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I spend most of the morning outside on deck, watching our passage through the densest ice of the voyage. This has only slightly slowed down the ship's 75,000-horsepower progress to the North Pole. The ice resents the disturbance and cracks but reluctantly.

The juddering knocks an emergency flare from one of the life preservers beside the bridge and the impact sets it off. Foul-smelling orange smoke drifts along the side of the ship.

We're not in critical proximity to the Pole yet; the bridge is still sparsely manned.

After pressing doggedly through the thick ice, we pass through an area with more open leads and newer pressure ridges. These aren't necessarily a symptom of warming; the tides and currents of the sea lift and shift the ice, and break apart and throw back together its great plates, the floes.

Soon we are in the heavy ice again. On the flying bridge, above the bridge, I stand with E and a few others to watch the ship inexorably crush the ice, reverse, then move ahead more rapidly just beside where it had weakened the ice: a rhythmic forward-back-pause-accelerate-forward surging dance.

When we reach an area of leads, the captain takes the ship beside them, using them to accommodate the ice displaced by the ship's progress.

We watch the compass swing round with each twist of the ship and the longitude numbers flicker madly — all lines of longitude converge at 90 degrees latitude, so you can go round the world in a stride or two. In minutes, sometimes seconds, we're 79°E, 82°E, 126°E, 174°E, then 44°W. The ship's path in the ice swerves like a drunkard's walk, seeking one particular imaginary point among all the other imaginary points.

As the ship is steered around the compass, homing in on the infinitely small 90.0000 point, all the officers are on the bridge, visible from the bow below where the passengers were assembled for a champagne toast.

Are we there yet? Everyone stares at GPS receivers and all have a slightly different answer (thank you for that inaccuracy, US DoD). Still, from chaos arises consensus: not yet, not yet...

We pass through bands of weather. A high, bright sky with sun struggling to break through becomes fog with a closed-in horizon, narrowing the apparent size of the North Pole from vast to a few city blocks. The map is not the territory, but here it's very near: representing the Arctic with the flat whiteness of a piece of paper, slightly crumpled, crossed by a few dark dashed lines, is a fair depiction of the truth.

As the GPS we are watching on the flying bridge reads 89 degrees 59 seconds 56.1 minutes, the bridge decides that the passengers are close enough to the North Pole to celebrate — it's extremely difficult to achieve any position exactly and then hold it for more than a few seconds. (Our slewing around longitudes is entirely irrelevant, by now.)

So the captain sounds the horn, a bone-shaking noise, sparkling wine is poured in glasses on the bow, and on the flying bridge we pour 18-year-old Lagavulin into paper cups (thanks, David!) and toast each other, take a few photos, and go down to join the others.

There is a general air of high spirits, but no one is excessively elevated or jolly. David shares the remains of the Lagavulin, in vain.

I chat with a few people, most notably with Susan Currie with whom I speculate on whether more people had been to the North Pole or the top of Mount Everest. (She thinks Everest; I think the Pole.) I then climb up to the radio room to Iridium-phone my mother and then return to the cabin to check my own GPS.

The ship's bubble system, compressed-air jets all along the sides, is foaming like a jacuzzi. The crew, using them as position thrusters, are adjusting the ship's placement minutely. As I pull the GPS in from the window, where it hangs outside, I see the latitude decimals changing quickly and get my camera ready. Sure enough, a few seconds later the horn sounds again triumphantly as the bridge passes over 90 degrees, and my cabin follows a moment later. I snap the shutter. I have moved over not just an approximate North Pole, an approximate imaginary geometric point of convergence on the surface of the frozen sea, but over the precise nonexistent position.

The Pole conquered, the ship staggers off into the ice, looking for a place to party.

