Photographing the Otherworldly Landscapes of Iceland

Hvítserkur, a basalt rock formation at Húnafjörður.

Hvítserkur, a basalt rock formation at Húnafjörður.

I and five others joined Dee Ann Pederson for her photo tour of Iceland, June 22-July 5, 2013, operated by her company, Windows of Nature.

I had been to Iceland twice before, but each time it was only a day stop on a cruise. The three places that I had visited on the island were sufficient to pique my interest in an in-depth visit to this unusual country.

The Land

I thought long and hard about flying to Reykjavík, renting a 4×4 vehicle and touring on my own, but two different locals tried to talk me out of this plan once they found out some of the places that I wanted to visit. Now, as I reflect back on my trip, I am glad that I took their advice and joined Dee Ann’s tour.

It would not be complicated to circle the country in a week to 10 days on the Ring Road in a 4×4 SUV. However, off the main road, many of the unpaved roads are not marked and many of the great photo spots are not even listed on a map.

Atlantic Puffin

An Atlantic puffin at the Látrabjarg bird cliffs

In the backcountry, bridges do not exist, so you must ford all the creeks and rivers. Not just any 4×4 vehicle will get the job done.

Iceland is all about the landscape. There are mountains mixed with waterfalls, running streams and green moss. Some mountains are barren but present a variety of colors and shapes. When we were there, most of the mountains still had some snow in places, adding interest to the scene.

Iceland was formed by glaciers and volcanoes, and both are very much visible as you move about the country. It is home to one of the largest glaciers in Europe, Vatnajökull.

There must be more waterfalls in Iceland than in almost any country in the world. The waterfalls are so numerous that there are many majestic falls that do not even have names.

Other Sights

If you go to Iceland looking for mammals, you will be disappointed. However, seabirds are in abundance in a variety of places.

We visited the Látrabjarg bird cliffs in the western part of the country for close encounters with birds such as puffins, razorbills, kittiwakes, guillemots and Arctic terns. Long lenses are not required; a 50mm-200mm lens will work just fine. At the time of year that I visited, it never really got dark. We photographed birds until midnight, and I even photographed flying terns at 12:50 a.m. The sun was up again before 3 a.m.

If you go, be prepared for every kind of weather. In the span of two weeks we encountered sunny days, cloudy days, windy days, rainy days and a little snow and sleet. The temperatures averaged about 50°F, with highs never above the 60s.

I wore a light fleece or windbreaker at all times. Often, layering was required.

We had only one day on which rain was a real problem; strong winds were more of a concern. I forced myself to never leave my camera on a tripod unattended.

On most days I wore rain pants all of the time. By doing so, I could kneel down and not get my regular pants wet, as it was generally wet around the waterfalls and I found many opportunities to kneel down to photograph flowers.

The Tour

Haukur Snorrason was our local tour guide/driver. Haukur is a professional photographer, putting us in good hands when it came to knowing where to go for the best pictures. His wife, Hadda, operates Hrífunes Guesthouse, where we stayed a number of nights. Evening meals do not get any better than Hadda’s cooking.

Dramatic rhyolite mountains at Landmannalaugar.

Dramatic rhyolite mountains at Landmannalaugar.

Iceland is not a cheap destination. In fact, my guess is that you can expect to pay about twice what you would pay in the US for things in Iceland.

Haukur also leads his own tours. He has a custom-equipped 4×4 Ford van with 38-inch tires that can carry as many as 10 people. I don’t know how deep a river crossing he can make, but we went through some at least four feet deep.

Dee Ann Pederson is the most thorough trip leader that I ever have had. She thought of everything and left nothing to chance. She provided everything, including soft drinks, snacks, towels (for drying cameras), maps, handouts and preplanning guides that included things that I would never have thought of. I paid $6,535 for the 2-week tour, not including airfare.

Iceland is a very clean country. You can drink the water coming out of the mountain streams and, once off the main roads, you can go for hours without seeing another person.

