15 December 2014

World's end

"Anything I've ever done that was ultimately worthwhile, initially scared me to death."
-- Betty Bender

“We shouldn’t be here,” I thought on the walk back to our guesthouse. Technically, we were still within the city limits of Longyearbyen, Svalbard, so carrying a firearm for protection from polar bears was not mandatory.  In truth, we were living, moving targets.

It was a 3 kilometer uphill hike from the town center to Spitsbergen Guesthouse, but there were no buildings along this stretch save an elementary school.  Where would we run if a wild polar bear smelled us?  And did you know they can smell seals 1 meter below solid ice? Not to mention, the odds of us outrunning hungry mega-fauna were slim to none.

It was 01:00 but who could tell the difference between night & day, given that we were in the realm of the midnight sun?  Though it was not sunny, the sky was bright enough to see the single paved road ahead (and behind) my mother & me.  The ravine’s dark walls surrounded us and the deserted mine perched on our left.
At this late hour, the world was muted.  No birds chirped. The wind wasn’t howling like it usually did.  The silence was maddening because it made me paranoid about every sound I heard.  The high, foreboding hillsides felt like they were closing in.  My eyes and ears were hyper-alert because at any moment I honestly expected a large, yellowish figure to emerge atop the hills on all fours.  With their uncanny ability to smell seals under 2 meters of solid ice from 2 miles away, I knew we had already been identified by any nearby polar bears. Maybe Mom sensed my nervousness, but she must have been equally concerned because she offered to survey the left side of the street if I would scan the right.

“We shouldn’t be here.” That crossed my mind occasionally in Iceland and Norway, but here – in the Arctic Circle – the phrase thrived. 

At 78º 13’ N, Longyearbyen is the northernmost “city” (I use that term loosely) accessible to tourists.  Yes, there are other "cities" in Canada & Barrow, Alaska, but they lack an infrastructure.  To travel to northern Greenland & Russia – where there is predominantly a military presence – one must first obtain written permission from the federal government.  How do I know this?  At 23:00 I met an Asian gentleman in the communal kitchen of Spitsbergen Guesthouse who informed me of his goal to reach the northernmost and southernmost latitude possible.  He assumed Longyearbyen was where his quest ended, but excitedly reported that – after a 3.5 hour boat ride earlier in the day – he crossed 78º 41’ N at the mining settlement Pyramiden.

So, Longyearbyen it is for those in search of isolation, extremes and polar bears.
"We shouldn’t be here” moments amassed exponentially once I left the town of Longyearbyen & land altogether.  The first occurrence was on Day 2 aboard an Arctic cruise.  It was each person’s first time disembarking the MS Expedition.  I could sense their hunger for the Arctic.  It was a mad dash downstairs to the mud room – the dressing and staging area for leaving the boat.  However, the anticipation quickly dwindled once guests loaded the much smaller, inflatable Zodiacs to be transported to the tiny stretch of land named Poolepynten (pronounced “poo-lee-pin-ten”).
On the brief ride to shore, horizontal rain crashed into my body and poured off my jacket in rivers.  Since the Zodiacs could not be completely beached, each guest stepped into the frigid Arctic water with only cheap galoshes (made flimsier by every previous user) to sheath their feet.

On Poolepynten Mother Nature continued her barrage.  The rain was so heavy at times that the anchored MS Expedition looked like it was behind frosted glass.  Photographers scrambled to put plastic bags over their expensive cameras.  And the wind.  The Arctic wind sliced my cheeks & left them raw the remainder of the day.  Furthermore, the Walrus colonies – for which the island was famed – were subdued.  The majority of the population slept peacefully through the foul weather (although if I had 10 centimeters of blubber I’d be cozy too) which worsened the sightseers’ moods.
An hour ago in the mud room, all the passengers were laden with bulky clothes & overheating.  Here & now, exposed to all the elements, Mother Nature was winning the war for warmth.  As I observed six Walruses, yearning for them to wake up & be active, I knew we were all in over our heads.  I saw two Zodiacs return to the cruise ship with likely soaked and disappointed guests.  I removed my bulky glove & cinched my Canon Rebel T3i case tighter, but within two minutes my hand was numb. Inside the generic rain boots provided by G Adventures, I wiggled my toes to keep blood circulating though the effort proved futile in the end.  In these conditions, the minutes passed like hours to me. Humans were not meant to endure 78º N.

