June 5th - Newark
After months of anticipation, we finally fly to Oslo, arriving on the morning of June 6th. It'll be our base camp for a day, before we go even further north.
Downtown Oslo has the hallmarks of a European city—bright blue circular traffic signs, roundabouts, trams cutting through the heart of its main corridors, citrus-colored smart cars parked in odd angles. For me, it also evokes Washington, D.C. Oslo has become especially important in, roughly, the past century since Norway gained its independence, and many of the city landmarks have a certain stateliness to them. The main area by our hotel is comparable to the National Mall, flanked by the National Gallery of Art and famous theaters, while live bands and fountains dot its interior.
We travel then to the Polar Ship Fram Museum, highlighting the travels of famed Arctic explorers Nansen and Amundsen via the well-engineered Fram. The ship was built to freeze into the Arctic ice and then be carried with the current through the Ocean.
After a quick nap, we all congregate in the reception area for the kickoff meeting before a chance to walk around the city. I eat reindeer in the nearby cafe, sustenance that I highly recommend—it’s like a lighter, saltier ground beef. (My server’s description, or at least how I remember it post-hoc: “It’s like eating heaven.”) The city at night, of course, doesn’t get dark in the summer. It’s not bright, but the atmosphere is like what our guide says the next day about the city: “relatively comfortable, relatively quiet.”
June 7th - Oslo, Longyearbyen, and Embarking
Today, Wednesday, we head to Svalbard. From where we are now, it’s halfway to the North Pole. We land in Longyearbyen just before 2 PM, and take off on a drive around the town. It doesn’t take long. The town has just a population of 2200, and the island is fairly in the wilderness: Citizens need a rifle or flare gun if out of town, due to the danger of an off-chance encounter with a polar bear. (You can outrun them in a car, our guide says, “unless you have a sh----, old car.”) Side note that I hope doesn’t become important down the line: Polar bears can’t sweat, so if you can outrun them for a while, they’ll have to stop or risk dying of heat stroke.
Longyearbyen used to be a mining town, with seven mines in total, a cable car system to connect them that’s now defunct. The town is sparse—some cafes, a supermarket, a single gas station. (A university, too, but only for studies related to the Arctic.) There’s a liquor store, but inhabitants have to apply through employer for a license to purchase alcohol, and even then they are allowed just 24 beers per month and two bottles of spirits.
After stops at an art gallery and a history museum, we're quickly onto the main event: At 4:30 PM, we board the ship, and by 6:00 PM, we’ve set sail.
June 8th - The Arctic Ocean (Samarinvågen, Brepollen, Gnålodden, Hornsund)
At breakfast, we learn we’ve already seen polar bears: a mom and two cubs, the cubs playing as the mom hunted a seal. (Unsuccessfully, as far as anyone can see.) It’s a promising start, although what’s quickly apparent here is the notion of polar bear FOMO. In the evening, the ship’s captain (a hilarious German who we all encounter quickly, as the ship has an open bridge policy), paints that common feeling of watching everyone around you celebrate their locating of a bear as you struggle to find it thusly: “Damn them!”
The morning and midday get a bit bogged down with logistics—briefings on the Zodiac ships (inflatable rafts we use to make landings), kayaks, what not to do in case we encounter a polar bear. It’s bad if we see a polar bear when we’re on land. That’s a bit of a surprise for the gonzo-photographers on the trip, but the logic makes sense on a number of levels. Polar bears, ideally, should be on ice or in the water; if they’re on land, they’re likely famished, agitated, and desperate. Which means they’re perhaps ornery and willing to approach a group of humans…which means it’s either us or the bear. (Every trip onto land features an expedition leader with a rifle and a flare gun—the latter’s deployment to hopefully prevent the use of the former.) And since killing a polar bear, an endangered and protected species, is a crime, the voyage would have to be shut down immediately as the Governor of Svalbard (no joke) would visit the crime scene and investigate the use of lethal force on a polar bear. So, to recap, polar bear sightings when we’re on the boat* are great. Other sightings are suboptimal.
*This is the last time I’ll refer to the Explorer as a boat. While to the layman it’s a question of semantics, it’s a point of pride for the captain that he’s steering a “ship,” not a “boat,” to the point that one of the naturalists onboard highlights the two words’ different dictionary definitions. The shorthand difference: If the captain is wearing a white jacket with stripes when leading the aquatic vehicle, call it a ship.
