I WENT TO THE ARCTIC BECAUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. A few years ago, as I was annotating an edition of Mary Shelley's novel, I traveled to all the places in Europe where the major scenes are set—except one: the Arctic. It is there that Victor Frankenstein dies, and as the book closes, Frankenstein's creature is last glimpsed leaping onto an ice floe. Then a Lindblad Special Expeditions brochure came my way, describing its 10-day "To the Land of the Ice Bears" tour.
IN THE BLINK OF AN EYE, I AM ON MY WAY TO OSLO, where a number of travelers and I are met by Special Expeditions staff members. They ease us through customs and put us on buses into town; we are assigned rooms at the Grand Hotel. Except for the fact that most of the young Norwegians I see are blond, they look exactly like their counterparts in America: blue jeans everywhere, as well as a great many pierced ears, noses, lips, and belly buttons.
The following morning, we take a 3 1/2-hour flight to Longyearbyen, the village on Spitsbergen where our cruise ship awaits. Spitsbergen is part of the Svalbard archipelago, around which we will be sailing. The pilot, a cheerful fellow who served in the Norwegian Air Force, swoops down so we can get a closer look at the vast glaciers, jagged mountain peaks, and bright blue lakes.
Treeless and incoherently organized, Longyearbyen (population 1,200) is the most no-place place I have ever seen. Government buildings, mine shafts, oil tanks, and housing for coal miners are scattered along the bay. Among the other incongruities, there is a donkey engine—once used to haul coal—sitting on a few yards of track.
The town has certain distinctions: it has the northernmost supermarket and post office in the world. It also has a hotel, a café, and a couple of butiks, where credit cards can be used to buy sweaters, blankets, camping gear, and the sorts of doodads that travelers want to take home from places their neighbors have not been (Svalbard T-shirts, whale-flensing knives, cuddly toy polar bears, seals, and walruses).
At four that afternoon, we walk up the gangplank of the Caledonian Star and pass through a sort of time warp.
Each day we live in two contrasting environments. On the one hand, there is the civilized ambience of the ship, which has sun and observation decks and a spacious lounge. Our staterooms, with private baths, are climate-controlled and equipped with VCR's—just what everyone needs in the Arctic summer's constant daylight. The ship also has a lecture hall where, twice a day, naturalists (geologists, biologists, ecologists, and oceanographers) give wonderfully brief lectures. As for meals, lunch and dinner, though often elegantly served and named (terrine de Château Vannières, Dover sole la belle femme), are not always quite as haute as the menus promise.
So much, then, for the creature comforts. The other environment is the one to which we are taken each day, sometimes twice a day, on the inflated rubber boats called Zodiacs: the world of sky and sea, winds and clouds, looming headlands, glaciers and icebergs.
Early on, we discover the effects of 24-hour sunshine. Our body clocks, used to the alternating rhythms of light and dark, simply go haywire. It is as if the universe, which until now has kept its social contract with us, has decided to exercise the fine-print options.
When I do finally sleep, it is with a peculiar intensity. I am visited by strange dreams. The first night out, I go to bed at 11 with daylight pouring through the porthole. I wake up every hour, only to find the daylight still there. On subsequent "nights," unable to sleep, I prowl the decks and discover others who don't know what to do with the gift of so much sunlight. Awake, I feel preternaturally alert, as if I have acquired expanded peripheral vision.
Though the sun is always present, the world it illuminates is endlessly various. The sky, the sea, and the land change their aspect depending on the cloud cover and the wind. There are moments when the horizon seems to show a sunrise or a sunset; or when the sea will darken, turning from dark gray to black as the wind sends clouds in front of the sun and stirs the waves through which we pass. When fog prevails, it's as if we're at the center of a soft, vague mystery.
By and large, my 90 shipmates are American and past 55. The oldest is 85, the youngest 11. Half a dozen are CEO's or retired CEO's. There are former editors of national magazines, professors emeriti from great universities, doctors and inventors, a biology teacher, a librarian, and a young woman investment banker who is using her severance pay to travel around the world. No shipboard confidences come my way; the conversation is carefully calibrated so that we talk about neutral things: past journeys, children, grandchildren.
In any case, chitchat is rendered irrelevant upon boarding the Zodiacs (each of which seats 12 people, plus the pilot). Once we pull away from the ship, we are sharply and intimately at sea. Sometimes we are in the open ocean miles from the ship; other times we thread our way between ice floes. If the sea has a mind to be restless, our little boat climbs the swells, then dives into the valleys below, striking with a resounding thwack. Always, there is a sharp wind blowing in our faces, or at our backs. The water is nearly at freezing temperature, as we can tell whenever spray spurts into our mouths.
Sometimes we go ashore for brief excursions on the tundra. Or we cruise alongside massive glaciers that, during the course of time, have moved overland, down to the sea. At other times our journeys take us around and among icebergs and floe ice. Icebergs, to my surprise, are not always white—often they are the blue of Paul Newman's eyes. When ice is formed under great pressure it compresses the gases that normally obscure water's natural color.
The glaciers are also vocal. They groan; they make cracking, scraping sounds, as if inhabited by forces calling to be released. One of the most impressive moments of the entire journey comes when, as we are passing a glacier, we hear an enormous, dry creaking and, 200 yards away, a block of ice looking not unlike a medieval wall collapses into the sea, sending a small tidal wave toward our bobbing rubber boat.