-free during the entire year due to the effects of the Gulf Stream. Therefore, they set about establishing the city on the banks of the Kola Peninsula. Vast areas of virgin tundra were planted with seedlings that today give the surrounding hills a colorful view of Aspen like trees. Because of the harsh environment, however, these trees have grown to no more than about 10 to 12 feet in height. Once outside the boundary where these trees were originally planted, the surrounding area turns to tundra again as far as the eye can see.

We are here during the best time of the year, since the city has sunlight virtually all day. Sunrise is at 3 AM, and sunset is just after midnight. I had been watching the temperatures prior to our coming to this area, and they had been running right around or a little above freezing, with occasional rain and snow. However, as is typical in this area when it gets to the summer solstice, the weather can warm rather dramatically, so that temperatures can run in the mid-50s. Nonetheless as we flew in we could clearly see snow in the surrounding hills, and when clouds arrive and wind comes off the water, this beautiful weather can take a chilly turn for the worse in a nanosecond. The flipside to these beautiful long sunny days is that for half the year, the city is bathed in darkness. It is for this reason that the government attempts to attract people to this region by paying double wages. Even at that, however, it is difficult on people emotionally, and in recent years, the city has seen a decline in population, as the advent of a market economy has offered even more profitable jobs in the larger cities like St. Petersburg.

Late this afternoon they announced a schedule whereby the 113 of us taking this journey would be broken into smaller groups and escorted to the Atomflot Naval Base, home to the Russian Nuclear Navy. There, we would undergo special scrutiny before being granted access to the base. The tour operators emphasized that this is the only nuclear base in Russia into which civilians are allowed, and even here, only those involved with this icebreaker are granted this privilege. At times, they say that security to enter the base is not too difficult, while on other occasions, it can take most of the day. Fortunately for us, on this day security was similar to that of entering an airport. However, each of us had our passports checked and faces identified and then compared to a list that had been prepared ahead of time. That list included our names and passport numbers, and we had been warned that any deviation from what was contained within our actual passports could very well cause difficulty, even up to and including being denied boarding to the ship. As it turned out, the lady in the line ahead of Lisa had made a change in her passport since she had submitted paperwork. Security caught the change immediately, and she was quietly, but forcefully escorted away for further screening. After some time, the issue was successfully resolved, and she was ultimately allowed to board the ship. The ship we are boarding is technically owned by a State company, and is not therefore officially part of the Russian Navy, but the mere fact that it can only be accessed through their naval facility, I think speaks volumes.

Once being allowed onto the base, we had to walk to our ship, docked near to the security facility. It was a long, and somewhat muddy walk at the end of which, we were greeted with a long and steep stairway. Fortunately, we did get some help with our carry-on bags. After entering the ship, our passports were collected and we were directed to our cabin. Now during this cruise, use of the elevators is prohibited. Our cabin requires that we climb four flights of stairs. Since the ship had not yet left the port, we were allowed to use the elevator this one time. Thereafter, our only means of reaching the dining room will be to go up and down four flights of stairs every day. Who knows it might even be good for us!

We found our room at the top of stairs, but before describing it to you, I need to share some context. I had heard that this vessel was a “working” ice breaker. To me that meant with the exception of a few short weeks during the summer in which it carried passengers, the rest of the year it was keeping the sea lanes open in the Russian Arctic. That is indeed a correct statement, but I did not realize its implications. How does a “working” ship, suddenly become a passenger vessel? Well it’s very simple – the cabins which are normally occupied by the officers and upper-level crew are vacated in order that they might be used by passengers. The crew squeezes into the lower levels during passenger season. It was emphasized to us that the people working on this vessel consider it their home, and most of them live here year round with the exception of their vacation time. So in a sense, we were being allowed into their home during our two-week visit.