Before this trip, I did not know that Iceland has one of the northernmost botanical gardens in the world, located in Ísafjörður. I was not prepared for the wonderful rhyolite mountains that resembled watercolor paintings. I did not know about the hundreds-of-years-old lava fields covered in moss.

I was in awe when we photographed streams lined with fountain apple moss running through black lava sand. We photographed one of Iceland’s six remaining churches with turf roofs.

Iceland is truly a great destination for any photographer. Make the effort, if you can.

For more photos from Iceland, you can view them at Iceland 2013 and Iceland.

Published in the October 2013 issue of International Travel News, pg. 34.

Touring the Five ’Stans

UNESCO World Heritage Site

Kunya-Urgench, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is situated in northwestern Turkmenistan

I became interested in Central Asia many years ago when reading about the Silk Road. Bukhara and Samarkand always seemed like mystical places to me. More recently, I read a book about Genghis Khan by Jack Weatherford that made me, more than ever, want to pay a visit to the area.

Planning the Trip

While on another trip, in 2009, I met a man and his wife who had recently completed a trip to Central Asia arranged by Irina Chugaev­skaya of Aba Sayyoh Tours (M. Usuf Street 52, office 6, Tashkent; phone +988 71 2671796) in Uzbekistan. This couple was most pleased with their experience, so I contacted Irina to see what she could arrange for my wife, Margaret, and me.

Man in the village of Chong-Kemin, Kyrgyzstan.

Man in the village of Chong-Kemin, Kyrgyzstan.

Initially, I was not sure exactly what I wanted, but I did know that I did not want to join a large group. While tour operators with groups of 12 to 36 people do provide a certain comfort level, traveling with them makes me feel like a tourist and not a traveler.

Originally, there were to be two other couples joining us, but they both backed out, so it was just Margaret and me with a car, a driver and an English-speaking guide. There were times, such as at airports and border crossings, where we were on our own, but it was only for a very short time.

The tour cost us a bit more than what it would have with six people, but what we gained was flexibility. As a photographer, it was important to me to be able to stop from time to time for photo opportunities. We were able to eat where and when we wanted, stay in small hotels and guest houses in great locations and have one-on-one conversations with our guide. Deviations from the planned itinerary could be arranged and questions asked at any time.

Other than breakfast, we never ate a meal in a hotel, choosing, instead, small places where the locals ate. We were able to visit homes and farms and see life as it really was.

Our trip was 18 days, but if I were to do it again I would make it a few days longer.

A Smooth Start

We began our trip on Sept. 9, 2010, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. As Irina promised, when we exited the baggage claim area at the airport there was someone holding a sign with our name on it. In short order, we were off to the Tashkent Palace Hotel. This was perhaps the most expensive of all of our lodgings on this trip, and it was an excellent choice from which to begin and end our tour.

The following day we toured part of Tashkent, then went to the airport for an afternoon flight to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, continuing the next day by car to Lake Issyk Kul in the northern Tian Shan mountains. Lake Issyk is about 113 miles long and 37 miles wide, making it the 10th-largest lake in the world by volume and the second-largest alpine lake.

After driving around the north and east sides of the lake, we spent the night at the Green Yard Guest House in Karakol. The Green Yard was a most delightful place, with excellent food served by a gracious host. I particularly liked the old Russian-style wooden houses in Karakol.

Completing our drive around the lake the following day, we then headed north to the Chong-Kemin Valley. Our destination was the village of Chong-Kemin and the Guest House Alpinist. Our room there was in the new addition, and all meals were included.

I spent a half day wandering the village, meeting and photographing some locals, our guide Vitaliya Timchenko doing the interpreting. It was harvesttime in the fields, and people were gathering potatoes and hay.

We departed the Chong-Kemin Valley and stopped at the Sarmysh Gorge to view ancient petroglyphs. Then we drove up into the Jety-Oguz Gorge for a night in a yurt.

