Adventures Never End- The North Pole

‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end, then stop.’

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

And just when you thought the travel was coming to an end…..

I began my transition out of Wonderland and back to the “Real World” by getting a new place to live that involved me doing the cleaning and cooking myself and getting a job. Not wishing that my new employer get used to me staying put, I announced (on my first day) that I had a two week trip planned and would be gone in just two months time. You see, I was off to the North Pole. Having already visited the Southern Pole and all seven continents, it was only fitting that I create balance.  And so off I went.

My first stop was Paris, you know, to get used to the jet lag. In French, that translates to “drink delicious wine, eat good cheese and pastries and see beautiful art.” After a few days strolling the rues of Paris, I headed up to Longyearbyen, Svalbard, population 3000. Svalbard is an archipelago of Norway and was a new country for me. It was also my first experience with the midnight sun. I arrived at 2:00 AM and it was as bright as it would be at 2:00 PM. This made is much easier to watch for polar bears when walking home from the northernmost pub in the world (proud to say I have now been to both the northernmost and southernmost pubs in the world). We had a few days in town before our ship would dump the previous week’s passengers and excitedly welcome us aboard. Once on the ship, we quickly gathered up the fun crowd, placing ourselves in the Guillemot group and clearly becoming friends for life. We set off that night, although the sky would indicate it might still be day, making it far easier to stay in the Polar Bear Pub until the wee hours.

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After a few hours of sleep, we were rudely awakened by the intercom announcing a school of Fin Whales, dozens of dolphins and a rogue Humpback were feeding and breeching just off the ship. Needless to say, we were late for breakfast!  This day was also the day we established the Guillemots as the single most excited group of people to ever do anything in the Arctic Circle. We began our tradition of meeting in the hallway as soon as the scouts went ashore, dressed and ready to disembark for whatever adventure might await. Upon hearing our names called, we rushed the mudroom, cheered for our name, donned our coats and life jackets and got in line, in under 3 minutes. No one would accuse the Guillemots of not being excited about every moment of this trip.

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First stop was Brepollen, after fog had kept us from our planned stop of Gnalodden. Fine by me as I am a bit of an ice junkie and this place was surrounded by it. We also got our first taste of zodiac engine issues. I was quite happy for the engine to stall as I would have gladly floated in this ice for hours, waiting for a nice glacier calf or a visit from a whale. But alas, the darned crew got it working again and we “reluctantly” boarded the ship for dinner and another night at the Polar Bear Pub and another viewing of the midnight sun. You see, things can’t come to an end if they don’t ever stop.

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Day three on the ship didn’t start off with whales, but it did start with a stop at Kapp Lee where, after the mandatory scouting for polar bears declared the stop safe, we were able to hike around for a bit. Soon, two walruses, one minus one tusk from a likely fight, swam in the water near the abandoned hunting station. Remnants of reindeer gave the place a look not unlike the Wild West.

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The afternoon stop that day was at Negribreen and MORE ICE!!! It holds one of the largest glaciers in Svalbard and the sea around it is filled with ice. It was beyond words- making you feel very, very small amidst the ice. Again, I could have floated here for hours but the sea was angry that day.  While we were cruising in our zodiacs, the swells grew. And grew. And grew. And I loved every minute of it. Boarding the ship was a bit challenging as the boat and zodiacs were often moving at different speeds. You waited for the them to be aligned, grabbed hold of the amazing deck crew’s hands and leapt on the gangway. Not everyone kept hold of their lunch that day and many fish were grateful for the change in cuisine. But, it was back to dinner, the Polar Bear Pub and yes, another midnight sun with the Guillemots.

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Another early start had us arriving in Torellnesset, or the land of the walruses in my memory.  A massive herd of walruses were sunning themselves on the beach while a few swam with us in the zodiacs.  It was yet another view of the varied landscape of the Arctic Circle, every day bringing a new view. It was a gorgeous, sunny morning and the sound of the walrus made it quite surreal. But alas, the crew dragged us kicking and screaming back onto the zodiacs to go eat another meal.

