Spanning the GlobeNov 30, 2006 10:47PM ● By Don Kindred
by Bill Thomas
The North Pole.Move over Admiral Peary, Captain Cook, and Admiral Byrd. We’ve got a San Clemente explorer who’s traveled from South Pole to North Pole. Four years ago, local resident Bob Harner visited Antarctica, known as the “…coldest, driest, and wildest place on earth.” After his initial taste of ice floes, icebergs, magnificent vistas, glaciers, and barren cliffs, he found the unique scenery so awe-inspiring he longed to join the adventurers, scientists, and world travelers who had set foot on the other end of the world, the North Pole. When his wife, Marilyn, with whom he has traveled to over 100 countries, opted to study Spanish in Guatemala this past summer, Harner, a retired Ford Motor Company executive, decided to give himself an 80th birthday present. He made the call to fulfill his dream. He was going to the North Pole…There was a catch. It would cost around $20,000.
His adventure began this past July in Helsinki, Finland, where he spent a few days sightseeing before joining the tour flying to Murmansk, Russia. With 92 other travelers, he boarded the nuclear-powered icebreaker, Yamal, bound for two weeks in the Arctic. The primary function of the vessel is to keep the northern coast of Siberia open to commercial shipping 11 months of the year. Yamal is a seagoing phenomenon. Since 1993, with the melting of the Cold War, it has also been the July seaboard hotel for adventure-seeking tourists to the Pole. Generating 125,000 horsepower, it is the most powerful icebreaker in the world, 120 meters long, with 12 decks, four below the water line. Nuclear power makes water into steam, which turn dynamos for the power plant electricity, which turns three propellers, one in the stern and two on port and starboard. Throughout the vessel are 1280 compartments (including cabins, storage areas, and machine rooms). Sufficient provisions and supplies can be carried for seven months. The Yamal can spend two or more years at sea without refueling.
Bob Harner, from one end of the earth to the other.Before this trip, according to the sponsoring Quark Expeditions website, only 17,366 persons had stood at the Geographic North Pole. Their transportation ranged from the much-disputed dogsled trek by Admiral Robert Peary in 1926 to various assaults by airplane, helicopter, dirigible, submarine, ship, skis and parachute – and 36 who took advantage of the Arctic Sea current to drift to the Pole. The Yamal’s 2006 expedition leader, Laurie Dexter, had made several extreme expeditions including skiing to the Pole, as well as across Greenland. The Yamal has made the Arctic trip 37 times since 1993.
This was an expedition, not a cruise, so Harner shared comfortable, but modest, lodging quarters including a bathroom, with a roommate. The Yamal crew, Russian and European, had relocated to lower decks to accommodate their guests. Surprisingly, on this Russian vessel, only one couple was from the Soviet Union. Most were Americans; British, Norwegian, Swedish, and Taiwanese. All directions, announcements, menus, and daily newsletters were in English, and the Russian captain and his key officers had interpreters.
Orientation included parka distribution, safety briefings and lifeboat drills, as well as an introduction to the ship’s helicopter. The first 200 miles of open ocean were spent in a traveling school: breakfast, two morning lectures, lunch, afternoon lecture, high tea, recreation, dinner and a movie. Since the sun never set, orbiting at 20 degrees continuously, window shades were drawn to represent night and early morning hours. Lectures by scientists, historians and adventurers included Arctic history, geology, and animal and plant life, life at ocean depths and the mechanisms of icebreakers. Harner reported that one of the best presentations was when the students shared why they were taking the voyage. Their reasons scanned a spectrum of imagination.
Meals were served in a large, luxurious dining room. “The food was outstanding,” Harner proclaimed. Since the Russian waitresses didn’t speak English, the descriptive menus were divided under headings they memorized such as “Ocean” for fish, “Explorer” for beef, and “Arctic Light” for pastry. Even though an elaborate description of a fish dish was included, only the word, “Ocean” was necessary for the waitress.
Placed among the evening documentaries on polar bears and other Arctic topics were such films as The Geisha and Sleepless in Seattle. Recreational activities included ping-pong, card and board games.
