The Braden Files
Curiosities of mathematics, history, parachuting, etc……

White Nights in the High Desert

“A time will come in later years when the Ocean will unloose the bands of things, when the immeasurable earth will lie open, when seafarers will discover new countries, and Thule will no longer be the extreme point among the lands.”– Seneca

Our MI-8 helicopter was doing its usual excellent job of beating up my eardrums and kidneys. Many of us were actually wearing the earplugs that Evgeniy, our ace pilot, issued upon boarding. In the past three years, it has been my lot to spend no little time jumping in and out of these excellent machines… Mongolia, Cambodia, Norway … and now, Russia. We were headed out from Longyearbyen, Spitzbergen to the Russian icebreaker Yamal, our new home for the next ten days. Headed up north. Way up north. All the way north. Ninety degrees north…the north pole.

Yamal is not the crippled shepherd boy of Gian Carl Mennoti fame, but the Queen of the Arctic, a twenty-two thousand five hundred ton nuclear icebreaker, ten times heavier than a WWII destroyer. (“Yamal” is a Siberian word for “End of the Earth”.) Norway will not let any nuclear ship land upon its shores, so we are being ferried in the MI-8 out to her, where she lies in international waters off Longyearbyen. I am excited! Beautiful fjords and glaciers everywhere you look…and Longyearbyen is the southernmost point of our trip, seventy-eight degrees North Latitude, just about halfway between the arctic circle and the pole. None of us will see night again until getting back to Oslo in a couple of weeks. The sun up here, like the hawk in Oklahoma, just makes lazy circles in the sky. Without its familiar rising and setting, without the stars, I will not only be totally screwed up from eternal jet lag but would have lost any sense of direction whatsoever were it not for Yamal’s red hull, like a gigantic compass needle, always pointing north.

Evgeniy, MI-8 artiste that he is, puts us down on the helicopter deck like a feather. Russian girls in native costume welcome us aboard, with the traditional pinch of salt and bread. Russians, an extremely hospitable and friendly people, would be deeply hurt if we did not feel welcome on Russian soil, or in this case, Russian armored steel, one of 11 ships in the world that can break through to the pole. We will have six hundred miles of ice up and seven hundred back, some of it very nasty, which will tax even Yamal. Alexander Lembrick, our captain, tells us that the ice reports indicate the ice will be as bad as he has ever seen it this time of year. (He was right). This will be his eighth trip up. Of the 39 icebreaker trips to the pole in all of history, this will be number 20 for Yamal, and 31 for Russia. For the record, Sweden, 3 trips; Germany and USA, 2 trips each, and Canada, 1 trip. Russia spans 162 degrees of arctic longitude, and her icebreakers have to be the best in the world, keeping the sea open from Murmansk to the Bering Strait for commerce during the winter. But in the summer? Well, why not make a couple of hard-currency bucks ferrying adventurous tourists up to the pole on a study-cruise. Better than just being tied up at the dock in Murmansk, right? (Under Leninism this profit motive would be inconceivable to a Soviet apparatchik, and indeed there were no expeditions as such until about ten years ago.)

Let it be clearly understood that the Russian is a delightful person till he tucks his shirt in. As an Oriental he is charming. It is only when he insists upon being treated as the most easterly of Western peoples, instead of the most westerly of Easterns, that he becomes a racial anomaly extremely difficult to handle. The host never knows which side of his nature is going to turn up next.

Rudyard Kipling

Female guides escort us to our staterooms. I stow my gear and go up to the bow. It will be a couple of hours before we can get the rest of our group aboard. A little puffin is there ahead of me, and if he resents my intrusion, he gives no sign of it.

There once was a puffin
Just the shape of a muffin,
And he lived on an island
In the deep blue sea.

He ate little fishes,
Which he found most delicious,
And he had them for supper
And he had them for tea…

I look him up in my Arctic Guide to Coastal Wildlife, purchased a couple of days ago in New York. (We were have supposed to have read a minimum of five tomes about the arctic, with fifteen more recommended, before sailing. This trip was a last-minute thing for me, and I have all these unread books in my sea bag.) Yep, there he is, cute little fellow: Puffin, a lesser auk, a.k.a. sea parrot, sea clown, Fratercula (sic) arctica. Holy cow! He can dive two hundred feet deep into the ocean and snag a fish! Northernmost limit of habilitation: Spitzbergen. Hmmm. Hitching a ride to the pole, I see. Our little brother. An adventurer. One of us.

