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This morning: 86 degrees, 38 seconds. The expedition leader in his morning announcement doesn't give a longitude because it doesn't matter, this far north, he says. So draw a straight line from yesterday...

The morning is bright and sunny, so the expedition staff cancel the planned activities (lecture, engine room tour, Tai Chi) and instead arrange for the passengers to go up in the helicopter to photograph the ship.

The ship obligingly starts and stops for landings and takeoffs, but as soon as the helicopter goes up the engines gear up and it begins breaking ice again in a most satisfying way. For these fifteen-minute flights, everyone gets a window seat.

We are allowed to open the windows on the helicopter, and the sun falls on the back of the northbound ship and makes the wake look like turquoise marble.

The white expanse of fairly regular ice and lack of icebergs or other features means that the ship is the only object of focus in the landscape...

I photograph a few ice floes in leads, but essentially the world here is a long whiteness to the horizon, with irregular cracks of dark water, a few brownish algae stains, and the ship's roiled wake of ice chunks.

The helicopter returns us to the ship and collects the next group of sightseers. The brilliant sun brings out the sharp blues in the ice and water, but the clouds on the horizon warn of another fog bank in our near future.

Close up:

In the afternoon, Laurie the expedition leader lectures on nuclear icebreakers, his material being drawn from this one and the Yamal. Essentially this is a nuclear-fired steamship, as the power plant is used to generate steam that drives turbines generating electricity to run the engines. Seawater is used to cool the reactor. An interesting extra feature is the series of vents along the lower hull, which are connected to an air compressor. In order to create a wider lane for passage behind the ship — a larger wake, in effect — compressed air is forced out along the hull, bubbling up and both reducing drag on the ship and creating turbulence that moves ice. This is something that only icebreakers would have, naturally.

Apparently the 50 Years of Victory is setting a speed record for getting to the North Pole, and as it's the captain's first time here in this brand-new ship he's eager to distinguish himself, his vessel, and his crew. That attitude, and the ship's 75,000 HP, mean that this icebreaker is going through 3-meter-plus ice as easily as the Kapitan Khlebnikov (25,000 HP) went through lightly packed floes. The thick, melt-layered pieces of multiyear ice break off the plates as the ship passes through them and slide under or over the ice beside them, or tumble end-up. We appear to slow down only when the course is being adjusted or a particularly heavy pressure ridge is met. "Slowing down" here means going perhaps 8 knots instead of 13 or 15. The ship is amazing.

Laurie's subsequent briefing on the activities planned for the North Pole is rather less fact-packed. Many cringe-inducing things, some of which show a stupendous incapacity for critical thinking on someone's part, will be done. For example, a flagpole will be erected with a line of banners, stretching to the ship, of flags of every nationality represented on board. The North Pole does not belong to anyone, including Russia, and raising a national flag over it brings nationalism to a place that is and must be beyond nations. We are not explorers claiming anything for anyone, nor are we representatives of national governments here in any official capacity. We are tourists in no man's land. The North Pole is not a fixed point on the ice, and has only theoretical existence and geometrical form.

Some of you reading this are thinking, oh, come now, it's only a string of bunting. But how we comport ourselves in these places is important; it shapes not only others' view of the world we're in, but our own views. Quark's flag-waving, collegially multinational though it may seem, precludes the opportunity to remind us that some things belong only to themselves, that some places aren't real even when you're standing on them, and that we are visitors, not owners, at the North Pole and in the world.

Other activities will include a barbecue served on the ice (cold food, hot off the grill!), a chance to take a dip in the sea, and whatever harebrained scheme the artist has come up with. I hear that he has with him a bottle of water from the South Pole, and he planned to pour it out at the North Pole. Very symbolic, and kind of lame as performance conceptual art goes. Also, anyone who's ever dealt with invasive nonnative species finds this idea thoughtless and repellent rather than symbolic of unity and oneness of the world. (It would be higher-concept and more daring if he took an identical bottle, filled it with melt water from the North Pole and set it beside the other, photographed them both to show how there was no visible difference, and then filmed himself drinking the water.) I asked one biologist on the staff about this idea, theoretically, and she found it unobjectionable, feeling that the water was unlikely to be toxic; however, she observed that every biologist would have a different take on it.

The polar activities briefing ended with another cringe-inducing moment: a filmmaker on board wants to charter the helicopter to get a particular shot of the icebreaker for a film he's making (on ship) and he was hoping to share the cost ($3,000 per hour) of a half-hour flight with a few passengers. He misjudged his crowd badly as he was rapidly overwhelmed by rich white guys with big wallets and fat egos who consider themselves photographers equal to the moment. The filmmaker's intention is to get footage of the icebreaker nose-on, breaking ice, and this is amazingly dangerous because the helicopter will land on the ice ahead of the ship and be ready to take off in an instant should one of those cracks travel suddenly underneath it. The filmmaker will be attached by a safety line to the helicopter so he he can film on the ice. (Apparently on a similar shoot in the past, a crack HAS opened, and the filmmaker ended up dangling from his safety line out the open helicopter door above a widening gap in the ice.) Passengers, being inexperienced at derring-do and uninsured for it, are to remain inside the helicopter taking photos through the windows.

Meanwhile, on the flying bridge, someone took the canvas cover off one of the compasses and didn't replace it. I seize the photo op and tie the cover back in place. (The crew do not use these compasses to navigate. Please stop embarrassing me, fellow passengers.)


Weather equipment. The deck is wet from fog and misty not-quite-solid precipitation.

Not weather equipment.

Looking toward the bow along Deck 3.

The ice has become heavier and heavier, the plates larger and smoother-looking — from the ship. I don't think it's smooth at all, on the ground, but the ship is so tall it's difficult to see details. The light, too, flattens textures and distances. The seams of the pressure ridges show where plates of ice have broken apart and fused repeatedly, high and snow-covered. This area we're in now is the "permanent" sea ice, formed over several years. Its surface may melt in the summer, but it (shouldn't) melt away altogether — although now, all those rules have changed.

What we see is a long white plain, stretching away in every direction, with ridges formed of chunks of ice and occasional black areas of open leads. The cracks opened by the ship scrawl across the whiteness like writing that both traces our path and leads us.

I saw two or three little auks yesterday. No polar bear tracks were spotted from the ship, nor seal breathing-holes. All the life is under the ice — when the blocks flip over, we see the algae that feeds the entire Arctic food chain.

We visitors carry our food chain with us...no melting snow for water, no stalking seals to shoot, no fear of becoming part of the food chain ourselves, though gossip could take its toll on weaker members of the party.

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July 2008

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