A cold front had passed through that day, so it was much colder than we had expected. My thermometer read 36°F inside our yurt the next morning. Frost topped the yurt and covered the ground.

We both had so many quilts piled on top of us that we could barely move. At least there was a fire in the yurt, where breakfast was served.

After breakfast we loaded up and drove to the Kazakhstan border. Our guide and driver had been through this border crossing many times and knew the routine. Still, we had to walk across with our luggage and, on the opposite side, meet the car after it had passed through Customs too. This took about 1½ hours, due to the many people crossing with us.

It was late afternoon when we finally reached Almaty, Kazakhstan. We had just enough time remaining in the day for a city tour, since we were to fly back to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in the morning. I would allow another day in and around Almaty should I visit again.

Returning to Uzbekistan

Back in Tashkent, we were met by Elena Azaranko, our Uzbekistan guide for the next six days. After seeing more sights in Tashkent and spending another night at the Tashkent Palace Hotel, we drove to Samarkand. Finally, we had arrived at one of the cities that had first enticed me to take this trip.

The Registan in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

The Registan in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

Samarkand is the second-largest city in Uzbekistan, and in the 14th century it was the capital of the empire of Timur. Samarkand was an important stop on the Silk Road between China and the West. Some wonderful monuments are preserved from that period of time.

The well-preserved and -restored Registan, a complex of three madrassas, was the ancient center of Samarkand.

We spent three nights in Samarkand at the very nice Malika Prime Hotel, which was within sight of Tamerlane’s mausoleum, the Gur-e Amir, and the Bibi-Khanym Mosque.

After two days of touring, we made a day trip to Tajikistan to visit the ancient ruined city of Panjakent. Our guide in Tajikistan was Hamrokul Mirzoev, an English teacher. With his help, this was the easiest and quickest border crossing of the entire trip.

I asked if it was possible to visit someone’s home, and Hamrokul said that he would go ask a farmer who lived nearby. It was about noon on a Sunday when we found Jaliloov Razshan in his yard. He readily agreed to show us his house and farm. He had a house full of relatives and the small kitchen was busy.

After we had toured his farm and house and met the family, Jaliloov asked Hamrokul if we would like some tea. We agreed. Removing our shoes, we sat down on quilts placed on the ground under the shade of nearby trees.

First, two kinds of home-baked bread appeared, followed by a plate of dried apricots, nuts, two kinds of cookies and candy. A dish was brought with brown butter that tasted like cheese.

Jaliloov then got a melon (somewhat like our honeydew but larger) out of the pond, where it had been placed to keep it cool. Our guide proceeded to slice the melon, which was very sweet and delicious — but we were not through. A watermelon was also sliced, and a towel was passed around with which to wipe our hands. (The towel was really needed when we were given a large tomato, which was eaten like an apple.)

The Registan in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

The Registan in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

Finally the tea was ready, served in handleless cups larger than our typical teacups, which we cradled with both hands.

That morning, Margaret and I had decided to skip lunch to allow extra time for touring. It was a good idea because Jaliloov’s wife brought each of us a big bowl of soup. Margaret decided to pour a little of the soup in her teacup to have a small sample. The soup, filled with vegetables and meatballs mixed with rice, was delicious — so good, in fact, that Margaret ate not only what was in her cup but the balance of the large bowl that was brought to her.

I had read that Tajik people were some of the friendliest in the world, and I can now say, without hesitation, that the members of this family certainly were. I could not help but wonder how many American families could have or would have produced such a spread on the spot without prior warning.

Another quick trip across the border and we were met again by Alina, our Uzbek guide. After spending the night in Samarkand, we made our way to Bukhara, only a few hours away by car.

“Wow!” was my reaction to this magical city. The historic center, which has been inhabited for about 2½ millennia, contains many mosques and madrassas. Some are still functioning, while others are well-preserved monuments. Many of the buildings are from the eighth to 17th centuries.

The historic walled city center is easily explored on foot in a couple of days.

