These experiences give a real sense of perspective on life and the awe-inspiring beauty of nature.
ith the jagged, mist-wrapped coast of Spitsbergen low on the horizon, the Polar Pioneer reaches the edge of the pack ice. The former research ship trembles as its reinforced bow strikes a massive ice sheet, shattered plates of frozen water tipping skyward to reveal underbellies corroded by salt. Here in Arctic Norway, less than 1,200 kilometres from the North Pole, the ocean is a jigsaw of pancake-flat floes, soupy brash, and dark, vein-like leads. An hour into this dramatic assault, the Polar Pioneer’s Russian captain brings his ship to a stop. A few hundred metres off the port bow, a creamy shape lumbers across the floe. The polar bear circles the ship and approaches deliberately from downwind, the sandpaper-like pads on its giant feet gripping the surface slush. There is no stealth here, only curiosity. A few metres from the Polar Pioneer’s ruststreaked side, the bear raises its long, aquiline nose, sampling an array of foreign scents, surveying the passengers gathered on the foredeck. “For polar travellers, an encounter with a bear is one of the ultimate experiences,” says Howard Whelan, an Arctic veteran and expedition leader for Aurora Expeditions aboard the Polar Pioneer. “There’s probably no greater reminder that in these frozen realms, man is still largely at the mercy of nature.”
CALL OF THE WILD Ever since I was a small boy, hooked on the adventures of explorers Scott, Amundsen, and Shackleton, the polar regions have held a magnetic appeal. Working on a farm on the sub-Antarctic Falkand Islands at the age of 17, colonies of elephant seals and rookeries of magellanic penguins were fine compensation for hours spent shovelling sheep dung.