After lunch (with the appropriately-named Frost couple, Rich M.D. ’73 and Martha) and decontaminating any materials we’ve worn outdoors previously (a further check to make sure we don’t hurt the fragile ecosystem), we take out the Zodiac boats to Gnålodden. I’m in the “gentle walk with elevation” group, which means we’re going over snow and spongy lichens roughly 100 feet up the rocky, permafrost-ridden mound. There is vegetation here, in some sense; at one point on the trip, I hear an expert say the tallest tree in Svalbard is 7 cm high.
Gnålodden means “humming mountain,” due to the thousands of raucous kittiwakes who litter the cliffs. One of the most common elements on the rock is their poop (more scientifically, their “guano”), which actually becomes a main staple of the diet of the arctic fox, one of the other mammals in Svalbard. Essentially, the birds have an inefficient stomach, and the waste they create is something the fox can digest, we learn, as Kasper, our tour guide, dissects the dried-out guano pellet. (He’s wearing gloves). We also visit a trapping hut that’s still in use today, part of the contributions made by Wanny Woldstad, feminist icon: My understanding, not to be flippant, is that she’s like the Norwegian Rosie the Riveter, but for trappers, and also a real person.
That night, at 11:30 P.M., I'm in the lounge for some light reading, with the window to my right providing the view. It’s nice, and outside it still looks like 7 A.M. Here’s where another writer might say something like ‘I could get used to this.’ But one must remember that the days that are all light now turn to all dark in a handful of months. So as it is, I’m ok with this merely temporary arrangement.
June 9th - The Arctic Ocean (Storfjorden)
We’re awoken on Friday, the second full day on ship, an hour before our scheduled wake-up call: It's a different kind of wake-up call from Jonathan, the expedition leader. The bridge has spotted more polar bears in the distance—again, a mom and two cubs. It’s 6:45 AM. Dutifully, we layer up and head out. It’s light out, of course, but it’s overcast and the coldest it’ll be all day. The captain steadily navigates up quite close, as the bears are lying down and showing no signs of disturbance. Then, suddenly, the mama sits up and leads her cubs into the water for a swim; the captain quickly turns the ship.
At breakfast, Jonathan joins our table. He’d been tempering expectations all day yesterday about the difficulties of spotting bears; I joked to him that this sighting only made things harder for him. (And by the end of breakfast, there’d been another spotting.) Jonathan hails from France and works on National Geographic ships six months out of the year. He’s a scientist and researcher by trade—his stepping stone to the ship was doing research in Antarctica. He explains to us, patiently, the process of tracking down the bears: Hundreds of far-off false sightings, of rocks and reindeer, fill the coffers before the one breakthrough. (Despite being on diametrically opposite ends of the earth, the Arctic and Antarctica are a common comparison on the ship, in part because Lindblad leads expeditions to both areas. But the viewing patterns—few polar bears, many penguins, respectively—are far apart. To invoke a sports metaphor, Antarctica is basketball, with sightings (points) coming early and often; the Arctic is soccer, with the search process more frustrating yet just that much more rewarding.
It’s a travel day—we’re loping around the southern end of Spitsbergen to the less temperate eastern side of Svalbard. We don’t ever leave the ship, but we do nab a number of other key sightings. The post-breakfast find is a mama bear with her cub, the mom having just snagged a bearded seal, which will be its food for weeks. (As we depart, Jonathan, over the PA system, says we’re “leaving it with a Happy Meal.”) And during lunch, the ship comes close to a pair of snuggling walruses—a startling sight without warning, especially when eating.
I’m beginning to learn that the most exciting moments on the ship are both frantic—the post-announcement frenzy of the unprepared to retrieve binoculars and cameras from their cabins—and silent. Out on the deck, when scoping the locations of the mammals and/or pinnipeds, keeping silence is paramount. As the ship nears, the only sounds are of shutters clicking, maybe the rare bump of binoculars against the deck followed by the sharp, embarrassed intake of breath.
Throughout the day, when not taking photos, we take in lectures on topics ranging from the history of Svalbard (the archipelago we’re exploring), the story of Roald Amundsen (the great Norwegian explorer who was first man to make it to the South Pole), the lives of polar bears, and how to improve our photo-taking techniques.