We are a host of 78 students, 128 crewmembers and three excellent professors. Bob Headland will fill us in on arctic history, his specialty at Cambridge University. Yar Petryszyn, a biologist and meteorologist from the University of Arizona, will fill us in on arctic climate and flora and fauna, and Al Duba, a geophysicist from Berkeley’s Livermore Labs, the geology. In between lectures we watch Richard Attenborough films on the arctic and antarctic in our cabins. (Richard Attenborough can lull me to sleep within five minutes, no matter how potentially exciting the material is. He shares this trait with my history teachers in both high school and college.) Meanwhile, I am trying to catch up with the rest of the group in my reading, a goal complicated by the latest Spenser novel and some other trash picked up at the Newark Airport. Al, in explaining how much radioactive potassium is in a banana, is unaware of the fact, until I publicly point it out, that a banana is actually not potassium at all, but barium disodium, Ba(Na)2. Al starts avoiding me at mealtime.

Over half of my fellow students have been to the antarctic; some to the South Pole. A few are professors themselves. During lifeboat drill, we each will get an arctic survival suit, which will keep us alive in the water for 24 hours, so they say. Pete, a Yalie who used to work for the CIA, points out that it will be a cold day in hell before the crew, tough characters from Murmansk and Archangelsk, will put us into the boat and not themselves. I ask the group if we really want a Yalie aboard “our” lifeboat anyway. Pete (a St. Paul’s father, by the way, and great-grandson of Hubert Howe Bancroft, the man who gave Berkeley its Bancroft Library) says something uncomplimentary about Nathan Pusey which bears not repeating here. Pete took his parachute training at Fort Benning and therefore feels (rightly) superior to those of us who did not, because of the 250 foot tower there. (All other parachute towers in the world are only 34 feet high; the one at Benning was left over from the World’s Fair out in Flushing Meadows back in 1940.)

It seems as if every third person is a pilot. Even the girl who runs the shop has her instrument rating and flies in Alaska, and Lorna, a grandmother, was flying Stearman biplanes back in the forties. Navy pilots, private pilots, commercial pilots, one student pilot and two airline pilots. An unusual number of us have been to Timbuktu, another kind of “end of the earth”. As a group, we seem to seek out the distinctly unusual and often solitary, to nobody’s surprise.

“The world is only tolerable because of the empty places in it – millions of people all crowded together, fighting and struggling, but behind them, somewhere, enormous, empty places. Man needs an empty space, somewhere for his great spirit to rest in.”– Doris Lessing

Back in the cabin, I calculate how much U-235 we will burn, assuming our 78,000 horsepower reactors will be operating at half their capacity. A little arithmetic and high school physics change horsepower into megawatts and indicate that one gram of uranium will vanish from the face of the earth in getting us up there and back. (For tradition’s sake, honoring the late great Enrico Fermi, I do these mathematical gyrations on the back of an envelope.) Later the Chief Engineer says that we will burn ten grams of U-235 on the trip. Hey, one order-of-magnitude off ain’t bad! As a math person, I have completely ignored the real world of engineering and all three laws of thermodynamics. Our two 160-ton water-cooled reactors heat water, driving turbo generators with 350 degree C steam, store the electricity into gigantic capacitors, and feed it into three induction motors that drive the Yamal’s three 28-ton propellers. Four thousand horsepower blow scorching hot air sideways all along our keel, pushing ice away from the hull after our armored bow and ice knife have smashed it to bits…some bits as big as your living room. Heat is constantly boiling from our gigantic stack…we certainly can’t call it a “smokestack”. Evaporators give us five tons of fresh water every hour. Electricity? Hey, leave the lights on, nobody cares. Go ahead…take that hour-long hot shower. Our reactors generate power that we cannot possibly use. Yamal is leaking heat into the environment at a prodigious rate. Ten grams! We are trailing an electromagnetic scar of infrared radiation across the top of the earth that surely could be detected from the moon! We are the all-out champion entropy increasers of the Murmansk Fleet! Our engineer says that if ever these ships become illegal to operate, Yamal could just anchor off any medium-size city and supply it power for 4 1/2 years before the fuel would have to be replaced. I ask him what stops the reaction. Cadmium rods? “Nyet”, he chuckles. “Not for many years do we use cadmium.” “Hafnium rods, perhaps?” opines Della Wiegand, the wife of the Berkeley physicist who wired up the first atomic bomb on top of the tower at Los Alamos. “Nyet, not hafnium,” says the engineer. “Well, what then” I ask, getting a little annoyed. “It is rods!” he exclaims. Sheesh. You would think this is some kind of deep Russian atomic secret or something. Our interpreter tells us later that they are boron and europium. Now you know. We become proud of Yamal and its ice-eating grin. The best ship. The best captain. The best crew. The smartest professors. The best-looking summer passengers. If anybody gets into trouble up here, it will be Yamal coming to the rescue.

