Tuesday, 8 July 2014 (Part II)
In the Ice — Franz Josef Land (Russian Arctic National Park)
Position @ Midnight: approximately 81° 51’ North
492 NM (566 miles / 911 km) from the North Pole
This is not our first time
at the rodeo on an expedition voyage. We know that the byword for such adventures in polar regions is flexibility. Weather and ice play a huge role in any plans us mere mortals might make in a region where Mother Nature is the dominant force.
So, while risk is a key to adventure travel, not everything will run like a Swiss train ...
I came across the above quote by Richard Bangs, American author/TV personality, when I was researching our first expedition voyage in 2007. Our destination was the Antarctic, but that’s besides the point. I thought, back then, that the words were apt for the type of travel we were embarking upon, and while the words have not become a mantra, they often pop into my mind when expedition plans don’t play out as expected.
As mentioned in the previous post, there was a ‘jiggle’ in the expedition day that was initially on the schedule for today. First it was heavy ice overnight that delayed our arrival at the Russian Arctic National Park, of which Franz Josef Land is a big part. Then it was an unexpected adventure at Cape Fligley that put paid to plans for repositioning the ship to Teplitz Bay for a second landing.
By special permission, 50 Let Pobedy enters Franz Josef Land further to the east
from where we entered and exited through the British Channel a week ago.
[Base map from Wikimedia — image attribution at this link.]
I was on deck when we arrived in the area of Cape Fligley on Rudolf Island — the latter named for the crown prince of Austria, Hungaria, and Bohemia at the time the island was discovered in 1874 by the Austro-Hungarian North Pole Expedition. The same expedition named Cape Fligley after a contemporary Austrian cartographer.
Although there were leads and broken ice in the vicinity of the ship, the ice between us and the shoreline looked to be a solid mass. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that any landings here would have to be done by way of the helicopter. Of course, had there been a way to get us to the solid ice, we might have been able to walk ashore, as well … though it would have been a long walk ;-) Just kidding, of course; trekking across the ice was never an option.
Welcome to the Russian Arctic National Park, which consists of
Franz Josef Land and the northern portion of Novaya Zemlya.
As Alex had said in his briefing, the blue skies we’d been enjoying were gone. Despite the cloud cover, however, the light was bright; the visibility was good; and there were clearing skies behind the spit of land that was our destination. With the wind within acceptable parameters, helicopter operations were a go.
That spit of snow and glaciated land is Cape Fligley — our designated landing site.
In polar bear country, ‘rifles’ — meaning bear guards — are always the first to go ashore. We watched from the foredeck as they headed off towards Rudolf Island. Fifteen minutes later, the chopper was back to ferry the expedition team and the emergency equipment to the landing site — a good indication that no immediate signs of polar bears were found by the guards.
This glacier is just a part of what covers Rudolf Island.
When the announcement was made for the first group to head to the staging area, we were at dinner — which had been moved up to 7:00p. That it wasn’t our group being called came as a surprise since flightseeing ops yesterday had been called off just before it was our turn to go up. Mui stepped out to talk to the Quark guys managing the heli ops. Turns out that since part of our group had in fact flown, they had simply moved on to the next group. Not a problem — if we could be ready in 15 minutes, we could go on the first passenger flight heading to the cape. Mui came back to get me as I was downing the last sip of a cup of cream of pumpkin soup.
One thing we learned on our very first expedition was to ‘always be prepared’ to go at a moment’s notice. Our layers are always laid out; our landing bag is always packed with extra gloves and socks, and other emergency stuff. Forget 15 minutes; we were in the staging area in 10 minutes.
Ready to document the flight to Cape Fligley!
The flight was a short one — 5 minutes and 52 seconds according to the log I peeked at when we returned to the ship. The glacier covering much of the island was on my side, so I managed to get a few quick shots from the air before the pilot veered around to the landing site.
