Stompin' on the Terra

"And he said, 'Stomp upon the Terra.'" – Lord Buckley (via Hunter Thompson)

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Location: Plum Island, Massachusetts

31 August 2011

Next Steps: Part ??? in a Never-ending Saga

Every single time I call to check in with my folks, my mother asks me if I've decided what I'm going to do once I'm done on Polar Bear. Sometimes she'll ask several times in one call (it's true, Mom. You do). And every single time she asks, the answer remains the same: nope.

You're shocked, I can tell. But while I don't have any definitive idea as to what's next, I am slowly whittling away at the options as I await that burst of insight the universe has always tended to grant me at crux moments in my life. I've whittled a couple more options away of late:

The original plan for Polar Bear was to head south to Scotland, Ireland, Madeira and the Canary Islands, there to join the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (known as "the ARC") and head across the ocean to St. Lucia. When that plan went belly up thanks to the boat's owner and his horse-puckey shenanigans, I began looking into joining other boats doing the ARC. Boogie and Marlies even had a friend who's captain of another Challenge 72 yacht who was in need of a crewman to go. I also looked into crewing on some private yacht doing a similar event from the United States, the Caribbean 1500. Basically, the plan was to continue getting experience on other people's boats.

Keep in mind that with the exception of sailing my Hobie Cat off the beach at Plum Island when I was a teenager, I've always been a member in good standing of the OPBYC: the Other People's Boats Yacht Club. Whether racing or doing deliveries, I've always gone to see on a boat owned by someone else.

Well not this time. No more boat least not at this time. If I'm going to continue sailing in 2011, it's going to be on a boat of my own. More likely, it seems a return to shore-based life in some form is in the cards for the near future. And it's possible I'll combine a return to shore-based life with the purchase of a boat of my own to play on wherever it is I settle in. Of course, you're all invited to come share in the fun on the boat if and when that happens.

Return to Akureyri

We arrived in Akureyri early yesterday morning amid thick fog and placid waters. We tied up to the same dock we'd been at when we were here back in July and cleaned Polar Bear stem to stern. The harbor staff showed up and connected the water and electricity, the customs man came and went, and we were free to play.

First up was, of course, the pool complex. The hot tubs and steam bath were still soothing, the slide still wacky fun, and the facilities all top-notch. A restoring visit once again and I emerged squeaky clean after two weeks of alternating clothes -- one set for on-watch, one set for off-watch -- and regular tooth brushing as the means to maintaining sanitary living. And the earlier-described dip/shampoo in the sea at Hekla in Scoresby Sund was about it when it came to active sanitation methods. Manky? Not quite. But certainly not the height of stylish living, perhaps.

But Iceland is a stylish nation, after all, so I had to clean up, right? Home to just 300,000 people, it is, nevertheless, home ground for several high-end clothing companies that focus on stylish, functional outdoor -- and outdoor-looking -- apparel. One such company is 66 North, perhaps the best-known of Iceland's outdoor companies. I checked out their two stores here in Akureyri and found them both light years better than the store in Reykjavik. In the capital city, the 66 North store was more of a boutique with an emphasis on fashion and city wear. Here on the north coast, one store was an outlet, with bargains on blemished items and off-sizes, while the other store (in a small mall) was more mainstream...but its selection blew away that of the Reykjavik city. If I were in the market for stylish clothes (and had one of my more more tasteful friends here to counsel me), I could easily have spent a ton of money in there. As it is, I walked out with a pair of too-warm overmitts to replace the old Black Diamond versions I sold in my Easter garage sale in Anchorage, and which will come in very handy on the nighttime watches to come.

I hit up 66 North today, a brief respite from final preparations for our departure tomorrow morning. The boat's water tanks were filled, its heater fixed, the forward locker rearranged and packed, laundry done, and food stores put away. We'll head out in the morning bound for the Shetland Islands in what should be a five-day journey or so. The forecast is for every possible wind scenario: dead calm, raging winds courtesty of the remnants of Hurricane Irene; on the nose to dead aft and from both port and starboard sides. It should be an interesting journey, to be sure, and hopefully we'll get to do a bit more sailing en route to Lerwick than we've done pretty much all summer. It's been an overwhelmingly engine-driven summer...not at all what I signed on for. If you know any wind dances, we could use 'em about now, thanks.

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29 August 2011

To Build a Fire, 2011

We're about 120 miles from Akureyri now, and up until last night it had been a brutal passage. By "brutal" I don't mean difficult: the conditions haven't been life-threatening or anything like that. It had been a brutal passage due to tedious conditions that resulted in fatigue, tension and just general malaise.

For instance, right now we're motoring over a smooth but rolly sea. There's a thick blanket of cold fog surrounding Polar Bear, drenching every last surface -- deck, sail, body -- with a thin but pervasive bone-chilling layer of wetness that sinks deep inside the cabin and the soul.

And we've been motoring since we left Constable Pynt, almost two days ago. It was a bright, sunny, breeze-on-the-nose motor south in Hurry Inlet, but as we neared the broader waters of Scoresby Sund, things got interesting. A fierce wind blew from the east-northeast, steadily in the mid- to high-30-knot range with gusts even higher. In response to that, the seas in Scoresby Sund were heaped up into a choppy maelstrom of steep waves and blowing spray, again, pretty much from the direction we were trying to go. Polar Bear's already underpowered engine struggled to move us at much over 2 knots. And the pack ice that had been outside the sound had blown in on the wind and waves, turning our path into a slalom course through icebergs, growlers and bergie bits. It was a lousy way to start a passage, ruining the upbeat mood that had permeated the boat upon our departure.

We turned the corner at Kap Brewster, exiting Scoresby Sund and entering the open seas of the Denmark Strait. There we found a large, steady swell out of the southwest formed by the storm that had recently passed so it was all locally generated and, as in Scoresby Sund, short and steep. And southwest was our desired path in order to head south past the pack ice before turning southeast to Iceland. But with the wind out of the south and southeast, we had a choice: motor into the seas and rock like a bucking bronco or motor into the headwinds for a somewhat gentler ride but at really slow speeds.

On top of the in-your-face conditions that made everyone at least a little queasy, the wear and tear of almost two weeks in the cold had begun to take effect. Continually low temperatures had made fatigue a constant, and I, for one, could do nothing when not on watch but sleep. The cocoon of my bunk was so welcoming that whenever I came off watch it wasn't more than three minutes before I was safely and warmly ensconced in my sleeping bag. With others in a similar state, esprit de corps was waning.

So it was that despite calming seas, I went into last night's midnight-3am watch dreading another three hours of monotonous engine droning and cold, wet air. And upon exiting the companionway hatch and standing in the cockpit I found myself surrounded by, yes, a droning engine and thick, cold fog. But I looked straight overhead, right up the mast toward the zenith and was rewarded with a clear view of the W of Cassiopeia. To the south a bit, off our starboard beam, the bright stars Vega and Deneb were visible in a clear, night sky. And off to the north, off our port quarter, the Big and Little Dippers (the latter with Polaris, the pole star, at its tail) were also visible. And that's when the magic happened.

The fog eased slightly and a bolt of green shot across the sky from north to south. From the horizon off our port side to the horizon off our starboard, a grand, waving curtain of green danced before the solar winds as the aurora again appeared at the start of my watch. In short order, other cliffs of shimmering green undulated in rhythmic swells, punctuated by occasional globs and pulses of bright auroral glow.

For a good half-hour we were all treated to a magnificent show of the northern lights, and occasional displays occurred for another two hours, until the glare of morning twilight grew from the dark northern edge of the sea to engulf the entire sky. Any queasiness I'd been feeling? Gone. And the malaise that had plagued the journey from Scoresby Sund was gone, swept away by the energy I generated bouncing from rail to rail to maximize my view of the magic light in the sky. At 3am, in the broadening glow of day, I went off watch feeling refreshed and invigorated, and though I once again headed straight to my bunk to sleep, the pall that had weighed on my eyes and my psyche was lifted. A few more watches to go and we'd be in Iceland, but in the meantime, I'd had my taste of northern magic and was greatly refueled.

The northern lights last night were a lifesaving fire that warmed the inside so much that the outside and the soul were brought back from the edge. I hadn't gone into frigid water and I wasn't trying desperately to build a fire that would save my life, but the conditions didn't seem that far off. Thanks to this fire, the numbness that had been creeping deeper and seemed ever more deadly were banished.

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27 August 2011

The Northern Lights Appear

Yup, another anchor watch. Quite possibly my last anchor watch of this summer adventure...and what a watch.

I came on watch just before 1am. Right at 1, I popped up on deck to see if the night had turned dark enough to see some stars. Saturn had been blazing in the northeast twilight when I went to sleep and there he was again, this time more toward the southeastern corner of the sky. Polaris, the north star, was visible, more directly overhead than I've ever seen it before. And several other stars were also visible -- mostly bright stars, as the sky to the north was still the deep orange of twilight. At this hour, night time had deepened to as dark as it was going to get.

