Monday, July 16, 2018


We’ve had a lot of people ask us questions about our latest journey.  Here goes!

What time zone is it at the North Pole?

When our ship left Murmansk, Russia, the crew kept the same time zone (GMT+3) all the way up to the pole and back, so they didn’t have to make unnecessary adjustments.  Interestingly, as passengers, we were given a schedule that was two hours earlier (GMT+1) so it wouldn’t conflict with ship operations.  The concept of time becomes meaningless at the North Pole, anyway, because all time zones converge, and the sun is up 24-hours a day!

How cold was it?

During our trip, the average high was 32°F and the average low was 28°F.  Not bad at all.  The wind chill, however, at times made it feel like single digits.  Winter is a different story, but it’s also dark all the time and not much fun.

Is there an actual pole there?

Nope.  We hoped to see one of those red and white barber poles with a sign, but all we saw was snow, ice and water.  If someone had planted one, within an hour it would no longer be exactly at 90° latitude, because of pervasive wind and ocean currents.  

Does anyone live there?

While indigenous people do live in the nearby Arctic regions of Canada, Greenland, and Russia, no one other than Santa has ever made a permanent home at the North Pole.  The ice is constantly moving, making it nearly impossible to live there.  As recently as 2012, Russian scientists built a temporary research station, but had to evacuate when the ice floe it was on started to break apart.

Did you see any penguins?

No, penguins only live in the southern hemisphere.  Meanwhile, polar bears are only in the northern hemisphere.  It’s a good thing they don’t share the same habitat, otherwise there would be no penguins left!

What were your accommodations like?

Since the 50 Years of Victory is a working icebreaker, luxury is not a priority.  But the facilities are clean, practical, and are more than adequate for a journey no other type of ship could attempt.  There actually is a workout area with a pool and sauna, a gift shop, a library, a proper dining room and several bars!

Dining room
Typical stateroom

Typical bathroom

What did you eat on board?

We assumed Borscht, Beef Stroganoff and Chicken Kiev might be on the menu, but we did not expect the variety and quality of entrees that were available to us each day.  Filet mignon, lobster, Russian caviar, duck, reindeer, a variety of fish including grouper, salmon, halibut, monkfish, ocean perch and sea bream, and a wonderful assortment of soups and desserts.  Plus - wine, beer, champagne and spirits.  Na Zdorovie! 

Did you notice any evidence of Global Warming?

That’s a great question.  Standing in slush at the top of the world was baffling and actually a bit scary, even with up to 9 feet of solid ice below us.  We were told it wasn’t that way when the first ice breaker, Arktika, reached the same spot in 1977.  Aboard our ship, the crew is absolutely aware of changes to the environment, which can affect their very livelihood - in the radio room, next to the bridge, there are minimum sea ice charts showing an average of 13.2 percent decline in every decade since that initial journey.  In the near future, according to our colleagues at NOAA, we may no longer need icebreakers to reach the North Pole by sea.

You mentioned this trip is expensive.  How much does it cost?

This particular trip costs an eye-watering $37,000 per person, on average.  Since Quark Expeditions is one of our broadcast partners, we were their guests and did not have to pay the fee.  Of course, it was no vacation - we did work an average of 12 hours a day for 16 straight days.   

Who owns the North Pole?

According to international law, nobody owns the North Pole or the region of the Arctic Ocean surrounding it.  In 2007, Russia tried to claim the seabed under the pole when it sent the MIR-1 submersible, piloted by Anatoly Sagalevich, to the ocean floor with a titanium tube containing the Russian flag.  Incidentally, we’ve had the honor of working with Anatoly and to this day, his business card is the only one we’ve ever seen that says, “Hero of Russia” - his country’s highest honor, which he received after completing this historic dive.

Which is colder - the North Pole or the South Pole?

The South Pole is much colder than the North Pole.  The South Pole sits on top of a very thick ice sheet, which itself sits on solid rock. The surface of the ice sheet is more than 9,000 feet in elevation--more than a mile and a half above sea level.  By comparison, the North Pole rests in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, where the surface of floating ice rides only a foot or so above the surrounding sea.  Antarctica is by far the highest, coldest, windiest and driest continent on Earth.

Did Bill ever locate his luggage?

Yes, his bag was waiting for him when our charter flight landed in Helsinki.  Then he had to pack his new wardrobe into it without incurring overweight charges!  If you’ve forgotten who Bill is, be sure to go back to the earliest entries in our journal.

How did you celebrate Independence Day?

We kind of forgot it was the 4th of July until that evening, when we found our wait staff dressed in traditional outfits, dancing and singing after announcing it was “Russian Heritage Night” on the ship.  That’s when we said, “hey, wait a minute . . .”  Coincidence?  I don’t think so!

How many people have been to the North Pole?

According to ship manifests, exploration logs and official transportation documents, we are among less than 34,000 people to have visited the Geographic North Pole.  Since the first verified landing by a Soviet scientific team in April 1948, 70 years ago, that’s an average of fewer than 485 people per year. 