Our new home turned out to be that of the ship’s Staff Captain. It is a very large room which even has its own refrigerator. That being said, it is certainly not the equivalent of a cruise ship cabin. There is a small bedroom with an adjoining bathroom. To enter the bedroom, you go through what I would describe as an office. There is a nice size desk, with plenty of shelving, and even a sofa. The room is certainly large enough that group gatherings could be conducted. The first problem we encountered was that the bedroom holds only a single bed. It is surrounded on all sides with raised wooden edges which is very uncomfortable, and completely impossible to be occupied by two people. In the office area of the room they have converted the sofa into a bed – well kind of bed! I will see if I can explain. Picture in your mind a sofa where if you put in the bottom of the sofa towards you and as you do so it will slide down lie flat. Now if you think about it for a minute, the part of the sofa towards the wall that was previously the back is well supported by the foundation of the sofa. The bottom of the sofa that was pulled out over the edge is almost completely unsupported by anything underneath. Therefore when you sit down on the sofa, it wants to immediately drop down so that you will end up on the floor. After a little experimenting, I found that if we placed our carry-on bags strategically underneath part of the sofa, it gave some support to keep overhang from throwing me to the floor.

Besides the amount of space that we have, the best part of our new room is without question the fact that we have forward and side facing windows that can be opened. We are positioned directly underneath the bridge, and so from our room we have almost the same view as does the crew one deck above. The good news about the windows is that they can be opened, while the bad news about the windows is that they can be opened! When we first entered our room yesterday I would suspect the temperature was close to 85 to 90°. Believe me, the ship does have heat and lots of it. Therefore having the window open gives us some small respite from the heat. Now that we are moving along at about 21 knots through a cold sea, the slight amount of air whistling around the windows is almost too much. We found from our room steward, that there is a special tool they use to tighten down the window, but if we do that, our room becomes too hot. So we are now trying to find a delicate balance, where it is just the right amount of air that we want, without either sweating to death, or freezing our butts off.

The final thing that I will mention with regard to our room, deals with the bathroom. It truly is a piece of work! You must be very careful not to lean on the sink because it is pulling away from the wall. If you turn on the water, you get a very slow trickle of rust colored water – your choice of hot or cold. The toilet has a unique handle for activating it, and that handle fell off shortly after we arrived. I found the screw that had fallen out, and it was completely corroded. I managed to get it back in temporarily, but when I showed it to our room steward this morning, she simply shrugged and said “that’s the way it works.” I also pointed out that during the night the toilet had repeatedly flushed without being activated, and as I was talking to her it did just that. Our steward then launched into a long discussion of how with the heat, and somehow being on the top floor, combined with the loose toilet, well; “that’s the way it works.”

I have a great deal more that I would like to share, but I think I will stop at this point and save the rest for a later day. I gather that this is going to be a very exciting voyage. They tell us that they just returned from the same trip, and that the ice this season is quite thick. They fully expect that when we arrive at the North Pole, we will be able to get off the ship and stand on the ice.

So standby, there is lots more adventure to come.


Monday, July 10, 2017

We Clicked Our Heels, And Closed Our Eyes;

And here we are back in Kansas again! Lisa and I have just returned from our most unique adventure, ever!! We arrived late Saturday evening, dead tired. The next morning we found that our internet connection was off-line and had been for some time. This meant that our house phones were not being answered, nor was anyone able to leave messages. I got that little problem solved on Sunday, with the intention of writing to everyone yesterday to let you know that we had returned safely home. However when I attempted to restart my computer, it was dead is a doornail! Also, without putting to fine a line on it, I have pulled a typical Jim Bob, I have returned sick and almost certain that I have pneumonia. Other than those few small items, everything is fine here on the home front.

When last I wrote, Lisa and I were at a hotel in Murmansk, Russia preparing the following day to board our ship, which is the most powerful icebreaker in the world today. Our journey to the geographical North Pole would see us travel more than 5,000 miles round-trip. Unlike traveling south to Antarctica, the North Pole is not a land mass, but simply a point on the face of the earth which represents the geographical location of the axis around which the earth rotates. Most of our journey would take us across an ocean which had frozen solid. In other words, there is no landmass underneath the ice through which we would travel. At the beginning of our journey there would be no ice, and then as we we proceeded farther north the ice would become thicker and thicker, until at times reaching a thickness of almost 12 feet.

