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11 September, 2004

Leaving the Ice

Yesterday was another traditional summer meal at dinner time: a Crayfish Party. These freshwater crustaceans are much more popular in Sweden than in the United States. I am used to eating lobster in New England and was a bit surprised to see a plate of what looked like miniature lobsters. Opening them was easier than lobster because the shells are much softer, yet the amount of work required relative to the amount of meat you extract is about the same. These crayfish were served cold with mayonnaise while in the US similar shellfish are eaten with spicier condiments. The meal improved somewhat when another American, Jerry Dickens, brought by a bottle of Tabasco sauce. What these little critters needed was a bit of spicing up.

This was our last night in the ice and I wanted to make sure that I experienced "leaving the ice edge." Around midnight I went up to the bridge to gain a better vantage point. All throughout this expedition the bridge has been a favorite place of mine. For one thing it has the best view in all the ship - walking about looking out its wide windows you can get close to a 3600 view around the outside of the ship. And even when things got quite hectic there in heavy ice conditions, if you were quiet and stayed out of the way of the Captain, crew and Ice Management Team, you were always welcome to come up. It has been such an "open bridge" policy on this expedition that our aerobics class was even welcomed, or if not welcomed at least tolerated, when our running session brought us up the 6 decks to do a lap through the bridge.

Last night it was a very quiet and serene place to be. Most people on the ship were downstairs enjoying some end-of-cruise camaraderie and there was only a nice small group on the bridge. The Captain, or Ship's Master, Tomas Arnell, was steering us through the remaining ice as we followed the path of the Sovetskiy Soyuz. Some members of the Ice Team were working, watching the ice cover thin out and predicting when we would leave it; the prediction was 2 a.m. A few others, like me, were just visiting and watching. I was there with the hope of seeing a polar bear before we left the ice. It would be the last chance for we were less likely to see one once we left the ice floes. It was not long after I got onto the bridge that an "ice bear" was sighted by some observant folks with binoculars. I ran over to have a look and only after several tries with the field glasses and some assistance could I just "bearly" make out this moving yellow fleck in the distance. Yes, I saw it! But it was a disappointment that the bear was so far away. Yet shortly afterward another was sighted and this one was much closer. Close enough to see with the naked eye, but much better observed through the binoculars. Amazing! Yes, it was right there, I saw it so clearly! I watched in fascination as it walked gracefully along. walking, stopping to look at us curiously, walking again, stopping to sit, up moving again, looking ahead and then looking over at us, opening its mouth as if to yawn or growl, still walking away from us until it was too hard to see. So magnificent to watch, its fur a clean yellow, this bear should have been in sharp contrast to the ice, but it blended in so well. I was wishing I had my camera, but this was one time I was better off just observing and enjoying the moment rather than trying to capture an image.

I joked that now it was okay for me to go home, that I had seen my bear and could report that to my family and students. It would have been a great disappointment to me not to have seen one, even with all the other wonderful experiences I have had.

Now we waited and watched as the ship moved quickly through the remaining ice cover. I found the bridge a very calm and reflective place to be at that time. As I watched the ice fade away, everyone talking so quietly, many lost in their own private thoughts. Perhaps they were thinking as I was about the many fabulous and poignant memories that we have tucked carefully away in our hearts and minds. Others at home will never be able to fully share those memories and I find that at once discomforting and then also special in a secretive kind of way. At that moment I simply wanted to absorb all I could of the entire experience. For me I fear there is no way to adequately convey what this experience at the top of the world has been like. I suppose that is why the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat invites artists along on each expedition. The scientists can describe the Arctic in one limited way but only the more creative could attempt to capture the essence of this place. I am certainly not up to the task.

At 2 a.m. we reached the ice edge. Anders Bachman, the Fleet Commander, conveyed to Anders Karlqvist, SPRS Director-General, his distinct pleasure in leading this expedition and because his duties were no longer needed he asked to be relieved of his duties. There was a brief ceremony to let the other two ships know that their job was also done and then all three would separate and go their own way. We watched in silence as the Captain took out three International Signal flags and tied them together to send up the mast above the bridge. They read something like "Thank you for your cooperation, I wish you a pleasant journey". Three others and I joined the captain out on the cold deck, none of us wearing jackets; I had only bare feet in sandals. It was quite a special feeling to watch the Captain hoist the flags to say good-bye to the armada of three that had sailed together these last four weeks. Shortly after we went back inside the Fleet Commander called the Captain of the Soyuz to read a brief message to officially release the ship and thank him, and he did the same with the Viking. The Sovetskiy Soyuz and Vidar Viking are much quicker vessels and they would

head off ahead and leave us; we were nonetheless making good time at 11 knots. We veered west towards Svarlbard where some passengers will fly to tomorrow by helicopter, and the Soyuz continued its easterly bearing after sounding her horn a few times. The Vidar was to follow us a bit and then overtake us and head to the south of Norway and eventually Aberdeen. With a rather melancholy heart I said goodbye to ice and went to bed.

Polar bears seen earlier in the expedition. (photo by A. Keinonen)

The hoisted signal flags relaying thanks to the Sovetskiy Soyuz and Vidar Viking. (photo by A. Karlqvist)

Ship's Master, Tomas Arnell, tying together the signal flags. (photo by A. Karlqvist)

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