Inhospitable land of ice leaves you wanting more

Inhospitable land of ice leaves you wanting more

By Anne Phillips

"Ladies and gentlemen we have a polar bear, starboard, 2 o'clock."

Tourists and crew members crowd the deck, transfixed by the sight of a tiny cream-colored head moving through the pack ice. Suddenly, it hauls out onto an ice floe. Seventy people make the same sound, that audible intake of breath usually reserved for acrobats and virtuoso pianists at the end of cadenzas. Said to be curious, this bear is not; after a brief survey of the scene, he returns to the water and swims off. A pandemonium of joy erupts on deck.

The ship, the Professor Molchanov, is off the west coast of Spitsbergen, part of the Svalbard Archipelago in the Arctic Circle, about 600 miles from the North Pole. Spitsbergen is largely protected wilderness now; we sailed out of Longyearben, its primary community, five days before.

A research vessel given over now to "study cruises," the Molchanov is comfortable but utilitarian, an appropriate vehicle for a group that has chosen one of the world's most inhospitable locations for their summer vacation. Computer programmers and accountants seem overrepresented, lending a civil servant feel to the group. But beneath that staid appearance, cherished Arctic dreams rush to the surface: We have arrived!

The pack ice keeps us ship-bound now, but earlier this was not the case. Despite the wilderness protections, we are allowed ashore with rifle-bearing guides. At first sight, Spitsbergen seems only black and white, hard and angular, but June also offers the scrubby, spongy earth that is the Arctic tundra in summer.

With permafrost 12 inches below, summer snowmelt has limited options. Our first day out, we learn why rubber boots are required equipment; under the hectoring of our eco-bully guides, we strive to step lightly and consciously across this land. Our attempts are laudable and earnest, no doubt, but futile — only large human footprints are left in the Arctic.

Remembering some distant grade school geography lesson, I look about for reindeer on the tundra. They're here — at least, the rather stunted indigenous Svalbard version. They have short legs and stocky bodies, much too slow to be called nimble, but sure-footed enough to climb to the tops of Spitsbergen's jagged peaks.

They seem almost tame and comfortable with our presence, but our guides assure us that this is not so. We are merely observing the first law of life in the Arctic: Don't waste energy. Heedless romps in June burn calories that may be tragically missed during the long polar night. Predictably, only the very young forget.

Other landings are on the hard rock of Spitsbergen. Scrabbling and knocking across it we climb up as close as we can to a Little Auk breeding site. Little Auks look like diminutive, well-fed penguins, adorable, of course, in their little stuffed white shirts, hundreds of them perched on narrow ledges.

Unlike penguins, these birds can fly, as they demonstrate suddenly with a great swoosh, rising in unison from the sheer cliffs and flying out over the Arctic Ocean. They make a wide circle and then settle back in; clearly they are not feeding. When asked about it, Vidar Bakken, our Norwegian Bird Man, shrugs: It is typical breeding behavior, nothing more. Joie de vivre, Little Auk style. It is enough. We hunker down and wait for the next swoosh.

Little Auks are here for the summer. Svalbard is an inhospitable place; unlike other locations above the Arctic Circle, it did not host an indigenous human population. But native life is abundant: The tundra, in this black and white setting, is now a veritable riot of color from the flowering plants that call this place home. In the tourist world, birders and plant people are always in conflict, eyes up or eyes down, striding ahead or creeping behind. But even the most obsessive birders are captivated by the flora.

Colors are vibrant in the land of the midnight sun and there are truly unusual plants. But it is the palpable life force quivering in just one inch of stem that brings us to our knees. Height is the equivalent of wasted energy, for the season is short and uncertain. Tiny blossoms rush to open themselves and reach to the sun in a way both exquisite and heart-rending.

Dutch whalers discovered Svalbard in the 17th century. In the treeless high Arctic, scavenged wood has been scavenged again by later adventurers, but remnants of Smeerenburg ("Blubbertown") remain — an outline of a settlement of 16 or 17 shacks and a scattering of whale bone. Here the whales were carved up, useful bone removed and the fat boiled down to extract the blubber; the remnants of that process were used for fuel.