In a few hours, we are into the ice. Yamal slams into the first of it at twenty knots….we are all down in the lecture hall attending to Yar. It sounds like gunshots down there below the water line in the bow. We put on our parkas and run outside for the first taste of what will be a constant companion for the next ten days. SLAM! Pieces of ice as big as SUV’s erupt from both sides of the bow. WHAM! Chunks as big as football fields get pushed aside. SNAP! Shards as big as your head erupt like mortar shells, tracing parabolic arcs through the frigid sky. We will have to learn to eat with this, drink with this, listen to lectures with this, try to sleep with this. The unrelenting pounding and grinding and shuddering of the ice on steel, ringing our hull like a bell, twenty-four hours a day!

“The ice was here,
The ice was there,
The ice was all around.
It cracked and growled
And roared and howled
Like noises in a swound.”

–Samuel Taylor Coleridge

After a day of crushing our way north, the engines (or, more properly, the motors) stop. There is an announcement: “All passengers and crew meet aft, above the helicopter deck. We will stop and await permission to continue to the pole.” What is this malarkey?! We have come this far and have to ask some bureaucratic twit back in Moscow for permission to continue? I am incredulous. Why not get permission before we left Spitzbergen?? We shrug on our parkas and ice goggles and await who-knows-what.

It is dead quiet on the aft deck. The ice path we made is quickly closing back on itself. Yamal is now frozen solid. The polar ice cap is a remote desert, with the same amount of precipitation as the Sahara. We contemplate our solitude, the most northerly souls on the earth, save for a few submariners, perhaps. It has been foggy ever since coming aboard. Ice ridges stretch forth to infinite gray horizons on all sides of our ship.

My dear Sister,
Last Monday (July 31) we were nearly surrounded by ice, which closed in the ship on all sides, scarcely leaving her sea-room in which she floated. Our situation was somewhat dangerous, especially as we were compassed round by a very thick fog…About two o’clock the mist cleared away, and we beheld, stretched out in every direction, vast and irregular plains of ice, which seemed to have no end.
Mary Shelly – Frankenstein

Alone with my thoughts, I half-imagine the monster, the demon, driving his sled dogs through the pressure ridges. But before my eyes I am startled to see…Pirates! Pirates have boarded us and are pouring up from the helicopter deck! A huge man wearing a gold crown and a silver robe is borne on the deck above, by pirates and sea-hags! (I note that one of the sea-hags, with plastic seaweed in her hair, bears remarkable resemblance to Lena, my maid.) Captain Lembrick, collar-ad handsome in his Class A Merchant Marine Uniform, supplicates himself before King Neptune and asks permission to continue the voyage. All of this is in Russian, of course, and Irina, our interpreter, is busy. Neptune is one of the travel gods you do not want to mess with, and Lembrick knows this. He grovels a bit and offers Neptune a keg of Heineken beer to insure our safe passage. Neptune, after some waffling, accepts. On the deck above, the “Macarena” suddenly blasts out, defiling the still air of the arctic. Covers come off barbecue pits. Kegs of beer, glasses of wine, scotch, bourbon, and bottles of vodka are instantly produced. Hot dogs! Hot dogs and hamburgers! And steaks! “Why are we doing this?” I ask Irina. “Because it is summertime, and we Russians know you Americans love to barbecue outside in the summertime!” At twenty above zero, just an average July day in the high arctic. Just two weeks previously I was sweltering on the beach in the hell of Galveston, Texas, having the same sort of barbecue on the Fourth of July.

Things are getting a little wild, a little out of hand. I complain to the head of the tour that I am disgusted and appalled at the carnal nature of all of this. He puts a fresh beer mug in my hand and sends me back to the conga line. Two hours later, Yamal shrugs off her icy shroud, and continues to butt her way up to the pole, her passengers very much the worse for wear. Things do change:

“The floe took her amidships while she was still frozen fast. She could hardly have had a tighter squeeze. It was no wonder that she groaned. But she withstood it, broke loose and eased.”

