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Following the assumed-late night last night, we're spared the expedition leader's wakeup call (and threadbare, sub-Reader's-Digest humorous quotes). A brunch is served instead of lunch.

Today is brilliantly sunny — looking out the window is painful without sunglasses! The snow-covered ice glitters and the water and sky are rich blues. In point of fact the sun has been up all night, high enough above the horizon that we are sweltering in our cabin. The icebreaker's living quarters are made of metal and when the sun plays on them for hours at a time, they become incredibly hot. Dressing in layers becomes challenging; E and I experiment with sleeveless t-shirts and, to go outdoors, have to add wool, polarfleece, and Gore-tex still, because up on the flying bridge where we stand to watch for bears, it's still numbingly cold. Nonetheless, we go out, because out is where there is to go.

Sun makes the deck beside the engine room heat vent an absolute lido. Where are the deck chairs?

We've seen few polar bear tracks since about 27 June, but we are following our own trail almost exactly back south, we should soon be in the zone where there are many seals and many bears. Besides the rapidly-dwindling stock of bears in the gift shop.

Here in Cabin 40, giddy anticipation follows the arrival of two invitations for "Cocktails with the Captain" this evening at 18:45. We will have to get our best Polarfleece out for this, to be sure. Unsurprisingly, some of the women have not only traveled with dress clothing, but with jewelry, including "good" jewelry (this, overheard on the plane as an item not needing to be declared to Russian Customs). A lot of the men have packed jackets, but not ties. These people have a lot more luggage than we do.

We can't flatter ourselves that the captain, a really busy guy, wants to make our acquaintance; he's been very courteously hosting drinks when circumstances permit for small groups of people all through the trip. I guess our number is up today. We still haven't had an engine-room tour, though, and E wants to be sure not to miss out on that.

The captain's cocktail party is stiffly formal, held in a conference room off the bridge; the security guards loom by the room's one doorway, and the guests are seated around a long table to sip glasses of wine and nibble little hors d'oeuvres and snacks. Unmemorable questions are asked by the guests and politely answered by the captain; it's not a situation conducive to easy conversation. At the end, a queue forms for photos.

We spend most of the day looking in vain for polar bears, seals, anything moving: we see little auks alone or in "couples and fews and severals," but as we are still in heavy ice and the open leads are very limited, this is not surprising.

Big rafts of the alcids and other colonial birds, in general I think, occur only near near the colonies as foraging groups rendezvous to leave and arrive together. Being in a group lessens each bird's chance of being targeted by a skua. Thus, as the ship breaks through the ice beside a lead, we are likely to see a single little auk or guillemot burst away out of the water or dive underneath to escape the disturbance.

We will arrive in Franz Josef Land tomorrow, no question about it — this is a certainty, as the ship is effectively unstoppable. Victoria Salem presents another excellent history lecture, this time on the discovery, or gradual mapping and comprehension, of the archipelago of icy islands named after the Austro-Hungarian Emperor. Sources from a century ago are still among the best information available about this little-visited place; it resembles Svalbard and is not far from it, but as far as I know no commercial large-scale coal mining has been carried out. Small seams at the surface have been exploited by expeditions, over the centuries, for fuel. Salem tells us that in researching her lecture she found little or nothing in print about Franz Josef Land and had to resort to the British Library for century-old publications about it.

Kara Weller gives a helpful talk on identifying plants we're likely to see; Arctic plants are very similar or identical across the world, as the conditions are so difficult few plants can make it. At this very early season of the year, we're unlikely to see a lot of flowers (but there will be a few), but she calls our attention to lichens and mosses as colorful elements in the landscape, instead of flowers.

Our tea break is distinguished from other tea breaks by the presence of sandwiches instead of large slices of creamy or gelatinous cakes, a very welcome change. The sandwiches are decorated with toothpicks bearing little chefs and assorted (random) national flags.

The best thing we see all day isn't the sandwiches, though: it's a fogbow in the mist beside the ship as we move through a fog bank. Very faint colors are visible in the curve; it varies in completeness with the density and height of the fog and lasts a long time — half an hour or so.

The illuminated fog is strikingly different from fog without sun. The ice glows, no longer dully blank, but luminously transcendent. To stand there in the light, watching the fogbow shimmer, heightens and exhilarates the mind and shortens the breath. It is very beautiful.

In the effulgence, we see bear tracks on the sea ice again...

and as we pass from it, we begin to see many seals hauled out to rest, who flee into the water with scarcely a ripple when the sense the ship coming.

The sun that makes this blue-and-white world so achingly beautiful is also transforming it into reflecting pools of shimmering turquoise meltwater.


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July 2008

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