Cape Norway

Jul. 2nd, 2008 10:00 pm
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At 1:00 the loudspeaker in our cabin crackles tactfully several times and then a soft ladylike voice, Susan Currie gently breaks the news that a polar bear is on the ice outside the ship, at "11:00". That means it's on the port side, and so E and I scramble out of our bunks and sit in the wide-open portholes, on the cold radiator, shivering in pajamas and sweaters as we photograph the bear.




The bear is confused by the ship. It's all wrong. We see from his tracks in the snow that he had been sauntering along minding his business, which would be looking for seals, when he saw the ship and did an about-face. Now he walks away, but the ship follows very slowly, neither drawing closer nor moving away.




The bear, a sub-adult male, looks over his shoulder often at the novel nuisance. He travels steadily away over pressure ridges.

Suddenly the bear pauses in his tracks. He looks intently — or rather, sniffs — at a patch of snow, rigid and no longer noticing the ship. And then he moves, lightning-fast, and an instant later he's gotten a seal.






Female ringed seals build dens beneath the snow to bear their pups and shelter them after birth, the dens being atop a breathing-hole in the ice to allow the seals access. After her pup leaves the ice and enters the water through the hole, the seal might continue to use the den for a while to rest, though she will use other breathing holes as well. Polar bears know this and can smell, through the snow, whether there is a seal present in the den. This one got very lucky: the seal was probably confused by the vibrations and sounds of the ship, and the bear wouldn't have walked that way if he were not trying to avoid the big noisy smelly thing. He has gotten a meal out of it.

Now the bear would like to eat the seal, but sub-adult bears are sometimes robbed of their kills by older, dominant bears. The bear considers the ship a problem and picks up his seal to lug it off.








He walks for a very long distance with the seal — perhaps a kilometer — trying to escape the ship, which might be a threat. The ship follows. The bear walks smoothly, leaping easily from one sheet of ice, from one floe, to another, a little more quickly than is comfortable: we can see that he's panting, and I begin to feel that observation has become harassment. At one point he breaks into a trot, something polar bears do only rarely; they overheat fast. He goes over five or six pressure ridges and over three or four leads until he gives up. This thing is following him and he wants to eat his seal. He stands, watching the ship warily, and gulps strips of blubber from the seal.



Ivory gulls live by scavenging polar bears' kills; our bear is instantly joined by three, one of whom is bold enough to dodge in for a scrap before the bear is anything like finished eating.




The others, less daring, wait a small distance away.




The bear eats as the shadow of the ship's stack passes him, lifting his head for another suspicious glance.




It's apparently not interested in taking his seal, so he returns to eating. But the Russian crew move the ship backward again, backward and forward several times. At last the bear's gotten a few bites down and he's had enough. He picks up his seal carcass and lugs it off again, delighting the ivory gulls, who peck at the bloody snow.










The ship waits for a moment, the bear settles behind a pressure ridge to eating again, and then the ship moves on. The bear has eaten all of the blubber, which is the highest-quality food from the seal first. A well-fed bear (a good hunter) would leave the rest; this one means to eat it all.




We get back to bed around 2:30; but at 6:00 another call comes. The ship has arrived at the island on whose shores we're to be landing today, and a mother bear with twin cubs is on the ice outside.



No, really: here they are, Highly Magnified with a 300mm lens on a digital Nikon:




The cubs will have been born sometime around December and thus are about six months old. They are smaller copies of their mother and imitate her steady walk over the snow — except that they wander from side to side, flop down to wrestle or curl up together, sit stubbornly and then panic and gallop toward mother, and generally act like cranky little bears. When the mother, who is busy hunting, gets too far away, they run to get to her. A few times she goes back to collect them, or waits for them, and they seize the opportunity to suckle for a few minutes. The cubs are eating meat from their mother's kills already, but (if I remember correctly) will continue to suckle for another year.