— Fridtjof Nansen, about the Fram in ice (1895)

Nansen, whose name will always live with those who go north, designed Fram, a ship to withstand the crush of ice. We went aboard her in Oslo. (Amundsen also took her to Antarctica.) Twelve times the Norwegian cross-country skiing champion, Nansen also broke the world record for speed-skating the mile when he was eighteen years old. Deliberately letting himself be frozen in off the Siberian coast, he had hoped to drift to the North Pole. Abandoning ship when it became obvious Fram would miss the pole, he got up to 86.22 degrees with dog sleds before turning back and walking to Franz Joseph Land. Wintering over on Cape Norway, he was picked up the following summer at Cape Flora, 200 miles south, and became an instant international hero, every bit as famous as Lindbergh was a generation later. Russian anarchist Prince Pyotr Kropotkin (in whose palace I taught for a year) thought Nansen to be “a true hero of our century.” Amundsen, Scott and Shackleton considered this man to be their mentor. (Scott died on the way back from the South Pole, never knowing that Nansen at that time was having sex with his wife in a Berlin hotel room. History, you gotta love that stuff.) A doctor, a scientist, a statesman, a Nobel Laureate, Nansen wrote narrative with the skill of a poet, which is evident even in translation. He essentially founded the science of oceanography. We are all required to read his classic Farthest North and on the way back will visit Capes Norway and Flora, a sort of pilgrimage to a great man.

“If you want to know what men look for in that land or why men go where there is such danger to their lives, it is the threefold nature of men which lures them on. On one part a man wants fame, for man goes where there is great danger to make himself famous. Another part of man wants knowledge, wants to see those places he has heard of and find out if they are as he has been told. The third part is the desire for riches, for man pursues wealth wherever he thinks he can find it, even though he must pass through great dangers.”

–Mirror of the King, c 1300

The Arctic Ocean (Arktos means ‘bear’ in Greek) is the smallest of the five oceans of the world, over 14 million square kilometers of which a summertime minimum of 50% is permanently covered by sea ice. Ever since Henry Hudson’s time, man has dreamed of navigating these waters, of a Northwest Passage. (The first proof that there was such a thing was realized when an Alaskan Eskimo killed a whale with a Siberian harpoon embedded in its flesh.) Looking down from the pole, you notice that it consists of the Barents Sea, Kara Sea, Laptev Sea, East Siberian Sea, Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea and Lincoln Sea. (And yes, there was a test on stuff like this near the end of the voyage.) Ah, the ice. The all-encompassing ice. Ninety percent of all the ice in the world is in Antarctica, nine percent in Greenland and one percent everywhere else. The Arctic Ocean is sort of a landlocked lake half again as big as the United States with a tiny leak at the Bering Strait and then Greenland and Svalbard almost plugging the drain. (Scandinavians simply call it the Polar Sea.) To the west of Iceland, the current is cold and flows south. To the east of Iceland, what is left of the Gulf Stream is warm and flows north almost to the Pole where it is finally defeated by the Lomonossov Ridge. The ice can gyre around and around for up to three years with help from the tides and the Coreolis force before being spit out west of Greenland, some of it in the form of bergs, like the one that sank the Titanic. (We now know that maybe an ice cube could have sunk the Titanic, what with its frangible metal skin and rivets made out of slag.) The really big bergs are spawned in Antarctica…bergs not as big as a city block, but as big as, say, Cleveland. In the six-month night, the temperature up here can drop to a hundred degrees below zero with hundred-knot winds. All of us become pseudo-experts on polar ice; all of us spend ten, twenty, thirty hours just looking at Yamal break, crack, cut, pulverize and vaporize the ice. When the going gets tough, our MI-8 takes off and scouts for leads in the ice. But usually it is too foggy to fly, and we just have to do it by guess-and-by-golly.

Some say the world will end in fire,
some say ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

-Robert Frost

Ice is not just “white” like you may think. Ice is multi-hued! The Arctic is full of life, and full of color! How I wish my daughter Abbey were here to see this! Ice is turquoise, teal, and pale blue. Ice is black. Ice is lime green. Ice is pale yellow-brown, especially when Yamal turns it over and we can all see the algae on the bottom of the floes. Beams of blue and green shoot out from the pressure ridges, even under an overcast sky. Film never can capture these pastels! Without the algae, no krill. Without the krill, no cod, clams, whales, seals, walruses, birds or polar bears! All life up here depends on the algae, invisible to the surface traveler. At 3 AM, I notice that we pass through ten miles of dirty brown ice. Yar tells us that this is the result of a Siberian dust storm that blew all the dirt north and deposited it on the ice. Nuclear waste, dumped into Siberia’s mighty rivers, gets deposited in Canada. A little present from an ex-communist country to a socialistic one. Spacibo bolshoi! The Arctic Ocean is a huge whirlpool with a ten-foot thick ice topping, not nearly as pristine as one would think or hope.

At last we arrive, at the Pole, after five days of slugging it out from Spitzbergen.