Along the way we encountered some extraordinary experiences which I will share with you in the eight different blogs written during our journey. You will hear what it is like to live on a ship that is moving through solid ice, where the sound throughout the ship is so great, that it makes conversation difficult. Everything on this gigantic ship is built to withstand the almost constant vibration of such an environment. You will also learn why when reaching the North Pole I actually openly wept. It was an emotional experience for me, and for many other people on this cruise. Since I have been told twice in my life that I should have no expectations of reaching an advanced age, to stand there shortly after my 73rd birthday was in some way a personal triumph. Just remember however, that what goes up also comes down. That means in plain English that Jim Bob once again managed to fall and injure himself on this trip. You will find that buried in the blogs that I am sending. You will also learn why I have acquired the nickname, “Captain Jim.” On our Aeroflot flight from Murmansk to Moscow, about half the passengers were from our ship. A few of the passengers I knew, but most were Asian, and I did not know a single one of them. However when we reached Moscow, since Lisa and I had asked for wheelchair assistance in transferring between planes, we were instructed to remain in our seats until all the passengers deplaned. The most incredible thing happened. As the passengers went by our seats almost every one of them gave me a salute and said in their faltering English, goodbye Captain Jim. It was a heartwarming moment. Even the Cabin attendants wanted to know what in the world that was all about! Well you will have to read the blogs to find out. From Moscow we flew to Paris, and having been up since 2:30 in the morning and with the local time in Paris then 7 PM, we had arranged a stopover at the airport Sheraton. That is when we learned that my bag had been lost in Moscow. We were so tired at that point, that I do not think either one of us cared. The next day we flew from Paris to Minneapolis and then to Kansas City. When we arrived home we both got dressed for bed and promptly went to sleep.

Yes, it was an incredible adventure. I constantly had to remind myself that this is a journey in life where I would only pass but once in my lifetime. I hope you enjoy the blocks, and I hope they give you some sense of what we experienced. I will be posting pictures of the trip over the next week as I finish up. I will tell you now that we witnessed some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen, and I only hope that my pictures do some justice to nature’s brilliance.

We are now home for a long time, and still waiting for someone to please, please make an offer on our old house. We do hope that everyone is well and look forward to hearing from you when you can. And, by the way, my missing bag miraculously showed up at our front door yesterday.


PS Just remember that all my blogs are available at

Also all my trip photographs are now at

When the photographs for this trip are posted, I will send a direct link to everyone.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

“Apple Pay” at Last!

Greetings everyone from the largest city north of the Arctic Circle, Murmansk, Russia, home to around 300,000 hardy souls. Now in truth, I never expected to be able to write to you at this point in our trip, but we have successfully arrived at our starting destination one day early, and to my surprise, our hotel has complimentary Internet. Not only that, believe it or not, I have so much to tell you since I last wrote, that I simply did not want to wait for two weeks!

Let’s start with this issue of “Apple Pay.” Simply put “Apple Pay” is a way in which you can use your phone to electronically pay a restaurant bill or any purchase for that matter, simply by placing your phone on top of the checkout machine, and by using your thumbprint the bill is automatically charged to the credit card of your choice! Now I will admit that it is not yet even common at home, but it is becoming more so every day. I have turned that phrase, however, into a joke by asking at almost every location where we have shopped if I could pay by “Apple Pay?” Generally people look at me as if I’m crazy and speaking a foreign language, and if I explained, then in some cases they have heard of it, but their country does not yet support it. In fact, on this entire trip so far I have not yet been able to make a simple payment using “Apple Pay,” until today. It had gotten to the point that Lisa would give me a disapproving look every time I asked if I could use “Apple Pay,” because people simply did not understand, and she thought I was being rude rather than cute. Out of all the places in the world, I was finally able to use my phone to make a payment – at the northernmost “McDonald’s” in the world. Hooray for good ole “McDonald’s!!”

Our trip from Oslo to Murmansk was a rather roundabout journey. We departed Oslo at 6 AM in the morning on Lufthansa Airlines, Business Class, headed for Frankfurt Germany. I say that we were flying business class, however it wasn’t exactly what I had expected. We were seated in exactly the same seats as everyone else in the airplane, with the exception that there was no one placed in the center seat of a three seat configuration. The airline did put some kind of a strange contraption in the center seat which meant that you could not raise the armrest in order to gain extra room. In other words, we were pretty much flying a slightly modified Economy Class. From Frankfurt, we had a very short turnaround before departing on another Lufthansa flight with yet another slightly modified Business Class seat. This time we were headed into St. Petersburg, Russia.

