The Polar Regions fascinate me. The more I Iearn about them, the more interested I become. I was fortunate to be exposed to these far-away lands three years ago when Jim and I took the kids to Svalbard (an archipelago north of Norway) in the Arctic. Reindeer, polar bears, flora that only reaches two inches high because of a 30-day life cycle and mind-blowing ice formations are forever engrained in my memory.
I recently returned to the Arctic Region, albeit by a different path and a very different mode of transportation. I was headed on a direct course to 90 Degrees North on a nuclear-powered Russian ice breaking ship.
Many who hear my story first ask me How? And then ask me Why? Allow me to explain. Our dear friend Jeff Prouty of the Prouty Project has been leading STRETCH Expeditions for 20 years. In fact, 2019 was the 20th anniversary of this amazing tradition to get people stretching themselves mentally, physically, educationally, etc. So, Jeff came to us saying he wanted to do something EPIC. After much brainstorming and discussion, the decision was made to venture North...as North as you could go!
After months of planning and anticipation, a group of 14 of us were ready to venture out! Through Pique’s partner Quark Expeditions, we boarded 50 Years of Victory, one of 40 Russian ice breaking ships in their fleet. (Quark leases this vessel and crew for two sailings each year, with each sailing carrying 120 guests. So, we were 14 of 240 people who experienced this adventure with Quark in all of 2019.)
We started our voyage in Murmansk, Russia, the largest city north of the Arctic Circle. We boarded 50 Years of Victory in awe. To say it’s “Russian looking” is an understatement (and stereotyping, but check out the images and I’m hopeful you’ll agree!). It’s a daunting ship – large, stoic, rigid and very militant in its accommodations. But it was everything we hoped it would be and more!
Quark’s Expedition Team welcomed us on board and quickly made the experience warm, inviting and intriguing. Their ability to build anticipation and curiosity was enviable. Afterall, we were there with one mission in mind – to reach 90 Degrees North.
We first crossed the open waters of the Barents Sea and passed through Franz Josef Land, an archipelago of nearly 200 uninhabited islands. Within a day or two the ice formations became more prevalent, until finally we approached the full sheet of what seemed like never ending ice.
Cue the ice breaker. The power (76,000 horsepower to be exact) of this ship was amazing. With its 4x reinforced hull, it broke through ice with ease (capable of breaking ice nearly 10-feet thick). We were able to join the crew up in the bridge at any time so watching it from above was spectacular. Watching from over the sides was also unique, as we could also hear the ice breaking and rumbling. Such a unique experience. However, my favorite viewing point? The helicopter. Yes, the ship was home to a helicopter that took us up a total of three times during our journey. An unforgettable vantagepoint indeed.
So, for three to four days we broke ice. Along the way, Quark’s scientists, biologists, glaciologists, ornithologists (birds), historians and others educated us about the vastness of this mysterious region and how it impacts the rest of the planet. We were fascinated.
Amid the lectures we ate (and ate and ate) amazing food and had great wildlife sightings. A highlight? Nine polar bears throughout the course of the voyage. One even stood on its hind legs to check us out. Other great activities included a night of karaoke, carving polar bear figurines out of clay, a cribbage tournament I created for our group and much more. Time surprisingly went fast and they kept us engaged throughout.
Finally, one night the Expedition Leader came over the PA system announcing, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we have two nautical miles to go to reach the North Pole.” Even though it was 1 am (light out mind you seeing we were in the Land of the Midnight Sun), everyone rose out of bed, headed to the bow of the ship and watched the GPS devices closely. With champagne (and Russian vodka of course) in hand, we counted down as we approached our destination: 90 Degrees North.
Once at the North Pole, I was in awe. The Russian crew stopped the ship and the Quark Team turned our immediate surroundings into nothing less than an amusement park area for us. We did the Polar Plunge, had hot air balloon rides, used the phone booth to make a satellite call back to our families, could mail letters stamped the North Pole, had lots of photo opportunities, and best of all enjoyed a grand BBQ picnic complete with grilled lamb, salmon, chicken and more. Such a feast and a treat at the North Pole.
After enjoying the day, we of course packed up everything we took out and left the area pristine, leaving as little of a trace as we possibly could. Frankly, only ice behind.
Needless to say, this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity will stay with me forever. Learning about explorers who went before us into geography unknown and soaking in all the challenges the region faces today was amazing to me. Few people can say they’ve been to the North Pole. I’m proud to be one of them.
Want to learn more about venturing to the Polar Regions? Email Linda at LindaB@PiqueTravel.com. (She’s heading to Antarctica in December so watch for a future newsletter article about that journey.)