Suddenly, in a flash of sunlight, I know. A polar bear. Alive and enormous, bobbing down and up in waves and tilting like a buoy.
I’m back inside, wiping my lens with my shirt, dropping my down-filled gloves and woolly hat. By the time I’m at the rail, there are only bubbles in the water. Someone has spied the coast of Greenland. But the bear is gone.
Qaanaaq, we are told, is sometimes called “Thule.” It is the world’s most northern town. Most of its 350 inhabitants seem to be on hand when we step out of Zodiacs and onto the beach. It must be our orange parkas. They stare and stare. We stare back.
When a foghorn blows, there is a whine from Qaanaaq. It doesn’t stop. On the contrary, it gets louder. The sound grows into a full-moon howl. Is it a wolf pack? Not exactly. It is hundreds of Huskie-like sled dogs crying from every corner of the town.
When we go on a walk, I want to try and pet the dogs or throw them a roll I’ve pocketed from breakfast. Anything to calm them down. But it’s not allowed. “People depend on them,” says Duncan Currie who has come here before. “These aren’t pets. They are working dogs.”
So instead I check out the display of sled-dog dry food in a Qaanaaq store. No Alpo or Purina here. But you and your pack can pick up Nukik “Polar Nuggets” sold by the bag. For puppies there is “Nukik Junior.”
Groceries for humans look like they were shipped from Mars. I consider buying a can of “Mork Syrup” but decide against it. I don’t have any pancakes. Dr. Oetker’s Shake n’ Bake Chokolad Muffins might work. And they’d be interesting to try. But I’m not sure Dr. Oetker’s is a brand I can trust. When I think of shaking and baking muffins on a moving ship, this settles the issue. I leave the checkout line and stick the package back on its shelf.
Back on the streets of town, I pass houses that are as tight as drums to keep the weather at bay. Some are painted pink, and some are blue. I try a walk on the pebbly beach. Local vendors are selling seal meat. Pungent slices. Some of it is stretched on strings to dry.
Just when I’ve worked up the courage to ask for a taste, I’m saved by a familiar sound.
It is the Khlebnikov‘s whistle.
Now, from Qaanaaq, comes the eerie trailing whine. AIEEEAAOOOOO. AIEEEEEEEEEAAAOOOOOOOO!
The dogs are hungry for their Polar Nuggets. And it is time for us to get back on board.
Signs that we are reaching our trip’s Arctic extreme are all around. The sky is never dark: sunset bleeds into dawn. Tiny flakes of snow twist by when you are out on deck. And when I get caught by a blast of wind, not one but both of my sunglass lenses pop out and sail overboard.
Our helicopter flights surprise herds of musk oxen. Above a glacier, we see specks of glowing white — a white that is whiter than the snow. “Arctic hares!” shouts our guide, making a hopping motion with his hands just in case we don’t know what a hare can do.
Finally, at breakfast, there is a special announcement. “We’ve reached our apex,” says the Captain. “Our northernmost point on this trip.”
Ship’s latitude is 82.31 degrees North. We roll this around in our heads. Someone unrolls a map. Not the Geographic Pole. But not bad at all.
We are farther up, by far, than Norway, Finland or Alaska. Farther up, we’re told, than the North Magnetic Pole. And our icebreaker has hit the edge of pack ice. It is happy.
At first the sea ice is Saran Wrap, shaped like waves. It thickens into glass, sliding surfing panes that crack and splinter into bits. The plates grow Plexiglas fat. They flatten every swell, pressing down, ironing things out. Now, instead of ocean, there are continents of ice. Whatever is below — Arctic fish and seals, and probably our bear — are hidden underneath this frozen ceiling.
The Khlebnikov crunches forward and down. Forward and deeper down. We are dredging out our personal ice canal. In the stern we make a wake of slush. Starboard and port have flying foam that freezes to the steel and makes us slip and grab the railings and yell.
Peter Hui of Bethesda, Md., is right at the icebreaker’s prow. Snap. Snap. Flash! He’s got it. An Arctic souvenir shot of a traveling pal. Hui’s friend is a yellow rubber chicken that goes where he goes.
“This is one of his best adventures,” says Hui.
He doesn’t mind the wind? I ask.
Hui considers. “See the chicken’s goosebumps? That means he is excited. But also a little cold.”
I nod my head. I know how it is. I can feel the spray and the thrust of the ship. I am shivering despite my parka and my winter gloves and hat. Under my boots the Khlebnikov‘s giant engines churn.
Hui and I, and Hui’s chicken, do not move. We like our ice. We want to watch it, hear its splits and crunches, taste its salt in our teeth. We are leaning over, looking ahead, moving with our ship. Forward and down. Forward and deeper down.
It may be a soft afternoon off the coast of Aruba, Barbados, Bermuda. Passengers on ships there may be ordering drinks. They may be smiling and tasting fruit and just beginning to tan.
Passengers on ships there may be happy as the sun itself. This I understand.
But let them keep their tans and tropics and easy seas.
None is as happy as I.
If You Go
Peter Mandel is an author of books for children including Jackhammer Sam (Macmillan) and Zoo Ah-Choooo (Holiday House). He lives in Providence.