There will several things that I have worried about with regard to this trip that I have not yet shared. For one thing if truth be told Lisa and I both are having a great deal of difficulty walking, and we have finally had to succumb to accepting wheelchairs. Now the macho male in me rebels at even the thought of this, but without the wheelchair there is absolutely no way that I could have done the necessary walking in these airport terminals. In addition to the wheelchair problem, I was very much concerned about what was going to happen to us when we arrived into St. Petersburg. I had had so much difficulty obtaining my Russian Visa that I have had nightmares of being turned away by the authorities. And finally, as if all of that was not bad enough, our next airline was going to be Aeroflot, and I was truly concerned if they had enough duct tape to hold the airplane together. Then, just to make things interesting, it appears that sometimes Aeroflot doesn’t talk to other airlines since our bags could not be transferred between airlines. That meant that when we arrived in St. Petersburg, we had to get our bags, exit the terminal, and find a way to get to the check-in counter where once again we had to go through security in order to find our gate. I will tell you the truth, I had many sleepless nights about how we were going to pull this off, particularly when you consider our limitations in walking.

Well, all my fears proved to be for naught. We were met at our airplane by two wheelchairs, and two young gentlemen, I came to call Frick and Frack. Both of these young men spoke excellent English, and they immediately understood our problem, even though in advance they had no idea that we would be transferring airlines, nor that we were going to be required to pick up our baggage in the process. At first, I wasn’t sure if they really understood what was needed, but the next thing I knew Lisa and I were off on the wheelchair rides of our lives. These two gentlemen were racing each other through the terminal trying to see which of them could get down the crowded walkways the fastest. I swear on more than one occasion I thought we were going to hit some young child or older person, only at the last minute to be subjected to a death-defying turn as we raced along at a record pace. As if that was not bad enough, these two gentlemen kept opening secure doors and taking us the back hallways and down hidden elevators. Before I knew it, we had arrived at the baggage claim area. We had two wheelchairs that needed pushing, they were each pulling behind them our carry-on bags, and now they had our full-blown suitcases to deal with! I tell you what, it didn’t even faze them. One of them grabbed a cart and put our bags on it, while the other somehow managed to push two wheelchairs down the hallway at the same time!

At this point, I figured we would have to go back outside again, but another series of back hallways and elevators suddenly brought us to the ticket counter where the lines were very long. Never mind the lines because Frick and Frack went right for the front. In the process, they took the passports out of our hands, and before we knew it, we had boarding passes, and the passports back, and our bags had been checked through to Murmansk. I will admit that we got more than a few hard stairs, but it was done. Then we were off through a series of tunnels, more elevators, backdoors, and suddenly we came to a private security line. It was here that Frick and Frank could not quite pull their magic. While we had no one in front of us, I would say that if anything security was more stringent on us than would have been the usual. They literally tore Lisa’s carry-on bag apart as well as her sleep apnea machine (CPAP). But except for this little snafu, the next thing we knew, we were standing in front of our departure gate. This entire process, about which I worried about so much probably took no more than 20 minutes. But wait, for Frick and Frack just realized that we were traveling Business Class! That means that we don’t want to go to our gate, but that we want to go to the special lounge reserved for Business Class passengers. So before we can say a word, there was another extended journey where we were carefully seated in the lounge with our bags at our side. I started to give Frick and Frank each a gratuity, but they declined saying that they would be back in time to see that we reached our flight in a time – and then they disappeared.

Well at precisely the right moment, they returned again. We were then off on yet another race through the terminal to see who could get to the gate first. WHOOSH! Arriving at the gate, there is no way that you can get to the front, so Frick and Frank find a way around the lines and before we know it, we are admitted to the boarding ramp, even before the plane was ready to board. Staying until we could board, then they took us onto the airplane, put our bags into overhead bins, and make sure that we were comfortably seated, and then Frick and Frack almost declined to gratuity.

I’m telling you this story, because it’s one of those that you simply can’t make up and you could never see it coming in advance. I was in for yet another surprise: Aeroflot Airlines. Lisa and I found ourselves in a very clean, modern Airbus 312, where in the small Business Class area, we were seated in some of the most luxurious, leather seats I have encountered. The two male attendants could not have been more accommodating to our needs, since we were the only passengers in Business Class. The Economy Section of the airplane was completely full. In other words, Murmansk doesn’t see a whole lot of tourists, even when it’s at the height of their tourist season.

