The long journey

  • Terre Freuchen Nord Groenland
  • Polarstern-Vagabond

My mom Brigitte passed away yesterday, April 23rd. The grandmother of our daughters Aurore and Léonie, and also the one of Vagabond, left for her longest journey.

At the same time, exactly, I took off aboard a Twin Otter from Station Nord to Eureka, an exceptional flight, totally magical. For almost five hours I flew over breathtaking landscapes north of Greenland and Ellesmere Island. I will never forget this flight which brought me home while my mom flew away for good.

Brigitte knew that Vagabond's crew was about to gather a few hours later. She knew that after a long separation of five months for Mosaic, this very spectacular international scientific expedition on drifting ice, our little family could carry on with our more modest missions, faithful to Vagabond's spirit.

For the past two months I have been negotiating to get back to Vagabond as quickly as possible, staying in the Arctic, without going through anywhere in the south. A bear even passed by early yesterday morning, as if to make sure that I had left the mission. From one boat frozen in the ice to another, from Polarstern to Vagabond directly, objective achieved!

Aurore, Léonie, France, Stone the dog and the pulka were there yesterday beside the runway, when Kenn Borek's plane landed. What a reunion! It was then on foot on the ice that we went to Vagabond, from where I was finally able to communicate more easily with my relatives confined in France. So many emotions in one day.

Today we are serenely starting on a quarantine on board Vagabond, while continuing our scientific work. The only difference from our usual wintering lifestyle, we have to wait before visiting our friends in Arctic Bay, the neighboring village.

Too short days in Nunavut

"In March 2020, we left, Maude Fumey and Mathurin Gasparini, to meet the inhabitants of Arctic Bay and ask them about the changes in their lifestyles linked to global warming, in order to make it a street show. We were welcomed on the polar exploration boat Vagabond. