In a maze of ice

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19 August 2013

Tara set out for the Vilkinsky Strait, alone and very daring. Advised by the directors of the Russian icebreaker fleet, the research ship tried to get a little closer to the famous Cape Chelyuskin, a strategic point in the Northeast passage. The ice charts encouraged the initiative, but soon the boat and crew found themselves in a real maze of ice.

The day had started off auspiciously. In a pastel decor, a polar bear and her 2 cubs appeared on an iceberg. Sniffing the air cautiously and detecting an unusual human presence, the mother finally let her offspring play freely on the block of ice. From a distance, we watched this wonderful and touching Arctic show, as the female nursed her cubs one by one. She was probably tired of watching over her offspring alone. The males abandon the new-born cubs, and sometimes become real predators of their own offspring. The mother bear tried to rest a little, to no avail. Full of energy and playfulness, the 2 cubs were constantly teasing her. Then 3 balls of white hair began to roll around on the ice, as if to entertain us. Half an hour later, bath time had come. The mother bear showed the way to the icy waters – how to get down from this mound of ice. After a long moment of hesitation, encouraged by the attention of their mother, the 2 cubs took off down the slippery slope. In single file, the 3 polar bears went off to roam the Kara Sea, leaving us with one of the fondest memories of our Arctic adventure.

For Tara, it was time to continue our route, to leave the Kara, and explore the Laptev Sea. Under engine power, we headed for the Vilkitsky Strait, the passage separating the mainland region of Taymyr from the Severnaya Zemlya archipelago. We had just received new ice charts. The water still seemed free for several nautical miles. The directors of the Russian icebreaker fleet invited us to get a small lead on the next possible caravan. We were confident. We were excited to continue our journey eastward. But quickly the horizon whitened, and we were heading right into the ice. Uncertainty mingled with joy at finding this peaceful and sublime world. From the crow’s nest of Tara, nature’s artwork was especially striking. A footprint, a skull, a turquoise heart – seen from the top of mast, the ice exhibited highly creative forms. But as we progressed towards the east, the sea blue became rare, giving way to pure white. The sailors took turns at Tara’s helm. It took considerable ingenuity to find a way through, and a lot of patience too. But after long hours in this maze of ice, moving at an average rate of one knot, we had to face the facts: we were stuck. The giant game had no way out. The only option was to turn back, retrace our steps to find open water, and accept defeat. Finally, we lost a battle but not the war! The return trip was not so simple. In just a few hours, the plaques of ice had moved around. Again considerable ingenuity was required. Again we had to be patient. And once more the Arctic gave human beings a lesson in humility.

For 2 days we’ve been drifting in open water, waiting for a Russian icebreaker to come to our aid. The Yamal left port yesterday – at a speed of 17 knots – to free an icebound freighter near Cape Chelyuskin. Patience is the primary quality of the polar explorers, and I look forward to acquiring it!

Anna Deniaud Garcia