Sunday, July 8, 2018

The Final Stretch

Our journey was coming to an end.  In the wee hours of the morning, the ship docked in Murmansk and our captain shook hands with us as we disembarked.  Earlier we asked him, via interpreter, if host Russia would win the World Cup.  He said no, claiming they were better at hockey.  The next day, Croatia knocked them out of the tournament.

We had enough time to tour a bit more of Murmansk before heading to the airport.  It was warm and sunny with blue skies, and the locals were soaking it up, no doubt enjoying every minute they could during their short summer.  We visited a memorial dedicated to the sailors who died when their nuclear submarine sank in the Barents Sea in October, 2000. 
A lighthouse overlooking the Kursk Submarine Memorial (still from video)
A picture-perfect summer day in Russia's northernmost city (still from video)
This time we had no trouble moving through Russian passport control, and our charter flight to Helsiki landed ahead of schedule, which allowed us time to tour parts of the city we hadn't previously seen.  Like in Murmansk, the weather was perfect.  That evening we had a final, celebratory meal, and the next morning we departed for home sweet home, Chicago.
Also a nice day in Helsinki!
It will take some time for us to process what we've experienced over the last 16 days.  We've found that writing this journal has helped us keep things in perspective.  Now we'll begin going through our images and will add some to our posts.  As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Thanks for embarking on this journey with us to the North Pole!

Heading Back

We spent most of an entire day in Franz Josef Land, but it would take much longer if someone wanted to visit the entire archipelago.  It is only accessible by icebreaker, and tourism is severely limited.  It is the northern-most point of the Eastern Hemisphere and 85% is covered in ice.  Most of the islands have never been explored.

Massive glaciers dominate the islands of Franz Josef Land
Early on, conditions were windy, creating fairly large waves that drenched us during near-shore excursions.  We learned long ago to use rain covers on our gear when riding in zodiacs, because salt water and electronics are a bad combination.  But we wanted to get a closer look at some of the features of these islands, including spectacular glaciers, bird colonies, lichen and mosses.  We did get close to a pair of walrus and saw a large pod of whales off in the distance.  In the afternoon, the weather cleared and for the first time since early in the trip, we had some blue sky and sun, which made the scenery even more impressive.
We spotted two walrus and a pod of whales in this bay
In the evening we reached open water, free of ice, and were looking forward to the prospect of smooth sailing ahead.

Blue sky for the first time in ten days!

Friday, July 6, 2018

Nowhere to go but South

When it was time to head out, the captain turned the ship around and hoped to take the original route back, as it would be much smoother and less stressful on his passengers.  But he found that since the ice drifted so far, the path had disappeared.  So it was going to be another violent, ice-crunching, polar smack down on the way to Franz Josef Land, an archipelago of 191 islands, and part of Russian Arctic National Park.

On our way south from 90 degrees latitude
Our first stop was outside a military base surrounded by dense ice, where the Victory crew delivered seasonal provisions via helicopter.  This base is so remote, they count on icebreakers to bring them supplies.  It is regarded as the largest man-made structure in the Arctic Circle.

A time-lapse shot of the helicopter delivering supplies to the Russian base
We visited two islands: Alexandra and Flora, where we had our own opportunity to fly in the ship's helicopter, and to explore the shoreline via zodiac.  Magnificent glaciers dominate the landscape, but also present distinct hazards, when huge chunks of ice fall into the sea, creating dangerous waves.  These are called "calving" events.

Our path through Franz Josef Land
More coming soon . . .

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Polar Bears

In a perfect world, polar bears and seals would be friends.  And as visitors to the North Pole, Santa would invite us for lunch, since we traveled all this way to see him. But the harsh reality is we haven't seen Santa's workshop.  That doesn't mean it's not here - it's most likely very well hidden.  And unfortunately, polar bears and seals are not friends.  In fact, bearded seals and ringed seals are the main food source for these apex predators.  Polar bears are not picky, though - they will eat anything to survive, including humans.

We've now seen 15 bears on this journey, and according to an on-board reference providing qualitative data for subjective animal observation, just about every one has been healthy.  This is good news, because it means for the time being, there is a balance in the ecosystem - at least in this part of the arctic.

A healthy, curious polar bear (still from video)
We've spotted numerous polar bears next to openings in the sea ice, where seals come up for air.  They lay flat and perfectly still, patiently waiting for just the right moment to pounce on their next potential meal.  We did not witness an actual kill, and that's OK with us because we like seals, too.

Tomorrow: Nowhere to go but South

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The reason there is no permanent marker at the pole

We arrived at approximately 6:20 AM, went down on the ice at 9:00, and by the time we departed 8 hours later, had drifted more than 4 nautical miles.  This came as a surprise because it did not feel as though we were moving at all.  It is also why the North Pole never looks exactly the same, even from one hour to the next.  Sure, you'll see snow, ice and water.  But the landscape is always changing because of strong ocean currents. Which means when the next expedition lands, it may be many hundreds of miles from where we were today.

