In August, 2004 we took three weeks to navigate to the North Pole and cross the Northeast Passage. Our old friends, Zegrahm Expeditions, chartered the Russian vessel YAMAL, the most powerful icebreaker in the world, to complete this voyage.

From Helsinki we flew to Murmansk, home to Russia’s nuclear submarine fleet, where we boarded the YAMAL amidst tight security controls. Our 19-day cruise took us across the Barents Sea, through the Franz Josef Land archipelago, to the Pole and then back to the Severnaya Zemyla ("NorthLand") Islands, across the East Siberian Sea to Wrangel Island, and finally to Pevek in Siberia where we disembarked.

The YAMAL is an astounding vessel, its twin nuclear reactors producing 75,000 HP and driving three propellers. Its 2-inch thick hull can defeat the thickest ice. We crushed 6-foot thick pack ice continuously for 17 days, the sensation being not unlike that of riding a train over a series of switches, with random lurches occurring once or twice every minute, but not uncomfortable once you get used to it. It sports a distinctive color scheme, with a crimson red superstructure and green decks contrasting with its black hull.

Since it is a working ship, our accomodations were relatively spartan, and the public spaces were minimal when compared to almost any cruise ship. Although the outside temperature was usually freezing or below we often left our porthole open, as the waste heat from the reactors kept the ship's interior very warm.

Periodically, the staff hydrologist would helicopter off to scout the best route ahead. Visibility was generally not a problem in 24-hour daylight although we did experience occasional overcast and fog. We had to change course on a couple of occasions, when we were slowed by "fast ice" which is harder to break and push aside, being anchored by nearby islands.

Using the shipboard large helicopter (20 seats) we visited various promising islands. We found nesting seabirds, midget flora, and 100 year-old encampments, left behind by early explorers such as Nansen and Amundsen, well preserved due to their isolation and the cold. The wildlife was different and, in our opinion, less engaging than what we had found in Antarctica.

Captain Lembrik stopped the vessel at the North Pole (the GPS read 90 degrees of latitude!) and we disembarked onto the ice, had a little ceremony and a full-fledged barbecue with picnic tables and benches. At the remotest place on earth in the middle of the Arctic Ocean the bottom is 13,000 feet below the ice, and some hardy souls jumped into the freezing water in the open space at the stern of the boat!

Our guide/lecturers were outstanding, notably Nikita Ovsyanikov who has spent entire seasons camped out by Polar Bear dens; Victor Boyarsky, a Polar adventurer now Director of the Saint Petersburg Arctic Museum; and Dr. James McCarthy, an oceanographer at Harvard and a senior member of the United Nations commission on Climate Change.

We were struck by the warmth and hospitality of the Russian people. The crew was very friendly and tried hard to please, in spite of the language barrier. Our cabin stewardess, a Murmansk schoolteacher moonlighting during the summer months, was very attentive to our needs. The population of Pevek, the desolate and isolated community in Siberia where we left the ship, went all out to welcome us, including a show of native and folkloric dances and a fine four-course luncheon, this in spite of infrequent arrivals of fresh supplies.


Victor Boyarsky flanked by Expedition Leader Mike Messick (right) and Assistant Leader Tim Soper (left)

Polar Bear

Puzzled Polar Bear scrutinizes the YAMAL punchin' through

North Pole

The YAMAL stopped for several hours at the North Pole


Kathryn finds conditions to be brisk at the Pole!

helo excursion

The ship's MI-8 helicopter takes a bunch of us ashore

young natives' peformance

Youngsters from the local Chukchi tribe perform for us in Pevek

the ship crunches ice

The YAMAL crunching ice underway in the Arctic Ocean

vessel cutaway

The ship's interpreter translates the Chief Engineer's presentation of YAMAL's layout

Admunsen's 1918 camp

YAMAL drifting offshore Maud Bay where Amundsen spent the winter of 1918


"Haulout" of Walruses on a floe near Wrangel Island

Musk Ox

Pair of Musk Oxen on Wrangel Island