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Day of adventure

Today was an incredible day of adventure and a little scary at the same time. We began our day exploring an island about 600 miles from the north pole. We got back on the boat to learn that we had to set sail right away because the ice from the melting polar ice cap was being swept up the body of water where we were headed, and there was a danger of our being trapped. Initially we were going out to investigate the state of the ice, and we assumed at that point that we would probably come back. The Noorderlicht is a very hardy boat with a steel hull and what they call a schooner sail, but even she wouldn’t be too happy to get trapped in the ice out here.

So out we went under motor.

We also began to see bear tracks on the ice, which by this time was almost solidly packed in around us. Ted, our captain, who almost never says anything and has this face that barely shows any expression, came out from behind his usual spot behind the big wheel and climbed up the mast, to see if there was a way out through the ice. He came down, and for a while it wasn’t too bad and the ice floes were quite distant, but very quickly the ice floes started to get thicker and thicker. The sound of the boat cutting through the ice was amazing at first, but it started to get scarier when suddenly there was more ice than water, and pretty soon the ship was nearly at a standstill, as she started to hit very big chunks of ice, some of them a hundred feet long or more.

Because we were packed so tight, we didn’t have much control of the ship, and we were being pushed toward the rocks. I went up the mast about halfway to photograph our predicament, and because David wanted an image of him on the prow.

We were about .2 nautical miles from the rocks, and the captain was very worried that we could be pushed up onto the rocks. We couldn’t get any further using the propeller, so we put up the sails, which helped a little to push us along. But even still, we weren’t making much progress, and the captain made a call to the local coast guard. Even though there are usually ice maps that would help out, we realized that no one was updating them because it was the weekend:

Hello, yes, captain here. [PAUSE] Not so good. We’re stuck in the ice and drifting towards some rocks. Danger about 0.2 nautical miles.”

Just afterwards (at 3:10), Deborah, our theatre director from London, was taking what she called “boring pictures of the ice” when she spotted something moving across the ice: a polar bear. We were all somewhat distracted from the seriousness of our predicament by the excitement of this bear, who was moving towards us! It was at this moment that my camera battery decided to die. I scurried down to find an extra battery, and by the time I got back on deck, the bear was within a couple hundred feet. Curious, he got closer and closer. We could see him lick his lips, he was so close, and we all knew that bears, if they’re hungry could easily leap from the ice onto the boat, so our guide Andrei quietly got his gun out just in case.

But our bear turned out to be more of a friendly and curious sort. He ambled in front of the boat, which at this point was more or less trapped in the ice like a fly in a spider web. Then he lay down, looking at all of us as if we were aliens, about a hundred feet away. Then, as quickly as he’d come, he lumbered away.

Then things began to happen rather quickly. David came out and told everyone that we’d have to pack up some really warm clothes because we’d be rescued by helicopter in 45 minutes. They would drop us off at the Swedish camp of huts that we had visited yesterday and likely have to stay there (I had counted only eight beds there, and there were no heaters—but at least there was an attic filled with 50-year-old crackers!). Then we heard that we wouldn’t be able to take any bag, so we all had on about 12 layers of clothing and cameras so we all looked like pregnant walruses.

And we stood on the deck and waited.

The boat wasn’t going anywhere, the ice was thickly packed all around us. But after a little while, it was as if the ice started to loosen her grip on us, and we’d inch forward, bit by bit. Gradually, we could see open water way off in the distance, almost like a mirage.

The captain called in again to let the coastguard know he thought we were clear.

And then David came back and told us to relax, that we would very likely not have to get rescued. Finally, we were in open water, and we all breathed a huge sigh of relief. This had been a very close call. “Stand down!” he called. “Dinner in half an hour!”

The helicopter passed over us, swooping over like a massive albatross. It circled to make sure we were okay, then disappeared over the horizon, slipping between the clouds and out of sight.


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