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One of the crew had said that our afternoon stop was his favorite of all of the stops. I have to say he wasn’t lying, although I don’t believe I could pick just one. Maybe one a day, or one in each morning and one in each afternoon. We traveled to Alkerfjellet, the home of the Cliffs of Guillemots. This was our namesake, after all, and they quickly became my favorite bird of all time.  After our now infamous debarkation routine, we sailed in the zodiacs from one end of the cliffs to the other. They started interestingly enough- a few birds sitting on the rocks that jutted out from the cliffs. But with each passing moment, the volume of birds increased exponentially, covering the rocks and filling the sky with black dots. I got lucky escaping anything falling from the sky, but some of my zodiac mates weren’t so fortunate. This is the point that I fell in love with the guillemot. It is about the least graceful bird I have ever seen. It takes flight by kind of leaping off the cliff but the landing is the best part. Just as it is ready to land, it spreads its legs and wings apart, almost like a squirrel leaping, and pretty much crashes into the sea or rock. It is in a perpetual state of chaos and I adored it. As we passed what appeared to be the coolest spot for guillemots to live, things got even better. We spotted an Arctic Fox, who is super cute and was grabbing up fallen eggs and chicks. And then…. a polar bear. This was a young, healthy bear, learning how to survive on his own, hunting for eggs while fending off the plunging attacks of the skuas. We circled as many times as we could, watching this beautiful creature from a surprisingly close, but safe, distance. Then it was back to the boat to eat. And another Guillemot night at the Polar Bear Pub and another midnight sun, keeping the day from actually coming to an end.

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First stop the next day was Phippsoya, one of the Seven Islands. Just as we were prepping the scouts, the Captain spotted a polar bear sleeping in the snow. Drat. No landing for us as this crew seemed to think that walking with a polar bear was a bad idea. I supposed the dead, rotting polar bear carcass on the beach was a sign. So we could only do a zodiac ride this morning. We did manage to see rocks that were millions of years old and a cliff filled with kittiwakes, singing beautiful songs. After lunch, we stopped at Karl XII-oya, where again, polar bears prevented us from a landing. Our plans were to clean up the beach but at least five bears had other ideas for us. Sadly, the beach could have really used a good cleaning as we saw one of the saddest things I have seen in my travels. A young bear had taken a piece of styrofoam that had washed up on his beach and was chewing on it until he was sick. Humans really do suck.

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The next day may have been my favorite. Not only was it the coldest, but it was the iciest. We were at the ice edge and it was amazing. While at breakfast, a polar bear was spotted floating on a floe, truly in its natural environment. He was totally unconcerned by us, as at one point, he laid down to nap until hunting time started again. Speaking of hunting, we all returned to breakfast and dined on our now cold eggs and porridge. It was the best porridge I ever had.

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Continuing to push north, our Captain, nicknamed Captain Push Push was not deterred by the massive ice ahead of us. We pushed and pushed into it, sometimes being forced backwards until we could break it and move forward. An announcement told us that at that moment in time, we were the northernmost people in the world. We were at 82 degrees north and officially ‘off the map.” I paused at my viewing spot at the bow of the boat and turned around. I was the most northern person in the world. Insanity. Of course, we celebrated this victory with the northernmost conga line (a record setting 109 people) and another Guillemot midnight sun.

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The next day was our last day at sea and we arrived at Alkhornet. Here were more birds, an Arctic Fox and most importantly, the Polar Plunge. We had waited all week for this and about 20 of the bravest sailors stripped down to swimsuits and on the count of three went racing into the 4 degree celsius water. If you haven’t ever been in water that cold, your extremities immediately freeze. I couldn’t feel my feet within seconds but did manage to go in as far as my chest before hobbling back to shore. It was surprisingly warm outside once you get out of the water so we hung out for a bit before dressing. Would I do it again? Absolutely. I would just wear shoes because you can’t feel the rocks on which you are stepping.

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The final stop was at Skansbukta, the site of an abandoned gypsum mine and clear evidence we were heading back to civilization. We hiked to the top, admired the landscape but couldn’t wait to board our zodiacs to see the puffins. I had been to several places in the world in search of puffins but had never been successful. Until now. We saw tons, living side by side with guillemots. They were even cuter than expected. We quickly hatched a plan to mutiny and take over the ship but were distracted by dinner.

IMG_2438Sometime after dinner, we arrived back in Svalbard where we had the opportunity to disembark and hang out in town if we wanted. The guillemots didn’t think twice. We were not living our ship. Back to our Polar Bear Pub for a final Guillemot midnight sun and a toast to lifelong friendships.

You see, it can’t reach the end if you choose not to stop.

Until the next adventure.

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