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North Pole: First-hand Experience

Date: 14.02.2020

Our travel expert Alexandra Kormiltseva has recently visited the North Pole. In this article Sasha shares the experience of being on a cruise headed to a place where all meridians in the world meet and describes what it feels like to stand on top of the planet.
 
"After we came back from the trip, I was still overwhelmed with excitement. You are already at home getting back to your daily routine, driving from work and suddenly you realize that just recently you were standing on top of the world…In this article I will tell you about the brightest moments of my trip.”

Travel expert of RussiaDiscovery Alexandra Kormiltseva, captain of the icebreaker Dmitry Lobusov and a famous traveler Fyodor Konyukhov.
 

The most powerful icebreaker in the world

This cruise is very unique as it takes place on the nuclear-powered icebreaker called "50 Years of Victory". It is the most powerful icebreaker in the world and it can break through ice up to 2 m 80 cm (9 feet) thick. To me this fact is mind blowing! You get even more excited when (during the trip) you look down and see huge ice sheets, which stand up vertically under the pressure of the icebreaker.

The older the ice, the richer and more beautiful in color it gets. On our way we saw one and two year-old ice, and closer to the North Pole we were lucky to spot beautiful blue-colored ice which was three years old. 

 

During the cruise we were given a tour of the icebreaker and told how it worked. The crew assured us that the radiation level on the ship is even lower than in Moscow. On board you can find a library,  bar, gym, volleyball and basketball courts, table tennis, badminton, sauna and a pool heated by the nuclear reactor! While sailing through the ice packs for a day or two there are definitely going to be activities to keep everyone occupied.

 

 

I would also like to say a few words about our amazing crew. With these people we felt completely safe throughout the whole expedition. And our captain Dmitry Lobusov is one of the most experienced captains, as he has worked in marine industries for more than 30 years and has traveled to the North Pole 24 times. Among the members of our crew were young scientists from Russia and other countries.

 

Also on board with us were inspectors of the Russian Arctic National Park. Their main task during the cruise was to ensure safety when meeting polar bears. Each time we landed, they checked the territory for the presence of animals and determined the perimeter that tourists cannot go beyond. The polar bear is one of the most dangerous predators, and although humans are not a part of its diet, face-to-face meeting with them could be extremely dangerous. 

 

 

Whales at Franz Josef Land

The cruise starts in Murmansk. During the first day the icebreaker goes along the Barents Sea, and on the second day of the cruise it arrives at the Franz Josef Land. It's an incredibly beautiful archipelago — it consists of 192 basalt islands, 75% of which are covered by a glacier. The islands are located quite close to each other and form a picturesque Arctic landscape.

 

 

It is the right time to go out on a deck and look closely to spot whales that live in the waters near the archipelago. Here you can also see polar bears, seals and walruses.

We saw two whales: they showed us their backs and tails — what a marvel!

Tip: If you are eager to observe more wildlife, I would recommend you to spend more time on the deck or the Captain's Bridge. On every expedition the Bridge is open — you can come in at any time and look through your binoculars from there. During the cruise, members of the expedition team are also on the bridge, watching the area and in case they see any of the animals, they make an announcement for all tourists on speakerphone.

 

The place of the world's greatest expeditions

Many stories of the Arctic explorations are associated with the Franz Josef Land — you can still find their traces there. On the way to the North Pole we were lucky with the weather and ahead of time so we made an unscheduled stop on the island of Bell, which is located in the Southern part of the archipelago.  

Bell Island is famous for the Eira house — the first structure to appear on the Franz Josef Land archipelago. 

The house was built by the English explorer Benjamin Leigh Smith during his polar expedition in 1881. The crew built a house from the wreckage of their yacht "Eyre". In fact, no trees grow on the archipelago, that is why all wooden structures are made either from logs that were specifically brought here, or from shipwrecks. The houses are well preserved to this day because of the Arctic climate — there are no bacteria, so the wood does not deteriorate.

 

Bell Island is also described by the book "Two Captains" by Veniamin Kaverin.

The novel is based on the diary of the navigator Valerian Albanov — the member of the real polar expedition on the ship "St. Anna". On the island of Bell there was a tomb of Albanov's companion Olgerd Nielsen. Unfortunately it is now impossible to find its location.
 

On the way back, when we were already returning from the North Pole, we managed to approach the archipelago from the north.

The Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen used the northern islands of Franz Josef Land as a place to spend his winters during the expedition. During his expedition a legendary meeting with an English polar explorer Frederick Jackson took place.   

Nansen's expedition was held in 1893-1896. His ship froze in the ice and he attempted to reach the North Pole on a sled. Not reaching 419 km, Nansen and his companion Yalmar Johansen turned back. The return trip took over a year, including an eight-month stay on one of the northern islands of Franz Josef Land. Exhausted travelers were blessed by meeting Frederick Jackson. Nansen had refused to take Jackson on his expedition, that is why the latter decided to organize his own.
 


We also made a stop at Tikhaya Bay. It is a memorable place for Russian polar explorers, because Georgy Sedov's team of 1912-1914 was wintering there. The first Arctic scientific station was launched on Hooker's Island near Tikhoi Bay. When staying there we even had an opportunity to talk to real polar explorers.

While staying on Hooker Island we sent a postcard from the northernmost post office in the world!