But it was dark enough. As I turned to head below, I ventured one more look toward the east and there it was: the aurora. The northern lights, dancing overhead in a curtain of fluorescent green. A couple of curls radiated along a northeast-to-southwest axis, and a brief tinge of purple appeared. As with Polaris, this aurora was more directly overhead than I'd ever experienced it before, a testimony to the fact that this summer has seen me journey farther north than I've been in my life. Above the ridge to the west, just ashore of the anchored Polar Bear, another node of aurora undulated in the deep blue sky, keeping time to whatever unheard (by me) rhythm the universe was tapping out.

I quickly returned to the cabin to wake the German photographers (they'd asked to be awakened in case of an auroral display) and my predecessor on anchor watch woke his wife as well. Even Boogie popped his head topside briefly. I also grabbed my camera bag, but the display was all too brief: five, maybe 10 minutes, tops. By the time I had my rig set up, the northern lights were quiet again, and the stars shone on again in solitude. But was enough.

I get all choked up when seeing any fleeting and beautiful natural phenomena. Make it astronomical -- a hobby of mine since boyhood -- and throw in the latitudinal bias of the aurora and the northern lights are a treat I will never tire of. So to see the aurora in this particularly unique (to me) setting on the final night of our stay in Greenland, and toss in the fact that it turned on just as I was coming on watch and well, you'll excuse me if I don't feel more than a little privileged and honored to have been granted such a show.

I stayed topside for the entire hour, the frosted decks and chill air no challenge for the glow I was feeling from the brief appearance of the aurora. I shot a few twilight photos, and then a few of the sliver of moon as it rose over the ridge to the northeast after Boogie came on watch at 2am, and here I am jotting these thoughts at 3am. It's time now for me to head back to sleep, but wow. Wow, wow, wow. I am suitably buzzed at this evening's events.

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25 August 2011

What a Difference Five Days Makes

Polar Bear is motoring past Hurry Inlet, the north-south stretch of water that is home to Constable Pynt, about 16 miles up-fjord. The inlet looks much less filled with ice than it did on our last trip here, last Saturday.

As does the entirety of Scoresby Sund. We're headed back to Ittoqqortoormiit after a circumnavigation of Milne Land. It's been a trip of grandeur and incredible scenery, and one of never-ending changes.

The primary change is in the ice. Upon Polar Bear's arrival from Iceland, and a day later, upon our departure deeper into Scoresby Sund, the ice was a major factor. As detailed earlier, vast packs of ice crowded Hurry Inlet and the bay upon which Ittoqqortoormiit resides, making navigation a slow, tedious affair often requiring a lookout in the spreaders. Today, we've passed a few large bergs but beyond that, little ice. Perhaps the down-fjord winds of the past three days have blown all the ice out to sea, in which case we'll have to deal with it next week en route back to Iceland.

We were also forced to thread our way through a maze of ice -- large and small -- in Fönfjord yesterday. We had anchored in an exposed bay called Ankervig, site of an Inuit summer hunting camp and also home to a couple of Danish researchers. In fact, Ankervig was at the southwest corner of Milne Land and formed the intersection of Fönfjord and Rödefjord.

Rödefjord was so named -- Red Fjord -- because of the sandstone cliffs and islands along its western edge. In this landscape of black and white and blue, the Colorado Plateau-like red along Rödefjord was shocking; to observe white icebergs in blue water amid a backdrop of Utah red was jarring to the senses and made for some interesting photographs.

The families who had called Ankervig home for the past couple of weeks were busy harvesting musk ox from the hills above, and seals, narwhal and fish from the waters below. Fish dried in racks along the shore, just as they did in Native villages in Alaska and Norwegian villages in the Lofoten. A seal lay on the edge of the beach awaiting it's dressing out while beside it one of its cousins had already been reduced to what the humans wanted and what they were going to discard. And two Inuit men took turns sawing the horns off the skull of a musk oxen they'd taken earlier in the week. 

Meanwhile, the scientists at Ankervig were packing up in preparation for the twin-engine DeHavilland Otter that was to land on the flats above the tents later in the day to take them out of there. They'd been in Ankervig counting and tracking narwhals, which the locals said they saw (and harvested) regularly in that fjord. A couple of guests tried raw narwhal; the German found it to his liking while the Scottish woman was less than thrilled with the taste. As for the scientists, their work was in advance of -- what else? -- another wave of oil exploration (who else but the oil companies would pay for extraction via Twin Otter this far out?) here in Greenland.

I'll not go off on a tangent here, save to say that if this last pristine place in the northern hemisphere, a place forbidding and treacherous and beautiful and fantastic, can't be left alone, well, what hope have we as a species...and a planet? And I get it: we need oil. I need oil. I get it. Hell, Greenland alone probably couldn't supply all the diesel we've burned on this trip. But can't we limit ourselves even once? Hasn't happened yet so perhaps not.

I didn't get to ask any of the locals but I suspect they're all for the exploration -- and the money development would bring -- just as is the case back among so many of Alaska's Natives (witness: the North Slope Borough, Pebble Mine). And when the narwhals and polar bears and musk ox are gone, Greenland will revert to a lifeless desert, instead of an arctic desert where the tenacity of life serves as an example of what this planet can create and provide.

Sorry. Tangent over.

Prior to Ankervig, we anchored at the head of a fjord that broke off to the northwest from our main route around Milne Land. Harefjord offered a nice little cove with some gargantuan icebergs just outside; the bergs were stuck on the seafloor, too big to get into the cove and as such offered a bit of protection to our perch.

Harefjord was reached after a day's motor from our anchorage at Bøerne Øer, along the north shore of Milne Land wedged between sheer thousand-meter cliffs on either shore. The walls funneled a stiff headwind into our faces, but the resulting clear skies made for incredible vistas of granite and glacier and blue sky. The pattern was consistent if somewhat irregular: rock leaping out of the sea for a stretch of a mile or two, followed by the tumble of a glacier -- tidewater or hanging -- and then another wall. Along the north wall, the various layers of rock were visible in undulations that showed the tumult of this land over the millenia, in the grander time time scale beyond those of the glaciers present. Like some sort of saltwater, northern Grand Canyon, the trip down Øfjord was a glimpse into our planet's, and our universe's, past. Humbling.

We closed the loop of our Milne Land circumnavigation last evening at the Danmark Øer, the Denmark Islands. In a small cove named Hekla Havn we found a cabin, a couple of small skiffs, and a scattering of 20-liter plastic jerry cans, evidence of the locals' use of the area, presumably for hunting or fishing. I put the area to use for a quick clean, leaping from the lifeline along Polar Bear's beam into the surprisingly-not-so-cold water below. No, I didn't go for a swim, but after pulling myself into the dinghy alongside the boat, I opted to remain in shorts and get some shampoo, which I used to give myself a much need cleansing. And after standing there for a few minutes, wet beneath an overcast that blocked any warming sunshine, I realized that the water was bearable -- for a short while. I'd call it high 40s, Farenheit (8 or so in Celsius), and invigorating.

And now we're retracing our steps of five days ago, this time in reverse as we head to Ittoqqortoormiit, where we'll anchor and our guests can check out the Native village. The original plan for tomorrow was to head outside Scoresby Sund a bit to explore the pack ice where another boat had gotten up close and personal with a polar bear last weekend: the bear was on ice floes near the boat, at one point passing underneath the bowsprit. But with the ice now apparently gone, I have no idea what we'll do.

Regardless, we'll head back to Constable Pynt tomorrow evening so three of our guests -- the two German professional photographers and one British woman -- can catch their flight out on Saturday. As soon as they leave the boat in late morning, Polar Bear will exit Hurry Inlet and Scoresby Sund, departing Greenland and heading back across Denmark Strait, back to Iceland, the beginning of the final, southward trek to civilization and the end of this summer's journey.

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22 August 2011

Going to Eleven

We're motoring along in the fjord that forms the northern boundary of Milne Land, a large island on the western side of Scoresby Sund. And the fjord is, to put it mildly: staggering.

It's staggering in its beauty. Cliffs and spires in a dizzying array of colors ranging from the grays and whites you'd expect, through a spectrum of blues and blacks, and on to some improbable reds and yellows. The rock emerges directly from the water, displaying in arcs and folds the ancient forces that have shaped this land -- and the planet as whole.

Between the cliffs and spires, glaciers cascade from the unseen high country, some running in a straight line to the sea, others snaking left and right before ending in a trickle of water just above the water's edge. Hanging glaciers loom over many of the cliff faces, ominous in their defiance (however temporary) of gravity. And above it all, ice caps and fields crown many peaks in a fluffy, white-and-blue blanket, insulating the bare rock from the harsh elements here at 71 degrees north latitude.

In the sea itself, remnants of these glaciers float silently, streaks of fluorescent blue shimmer in the sunlight creating relief lines in the pure-white faces of the icebergs. And below the waterline, a kilometer or more of silent, clear blue sea -- well of the depth chart of the boat: unfathomable, literally.