I had thought that Samarkand was my favorite place… until I reached Bukhara. If I had only one place to visit in Central Asia, it would be this city.

Turkmenistan Troubles

Next on our itinerary was Turkmenistan for four days. We drove to the Farab border to begin what was the worst border crossing of our entire journey.

First we had to exit Uzbekistan. We presented our passports before entering a building to fill out two Customs declaration forms. The completed forms were inspected and stamped.

After all of our bags were scanned, we walked to the next building, where our passports were checked again and information about us was listed in a book. Finally, our forms and passports were stamped by the exit officer.

View of Khiva, Uzbekistan.

View of Khiva, Uzbekistan.

A sign read, “Follow the arrows to the neutral zone.” We complied. Upon entering the neutral zone, we had one more passport inspection by an Uzbek border officer, who then pointed down the road in the direction that we were to proceed.

All we could see was a line of trucks waiting to enter Uzbekistan. Beyond that was bushy desert. That was it! Where was the Turkmenistan border? We discovered that it was over a mile away, so off we went, rolling our luggage.

Finally we reached a passport checkpoint. However, the Customs building was still another half mile away. Fortunately, there was a minivan that transported us the rest of the way for $1 — money well spent.

The van delivered us to the building and, after a passport check, we were allowed to enter. Someone handed us a Turkmen Customs declaration form. Once it was filled out and inspected, we proceeded to another area to obtain our visas.

To enter Turkmenistan, as for Russia, one must have a Letter of Invitation, which we had with us from our Uzbek travel agency. However, a Turkmen travel agency representative must show up with an Entry Travel Pass. As we later discovered, our Turkmen guide had the pass with him, but he was not allowed past the outside gate.

We explained to the agents that someone from Ashgabat Siyakhat Travel Agency was there to pick us up and should have the required documents. We had the travel agency’s telephone number, so the visa agents made a call to Ashgabat, about 384 miles away, and our guide was finally allowed to enter to produce the necessary documents.

Finally, everyone seemed satisfied and we each paid the required 55-dollar visa fee plus the entry fee ($12). With the visas finally in our passports, we ran our luggage through the scanner and our passports were checked again. Our Customs declaration form was stamped and collected and, with one final passport check, we were finally allowed to exit the building and enter Turkmenistan. The entire border crossing took almost two hours.

Sites of Interest

Of the five countries we visited, Turkmenistan would be the one to which I would not want to return. There seems to be little interest in promoting tourism, perhaps partly because the country has vast natural gas riches. In a sense, I did not feel welcome.

Photography was restricted and access to certain areas was limited. There was almost no Internet access, and it seemed the government controlled everything. It reminded me of Russia before the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Near Panjakent, Tajikistan

Our guide Hamrokul Mirzoev (right) with Jaliloov Razshan, who hosted an impromptu lunch for us near Panjakent, Tajikistan.

Over 70% of the country is covered by the Karakum Desert. Much of the remaining land is planted in cotton, which requires vast irrigation. One of the main roads running through the Karakum is paved with asphalt but was rutted much like a dirt road because the summer temperatures are well above 100 degrees, making the asphalt soft enough that heavy trucks create ruts.

I found four main things of interest for visitors. The first point of interest is the capital, Ashgabat. While it does not surpass Dubai in construction, I saw modern buildings in every direction. The city was full of parks, monuments and trees. Considering that it is a desert city, it boggles the mind to think how much irrigation it must take to keep all of the trees, plants and grass alive.

The streets were wide, with modern vehicles everywhere. There were many high-rise apartment buildings and shops selling Western-style clothing.

Turkmenistan does contain the ruins of two ancient cities. The ancient city of Merv, near the modern city of Mary in southeastern Turkmenistan, was an important stop on the Silk Route. Its archaeological ruins consist of a series of separate and adjacent walled cities, dating from the sixth century BC to the 15th century AD. Some of the walls were visible, as were the remains of a few buildings.