For those of you who are pilot types, I will share with you my observation that our approach and landing into Murmansk was somewhat unusual. The airplane was doing a cruise altitude to what appeared to be around 5000 feet above the ground, about an hour away from Murmansk. As we descended the aircraft slowed down, and once we reached 5000 feet, it continued to slow until reaching an airspeed of around 130 knots. The reason this caught my attention is because an aircraft like this likely would land at 140 knots or so. At this point, the nose of the aircraft was very high. Several times the airspeed deteriorated to as low as hundred and 115 knots, and the pilot was having to use considerable power to keep the airplane at a level altitude. Why we had to fly so long, so low, and so slow is a mystery to me? However, it did make for an exciting flight.

We arrived at our hotel in early evening last night making for a very long day. We were escorted to our “Special Suite,” only to find a small room equivalent to a Motel 6. But hey, all things considered, it may have been a long day, but we are safe here in Murmansk, and with all of our bags, and I can put my fears to rest. I really did not think I would have a chance to share this with you before we set off on our great adventure, but I did have time this afternoon, and we have the Internet – so I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity.

Take care everyone, and we’ll catch you on the flip!


Friday, June 23, 2017

It’s My 73rd Birthday--So Cut Me Some Slack!

I must ask your forgiveness; I started writing with great vigor about our 10 day voyage from London to Oslo, only to suddenly disappear from the scene. In truth, after I last wrote, our ship spent the day transiting the Kiel Canal, and after that, every day was another port until suddenly-the-cruise-was-over! I really did intend to write about our activities, but by the time we returned to the ship, had lunch, and took a quick nap, it was time for dinner. It just didn’t seem there was any time to write!

So now, I am sitting in a magnificent hotel room in Oslo, Norway trying to look back and make some sense of what we saw, and the best I can hope for is that since today is my 73rd birthday, you will cut me some slack, and allow me to give you just a brief overview. I might also point out that in truth, I think by photographs do as good a job of telling the story of our trip as if I were writing.

I last wrote to you after visiting Bruges in Belgium. The next day our ship transited the Kiel Canal. I am surprised at how few people are aware of this very important waterway. It is only 61 miles long, but it was completed way back in 1895. It connects the North Sea with the Baltic Sea, and saves shipping between the two bodies of water which would be over 300 miles. There is a lock at either end of the canal, but they are mainly to regulate tidal flow since the two bodies of water connected are basically at the same level. The canal can handle up to 130 vessels per day, and a normal transit time is 7 to 8 hours. The cruise ships are generally given priority for a daytime transit, however, when we arrived one of the locks in the canal had malfunctioned, and we were forced to spend many hours waiting for an opportunity to finally enter the canal late in the day. All was not lost in terms of our being able to view the beautiful countryside because we were in a part of the world which was enjoying almost 24 hours of sunlight per day.

In fact, let me talk about that; yesterday, June 21, was the “summer solstice.” Where we live, I doubt most people even pay much attention to that date. But in the northern latitudes of the world, it is a cause for celebration, and is generally a big event. Yesterday, here in Oslo, they enjoyed 22 ½ hours of sunlight which also means that six months from now they will endure the same amount of darkness. As Lisa and I travel north from here, we will get into the realm of the world where there is light 24 hours a day this time of year.

After the canal, our first port of call was Wismar, Germany. For most of our passengers, this was to be the Gateway City for visiting the German Capital City, Berlin. However, because of our delayed transit through the canal, the full day trips to Berlin had to be canceled. Having been to Berlin many times, Lisa and I had already planned a day excursion in the area to the city of Schwerin. The primary reason that someone visits this city is to view the Sherwin Castle. This is a palatial estate that was built in the 1850’s. Today it houses the administrative offices for the local government, but parts of the interior have been restored to their formal elegance and can be toured. Since we had been here once before, we opted for a walk around the palatial grounds. One interesting little story involves our driver. Realizing that we were not able to walk very far, he drove our limousine right up to the very gates of the castle and parked. When we left for our walk, he was approached by the guards and told to move on, but he told them confidentially that we were relatives of the U.S. President Trump here on a private visit, and the guards immediately told him to stay where he was. Following our walk around the palace, we visited the famous Cathedral that dates from the 1300’s. Afterwards we returned to our ship, and before we knew it the day was gone.

