I’m working on a book about Arctic explorers, and that means swimming in a sea of sorrow. In my train compartment, dead adventurers haunt me: Faithful sled dogs eaten by humans or swallowed by chasms in the ice. Sailors devoured by polar bears or their own shipmates. Even when no animals or people are stalking them, polar explorers have a tendency to starve or freeze or succumb to disease.
I’ve come to Russia at age 51 to re-create parts of William Barents’s third voyage to the Arctic from 400 years ago. Crossing and recrossing the sea northeast of Scandinavia, Barents, a Dutch navigator, went looking for a passage to China, but he and 16 men were trapped by sea ice during the summer of 1596. For nearly a year, they were stranded hundreds of miles above the mainland on Novaya Zemlya, a pair of large islands extending all the way to 77 degrees north. Five sailors died, including Barents himself, who perished at sea after they abandoned their ship and he and the remaining crew tried to get home on small boats. His quest to find the lucrative route to China was a brave but dismal failure.
Once we leave Murmansk, our boat will sail the same formidable waters. Setting out with a Russian crew aboard a yacht called Alter Ego, I’ll follow in Barents’s wake over the sea that now bears his name.
But Barents isn’t the only thing on my mind. Other grim news is preoccupying me as much or more. Arctic sea ice is collapsing, with few signs of reversal. I’ve been to the far north twice to report on climate change, and in the meantime it’s only gotten worse.
My family seems equally vulnerable. The night before I left home, my cousin Joe messaged me about the trip. As kind a man as I’ve met, and a traumatized veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, he had checked himself in for alcohol rehab earlier that summer at the age of 47. By the time I was packing my bags, he’d been sober for more than a month. On the last day of July, I sent my love and told him to hold down the fort while I was gone.
But I’m wondering if the fort will be standing when I return. Weeks before, my father and stepfather were diagnosed with cancer; my mother is now deep in the throes of paranoid dementia. My two teenage children are fine, but I feel bad about leaving my husband parenting solo for so long while he’s working full-time. Meanwhile, the contract I signed before all this happened says my book is due by Christmas.
I feel both grateful and ashamed to have a chance to go off the grid to focus on research. I’m running from looming family mortality into the arms of historic—and historical— tragedy. Part of me thinks I shouldn’t go. But I know it might be the journey of a lifetime.
MY TRAVELING companion on the train, Tatiana Ponomareva, spent nearly two decades as director of the Nabokov Museum in Saint Petersburg, until political machinations pushed her out. She helped me in 2011 with my first book, a biography of Vladimir Nabokov, and I invited her along this time as my interpreter. The year before, Tatiana connected me with Vicaar, the Russian polar-expedition agency that matched me with this boat and crew. I’m using my book advance to cover passage for Tatiana and me. We’ll set sail with ten people aboard.
For nearly a year, William Barents and his men were stranded on Novaya Zemlya, a pair of large islands extending all the way to 77 degrees north. Five sailors died, including Barents himself.
Rolling into Murmansk, we’re met by a tall Russian whose dark mustache and beard are kissed with gray. He’s our expedition leader, Evgeny Fershter. Smoking cigarettes with the furious commitment of a French Resistance leader, he walks us out of the train station. We cross a footbridge over the tracks and make our way to the harbor. A single long dock stretches before us. On its left squats a black behemoth of an icebreaker, with blocky white Russian letters on the side spelling LENIN.
Directly opposite the nuclear-powered ship, which is now a stationary museum, a lone vessel is moored to the dock: the Alter Ego. Painted white and autumn red, it seems small from a distance, but I looked up its specs before the trip. At just under 60 feet, it’s almost exactly the same length as the ship that carried Barents and his men to Novaya Zemlya.
To the right, past a flock of cranes hoisting cargo, the city stretches up into hills. On the summit of the closest slope stands an enormous statue of a soldier. This is Alyosha, a symbol of Russia’s Arctic forces, which suffered brutal losses holding this corner of the world against German onslaughts during World War II.
We cross a wooden plank and board. Mikhail Tekuchev, the ship’s captain, is clean-shaven and almost as tall as Evgeny. Greeting us with a smile, he warns us to fill up on food tonight, because we probably won’t feel like eating for a while once we head out.
We unpack our bags, finding the odd cabinets and crevices that are essential to life at sea. Our cabin mate, Olga Chumachenko, is the designated ship’s cook, but her real trade is photojournalism. She has already traveled to the North Pole and Antarctica.
Next we meet Andrey Ianushkevich, who makes a vivid impression with a full beard and a right-arm tattoo of Saint George killing the dragon. Formerly a boxer and a businessman, he’s also a licensed captain and will serve as first mate.