 

Meeting polar bears

On the next day we left Franz Josef Land archipelago and started entering the ice. The crew told us that the best areas to observe polar bears is the ice edge. Drifting ice or shore island is best. Here the bears are hunting for seals: they need open water and ice to sneak up on their prey.

An icebreaker is the perfect vessel for watching a polar bear. Other vessels cannot get close enough to the ice packs not damaging the hull. For the icebreaker it is not a problem, it can get close to the habitats of the animals.

Of course, there is no 100% guarantee that you will meet a bear — these are wild animals that do not come at someone’s command. However, from my experience I do not know a single cruise to the North Pole, where travelers did not see a polar bear. 

 


Our first meeting with the polar bear happened at night. Our expedition leader informed us that if the crew spotted a polar bear overboard at night, they would make an announcement anyway, even if it was too late. That's what happened — the announcement was made at 3 a.m. 

All tourists, like soldiers, got ready in 2 minutes and sprinted to the deck in excitement to watch the polar bear in his natural habitat. It was as if you're watching a BBC documentary - the bear is riding on its back in the snow, tumbling and swimming.

Thanks to the polar day, everything was perfectly visible at night :)


Maybe you are wondering, how do bears react to the icebreaker? It depends. The ship gets as close as possible and stops about 150 meters away from the bear. Some bears get curious and walk straight to the ship. Other bears, like the one that we saw for the first time, do not pay any attention to the icebreaker and continue to do their own business.

 

Helicopter tours: ice from a bird's eye view

On board the icebreaker we had one helicopter, when the ship entered the ice, the helicopter flights were available for all the participants. I was looking at the white desert from above and felt like a part of the history. For several centuries people have been trying to discover the secrets of the north, trying to reach the top of the planet, and now I can reach the North Pole by icebreaker or by helicopter!

You look at a huge white expanse beneath you and realize that the North Pole was a stone's throw away from you.

 

Conversations with Fyodor Konyukhov

The star of our cruise was a legendary traveler Fyodor Konyukhov. He went on this expedition together with his son Nikolai. Many people wanted to talk to Fyodor Filippovich, but at first everyone was too shy to approach him. He turned out to be a very sociable and open man. Already on the second day of the cruise he gathered a whole group of Russian tourists around him and started telling stories.

Everybody wanted to know how Fyodor Konyukhov feels during this trip - after all, he used to reach the North Pole on skis and dog sleds, and now he's comfortably sitting on an icebreaker.

Fyodor Konyukhov shared that he was very impressed with the ship itself - a real "industrial miracle”.

During the trip, Fyodor Konyukhov was very open to conversations with all of the tourists, signed books, cards and shared his experiences. 
 

World tour on the North Pole

In fact, the North Pole is a conventional designation. Unlike Antarctica, there is no real land here, and the ice is constantly shifting. It is impossible to put a flag and fixed position here. It is possible to determine that the ice-breaker has reached the Pole by navigators - all of them should show "90°00′00" of northern latitude".
 
All of us on the cruise were waiting for this moment - we went out on the deck and waited while our expedition leader was making announcements, "half a mile to the North Pole, 0.3 miles to the North Pole, 0.2 miles to the North Pole” And finally, the icebreaker gives the signal that we are passing the cherished point.

Emotions just went off the charts "We are on top of the planet!"

At that moment, it was as if we were celebrating New Year: we opened the bottle champagne, everyone started hugging and congratulating each other.

 
The next day we spent on an ice sheets. Usually the landing does not take place at the geographical North Pole, but somewhere within half a mile of it: depending on where the "suitable" ice sheets are. Cruises take place in the summer; July and August are the easiest as the ice during this time becomes thinner and easier to break. During warm months, many "puddles" appear on the ice surface - 50-60% of ice is covered with them due to rising temperatures. The expedition team is looking for a place where there is enough ice without the pools of melting water and sets the sign "North Pole 90°N" there.
 
All cruise participants gathered at the sign. The captain and the expedition leader congratulated us, gave a speech and asked us to show our respect to Earth with a minute of silence.

We walked around the North Pole 90°N mark, thus making a round-the-world trip on the North Pole. 


 

The whole day was filled with children's joy: we swam in the Arctic Ocean, took thousands of photos with a 90°N mark sign and the icebreaker, enjoyed the picnic which was organized by the team members right on the ice floe. On this day I felt absolutely at peace and filled with joy.


On the way back we again passed the Franz Josef Land, contemplated incredible landscapes and legendary expedition sites. And yet I started feeling sad that our journey would be over soon.
 

When we returned to Murmansk, I realized that this expedition was life changing for me. It was one of those opportunities that happen only once in a lifetime. Every Arctic route like the ones to Greenland, Canada, Wrangel Island are very memorable. A trip to the North Pole speaks to your heart and changes something inside of you. If you are thinking about going on an expedition to the top of the planet and are unsure of whether or not to go, trust me! It is definitely a “yes” and you will not regret any moment of it!


 

Are you ready to take a trip to the top of the planet? Join our cruise to the North Pole in 2020. We will be glad to tell you further details and answer all your questions, just call +7 (495) 800-8-800 or email us at hello@russiadiscovery.ru

 
Photos of Alexandra Kormiltseva and the cruise photographer John Bozinov.