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7 September, 2004

I Have Reached the North Pole

How do you begin to describe a visit to the very top of the world to someone who has never been there? I have no idea; whatever I say will fall so far short of being able to convey the awe, excitement, glee, the sheer thrill of walking on ice at 900N! But I shall give it a try.

For the past five weeks, no, even before I stepped foot aboard the Oden August 6th, there was always talk about going to the North Pole. There was always so much to be done in the meantime that we did not dwell on it other than to use it as a preface, "When we get to the Pole." Today all that changed. The drilling is done, the cores are stored for shipment to the Core Repository in Bremen, Germany, and while some work still goes on in the labs, and scientists are still writing, the focus today is "What will we do when we get there?" There is a good deal of scurrying around as people get props in order for the big event. I know that I'll wear my "Mariners" shirt as way of bringing Narragansett and the Pier School along with me. I am concerned when I realize there seems to be no American flag aboard the ship; how could that be? I am kicking myself for not bringing one as I must have 4 or 5 in my garage in my Girl Scout gear. Now I must improvise and quickly! I run around looking for large white paper or poster board and other craft supplies to put this makeshift flag together. Again, oh to have easy access to my scout craft boxes. Fortunately I am saved from my task when word comes down from the bridge to me that they do indeed have an American flag. It is a very good thing because I think I was getting a reputation for being a little crazy in my quest to make the flag.

After dinner there is a meeting about North Pole etiquette and the "do's" and "don'ts". Although there had been rumors all along about a swim at the Pole, now we are told there will be no "bathing". We must also stay away from the ice edge and stay within the area guarded by the crew members with the shotguns; they are protecting us from polar bears. Other than that we are free to frolic. But now we must wait; we should arrive sometime around 10 pm. At about 9:30 pm we get the word that we'll arrive in about 20 minutes. Right now we are all invited up to the bridge to await the moment and the celebration.

Everyone hovers around the computers tracking our progress with GPS, snapping pictures of the screen as we get closer and closer. Then Captain Tomas Arnell makes the announcement that we are at the North Pole; the celebration is very much like New Year's Eve! Cheers, cheers! We must wait for the ship to cozy up to a sizable ice floe and this takes some time and finesse, for after all, we are an icebreaker, so when we get near ice, we break it. In the meantime we celebrate and then go to our cabins to get on our warmest clothes. The crew drills into the ice and pounds in huge pieces of wood to tie up to. They open the gangway and we are off to the ice. First thing, I plant my flag and talk Luzie into making a North Pole snow angel - this event brings the child out in many of us.

Wandering around on the ice, reveling in the excitement, planting our flags and banners, taking picture after picture, enjoying a cup of warm, spicy glug, this is such a special experience. When it is time for the official group photo, it is a lot of work squeezing everyone into position. Hannes, the outreach photographer, keeps motioning us closer together while impatiently and good-naturedly we chant his name. We want to be free again to play on the ice.

Groups sharing the same nationality or the same educational institution jockey for photo position in front of the actual "Pole"; well, no, it is really one we brought along for a prop. The real one is hidden away so that Santa can work undisturbed by us. This is his busy time after all. Erik waves the Swedish flag and I wave the American and then I join the URI group for a shot - Co-chief Kate Moran, John Farrell Matt O'Regan, David Smith and I ham it up.

Word is out that we may visit the Russian icebreaker and I join a group trudging through the knee-high snow to the big red ship. I have taken so many photos of her from afar and though I landed on the helideck briefly, this is a chance to walk around the Sovetskiy and check it out. We go right up to the bridge and I hop up in the "wheel" chair for a picture; this ship has a real old-fashioned steering wheel, not the levers like the Oden. A guide gives us a quick tour to view the nuclear reactor room, seen through a glass window, the mess, the gym, the small swimming pool that uses heated seawater and the helideck. It has been an interesting visit but it is time to head back to the Oden. It is 12:30 and we were told to be back on board at 1 am. After a few more photos and some additional silliness, we are safe back on the Oden and ready to sail. Which way should we head to go home? South, of course.

At the wheel on the Sovetskiy Soyuz at the North Pole (photo by Colin Graham)

Waving our colors at the North Pole

The Rhode Island group - David Smith, Kate Moran, Ted Moore, Matt O'Regan, John Farrell and me at the North Pole

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