Our quarters were a little further back from the bow than where I had tried to sleep on my trip up to the pole July 5-13. This position made for a quieter ride home and, unlike our previous quarters, we had a window that opened. The only drawback was that, on the outside of our window, there was a loudspeaker that routinely blasted commands and instructions to the crew in Russian and to the passengers in English. The toilet facilities consisted of two stall-like rooms that we shared with about 25 of the crew members. We quickly established our rhythms and they were quite opposite. I slept about 4-5 hours during the day with a short catnap after supper and Victor kept the more routine hours of the passengers. I often slept through lunch and had my biggest appetite for the 7:30 breakfast. Victor's and my schedule matched in the afternoon when we took our regular sauna at 6:00 and we often participated in the aerobic class trying to keep in rhythm with the back of the group. The icebreaker had a small swimming pool of saltwater where Victor swam. I tried to travel 10 kilometers each day on the speedometer of the exercise bike. I had the entire passengers' lounge to myself during the midnight hours. For the first time in 12 years, I had some 'dead' time on my hands and I filled the void by reading a number of books and even watched some videos. Often, I would go to the bridge to check the weather and ice conditions. The sun never set and, with the eternal light, I lost track of the days and time passed quickly in a blur.
The passengers on board were different from the mostly international group on the voyage to the Pole. On this return trip, the cabins were filled with a sizable group from Stanford University Alumni and the Smithsonian Institution. The average age was 67 and the people were a very interesting mix of retired academics and self-made entrepreneurs. Like the trip up, my memories are mostly of the great conversations I had and the warmth with which I was treated. I was given the honor of being the first 'hitchhiker' from the Pole. I had no idea my expedition would end up like this, but I accepted the changes and enjoyed the environment and the company of the world that surrounded me on board.
The ship found its northbound trail as it headed south through the pack ice of the first voyage. On the first trip to the Pole, the ship had a difficult time making its way though the ice because it was unusually thick. It seemed to me that the thick Canadian ice that normally flows back toward the North American continent had moved into the Trans-Polar drift that flows across the Pole to the Greenland Sea. Since the movement of the ice is determined largely by the wind's strength and direction, it is easy to explain why the icebreaker had such a struggle on its first journey. The prevailing wind direction most likely had temporarily changed slightly and blew more from the west-southwest pushing the Canadian ice over into the Trans-Polar drift. For the ship it was like a skier skiing against a strong head wind. Changes like this can be common on the Arctic Ocean, for the movement of the ice is weather-dependent and, as we say in Minnesota, 'weather is weather,' meaning it is always changing and difficult to predict. Having found its previous trail for the southbound journey, our trip was a smoother and more comfortable ride. For example on my way to the Pole via the ship, the icebreaker constantly - hundreds of times - had to back up and then, with full power, ram its way forward in an attempt to force a passage. On my hitchhike ride back, the captain seldom had to put the engines in reverse. There was one exception to this. One day the ship veered off its path and was stopped by a giant pressure ridge that the bridge estimated to be 10 meters thick. In this case, the icebreaker had to back up and bound forward 22 times before it could bust through the ice.
On the 5th or 6th day, the ice began to loosen up. We approached the open water of the Barents Sea that forms the northern boundary of the Russian western Arctic and Scandinavia. Wildlife was abundant there. We saw seals, walrus, bears and birds playing in the updraft of the ship. The temperature remained just at the freezing point or a little lower.
At the end of July, the ship approached Franz Josef Land which is made up of 190 islands located about 500 miles north of the western Russia coast. The icebreaker made a number of stops where we were shuttled ashore and back by helicopter. The tourists were divided into three groups - the belugas, the Arctic foxes and the polar bears. Victor was in charge of coordinating the helicopter flights and I joined the staff on land to keep the passengers company and to point out interesting sights and answer questions.
Our first stop there was where the famous Norwegian explorer Nansen and his companion, Johansen, had wintered over in 1895-96 on their return back to Norway from the Arctic Ocean. They had left their ship, the FRAM, and attempted to reach the North Pole. I would encourage anyone who likes to read about adventure to look up the story of Nansen's life in the library or on-line. I have had few heroes in my life, but Fridtjof Nansen has been one and he has also been a fine role model for me. The two men stayed in a crude hut that winter which was not much more than a fence-like ring of stone covered by walrus hides. The remains of this included a driftwood log, that they must have used as a center pole for the roof, a trace of the rock ring and many bones - mostly polar bear bones. In the cold dry Arctic air, it is not uncommon for musk ox or polar bear bones to last over 100 years. I had a deep regret that Igor had 'arrested' my equipment for I wanted to transmit up live photos to share with you some of these remarkable sites.
