I’m really starting to like these obscure GPS references to position. So ambiguous yet so precise. So we are in Iceland and preparing to leave to Amsterdam (latitude unknown to me) The past few days have been windy cool rain which sends John into his winter funk and reminds him of the Pacific Northwest winters. So we head south.
The Arctic cruise is really beyond description but, of course, I will attempt it anyway. So we set sail from Longyearbyen on the west coast of Svalbard, an island belonging to Norway, situated just north of the Arctic Circle. The ship is ice reinforced hull with 124 passenger, 57 crew capacity. The island, like the north coast of Norway itself, is a convolution of fjords. Deceivingly high mountains cut down into the water by freeze and thaw, tectonic collision, uplift, folding and rolling and the progression and retreat of glaciers. All that super colossal geologic stuff!
The enormity of everything is simultaneously emphasized and diminished by the scarcity of human settlements or humans other than the ones on the boat with us. Let me apologize in advance for the endless array of landscape and iceberg photos we may subject you to in the future. The crazy thing is that when we were in it, cruising in our ship the M/S Expedition, the scale of everything was skewed. The ship was human designed and made so our immediate environment was made to human scale, but Svalbard and Greenland are all in geologic scale: millions of years, thousands of feet, tons of ice. Vague measurements until you don your long underwear, fuzzy sweater, rain pants, parka, liner gloves, mittens, scarf, hat, wet boots (anyone have to pee yet?) and life jacket and board the 12 person zodiacs to make a landing.
In the short distance from ship to shore the huge vessel that carries us protected from the arctic cold and frigid seas looks like a little toy boat in the near distance. The landscape becomes that much larger. The plants shrink. The severity of the climate and the brief growing season reduces the tundra life to miniature versions of species we know at home. Tiny willow and birch scarcely rise four inches from the ground spread out low and wide over the rock and moss. As it is the end of the season all the flowering plants are past their blooming prime and the leaves are going yellow, orange, red and brown. Occasionally we see a heather, or saxifrage, or harebell in flower. . . ahhh the singular beauty of the late bloomer. The lichen are the backbone of all life in the arctic, a symbiosis of fungus and algae, that is the foundation of the food chain here and in so many pretty shapes and colors –dusky green, warm gray, curly black, bright chartreuse, vibrant orange.
The eyes are constantly zooming in and zooming out. Zoom in and see the intricacy of the tiny plant life. Zoom out and see the layers of granite and basalt breaching from the surface of the earth. Zoom in to see the brown dot in the distance that the expedition leaders swear is a musk ox. Zoom out and realize that the sheet of ice before you is 5 times wider than the freeways in LA. and taller than a 15 story building.
Seeing animal life was a gift and a delight. Just when the immensity of the landscape started to become desolation and monotony, someone would spot a tiny speck and claim it a reindeer, musk ox, polar bear or whale! Then we’d all rush to the side of the boat and strain to see. We did actually see in a decent way unaided by binoculars both at sea and on land, a blue whale, humpback whale, fin whale, minke whale, dolphin, orca, ringed seal, musk ox, polar bear, arctic fox, arctic hare, ptarmigan and a variety of sea and other birds that are too numerous for me to name. Each amazed us in their ability to adapt to the cold harsh conditions of their environment.
The reality of which became abundantly clear when we took the polar plunge! On a day when we were to cruise the face of a glacier and nearby lake heavy fog began rolling in obscuring our visibility. I personally love creeping around in the fog but when you’re loaded onto a zodiac and you can’t see the ship you came from, the icebergs ahead of you or the shoreline next to you, the safety conscious expedition leaders bring the boats back in. With the morning adventure scuttled what better way to entertain passengers and crew than to invite some to jump into the arctic waters for a swim! We crazies came dressed and undressed by the droves and shivered in line for the opportunity to have a belt and rope around our waist, descend the boat ladder stairs and jump, dive and cannonball into the icy sea. Ship’s bridge reported the water temperature to be 3C/37F. Shock, a bit of panic, some other worldly delight in the thickness of the water and how the saltiness seemed different than at temperate climes and a scramble back to the ladder. And the highlight, for John at least, a certificate!
It’s a trip we never thought we would take and are so glad we did. Every day held wonder. We are now in Amsterdam where we will delight ourselves in a completely different way.