Another place of interest is Nisa, an ancient city located about ten miles northwest of Ashgabat. Excavations have revealed portions of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It is said that Nisa was the first capital of the Parthians, around 250-211 BC. The city was destroyed by an earthquake during the first decade BC.

Kunya-Urgench

We departed Ashgabat in the early morning on a flight to Dashoguz. Turkmenistan Airlines is heavily subsidized, so flights are very cheap. (Ours cost less than $20 each.)

We were met by our guide Anna with a car and driver and taken to Kunya-Urgench, situated in northwestern Turkmenistan on the banks of the Amu Daria River. The origins of Kunya-Urgench go back to the sixth or fifth century BC.

The town was located on the crossing of two major trade routes and became an important trading center from the 10th to 14th centuries. Genghis Khan destroyed the city in 1221, but it was rebuilt with fine bazaars and impressive buildings. In the late 14th century the city was ravaged by Timurid troops.

This World Heritage Site has three main attractions: the ruined fortress of Khorezmbag, dating from the mid-19th century; the remains of the Kyrk Molla Fortress, from the fifth century BC, and the 60-meter-high Kutlug-Timur Minaret, the most visible landmark. There are also mausoleums, mosques and Muslim graveyards.

After touring Kunya-Urgench, we drove the short distance to the Turkmen-Uzbek border for our final border crossing of the trip. We encountered no problems there and it took less than an hour to complete. Our new Uzbek guide, Maria, and our driver took us to Khiva for our final two days in Uzbekistan.

Coming full circle

Khiva is an ancient desert oasis, bordered on the south by the Karakum Desert and on the northeast by the Kyzylkum Desert. It was the center of a notorious slave market from the 17th to 19th centuries.

Muslim wedding couple in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Muslim wedding couple in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Khiva is divided into two parts: the outer town, called Dichan Kala, which was once protected by a wall, and the inner city, or Itchan Kala, still enclosed by brick walls measuring 10 meters in height.

The Old Town contains historic monuments and old houses dating mainly from the 18th and 19th centuries. Some structures were begun as early as the 10th century and were rebuilt and modified over time. About 50,000 people live in the combined parts of Khiva, the city a photographer’s delight from dawn to dusk.

We took an evening flight to Tashkent, then an early-morning flight to Rome and on to Atlanta.

Excluding visas, the cost of our 18-day tour was $3,200 each, including a car and driver in each country, an English-speaking guide, all admission fees and hotels, lodges, guest houses and yurts, with daily breakfast.

A few of the out-of-the-way lodges and the yurts included all meals as well; otherwise, we paid for our own meals as we went. I do not recall paying more than the equivalent of about $7 for any meal, and many were $3-$4.

Our $3,200 also included four separate flights.

We had a total of six local guides. Five were excellent and we would gladly recommend them to others. (Our first Turkmenistan guide was substandard.) All of the vehicles were in excellent condition, with sufficient room for our gear and guide. All of our guides had cell phones. Excellent planning by Irina made things go very smoothly. I would definitely use Aba Sayyoh again.

Looking back, I would make a few changes should I take this trip again. I would add an extra day in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and an extra day at the end of the trip in Tashkent. Our late arrival in Tashkent that night and a 5:45 a.m. departure the next morning made for a very short night. I believe I would also like a couple of extra days in Tajikistan to visit the mountains.

Mid to late September was an excellent time to visit. Crops were being gathered in the fields and the temperatures were very pleasant. I think that spring would also be a good time for a Central Asia trip, but don’t go in the summer unless you enjoy 100°-plus daytime temperatures.

Published in the July 2011 issue of International Travel News.

The North Pole – An Experience Like No Other

A polar bear and cub crossing the sea ice.

A polar bear and cub crossing the sea ice.

A trip to the Geographic North Pole is not a trip for everyone. It is not a trip for those on a tight budget. It is not a trip for those who must always have the trappings of civilization within easy reach. However, a trip to one of the most remote areas on our planet most certainly is a unique experience — one that I will never forget.