June 10th - The Arctic Ocean (Edgeøya)
We go into the day with a tentative plan: to see a bunch of walruses. There’s a veritable walrus graveyard on the western shore of Edgeøya (Thomas Edge found the place; øya is Norwegian for island), where walruses tend to beach and also tend to die. But at our 7 AM wakeup call, we learn it’s not to be: No walruses are visible. It’s a bummer, given that walruses are perhaps the coolest creatures we’ll want to see in-person, up close, on foot. (Their closing speed pales in comparison to that of a polar bear.)
Instead, we go for a hike, landing further along the shore and hiking inland. (Because of the wide age range on the ship, from teenagers to at-least septuagenarians—I don’t dare ask anyone their age and only take volunteered statistics—there are multiple on-shore activities during any landing. I opt for the “long walk,” arguably the second-most-difficult after the “athletic hike,” more strenuous than the “medium walk,” the “photo walk,” and the “short walk.”) Upon landing, about 20 of us trudge through the snow, ice, and the melted permafrost—the top three feet melt each summer and lay host to those lichens. We catch a few encounters that are unprecedented so far on the trip: a reindeer, far off, bucking in the air as we all reach for our cameras; birds—some skuas and a jaeger, the sing-song snow buntings, a red phalarope and a pair of eiders; whale and walrus remains; arctic fox traps and fur they’ve left behind.
There are moments on the walk that, while not scary, are concerning. We’re all booted up, often breaking through any remaining snow with our steps to find a wet, suction-y underbelly. When a few people get stuck up to their knees and require some excavation by hand, we go back. I briefly think I’m going to have frostbite after getting a bit of snow in my boot, which would be an astronomically stupid situation to be in. It’s an overreaction, but I’m triggered by the story (myth?) of four Russian sailors who were trapped here when they were unable to return to their ship in the 1700s. They stayed in an empty trappers cabin, renovating it, shooting caribou with their remaining ammunition and then fashioning spears and bow-and-arrows to hunt polar bears and walruses, keeping the same flame going in the cabin as they no longer had matches. They survived for six years before they were rescued by another ship that had blown off course. (Fortunately, our hike doesn't result in a similar situation.)
The main event of the afternoon is a lecture given by Peter Hillary, son of Sir Edmund Hillary (who, with Tenzing Norgay, was the first to summit Mt. Everest), and an incredibly accomplished expeditioneer in his own right. His discussion, the first of a few he’ll give on the trip, touches on some lessons his father taught him as well as some blow-by-blow stories of various summits and expeditions. (Besides twice summiting Mt. Everest, including in a 50th anniversary summit of his father’s unprecedented trip, he has flown to the North Pole and cross-country skied across Antarctica.) The dynamic a traveler has to navigate, he says, is of believing in oneself when things become difficult and also realizing, as he says his father told him, that “a posthumous success is overrated.” Beyond that, he invoked René Daumal’s Mount Analogue, and the sentiment that “you cannot stay on the summit forever”—it’s not about the destination so much as the journey and the people you meet along the way.
We then moved to the ship’s back porch (aka the sun deck), where the hotel manager Anders had fired up the grill for some hot dogs and beer. Anyone who’s been on a ship knows that the bow is much chillier than the wind-shielded aft, but here more so, the temperature difference is striking. We sit with Jonathan, the expedition leader, who talks about his various excursions he’s led here with different companies. (He doesn’t work exclusively with Lindblad.) He recounts, with good humor, the trip he took with a company who pitched the Svalbard as a traditional cruise excursion—to paraphrase, a “we-will-see-polar-bears-at-11-AM-and-then-we-will-see-arctic-foxes-at-2-PM-and-then-dot-dot-dot” kind of trip. The Arctic isn’t that predictable, obviously, but the idea of expectations affecting a trip is interesting: When you’re visiting in a region that’s unknown and inaccurately portrayed (how many people erroneously think polar bears and penguins live side-by-side?), who is to blame for the miscommunication?
Before dinner, the National Geographic photo specialist, Massimo Bassano, holds a Q+A session that had been suspended from the day prior. These camera sessions are interesting because, to be frank, there’s an undercurrent of camera envy on the ship. It’s apparent on the bow, during the key sightings, when some passengers lug out tripod-ed telescopic lenses, one or two feet long, almost taunting the point-and-shoot amateurs like myself. And it’s apparent during these sessions, in which questions range from the merits of shooting in raw versus jpeg (he compares it to making pizza, in which raw gives you all of the cheese and tomato and dough to tweak and jpeg spits out a simple Margherita) to something like how to get a good iPhone picture (essentially, don’t use an iPhone). Everyone who is on the ship as a guest fits a certain socioeconomic classification, but these sessions lay bare the subgroups and differences within the population: For some, cameras are luxury goods. For others, they’re essential.