It's an amazing place, Milne Land, and one we'll spend the next two days circumnavigating. We've now reached the northwest corner (after spending last night anchored at the northeast corner) and will head further west, up a feeder fjord where another nice anchorage awaits. Tomorrow we'll continue our progress around the island, dropping the hook in the lee of a smaller island at the southern entrance to this route around Milne Land. And on Wednesday, we'll head back seaward, to Ittoqqortoormiit and the rest of our week here in Greenland.

And Greenland has lived up to expectations: it's like Yosemite or the Rockies or Prince William Sound or the Lofoten...ramped up a notch. The scale is simply another level higher; Greenland goes to 11, as Nigel Tufnel would say. It's farther away; it's further north; the peaks are higher and there are more of them; there are more glaciers and there are icebergs; there are fewer people (ie: none, basically). Greenland is like the Olympics of land masses: faster, higher, stronger.

I'll still take Alaska, thank you very much, for two big reasons. One: it's home. And two: trees. OK, three big reasons: wildlife. If we should see a polar bear and/or a narwhal, well, that might change things, but I doubt it. Because thus far, we've seen a seal. One. A single, solitary seal. Something's missing from this Olympian, goes-to-11 landscape and it is life.

The scale obviously exceeds the human scale but it seems to exceed the scale of life itself, human and otherwise. I know life exists here -- there are plants, of course, and the people who exist here on a hunter/gatherer lifestyle. And even without that knowledge, my short period of time here is too small a sample set upon which to draw any conclusions. But the fact remains that Greenland's implacability goes beyond anything I've yet experienced. It seems...empty. Sadly so.

I'm wildly happy that I've ventured this far to see such a place. And I'd welcome the opportunity to come back (on my own timetable/plan). The impressions Greenland leaves, pro and con, are that deep. Olympian, even. I believe Nigel would agree.

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21 August 2011

Greenland...and 20 Days to Go

Kind of a strange afternoon, this. We're anchored in among the Bjørne Øer, the Bear Islands, up Scoresby Sund a ways. Boogie, Marlies and one guest just took off in the dinghy to chop some ice off of an iceberg. Boy Wonder and another guest are assembling one of the high-end collapsible kayaks. The rest of the guests are milling about the cockpit, and I'm in the saloon area typing away.

We arrived here after motoring for about 19 hours. We pulled the anchor and left Constable Pynt around 3pm yesterday and made our way south the 16 miles to the beginning of the fjord that opens on to the larger sound. It was a lovely motor with clear skies and a fresh breeze in our faces -- fresh enough, in fact, that if I'd been on a personal trip I'd have sailed and tacked back and forth down the fjord. But I'd have had to stop after about 13 miles: the wind had filled the mouth of the fjord with ice, not unlike what happened yesterday at Ittoqqortoormiit. Boy Wonder was again hoisted into the spreaders and he picked our path out through the floes.

After reaching Scoresby Sund, we turned right and headed west, deeper into the main fjord. The water was now open, with a handful of truly enormous icebergs scattered about in the deeper water. They were simply phenomenal creatures, these floating mountains of ice, with a temperament that changed with the light reflecting off their varied faces. And as the evening wore on, the light lowered and the shadows deepened, making for even more subtle and superb lighting.

Watches were divided into four, two-hour stints. I'm assigned to a team with two Finnish guests, a married couple, and we wiled away the 11pm-1am and 7-9am stands in idle chat, mostly about Finland. Nice people, and they were on Polar Bear here in Greenland last summer. Interestingly, the missus of the pair remarked last evening at suppertime that she was glad Marlies was aboard because last year the food was much less palatable (and in smaller quantities). And yet, they were back for more. Interesting...

Also interesting (to me) and perhaps to be filed under the category of "Euro behavior perplexing to this simple Yank" was when we were all eating lunch just today. Marlies was serving up seconds of hot dogs and the Finnish husband indicated he wasn't interested. I dispensed second dogs to everyone and then grabbed my empty plate, Marlies put a dog on it and I slid it back onto the table. Finnish Husband slid over in front of the plate and started dressing up the dog how he liked it. Hmm. I grabbed another empty plate from one of those guests truly not interested in another helping and Marlies handed me a dog -- for me. Never a word from the mister. Interesting...

Polar Bear arrived here in the Bear Islands at the northeast corner of Milne Land, an enormous (are you sensing a theme here? Everything in this land is on a scale unfathomable to the normal everyday back in Europe or the States). island within the Scoresby Sund fjord complex. We dropped the hook and drifted backwards to a pair of lines that Boy Wonder and a guest had secured ashore. Made fast to the three points, and surrounded on pretty much all sides by rocky islands, we're in a very solid spot right now.

So Boogie and Marlies and Alison took off on their adventure, Boy Wonder is rigging up another adventure, and we're all going to do a shore supper (cooked by Boy Wonder and I, as per Marlies' schedule) á la Lille Molla in the Lofoten. Since polar bears are a possibility here and since we don't have a rifle with us (yet another planning oversight by the owners), we'll stay close by and be extra vigilant, and we'll check any location out ahead of time.

Apart from the aforementioned, um, "interesting" behavior by the guests, this seems to be a fun, enjoyable crew. We're truly multinational, with Brits, Finns, Scots, Germans in addition to our Dutch, British and American crew. All but the Germans and a couple of Brits are in for the duration -- all the way across the sea back to the UK -- so they're up for adventure and they're up for sailing and they're up for pitching in to make it all work. 

And as for Greenland (or what we've seen of it so far), it truly is an amazing land -- after a summer of amazing places. As with aspects of the Lofoten and Iceland, I recognize a lot of the beauty here from my days in Alaska, and in fact, one of the dangers I've had to guard against all summer has been to keep from being too jaded given the superlative nature of my Alaska homeland. I think I've succeeded so far, and truth be told, the scale here is big even by Alaska standards -- for instance: the coast of Greenland is, yes, a lot like where Prince William Sound meets the Chugach Mountains, or the outer coast of the Kenai Peninsula...but it goes on for hundreds and hundreds of miles, from one horizon to the other -- but the danger is ever present. I've been disappointingly surprised by the dearth of wildlife thus far, and that's one area that Alaska has had it all over every destination we've been to this summer so Greenland is no different.

But I'm stoked to have made it here to this far-off corner of the globe and am looking forward to how the next week or so shakes out. Weather forecasts keep varying so one day we're likely headed back to Iceland the middle of this week, the next day it's looking good for us to be here until we drop a few guests off for next Saturday's flight at Constable Pynt and then some. Then it will be on to Iceland -- likely Akureyri but possibly Reykjavik or Ísafjörður, it depends on the wind direction -- where we'll drop off Alison (she's the friend of the so-called marketing person for the boat company) and then head on to either the Shetland or Orkney islands.

What I'll do remains to be seen, though it's 99 percent certain I'll stay aboard until the job's done in the UK. Or at least: until we arrive in the UK; I'll be damned if I'm sticking around to clean up the boat and prep it for winter after the owner's screw job.

But the possibility of jumping ship remains. Boogie's temperament seems to be drooping a bit; he's not his usual jovial, gregarious self. I don't know if he and I are wearing on each other after a long summer or if he's just had enough of the BS with the owner and it's coming out as frustration with everyone (Marlies included), but it can be unpleasant -- and a boat (even a 72-foot-long boat) is too cramped for there to be unpleasantness among the crew.

And on top of that, I'm getting more frustrated with the experience. The lack of sailing is a huge factor there; I'm tired of motoring and simply being a bus (or glorified RV) for a bunch of tourists. Yes, we'd still be that if we were sailing, but if we were sailing a) I'd be having more fun, and b) I'd be getting more of what I expected when I signed on. But that's not happening and it's like just one more step that delays the inevitable plunge/decision: buy my boat or not. A lot of that decision will be based on my experience and comfort level with the vagaries of owning a boat, and I'm not getting as much experience in that area as I had hoped or expected.

There are 20 days left in this summer's adventure. Twenty days in which to experience more of Greenland, hope for some more sailing, and then take the next step in this life. Hopefully it's a life of more stompin' on the terra.

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20 August 2011

Anchor Watch

Yes, it's anchor watch again! I just took over for Boogie and will be here for an hour and a half, keeping an eye on the radar and the GPS, with a regular peek outside. Polar Bear is anchored in about 15 meters of water at the end of the runway in Constable Pynt, Greenland.

The airport here might be the most improbable thing I've ever seen. There are runway lights, taxiway lights, runway-end strobes and a small terminal -- all here in what one could call "the middle of nowhere" and not be exaggerating. There is absolutely nothing here in the way human civilization and yet this airport -- built during an oil-exploration phase -- exists. All around Constable Pynt are low rolling foothills, higher alpine-style peaks, a fjord, glaciers and reportedly a bunch of musk oxen and, at times, polar bears (lower case). Ittoqqortoormiit is a 50-minute straight-line helicopter flight -- or seven-hour motor in a sailboat -- away. And yet, Air Iceland flies into here twice a week and there's a helicopter service that runs the ITQ shuttle and other area flights.

Not that I can see any of this because outside right now is a London-style pea-soup fog. Visibility might be generously called 30 meters or so.

