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[personal profile] poletopole
82°45' N, 52°28' E

I think my highest north last year was 81 or 82 degrees, when the Polar Pioneer went as far north as was feasible into the summer ice pack, above Svalbard.

It's misty-foggy; Fifty Years of Victory is pushing steadily through heavier ice this morning, making use of many openings, the leads between the plates. Even though the ship breaks ice easily, it's still faster to use the leads when they go in the right direction. The plates of ice are seamed with pressure ridges, some low, some high: lines of tumbled chunks of ice showing where two plates rammed together and fused, or where one plate buckled and crumpled under the force of impact with others. The ice is moved by winds and tides and currents, so it's always shifting — it's not a solid layer anywhere, although the thicker it is, the more resistant to breaking it is.

The fog shrinks the world. It does this everywhere, but here in the ice, without no landscape feature to cue the brain to calculate distance, it makes the world very small indeed. Ten feet beyond the boundary of visibility, a polar bear could stand watching the ship pass; we would not see it.

The icescape flows by. Patches of blue seem more vivid and colorful than they would in brighter light. A crack stretches to the horizon, a few hundred yards away; a kittiwake passes, an object with firm edges aggrandized by the small world.

A dusting of fresh snow on the ice shows some recent polar bear tracks, spotted around 10:00. I haven't seen the numerous seal breathing-holes and tracks today; there are very few birds this far north, too. Arctic seals don't hang around to be looked at by tourists (unlike the cooperative Antarctic seals); I am sure that if any were resting by a breathing hole when the ship approached, they went back in the water and swam away as soon as the disturbance in the ice and water became noticeable. As the day goes on, we see bear tracks but seldom. They live on the ice, but follow the seals, and the seals at this time of year are probably closer to the edges of the ice.

Kara Weller gave a talk on polar bears this morning, describing their physiology and habits. This trip is light on lectures; there are, however, engine room tours coming, so if you have questions about nuclear icebreakers, email them now!

The ship is newly built and newly fitted for passengers, so it includes a lot of little conveniences. In the cabin there are lots of electrical outlets, for example, and it's furnished with a power strip (into which a TV and DVD player are plugged — kind of pointless, I think). The lounge has a big flat-screen TV on which football (soccer) playoffs were watched until we were out of signal range. There are some primitivisms that probably reflect Russian ideas about how things are done: the bathroom is basic, with the worst and most dangerous shower I've seen yet on a boat. No pressure regulator and no thermostat, so the hot water comes in bursts, scalding hot. It can even spurt out after the tap's turned off! A floor heater is on all the time in there, too. We can't control the temperature in the cabin; heat comes and goes at the whim of the crew, although a waterfall noise trickles steadily in the heating pipes. The carpet is spongy stuff chosen, I think, for its nonslip quality. It feels sticky to walk on, like the kitchen floor in a dorm after a party. But it works well when the ship is juddering and bouncing — footing is quite secure.

Outdoors, though, the fog and a mist of wet snow have slicked the decks, stairs, and railings; there are nonskid paint pathways, but not everywhere. Water sloshes as the ship moves (it seems inclined to list to port, judging from the puddles) and collects at the sides of the decks.

This afternoon I pass on another lecture from the auctioneer-style history guide. We're scheduled to stop in the ice for an on-deck barbecue, but at 17:00 the expedition leader announces that, 1, the deck's too wet and slippery for a cookout, so dinner will be a "carvery" in the dining room; and 2, would people please return the Quark logo mugs to the lounge? We are only three days out and 90 mugs are missing. That is pretty impressive for only 83 passengers! E and I took two, today, because when we went to fetch our morning tea there were no mugs, only paper cups. We'll be happy with cups and saucers or plain cups. Neither of us needs another mug at home, but we want to drink our tea in a relatively civilized way during the voyage, and we'll put the mugs back at the end.

As the fog thins, it glows.

The big glow beyond the fog hints at better days elsewhere.

We can see the track the icebreaker leaves; we're still in a monochrome white-muffled world, but the contrast is beginning the heighten.

Late in the day — "afternoon" can't be inapplicable when it's always midday — the fog and cloud lift quite high and begin to break up, though the wind is also picking up.

The snow on the ice is white as white can be and stretches in pressure-ridged ripples to the horizon. Very small patches of blue begin to break through the clouds and then the northern sky clears, though we're still under clouds.

The light snow and sleet of the day have left ice on the ladders and decks outside, so it's best to time one's movements for a less bouncy bit of ice-breaking, but it's fine bright weather to be outside. We are very far north; I've seen two kittiwakes when the ship halts to assess conditions for the barbecue (a pity we didn't do that — the smells might have attracted bears!) and a handful of kittiwakes and a dozen or so little auks and guillemots in one of the leads, in the morning.

The carvery is preceded by one of those shipboard ceremonies in which Neptune is propitiated, this time for crossing 85 degrees North. A few people kiss the cod and get their noses painted red; as naval ceremonies go, this is very low-key. Outside, the clouds are like mother-of-pearl and the wind is cutting. We'll be back beneath the fog so soon, why rush to go indoors?

At 19:00, as I write this down, we're at 84 degrees 45 seconds north and about 26 hours from the Pole.

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July 2008

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