We then visited three other historical sites that included several graves belonging to explorers and scientists. I find that people are fascinated by these old grave sites. This kind of remnant makes a connection as to the harshness of this land and the hardships (which seem almost unbelievable to modern people) that the elements imposed on the humans who dared to explore this region.
Igor stood guard on our perimeters for polar bears. His clothing matched - he wore a brown and gray camouflaged suit. He often sat in the leeward protected from the wind by an occasional rock outcrop. There was a second person, Alex, who was in charge of customs on board. Alex carried my gun and served as the second rifleman. He was a civilian type person and the average guy in Russia has no safety training with guns as many of us had as kids in the States. Americans take possession of guns for granted, but in Russia it is a very big deal for one to carry a gun. Victor loves guns and, at times, he also had his hands on the rifle and proudly walked around keeping us safe from bears. If I served any purpose at all it was to watch the Russians who carried or held my confiscated gun and to make sure that they did not accidentally point it at anyone. I always made certain that they never had a bullet in the chamber, that the safety was always on, and that they never carried it loaded on the helicopter.
Victor told me that after the last stop, Igor wanted to throw my rifle overboard into the ocean. This seemed like a simple plan for the complicated problem of who would officially take possession of the gun. I thought why not give it to the sea. Victor thought it was a good idea because his name was registered with the gun and, if it showed up elsewhere in Russia, he would end up in a situation that even he couldn't get himself out of. In fact, Victor wanted me to take a picture of us tossing the gun overboard to document who the new owner was.
So after our last stop, Victor summoned me to the stern of the ship where Igor was waiting to perform the ceremony. I documented the procedure. Victor made gestures of a drum role and, using both hands, Igor lifted my stainless steel 30.06 Ruger rifle over the railing and dropped it in the ocean. It made a splash and was followed to the depths by my remaining bullets. Igor turned around to shock me with a friendly smile as he said "no gun, no problem." I sensed that he had been under pressure from the authorities in Moscow and that he was a second or maybe third class agent who was given the duty of watching for spies among the tourists on the icebreaker. What would have been a routine and boring duty became complicated when this American walked on board the icebreaker on July 5th with a rifle. When he had learned that I was to be picked up at the pole, Igor had told Victor "I told you that Wheel Steger is an agent. I knew this all along. I knew I was right." Igor was visibly relieved and warmed up to me when the rifle disappeared. I had always sort of liked him. His lack of humor fascinated me, but the human side of Igor came out during the rest of the voyage.
Late in the afternoon of July 31, the ship steamed to the southwest into the open waters of the Barents Sea. Luck was with us, for the ocean surface remained still and mirror-like for the remaining 500 miles back to Murmansk. We descended south of 70 degrees North latitude and, during the morning hours of August 2nd, I saw my first sunset in a month. It was soothing to see the Arctic pastel colors of the August sky. It did not get dark, however, but the intensity of the polar sky dimmed and reminded me of the richness of the late summer season in the Canadian Arctic. At 5:00AM on the 2nd, in full sunlight, we entered the port of Murmansk.
The passengers were awakened early and as they shuffled into the lounge for their morning coffees, they all bid me farewell. I had to repeat myself scores of times "I am on the same plane to Helsinki as you." This plane was due to depart at 11:00. I think they did not believed that I could get all my gear through customs, myself through immigration, purchase a ticket in Russian rubbles and fit the canoe-sled in the cargo hold of the plane. But...I had Victor.
I watched as the crew secured the ship to the dock and then lowered the gang plank. There were eight serious-looking customs and immigration officers dressed in military uniforms and waiting on shore ready to board the ship. Victor had warned me that their moods could be unpleasant since it was 5:00AM on a Saturday morning.
It was arranged that I would run the gauntlet with the officers before the ship's passengers started with immigration. The problem I faced was that I had officially left the country of Russia when I had disembarked from the icebreaker at the Pole the 13th. At the time, I was given a little red stamp in my passport to prove it. Now, I had to reenter the country and then leave again in three short hours. Victor handled everything and the immigration went smoothly. They couldn't send me back out of the country to my point of origin - the North Pole.