The last crew member, Alexander Bogdanov, nicknamed Sasha, has a salt-andpepper crew cut and knows some English. In his striped shirt, he looks like the archetype of a Russian sailor. In fact, he’s the newest member of the crew, and spent decades as a professional paraglider before setting foot on the Alter Ego.
Feeling tense and overfed from lack of exercise, I go on deck to do push-ups and sit-ups. This might mark me as strange to my new companions, but it’s probably too late to kick me off the boat. Before long, I learn that others already have their own shipboard workout routines.
THAT EVENING, we leave the harbor without fanfare, abandoning Kola Bay and heading east along the coast. I meet two other passengers, marine biologists Marthe Larsen Haarr and Michael Pantalos, who work for the marine consulting group SALT and are joining the expedition with support from a Norwegian-Russian partnership. They’ll be mapping the amount of trash in the Barents and Kara Seas north of mainland Russia.
The last passenger, Alexey Neumoin, is a tourist. A Russian mystic as intense as any character in Dostoevsky, Alexey comes with some 21st-century updates: he’s also a web designer and martial artist. He intends to meditate along the entire route of our expedition and sees himself, quite seriously, as having a personal mission in the far north.
Before we can land anywhere up there, though, we have to cross the Barents Sea, traveling hundreds of miles to reach Cape Desire, a spot on the northeastern corner of Novaya Zemlya in the protected Russian Arctic National Park. There we’ll pick up the last member of our party—a ranger, whose presence is required on any expedition visiting the preserve.
I VOLUNTEER TO help with the sailing whenever possible, and since I can’t speak Russian, I ask Tatiana to tell the crew that I hauled lines on sails during a prior Arctic expedition. I don’t have much experience, I say, but I’m strong. “If you’re so strong, why don’t you pull up the anchor?” Sasha replies. He’s a smartass, but he’s already impossible to dislike.
That night, as we sail along the shoreline, I step out from our skylit cabin into the dark coffin of the hallway just as the ship rolls in the trough of a wave. I brace myself against the wall. Nausea drives my lurching stomach up into my skull.
I will my internal organs into obedience and go up to the deck. First mate Andrey is at the wheel, and he tosses me a piece of an orange. He speaks little English, but there’s no need to talk. I notice that the compartments on deck are filled with bananas, apples, oranges, leafy greens, and carrots. Whatever else might go wrong, we won’t die of scurvy.
Mist and clouds linger above the long plateau of an offshore island that we pass, its rocky surface glowing mossy green in the predawn light. As waves break along the sides of the boat, I feel a rush of delight.
That afternoon, Captain Misha hands me coveralls to wear. We go on deck, where he leans in close to the long boom that nestles perpendicular to the mast. Inside one end is a set of levers.
“Look,” he says, pointing to his eyes and then to the levers. After he adjusts something, he holds up three fingers and has me find the third metal ring in the sail, which sits accordioned atop the boom. After leveraging the ring, called a cringle, onto a nearby hook, I haul the sail into position. I’m not prepared to captain the boat just yet, obviously, but if the entire crew becomes incapacitated, I think I have a fighting chance to reef and hoist the mainsail, on which I could scrawl an SOS.
I step out from our cabin into the dark coffin of the hallway just as the ship rolls in the trough of a wave. I brace myself against the wall. Nausea drives my lurching stomach up into my skull.
As we prepare for the open sea, all passengers get basic safety training. If we smell smoke at any time, we should alert the crew immediately. We must always wear a life jacket on deck. We practice putting on our flotation suits and learn what to do if we encounter a polar bear.
At the end, Evgeny tells a joke about a new expedition member who’s advised that, if he comes face-to-face with a hungry bear, he should smear shit on the animal’s nose. “Where does the shit come from?” the trainee asks. “Don’t worry,” the instructor replies, “there will be plenty.”
SAILING IN THE season of the midnight sun, we see daylight around the clock for most of the trip. The temperature usually hovers just above or below freezing.
Our last hour close to shore, the waves are a vivid teal, the color of some alien gemstone. Sasha appears on deck, cradling a Russian button accordion, and starts playing Eugen Doga’s haunting waltz “My Sweet and Tender Beast.” We sail between two long spits of rock toward the horizon, a thin, blurry line that becomes more indistinct in the days that follow. Below us, the water darkens to slate blue. Above, the clouds sit like some pale country, as if the sea is a shadow of the sky.
We leave land behind on the morning of August 8, two days into the trip. When we hit the open sea the going gets rough, and nobody shows up for breakfast the first morning, not even Olga the cook. I spend the next three days thoroughly nauseous, with my body rejecting food and sleep. I’m able to keep tiny meals down only by constantly reminding myself not to throw up.
Taking the edge off my misery, Captainâ€‹ Misha invites me on deck to learn how to steer. The wheel is almost as tall as me; it looks like an oversize steering wheel on a toy dashboard.
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