Chilly Scenes of Summer

Chilly Scenes of Summer

Ralph Lee Hopkins
Ralph Lee Hopkins
The ultimate in northern exposure on a Norwegian Arctic cruise

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.

The shapes of the icebergs are another source of wonder. In summer months the ice, exposed to the sunlight, melts unevenly. We pass entire bays of Henry Moore sculptures. A few times our Zodiac nudges within yards of castles out of Hans Christian Andersen's "Snow Queen." We see crenellated walls and blue doorways, through which it is tempting to pass.

Whenever we visit the tundra, my attention span contracts sharply. The terrain has little variety. Flat plains extend for miles; sometimes we get rolling hills. The ground is so squishy that it pulls a boot off one of our naturalists. The amateur botanists find plenty to be excited about: moss and lichen, arctic poppies, arctic mouse-ear chickweed, sulfur-colored buttercups, arctic bell heather, sneezewort. I am not insensitive to the muted colors; however, when my compatriots lie on their stomachs to determine the sex of saxifrage blossoms, I find the scene charming but remain unstirred.

Birds are always with us. At sea, gulls follow our ship for mile upon mile, rarely moving their wings as they ride the shifting winds. The bird fanciers report that they have seen harlequins, puffins, and parasitic jaegers. Once we visit a cliff face that is the nesting site for millions of dovekies, small birds resembling penguins but able to fly. The scene looks like a black-and-white Pointillist painting.

Every time we go ashore, at least one of our guides carries a shotgun, a precaution against an encounter with a polar bear. The Norwegian Polar Institute pamphlet I was given in Longyearbyen, Take the Polar Bear Danger Seriously, does not mince words: "All bears are to be treated as if they are threatening. If one has seen you and approaches, try to scare it away immediately. Shout and growl, jump and wave your arms. . . . If you find yourself in a very dangerous situation where you must protect your own and other people's lives, you are to shoot to kill. . . ."

Then, as we move northward through the pack ice toward Edge¯ya, we see our first bears. Standing at the rail of the ship, we can just make out a mother followed by her cub. For three or four minutes they are visible; then they disappear.

That sighting is not satisfactory, but less than an hour later there is a second alert. I rush on deck to join the crowd gathering at the prow. A hundred yards ahead, on an ice floe, a polar bear has just killed a seal, flung it down, and is about to eat it.

We pray for the captain to take us closer. The ship slows to a crawl and various crew members join us, whispering that we must whisper. We coast silently forward. Already, birds are whirling over the bear and his seal.

By now the bear has ripped open the seal's belly, seizing the entrails in his mouth. He looks up to see a 3,000-ton creature with many heads moving toward him. We drift even nearer. The bear looks down at the seal and back at us. We are suddenly much too close. He wheels about and lopes across the ice, then stops some 20 yards away. The birds, sensing their advantage, alight near his kill.

The bear turns to face our ship. Refusing to allow anyone to steal his dinner, he walks carefully back. He casts us a defiant glance and resumes his devouring. Fifteen minutes later, like a kid finishing off a Popsicle, he takes a last huge bite out of the red-stained ice, then bolts. His swaying rear end gives him the look of a hurrying dowager. I can't help feeling that there should be music from Fantasia accompanying his flight.

None of our other animal encounters are quite so dramatic. We see graceful reindeer with six-point antlers who, though clearly curious, keep a considerable distance. (Thanks to one of the naturalists, I can now tell the difference between a reindeer's summer and winter feces: the summer version is soft and flaccid; the winter's, because the deer is conserving water, is round and hard.) Near the dovekies' nesting site we see an arctic fox whose pelt, because it is summer, is rich brown. In our Zodiacs we come upon bearded seals, and their indifference to us contrasts sharply with our fascination with them. They look like creatures posing for a statue called Sloth: fat, sleepy, bored.

Once, the people in my Zodiac think we see a whale. No one else on the trip will confirm it, but we preen ourselves on our discovery. When another group claims to have seen four walrus, we greet their report with skepticism.

Human history intrudes when we visit Dansk¯ya. A century ago, Swedish explorer Salomon Andrée made a disastrous attempt to fly over the North Pole in a hydrogen-filled balloon. We are shown the ruins of his launch site: rusted oil barrels, the tank into which he poured sulfuric acid over iron filings to produce the hydrogen to inflate his lacquered silk balloon; we see, too, the timbers of his launching platform. After crash-landing on the ice, the balloonist and his two companions survived two months of appalling hardship before they reached Kvit¯ya (White Island), where they died. When Andrée's skeleton was found 33 years later, it had on the white silk gloves he'd intended to wear to shake the czar's hand upon landing in Russia.

Like Victor Frankenstein, Andrée was defeated by ice and misplaced ambition—ice, which has been in the foreground of everything we have seen and done. Ship naturalist Lindy Hopkins told me that in spring, the return of the sun sets off a furious fecundity as microorganisms attached to the underside of the ice multiply. These are the small, precious links at the beginning of the food chain. As I pack my luggage on the last morning, I am struck by the irony: the ice, which Mary Shelley regarded as so forbidding, so coldly masculine, is in fact a life-giving element, a female wonder, nourishing all the creatures of the Arctic world.

"To the Land of the Ice Bears" will next be offered by Lindblad Special Expeditions in 1999, with departures scheduled for July 22 and 29 (800/397-3348 or 212/765-7740, fax 212/265-3770). Prices for the 10-day trip will start at about $4,150 (not including airfare to Oslo).

What to Pack
Special Expeditions will send you a list: I would emphasize a pair of good, knee-high rubber boots because you will be walking in water, and rubber pants because you're occasionally going to be sitting in water. Dress in layers of wool and silk. There's no telling how bad the weather will be, but it can get very cold. Bring an outfit that will protect you against blustery days, as well as a waterproof anorak and long underwear (I didn't wear any, but I enjoy cold weather). Pack more than one pair of gloves—many people lost theirs—and more batteries than you think you'll need; they cost a mint aboard the ship. Since you never know when it will rain, carry plastic bags to put over your camera, with a hole cut out for the lens.

Best Books
The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909 by Pierre Berton (Viking)—A highly dramatic account of the century of Arctic exploration; it's out of print but worth tracking down.
The Arctic World by Fred Bruemmer and William E. Taylor (Key Porter Books)—This coffee-table book gives an excellent, if once-over-lightly, look at the region's geography, biology, and human culture.
To the Arctic: An Introduction to the Far Northern World by Steven B. Young (John Wiley & Sons)—Explores the natural sciences of the Arctic in readable prose; especially useful (and interesting) are the chapters on the animal life of the tundra and the formation of glaciers.

On the Web
The Svalbard Pages (—There's a wealth of information here, ranging from recommendations on which guide to hire to what the weather will be. You'll even find answers to such questions as "Will I be able to use my cell phone in Svalbard?"
— Emily Berquist

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