Two bundles of fur roll around together on the sea ice, playfully tugging at each other’s necks. Standing on the bow of the ship, I’m near enough to hear the small grunts and growls coming from these spirited siblings.
Close behind, their mother watches her twin yearlings with what seems like a frustrated expression, as if she wants them to stop playing and concentrate. It’s the mother polar bear’s job to find food for her family in some of the most inhospitable places on Earth — in this case, the Russian Arctic.
“We’ve got an hour’s journey before we reach the nuclear power plant,” Vadim, our local guide, informs us when we meet him at the airport. Not the usual opening gambit you expect to hear as your summer holiday gets underway — but this is about as far as you can get from a ‘standard’ summer holiday.
It’s July, and we’re in Murmansk, Northwest Russia. On the flight from Helsinki earlier, we’d crossed over the Arctic Circle at 66.3 degrees North. From the window, I gazed down onto a vast wilderness, peppered with pine trees and innumerable ice-blue lakes. Between late April and October each year, the snow melts and frees this land from its icy grip.
An hour after leaving the airport, our coach arrives at the Port of Murmansk. It’s actually 18C today but even the warm tones of the bright sunshine can’t cover up the Soviet bleakness of this place. The port is home to Russia’s fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers. It’s here we’ll join our ship, 50 Years of Victory — the most powerful icebreaker in the world today. During the long, dark winter months, when the sea ice advances to capture Russia’s massive Arctic coastline, she keeps the shipping lanes open for trade, leading flotillas of ships between the ports of the Northeast Passage. However, in the brief summer, when the ice has retreated, it becomes the only ship to take tourists to the geographic North Pole.
As a military facility, the port is also home to nuclear submarines. Vadim makes it quite clear photography is strictly prohibited. Before entering the quayside, our passports and visas are checked by two stern-looking military men in green uniforms. From my seat at the front of the coach, I look up to find a handgun in a hip holster right in my face. Next, the coach moves into a double-doored compound where sniffer dogs and men with mirrors on long sticks check for explosives. Finally, it’s time to board.
The 50 Years of Victory typically makes five two-week expeditions during the mid-summer. I’m travelling with polar specialist Quark, which currently offers two or three trips a season, with just over 100 guests per adventure. The ship’s Russian crew remain on board, doubling up in cabins to allow space for polar tourists.
At 8pm, when the tide allows, the huge mooring ropes are finally pulled in and we move from the dockside. For such a bulky ship, she sails gently and smoothly into the fjord, bathed in soft, low, Arctic sunlight. We pass many ships, including the Arktica, which, in 1977, became the first surface ship to reach the North Pole. As the ship heads out of the mouth of the fjord, we steer due north and quickly leave the last vestiges of coastline behind. I stand on the ship’s bow looking out to sea, filled with excitement. We’re going out there, into a world of adventure, an almost mythical place of no fixed physical location.
The next day is a sea day, filled with briefings and tasks such as boot and parka distribution. We also formally start the lecture programme that’ll run throughout the trip. Many of the international expedition team are specialists in different fields of polar science. There’s an ornithologist, a geologist, a marine biologist and a conservation specialist. We’re also lucky enough to have Dr Huw Lewis-Jones, a particularly charismatic historian, on board. Huw is the son-in-law of the British polar explorer Sir Wally Herbert, who in 1969 became the first person to be fully recognised for walking to the North Pole. While I knew plenty about Scott and Amundsen’s race for the South Pole, I knew very little about the battle for 90 degrees North.
That evening, we’re invited to join Captain Oleg Shchapin and his senior officers for welcome cocktails. It’s all slightly surreal, holding a buck’s fizz, making small talk, while a nuclear reactor powers our course across the Barents Sea towards the North Pole. The captain is a fairly stern and serious character, but I suppose it’s hard to be jovial when you’re responsible for a nuclear-powered ship.
By day three, we’re navigating the archipelago of Franz Josef Land, with a variety of Arctic birds flying around the ship — an interesting welcome for us to their hostile, frozen homeland. Soon we’re at 80 degrees north and the surface of the ocean is beginning to solidify. For much of the day, the sky is as white as the sea ice, making it almost impossible to work out where the horizon starts and ends.
By 11.30pm, the mist has lifted and the visibility has improved substantially. While many people have gone to bed, I’m on deck. We’re in prime polar bear territory. These creatures are true water bears — dependent on the sea and the ice for their survival. Their primary food source is ring seals, which they hunt on the sea ice. At midnight, an announcement goes out around the ship — a male bear has been spotted near the remnants of a seal kill. What’s more, the scent has begun to entice other bears. Soon a larger adult male walks into the scene, followed shortly by a female and her two cubs.
None of the bears seem bothered by the presence of our huge ship, which has now come to a complete halt. As more people arrive on deck, the animals take it in turns to move towards us, each sniffing the air, and noting the fresh human meat frustratingly just beyond reach. The mother and her cubs come to within 50 metres of the ship. It’s sobering to think these bundles of fluff would have us for supper if given half the chance. For the next hour and a half, the bears are the stars of the show. It’s an evening I know I’ll never forget — a real-life polar drama playing out before us.
By the following evening, the sea ice has thickened considerably, so it’s time for the 50 Years of Victory to show some muscle. She starts vibrating, and it feels like being on a plane during high turbulence. The dining room is positioned in the ice-breaking hull of the ship and as I enter I can see tables of people bobbing up and down in unison.