We arrived here just before midnight, after picking up four hikers from the other side of the fjord and running them over here. The fog was as thick then as it is now; of course, right after we dropped the hook, things cleared up and we could see right where we were and what the situation was. It was an impressive bit of navigation given the ice floes en route and the fact that we were within 50 meters of the shore when we turned and contoured north to find this known anchorage. It was also a shame we had to work in such conditions as the view as we motored across the fjord was spectacular: a waning gibbous moon in the northeast with a piercingly bright planet to its lower left (I'm ashamed to admit that I've been so out of touch with the night sky this high-latitude summer that I don't know which planet it was: I'd guess Venus or Jupiter given its brightness and color); high cirrus clouds shining pink in the late-night-sunset alpenglow; a hulking glacier at the head of a valley tucked between sawtooth peaks; smooth black water with phantasmagorically shaped ice sculptures thrown here and there in the sky's reflection. A sublime evening, to be sure.

The hikers we picked up are ashore, secure in a the tongue-in-cheek-named Airport Hilton, awaiting tomorrow's midday flight to Reykjavik. Our two guests will join them and they'll all head out for lower latitudes en route to civilization, and a new crop of 10 guests will join us, the final group of this never-a-dull-moment summer.

The plan is to spend the next week here in Scoresby Sund, exploring a huge island up-fjord called Milne Land. Next Saturday, we'll put three of the 10 ashore here at Constable Pynt for a flight home and then we'll head out into the open sea bound for Iceland where, after a couple of days we'll put another guest (a friend of the putative marketing woman for this boat and its company) ashore. The remaining guests will stay aboard and we'll take Polar Bear back to the UK via the Faroe Islands and/or the Orkney Islands and/or the Shetland Islands. Originally planned stops on this leg in St. Kilda or western Scotland are out.

Also in jeopardy if we stop in Iceland is the 600-mile offshore passage required by one of the paying guests for his yachtmaster certification. As if this enterprise needed another example of why it's so poorly managed and operated: they're going to accommodate a friend on a last-minute cut-rate deal rather than a early-booking full-fare client. It's a case of priorities, near as I can tell, and this one sums up Polar Bear perfectly: a service-industry venture that puts the owners' wishes ahead of its guests. Case closed.

Just looked outside for the every-10-minute check at 3am and the breeze has cleared the fog away, probably only temporarily but enough to let me confirm that we haven't drifted at all and that there's no imminent danger from any ice floating down onto us as we lie at the end of our anchor chain. Another half-hour and I can pass the baton on to Boy Wonder.

19 August 2011

Too Much of a Good Thing?

We're now in Ittoqqortoormiit. Well, we're in the small cove above which the colorfully painted wood houses that constitute Ittoqqortoormiit are perched. They cling to this rocky land that the world forgot. Third World? Forget it; we're talkin' 10th World. We are off the map here, for sure. Actually, there was cell-phone coverage in the bay so maybe it's not so 10th World after all. But why anyone would live out here is beyond me...and I love far-out places. But this is on-the-edge living in a good year; a particularly long winter must be brutal.

We made our way in this morning, weaving for a couple of hours through ice floes of all imaginable sizes and shapes. Only a few big, proper ice bergs -- and they were on the outer edge, out near the open water of Scoresby Sund -- but there were plenty of boat-killing pieces of ice. Slow going, with hand signals relayed from the bow to the helmsman at the wheel.

Once in open water close to the village, we had an open-air lunch in the cockpit. The sun shone brightly from a bright, clear, blue sky, with the only clouds down over the land south of the fjord, and it was, in all seriousness, comfortably warm enough, despite the presence of ice all around us.

Following lunch, Boy Wonder, Marlies and the two guests went ashore in the dinghy for a bit of exploration. Boogie and I were going to go after they returned but while the landing party was ashore, the tide and a light breeze started moving the pack of ice into the little cove. Boogie had to keep Polar Bear moving around the western edge of the bay to keep the boat clear and the shore party were summoned back.

They returned and now we're headed back out to Scoresby Sund. Slowly. The ice has indeed funneled into the bay that links Ittoqqortoormiit's cove with the fjord, so Boy Wonder was hoisted into the spreaders, from which he can get the bigger picture of leads in the ice and relay directions to the helm via radio.

The ice continues to be the amazing factor in our recent experiences. The varied shapes they adopt -- shapes that change based on the light, our position in relationship to the ice, the ice's position in the water -- are every bit a driver for the imagination as a sky full of puffy white clouds. One large berg recently evolved from a schnauzer puppy in a shoe to a castle out of Sleeping Beauty to a horse to a whale's diving tail...all in the space of a few minutes.

And the underwater shapes of the ice floes, now visible with the sun shining high overhead, has been equally fascinating -- but with the sinister overtones of what that below-the-waterline ice can do to unwary ships (think: Titanic). An innocuous flat pan of white ice can sport a jagged, knife-edged underwater blade that extends well out from its above-water perimeter. An unsuspecting boat might pass too near the floe and into peril, but with the overhead sun the cold-blue protrusion glows and winks as a natural work of art visible to the boat steering just out of the danger zone.

Not that we were in any real danger. Polar Bear's steel hull can handle most of the ice in this bay. Even the really serious underwater lances would likely just bounce and groan and push Polar Bear in opposition of the force exerted by the boat's motion. But there are a handful of major-league icebergs that we would have had to give wide berth to -- as did the 125-foot steel tourist cruise ship that left shortly after we arrived in Ittoqqortoormiit, leaving as the tide ushered the thickening ice back in behind it.

It's not like we would have gotten stuck in that thickening ice if we hadn't left a little while least not for too long. But better safe than sorry. And we have no idea what's going on ice- and weather-wise one fjord over to the west, the fjord where the Constable Pynt airport and our rendezvous with our final set of guests for the season will take place tomorrow.

We'll be losing our two current guests -- the friends of Boogie and Marlies who've been wonderful this trip, cooking magnificent meals (often) and being generally very cool. Here's hoping the 10 who take their places are equally as cool.

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18 August 2011

Into the Ice

Dark shapes emerge from the predawn twilight. They loom, a shade darker than the smooth black glass of the sea surface. As they drift past, the light from the still-to-rise sun reflects off of their north-facing sides, showing colors of soft white, light gray and cold blue.

That's what it was like on the 3-6am watch this morning. Bergie bits, growlers and other funky-named ice pieces floated by in an unsteady stream all during watch, but they were all fascinating shapes and sizes: some low and flat, others tall and thin, most a combination of the two. And that's just what we could see above the waterline.

The sizes of the big ones, too, were staggering. One proper iceberg came into view late during the watch. I estimated its distance at a mile or mile-and-a-half away; radar revealed it to be six miles away. Yikes. And then, taking that distance into consideration, the height of the thing ran in the 250-meter range. Double yikes. And that's pretty small compared to the big bergs out farther to the east.

Yes, east. At Kap Brewster, the cape that forms the southern boundary of the mouth of Scoresby Sund, the coastline veers to the southwest after having run pretty much north-south for many hundreds of miles. The ocean currents along the east coast of Greenland push the ice southward -- and continue mostly southerly at Kap Brewster. So as planned, we sailed a bit west of north from Ísafjörður and have now ducked inside the ice that lies offshore (and that turned back Polar Bear on its earlier attempt because it was thicker and the winds had curled the pack in towards shore).

We're making our way northeasterly, about 15 miles or so off the coast of Greenland. We're currently in pretty thick fog but for much of the morning visibility was pretty good.

The mountains and glaciers of east Greenland, which came into view yesterday when we were about 68 miles offshore -- 68 miles! -- loomed massive when they were in view. Seeing them at such size from such a distance called to mind the view of Denali from Anchorage; that something could appear so impressive when so far away staggers the mind. And this is just one small stretch of coast on what is the world's largest island. If Greenland is this big and on this scale already, well, it's more than an island. It's a continent.

17 August 2011

First Ice

Just came off the 6-10am watch. The monotony was broken up by periodic changes in the elements: drizzle for a few minutes, then dry for 20; a tiny bit of breeze for a bit, then dead calm; cold, down to freezing for half an hour; slighly warmer, mid-30s, for the next 30 minutes. But two interesting changes, in particular, appeared on this watch.

The first occurred around 10:45 when the surface of the ocean changed suddenly. We'd been motorsailing along in a calm surface that had a slight wind-generated ripple on it, when out in front of Polar Bear a line in the water appeared from horizon to horizon. Beyond the line: smooth-as-silk water with literally zero ripples. The wind gauges didn't register any change on either side of the line. Where the change was noticeable was in the course-made-good gauge: we entered a westward-setting current when we crossed that line -- to the tune of 20 degrees or more. A simple fix to that, but it was an impressively abrupt delineation in between two different parts of a single body of water.

The second big change occurred just before the end of our watch: ice. There, about a mile off the starboard beam, was a small bit of bright-white ice bobbing on the surface. I called below to Boogie and told him that I had a bergie bit in sight, and when he emerged on deck I pointed it out to him before remarking, "there's another one." This one, on the starboard bow and a few miles away, was much bigger. As soon as Boogie's eyes picked that one out, he noticed a few others in the same general vicinity.

