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At 1:00 in the morning, another polar bear strolls past the ship. What with the landing and the fog, we haven't seen one since yesterday morning.

The ship follows this bear — another subadult male, probably — for an hour, and the bear wants very much to get away from the ship.

Shortly after we meet him, he is panting with exertion. Polar bears are not designed to hurry; their thick fur and blubber insulate them so well that they are at great risk of overheating.

He leaps over narrow leads in the ice and steps on and off ice floes trying to escape the noisy big thing following him around.

I am relieved when, after an hour and a half of the ship stalking him, he's allowed to strike off over the ice by himself.

Tikhaya Bukhta means "Quiet Bay" and the bay is tranquil: its still water, very deep, allows the ship to draw very near Rubini Rock. The water really is that color this morning.

Rubini Rock is an exceptionally resistant chunk of columnar basalt, deformed after it formed, whose basalt columns twist in every direction — the complex form may be a factor in its resistance to erosion by glaciation. It looks like an knotted multi-strand cable made of stone.

The blunt basalt column-ends and long columns on their sides form ideal nooks and shelves for nesting seabirds.

It is so sheer that the ship can approach fairly closely.

The season is early and the guillemots and auks are just getting going, but the cliffs are also home to glaucous gulls (near the top), which are larger than the others and which prey on their eggs and chicks;

kittiwakes (intermixed with the guillemots, but in clumps);

and skuas, and they seem to be sitting on actual nests, constructions of dried grass visible under them. I don't think the guillemots and auks have eggs quite yet — but soon — they are occupying their brooding spots to protect them from encroachment by other birds.

A bird will return to the same place on the cliff year after year, particularly if it has successfully fledged a chick there. Looking at the cliff, one can easily discern that there are better, more protected locations and suboptimal, exposed ones. A crevice into which the egg and the later chick can be tucked while shielded by the parent bird's body against skua and gull attacks is ideal. The auks seem to prefer the highest reaches of the cliffs and a bit of the green domed top of the rock that is not so steep as to prevent plants from growing. The birds' guano has accumulated there and in crevices of the rocks and supports a thin-looking cover of plants. This is an ideal nesting site for these sea-birds; the extreme verticality of the cliffs makes them unapproachable by anything without wings.

The sound of the bird colony is cacophonous and exuberant; the different species call at different pitches and they are all shouting to be heard over one another, rather like the people in the ship's dining room.

The ship does not moor, but uses the engines to move very slowly around the rock, allowing passengers to watch the birds for about three-quarters of an hour; yet most people have left the decks after 15 or so minutes. The rock itself is as striking as the birds it hosts; its saddled top and curved sides are mementos of glaciation, and it must be a fluke that this little knob survived, sticking up with sheer sides, from the bottom of the glacial valley.

An hour later we are going ashore using the helicopter, landing on Hooker Island at another historic site: Sedova Station.

Doomed polar explorer Georgiy Sedov's expedition overwintered at Tikhaya Bukhta during the 1913-1914 winter, and subsequently the Soviet Union maintained a radio station at the same location from 1929 until 1963. (This radio station is most remarkable for having had radio contact for a few minutes on 12 January 1932 with the Byrd expedition's radio station, though not Byrd himself, located on the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica!) We're told that Hooker Island is the one in the archipelago that has been most visited by the Russians for this reason.

The forbidding and inhospitable nature of most of the Franz Josef Land islands accounts for the repeated occurrences of the same locations in the historical accounts of exploration and exploitation. Sedov's attempt on the North Pole is a sad tale of scurvy and frostbite; he and his party set out in February, when Sedov was already ill, and he died on 5 March 1914. His men turned back at once, carrying his body with them, and interred him under a small cairn with a flag planted on top. The shore of Tikhaya Bukhta, therefore, is littered with various eras' remains, including graves from the Sedov expedition and a more recent one of a pilot from the radio station years. Machinist I. A. Zander died of scurvy early in 1914.

Grave of Sedov Expedition machinist I. A. Zander, who died in early 1914 of scurvy; Sedov's grave, with a its Russian cross (rebuilt in 1931) is in the background:

Grave of Peter Ivanovich Fotiev, a pilot, who died here 12 February 1948:

In this frozen land, graves are cairns, hacked into the frost-patterned ground and heaped with ice-tumbled stones. Typical circulation patterns are visible in areas that aren't covered with meltwater or ice and snow. Severe as the environment is, you can see that the low spots between the upraised, finer soils are slightly more hospitable to mosses and plants. Tiny differences mean life or death here.

Where the snow and ice have thawed, a layer of water and mud sits on the permafrost. The mosses and lichens are brilliantly vibrant in the monochrome landscape &mdash especially monochrome on this day of low-hanging mist.

Thawing Arctic peat-boggy ground releases methane, produced by rotting vegetation. Standing and watching a puddle for a while, you can see it bubble.

Slightly drier areas support the Arctic willow. This is a sub-sub-dwarf sized tree, but it's producing pollen already.

How small? This small.

This is the same plant that, a little farther south in a fractionally less severe climate, grows knee-high. Here, the environment is so severe that it stays two or three centimeters above the ground, max. This plant's evolved adaptation to cold and aridity, its exploitation of the most marginal niche imaginable, is as amazing as an Emperor penguin's habits.