The next day, the sea ice is at times more than two metres thick, yet the ship is still able to power through at ten knots. Watching this process is mesmerising. The ice in front of the ship is smashed and pushed under the hull, while around the ship it cracks, like a huge bar of snow-white chocolate.
After two full days of ice-bashing, we’re close to our target and anticipation is consuming us. Finally, at 10pm, we’re all invited to head down to the bow deck to start the celebrations — there’s plenty of fizz, music and GPS devices counting down the final degrees of longitude. The excitement is palpable. We’re all waiting for the captain to hit the spot — not an easy thing to do when you’re battling the constantly shifting sea ice. In the words of Sir Wallace Herbert, “trying to find the North Pole is like standing on the shadow of a bird moving overhead”.
At 11.45pm, the ship’s horn blasts. We’ve made it to a place few other humans have been — the Geographic North Pole, the point on Earth where all the lines of longitude meet. I suppose the North Pole isn’t really a place. While its Southern equivalent sits firm on the continent of Antarctica, here there are just a few metres of shifting ice, with nearly three miles of sea beneath it. The ship is only actually at the Pole for a few fleeting minutes before the ice moves once more. The celebrations begin, and we party long into the night under the midnight sun.
The next morning as I step off the gangway onto the sea ice, I’m struck by the thought that there are more than seven billion people living to the south — and that I’m now one of a tiny, privileged group of humans ever to have been to the North Pole. This is a day to make my own history. It begins with me and my fellow passengers standing in a massive circle around a red North Pole sign. The captain gives a short speech and a remarkable photo taken from high up on the ship. Then there are photo opportunities galore, a free two-minute phone call back home and, for lunch, the catering team bring out one of the best barbecue spreads I’ve ever eaten.
After lunch, there’s the option to take part in the ‘polar plunge’ — my chance to join an even smaller group of people who can say they’ve been swimming at the North Pole. The water here is a horrific minus 1.5C (due to the salinity of seawater, it doesn’t actually freeze at zero but at minus 1.8C). Like some crazy lemming, I join the queue, slowly taking off layers until only my bathing costume is left. A Russian crew member straps a safety belt around me — in case I have a heart attack — and I jump. The water’s so cold I don’t remember feeling much, but I’m out of their nearly as fast as I’m in! After a shot of vodka and a rub down with a towel, I actually feel warm, and I stick around to watch two American friends take the plunge, before warming up in the ship’s sauna.
Later in the afternoon, I join the ‘marathon walk’, which takes us about a kilometre away from the ship. It’s only now I gain some understanding of the extraordinary stamina and courage of the polar explorers, past and present. Walking across sea ice is exhausting, mainly because its covered in soft snow, which at some points is as much as a metre deep. We navigate the pressure ridges; sharp, jagged, tortured ice sculptures that loom up to eight metres high. Couple that with the extreme cold, the wild winds and the swirling snow, and you get the picture.
By 5pm, everyone is back on the ship and the nuclear engines are fired up. During the course of the day, the ship has travelled some three nautical miles while locked into the ice. As we leave, the North Pole has returned to its splendid isolation.
But for us the polar adventure doesn’t end here. The 50 Years of Victory carries its own helicopter, and, weather permitting, we can take up to two scenic flights, giving us a bird’s eye view of the High Arctic. My group flies at 7am. It’s a short but extremely exciting trip — the pilot takes off and lands while the ship is still moving. Watching it breaking ice is quite remarkable, even in the drizzle.
After breakfast, I’m outside again. For an hour, we watch a male polar bear sit patiently by a small hole, waiting for a ring seal to come up for its last breath. We’re again graced with the presence of a mother with her cubs, and later on we join a huge basking walrus.
Up until now, the sea has been kind to us, but as we move back into ice-free water, a storm hits us, building to a force five. Three-metre-plus waves and enormous swells toss the ship around, with the water crashing over the ship’s bow. By early evening, most of the passengers are in their cabins. Fortunately, I’ve good sea legs.
Overnight, the weather changes again — this time for the better. The sun only shines for about one in every 10 days in Franz Josef Land and we’ve struck lucky. We’re woken at 5am, to head out for a water-based trip in a Zodiac rigid inflatable to look at mighty glaciers and a colony of kittiwakes. The landscape looks otherworldly, littered with bizarre, spherical sandstone boulders called the Devil’s Marbles. The tundra floor is dotted with clumps of flowering purple saxifrage, lichens and green mosses.
A second Zodiac excursion takes us to Tikhaya Bay, on Hooker Island, the only settlement of any size in the archipelago. While people have lived here year-round in the past, today it’s mainly a hub for scientists during the short summer season. There’s a small post office, which allows you to send a postcard from close to the Pole. But it’ll take the mail four weeks to reach the UK.
We head back across the open ocean, towards Murmansk. As I stare out to the vast horizon, I think back to the end of my day at the North Pole. At the furthest point on our walk, we’d been given the chance to sit silently for 10 minutes. I’d separated myself from the group, turning away from the distant ship and lying down flat in the snow. It was a chance to contemplate, think and listen to the silence of the Arctic. It was my perfect, personal polar moment.
I wasn’t staring into a bleak, barren landscape; instead, it was vibrant and very much alive, as I watched snowdrifts dance to the music of the whistling wind — looking out into a beautiful, white forever.
Quark Expeditions offers a 14-day North Pole expedition, incorporating a voyage on the 50 Years of Victory. It begins and ends in Helsinki and starts at £23,500 per person, plus an additional £1,200 for charter flights. Prices are for departures in July 2017.
Published in the April 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)