At 89 degrees 58 minutes, the ship's bow is eased into thick, solid ice — "garaged" is the Russian term — where, if the expedition leader deems the conditions safe, passengers will be allowed to leave the ship. The ice is covered with a layer of snow, which softens the pressure ridges and plate boundaries. E has come back to the cabin with the empty whisky bottle and is having a little nap; I've downloaded my photos from the morning. Maybe a nap is a good idea.

A little while later all is prepared: two rifle-carrying guards are posted on the ice, the Quark staff have set up tables, a ladder has been lowered into a slush- and ice-filled gap in the ice at the stern, and a red rope ring has been laid on the ice around a red sign reading "90°N North Pole". The passengers are told to assemble in a circle at the ring for a group celebration of their achievement.

E and I, having become habituated to sleeping through the expedition leader's voice on the PA, must now rise groggily from our much-craved naps and begin repacking ourselves in layers of long underwear, insulation, and windproofing, meaning we are tardy for the official Just-off-the-North-Pole Circle of Self-congratulation, but singing at each other anyway.
Fah who for-aze!
Dah who dor-aze!
Welcome Tourists,
Come this way!

I don't believe anyone paying passage on this ship has achieved anything. We bought tickets, as great an achievement as taking a train to New York or flying to Tokyo: the only difference is the price tag, and even that's pretty moderate, considering. No personal hardship has been borne nor has heroic effort been expended. Had the journey here, even for passengers, been longer or more arduous, I'd be rolling my eyes less, but it is disturbing to see how much people puff themselves up for doing so little.

Speeches are spoken, cheers are cheered, more photos snapped, and the passengers are at liberty to get out there, into this cool, slightly off-North-Pole place, and relate to it. A Breughelian carnival ensues.

Vladimir, a crew member, arrives ceremonially bearing the Russian and Russian Navy flags, then performs asanas on a towel by the swimming hole, raising his body temperature; when he goes in, he strokes back and forth and even dives into the black water beneath the ice chunks covering the surface.

Russian sailors and an officer set up a football pitch in the snow, which is soon trampled and polished to ice, and keep a game going for hours.

A rope — at first a thin blue one, then a real hawser — is dangled from the bow, so people can have their photo taken "towing" the ship.

Snowball duels are fought and snowmen stacked and snow angels attempted in the wet snow. Many, many flags are waved, most notably Russian flags, but others have brought Swiss flags, Beijing Olympics flags (a contingent of Chinese tourists pose nonstop with stuffed plush Olympic mascots and polar bears---they purchased the ship's gift shop's entire stock of toy bears within half an hour of its first opening), a Soviet flag (flying from the gangway beside the Quark flags), and flags I can't identify without the big atlas. Some of them, like the Soviet flag, may be for countries that don't exist.

Though there was a hint of sun a short while ago, fog persists in clinging to the ice; it's not possible to see more than 500 feet from the ship, but the fog is a surface fog and so it is brilliant with sun, we walk on the snowy ice in dazzling depthless and shadowless light.

The rifle-toting security guards don't appear to be scanning for bears; they're looking inward, whistling sharply if people wander too far from the ship, violating unmarked boundaries. For them it's a day spent cat-herding.

Figures become silhouettes fifty feet away and so many people wear identical yellow parkas that the ice around the ship looks, from above, like a scattered set of children's toy figurines. Objects lie here and there: a knapsack, a parka, a stuffed animal, a cigarette end. The ice begins to feel cluttered and crowded with human energy.

Merely turning one's head away from the boisterousness brings back the size and blankness of the icescape. The pressure ridges, some having thrust broken ice pieces up on edge, from a knee-high ten feet or more, zigzag and curve out of sight in the fog. The sun, circling high above the horizon, is a cold white disk behind the clouds and mist, so the ice has hints of form on the ridges and is colorless, only white and dull grey. A few deeper crevices between chunks of ice flash blue, but these are rare. Snow has drifted over and been driven into all the angles and cushioned them. It has covered the cracks and seams between the floes, too, which come into view as the day goes on, in the footworn spaces by the ship. And right beside the ship, where ice blocks have been tipped sideways, a few brown chains of algae are visible, freezing in the air. But away from that tiny area, there is no bird, no seal, nothing, not even a bear's pawprint, to mark the surface of the Arctic ice.