For the dedicated, Poolepynten was a highlight (more on that in a later blog entry) and taste of Arctic life. On Day 3 the expedition leader planned for Zodiac cruises to see Puffins, “hanging gardens” and the interestingly named 14th Of July glacier.  En route to 79º N the ship pitched so brutally that its corridors reminded me of a funhouse with slanted rooms & a dizzying, spinning tunnel.  I sought the doctor for a medicated ear patch to settle my equilibrium. Convinced the Zodiacs would be bashed against the rocky cliffs in this weather, the Puffin expeditions were cancelled.  Yet, the crew was confident that the land excursions could proceed – with caution.

Lesson learned from Poolepynten, I wore additional, thicker layers. Since the MS Expedition’s mudroom was on a lower deck, it lacked windows, but I still felt the violent rocking.  Waiting in line to board the Zodiacs, I recognized the man standing at the threshold to the outside world as Chief Officer (second in command).  His austere demeanor and neat attire made him stick out.  “Conditions must be serious to warrant this level of supervision,” I thought.  

Instead of queuing at the metal door, one person at a time was summoned forward to the grated platform. Like a bouncer at a nightclub, the Chief Officer shook his head in approval or disapproval to the three men that waited four steps below the gangplank. When I received his blessing I was passed into the arms of all three staff members using trapeze holds.  At this point in the boarding process guests typically put one foot on the Zodiac and stepped in, but I was prevented crossing.  The Arctic Ocean undulated savagely and was strewn with whitecaps.  These were not waves you would encounter on a bad day at the beach.  The swells rose and fell in massive variances that would devour the Zodiac if not timed precisely.

The acme of “we shouldn’t be here” resulted in the use of [over-the-counter] drugs, a sleepless night and anxiety attack on Day 5.  After a wonderful day filled with unique wildlife and unprecedented landscape, I returned to my cabin past midnight.  Earlier the MS Expedition reached the northernmost latitude of our tour: 80º 16.12’ N.  Why couldn’t we sail further north since we had the time?  Quite simple: the polar ice pack.
I probably slept an hour before being awakened by the terrifying sound of something scraping against metal and jarred me from slumber.  Outside the porthole, ice surrounded the boat as far as the horizon. The fog blocked the midnight sun and heightened the portentous feeling that we were sailing in dangerous waters. The haunting vastness of the polar ice – and nothing else – that I saw will forever be etched in my memory. 
I laid in bed & begged my mind not to freak out, but every five minutes I was jolted out of a quiet prayer by another, familiar sound of ice being dragged across the ship’s frame.  With each unnerving sound I wondered if it had punctured our vessel – our lifeline.  The MS Expedition was not an ice-breaker, only reinforced, and replaced the MS Explorer which sunk in Antarctica after an irreparable tear from ice.
At 03:00 the thuds of ice had partially subsided, but just when I relaxed, another would crash into the hull. The ship’s swaying increased and contents in the room shifted.  There was often so much momentum I felt gravity pull me and anticipated my head impacting the wall.  The MS Expedition continued to pitch inexorably, to the point that I swore we would tip over & capsize at any second.  A few times the drastic tilt was interrupted midway by an enormous wave. I was grateful for the momentary lapse in rocking, but questioned the structural damage.  Frazzled and exhausted, at 05:00 I resorted to a double dose of Dramamine which never once worked for my nausea, but would hopefully sedate me.  How my Mom (& other passengers) slept I’ll never know. 

Despite the intensity of feeling overwhelmed, alone, frozen, in danger, isolated, hesitant, vigilant and downright scared, insignificance stood out the most to me in Iceland, Norway & Svalbard.  I presumed Christopher Columbus' crew experienced the same emotions as they sailed to the edge of the horizon for Planet Earth lives on without care for flora, fauna or humans. What would be my tiny role in this grand history? In the Arctic Circle, Mother Nature flexed her muscles and the sole thing anyone aboard the MS Expedition could do was take preventative measures. Sometimes that is not even enough & humans are utterly helpless – like a National Geographic cruise ship the previous week that became trapped in the ice for two days.

I realized this trip had transformed from a vacation into risking my life. We shouldn't be here -- the tippy top of the globe -- but here we were, 1300 kilometers a.k.a. 800-some miles from the North Pole.  At Poolepynten, I stared out into the gray void.  Somewhere out there the ocean & sky united. I wanted to cry because I felt so puny. A microscopic blip on a map.  A lone grain of sand on the beach. The way the sun never set, the almighty weather, and the lack of civilization humbled me more than I can describe with words.  Despite my dismal realization, I concurrently felt proud to have even traveled this far north; grateful to simply be alive and inhaling one more breath. At the ends of the Earth, I found perspective.