So we've entered the realm of ice. Here begins the Greenland adventure...

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A Bumpy Reentry

Motorsailing along on north-northwesterly course under overcast skies through which a weak, northern sun is trying to burn. It's dry. It's also cold: in the low 30s. Boogie and I are on watch, which means he's down below at the navigation table snoozing.

It's too cold to write in the cockpit so I'm sitting on the top step of the companionway, out of the light breeze (created mostly by the forward motion generated by our engine) in the little cuddy that slides over the hatch. This watch, with its montonous gray sea beneath a gray sky amid the drone of the engine, is a far cry from last night's.

We got underway yesterday a little after 7pm in pretty calm conditions. After motoring around the spit of land that is Ísafjörður, we raised the mainsail (with two reefs) and turned out toward the sea. Boogie and I started our watch at 9pm and at first, things seemed like they were going to be great.

There was a decent wind out of the northeast so we were clipping along pretty nicely under reefed main, staysail and yankee. Just before 10pm, the sun emerged from below the thick clouds as it set in the northwest and the sky exploded into a canvas of reds and oranges and even, on the fresh snow that had fallen overnight up high, the pink of alpenglow. The sheer walls on the west side of the fjord, with their interspersed greens and browns, looked a lot like Hawaii, and the seas, while a bit lumpy, were nowhere near as bad as expected. The comforting beacons of a couple of lighthouses winked at us from behind, up the fjord, and as we exited into the open sea two more appeared, one on either side.

But things started going south, so to speak, shortly after it got dark around 10:45. Fortunately, we were off watch at midnight so it was only for an hour, but for that stretch of time I was in another world. In a not-so-good way.

For starters, I was fighting seasickness. It was one month to the day yesterday that I left Polar Bear in Akureyri. And in that time of shore-based living, my sea legs had softened. We loaded up on a pasta dinner before leaving the dock and while I knew I might have been better served doing without, I opted in on the meal. As a result, I felt dizzy for much of that final hour-plus on watch. I never heaved up dinner -- never really got close -- but that might have been a relief.

Between the swells running in from the northeast (sidenote: I gotta believe that last evening was the time to be surfing at Skálavik given the cleaned-up-yet-still-big conditions), the darkening sky, a surprising fatigue that set on once we were out in the fresh breeze and, the gathering cold (as I mentioned: a new dusting of snow was visible on the high points of the mid-August), my head was swimming -- to the point where I could not, for the life of me, steer a straight course and I even began hallucinating a bit. Lights on the horizon, ominous shapes in the water near the boat...I was seeing things out of the corner of my flickering eyes. Fighting to keep my eyes open, fighting to stay on course, and shivering in the chilly summer night all made for what was undoubtedly the most challenging watch I've had this summer.

Fortunately, the next watch came on right around midnight, at which point I retreated without hesitation to my bunk. I stripped off my outerwear, crawled into my sleeping bag and was out pretty quickly. I awoke around 3am when the shifts were changing again but managed another couple of hours of sleep before Boogie and I took over at 6am.

I guess it was just the bumps of reentry because I feel much better now. Not great, mind you, but I'm seeing clearly and my head is no longer swimming.

In fact, it's now a wee bit monotonous. The wind has dropped further so the sea is a shiny black, smoothly undulating surface. The sun is shining a bit more forcefully as it climbs above the clouds in the southeast but it's still not enough to warm things up. And off to the west, blue sky is visible on the horizon. No ice yet, but we have now reached the area where we'll have to keep an eye out.

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16 August 2011

Iceland Got Real Surf!

The recent stormy conditions may have kept Polar Bear in port, but they did one very nice thing: they built up a bit of surf. As a result, yesterday I finally got to enjoy some actual surfing in the Greenland Sea. Last week it was fun paddling around in the small waves -- and even standing on a couple of little rollers -- but it wasn't really surfing, per se. Yesterday was.

No, there are no photos. All three of us -- Maik, Danny and I -- headed over to Skálavik, a bay on the tip of the peninsula north of Ísafjörður open directly to the expanse of the Greenland Sea in the late afternoon. On an incoming tide we shared head-high surf with the biggest seal I've ever seen in my life. We surfed the beach break in the middle of the bay, paddling out from the east corner of the bay where a rip current made the work pretty easy. The current drifted us west, past where a stream rushed into the bay from a gorgeous waterfall farther up the valley, and into a shifting lineup. It was really hit-or-miss with what you'd get: between the current, the shifty beachbreak peaks and a strong sideways wind, more often than not you'd get sectioned on take off and nothing but whitewater on either side.

Which wasn't too bad on the sets, which were overhead by a foot or two. And on the couple of waves that actually presented a bit of section, well, that's what it's all about. Ahhhh!

In all honesty, the surf wasn't great. The chop was challenging and the close-outs were a drag. But the joy of dropping into an overhead wave? Well, there's little else that approaches that. And to be out in such a beautiful location with just two other friends (and our new seal friend who'd pop his head up every now and then), well, it made the chill worth it. A nice way to wind up our time in Ísafjörður.

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And They're Off!

It's 12noon on Tuesday, 16 Aug., here in Ísafjörður, Iceland. The wind calmed overnight (although it's picking up again) and the rain is just spitting a bit now. And in today's news: Polar Bear is departing Ísafjörður in about three hours. And there was much rejoicing.

As detailed earlier, we're going to head out of the fjord here and turn left (west) to ride the strong winds outside toward calmer conditions nearer the Greenland coast. Once we're clear of the heaviest stuff, we'll turn north and head for Scoresby Sund. We'll hope for relatively benign conditions there -- not too much wind and/or ice -- so we can round the cape that protects the southern flank of the sound. If there's too much ice, or if there's too much wind with enough ice that combined there's sufficient danger, then we'll turn around and be back in Iceland (likely here in Ísafjörður) by Saturday. We should know, based on weather reports and satellite photographs of the ice conditions, by late Wednesday whether we can get into Scoresby Sund.

We spoke with the family of the skipper of Aurora, a charter sailboat based here in Ísafjörður (that we saw off Jan Mayen several weeks ago), who's been in Kulusuk for a couple of weeks now. The skipper said he's never seen so much ice and the locals in Greenland said there's more ice than there's been in 45 years. So...we'll see what happens. (The irony is that Polar Bear could have made it the week before I rejoined the boat had Boy Wonder not skedaddled for the UK, but let's not get into that here.)

I'll be stoked if we can make it to Greenland. To see such a unique place would be a rare, if not unique, experience, hopefully surpassing even all that I've seen on this trip so far.

But more importantly, I'm anxious to get back to sea. Yes, I've been back on the boat for the past week, but I haven't really been on the boat since I left in Akureyri in mid-July. Being tied to a dock is nowhere near the same as being at sea. That rhythm of daily life on board, the sounds and motions of the boat moving through the water, the way the universe is reduced to the 72-foot length of Polar Bear and the sea from horizon to horizon...these are not remotely replicated when in port. In port, the rhythms of life are driven by shore life and the hours kept by the town in which you're docked. Being on a boat in port is just living in that town in a very small, damp apartment with a lousy bathroom.

At sea, though, the boat becomes a mobile castle, a bulwark against the harsh-yet-beautful environment that conveys you to ever new sights and destinations. The beds are sumptuous, the food extravagant and the bathrooms, well, they're still not exactly plush. And the clarity that comes from being on a watch system -- you're either on or you're off -- enables one to be remarkably productive and still be refreshed at all times.

So, yeah...I'm looking forward to casting off the lines this afternoon. Once we depart, we'll be out of contact until we return to Iceland, be that in a couple of days or a couple of weeks. I will, of course, post once we're back in range. Talk to y'all then...

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14 August 2011

Custer Had a Plan, Right? Part Two...

We awoke this morning (Sunday, 14 Aug.) to Boogie looking at the weather reports and forecasts for the region. And here's the plan that resulted: We're here in Ísafjörður until Tuesday evening, at the earliest.

We have a chart for our original destination, Scoresby Sund, and will make for that port...but the weather charts indicate that the ice and wind conditions in the area of Scoresby Sund won´t open up until late Wednesday. And when we do head out to sea, we´ll head west first because the charts (and the conditions outside) show that swath of wind I mentioned a couple of posts ago: mega winds out of the north...but only about 70-100 miles wide. Inside of that area, closer to Greenland, the winds abate quite a bit. So we'll make for that mellower area then head north along the coast toward the mouth of Scoresby Sund.

The challenge is that we have two guests aboard (friends of Boogie and Marlies) who need to get out -- from somewhere -- on Saturday. On that same day we have nine or 10 (I forget exactly how many) guests due to meet Polar Bear -- again, somewhere. That "somewhere" would ideally be at Constable Pynt in Scoresby Sund, Greenland. That's where I was originally going to meet the boat after my American sojourn in July; that's where Boogie and Marlies' friends were going to fly in and out of; and that's where next Saturday's guests were going to join Polar Bear. So Constable Pynt is where we wanna be next Saturday. But if we can't make it in due to ice or weather then we need to be in a place like Ísafjörður or Akureyri or Kulusuk where there are regularly scheduled flights. But the chances of getting close to Greenland, being turned around by ice and making it to Akureyri (farther east in Iceland) are slim. And remember: we don't have a chart for Kulusuk, so that's out. So it's either: get in to Scoresby Sund by Saturday, or get turned around soon enough that we can make it back to Ísafjörður, again, by Saturday.