The next morning we opened our curtains to find ourselves in the heart of Copenhagen, Denmark. This is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but sadly that day, in my opinion, the city was literally overrun with tourists. Lisa and I tried to reach the world famous statue of the Little Mermaid, but the crowds were so deep, that we gave up in frustration and moved on. We did manage to make the “changing of the guard ceremony” at the Royal Palace, but here again we were virtually unable to even get pictures so large were the crowds. Since neither of us were able to walk any significant distance for the most part, our tour of Copenhagen was by car, and once again, we returned to the ship where before you knew it, time for dinner.

One of the wonderful things about cruising is that each morning you throw open the window, and potentially you are in yet another world. So it was this day that we found ourselves at Aarhus, Denmark. Neither of us had ever been to this city before, so this was a special treat. The city is home to an extensive open air museum where old houses throughout Denmark have been brought together. It is also home to a wonderful botanical garden, but both of these attractions required some considerable walking which we simply were not up to. We did enjoy our visit to the Cathedral which dated from the 12th century, and later we did walk through parts of the city that were quite old, but also quite well-preserved. People still live in these small, 17th century homes, and as our guide told us, they are also “some of the most, pricey real estate” in the city. Once again, we continued to be impressed every time that we visit Denmark with its cleanliness, and with the friendliness of its people.

By now, I know you realize what’s coming – the next morning we opened our door and we were in Gothenburg, Sweden. The highlight of this day was without question our ability to spend the morning touring with my son, Jay, and his family. Best of all we got to spend the day with our charming and adorable 20-year-old granddaughter, Jennifer. Along the way, we did visit one of their historic churches, which was located at the top of the hill with panoramic views of the city. We also visited the area of the city known as Haga which is a historic walking area. Finally we did go to their botanical garden, and even though Lisa and I could not walk very much, we did get some excellent photographs of flowers in this most beautiful of locations.

Of course, as you might guess, what came next is that we through open our window the next morning, and found ourselves in Arendal, Norway. This is a small and scenic Norwegian coastal town, without any special or unique attractions that we are aware of. Lisa and I were going to take a short morning bus tour offered by the ship, but both of us at that point were quite apprehensive about all that we had to do to prepare to leave the ship the following morning. So, we gave our tickets to the kids. When they returned from their excursion, they said that they spent almost 3 hours in a bus driving around, with only two short 10 minute stops. They were not very happy with the experience, and they had what I have been known to call a “spam in a can tour.” What was concerning Lisa and me was the necessity for getting ready for our big North Pole adventure. We had made arrangements with the cruise line to send one of our bags home by FedEx, and we were going to put into that bag all of our fancy clothes and shoes, and only take with us into Russia those things that we absolutely needed. Once we got that accomplished, which took some time, we had a quick lunch on board the ship, and then went for a walk around the small town. It was a beautiful day and a wonderful place to just find a bench in order to people watch. You might find it of some interest, but the bag we left on board ship the following day has already been delivered to our home in Kansas City. Indeed it got there just about as fast as we could have ourselves.

And so on opening the window the next morning, we found ourselves in Oslo, Norway being politely invited to depart the ship early so that they could prepare it for the next voyage. We went to our lovely hotel where we had been offered early check-in, only to find that there would be a “slight delay in getting our room.” As it turns out, we did not get to our room until after 4 PM that day, and needless to say Lisa and I were bone tired. What we decided to do while we had all that time to spare, was to make the short walk to the nearby national Gallery. It was only three blocks away so we thought we could walk it on our own. While we made the journey, it was extremely difficult on both of us, and we were exhausted by the time we arrived at the museum. The museum itself looked so unimpressive, that we hesitated to even go inside since it required that we climb stairs to get in. However, having made the effort, in the end, we decided to see what it had to offer. Boy, would it have been a tragedy had we not gone into that Museum!