The island is almost entirely glaciated, but has been losing ice mass over the years — especially along the shoreline, where the glaciers calve into the ocean. But we didn’t have to land on ice. Cape Fligley being one of the few ice-free zones on the island, we landed on a rocky plateau. After receiving a quick briefing from Cheli, the landing master, we made note of the time, calculated our return time for the chopper back to the ship, and headed off towards Bob, who was standing by to tell us a bit about what we would be seeing.
The broken chunks of rock that covered every inch of the ground here made the going slow, but paying careful attention to where we were stepping allowed us to wander around with relative ease. Between our slow pace and the deep snow on the ridge, we didn’t make it down to the sign marking Cape Fligley as the northernmost point of Europe. No matter, we only had 30 minutes to wander around and there were plenty of other things of interest to see.
Cape Fligley — if you look very closely, you can make out the sign on
the ridge that marks this spot as the northernmost in Europe.
Looking across the plateau at the glacier covered shoreline.
The Russian Orthodox cross was erected in 2004 as a memorial to the
Polyarniks (Polar Explorers) who worked and perished in the Arctic.
Life on Rudolf Island — in the form of lichen …
… and nesting ivory gulls, which are endemic to the Arctic.
20% of the world’s breeding population of these birds is here in FJL.
We were making our way to the landing site when we heard Alex’s two-way radio crackle to life. We’d seen a front moving in our direction and had wondered how it would impact the landing. His conversation with the bridge gave us the answer — flight operations were about to be shut down. We hustled over to the makeshift helipad, arriving as the chopper disgorged what would be the last group to land at Cape Fligley. Visibility, which had been clear minutes before, was rapidly deteriorating. Taking our seats on the helicopter, we were whisked back to 50 Let Pobedy without delay.
Visibility still reasonable enough for us to clearly make out the ship.
After returning us to the ship at 8:30p, the chopper made one or two more trips to pick up passengers before flight operations were shut down — leaving 14 passengers, 9 expedition team members, and 5 bear guides stranded at Cape Fligely!
I know that sounds ominous — stranded is such a ‘helpless’ word. And I am not making light of the situation — trust me. But in reality, everyone is safe — perhaps not comfortable; but they are safe. First off, the expedition team and the bear guards are all highly experienced in Arctic survival and know how to handle the current circumstances in which they find themselves. They have with them a safety kit — including tents, thermal blankets, and rations — sufficient to support 110 people. And if the passengers have followed instructions, they are dressed warmly in the required layers, and have spare socks and gloves with them. The situation is not dire. It’s really a matter of waiting for the weather to clear for heli ops to resume ferrying passengers back to the ship.
We make it back from Cape Fligley — but some have an unplanned adventure before they are ferried back.
In the meantime, we joined fellow-passengers in the library. Upon hearing that we had missed dinner, Annie insisted on feeding us from her stash of ramen noodle soups. Don’t go wrinkling your nose; the Chinese brand of the soup was quite tasty; nothing like the brands we have here in the US.
Not only did Annie provide the food; she provided the photos as proof she fed us.
After our impromptu meal, we sought out the expedition team. With nine of their teammates at Cape Fligley, we knew they were short-handed and wanted to offer our services as necessary. If we needed any evidence that we weren’t in emergency mode, seeing them going about business as usual was proof plenty. Next we went up to the Victory Bar for a nightcap. The conversation revolved around what might be happening landside. We did our best to assure everyone that based on our experience with Quark, the situation was well in hand.
Eventually, we bid everyone goodnight and returned to the cabin — our thoughts with those who were at Cape Fligley, but comfortable in the knowledge that they were in good hands. Mui promptly went to sleep, but I put on my parka and went out for a stroll before returning to write the two posts that tell today’s story. With this post now wrapped up, I am also ready to catch some z’s.
Socked in at 11:50p.
UPDATE: I woke up to movement of the ship. Not sure of the time; I didn’t search for my glasses to look at the clock. My impression — we’re repositioning a little closer to shore to lessen the distance the helicopter has to cover to ferry back the party at Cape Fligley. Perhaps it’s my imagination, but it looks like the front is clearing and the skies are brighter. Keeping fingers crossed everyone is back on the ship soon.