June 20, 2016
Today was the summer solstice. Due to leap year, the summer solstice actually falls a day earlier. This morning we signed up for the hike in Isbjørnhamna as it was the only chance we would have to see nesting little auks. We chose to be in the group of “fast” walkers along with at least 20 other people. It would be our first chance to cover some ground while we were in the Arctic.
We started along the beach and soon followed a single track trail. I think this was the first time we even walked on a trail. There are two points of view about trails in the Arctic. One is to mess up one small portion of the land by creating a trail and a trace. As such the rest of the terrain is protected. The other is to spread out and walk so that a trail is never created and no trace is left, but a larger area of tundra is trampled. I don’t really know what is best, but I preferred the trail.
The trail led us up through black rocks, maybe volcanic in nature. Along the way, we stopped to enjoy the views that changed with rolling fog. Somehow, we never stopped by the few flowers, so it was an effort for me to get any good pictures of them. I couldn’t lag behind, or I could have been polar bear bait. Upon reaching some scientific monitoring equipment on the other side of the bay, we turned up the hill toward the awk colony. In all of our layers, we worked up a sweat as we climbed up to the rocky path.
Little auks are truly tiny! The small birds nest beneath the scree and then stand guard atop it. If a predator threatens them, the whole flock lifts up in flight. They protect by sheer numbers. Along with the auks, we spotted other birds such as geese and gulls who rested on the cliffs that towered above the scree. There had to be a fox up there somewhere. We didn’t realize how lucky we were when we saw the Arctic fox our first day. We hadn’t seen one since.
We kept our eyes peeled as the clouds rolled along the cliffs. Yuki, one of the guides, spotted one. She shouted, “Fox” as she pointed to the area up by the resting geese. The fox slipped behind the boulders before anyone could see it. We patiently waited for it to reappear as a chill came over us after sitting for 20 minutes. When our time and patience ran out, we prepared to leave just as another cloud enveloped the cliffs.
I commented to David, “Watch, the fox will come out under the cloud cover, so it can hunt.”
David turned and looked one last time, and with his eagle eyes, he shouted, “Fox!”
As soon as he shouted, I had heard what seemed like a barking noise. I heard the same noise when Yuki shouted fox. I don’t know if it was the fox making the noise or the little auks responding to the sly critter, but what I do know is the black-coated fox was trotting across the cliff with a bird in its mouth! It’s amazing how well these fox blend in with the cliffs. About the only way to spot them is when they are moving, and that is still hard.
Fortunately, the little guy was headed for a snow patch! I snapped a photo when the snowy background contrasted with its dark coat. I have to say my 18-270 lens just couldn’t zoom enough for anything great, but the fox had been recorded! We found out later that the fox we spotted was the rarer Blue fox. 75% of the Blue foxes die in the first year. The mean age is only 3-4 years.
After the fox sighting, it was really time to go. My numb hands and feet were already aware of this fact. As we hiked down the hill back to the shore, I trailed slightly behind while I tried snapping a few more flower photos. As I was taking a few steps forward, I came across an egg. I don’t know how no one stepped on it. The whole group had walked right over it. I shouted, “Egg!”
Hardly anyone stopped at first, so I thought well maybe people didn’t think a bird’s egg was exciting. But this one was big and speckled and still intact. I shouted a little louder, “Egg!” Our guides hadn’t seen an egg like this, so they radioed one of the bird scientists that joined the crowd. He said it had been abandoned. Of course, we asked why. He said some birds have to concentrate on their own survival. If they are having a difficult time finding food, and don’t think they can survive, they will abandon the egg so they have a chance to breed again the following year. Anyway, it was the biggest bird’s egg I’d ever seen. Even bigger than the chicken eggs we eat. As we headed back to the ship, David and I got several pats on the back from our group since we were the spotters of the fox and egg!
To see where we were, click here: http://www.trimbleoutdoors.com/ViewTrip/3249390?secretLinkKey=9d5b6181-5a89-40cf-8d48-f3d371be1514
Generally, we tended to finish our morning excursion just before lunch. I haven’t mentioned food in any of my blogs recently, so I thought I’d add a little more information about our dining. In the beginning, the food seemed pretty good. Now, it seemed to have deteriorated slightly, but it was still reasonable. The chef had a tough job catering to so many different nationalities on the ship. The lunch buffet always included a salad. Of course there was also a heated meat, fish, starch, and veggies. The options didn’t exactly go together. Sometimes, we could get grilled fish and egg rolls at the same lunch.
We sat with this one couple from England that were quite funny. They represented their home county in international bridge tournaments. It was quite fascinating to listen to all the rules, and how they competed. Somehow we also got on the topic of food. We had mentioned that the first night we thought the fish was very good, but since then it was disappointing, and we had switched to eating meat because the chef did an excellent job with beef. The English lady agreed and continued with a story about their recent travels to some islands off of Scotland.
