Text and Photographs by Michael L. Charters

Dedicated to the memory of my older brother David who strongly encouraged me to take this trip at a time when I thought it was too outlandish. One of the last talks I had with him was to tell him all about it when I came back from the North Pole, and he passed two months later. I am so glad I was able to share this with him. I miss you, Davy.

Polar bears and Russian nuclear icebreaker Yamal at Franz Josef Land

I think it was on the fogbound, treeless coast of far northwestern Siberia that the true reality and significance of my experience finally sank in. I was wandering around on mushy Arctic tundra at a Gulag camp abandoned only about 30 years earlier, among sagging wire fences, dilapidated and lonely guard towers, and crumbling wooden huts, with my temporary home a Russian nuclear icebreaker somewhere lost in the mists a few miles offshore and the noise of helicopter engines rising and falling in the chill air as our group shuttled back and forth. When the sound of the rotors receded, we were surrounded not only by hundreds of miles of empty tundra, but by a stillness that seemed to contain the voices of countless victims of the Soviet prison system. Yet the fact that we had gotten such immediate and unequivocal permission to visit this sensitive site spoke to us more eloquently than anything else could have of the tremendous changes that were taking place in the Russia of the early 1990's.

(L) I flew from Los Angeles to Copenhagen to Oslo and on to Kirkenes in northern Norway to board the catamaran ferry Varangerfjord for the trip to Murmansk, Russia. (R) We stayed at the Rica Arctic Hotel in Kirkenes.

(L) The wake of the waterjet-powered Varangerfjord at 28 knots. The trip from Kirkenes to Murmansk takes about 4-1/2 hours and is a new commercial route initiated in 1991. I threw up repeatedly. (R) Russian pilot boat that met us at Murmansk.

(L) Murmansk is one of the major Russian seaports, both commercial and military. These are two STOL (short takeoff and landing) aircraft carriers. The Yamal's crew showed no concern at our snapping pictures of their naval vessels. (R) Our first view of a nuclear icebreaker, one of the five operated by the Murmansk Shipping Co. This is the Rossiya, slightly older sister-ship of the Yamal. (Below) Scenes of Murmansk harbor, one of the great natural anchorages of the world, which lies at the end of a long fjord like those of Scandinavia.

In 1994, I combined three major lifelong interests, Russian history, ships and nautical matters, and Arctic exploration, and signed up for a journey to the North Pole. Only the year before had such a trip been possible, so about 100 American passengers joined 140 Russian officers and crewmembers to cross the Arctic Ocean. The Russians were just as excited about it as we were since they had never done anything like it either. The Yamal is one of the world's most powerful ships, capable of travelling through the Arctic's heaviest ice, and one of only three surface vessels in the world able to reach the North Pole in either summer or winter.

(L) The Murmansk railroad station. (R) Constitution Square. Our touring opportunity in Murmansk was brief as we were given a one-hour bus ride around town and a chance to purchase some Russian souvenirs. There were many children happily exchanging rubles for dollars.

(L) Some typical Murmansk architecture prior to the advent of concrete highrises. (R) The huge monument memorializing the Defenders of the Soviet Arctic During the Great Patriotic War, commonly called the Alyosha. At 116' tall, it is the second-tallest statue in Russia and weighs some 5,000 tons.

(L) Sovietskiy Soyuz, the third of the big Yamal-class nuclear icebreakers. (R) A tug pulls the Yamal out by the bow. (Below left) Lenin by the dock, the world's first atomic icebreaker, now decommisioned, and Arktica on the outside, a single-reactor icebreaker. (Below right) Ship's purser A. Bogdan (with tie) talks to passengers as we depart. Despite being two hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle, this was one of the warmest summers in memory, and the air temperature was 70 degrees.

Our voyage on the Yamal, flagship of the Russian nuclear icebreaker fleet, began on the Kola Peninsula, until recently one of the most closely-guarded military areas in the former Soviet Union. With Russian sailors waving to us from dockside, we cast off to the accompaniment of three stentorian blasts of the ship's horn, the captain's traditional way of bidding farewell to Murmansk. As the echoes rolled around the low hills surrounding the city, we sailed majestically up the fjord past missile submarines and aircraft carriers, past five other atomic icebreakers, past a secret city that until 1991 was not even on the map, and out into the gentle swell of the Barents Sea. As I stood alone on the top deck in the10pm summer daylight of northern Russia, it occurred to me that although I had done a few interesting things in my life, being on a nuclear icebreaker as it headed for the North Pole definitely qualified as the most unreal thing I had ever done.

(L) Looking astern over the main midships crane. (R) The primary electronics tower and the ship's sensory/ communications array.

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© Michael L. Charters, Sierra Madre, CA.  2006-2014
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