The customs situation was different. However, Victor told me that Igor was on my side and shortly before I sat down to talk to the three agents Igor looked at me seriously and said "trust me." At the table, were two men who looked like they were in their 50's. They wore three stars on each of their shoulders. Sitting between them was a woman in her 30's who had one star. The men were quiet and official but the woman was almost outwardly angry. She controlled the situation with her stern attitude. The conversation got very loud and almost broke into an argument between her and the other two men. It seemed like I might be her ax to grind. After 5 minutes of this we marched to the prison cell that housed all my equipment. Our entourage of officialdom walked through the group of passengers. I was meekly trailing in the rear. Everyone looked at me with pity as if I was being marched off to Siberia. The massive paddle lock was opened and I was allowed in the musty chamber to display my goods. Of course, they first wanted to take a look at the transmitter and the antenna. I then showed them my personal gear. A conversation ensued in the small hallway that was lit by the two red lights. Igor seemed relaxed and Victor said to me "your equipment is free to leave the jail." The three officials were happy and the woman smiled. I next carried everything off thae ship as Victor tried to arrange for transportation for the hour long trip to the airport for the 13 foot Bell-design canoe-sled. This boat dock was no passenger terminal with taxies, rather it was a restricted military base where cameras were prohibited and guards with bayonets marched 15 meters from us around the inside of a thick barb-wire fence. I managed to hop a ride to the airport to start the negotiations for my ticket on the crowded flight to Finland. Victor unsuccessfully tried o get a vehicle to carry the canoe but I really needed him at the airport to assist me with the ticket because I was advised it would be almost impossible to get on the plane.
I rode through Murmansk which is a typical Stalin-style looking city of concrete bunker apartment housing. The city has a population of several million people but on this peaceful Saturday morning the streets were vacant as the occupants of the "blocky" apartments rested inside. At the city boundary, cement was replaced by tundra for there were no suburbs in Murmansk. We drove another half hour and then showed up at the concrete airport terminal. Inside it was chaos. No one spoke English and I couldn't figure out what line to get into. I mulled around a little and chose one of the lines to wait in. It takes a certain amount of calmness and faith in these situations. I have always found that if I relax, things seem to go my way. I felt somewhat like one of my faithful dogs for I knew Victor would come to my rescue. Sure enough, he soon dashed into the terminal looking for me. He saw me in line and with great excitement and adventure in his eyes he said "Wheel, the helicopter from the ship is bringing the canoe to the airport." He then selected a different ticket agent and, after 15 minutes of talking, I had the ticket in hand and joined the long baggage check-in line. Victor then ran out to arrange the canoe transportation for the final 3 kilometer from the helicopter to the terminal. He showed up in a tiny car with the canoe suspended on its roof. As I approached the check in counter I dragged the canoe along with my heavy bags towards the scale. Victor talked to the baggage crew to get their assurance that at least they would try to fit the canoe in the cargo hold of the plane. I knew it would fit because I had researched the cargo hold dimensions of the planes that fly in northern Scandinavia and I had cut the canoe length to slightly under 13 feet so that it would fit into these planes so I could ship my boat to the north. Next my ticket was inspected and we pushed the canoe through the small baggage door that separates the ticket desk from the baggage handlers that awaited my small craft. Victor accompanied me through the carry on search and the X-ray machine procedure. We were then contained in a small room awaiting my passport and immigration check. Victor could not go beyond this point and the plane was starting to board. We gave each other multiple hugs and said a final good-bye. After I passed through immigration, I looked back and saw Victor continuously waving with an ear-to-ear smile. I was grateful for having such a friend and I think Victor truly enjoyed the excitement of rescuing me on the Arctic Ocean.
On the plane I had to settle for a aisle seat. We were detained 20 minutes while the baggage was loaded. Everyone in the window seats on the right side of the plane watched for the canoe. It arrived on the last load and those who could see it gave a verbal report as the canoe was loaded. I don't think many of the people thought it was possible for the canoe to fit. But then most of them didn't think I would be on the plane with them. We all heard a clunk sound as the canoe was placed in the cargo hold. Cheers went up - hurrah! I was on the plane with all my gear retreating back to civilization.