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.


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