Eight seals have appeared, distant dark punctuation, on the ice behind the ship. The mother bear is aware of the ship, and moves slowly away from it as she sweeps the ice for buried seal breathing holes, but she can't sneak up on a resting seal, certainly not with two cubs trailing along behind her. Several times she halts for a long still-stalk, but has no luck; we watch from the ship, through binoculars, but the ship stays its distance this time.




The mother bear sniffs from time to time toward the island, also: another bear is walking along the shore. This could be a threat to her cubs. The other bear, though, goes out of sight behind a heap of ice cast up by winds and tides, and we can't see him. We watch the bears for more than two hours and then have to rush to get ready for the landing.

The sound of the helicopter drives the bears away at a trot, last seen hurrying to the other end of the bay over the ice. We are lifted over the sparkling ice to Cape Norway.





There are a surprisingly large number of important historical sites in Franz Josef Land, and Cape Norway is one of the most interesting. Here, after an arduous journey over the sea ice in a failed attempt to reach the North Pole, Fridtjof Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen came to land and overwintered. Their hut was primitive, but to them, after living on the ice in tents, it offered sufficient comfort and protection to bring them through the winter. Their hunting skills and the perennial curiosity of polar bears ensured them a steady supply of food, as they had few provisions left from the Fram. They spent the Arctic winter waiting for spring and repairing their gear, and left in kayaks when the ice began to break up, on 19 May 1896.

The hut was partially dug into the ground for better protection, made of the basalt rock that is the principal material of Franz Josef Land. Nansen and Johansen were fortunate to find a log washed up on the beach, so they were able to have a roof to their hut, made of walrus hide stretched over the log and weighted down with rocks. They found no other wood or firewood worth mentioning, and it seems that cutting peat was probably not practical given the permafrost. A spare column with a plaque memorializing their stay now stands near the site of the hut, which is still quite recognizable.




If undisturbed, the log will lie where it has fallen nearly forever; wood decays very slowly in the Arctic.




The site of the hut is a narrow band of flat tundra-like land (tending to be boggy) backed by scree slopes below basalt cliffs occupied, at this time of year, by breeding seabirds.




The weather here is severe enough to discourage any but the hardiest plants; it is apparently too harsh for the willow and birch that spread across Svalbard. Svalbard is warmed slightly by the passing North Atlantic Drift current, which does extend farther east but is greatly attenuated by the time it reaches Franz Josef Land. Today the sun is piercingly bright and I suspect that if we could stay for a few more hours, we'd be able to watch individual plants pop up and open their flowers. At any rate, there are lichens and colorful mosses;






there are the tiny, perfect Arctic plants




including bog-cotton (not yet green),




saxifrages,




our old friends the Svalbard poppies,




and ranunculus;






and there are some common eiders floating offshore. (Later, I hear that someone spotted a dunlin.)

Another sound ripples through — no, not the drone of inane tourists discussing money (this seems a particularly American vice, by the way) — it's a trilling, homely-sounding series of distinctively limpid and perfect notes. Is one of the security guards a really good whistler, or do I hear a perching bird of some kind? I ask Kara Weller. She doesn't dismiss out of hand the possibility of a joking Russian security guard, but listens a moment and then says that what we hear, flitting here and there amongst the rocks, is a snow bunting. He sings in spring and summer together, lightly fluttering in short hops across the hillside to announce his presence.

The dripping ice and snow puddle on the permafrost. We sun ourselves on the dry slopes.






A front is coming in, and lenticular clouds form downwind of the peaks.




All too soon must we return to the ship, although E and I are incorrigible foot-draggers and go back on the very last helicopter flight.




In the afternoon, the changed weather forces the expedition team to cancel our scheduled landing at Payer Island to walk on the island's small ice-cap: just looking out the window, we expect this, because a low fog has socked in the ship since we left Cape Norway and visibility is nil. So the sunny morning at Cape Norway is today's highlight, and the combination of the historical excitement of the place and its natural beauty (perhaps more obvious to those of us not spending the winter in a walrus-roofed hut made of cobbles) make today the best imaginable of the trip so far for me.

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