And right now, the weather is honkin' outside: a cold, biting wind out of the northeast is strong enough to put whitecaps in the harbor and decent-sized swells at the end of the fjords in the area; sporadic rain showers that chill to the bone anyone foolish enough to be caught outside; low clouds scudding by just below the tops of the peaks surrounding the area. Bottom line according to some locals: winter is back.

Great. So where am I going? North. Good thinkin', Luke...

In the meantime, before the weather completely crapped out we removed one of our headsails in advance of hoisting a smaller version so we're better equipped for the conditions outside. A few other tasks before the wind and rain made it more work than we felt like dealing with (since we weren't going anywhere soon) and I wandered off to the local establishment to catch the Chelsea-Stoke and Manchester United-West Brom matches on the telly.

After those matches, Marlies and Boogie and I took a rental car and wandered off south, in the opposite direction we went on Thursday. This time, we hit up Suðavik, about half an hour from Ísafjörður, to see the arctic fox museum (cute and interesting) and Heydalur, site of a true natural hot spring (nice and much better than the concrete pool we wallowed in on Thursday. A tad indulgent, yes, but worth it to see the other half of the Westfjords.

During our road trip it occurred to me that in all my talk of the "otherworldly" and "lunar" aspects of the local landscape, I might be giving a false impression. While it's true that such characterizations are accurate for the high country in the Westfjords, down along the coastline northwest Iceland is a land with enough shades of green to rival Ireland or Scotland. As you wind along the undulating, snake-like coastline, it's a light-green grassy patch here, a dark green creekbed there -- and everything in between. It's when you get midway up the mountainsides that the green starts to alternate with the black and brown of rock (before giving way entirely to rock higher up).

Another interesting (to me) observation: given the nature of the coastline here in the Westfjords, driving distances are almost exponential progressions over straight-line distance. Look at a map for this area: it's just one fjord after another, undulating in and out, for the entire circumference of the peninsula. There's one road that rings the Westfjords (a couple of others here and there, but not many others) and that road runs in one side of an six-to-10-mile-long fjord then back out the other, equally long side of the fjord. You'll be driving and you can see where you'll be in 20 miles -- just a half-mile away across the water. On top of that, Icelandic highways are NOT American freeways or German autobahns. In many places, they're dirt. Yes, dirt. And where they're paved, the roads are two lanes wide at best. In fact, for many stretches of today's ride the highway is one-and-a-half car widths wide; when you meet an oncoming vehicle, you slow down and sidle off your right tires to the shoulder as (you hope) the other driver does the same. Heaven help you if the other car is an RV or a semi... It's like Iceland said, "you know, there are these far-flung settlements...let's build a road to link them." They build this road over mountain passes and alongside the ocean -- wherever they could -- and they said, "that's good. We're done here."

And to be honest, I dig that. It builds in a sense of patience. A sense of "soon come," as they'd say in the Caribbean. "Island time" is not limited to the lower latitudes, it seems.

Anyway, so...tomorrow. Tomorrow, if this storminess continues (preferably offshore, and lined up north-south as indicated on the charts) I may be looking at some decent Greenland Sea surf. Same goes for Tuesday. The challenge will be access: Maik works (it is Monday after all) but I might be able to scare up a board and have Boogie drive me in his shiny rent-a-car (which he has until 5pm). So...we'll see.

But more importantly, we wait. We wait on wind here in Ísafjörður and environs; we wait on wind and ice just across Denmark Strait in Greenland. I'll update as I can. Thanks for tuning in.

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13 August 2011

Dateline: The Westfjords Region of Iceland

Boogie, Marlies and I got out of Ísafjörður on Thursday in a rental car. We explored the rest of the Westfjords region, of which Ísafjörður is the big city, and found a world of beauty, desolation, and fun. And as with the rest of the post-American Interlude period of this trip, the photos will have to wait until I get back to a Flash-compatible machine.

Our first destination was Látrabjarga, the westernmost point in Iceland and home to a huge wall of sea cliffs that are home to thousands of birds -- including nesting puffins that were reputed to be so tame that we humans could approach to quite close distances. It was a long drive of over 200 kilometers on regional highways, which meant that once we reached the village of þingeyri (pronounced something like "Thing-a-ree," with the rolled R that we Americans just can't do), a couple of fjords southwest of Isafjöður, the road turned to dirt. And dirt it stayed as we drove past the birthplace of Jon Sigurdsson, the "founding father", so to speak, of the modern Icelandic nation; past Dynjani, a gorgeous and oft photographed waterfall that is kinda the tourist symbol of the Westfjord region; and past several villages, warm springs and tourist destinations in their own right.

And the terrain in this part of Iceland remains, well, lunar: broad rocky plains topping flat mountain with small ponds scattered about like puddles on a sidewalk after a rain. White cottony plants fringed the ponds and small, low grasses and moss grew between the rocks. Sporadic growths of past-their-prime summer flowers appeared in a handful of places. What roads there are (and they are few) are dirt, rocky two-lanes that are either climbing up to steep passes or descending from steep passes. It is, as I've written, out there, so much so that at the top of one pass the solar panel powering the weather instruments was arranged vertically so as to maximize its exposure to direct sunlight.

But when we got there, Látrabjarga lived up to the hype. We got so close to puffins, crawling out to the edge of the cliffs, that at one point a bird appeared at the mouth of its burrow so close to Marlies that both she AND the puffin shrieked. I got so many up close and personal photos of puffins (again: I can't post photos to this blog since I'm on an iPad; there's a photo on my Facebook page and I'll post photos when I'm back) that by the end of the two hours or so that we were there, I was more than happy to have eaten puffin a couple of evenings earlier.

That´s right: Icelanders eat puffins. Yes, I know puffins are just SO cute. But you know what? They're also tasty. And they are very plentiful. If you're wondering: no, they don't taste just like chicken; puffin tastes like other game birds I've eaten (wild duck, pheasant), just stronger.

After Látrabjraga, we explored a beach on Patreksfjord that rivaled the Caribbean for white sand and turquoise water, a renowned red-sand beach on the open sea known as the "endless beach" (it's really 10 kilometers, which is still quite long, and a good half-mile or more's big) and one of the warm springs we'd passed earlier: a concrete pool on the edge of a fjord fed by a PVC pipe of wot water bubbling up right out of the Earth. We also wandered around the waterfall, Dynjani, before wandering back to þingeyri, for dinner, and on to Ísafjörður.

It was a great day with beautiful weather, fantastic views and interesting wildlife, all in an otherworldly setting. Again, I have photos to share but they'll have to wait till I get back to the States and can sync up my iPad to my laptop.

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Didn't Custer Have a Plan Too?

Sitting in the bar/restaurant across the street from Polar Bear watching the Icelandic soccer national championship match on TV. It's not exactly Liverpool-Sunderland (which I watched earlier) but in contrast to that consummately professional English Premier League match, the action has been fierce in this one: two crossbars hit in the past five minutes along with another point-blank save, and the yellow cards are a-flyin' (and rightly so).

I'm sitting here because as you may have surmised by the publication of this post, I'm still in Ísafjörður. Boy Wonder arrived on the morning flight from Reykjavik sans chart for Kulusuk so the current plan is to put to sea tomorrow and head west in an attempt to not beat into the fierce northerly winds that are forecast. We'll head that way for the hundred-or-so-mile width of the heaviest swath of winds and then turn north along the coast of Greenland to our original destination (and a place we have a chart for), Scoresby Sund. Hey, it sounds like a plan...

And since you're dying to know: the score is 1-0 to the team in orange at halftime.

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12 August 2011

Welcome to a Goat Rodeo...Polar Bear Style

Finally chilling out after a busy Friday here in Ísafjörður. We got Polar Bear mostly ready to go tomorrow by stowing the two inflatable dinghies, washing the boat down, cleaning the interior, doing laundry, moving some of the berths around to accommodate incoming guests, etc.

But the Polar Bear goat rodeo continues. The weather forecast is still more moderate than it was a few days ago, and while a run due north to Scoresby Sund/Ittoorqqortormiit/Constable Pynt is still out due to heavy winds and seas in the forecast for that area, the drive to reach Greenland remains so strong that now we're going to head west-southwest to Kulusuk but...