What to Expect

So just what did we find at the North Pole? No, there is no one living there. No, there are no buildings or structures, no huts from earlier expeditions. There is ONLY ice, frozen sea ice that is continually being moved by both the wind and sea currents. Place a stake at 90°N, leave and return back to 90°N after a day or so. Your stake will have moved with the ice.

I was left with an impression of just how vast an area the Arctic North encompasses. For days we saw only ice and broken sea ice. There were not many birds near the Pole, although from time to time birds have been spotted there. We didn’t see any polar bears above about 84°N, although bears have been spotted much farther north.

Our August ’06 trip aboard the nuclear icebreaker Yamal was with Poseidon Arctic Voyages, a Moscow-based company that has been providing trips to the Russian North since 1998.

As promised, a Poseidon representative met us at Sheremetyevo Airport to manage an easy transfer to Hotel Mezhdunarodnaya. Even at the hotel, Poseidon had a hospitality desk to handle any special requests people had.

Our expedition leader was Victor Boyarsky, who is legendary in polar circles. Victor is currently the director of the Russian State Museum of Arctic & Antarctic in St. Petersburg.

To the Port

After an excellent breakfast the next morning, we all boarded a bus for a Moscow city tour. For those who had not been to Moscow, this provided a brief introduction to the city’s many attractions. The tour ended at a domestic airport, where our group boarded a charter flight to Murmansk, Russia.

The Yamal reaches the North Pole.

The Yamal reaches the North Pole.

Murmansk is about a 2-hour flight north of Moscow and is situated above the delta of the Tuloma River, approximately 45 kilometers from the Barents Sea. Murmansk is the home of the Russian Northern Fleet and its submarine base. While the Murmansk airport is located some distance from the town, the drive allowed us to appreciate just how wooded this region is.

We were also provided a brief tour of Murmansk. Though the town was founded before the Soviet period, it was during Soviet rule that the town became what it is today. You would be hard-pressed to find a town that has more of a “stamp” of Stalin than Murmansk.

With the city tour completed, we continued to the port. The strictly regimented passport control took some time, but finally our bus was allowed to drive through the huge iron gates into the port and to deliver us to the gangway of the I/B Yamal (I/B stands for “ice breaker”). It appeared much larger than the other icebreakers I have been on.

Each passenger, upon arriving at the top of the gangway, was greeted in the Russian tradition with bread and salt. The crew was very efficient at showing passengers to their assigned cabins.

Getting Settled

The majority of the passengers were German and French, followed in number by people from Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Australia, the U.K., Canada, Russia, Japan and the USA. English and Russian were the “universal” languages on board, but interpreters were provided for the Germans and French.

I found the cabins to be better than those I have experienced on other expedition ships. My basic twin cabin had more than ample storage space plus a desk with two chairs — suitable for each person to simultaneously use a laptop or do their writing. All outlets were standard European, 220 volts.

I found the cabin lighting to be adequate for reading or general illumination, not that we needed much light since the sun did not set throughout our trip. If there was a lighting problem, it was the problem of getting the cabin dark enough. The curtains muted the light but were not heavy enough to get the cabin really dark.

The cabin also had a number of hooks attached to the wall on which to hang jackets, waterproof pants, etc. — something I find lacking on the modern cruise ships. Our bathroom had two wall cabinets, a sink, a good shower and an ample number of hangers for towels and clothes.

Each cabin had a speaker to receive announcements pertaining to activities. The staff did an excellent job of keeping passengers informed as to what was going to take place. On our expedition there were 97 passengers, which is almost to capacity. The crew comprised 150 people.

Breaking the Ice

The number-one goal of Poseidon Arctic Voyages and the Yamal is to visit the Geographic North Pole, so once the Yamal leaves the port in Murmansk she sets a course north with only one option along the way. That option is making a call at Cape Flora on Northbrook Island or any of the other western islands that make up the Franz Joseph Land archipelago. Should the weather not be suitable for a landing, then it is on to the Pole.

