Electrified barbed wire fences, raked sand and watch towers were among the first sights noted by the 80 alumni who comprised Travel/Study’s first North Pole Expedition in 1992 aboard the Soviet atomic ice breaker, the Sovetskiy Soyuz. The group had traveled from Kirkenes, Norway, to Murmansk, passing through 500 meters of “No Mans Land” before boarding the 45,000-ton ship, which had 12 decks and a crew of 144.
The ship’s course was set to pass Franz Josef Land en route to the North Pole. The trip’s log describes a stark and immense landscape; seal holes and polar bear tracks the only visible marks in the snow layer, a low hanging mist broken in places by a clear blue sky, a pallid midnight sun. Passengers took helicopter trips for an aerial view of the ship breaking its way through the ice.
The ice was up to four meters thick in places, which made for slow travel by ship but was safe to walk on. Passengers disembarked at 83° North to see the strata in the pack ice as it broke up on the surface. Two riflemen stood guard against bears.
On the seventh day of the journey, as the ship drew close to 90°, anticipation ran high. The group assembled on deck with champagne. After careful measuring and maneuvering, the captain confirmed their location: They had reached the pole! In spite of the fog and a temperature around 0°C, the group disembarked for a celebratory barbecue on the ice, flags flying. A few intrepid souls took a dip, tethered by safety ropes; back on the ship, the Captain filled the ship’s swimming pool with ice-cold seawater for anyone else who wanted to take the plunge.
“At sea, southbound (for there is no other way),” reads the traveler’s log on the first day of the return trip. In addition to attending lectures by the five faculty leaders, interested passengers could visit the ship’s reactor compartment in groups of ten. After a briefing by the chief engineer and head of the radiation safety department, passengers were outfitted with white cotton hats, booties, coats and gloves for the 15-minute tour.
The return voyage along the coast of Franz Josef Land offered more sightings of sea birds and artic wildflowers. The group landed at several islands, by inflatable zodiacs when the sea was calm and by helicopter when it wasn’t.
On the 12th day, snowfall prevented landing at one of the islands of Franz Josef Land. Dinner that night was convivial nonetheless. "The meal, the vodka, the occasion, and the change of course all contributed to another late night discussion and sorting out of the problems of the universe," notes the log on July 18.