Ninety North. No human being had ever gotten this far until Amundsen flew over it in 1926 (scholars now recognize the claims of Peary and Byrd to be entirely fiction). On April 23, 1948, Shakespeare’s 384th birthday and my 5th, twenty four Russians flew up in three ski-equipped Li-2’s (the Russian copy of the DC-3, aka C-47, Dakota, Gooneybird) and were the first people to actually set foot at the pole.

“What did I expect to see on the moon? I expected to see an old Gooneybird sitting up there waiting for me, because there’s no place they can’t fly.”

-Neil Armstrong, 1969

Lembrick sounds the foghorn and we break out the champagne. Throughout history, about 6,000 people have arrived by submarine, 4,500 by icebreaker, and about 1,000 have flown in, or walked the last degree. Several of my friends have parachuted in with the Russian Air Force.

In 1876 Lewis Carroll opined in his poem, The Hunting of the Snark:

“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Pole and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
“They are merely conventional signs!”

I don’t think so. All in all, fewer than 12,000 people have ever been to the top of the world. What a thrill. We dance around the earth, hitting all 24 time zones. Where else but the antipode are time and direction warped beyond the average person’s imaginings, where night and day are six-month affairs, where you can jog around the earth in a minute? For me, anyway, it is almost an out-of-body experience. One half of Yamal is at Wednesday, the other half, Thursday. I plant the St. Paul’s banner here. Twenty of our number elect to take a dip in the ocean…the real polar bear club. The water temperature is 28.5 degrees F– salt water freezes 3.5 degrees colder than fresh water. The ship’s doctor has a defibrillator standing by next to the steps.

I watch them jump in. A rope is tied around your waist; burly Russian seamen will pull you back onto the ice if you become paralyzed or suffer a heart attack. Otherwise, it is 13,410 feet straight down to the bottom. Another barbecue. Russian sharpshooters are staked out, scanning the ice for polar bears. Whenever you are out on the ice, you have to have that sort of protection. Witness US Navy protocol in this regard…the sniper in the conning tower.

I strike up a conversation with my new friend, Alexandr, a crewmember. (We both liked to hang out on the stern together, away from the crowds.) He said that he had once served on a Soviet submarine, and had been underneath the pole. He asked if I had been in the American Navy. I said that I had not, but that I had once shipped out on a Fast Frigate from Pearl Harbor. “What were you doing?” he asked. “We were looking for Soviet submarines,” I reply. “I guess that you could say that we were looking for you!” We both think this is terribly funny. We discover that at one time we both had lived in the same Moscow neighborhood, near the good old Yugo-Zapadnaya (Zapad to us locals) metro station. He shows me a picture of his wife and of his three boys, each son in medical school. I give him an 82nd Airborne patch. He gives me a 2003 Russian naval calendar for my wallet.

We pack up and leave for Franz Joseph Land and the Barents Sea. On the way we will see polar bears and walruses and whales and thousands of birds. And the hardy arctic poppy, whose petals form a paraboloid and whose stamens or anthers or pistils or whatever those things are in the middle of a flower are at the exact focus! Why? To attract insects by the warmth there, who will pollinate other flowers! And it has little spines on the stem which prevent laminar flow and thus minimize heat loss! And it always points to the sun!

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower…

We learn of trees, related to the willow, just two inches high over on Novaya Zemlya. They live to be a hundred and fifty years old! Imagine, trees surviving arctic nights at a hundred blow zero with wind! One person, not watching his feet, could wipe out an entire forest in a couple of minutes! And Al tells us that this entire archipelago will one day slam into Siberia. Anything north of us will become part of North America. Yamal must be parked right over two tectonic plates. Nansen’s hut is now two meters closer to Asia than when he wintered over!

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small.
All things wise and wonderful
The Lord God made them all.

But even with all of this, the longer, return trip is a little anticlimactic. We stood where Amundsen, Peary, Scott, Shackleton, Nobile and Nansen had all failed to stand. Hey, it was easy. All you need is a 22,500 ton nuclear icebreaker, a great captain, an MI-8 helicopter, 128 competent crew members and, certainly not least, perhaps most important of all, a keg of Heineken beer.

“Life is either a series of adventures, or nothing at all.”– Helen Keller


The woman helping me hold the banner is Janet Lindfried, a friend of mine from Kauai and a fellow schoolteacher. Note the Hawaiian flag. (Click to enlarge)

Map of various locations visited on the Yamal.

For more pictures and information on this voyage, click here.

Map and photos courtesy of Kristen and Duke Hafferman

One Response to “White Nights in the High Desert”

  1. What a wonderful article–it makes me feel like I was actually along for the ride–what a spectacular journey!

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