Looking from the open bridge and upper decks, there were endless expanses of ice-covered sea, landscapes of jagged mountains, immense glaciers and windswept tundra. These are regions where very few travelers venture. Arctic seabirds dive from craggy cliffs. Whenever possible, passengers, 20 at a time, were ferried by helicopter from the ship to land, or an ice pack and back to view places of interest,
On the first day the ship entered the polar ice pack north of Feranz Joseph Land, the captain announced that two polar bears had approached them to investigate.
“He stopped the ship, and we had a one-hour photo op with the bears cavorting on the ice,” Harner recalled. “They were five or six feet high and about 10 feet long. I have no idea how much they weighed.”
Taking a dip in the 30-degree Arctic Sea.The polar bear is a powerful swimmer, feeding mainly on seals, which it usually stalks on the ice floes. It also feeds on stranded whale carcasses, birds and even vegitation.
As the ship proceeded the ice became thicker, its breaking groaning under the boat’s bow. When halted, the Yamal would back up and surge again like a battering ram. When it was within the last 100 yards of the 90-degree North Pole mark, three major shoves were required to reach the destination.
On July 20th, upon their arrival at the Pole, Harner carried the multicolored City of San Clemente flag as the helicopter moved passengers from ship to icy shore. After the ensigns of 14 other represented nations were placed in the snow in a huge circle around the geographic North Pole, the explorer group marched around the world together. Then it was time to celebrate alongside the ship. The menu included lobster and steak, beverages were cooled in the ice while the barbeques flamed; benches and tables comprised the portable dining area. The more intrepid went for a quick swim in the 30-degree Arctic Sea from the shore to the ship tethered by a sturdy rope. The day was culminated with a toast, as the vast white island slowly floated on the freezing sea.
During the ceremony, a passenger reported seeing what appeared to be the conning tower of a submarine surfacing within a half mile of the Yamal. The captain was notified, and thinking it was a Russian sub, attempted to communicate by radio. The helicopter was dispatched for a closer look. For a long time, there was no response, but, finally, a voice spoke back in English. The sub captain refused to identify his country of origin, but he had a definite American accent according to those who spoke to him. Harner said that the Yamal’s radioman invited the submarine crew to the Pole-arrival celebration, suggesting there were even women in their group, but the lure didn’t change the mind of the rapidly submerging submarine officer.
On their return, the expedition visited several islands in the Franz Joseph Land Archipelago. On one, they toured a Russian weather station where a contingent of three made regular reports of conditions for seafaring vessels and aircraft. All supplies were flown or shipped in for their tour of three years; one of the nicest features of their accommodations was a modern kitchen. In several other locations, there were relatively well preserved remains of a base operation for several failed polar expeditions, as well as a few abandoned Russian metrological stations. The wind and cold served as preservatives; termites had not found their penetrating ways into the region.
Polar bears stalk seals on the ice floes.According to the Quark Expeditions website, the Arctic consists of the large Arctic Ocean, approximately twice the size of the Mediterranean, bordered by the northern mainlands of North American and Eurasia, and their outlying islands. In the winter, strong surface winds blow a severe wind-chill and abundant drifting snow. The Arctic Ocean is very deep, plunging 4,000 meters in the center, although there is a wide continental shelf along the Siberian coast. It is covered mostly by pack-ice (frozen sea-water) averaging three meters thick, but thicker where pressure ridges have developed. The ice drifts around the polar basin under the influence of winds and currents, breaking up during blizzards and then refreezing. The Arctic remains relatively lifeless. It is only near the land, or in the Sub Arctic, where the pack-ice is seasonal and the waters are warmer and richer in nutrients, that there is a proliferation of plant and animal life. That life encompasses the total spectrum of the food chain from microscopic phytoplankton to walruses and whales. One of the brochures suggests…”embracing the unexpected is part of the legacy – and excitement – of expedition-style travel, and a measure of flexibility is something all of us must bring on the voyage.”
Let’s hear it for elastic explorer Bob Harner – San Clemente’s newest global guide, who reported, “The price was well worth the ‘experience of a lifetime.’” b
For inquiries contact: [email protected] or www.quarkexpeditions.com.