FJL: Cape Fligley

[CATCH-UP POST]

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.

Return to Franz Josef Land

[CATCH-UP POST]

Tuesday, 8 July 2014 (Part I)
In the Ice — Franz Josef Land
Position @ Noon: 82°41’ N / 53°22’ E
Outside Temperature: 36F / 2.4C
439 NM (505 miles / 813 km) from the North Pole

An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.
An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.
G. K. Chesterton (English Writer) —

It’s late as I write this — not quite midnight, though, so it’s still today.

I just looked out the porthole and the fog that moved in so unexpectedly around 8:30p is getting thicker by the minute.  There is a damp chill in the air that is not the least inviting, so I don’t mind being in the cabin.  Times like this are best spent reading or writing in a cozy environment.

We are in Franz Josef Land — though nowhere near where we were when we first came through the archipelago on the northbound leg of this voyage.  50 Let Pobedy is stationary in the ice … and has been so for a while.  But that’s a story for the next post.  In the meantime, I’m going to return to this morning when we were about two degrees north of where we are at the moment and begin the story of day 8 of our voyage.

As foggy as it is now, it was the exact opposite this morning when I awoke to sunshine and blue skies at 6:30a.  Today had been planned as an ‘expedition day’, but Alex’s wake-up call told us we were moving to Plan B.  Apparently we encountered heavy ice overnight and that slowed us down.  OK then — that’s the nature of an expedition voyage … nothing to do but take the changes in stride.  I threw out the daily program that had been placed in the cabin last night, and got a copy of the revised one from the reception desk.

Blue skies and sunshine … what a gorgeous morning!

The icescape — as seen from under the helipad.

What looked like great weather to us apparently wasn’t good enough for flying — the tail wind from the north just wasn’t conducive to resuming helicopter operations.  Alrighty then — I’ll go wandering around the outer decks instead.  This time, I focused my attention on details and repetitive patterns that caught my eye around the ship, rather than the ice we were breaking through.

One of three spare propeller blades stored for emergency repairs.  Each blade weighs 7 tons.
Only six blade changes have been necessary on Arktika class icebreakers since 1975.

Art in various forms has not been lacking on this voyage.  Today a collection of prints were on display in the aft saloon — the work of Victor Kobiev, the resident crew artist.

Victor Kobiev’s art … in B&W due to the bad lighting in the aft saloon.

Some of my favorites from Victor’s work.
(Note how the  eyes on the butterfly wings change based on perspective.)

The change in schedule allowed the addition of a presentation by Bob Headland entitled Franz Josef Land; A Geographical and Historical Introduction.  Good timing since we hope to spend at least a day exploring FJL before we continue onward to Murmansk.

What Bob’s map of FJL doesn’t show …

… is that 85% of the archipelago is glaciated (august 2011).
[photo taken from image posted on the ship’s bulletin board]

Some highlights from the presentation …

  • Although an oceanographer in 1860 stated that there might be land in the region, the  archipelago wasn’t discovered until 1873, making it a rather recent addition to maps of the Arctic.
  • The Austro-Hungarian North Pole Expedition discovered the archipelago, which they named after Franz Joseph I, one of the last kaisers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
  • FJL consists of 191 islands — give or take a few … some that were thought to be a single island were in fact proven not to be when the ice joining them retreated; the number is also influenced by high and low tide.
  • A large number of the world’s polar bear population lives in FJL — good reason for the ‘rifles always go first’ rule for landings made in the region.
  • Once the location of the islands were established, they were used as a base by several expeditions in their attempts to reach the North Pole.
  • The Jackson-Harmsworth Expedition of 1894-1897 proved that FJL was not a landmass extending all the way to the North Pole; it was at this expedition’s Cape Flora base camp that Nansen and Johansen arrived — by accident — in 1896, after having trekked across the ice for over a year.

Following the lecture, I headed out on deck as usual and stayed out until just before lunchtime.

What I didn’t realize — didn’t see it on the daily program; nor did I hear an announcement — was that at 11:30a Norm was scheduled to give a lecture — The Rocks You Will Be Tripping Over.  As it turns out, I would have been running out of the aft saloon, along with everyone else present, when the call went out for a polar bear a few minutes after Norm began his presentation.  Being on deck, I was in the right place after all.  Unfortunately, the sighting was short-lived since the bear didn’t even stop to give us the time of day.

Today’s polar bear …

… in B&W.

The day was so beautiful that I almost skipped lunch.  Good thing I didn’t.  Mui’s foil-baked cod with vegetables and potatoes was very good, but the pasta with Bolognese sauce I had on my plate was OMG … to-die-for-good.  When we return to the US, I’m going to have to break the news to our friend Tony that he has big time competition in this department ;-)

The water from a lead is reflected in the windows of the bridge!

Not that I would have stayed indoors, but there was an added inducement to wander the outer decks after lunch — heavy ice.  This would have been a great time to get the chopper in the air — especially since we were next to go up.  Alas, the tail wind was still too strong, so we made do with ice-seeing from the ship.

Polar bear tracks and a snow-covered ridge add interest to the ice.

At 4:00p, Alex invited everyone to the aft saloon for a briefing on the ever-changing plans for FJL.  His announcement that we were 30 NM (35 miles/55 km) from Cape Fligely, the northernmost point of Europe, was greeted with cheers.  Our ETA was to be around 6:00p, and although we would be losing the blue skies, conditions were looking favorable for a landing — probably by helicopter.

The plan called for repositioning from Cape Fligely to Teplitz Bay for another landing, and then heading further south amongst the islands of FJL for a full day of exploring the archipelago tomorrow before setting sail for Murmansk for the two day crossing.  Not all of the plans for today worked out — more on that later.  Hopefully we’ll have better luck tomorrow.

Released from the briefing, I continued my meanderings, occasionally sitting down for a while someplace out of the wind to just enjoy my solitude.  I don’t know where everyone else was, but only occasionally did I run into someone.  Of course the ship is big, so it could well be that others had found their own quiet corners elsewhere on the outer decks.

Repetitive patterns are doubled when the sun is shining bright and casting shadows.

Expedition Day 8.8 Jul 2014

Under this cover, in the bowels of the ship, …

… are the nuclear reactors that power 50 Let Pobedy.

Bearded seal

No one to take a picture of me, so I’ll take a picture of my shadow.

On my way to the cabin to change the batteries in the camera, I stopped by the communications center.  Not because I wanted to send an email or anything, but because I wanted to check out the memorabilia decorating the walls.

the modern equivalent of what would have once been referred to as the ‘radio room’.

Two of the photos (top left and Right center) feature ceremonies
in which Captain Davydyants participated.

Top center: USCGC Polar Sea carries the distinction of being one of the first
two North American surface vessels to reach the North Pole — August 1994.

Top Right: 50 Let Pobedy leading a convoy of vessels.

Bottom Left: The Route traveled on the voyage in 1977 that gave Arktika
the distinction of being the first surface vessel to reach the North Pole.

Bottom Right: In 1975, Arktika carried a polar bear cub  — a real one — as a mascot.

Cape Fligely was just a few miles away when …

Oh but wait, I was going to leave that for the next post, wasn’t I?