It appeared that the only way up to the exhibits was to climb two very long flights of stairs. However, the guards were very accommodating to take us way into the back to a service elevator that took us upstairs. When we exited, “I asked the guard “where is the Impressionist Gallery?” and he pointed ahead to the left, and said the important pictures are “there.” Well “there” turned out to be a large gallery that had only one way “in” and “out,” and on either side of the doorway stood a guard, and within the gallery itself, I counted five guards constantly circulating amongst the people. The gallery was home to a small, but important collection of the works by Edvard Munch, a famous Norwegian artist. Several of the artworks were protected by cleverly designed bulletproof shields. The most famous painting that I recognized was called “The Scream.” I would say that every one of the works in the gallery was totally outstanding, and if the gallery was all this unimpressive Museum had to offer, it would have been well worth the visit. But wait, this was only a small portion of the gallery. So after leaving the Munch collection, we turned the corner to find several large rooms of Impressionist paintings. Virtually every famous painter of that era was represented in those rooms. There were Renoir’s, Monet’s, Manet’s, and more, much more. What they did not have in those rooms was the presence of guards. In any other museum in the world, these paintings would have been considered an invaluable treasure. But here in Norway, the paintings of their local artists deserve the most security while the rest of the museum was sort of an afterthought – but what an afterthought it was.

For the next two days, we had a private car drive us for several hours each morning around the area. Our driver turned out to be a recently retired police Captain from the Immigration Offices, and who was also rather well known for his activities in many high profile charitable organizations. I must tell you that in a blitz of activity, we literally saw everything that Oslo had to offer. If we couldn’t walk it, he made sure that we got as close as possible so that we could see and photograph it. Today on my birthday, he arrived at the hotel with a small Norwegian flag! Early in the morning he had attempted to find an American flag, but failing to do so he brought the Norwegian one. He then required me to carry the flag for the entire day that we were together in order to show everyone that I was celebrating my 73rd birthday. I’m sure you can catch a sense of just how much fun we had with this gentleman.

For now I would like to share with you my new website for photographs. It is a long story as to how my photographs have ended up at this location, but I am very pleased with this website. I have not had a great deal of time to organize all of the historical pictures, but at least the gallery entitled “Best of Best” is current, and the last several years have been organized and listed by year. If you just wish to see the pictures from this trip, you may skip directly there by going to

So what happens now? For one thing Lisa and I are going to disappear for two weeks. Tomorrow, we will spend the entire day making our way to the very northern coast of the Russian Arctic to the city of Murmansk. We have been told that we will be met at the airport, but I’m not 100% sure that. We have also been told that if we are met, do not expect that our driver will speak English, but he will know where we are to be taken. The following morning I think that we may have arranged for a tour of the city, but again I’m not certain. Neither the company that sponsors this trip, nor our travel agent were able to arrange a sightseeing trip. I bravely got online and found a Russian company which offered a trip, and after about 16 emails I finally received some official looking piece of paper that bears a stamp and signature that appears to indicate we will be met by someone at our hotel. If they don’t show up, then I’m out the money because they have already charged my credit card. The following day we will meet our fellow passengers as we spend the day going through security in order to board the most powerful nuclear icebreaker in the world. It is housed within the Russian naval base at Murmansk, and it will be our home for the next two weeks. The brochure says that we can expect to reach the North Pole, and along the way to explore some of the beautiful sites of the northern Arctic. There will be no cell service, nor will there be internet. The good news is that our room will have a private toilet, and that is just about all I know of what we are getting ourselves into!

I do plan to write during what I consider the journey of a lifetime for us, but obviously I will not be able to share these until we return home. So keep your fingers crossed and hope that we come out the other end.

I hope everyone is well,

Please take care,


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Held Captive in Bruges, Belgium

Map picture

Belgium may be a small county with a total population of only 11 million people, but with the Capital of the European Union being located in its major city of Brussels, it has a large importance to the countries of Europe.

Our ship docked at the port city of Antwerp, and from there it was only a 90 minute drive to Brussels. However, Brussels really had no appeal to us because along the West Flanders coast were some of the most historic cities in Europe, specifically the cities of Ghent and Bruges. So, for our first day off the ship, we took a private car and intended to head to the nearest of the two cities, Ghent. Once on the super highway while moving along at 122 km, Lisa and I became engaged in some substantive conversations with our amazing guide, and without realizing it, we flew right by Ghent and ended up in Bruges. To be honest, I completely forgot that we were even set to go to Ghent!