Though abandoned by the end of the 18th century, these blubber "cracklings" remain with odd black formations indicating the locations of the fire pits and blubber boilers.

The right whale population was decimated by the end of the 18th century, and the whalers moved elsewhere. Protected now, the species has made a comeback worldwide, but none has ever returned to the waters around Spitsbergen.

Besides the polar bear, the Svalbard reindeer and the summer breeding grounds of seabirds, Spitsbergen is home to a few other mammals. The walrus population here is quite fragile. Hunted — for blubber and ivory — halfway through the 20th century, they were nearly wiped out. Now one breeding colony gathers at the north end of Spitsbergen. We are not allowed to get close to the protected group, but happily a bull floats out our way. Dozing on the ice, close enough to smell, a small head atop a huge blubber body, grace is not the word that comes to mind. Not, that is, until, with a dainty push of one flipper, this lethargic 2-ton lump rolls into the water and vanishes with a ripple, not a splash.

Arctic foxes with little cat faces and enormous plumed tails lurk on the edges of the seabird breeding grounds and irrepressibly curious seals circle our zodiacs.

In the amazing way that things work out in the world, seals are near-perfect nutrition for both polar bears and humans. Most favored lunch status would seem bad enough, but seals have also been seriously affected by distant human use of PCPs.

Though long banned at this point, PCP traces persist in seals, affecting reproduction and keeping Greenland's native women's breast milk on toxic substance lists. Oddly enough, nothing is so playful and curious and welcoming as a seal swimming in the Arctic Ocean.

The wildlife sightings are the exclamation points of the trip, but what holds us enthralled is the ice. When we first reach the pack ice, the ship fairly hums with excitement, but it is excitement of a different quality.

This is a friendly group; the dining room rings with laughter and even occasional song. In the lounge, drink and conversation flow freely. But in the presence of the ice we are still. It is always cold and windy on the deck, but no one can keep away.

We are ship-bound now, no trips ashore, but no one complains, no one is bored. We hang over the sides of the ship like children watching the ice and then, at last, retreat for warmth to the bridge and watch the captain at the wheel, steering us by hand through the maze. The sound of the ship sliding through the ice is oddly comforting, a sweet Arctic lullaby when we finally give it up and try for a few hours sleep.

The experience does not transfer well. Back home, looking through my endless photos of the pack ice, friends marvel at my enthusiasm, not at the ice. They see an interesting formation or two; no one sees the body of the Earth or the face of God.

In the Arctic, ice has its own extensive vocabulary. Watching on deck, I remember some of those words: windowpane, pancake, grease, frazil, nilas. The ice announces that life is different here; the ice determines life here and has a life of its own, with mystery and color and a story to share. On the Professor Molchanov, we are of one mind; many first poems are written on this voyage.

The Molchanov is an ice-strengthened ship, not an ice-breaker. If the ice becomes too thick, our itinerary will change and we will have to turn back. The Russian crew shares in our fascination with the ice, but with the wisdom of experience, they are more wary than we. This is break-up, and formation is the more fearsome monster, but danger is here as well. Pack ice is moving ice; ice that can crush and puncture.

As it gets thicker, our progress north becomes slower and slower. A toast of peppermint schnapps marks our crossing of the 80th parallel; in the morning, we awake to discover that we are now headed south. Our time in the ice is over.

Our last night out, we gather in the lounge for a recap and farewells. Our trip leader, Robin, recounts the high points and asks what could have made things better. "More time in the ice, more time in the ice" — our response is unanimous.

He sighs and explains once again why we had to turn back. Our Russian captain, struggling heroically with English, offers the same explanation in somewhat more emotional terms. Regarding us with a stern eye, Robin asks if there is anything else we have to suggest.

A rather elderly, courtly gentleman from Belgium rises and surveys the group with quiet dignity.

"I think what is needed," he says, "is more time in the ice."

Anne Phillips is an Urbana resident.

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