North Pole 08 – The Final Chapter

Our near North Pole expedition is winding down. All that is left now is the long journey home. This is my last blog entry until June when our cruising will start up again.

There are many of you who are new to my blog, and joined us just for this journey. Normally my blog chronicles Roberta’s and my boating adventures. This year we’ll be cruising the western Mediterranean (France and Spain) then move the boat to the southern Caribbean to cruise there. Roberta and I run the boat alone, and have had some amazing adventures. Occasionally the blog gets a bit mired down in technical boating details, but there is also quite a lot worth reading as we encounter interesting culture and people around the world. I’d encourage you to stick with the blog at least through June and see what you think.

Here is a link to an article about the tourist that was attacked by a polar bear (I mentioned it in yesterday’s blog).

None of the tour guides here have said it, but you can read between the lines of their comments what they are thinking. Tourists are warned from the time they land about polar bears. There are extensive advisories for campers on how to avoid an attack. Some attacks are unavoidable, but generally when a tourist is attacked they weren’t observing the guidelines. I don’t know the details of this attack, and if the campers followed all the rules, but my takeaway from conversations with the guides is that it is a very sad incident and probably the tourist did not follow the proscribed procedure. Not only did a tourist get hurt, but a polar bear was killed, and it could damage tourism which is important to the economy here. It’s just a sad event all around.

Below is the story of our day yesterday and the evening before, told through pictures.


Roberta and I wanted to see the Northern Lights. ( but because of the city lights, our only chance to see them would be to venture far outside the city. To accomplish this we would need to ride snowmobiles — at night!

Neither Roberta nor I have ever been on a snowmobile, but we’re usually up for a challenge. So, after an short training course and safety briefing, we would be heading 15 miles out of town in search of the Northern Lights.

Our guides said it would be an easy ride, fairly flat and the weather would be good. It was “only” lightly snowing, with a gentle breeze, and a temperature of -18. The bad news was that our odds of seeing the Northern Lights were only about 50/50. But, if there was any chance, we wanted to take it.

Here we see Roberta supplementing her layers of clothing with the jumpsuit the tour operator provides.

Here you see me putting on my jumpsuit. You cannot possibly imagine how difficult to even walk it was with all of these heavy clothes. In addition to what you see here we were wearing many layers of gloves, huge snow boots, scarves, full face wool masks, and a helmet. The white “spots” you see on my feet are warming pads. Prior to the trip, when Roberta showed me all of our clothes I editorialized on each item picking and choosing what I thought I’d wear. I didn’t want to look silly. However, once here and faced with the freezing cold, all of my interest in looking fashionable was forgotten. Give me anything warm and I’ll wear it.

There had been the option for each of us to ride our own snowmobile or to share one, with one person riding as passenger. We had chosen the latter option with me driving and Roberta sitting behind me — as on a motorcycle. We rode over 15 miles into the wilderness in the darkness. We departed at about 10pm, wanting to be at the viewing spot by midnight. It snowed throughout and the wind, although light, was from the side. One side of my face was frozen, and after a while I couldn’t feel my toes. They had explained how to deal with frostbite, and I was constantly readjusting my facemask while trying not to crash into something. I can see how snowmobiling could be quite fun, but for a rookie in adverse conditions, not accustomed to wearing more than a golf shirt and shorts, it was beyond horrible. From Roberta’s perspective, sitting right behind me, though it might seem that she had the better deal, she was freezing cold. They told us that the passengers get colder than the drivers because they are not doing anything but sitting there. Therefore, the cold gets to them worse than to us drivers.

To no one’s surprise, it turned out that the skies were ultimately too cloudy to view the Northern Lights. We reached our destination, stopped for a rest and headed back, returning to our hotel around 1:15am. I have no pictures of our snowmobiling adventure, because photography would have been impossible. My camera was frozen solid like a brick, and my hands were so thickly gloved I couldn’t have retrieved it from deep in my clothing layers in any case.

Roberta and I crawled into bed at 2:00am, knowing we had to get up early to go Eclipse viewing the next morning.

We were on a bus at 8am, headed to the Eclipse viewing area. Apparently scientists were asked to locate the best place to be for watching the Eclipse and that’s where our tour group set up a tent.