Note that the sea ice can move up to 20 miles a day, which works out to roughly 600 miles a month.  Amazing!

Passengers in the process of forming a traditional circle at the North Pole
It is a tradition for crew and passengers to form a circle at the pole, which we captured in photos and video from the upper deck.  Afterwards, they also formed a peace sign and the number 100, commemorating this historic journey.  After lunch aboard the ship, many passengers went on guided excursions that took us more than a half mile from our landing site.  As a precaution, armed Russian guards accompanied us, in case we encountered polar bears.  
Armed Russian guards on the lookout for polar bears
These are beautiful but dangerous animals, and on occasion have attacked humans.  Looking out at this frozen world, it's hard to imagine how anything can survive here, especially in winter.  But polar bears are perfectly adapted for this harsh environment.  More about these predators tomorrow.

Happy 4th to everyone!!

What's it like to be at the pole?

When we disembarked and were allowed to roam the ice, the crew set up safety boundaries by placing poles with red flags in places that might be considered hazardous.  This included the perimeter of the ship, since there was open water around it.  Snow was prevalent, with some drifts rising above our knees.  Surprisingly, the layer below the snow was slushy, which is alarming, even though the ice is at least 9 feet thick in most places.  It was downright spooky to think the sea floor lay 3 miles directly below us, and we're walking around on a layer that appeared to be melting.  We had to put our faith in this seasoned crew, believing that as long as we followed their rules, the North Pole would not be our eternal resting place.  Overly dramatic?  Experience it for yourself and share your thoughts!

Later, we had some whiskey in the Victory Saloon and all is well.

Will check in again soon with more insights. Thanks for your support!

Monday, July 2, 2018

The North Pole

We made it!  After more than 100 hours of grueling travel since leaving Murmansk, we've finally reached the top of the world.  Announcements were made on the ship P.A. system alerting us that we were getting close, and that we should dress in our cold weather clothing for a champagne toast on the bow.  When we were exactly at 90 degrees latitude, the Geographic North Pole, the captain set off the ship’s horn to commemorate our arrival.  It was time to celebrate and reflect on our journey thus far.

North Pole ceremony on the bow

The crew then prepared to have everyone disembark and take part in planned activities on the ice.  Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate, as it was too cold and windy to have an outdoor BBQ.  But nothing could stop those adventurers who vowed to take a polar plunge into the icy arctic waters.  Our Travel Quest host, Bill, who is always up for a good challenge, was one of the first to dive in, as we captured footage from a zodiac just off shore.  Many people asked us if we were also doing the polar plunge, and our response was always the same - “HELL, NO.”

This is a true polar plunge!
More about our travels in this frozen wilderness tomorrow . . .

Navigating the Arctic Pack Ice

It's taken us 4 whole days to forge a path through the dense, semi-permanent "old" ice, layers of new ice (which is not as thick) and pressure ridges, formed when ice flows collide, creating massive barriers the ship cannot always break through on the first try.  When that happens, there is a brief period of calm, as the icebreaker backs up and then gains enough speed to ram through the ridge.  Otherwise, there is a pervasive wall of sound, like rolling thunder, emanating from the hull, accompanied by jolting shock waves and vibrations so strong it's difficult to even type on the ships' computer to update our journal.  It's similar to experiencing moderate to extreme turbulence on an airplane for days on end.  This makes for very challenging working conditions, as well.  Conducting on-camera interviews is rather comical, as the subjects sway and bounce in their seats.  Hand-held footage, even with image stabilization on, sometimes is barely usable, so a tripod is almost always required. 

Our meals have been delicious, prepared each day by an efficient staff comprised mostly of Germans and Russians.  Even though this ship was not designed with passenger comfort in mind since it is, after all, a working icebreaker, the accommodations are more than adequate for an excursion into the frozen void.

We've seen 6 polar bears so far, including a mother and cub. When certain wildlife is spotted, the captain stops the ship and an announcement is made over the intercom, even if it's 2:00 AM, so passengers can go to the deck to view the animals.

With a little luck, we should reach our destination tomorrow morning!

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

A Momentous Journey

This morning we received our polar jackets and boots, for those times when we will disembark and explore the arctic waters in zodiacs (inflatable motorized boats) as well as the terrain, including the Franz Josef islands and dense ice environments further north.

We attended a very informative and entertaining lecture, given by one of the staff historians, about the Northwest Passage and Mapping the Arctic.  This gentleman reminds us of Sir Richard Attenborough, and we decided he would be a compelling interview subject. During the lecture, we learned the first time a ship reached the North Pole was in 1977 and that our journey is significant because it is the 100th time an icebreaker is carving a path to 90 degrees latitude, the top of the world.

A well-attended presentation in the Aft Saloon
If anyone has money to spare (lots) and wants to go on an adventure to practically any cold-weather environment on Earth, there are very few companies that can make that happen.  Quark Expeditions is not only our broadcast partner, they are the best polar excursion company in operation today.  They are taking very good care of us!