The Magnetic North: Notes From the Arctic Circle

Voyage on the KapitanKhlebnikov
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Feb. 24 2011 3:35 PM

The Magnetic North: Notes From the Arctic Circle

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As the Arctic took center stage in the warming climate drama, a cruise industry sprang up to ferry tourists to the polar bears before they all drowned. In July 2008 the fifteen-thousand-ton icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov sailed from Murmansk on a sixteen-day 3,256-nautical-mile journey across the Arctic Ocean. I took Wilf, my wildlife-loving ten-year-old son on it. It was his future that was at stake in the Big Melt.

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It was one of those perfect Arctic days on which ocean and sky compete to achieve the most vulgar blue. Thickened grease ice lay on the ocean like a rubber blanket, its saltwater pockets flexing with the waves. Back in the Zodiac, I trailed a hand in the water and felt the sticky surface of frazil needles. The driver cut the engine, and we listened to mush ice clinking along the edge of the pans. When we floated around a headland, a female polar bear was standing on the fast ice. Her huge front paws were splayed over the ice edge, and her raisin eyes focused on a cub shaking its fur in a starburst of droplets. Sunshine reflected off the newly molted sheen of her yellow guard hairs. When it sensed that it was too far away, the cub smacked its lips. Mother nosed into soupy ice. Then she went down on her forelegs and slid silently into the ocean.

The sailor who power-hosed our boots when we returned from landings was a gnomelike figure with a tea-cozy hat and a mouthful of gold teeth. He smiled broadly all the time, and it was pleasant to see a man enjoying his work. After we returned from one outing and he had sluiced us down, he pointed out a bear that was gorging on the entrails of a seal on a floe piled with sugar snow. For an hour we were all hanging over the stern rail taking photographs. That is to say we were absorbed in the wonders of the natural world, having burned up hydrocarbons by the ton to reach them. Knitting at the guillotine? Or fiddling while Rome burned? Either way, this particular ship of fools illustrated the environmental conundrum of our time.

Slide Show: Scenes From the Arctic Circle. Click image to expand.

When we went down to lunch after watching the bear, I talked with the captain, Pavel Ankudonov, an inscrutable chain-smoking Vladivostokan and a veteran of both polar regions. "On this voyage," he said, "we burn four hundred and thirty-nine metric tons of IFO, heavy fuel. Average is thirty-five tons per day, though on last trip, through Northeast Passage from Anadyr, was more ice so we burn sixty tons a day." The presence of my wildlife-loving son attenuated the irony: Would all this be here for his children's children? Or would nuclear-powered icebreakers solve at least this particular problem? I asked Ankudonov if his job would be easier on a nuclear vessel. First he snorted. Then he said, "Nuclear captains just sit at wheel and go like through butter. We have to steer course. Monkey can pilot nuclear icebreaker." It was exactly what jet pilots said about astronauts. Puffing his Troika cigarettes, Ankudonov manfully maintained the ship's Russian flavor despite her international clientele. It was difficult to reconcile the happy images of a pleasure cruise—the grinning boot-hoser, the oldies on holiday, the genial captain, and the natural beauty—with the threat of global inundation as the ice melted. Somewhere in the distance one heard the strains of a band playing on. Hope was one thing. Refusal to listen was another.

Moral misgivings notwithstanding, I relished the luxuries of cruising after reindeer-hoof dinners and the challenges of camping at −22°F. Living close to nature is fulfilling in many ways, but a bed has its strong points, as does an attractive dining saloon—and let's not forget hot, running water and porcelain facilities. Freed from all domestic obligations, Wilf and I had plenty of time to enjoy our surroundings.

When we weren't galumphing over the tundra or cruising the pack, we looked out for wildlife, either from the flying bridge or from Steel Beach on deck 7 (it was next to the engine vents). There were always birds in the sky. Every day we saw northern fulmars, black-legged kittiwakes, and Brünnich's guillemot (called the thick-billed murre in North America), and most days red-throated divers (loons in the United States), creatures so highly adapted to ice that they can barely walk on land. On Victoria Island, Wilf spotted nesting ivory gulls. Two hundred and forty nautical miles from the other parts of Franz Josef Land, the lonely Victoria snow dome marks the westernmost point of Russian territory. The Khlebnikov dropped anchor among so much ice that we had to chopper ashore, landing on a shingle spit marked on a military map as Cape Knipovich. On one side of the spit, hundreds of terns had taken refuge in the rusted fuel tanks outside a pair of abandoned stations. One station functioned between 1954 and 1993 as a meteorological observatory, the other as a Frontier Guard post. Wiping a circle in a frosted window at the front of the met station, I saw an open book on a desk and an oilskin on a hook, with the sleeve turned inside out. In 1993, having received neither salaries nor supplies for a year, the staff simply walked out the door when a ship came. There was no money for keeping weather records or for guarding useless frontiers. Soviet scientists operated 110 Arctic stations before the U.S.S.R. fell. In 2008 there were 3. It was a tragedy for science, as years of good data just stopped. Things would get better, but not yet, and in the meantime, ivory gulls and terns had the island to themselves.

