At the top of the world: My un­for­get­table arc­tic ex­pe­di­tion

This mys­te­ri­ous place close to the North Pole, cov­ered with sheets of ice that might melt away with cli­mate change, lured me with such mag­netism

Philippine Daily Inquirer - - LIFESTYLE TRAVEL - By Margie Mo­ran Floirendo @In­q_Lifestyle

Hav­ing seen a good part of the world, I de­cided that it was time to dig once more into my bucket list and bring some of my more dras­tic dreams to fruition.

This year I lit­er­ally went over the top—the top of the world, that is.

The Arc­tic was my des­ti­na­tion, this mys­te­ri­ous place close to the North Pole cov­ered with sheets of ice that might melt away with cli­mate change, which lured me with such mag­netism that I could not re­sist reach­ing this north­ern wilder­ness.

My friends and I chose Po­sei­don Ex­pe­di­tions to take us there, an out­fit known for its ex­pe­ri­enced nav­i­ga­tors, po­lar ex­perts and taste­ful ac­com­mo­da­tions on the all-suite M/V Sea Spirit for 114 pas­sen­gers, guar­an­teed to please the most dis­crim­i­nat­ing trav­el­ers.

When we all con­verged from all parts of the world in Oslo, we made quite a stylish and ebul­lient group of tourists, well aware that soon our chic wardrobe would have to be com­pro­mised with reg­u­la­tion wa­ter­proof boots and red down parkas.

A com­mer­cial plane flew us to the High Arc­tic in Longyear­byen in Sval­bard, Nor­way’s north­ern­most is­land.

Our group was the last voy­age for the end of the po­lar sum­mer, and our 14-day cruise that be­gan Sept. 1 would be marked by longer nights with pleas­ant tem­per­a­tures be­tween 2°C and 5°C.

Af­ter this, the win­ter would turn the sky to dark­ness, and bring the harsh cold­ness down to -35°C.

Trav­el­ing to the Po­lar Re­gions is a cruise that makes fjords and wildlife reach­able. The cap­tain and crew are ex­perts in nav­i­gat­ing the Arc­tic re­gion. How­ever, even on this ice-wor­thy ship, our Swedish cap­tain de­pended heav­ily on weather and ice con­di­tions.

Anja Erd­man, our Ger­man­born ex­pe­di­tion leader, was very knowl­edge­able in nat­u­ral and cul­tural his­tory, with a team of pro­fes­sional po­lar ex­perts. The ho­tel and en­gi­neer­ing was were a mot­ley crew of na­tion­al­i­ties, led by Filipinos.

We learned upon board­ing that we were the first Pi­noys ever to join the ves­sel, and the staff cel­e­brated this with ex­tra at­ten­tion, en­sur­ing that we had hot pan de sal for break­fast, and meals of adobo, sini­gang, ban­gus and fried rice.

Maya Pliset­skaya

Sval­bard was a rev­e­la­tion. Other than the pal­try tid­bit that it was where the fa­mous bal­le­rina Maya Pliset­skaya first per­formed on­stage in an am­a­teur play staged by her mother, my knowl­edge of the city now in­cludes the fact that one can­not be born or die there. It has no hos­pi­tals, no doc­tors and no ceme­tery—the lat­ter, specif­i­cally be­cause when the snow melts, the tun­dra is water­logged!

Its set­tlers in the 17th cen­tury were hunters from other coun­tries, in­volved in the whal­ing and fur trade de­plet­ing its wildlife. Tourists have brought the pop­u­la­tion of po­lar bears down to 3,000.

Po­lar bears live best when it’s colder, when the sea ice be­comes their hunt­ing ground for seals. In sum­mer when the land is cov­ered by veg­e­ta­tion, they be­come veg­e­tar­i­ans.

Very sig­nif­i­cant is the pres­ence of a Global Seed Vault. Es­tab­lished in 2007, the vault safe­keeps 3 mil­lion seed sam­ples un­der a thick layer of per­mafrost, cre­at­ing a safety net against an ac­ci­den­tal loss of di­ver­sity.

We­set sail from Sval­bard to­ward the north. In the morn­ing we docked at Ny-Ale­sund, the Nor­we­gian re­search sta­tion for cli­mate change, si­t­u­ated 79 de­grees from the North Pole and the clos­est our imag­i­na­tion got to the top of planet Earth.