June 11th - The Arctic Ocean (Bellsund, Camp Millar)
We wake up to the 7:15 AM announcement, in anticipation of a full day of outdoors activity: Kayaking, and after, for the brave, making a “polar plunge"--a dive into the Arctic Ocean. It’s been a running topic throughout the week, as one of the Duke alumni on the trip, Juliet Sadd ’85, quickly realized I have no interest in the plunge and has, for the past two days, attempted to peer pressure me into it. She’s very persistent, even invoking the Expedition Leader and threatening to call my boss’ boss, who was one of her friends at Duke. However, it’s all for naught: The day begins foggy, the water choppy, and both the kayaking and plunge are cancelled.
Instead, we hit the water for a Zodiac cruise—8 to 10 in a boat, spinning around the X fjord to investigate wildlife and glaciers. We fail on the first front, mostly, finding only a few seals and some birds peppering the ice and skies. (Beyond the common black-tipped kittiwakes—who have evolved those black-haired tips such that they become stiff and act like those perpendicular upticks on airplane wings to prevent drag—and terns, of note is a rare and disarmingly white ivory gull who lets us get exceptionally close. Our tour leader, Adam, speculates jokingly his feet are stuck to the ice.)
Once back, the ship begins covering ground (water) up the western side of Spitsbergen, past where we disembarked from Longyearbyen. The goal is to eventually surpass the north side of the archipelago, as well as the 80 degrees N latitude threshold, a point of pride for many onboard. (Says our expedition leader at the nightly recap: “To me, is just another line on the map.”)
But first, we stop in the mid-afternoon in Camp Millar, tucked within a small inlet with a much more modern cabin outpost (from trapping??). From the bridge, just before we make our landing, I’m observing from the bridge with only one individual in my company: Peter Hillary. I introduce myself, and, fortunately—having gained some intel from his son, George, a few days prior—am able to make him laugh by referencing the Monty Python “2 Kilimanjaros” sketch, in which John Cleese plays a mountaineer suffering from extreme double vision. It’s one of my favorites, and his, apparently, and the conversation goes swimmingly. And the cherry on top: With the aid of my binoculars, I’m able to spot and point out—to Peter Hillary!--some reindeer perched on the shore. For thirty seconds or so, I’m teaching the old master a few new tricks. (To be fair to the man, he didn’t have binoculars.)
We land soon thereafter, and my accomplishment quickly diminishes in scope: There are reindeer everywhere you look, so much so that when our first group walks too close and scares off about a dozen or so, the groups to follow quickly reorient and get a close observation from another slew of reindeer. The more challenging target is the arctic fox: It’s smaller, the size of a dog, quicker, and its hue—more gray-brown than off-white—make it a tough find on the rocky island. We stumble across some fur, but it’s from a dead fox; finally, after we’ve resigned and turned around to return to the disembarking point, we spot two. One’s up in the cliffs, a tough find for any set of binoculars, but one is parked right along the coastline. It is—despite our initial, continued failings—a successful hike.
In the evening, we follow dinner with Massimo’s presentation, highlighting his work as a photographer and fixer (location scouter) with National Geographic and how he approaches his projects. He initially worked as a sailor, first breaking into the Nat. Geo. sphere when he documented his Atlantic voyage, 500 years after Columbus did it. In the presentation, Massimo remains hilariously Italian, outlining in painstaking detail why he despises Illy coffee. (In short, the flavor is calculated to maintain an unfailing precision, rather than allowed to fluctuate with the inherently variable character of the beans.) But it goes long, and in contrast to earlier evenings on the ship, almost everyone has left the lounge by 11 PM. The trip is now reaching its last legs—only two more full days—and it’s not unfair to say a smidgen of exhaustion is creeping in.
June 12th - The Arctic Ocean (Magdalena Fjord)
As always, Jonathan’s voice is the ship’s wake-up call, and today he comes bearing good news: The weather is nice. Kayaking, and the polar plunge, will happen today. (Worth noting is that both happen in remarkably enclosed environments, the kayaking constrained within a perimeter set by Zodiac boats, the Plunge happening from a Zodiac boat right next to the ship, in an 10 ft by 10 ft area, with divers all around.)