The whine of the ship's generators clouds the silence and shouts down the delicate whisper of wind: noise is another way of establishing territory. Humans don't bring the Arctic anything it needs; it is complete without people. The snowmen that a few tourists persist in sculpting, the names and dates written in the snow, are out of place, inane attempts to domesticate something too big for the sculptors to comfortably comprehend. More significant in domesticating the Arctic are the carbon emissions created by the vehicles that brought us here, our jets and automobiles and electrical power plants.

A meaty, elaborate barbecue meal (there were few takers for the cold salads) including fresh breads, punch, beer, and sugary cookies, is served to the passengers, who sit in rows at the folding pine picnic tables and benches ranked beside the ship. Blonde waitresses made burly in cold-weather gear go to and fro with trays of beer cups.

The Breughel vision is nearly complete here; we want only one more thing, and soon it comes: a wedding. The ceremony is performed a little ways from the ship on the ice, two staff members, Carola and Tobias, having been engaged for some time, realized that the captain can marry them. The captain is charmed to be asked — it's another first for him in a day of firsts — and the bride and groom's friends from the hotel section process from the ship, laughing, bearing trays of glasses and boxes of champagne, and an artificial-flower wreath for the bride. The couple give each other rings made for them by one of the Russian crew members, two-banded circles of gold-colored metal. Afterward, they pose with the wreath on a snowman.

Many of the passengers have retreated to the ship: it's a big world, cold and empty, and the cabins are heated and have hot running water.

The ball game is over. Now a group of Russian crewmen are scooping pure fresh meltwater from the top of the ice into jugs, for later, and using the occasion as an excuse for a wee dram, carefully poured from an inner coat pocket into a shot glass decorated with a flying green hippo. They call it "cognac," but it's sweet as syrup.

There are only a few humans on the ice now. It is time for us to leave, and to take our silly concepts with us.

When the number is down to eight or so, the ship's whistle blows and we go up the gangway, looking back: trodden into the ice and snow, I can see black marks from discarded cigarettes.

Date: 2008-07-04 03:10 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] janni.livejournal.com
Wow. Just, wow.

Date: 2008-07-04 05:22 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] paulaandandrew.livejournal.com
Is there any attempt to coerce the people into minimizing their impact? It's dreadful to think of cigarette butts and the like.
But what an adventure! I agree: there is no effort required from the passengers save (writing the check)but it is nonetheless a fabulous opportunity! Yay!

I'm enjoying your writing and look forward to lots of pictures and maybe a dedicated travel story evening when you get back?

Date: 2008-07-07 10:14 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] poletopole.livejournal.com
The Russian guys are the ones chucking ciggie butts around. The expedition leaders can't do anything about it. A funny thing is that passengers are forbidden to smoke anywhere but the smoking area (a sofa outside the crew's dining area) and theoretically the crew and officers are likewise banned---this is a nuclear vessel, and we don't need a butt flying into, say, the helicopter refuelling area---but the bridge crew are often seen stepping outside for a smoke (there are two doors to an outer deck at opposite ends of the bridge) and tossing the butt to the wind. I'm just glad none of them have gone into cabin windows...

Date: 2008-07-04 07:18 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sfmarty.livejournal.com
I am so happy I was pointed this way. I love travel stories and you are creating an outstanding one. Thank you.
From: (Anonymous)
i told the man there is not a place on this planet a cigarette butt has not found....i hate to be right, but i am....thanks for some back up....check my cause out, turning cigarette butts into ashtrays that collect and educate the environmental and health hazards of littering these host of tons of toxins into our environment!

Mike Davis
Responsible Smokers Act

look for me hopefully with Timberland's Earthkeepers Heros


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