The Svalbard poppy is a perennial, but though the clump can grow each year, it reproduces by scattering seeds. The early season flowers come one short, stubby stems, contrasting so much with last year's straggling seed-heads that they look like two different plants. A poppy that's still dormant looks like a skeletal, tentacled monster!

The radio station was a large one. The buildings include a hangar, a clinic, an outhouse, a windmill, a radio mast.

It reminds me quite a lot of Qullissat in Greenland, another ghost town. Like Qullissat, odds and ends of abandoned domesticity litter the landscape. E tells me she saw a pair of frozen long johns, board stiff, on the shore, and I find a kettle, milk cans, an old stove, a razor-sharpener for a straight razor (D identifies this readily), a mattress, all jammed into a building whose windows are all broken and whose door is eternally sealed with a scowling Soviet-era padlock.

The buildings, their knotty wood weathered to silver and losing strips of tarpaper with every storm, still have the numbers on their outer boards to assist in assembly: they were prefabs knocked down and brought here. They have the poignancy of all abandoned places — why were these things left behind? — and it is likely that they will be here indefinitely, like Nansen and Johansen's useful log. I hope the tourists brought here on these cruises have not pilfered anything. I've read that scientific teams still use the place from time to time. It might be fun to return in milder weather and, if one of the buildings is still a bit weatherproof, set up a little "museum" like the one at Qullissat. At the moment, most of the buildings are full of snow.

The bay is quiet but the birds on the cliffs above it, nearly invisible in the fog, are in a raving frenzy. It is spring, it is time to claim a nest site, time to mate. Little auks' mating yodels sound much like rockhopper or chinstrap penguins' and another similarity to the penguins is that a little auk doing a display will set off sympathetic displays all over the colony. The kittiwakes are courting, too, at a higher pitch, a shrill thready line of notes nearly drowned out by the exuberant auks. As at Rubini Rock across the bay, here the little auks and guillemots are just settling in for the breeding season. The snow bunting is here also, pinging among the rocks and waiting for his mate, less elusive than yesterday's.

The relatively favorable weather is allowing us to make a nearly comprehensive tour of the historical sites of Franz Josef Land: the ship repositions during lunch and in the late afternoon, we are brought by helicopter to Cape Flora.

En route:

Cape Flora has been the jumping-off point for many schemes and expeditions, but it is most famous for two things: the Jackson-Harmsworth scientific expedition of 1894-1897 was based there, and when Fridtjof Nansen's kayak was holed by a walrus as he and Hjalmar Johansen were setting out to paddle from Franz Josef Land to Novaya Zemlaya, it happened just off Cape Flora. Nansen and Johansen were able to get to shore before the kayak sank, and just before they set off again after repairing the kayak, Nansen heard a dog bark. Walking inland a little ways, he found the dog: Frederick Jackson's dog; and he found his professional colleague Jackson too, who didn't recognize him at first, he was so begrimed after a winter of sitting over a small stove burning sooty blubber. Nansen and Johansen were saved a laborious further journey and returned to Norway on the expedition's supply ship. A strange accident of coincidence, but probably not the strangest in all the history of humans in the Arctic — the paucity of places and paths directs people together.

At this site are many fewer building remains than at Tikhaya Bukhta, which is a shame; a subsequent (disastrously badly-organized) expedition asked Jackson's permission to borrow and reuse some of the buildings elsewhere, so only foundation outlines remain. (If memory serves me, the Sedov Expedition, desperately short on fuel, raided the place for wood to burn to fire their steam engines, also.) Here remains, though, a great boulder on the beach, which Nansen is said to have climbed up on to sit and brood from time to time, a feat which E and I considered but had to abandon because of our unwieldy and awkward rubber boots.

Walking around the boulder, we found the remains of a stairway, hinting that perhaps Nansen wasn't actually bouldering whenever he wanted a quiet think.

The sweeping, curved slopes of scree below Cape Flora's basalt cliffs are particularly pleasing to look at, and there is indeed more plant life there than at other locations.

It is still too early for most of the flowering plants to be greening up, but we found beautifully colored mosses and saxifrages.

We scrambled up the steep slope of fractured basalt chunks, climbing for a better view. The grassed-over scree slope below the cliffs shows stone runs (another freeze-and-thaw phenomenon, sorting the particles of the soil) similar to the stone runs of the Falklands.

It hardly seemed possibly that I was really in this remote place, ice and water shifting under the chiaroscuro light, my back pressed into the rock while the wind stirs bleached grasses, the cliffs across the bay receding, coming in and out of view.

The local snow bunting was less shy than others, and paused several times long enough for a photo.

And as the fog lifted during the afternoon, the land, sea, and ice because more and more spectacular, particularly from the lower parts of the vegetation-covered slopes below the cliffs. It is a fascinating place to walk around and look at things, and I wish we had had four hours there instead of two.

Not an art installation, but as good as one.

The rolls of cloud are thickening; fog is coming again. It's time to leave in the helicopter, looking back, looking around...

Worryingly, I have discovered that a lot of my memory cards are bad — they're not readable and not formattable. Fortunately enough are unaffected that I'm not short, as none are available on the ship! I checked them all before I left, and they were all readable then. Maybe they were exposed to something seriously magnetic in the repeated airport screenings of my journey to Helsinki.
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July 2008

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