...but we don't know if the guests arriving tomorrow can get a flight out of Kulusuk next week.
-- No worries. There are several daily flights to Reykjavik from Kulusuk tomorrow so that's OK

...but (and this is my personal favorite) we don't have a chart for the Kulusuk area.
-- Despite being told to get a chart in England yesterday, Boy Wonder called this afternoon to say the chandlery in Reykjavik was closing today (Friday) and wouldn't open again until Monday, so his plan to get a chart en route was out and could we do anything about a chart? And did we really need a chart? Legally, yes, we need a chart, and Boogie won't go without one, regardless. Boogie spoke with the harbormaster who checked with an ancient local who used to sail to Kulusuk regularly to see if he still had an old chart lying luck. Then he tried a friend of the skipper of a local boat (Aurora, a boat we saw at Jan Mayen way back when, now currently in Greenland with guests) to see if he had a chart lying around...well, that friend-of-the-skipper is playing in the band at the bar/restaurant across the street from Polar Bear so we're going to check in with him later, see if there's a chart in his car or something.

The bottom line is: if we don't get out by midday tomorrow, the weather is forecast to get nasty enough that we'll be here for at least a couple of days. We'd still get Boogie and Marlies' friends to Greenland, and we'd get there for next week's guests, but it'll be close AND we'll be hanging out in Ísafjörður for another couple of days...which wouldn't bother the surfer in me (see yesterday's post), especially since my wetsuit boots and gloves arrived this morning from home (thanks, Mom!). I'd also get to check out opening day of the English Premier League (a lot of Man U and EPL fans here in Iceland, it turns out). And frankly, the three of us had such a great day yesterday -- we rented a car and spent the day touring the Westfjords region -- that the guests could have plenty of fun in the interim.

More on that later...either in the next day or so, or after we return to civilization in a couple of weeks. Either way, I'll get at least a quick update posted tomorrow if we're heading to sea.

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10 August 2011

Perspective, Baby

I sure as hell can't complain about the weather on the trip this summer. Sure, we had some nasty, cold crap on the Norwegian Sea as we headed to Iceland from Jan Mayen, but that's to be expected out there. Whenever we've been somewhere, we've only had a wee bit of unpleasantness. Other than those couple of rainy days in Lerwick, Shetland, we've enjoyed crazy-good conditions pretty much the entire time (and we had plenty of crazy-good days in Shetland, too).

And that streak continues to this day, which finds me sitting here in the sun in Ísafjörður in a pair of shorts, a T-shirt and flip-flops. Seriously. I'm getting sunburned. In Iceland. At 66 degrees north latitude. I mean: really?! I've been simultaneously watching a small boat working the light breeze on the waters of the fjord and taking in the snow-dappled mountainsides ringing the southern, western and northern boundaries of town. It's probably in the mid-60s officially, but in the direct sunlight, it's seriously toasty. 70-plus? Seems likely. Ahhh!

Boogie and I took advantage of the weather and ambled out for a run this morning. We covered about 5.5 miles at a leisurely pace, and got to see some of the town in the process. After the run, I grabbed a swim, sauna and hot tub, and shower/shave at the community pool -- EVERY town in Iceland, no matter how small, has a pool (many of them heated geothermically)'s kinda the national pastime -- and then we did some chores on Polar Bear, chipping away at the to-do list for the Greenland run...

...which now looks more likely. Yesterday's grim weather forecast has moderated considerably and it's looking like we'll head north Saturday morning. Ironically, I welcomed the initial forecast because it meant two things: one, that we'd be stuck in port while, two, the surf was big. Even Arctic Surfers, a tour company down south, called out the forecast for this area for the weekend, but alas. It's interesting (to me, anyway) how my perpsective changed over time: as a sailor, I was bummed by the forecast and then I realized that as a surfer, I was stoked by that same forecast. With the forecast easing, the surfer in me is now bummed, but the sailor/adventurer who wants to see Greenland is stoked. It's a no-lose situation, I'm well aware, but I must confess to having looked forward to some big waves hereabouts. Perhaps come September...

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09 August 2011

Fun in the Sun in Iceland

Well, since we're here in Isafjörður for a few days, Boogie, Marlies and I are mixing in a bit of fun with the chores required to prep the boat for our run to Greenland. That included breaking out the big dinghy yesterday -- complete with a 65-horsepower outboard -- and running the eight miles or so upfjord to the small island of Vigur. It's an old farming island that's been in one family for generations and now makes a living from tourism.

Visitors make the run from town and wander the island, seeing how farming once provided a living and taking in a bit birdwatching. A flock of eiders reside on the farm and are so tame that two of the ducks followed us as we wandered around all around the place. A ton of puffins make their home on the island too, but they're a bit more wary of humans than the eiders. Still, you could sit among the puffins' burrows and hear them just underground -- they sound like cows off in the distance -- and eventually they'd emerge close enough to see up close (but I still couldn't get any good photos, dammit!). Arctic terns hovered overhead in great numbers, screeching at the interruption (managed to get a few good shots of these aerobats). Guillemots and gulls round out the avian residents on Vigur; there were also a couple of sheep around, too.

After wandering a bit, visitors return to the cozy little farmhouse and enjoy some tea or coffee and some homemade pastries. The pastries, in particular, were magnificent -- especially the pie made from the farm's own rhubarb.

It's a beautiful spot and the solitude must be fantastic. And when you need the amenities of town, Ísafjörður is just a 30-minute boat ride away. Ironically, as secluded as you'd be on Vigur, the road from town back to the rest of Iceland snakes by on the thin strip of land between the steep mountains and the sea just a half-mile in places from Vigur. So you can hear traffic -- admittedly, a couple of vehicles an hour at peak times, it seems like -- from this little bit of nirvana.

The other irony about this part of Iceland is the topography. With the flat-topped mountains and the chossy rock, I was reminded overy strongly of parts of the Colorado Plateau in the western U.S. -- albeit with green streaks running up the sides of the mountains and a green foundation at their bases. Think of, say, Grand Junction, Colorado, or Moab, Utah, or even Monument Valley or some part of Arizona, in the spring, during that brief couple of weeks when there's some low-level green present among the red and brown rocks. There are no trees here, as there, and, of course, you need to ignore the sea that dominates the scene here in Iceland. There's a reason NASA sent the early astronauts to this island in the North Atlantic to prepare for the moon landing: it's definitely a lunar landscape.

I'd post the photos here but I seem to have made a grave error: I left my laptop back in the States when I returned to Polar Bear. I'm using my iPad alone at this point, but the Blogger upload tool is, apparently, a Flash-based tool so...I'm up the creek with regard to posting photos. Sorry, folks. I've used the Facebook email-a-photo tool to post a photo of a tern and a video from the dinghy ride back over on that I can do until I figure out what works on Blogger (anyone with any ideas is welcome -- nay, begged -- to email a solution).

And I have time to implement any solutions sent along: the current plan is to wait here until Saturday, when Boy Wonder and two friends of Boogie and Marlies are due to arrive. And while Ísafjörður is a charming little town, there ain't much to do. A hike here and there; I might rent a bike...beyond that, umm... And naturally enough, when looking at the weather forecast this morning, Boogie discovered that next week's weather is expected to be brutal: winds in the 40- to 60-knot range (with higher gusts) and right on the nose. With weather like that, there's no way we'll make Greenland. The perfect condition for the run across the Denmark Strait is right now -- but we're only three crew at this point and you really need four to be able to handle the ice and weather (read: fog) conditions that one can expect in that bit of water. Boogie is on the phone right now with Boy Wonder, in an attempt to change the plan enough to enable us to reach Ittoqqortoormiit and Scoresby Sund. So stay tuned...

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07 August 2011

Northern Aloha

Upon my arrival in Isafjördur yesterday, Boogie and Marlies introduced me to Maik, a young German guy working in the restaurant across the street from where Polar Bear is tied up. Maik, it turns out, is a surfer here in Iceland and in true surfer fashion he immediately let me know that I shoulda been here yesterday, as the saying goes. But there was still a little swell so Maik offered to drive me out to a break not far from Isafjördur after he got off work at 5pm. Marlies and Boogie joined the expedition and we loaded into Maik's Toyota pickup truck for the ride to Saebol, a "village" on a cove two fjords west of Isafjördur.

Yes, surf in Iceland. Think about it: it's an island in the middle of the ocean...of course, there's surf. The south coast of Iceland, open to the entire expanse of storms and swells from the Atlantic Ocean as it is, has well-documented surf. But surf here on the north coast of Iceland surprised me, so I was excited at this unforeseen development. But isn't the water cold, you ask. Sure, but no colder than New England or Alaska. And like those two other places where I've surfed, crowds aren't a factor when surfing Iceland. Count me in.

The "highway" out of town was little more than a narrow two-lane road but at least it was paved. It ran through a tunnel several kilometers long heading west -- actually, it's two tunnels in one: there's a fork in the road in the tunnel -- IN THE MIDDLE OF THE MOUNTAIN -- that provides access to the first fjord west of town -- and emerged near the top of the fjord that is home to Flateyri, a top that was flattened by an avalanche a while back. Upon reaching the next fjord west, we turned off the pavement and on to a single-lane dirt road that required Maik to lock the hubs on his truck.