Helicopter landing, Champ Island, Franz Joseph Land.

Helicopter landing, Champ Island, Franz Joseph Land.

I should mention that all shore landings are by helicopter. The Yamal has a large MI-8 Russian helicopter on board that is capable of easily carrying 20 people. This makes for very fast and efficient landings.

We encountered our first sea ice at latitude 81°N. From that point to the Pole it was a steady job of busting through ice. The early encountered sea ice was not a challenge for the Yamal, but once we reached ice that was greater than three feet thick, the enormous nuclear power of the Yamal was really appreciated.

In open water the Yamal cruised at about 18 knots. Speed was reduced to between eight and 13 knots in broken ice, first year ice and ice that was one meter or less in thickness. Once the ice was continuous or measured six to nine feet thick, the forward speed was reduced to about six or seven knots.

There were a few times when the ice was so thick that the Yamal had to back up and ram it numerous times before penetrating through the multiyear ice. I once counted seven times we had to go back and forward before pushing through. On another occasion, someone else counted 11 times. Now I know why the early explorers failed to reach the Pole.

The North Pole Experience

On the fifth day at sea, the Yamal reached 90°N at 23:43 hours. There was a champagne celebration on the bridge, pictures made of the icescape and a feeling of being part of a select group to have actually stood at the North Pole. This select group gets even smaller when you count those who have spent the night at the North Pole. In a few hours, most of the passengers had retired to their cabins for a quiet night’s sleep.

Barbecue at the Pole.

Barbecue at the Pole.

Until you have actually been on an icebreaker, it is hard to comprehend the noise that a ship makes as it plows through solid ice. I had gotten used to the constant noise and did not realize what a difference complete silence was like.

The Yamal found suitable ice nearby so that, the next day, everyone could go down onto the ice to really experience being at the North Pole. The day’s festivities began at mid-morning with short helicopter rides “around the world,” passing through all 24 time zones in a few minutes while affording a look at the ice from the air.

Next, everyone joined hands and walked around the North Pole sign that had been erected on the ice, walking around the world in just a few minutes. The captain gave a short talk, then everyone had time for pictures and to enjoy the ice.

The next activity was the polar plunge. In open water where the Yamal had pushed through the ice, a ladder was attached to the edge of the ice. The few who wanted to dive or jump in the water followed the lead of Victor Boyarsky, our expedition leader. Yes, I did give it a try and, believe me, I have never felt water that cold.

As a safety precaution, a belt was attached to each person’s waist and a rope attached to the belt. The rope was in turn held by a man on the ice. It was not too bad when I first dove in and began to swim. However, within perhaps 15 seconds my body began to shut down. My arms and legs seemed to simply stop working and go numb.

At that point I realized that I had better turn around and head back. It took extra effort to make my arms and legs continue to complete strokes. Quickly climbing out and grabbing a towel, I didn’t find the 23°F air temperature to be so bad, even with a wind blowing at 23 mph. I could easily see why someone who falls into the sea near the Pole has only a few minutes to live.

The water temperature at the Pole was 29.3°F, so it did not take long for the few who wanted to experience the polar plunge to finish. Everyone then enjoyed a barbecue on the ice.

The ship stayed at the Pole until about 15:30 hours, and by that time most everyone had already returned to the ship to warm up.

Franz Joseph Land

Leaving the Pole, we made our way south and slightly east toward Franz Joseph Land. At 83°17’N, 54°05’E we approached a mother polar bear with two cubs.

Passengers on the ice at the North Pole.

Passengers on the ice at the North Pole.

The Russians and much of Europe call them ice bears, a very appropriate name since these bears are usually found on sea ice hunting seals.

During the expedition we saw a number of bears. Some paid us no attention at all, but others approached the icebreaker for close inspection.