Our guide was a stately gentleman of some 64 years who as it turns out, had recently retired as CEO of one of the largest corporations in Europe. At that time, he was managing the interest of the third wealthiest family in Brussels. He had started with no education working as a blue collar worker, but by doing night school, he eventually acquired an Engineering Degree, an Economics Degree and eventually a Law Degree. On his way up the corporate ladder, he had travelled all over the world, and was fluent in 5 languages. Our discussion really started as he was describing the socialist system of Belgium and extolling its virtues. In essence, the government of Belgium through its taxation policies, redistributes income. Those at the top pay handsomely, while everyone is guaranteed a wage, and education to the best of their ability, free and timely healthcare, and eventually a good retirement. He made it sound almost idyllic, hence the intense conversation.

Upon reaching Bruges, I flat did not remember until we had dinner that evening, we were supposed to have gone someplace else! But wait – it gets even worse – within 10 minutes of seeing Bruges, I realized that Lisa and I had been there several years ago, but neither of us recalled that until then! Anyway, Bruges is the Capital and largest city in the province of West Flanders in the northwest of Belgium. It was first mentioned in the literature around 850, but came into its golden age around the 12th to the 15th century when it was a major trade center. Today it is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Indeed Bruges is one of the most well-preserved Medieval Towns in Europe. To walk around town is like visiting some historic old open air museum. Everywhere you look there is living history. We entered the city near one of the remaining Beguinage still in existence. These convent-like enclosures were similar to nunneries; however, a woman could choose to leave at some point, and still take her possessions with her. The last resident of this enclave died just a few years ago at the age of 93. From there, we meandered around the cobblestone streets, and across bridges under which beautiful swans floated slowly by. The atmosphere was surreal. Because we were having trouble walking, we took a 30 minute boat ride which covered the many canals throughout the city thus allowing us to see most of what the city had to offer from the outside. At this point, we sat down for a lunch in a quiet restaurant where our table looked out over one of the many waterways which was surrounded by castles and tall church spires. Before we knew it, the day ended as our spirited discussions from lunch continued in the car all the way back to the ship. But, there was one small – no make that one big problem – we were trapped in Bruges.

You see the medieval city was built in a circle, and it was surrounded by water as a means of protection. There were only five bridges which allowed access into the old area of town. The city itself has only a small network of very narrow roads, most of which are one way. The trick is to know in advance which way the next junction will go. So after working around and around in circles to get onto one of the roads which exited the city, we came to a sudden halt. As we were approaching the bridge over the waterway, it rose up in response to some vessel requiring passage. Before our eyes, slowly slid a very large barge which just stopped! After the longest time, we realized that it was stuck in the narrow bridge inlet, and could move neither backwards nor forwards. So, our bridge became impassable. In addition, the way in which their bridges are interconnected, the previous bridge also stayed open not receiving the necessary signal to signal that the canal was clear. This meant that 2 of the 5 bridges allowing transit to the city were closed. It was all we could do to get out of our line, only to join everyone else who was also trying to exit the city. Because the City had recently implemented a new traffic plan, neither our driver nor the GPS had any clear way out of this mess. We drove for what seemed like forever before accidently ending up on an exit road. Until then, and for the last hour, we were Captive in Bruges.

After a fun day, we had dinner with our son, his wife, and our granddaughter (now 20 years old – time flies.) It was at dinner when we were asked how we liked Ghent, that we realized that something was not right. Ah well; just chalk it up to old age.

The next day dawned bright at last, and while our ship had moved overnight from Antwerp to Zeebrugge, both in Belgium, in point of fact, we were still in the same area as the day before. So, this time we set out for Ghent, which would have us driving by Bruges – but it was only 30 miles extra to go all the way to the destination we should have gone the day before. Everyone got that – it still confuses me! On the way, our guide was excited to take us off the main roads to visit the small quiet village of Lissewege. Since we had already seen Bruges, when we got there, she assured us that this would be a new experience. Well, wouldn’t you know – we’d been there before – I mean, no joke. The only thing different was that the town church, which was built in 1225, was open this time for us to visit. Never-the-less, it was nice to see a quiet village still going about life seemingly oblivious to the outside world.

By this point, I fully expected to have been to Ghent before but to my surprise Ghent was to be a new experience. I am really proud that Lisa and I managed to walk all around this beautiful city, even stopping for a famous waffle. But when we could walk no more and called it a day, it was on the way home that we realized that we had not entered so much as one building or church – shame on us!

I do have some beautiful photographs of our trip so far, and I will let the pictures do the talking. Just as soon as I can, I’ll share my new web page with pictures of our trip.

Hope all is well,