In the af­ter­noon we set out for our first trek in Sigma­hamna, spot­ting our first an­i­mal, the Arc­tic fox.

We sailed closer to our first glacier, the 7 km-long Lil­li­hook, where we chanced upon a bearded seal on an ice­berg, easy prey for a po­lar bear who never showed up.

In the evening we crossed the Green­land Sea to en­ter the North­East Green­land Na­tional Park.

The world’s largest is­land

The world’s largest is­land is the size of France and Spain com­bined. It has a 110-year-old ice sheet, 81 per­cent of its area. Si­t­u­ated in the North Amer­i­can Plate, it is, how­ever, of­fi­cially in Europe, as it func­tions as a self-gov­erned ter­ri­tory of the King­dom of Den­mark.

Eighty-six per­cent of the 55,000 Inu­its that pop­u­late Green­land live in the towns, leav­ing the is­land largely un­in­hab­ited.

Green­land is not a part of the Euro­pean Union nor of Schen­gen, so a Filipino pass­port holder needs to ap­ply for a Schen­gen visa with a no­ta­tion, “Valid for Travel to Green­land.”

White but called Green, lo­cated in Amer­ica but of­fi­cially Dan­ish, not qual­i­fied for two of Europe’s largest al­liances—that makes three mis­nomers for this un­der­pop­u­lated des­ti­na­tion with much to be proud of.

I, for one, con­sider com­ing to East Green­land as the high­light of my Arc­tic trip, for three rea­sons: whale-watch­ing, the po­lar bear and the mag­nif­i­cent north­ern lights. We sailed for 14 days, so hopes were high for sight­ings.

East Green­land Na­tional Park is the largest in the world, and has a very frag­ile ecosys­tem. It is the last ar­gu­ment against global warm­ing be­cause when the ice melts, it means a ris­ing sea.

En­try of boats into the park is re­stricted to once a year, at the end of the short sum­mer sea­son.

We trekked for two hours ev­ery day, en­ter­ing a new fjord daily. The ground is soft, cov­ered by per­mafrost in the past years.

The north­ern lights pre­sented their first spec­ta­cle on the fifth day on the boat. Green lights danced on the hori­zon, elic­it­ing ooohs and aaahs from a to­tally cap­ti­vated crowd.

We chased the lights ev­ery night, and as if to be­daz­zle us fur­ther, there were even brighter il­lu­mi­na­tions of green and red on our last two nights.

Fi­nale

The fi­nale was the re­sult of the sun’s emis­sion of plasma in a so­lar storm. Oxy­gen re­lease cre­ates the red and green bursts, while ni­tro­gen will dis- play the blue and pur­ple shades. The full ef­fect of the phe­nom­e­non is best ap­pre­ci­ated on a very dark night, when the sky is clear. Galileo is cred­ited with this ex­pla­na­tion in 1619, and gave the phe­nom­e­non its name, in­spired by the Ro­man god­dess of dawn.

We learned much about ge­ol­ogy, flora, fauna and the elu­sive po­lar bear, which still needed to ma­te­ri­al­ize. Our vig­i­lance was re­warded on our 11th day, in Vikinge­bugt, Scoresby Sund, be­fore we crossed over to Ice­land. The an­nounce­ment was sud­den, loud and clear: “Po­lar bear at two o’clock!”

There was a fren­zied rush to set up cam­eras and tripods while the ex­pe­di­tion team very ef­fi­ciently brought down the 10 zo­di­acs (dinghies) in 10 min­utes.

We boarded in the se­quence as­signed to us at the start of the trip: group A, B, C and D and got up as close as we safely could to a 400-kg fe­male bear perched on the moun­tain­side, feed­ing on plants. We were be­yond ex- cited by this rare sight, a fe­ro­cious mam­mal wait­ing for the snow to cover the earth so she could hunt for her meal.

It­to­qqor­toormiit was the only set­tle­ment and the re­motest along the east coast of Green­land. Its pop­u­la­tion con­sists of 450 Inu­its and two Danes, the school­mas­ter and the post­man.

We checked out the su­per­mar­ket, mod­ern and com­plete, from food to mo­tor­bikes. We were told not to shop, how­ever, in order not to de­plete the stocks, which were re­plen­ished only once a year.

