Sunday, July 17, 2016

Murmansk-Arctic-North Pole: June-July 2018

It was the Murmansk stop that sold me.  Both Quark expeditions and Peregrine had sent information about a North Pole trip aboard a Russian Nuclear icebreaker but it was Murmansk that did it.  That sometime closed Russian  port that I remembered from World War II.  The merchant mariners who took chances  sailing in the Arctic, delivering supplies to our then Russian ally.  Poseidon also had a similar trip but I chose Quark; I had a good experience with them in the Antarctic.  I don't know if it was the cheapest, though I took their least expensive  fare.  Did get upgraded so that roommate and I were not atop each other. 

It was a fourteen day trip:  beginning and ending with a  night at a Helsinki Hilton and twelve nights aboard the 50 Days of Victory.  With a several  hour tour of Murmansk including walking about the center of town.  Central town  had shared  the St Petersburg architect;  had kept up park and nicely designed buildings.  Otherwise, grounds were unkept and the buildings were basic Soviet. And deteriorating.  

The harbour was large: one area appeared to be for civilian use while another  was more military, including where our ship was anchored - near several other nuclear ships.  And warships.  Our bus load of passengers were checked and double checked while held in a sally port.   I was a bit concerned for I was using a visa obtained a year ago for the Siberian Rail trip:  while I had been assured it was good, didn't trust until I finally passed muster. (Turns out it is also good next year as is my last  Chinese visa - now two places on next year's agenda.)

So, the chartered flight from Helsinki to Murmansk where we toured and then boarded our ship, looking froward to the educational talks,  helicopter flights and zodiac rides. Quark has always been a traveling seminar of the polar regions.   And then there was the day at the North Pole, the place explorers suffered to find while we arrived  in comfort.  What a contrast!.

Russia has made the major claim and investment  to the arctic area.  What with an ice breaker fleet and scientists spending summers on Franz Joseph Land, the Russians are the major players in the development of the area.  We had Park rangers and scientists aboard, to be dropped off at a Franz Joseph Land summer station.  Couldn't land them by heli or zodiac at the first spot but did succeed in settling them in at the second.  We went on shore at  Tikhaya Bay on Hooker Island, once a meteorological station, now a summer only biological station - unloaded supplies for the summer staff.  Some of the ladies aboard were delighted when told there was a shop at the Post Office, only to find little more than post cards.  Lovely, old weathered buildings on a rocky shore. 

The earlier zodiac ride was a cruise about Camp? Island, flocked with birds and sea life.One of the best parts of the trip.  Along with a short helicopter ride above our ice breaking ship at work.  Missed out on much more:  winds and fog.  No hot air balloon at the Pole.  But at  least four presentations daily, about the glaciers, the wildlife, the history, the politics - all well done and  interesting.  And considering we had groups of Chinese, Japanese, Russian and German speakers in addition  to the  English speaking. Quark managed to keep all involved.   Outstanding  staff!  Multi-lingual.  Expedition leader was superb.

For the most part, passengers had the run of the ship.  With  arrangements  made for below decks tours. While I didn't spend much time on the bow, I did hang out on the bridge, where I was impressed with the modern equipment.  And had a great view of the ship cutting over and down on the ice. 

The piece d' resistance for most was the day at the magnetic  North Pole.  Photos, hikes .a barbeque and polar plunges.  I had problems  staying upright  in the snow/ice wearing the Quark-issued boots so did little wandering about.   I was joined by another member of the white haired set who had even more serious mobility issues - she retired back to the ship early on.  I hung about on the ship's stern, watching the polar plungers shiver their way out of the jumps (few righteous dives).  I avoided this in the Antarctic; I am not a water, either warm or cold, person.

Aboard ship was a small bar, a first rate dining room, a library, a small gym and swimming pool.  Luxurious, really., certainly in comparison to my last expedition with Quark.  A fair mount of organized and unorganized evening gatherings,.  Not my cuppa tea though my roommate, an Australian working in Hong King, took advantage of all opportunities, even getting up at 2AM to view polar bears.  And we did see polar bears, a walrus and all sorts of arctic birds.

Photographers abounded.  Some with minimum three cameras plus lap top.  Either snapping   or downloading.  One man had a at least eight foot "selfie" pole to attached his camera and caught some really awesome shots.  Quark staff put together  a combination of the shots and showed them to us.  Impressive!  Especially compared to my Walgreen's throw-a-way film camera. picture taking not being a big part of my activities.   

Coming home, I had time to kill in Helsinki.  I spent some in town with two  Bay area guys, one of whom was most proficient with his Ipad, getting us on trams here and there, checking out a bar  a book store and a excellent restaurant serving reindeer meat - there,  I had the best salmon ever. 

Then to sleeping at the airport.  About a B-/C+ on my rating scale.  With my boarding pass, I got past Security and to my Gate.  Padded bench without arm rests, no PA announcements until five-ish.  Nearby vending machines for food and drink.  And, had I looked, chaise lounges up the corridor.  However, lights and AC were on all night.  I did sleep but also, did get a cold. Win some, lose some! 

Cost:    Airfare:  United Airlines:  $410.  (Used ff miles)
            Quark Expedition:  $26745. inclusive from Helsinki ff.
                                            $400 gratuity.