Land of the Polar Bears—An Unusual Summer Vacation

It certainly wasn’t a trip I would have expected to take this summer. After all, it’s summer – it’s nice and hot – it’s swimming weather! Why would anyone choose to go to the Arctic Circle for a summer vacation?

Now, that I’ve gone, I can tell you lots of reasons to take an adventurous excursion like ours.

My husband and I and three couples, lifelong friends, took a National Geographic Expedition to the Land of the Polar Bears in the Arctic Circle. It’s a trip planned by Lindblad Cruises/Expeditions in partnership with National Geographic. My girlfriend Margie found the trip first. My husband thought it was a great idea as did our friends. On the other hand, I couldn’t imagine what I was getting myself into. We had to be sure to pack long underwear, heavy jackets, gloves, hats, knee-high rubber boots. I used the kind of luggage that was more like a duffel bag on wheels to accommodate all this bulky clothing.

We left June 23rd and returned July 3rd. First we flew to Oslo, Norway (thank goodness a couple weeks prior to that terrible terrorism attack). I loved our time there – only a day and a half but we saw so much in such a short time. It’s a beautiful city with the magnificent Vigeland Sculpture Park. We stayed in a very nice hotel, well situated in the center of town. From Oslo we flew three hours north to Svalbard, the region of Norway close to the North Pole, in the Arctic Circle. We arrived at midnight in total daylight! It was so odd – we were falling asleep as we ate the great pizza they served on our arrival on the ship while the sun was shining through the windows.

When we landed in Svalbard, we got off the plane at a desolate airport. After all, it was midnight in a small – very small – town with snow capped mountains surrounding us. We went right to the boat—a beautiful ship—the National Geographic Explorer and were thrilled with the warm greetings from Henrik, the ship’s manager, all the staff and the beautiful surroundings. I was afraid we might be traveling in a more rugged style but those fears were put to rest. The boat was beautiful. It reminded me of the Windstar sailboat we went on a couple years ago to the Greek Islands and Turkey, just without the sails. This was an ice breaker. All the staff was wonderful … from that first “hello” to the sad “farewell.” Our cabins were very nice, roomy, too, with beautiful bathrooms. Totally renovated, it was a pleasure traveling on this ship.

Our days were spent on excursions to various islands where our guides always carried rifles. At first, that was off-putting, but, it was an important safety factor, a most appreciated safety factor. It’s great to do polar bear sightings FROM THE SHIP, but you don’t want to face one on land, that’s for sure.

And that’s what this trip was all about—seeking out visions of nature—from the wildlife to the settings. (If you’re interested, I could send you hundreds of photos!) The key word here is “visions” not visits. That’s what I loved the best about this trip, hearing the announcement: “There’s a polar bear sighting. Come to the deck immediately.” Everyone would bundle up and run to one of many decks, bringing their camera equipment.

Speaking of bundling up, let me tell you about the weather. It really wasn’t that cold—maybe 35 to 45 degrees. It was their summer, too. At night when the wind blew, we needed our gloves and hats, scarves, too.

The knee-high rubber boats were for the excursions we took in zodiacs, those large, black motorized inflatable boats with room for about 12 people. We were instructed to sit on the edge of the boat, holding onto the rope that surrounded the outside. We took trips to the islands in these zodiacs. I felt safe and loved these excursions, but wish we didn’t need to wear rubber boots. We needed the protection since getting out at an island meant walking first into the crystal clear water.

My favorite day on the zodiac was when the water shone like a mirror. The mountains were reflected in the water and the effect was breathtaking. We saw birds that day—thousands of them, many different species. During the trip we also sighted walruses, seals, whales, reindeer, and polar bears. Not as many polar bears as I had expected, but enough to make each one very exciting. The scenes were so perfect, I felt like I was staring at photographs. While we were sighing, totally awed by the scenery, another zodiac flying a white flag pulled near. As it got closer, I saw what it said – HOT CHOCOLATE! How cool was that? They served us the most delicious hot chocolate. I got a touch of alcoholic mint flavoring in mine. YUM!

This trip was glorious, being a part of nature that I had never seen before. The ice blue glaciers were beautiful and fascinating. Our boat was an icebreaker so we would crash through ice as the captain maneuvered the ship getting as close as possible to polar bears. We saw 14 polar bears but some, honestly, were specks on the glacier. It was the ones we could see with the naked eye as we got closer and closer that were the best sightings. Everyone had cameras—everyone! Some had huge cameras with gigantic lenses, some point and shoots.

Speaking of cameras, one of the best parts of this experience  was getting to know National Geographic photographers, some of the best in the world. Meeting photographers Cotton and Sissy was amazing and seeing their slideshows, a highlight. Getting pointers from the four photographers was a real bonus.

What this trip brought home is that there’s a crucial need to preserve our environment. It’s frightening to think what will be extinct if we all continue to live the way we do. I am grateful that my friends encouraged me to take this excursion. I definitely recommend being adventurous, because, to be honest, we didn’t have to be all that adventurous to take this trip!

Sharla Feldscher owns a public relations business in Philadelphia. She is the author of several books on the subject of KIDFUN and writes KIDFUN stories for Woman Around Town.