By the time the KK approached Greenland four days later, the ocean was showing off hundreds of bergs—mast-high fleets of them, towering with spires, funnels, and Moorish arabesques. One, the size of a French cathedral, had flipped over, and the ship sailed so close that we were able to inspect whorls of algae on the freshly exposed underside. We had no darkness, but the light changed with the cycling of the day, and late at night long shadows cast the forms of bergs into singular prominence, as shafts of sunlight do in a lamplit room. I started to rise before five in order not to miss the early morning reds and pinks glowing on the berg pageant. "There is a glamour about those circumpolar regions," Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in 1880 after seven months on a whaler. "You stand on the very brink of the unknown." We were all facing the unknown now. An undefinable truth of the Arctic was emerging from what I had seen in the beautiful ice.

One thing that was known, however, was that the ship's remorseless three-meals-plus-a-day regime threatened calorie-induced paralysis. But in the bowels of the vessel, I discovered a gym. Leaving Wilf on bear alert, I joined iron-thighed Russian sailors as they thrust and flexed to Siberian rap, the crash of waves on the bow directly above adding tympanic rhythm to the piston pounding from the boom box. The session concluded with a birch-twig thrashing in the sauna. A girl can have a worse time at sea.

From the ship's Mi-2 helicopters we had a bird's-eye view of the KK breaking ice. As the 1.8-inch steel skirt on the cutaway prow smashed into the pack, it pushed layers up on top of one another until towers of shattered portions tottered sideways, or it forced them under the hull, where an ice knife pulverized them into white rubble. The waves formed by the breaking process—as Sylvia Plath wrote about waves somewhere else—went off "mouthing ice cakes." As old ice is thicker than young, its dispersal requires increased force, and the KK ramped its six diesel engines accordingly, tanking out, at maximum capacity, 24,200 horsepower. Snug in our cabin, we learned to calibrate the blows. Halfway across the Greenland Sea at three o'clock in the morning, the ship struck with such ferocity that as he was hurled out of bed, Wilfred shouted, "Yikes!" (or something ruder). "That must be really old ice!"

Alert to the drama, we dressed quickly and hurried to the bridge, where Captain Pavel was smoking inside (a nice touch of echte Kultur) and poring over a chart. Sea ice is expressed in tenths on a maritime log, and on that day, at 81°04'N, the ice master had inscribed "10/10." Ankudonov had cut thousands of miles of ice at both ends of the earth. "In satellite images we receive," he explained as the three of us peered out of the bridge window at the solid white ocean ahead, "fog obscure[s] the ice cover, so we sail a bit blind. None of this ice at which we look appears on the charts, even though is not first-year ice—probably nobody charted this area last year." Wilf asked which was harder—north or south. "Antarctic much easier," Ankudonov replied, "as ice down there softer. Has snow on top, so cuts more easily. Up here I see pressure ridges forming and rising before eyes. Also, in Antarctic you only need to break ice close to land. Arctic Ocean has fifty percent ice cover."

Managing to smoke, talk, and inspect ice all at the same time, the captain revealed that he had joined the KK straight out of his naval academy in 1985 and worked his way up, learning on the job the chaotic complexities of sea ice. Years ago he discovered that the key to polar travel is flexibility, and indeed that day, the one on which we reached the unbreakable ice, he changed our course, heading back out to sea and skirting the frozen barrier in order to hit Greenland farther south than planned.

There had been a tremendous amount of talk in the bar, where most of the talking went on, about an imminent solar eclipse. Everyone knew something about it, but collective knowledge amounted to nothing at all, so it was a relief when the PA system summoned us into the lecture theater for an eclipse briefing. The event (we learned) was one of the Saros 126 1, 280-year cycles, and as it turned out, Ankudonov heroically got the KK and us into the region of 90 percent totality. Pinhole viewing boards were distributed, though there was a bit of gossamer cloud cover, so we didn't need them, and as we watched the moon steadily blot out the sun, for the first and only time on the expedition—and for two minutes—we experienced something approaching darkness.

Click here to read a slide show on arctic life.

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