We had numerous landings at Franz Joseph Land. The first landing was at Cape Fligely on Rudolph Island. This cape is the northernmost point of the Eurasian continent. It is also a historically significant site due to the many previous polar expedition disasters, such as those of the Americans Wellman (1899) and Fiala (1904) plus the Italian Stella Polare expedition in 1900. I must say I would hate to have to winter at this rocky, windswept point of land bordered by the sea to the north and glaciers in all other directions.

This location is not far from Teplitz Bay, the site of an abandoned weather station as well as the site of an aircraft wreckage. The wreckage is believed to be that of a Russian Tupolev TB-3 that was part of a 1937 North Pole expedition.

A Few more Islands

At Cape Norvegia on Jackson Island we made another landing. This spot is famous because it is where Nansen and Johansen spent the winter of 1895-96 in a small hut made of stones and covered with walrus hides.

They were lucky enough to find a Siberian log that had washed ashore which served as a roof support for the hides. More than 100 years later the log and stones are still where they were left, although the hut has been partially filled with dirt and many of the stones have fallen.

Early the next morning the Yamal approached Rubini Rock, on Hooker Island, a cliff with thousands of nesting glaucous gulls and thick-billed murre. The ship approached the rock as close as was safe to allow passengers to observe the organized chaos on the cliff face.

Other landings included one at Cape Tegetthoff on Hall Island — a very pretty landing with nice light illuminating the classic twin peaks at the edge of the sea and the ruins of the Harmsworth House along the point — and one last helicopter landing at Inostrantseva Bay on the high Arctic archipelago of Novaya Zemlya.

Life on Board

The Barents Sea was very kind to us as we sailed back to Murmansk. Out on deck, it was obvious that the temperature was getting warmer as we approached the Russian mainland. During our expedition the temperature ranged from about freezing to a low of about 20°F — not bad for the Arctic summer. Wind, or the lack of wind, seemed to make more of a difference than the actual thermometer readings.

Swedish naturalist Magnus Forsberg tests his strength on an enormous round boulder typical of those found on Champ Island, Franz Joseph Land.

Swedish naturalist Magnus Forsberg tests his strength on an enormous round boulder typical of those found on Champ Island, Franz Joseph Land.

Throughout the expedition there were numerous lectures from a variety of experts providing information pertaining to the Arctic. This information gave us a greater appreciation of, and gave more meaning to, many of the landings.

The meals on board the Yamal were far better than I expected. I have had good food on many of my previous expeditions, but Poseidon Arctic Voyages provided food of a higher level. Breakfast was a buffet with a variety of hot and cold cereal, fresh and canned fruits, fish, eggs, sausage, bacon, pancakes and, of course, juices, coffee and tea. Lunch was always buffet style, with salads, fish and fruit plus a couple of hot dishes, or we could order from a choice of entrées as well as soup and dessert.

Dinner included a choice of starters, soups, salads, entrées and desserts, with wine included.

An alarm clock was not needed on board, as 30 minutes before breakfast each morning a wakeup call was announced over the PA system. Mealtimes were also announced, as were all lectures, landings and polar bear sightings.

Planning your Trip

Poseidon Arctic Voyages (in London; +44 870 068 8265, www.northpolevoyages.com) has at least two North Pole expeditions planned for August of 2007. Prices for the two weeks in 2006 were $17,800 for a standard cabin, $20,800 for a mini-suite and $23,500 for a suite. This included two nights in a Moscow hotel with breakfast, plus airfare and transfers from Moscow to Murmansk and back. The only expenses that were not included were the visa fee, extra meals in Moscow and round-trip air from home to Moscow.

Communication between the Yamal and shore was available 20 hours a day at a cost of $2 per minute for phone service and $2 per page for e-mail. I found the e-mail service to be very efficient.

A brochure can be downloaded as a PDF file from their website. Poseidon also offers voyages to Franz Josef Land, the Northeast Passage, Kamchatka and the Russian Far East.

View more photos from the North Pole in my gallery.

Published in the February 2007 issue of International Travel News.