Up we climbed on this numbered, regional highway, and crested the ridge atop a pictureque green valley running north down to the sea. A steep descent brought us to Saebol: two small farms, a dirt airstrip and a small alabaster church overlooking the water. In the farm beside the church lived Betty, a friend of Maik's who taught at the university. How she gets in and out of that valley in wintertime is beyond me. It's snowmachine (snowmobile for non-Alaskans) country, for sure. But given the avalanche terrain all around the head of the valley...yikes. But in Iceland, the highway department apparently plows the dirt track twice a week. Hell, there was good cell coverage right along the beach -- at the bottom of a valley home to a couple of people. Talk about having your cake and eating it too: solitude but all the amenities.

At Betty's, we met up with Danny, a Canadian attending grad school for marine-resource management in Isafjördur. Fortunately, Danny had a pair of wetsuit boots that fit me since I had apparently neglected to put mine in my bag with my wetsuits when I left the U.S. on Thursday. Whoops. Danny also had a longboard I could use which was also good since the surf was small and onshore.

But was surf! And it was surf on the Greenland Sea. It was a beautiful hour or so of surf in a stunning setting of cliffs ringing the fjord, the green valley at our backs, the small white church on the bluff -- all with new friends. The essence of a surfari, for sure, and a great way to start this second leg of this summer of adventure.

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Dateline: Isafjördur

I flew to this small city (+/- 3,000) in the northwestern part of Iceland yesterday morning. Isafjördur is a lovely little town and is set, as its name suggests, in the bottom of a fjord, so steep walls tower over the settlement on three sides. The mountains are, like much of Iceland's topography, flat-topped and are made up of dark rock with small, bright green plant life streaking about three-quarters of the way up. At the bottom of the fjord it's Ireland green formed by grasses and fields -- but no real trees. There are scattered groves that have been planted by the residents, but no forests.

At the head of the fjord, to the west, there's a road that leads to the rest of this region of Iceland which is known as the Westfjords. The region comprises a peninsula jutting out of the northwest corner of the island, and its fjord-pocked coast is one continuous series of undulations. But it's remote out here: since fjords ultimately end in a high wall, that road out of town tunnels into the mountain to reach the next fjord. The tunnel was built in 1996 -- which means that up until 15 years ago, travel from town to town around here was via the rough, dirt tracks over the mountaintops. And that's just in the summer. In the winter? Whole other ball game. Now I know why everyone here has beefy four-by-four vehicles despite the high cost of fuel. It's out there here in the Westfjords, that's for sure.

On the east side of Isafjördur there's a huge dike running diagonally up the hillside between the town and the slopes. It was built to protect a residential area from avalanches; in years past, slides have wiped out houses and ski lifts (they moved the lifts farther up the valley as a result; houses were a little tougher to move). The dike is 25 or 30 feet high and a good quarter-mile long, and there are also a series of man-made conical hills, also 25 or 30 feet, upstream from the dike. That's how big the avalanches get around here. A couple of fjords over, there's the village of Flateyri which was buried by a slide in 1995 that wiped out a bunch of houses and killed 20 people. So yeah, it's out there here in the Wesfjords.

And yet there's a reportedly good hospital here in Isafjördur and a university too. There's also a pro or semi-pro soccer team: a Reykjavik team was on my flight yesterday, coming up here for a match. Cruise ships call regularly and there have been steady stream of European and North American tourists wandering town. The houses here are charming and brightly colored, with beautiful flower gardens out front and in windowsills. And the town is home to several high-profile music festivals annually.

So the combination of out-there and civilization makes Isafjördur a pretty neat place. And on a summer day like today -- brilliant blue sky with not a cloud in sight, temps in the mid 60s -- it's not only charming but quite idyllic here. I suspect winter is a different matter but for now it's wonderful.

Which is good because the Polar Bear soap opera is ongoing. Boogie and Marlies offloaded a group of Russian photographers the day before I arrived. They were unable to get through the ice to Greenland (a couple of hundred miles away) and this week's scheduled group wasn't interested in NOT getting to Greenland so they canceled. As a result, Boogie and Marlies and I are staying here, watching the weather and ice forecasts, and waiting for Saturday when a couple of friends and Boy Wonder will arrive and we'll give Greenland another go. Boogie was hoping to head west to Akureyri or Husavik in the next day or two in order to give us a more westerly track to Scoresby Sund but Boy Wonder emailed today saying the ice report indicates that we'll have a better shot running straight north from here rather than from farther east. So...we'll see.

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05 August 2011

Another Dose of Humility, Please

Sitting in the lobby of the City Centre Hotel in Reykjavik. It's midnight on a Friday and the scene up and down the street outside is, to put it bluntly, rockin'. Alas, I have an 8am flight to catch so I'm behaving: a couple of pints of Guinness and now I'm getting ready to turn in.

This town really is incredible: small enough to be digested in short order; interesting enough to keep someone busy for a very long time. I did the culture/history thing today: museums. Under an overcast sky that occasionally spit a few raindrops, I hit the Culture House and the National Museum. In the latter, I got a detailed rundown on the history of this island, this nation, this people. It was fascinating and very well presented, and I quite enjoyed myself. To be honest, I don't think I gave myself enough time for the National Museum -- there was just so much to digest.

The Culture House, on the other hand, was spectacular in an understated manner...especially if you're into the written word. The emphasis at the Culture House is just that: the written word. So the focus is on the published versions of the Icelandic Sagas and Eddas and other national treasures that set this small island's culture apart from more mainstream European history/culture.

Upon entering the main display at the Culture House, I got a little upset: everything was just a reproduction of the books that contain these amazing stories dating back more than a thousand years. the back corner of the main room there was a little sign saying: "This way." And for those who Real, live, actual books that were almost a thousand years old (from the 1200s in some cases), under glass, protected from ultraviolet light and humidity and other degrading impacts. Stories that were written down so they'd survive from generation to generation -- and all gloriously crafted, with beautiful calligraphy and gorgeous illustrations. It was truly awe-inspiring, especially to one who bitches about how writing with pen-and-paper is just sooooo he writes more easily on a keyboard. Boy, did I feel like a big wuss. It was a truly humbling experience.

It was a fitting send-off. Tomorrow morning I'll jump a flight to the northwest part of Iceland, to Isafjördur, where I'll rejoin Polar Bear and we'll head to Greenland. Maybe. Yesterday, on the flight over the southern cape of that mystical land, I saw quite a bit of ice so we'll see what happens (last week, Polar Bear was turned back by the ice). I'm hopeful of reaching Greenland via boat but again: it's not up to me. Either way, we'll give it a shot. And assuming we get through, I'll be incommunicado for the three week-long trips on the schedule. My next connection to the modern world will come upon our return to Iceland in late August.

So enjoy the rest of your summer. I lived in Alaska, but even I've been shocked in the change in the light at this latitude in just two weeks: it's pitch dark out now whereas when I was here last, it was a pleasant surprise to see the moon in an otherwise daylight sky. The lesson is clear: light and summer (and a few other things...) are fleeting. They are to be savored, made the most of. Because it's a long time till they come 'round again...

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03 August 2011

Comes A Time (again)

"This morning...I felt a longing for the sea. It has a great cleanliness. There are moments when everything on land seems to me torturous, dark, and squalid"
               -- Dr. Stephen Maturin in Patrick O'Brian's "Post Captain"

Just as there came a time to leave Lerwick, Shetland, and also Bodø, Norway, now comes the time to leave my home here at Plum Island, Massachusetts. It's time to hit the road -- er, water -- again. Tomorrow morning I'll head to Boston and board a midday flight back to Reykjavik, Iceland.

The original plan was to fly to Constable Pynt, Greenland, on Saturday and rejoin Polar Bear, the boat having journeyed there in my absence. But the boat was unable to push through the sea ice last week and was forced to return to Isafjördur on the north coast of Iceland. So I'll fly there Saturday morning and we'll shoot for Greenland next week.

Frankly, I'm psyched. I've heard that the flight to Constable Pynt is one of the loveliest in the world: winging low over the ice cap and mountains of Greenland. But I'd rather my first view of that strange land (not counting the times I've seen it from 36,000 feet) be from the deck of a boat. There's just something unique and enticing and captivating about making landfall in a new place.

"It was not that he did not like the land -- capital place; such games, such fun -- but the difficulties there, the complications, were so vague and imprecise, reaching one behind another, no end to them: nothing a man could get a hold of. Here, although life was complex enough in all conscience, he could at least attempt to cope with anything that turned up."
               -- O'Brian writing about Capt. Jack Aubrey, also in "Post Captain"

I'm looking forward to getting back to the simplicity, the clarity, of life at sea. I've loved watching my beloved Red Sox have a great July, but this being connected 24/7 -- via phone, Web, text message, email, radio, TV -- is just too much. I detest the Pavlovian way we respond to the ringing of a bell or the "you've got mail" sound. And though it's my own damned fault, I just get too distracted -- I've missed writing day in and day out.

And perhaps that's what the point of this interlude was (in addition to taking part in the beautiful wedding ceremony between Deana Moody and Tom McLaughlin on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire): to realize that once I return to the "real" world for good, I need to knuckle down and apply myself.

"It's easy to be a wise man in the mountains," say the Zen monks. Maybe the corollary is: it's easy to write regularly when you're on the sea.