The school would put our own pub­lic schools to shame, with a West­ern cur­ricu­lum aug­mented by cour­ses like car­pen­try, fish­ing, swim­ming, ge­ol­ogy, cli­mate change stud­ies and ev­ery­thing the com­mu­nity needs to learn in a fast-chang­ing en­vi­ron­ment.

It took a day and a half to cross over to the west coast of Ice­land, and our reen­try into civ­i­liza­tion, aka the in­ter­net. Our first land­ing was in Stikk­ishol­mur on the north of Snae- fell­snes, a place so green, it should trade names with the is­land we came from.

The next day we docked in an­other fish­ing town, Isar­fjorour, the largest town in the West­fjords penin­sula, with a pop­u­la­tion of 2,600.

Our port of dis­em­barka­tion was Reyk­javik, the cap­i­tal, where we spent five more days ap­pre­ci­at­ing a coun­try so safe it was rare to find rov­ing po­lice.

We were more than con­tent to have been to a re­mote coun­try where all other glaciers, lakes and moun­tains pale in com­par­i­son, where we felt the scenery was ex­clu­sively ours.

Some­day when I look back on this re­cent trip, I am sure Louis Arm­strong’s evoca­tive ren­di­tion of “What a Won­der­ful World” will en­gulf my mus­ings, and I will be to­tally en­am­ored of the mag­i­cal Arc­tic all over again.

But it is my ob­ses­sion for the au­rora bo­re­alis that will make me laugh.

The north­ern lights were the com­pelling rea­son for me to visit the Arc­tic. I promised my­self that when we got to Green­land, I would be ready to run to watch them at a mo­ment’s no­tice.

Alas, it was a com­edy of er­rors. When the ex­pe­di­tion head an­nounced that the night was brightly lit with the fa­mous lights, I hur­riedly slipped my parka over my pa­ja­mas and my feet into my warm booties, and dashed out of our suite. That split se­cond af­ter clos­ing the door be­hind me was when I re­al­ized that I didn’t have my keys. I fran­ti­cally knocked but couldn’t be heard. And I was hes­i­tant to use the house phone to rouse my room­mates, be­cause I didn’t have my read­ing glasses and feared di­al­ing a wrong num­ber.

When the light show ended, I was alone ex­cept for a few pho­tog­ra­phers catch­ing the Auro­ras, while ev­ery­one was fast asleep. So I stayed in the li­brary un­til the first crew mem­ber re­ported for work and is­sued me a du­pli­cate key.

Just as well that I spent the time in the li­brary, for it was ab­so­lutely one long and mem­o­rable night for the books!

—PHO­TOS BY FILIP KULISEV

The ris­ing of moun­tains, move­ments of the con­ti­nen­tal shelf, and glaciers melt­ing re­veal the ge­o­log­i­cal his­tory of these land forms in Segel­skappfjord, Green­land.

Bits of ice and ice­bergs fallen from the Wal­ter­shausen Glacier at the head of one of the sidearms of the Ke­jser Franz Josef Fjord, East Green­land

A rare ice­berg for­ma­tion near Bear Is­land, East Green­land

The Arc­tic rein­deer in Ny-Ale­sund, Sval­bard

A bearded seal rest­ing on sea ice. Po­lar bears are their ma­jor preda­tor.

—PAGE CHICH­ESTER

Beau­ti­ful scenery on Ella Is­land. This place is still used as a mil­i­tary sta­tion, but it was un­in­hab­ited.

Glacier trekking with Fe Wan­ner and Kath­leen Liecht­en­stein in Fred­eriks­dal, si­t­u­ated in Green­land Na­tional Park

The Filipino F&B and ho­tel staff with our group: Fe Wan­ner, Kath­leen Liecht­en­stein, this writer and Nina Hal­ley

It­to­qqor­toormiit is a Green­landic name that means “place with big houses.” It is one of the most iso­lated set­tle­ments in Green­land at the mouth of the Scores­by­sund Fjord Sys­tem.

The au­thor be­fore the Wal­ter­hausen Glacier in Ke­jser Franz Josef Fjord, East Green­land

North­ern lights on Sept. 5 at sea in Myg­g­bukta, Green­land

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