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Chilly Scenes of Summer

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.

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