Roberta and I were exhausted from our night of snowmobiling. When getting dressed we discussed that there’d be a tent at the viewing site and that we wouldn’t be standing around in the cold. We put on many layers of clothing and boots, but not our heaviest gear. We just couldn’t bring ourselves to do it after our adventure of the night before. That turned out to be a mistake. There was indeed a tent, but it was floorless and pitched on snow. The inside seemed no warmer than the outside, and we couldn’t properly warm ourselves.

Our friends had dressed appropriately and stood for hours outside gazing at the sky. Instead, Roberta and I headed back inside the heated bus and huddled there until the Eclipse started happening.

There are over 2,000 people who came to Svalbard to view the Eclipse. This is only a small sampling of them. People were stretched along the snow for miles.

Jack, one visitor we met here, who had been to nine Eclipses mentioned that he would not be taking pictures. He wanted to hike away from the crowd, and away from all the clicking shutters, just to gaze at the sun (with his special Eclipse glasses) and enjoy the experience. I spoke with another lady who saw it as a spiritual event and mentioned that she cried through the Eclipses. Others see the Eclipse as a scientific event and are here to study it.

Inside the tent it was freezing. Here we see Donna, a member of our group, trying to warm her feet by holding them in front of a warm air pipe which is pumping air into the tent (somewhat ineffectually). I think they were trying to pump in only a small amount of air so that they wouldn’t melt the snow floor. If they had, we’d have been walking in slush.

These people had an amazing idea, to view the Eclipse from a hot air balloon. Imagine being in the sky looking down as the Eclipse passed over, seeing all the shadows moving across the landscape.

Roberta always asks that I smile while getting pictures taken, and I honestly do try. Here we see Roberta reading her email while I “try” to smile. Overall this has been a wonderful trip and one I will look back on as a highlight of my life. But at that moment in time I was thinking about how much my feet were freezing, and how warm it is back home in Cabo.

Whereas I look silly in my winter clothes, Roberta has a magic ability to look fashionable no matter what the occasion.

There were hundreds of professional looking people with every type of serious camera and telescope you could imagine. I heard later that very few people got good pictures. Most of these people set up their equipment at 7am. Why they set up so early I did not know. What they discovered is that batteries left in freezing conditions for four hours (the Eclipse didn’t occur until 11am) freeze. I heard there was a lot of disappointed photographers who lugged equipment across the planet, only to find themselves picture-less.

Umbraphiles (Eclipse enthusiasts) have their own language to describe the significant moments surrounding an Eclipse. Their phrase for when the moon initially touches the sun is “First Contact.” Here we see First Contact at about the 3:30 position.

I took these pictures using an inexpensive Nikon P600 Coolpix camera, through a dirty bus window. They aren’t perfect, but I’m quite proud of them. Here we see the sun entering “Pacman” mode. (That’s former video-game developer language for which the Umbraphiles might have a completely different term.)

Roberta and I left the warmth of the bus to join our friends when the sun was about 90% covered. All around us, there was starting to be change in the light, more shadows appearing, but surprisingly, given that the sun was so covered, everything was still quite bright — perhaps because of the presence of the white snow. That said, photographers like to take pictures early in the morning, or in the hour just before sunset. This is called “Magic Time,” when colors seem richer and the light gets softer. This was occuring. There was subtle beauty creeping into the colors of everything around us.

This picture does not begin in any way to capture how it looked when we arrived at totality — Total Eclipse. The actual ring around the sun was beyond mesmerizing, and was clearly visible with the naked eye. At that point everyone took their special Eclipse glasses off. The only time that it is possible to stare at the sun without damaging your eyes is during the short interval of totality, when the sun is in Total Eclipse. It’s an incredible feeling to be able to actually gaze directly at the sun and view it without harm. We live every minute of our lives with the sun above us, but not ever really “seeing” it, because we can’t. Seeing that giant fireball in the sky with your own eyes is a sight almost without description. You can see how ancient man, when viewing such an event, would have been awestruck to their very core — but without understanding what they were seeing. What is most amazing is that I have not seen any photo, anywhere on the internet, that remotely matches the reality of what we saw. The sun looked like a dense black ball, surrounded by a bright ring of fire, called the “Corona.” Little red “beads,” called “Bailey’s Beads,” could be seen here at the edges of the ring caused by the uneven edges of the moon. It suddenly turned dark and some stars were visible. That description could be applied to pictures I’ve seen on the net, but unless you were there, you haven’t seen it. The real event was far more awe-inspiring than I would have imagined. I can see why people feel the need to see it again — and again.