I do neither. I had missed the kayaking sign-up earlier in the week, and my rationale for the Polar Plunge is, in short: hell nah. (I’m also from Maine, so I’m no stranger to cold water.) But we make a landing, coming close to a Svalbard government wildlife cabin, hugging the fenced-off perimeter of a graveyard for trappers long ago. Also fenced off are the remains of blubber ovens, used to provide heat in the long, dark winters, their charred coals still shown on the rocks below.
The highlights of the landing are two unprecedented sightings. First is the King Eider duck, or rather, the twenty-five we catch buzzing by us as we’re searching for walruses in the cove. Carl-Erik, our Norwegian guide, snaps some frames of the rare bird, defined by the vibrant colors on its head and neck. (My pictures, with a more pitiful camera, hint at the coloration.)
Even better is our up-close encounter with the walrus. We’d seen one surfacing to breathe from the shore, and we took three Zodiacs out to investigate. Upon closer inspection, there were a dozen beached walruses, stacked together (for warmth and protection) like Polish sausages. But the one we had spotted in the water wasn’t afraid. He continued to surface as we neared—we could see his back, then his bulldog-like mug, then his tusks—and while predicting where a walrus will pop up is inherently an imperfect science, he seemed to be closer than expected each time. Finally, he was so close that he caused Adam—an incredibly laid-back Australian naturalist and our Zodiac driver—to suddenly throw the boat in reverse, saying something along the lines of “add walruses to the list of animals I’m afraid of, apparently.” It’s the first truly close encounter of the trip, though, and while he couldn’t sink the Zodiac easily, even with his tusks, it was more intimacy than any of us had expected. It was, honestly, quite thrilling.
While the ship makes its way north to the 80-degree latitude mark, we have another lecture that examines perhaps the elephant in the room: climate change. Our voyage began less than a week after the President of the United States announced the country would be leaving the Paris Climate Accord; the Arctic is the region of the world currently undergoing the fastest climate change (and with some of the most vivid indicators of this change). And the region’s steady warming since the industrial revolution—and accelerated warming in the past decades—has affected Lindblad’s operations as well. This same excursion used to get scheduled for July, but today there simply isn’t enough ice present in July for polar bears to be out in the ocean (and, thus, photographed by us travelers). It starts in June now, and future versions of this trip will happen in May.
Similar effects have been documented by Duke researchers like David Johnston, a professor at the Nicolas School who operates primarily out of the Duke Marine Lab, who has studied the harp seal populations in the Canadian portion of the Arctic. These seals give birth once a year, and they must give birth on land—ideally they’ll do so on ice areas that form away from predator populations. But now those ice volumes have dwindled, and they’ve experienced a string of consecutive bad ice years, forcing them to give birth on land and abandon their pups right away. By studying the number of stranded pups and the amount of ice present in a given year, the correlation is very apparent: Less ice means fewer seals. And as seal populations dwindle, so does the main staple of the polar bear’s diet; recently, Johnston explains, the bears have included more seabirds in their diet as a result. From there, the ecosystem becomes increasingly disrupted.
Before dinner, we have the best observation of a bear yet. She’s hunting alone, prowling eastward to test out various seal holes in hopes of timing a catch. She never does, but her preoccupation apparently inures her to our presence, bringing her exceedingly close to the ship.
June 13th - The Arctic Ocean (14th of July Glacier)
I wake up at 5 A.M. to “watch” my beloved Golden State Warriors win the NBA Finals—which means logging into my dwindling two-hours-of-satellite-internet package every 15 minutes, checking the box score, and quickly logging back out, pacing throughout my cabin in the interim. On the ship, the internet is both restricted and limited. The connection is valued by some and requires a willingness to pay (for either an hour, two hours, or unlimited access): Because it has to come via satellite, having everyone taking advantage of free Internet will bog down the system. But it’s also a geometry problem—the satellite, as satellites do, has its best connectivity closer to the equator, so as we head into the hinterland portions of Svalbard and mountain-buttressed fjords, we’re insulated from email and social media. (Our itinerary twice loops us around the southern tip of Spitsbergen, the main island of the archipelago, which proves to be the best time to catch up on things.)