In her English accent she said, “You know over there, many people are fishermen. It is their job to bring home fresh fish, and the fish we ate tasted like it was out of the freezer. It was just atrocious!” I couldn’t help but chuckle. She could just rip a topic to shreds and with her English accent, she sounded nice about it!
Anyway, during lunch, our ship motored to our next destination, Burgerbukta. It anchored in the bay pretty far from shore. As such, we had our kayaks shuttled to a starting point and we took another zodiac to the location. Otherwise, it would have taken far too long to get started. The seas were pretty rough, so we could only unload off one side of the zodiac instead of both. I can’t say the kayak loading process was very graceful as we clutched the side of the zodiac while getting situated.
David and I were the last to load. Once again, I am happy to say, we took the double out! The rest of the kayakers were inspecting an iceberg while they were waiting for us. Sharon paddled over too them and suggested that they back up little. No sooner did she do this then the iceberg exploded! A piece shot right over her. Since David and I were busy loading, we only saw the splash when everyone hollered. We had been warned icebergs will roll over or break apart and to stay three times the height away from them. They were just so pretty, however, sometimes our excitement got the best of us. Not to mention, it was hard to imagine. Not anymore.
Once we joined the group, we paddled out of the rough sea into the protected bay of icebergs toward a glacier. David really wanted to get close to the glacier, though close was relative…300 feet away. Regardless, we led the pack past cloudy white and bright blue icebergs. They changed colors with the sun as the light shimmered through the clouds. The ice snapped, crackled, and popped like a bowl of Rice Krispies. We all took a quiet moment just to listen.
With all the activity, we had a sense something else might happen. Sure enough, another iceberg just fell apart right next to us! Others looked like they might roll over as they bobbed and tilted in the water. In addition to the icebergs popping, we heard thunderous booms. We kept looking in the direction of the noise to our left, where we finally spotted an avalanche tumbling down the mountain side. As many as four at time would trigger. They looked like small waterfalls. One of the slides was finally large enough to reach the water. It was happening every ten minutes. I can’t really explain the excitement. We felt like bobble head dolls spinning around to catch the next activity.
In the meantime, the skies behind us and the ship were black! Sharon told us to slow up and stay close because a katabatic wind could blow down the glacier face. If this happened, we needed to unload immediately as they can reach hurricane force speed. Sure enough one started coming. It swooped down over one glacier, but it was stopped by a rocky point before it reached the next glacier. Fortunately, it didn’t make it to us and we only had to contend with a slight increase in swell. It would have been disappointing to cut this dynamic paddle short. The closer we got to the glacier ahead of us, the more brash ice we found. We paddled through it in search of a clear piece that we could use in our whiskey this evening.
The clear ice is 10,000 years old. All the air bubbles inside it compressed over time to give it this appearance. We were told if we placed the ice in whiskey, the air bubbles would expand and the ice could explode. We were ready to experiment. Much to our dismay, it didn’t explode, but saying we drank Maker’s Mark and a vodka soda over 10,000 year old ice had a pretty good ring to it!
To see where we were, click here: http://www.trimbleoutdoors.com/ViewTrip/3249392?secretLinkKey=b20cb863-18bb-4d32-a0ff-ce2ee555bdbe
While we warmed up, the ship moved away from the threatening weather. Amazingly the captain was able to find a protected, sunny cove nearby. Upon anchoring, the call came over the loud speaker, “It’s time for the polar plunge. Please head down to the gangway on the starboard side of the ship.” Since David was still sick, he passed on the opportunity. I don’t blame him. Jumping into icy water wasn’t a way to heal.
In fact, it was probably stupid, but I did it anyway. Dressed in the ship-supplied robe, I headed down the gangway along with 40 something other crazy passengers and prepared to make a splash. David joined the spectators on the fourth deck to take pictures. I did a cannon ball into icy water on the summer solstice. I didn’t remember it being quite that cold in Antarctica, though I’m sure it was similar. As soon as I hit the water, I whipped around and flailed back to the boat. I could hardly think as I frantically reached for the deck to pull myself out. I must have had a crazed look on my face. Woody said, “It’s OK. We’ll help you out. Nice cannonball.”
After a long hot shower, I was ready for the summer solstice BBQ and hat competition night. The staff grilled chicken, burgers, and sausages as passengers with different homemade hats filed through the door to the back deck. Many pinned white surgical gloves (anything on the ship was available for use) to their heads to be reindeer. The best costume, however, was of a polar bear. Not only did she come sporting a hat, she had a full body outfit all the way down to black electrical tape on her nails for claws.
As the evening continued, people started dancing to the boom box music. It was amazing that we even got to enjoy the sunny weather at all, as black skies surrounded us. At some point, the captain pulled up the anchor and moved the ship, but that didn’t stop the partiers. They continued the fun in the salon until the wee hours of the morning. I wish I could say we joined them, but we had a much tamer evening. ETB