It was magnificent! The crowd suddenly hushed and it almost felt like a religious moment. The sun stayed in totality for two minutes and forty-eight seconds. We could look directly at the sun for that entire time without the special glasses. For me, it passed much too quickly. I had thought it had lasted only a few seconds, and was surprised to hear later how long it really had been. The split second when totality ended, there was a brief flash of the “Diamond Ring,” when a small piece of the sun emerges at the edge of the ring and shines like the most brilliant diamond that you could ever imagine. Therefore, for that split second of time, the sun looks like a diamond ring. At that very second when the “diamond ring” occurred, everyone shouted and applauded. It was over, the diamond ring being the last hurrah of that total eclipse of the sun. At that second, it was time to turn your eyes away or to put back on the special eclipse glasses.

Seconds before the Total Eclipse, with our glasses still on, but darkness setting in.

I had expected total darkness during the Eclipse, like night, and later all of us debated how dark it had gotten. Some said that because of the snow around us it stayed relatively light. Others say that it was darker than most total Eclipses. To me it was not very dark. I snapped this picture seconds after totality started, with no flash, and to me it doesn’t look that dark. The camera did work some magic to enhance the image, but…this particular picture feels about the brightness that I saw. Roberta disagrees and feels that it was much darker than this photograph.

It was strange being able to look directly at the sun. If you look at this picture you see the black dot in the center of the sun. That dot is the moon. Once again, it is a misleading photo. In actuality what we saw was a fire ring around a large deep black ball.

No one made a sound during the total Eclipse. No one asked for silence. It just happened, and even I (who is usually a cynic) was in awe.

I included this picture just to show that in the distance, behind Roberta, you can see that the horizon is still lit like a sunset or sunrise, during totality, which occurred at 10:45am local Svalbard time.

There was another magic moment, right at the end of the Total Eclipse, when the sun re-emerged. There was a sudden flash of light, a diamond-shaped burst of light, that thrilled the crowd and drew exclamations of delight and applause. Within another second everything around us brightened and it was impossible to look at the sun again without solar filter glasses. The event was over.

That’s it for this special edition of the blog. Our North Pole experience is just about over; nothing to do except pack up and go home. The blog will go back on hiatus until June. I hope you enjoyed vicariously traveling with Roberta and I, and wish you “good travels” in your own adventures.

Lastly, I should thank TravelQuest, the tour group that set this up. They have done an outstanding job. We do seem to have the best rooms, and the best tours, with the best organization. I heard that TravelQuest booked the rooms here way back in 2007!

Thank you!

Ken and Roberta Williams
MV Sans Souci

PS Here are some Eclipse related links sent to me by readers of my blog: (from Robert C) (Nicolas M – view of Eclipse from a cockpit) (Roberta W)

2 Responses

  1. SUBJECT: RE: North Pole 08 – The Final Chapter
    Thank you so much guys, for our report.  That was awesome and great pictures too.
    What an adventure.
    Hugs to both of you and travel safe back home!

  2. SUBJECT: SV: North Pole 08 – The Final Chapter

    Roberta & Ken,
    thanks for your description of the event.
    I myself experienced a total solar eclipse 1954, just 7 years old when I was with my father & mother at the island of land i southern Sweden (the long island on the east side) on summer holiday.
    I remember it clearly. It was in July.When the sun disappeared behind the moon it got dark, it got cold and all birds stopped singing. I remember I become a bit frightened when the birds stopped singing.My father had prepered glases with soot so we could look at the sun.
    Again – thanks for your writing. I have been following your blog for years and like it very much. /Mvh LeifJ
    Med vnlig hlsning/Regards/Cordialement/Mit freundlichen Gren/Cordiali saluti/Recuerdos/Met vriendelijke groet/Serdeczne pozdrowienia//Srdacni pozdrav
    – Jag ogillar vad ni ­sger men skulle d fr er rtt att sga det -(I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it)Evelyn Beatrice Hall, 1868 – 1919

    Den lrdag, 21 mars 2015 14:23 skrev Passagemaking with a Nordhavn :

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Credits     |     Video produced by: Rock Steady Media     |     Teletype photo: Arnold Reinhold     |     PDP-11 photo: Trammell Hudson