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After Work: No Bears Today

…Slowly, slowly we are inching our way on the Professor Molchanov, an old Russian research ship, headed toward the east coast of Greenland. We left Longyearbyten, a coal-mining town of some 1,700 hardy souls on the high Arctic Island of Svalbard, Norway three days ago…

Dona Gibbs takes herself and her irrepressible sense of humour on an expiditon to Arctic waters.

Dona is still “up there’’, dodging the icebergs, but has promised at least two more articles about her chilly adventures.

Slam. Pause. Slosh. Slam. Pause. Then slam and another slosh.

Slowly, slowly we are inching our way on the Professor Molchanov, an old Russian research ship, headed toward the east coast of Greenland. We left Longyearbyten, a coal-mining town of some 1,700 hardy souls on the high Arctic Island of Svalbard, Norway three days ago.

While Longyearbyten boasts a hospital, a university, a hotel, a grocery store, a couple of outdoor outfitters and a pub or two, it’s forlorn in only the way that coal mining towns can be after most of the mining activity has petered out. It had recently rained and several boys took turns riding a bike back and forth through a murky puddle.

Now we are aboard, skirting the pack ice, huge chunks in fantastical shapes bobbing in the swells. Some of the ice is the strange brilliant blue of antifreeze. And beyond the giant-size ice cubes, some sixty-five kilometers of it we’re told, is land. We cannot see it even in the occasional bright sun. We accept it on faith. And the radar screen on the bridge.

It’s been three days since we put our feet on land.

Let me quickly dispel any notions that this is a luxury cruise. It is not, which is why all the marketing materials have labeled it an “expedition.” Take for example the accommodations. Ever-Enthusiastic Husband was one of the first to sign up when details of this trip were posted at his yacht club. First come, first to get a cabin with a head (That’s W.C. for all you non-boating types.) The trade-off is that we have bunk beds.

Now it takes a little planning and carefully folding in arms and legs to ease yourself into the bottom bunk. There’s about three and a half feet of headroom. Sitting bolt upright in the middle of the night is not an option.

The top bunk is my haven. Climbing up is easy but it took me two days to master wiggling myself from the top bunk to the often rolling, heaving floor.

There are forty-eight of us on this adventure.

Everyone rolls his eyes at the term “research” vessel, believing that the Professor Molchanov was a spy vessel in its former life. And indeed, the more we are told about the geo-political value of this part of the Arctic, the more we believe it was a snoop ship.

Come to think of it, that’s what we’re doing –snooping around looking for whales, walruses, seals, sea birds and polar bears.

First day out, we got a mandatory lecture on polar bears, the most dangerous carnivore in these parts, excluding us of course. The lecture was full of don’ts. Don’t get between mother and cubs. Don’t run. Don’t leave the group and wander off on your own. Don’t get more than a hundred yards away from the group leader and his rifle. It was all sensible stuff and somehow titillating.

On a bouncy trip to shore on Zodiacs, ten-person rubber pontoon boats, to see where the Basque had rendered whale blubber into precious oil, guides with rifles accompanied us. While it’s illegal to shoot these majestic animals – or even in anyway harass them, it’s not illegal to defend tourists from becoming an Arctic meal.

What we saw: old 16th century rendering ovens made of stone built by the Basque, the earliest whalers. The Dutch added yellow brick and the English red when they came to hunt whales in this region. The small bay, we were told, used to writhe with whales –like shooting fish in a barrel. Caribou antlers, moss, poppies, lichen, scurvy grass, Siberian larch washed ashore and a ranger hut let us know this wasn’t midtown Manhattan.

What we didn’t see: polar bears. The most disappointed person is a loquacious professionally enthusiastic young man, the excursion director, who gave the warning lecture. You would have thought that the Artic was teeming with bears.

I would not be at all surprised if he, in desperation, didn’t dress up the burly ship’s machinist in a bear costume before long.

The guide reads, “We will cruise in the company with fin, humpback and Minke whales, and hosts of seals and seabirds along the ice.”

Maybe, but right now all we’re seeing is sky, sea, an occasional seabird --- and each other.

Today we were scheduled to go ashore to see musk oxen, those comically shaggy beasts. The males are bad-tempered creatures and charge the unwary without so much as a warning snort. I amuse and torture myself by reading about them in the ship’s bar/ library.

Several Arctic experts are on hand to answer questions and to lecture on everything from early explorers’ attempt to get a handle on this vast area, known as the “backside” of Greenland to the Norse ruins to the geological importance of the region.

What I’ve learned so far hasn’t come from lectures or from books. I’ve found out something equally important to remember: You can schedule a vacation. You can plan activities. You can slot time for meals. You can have wake-up calls. And last calls. But you can’t schedule the sea, the shifting pack ice and the fog.


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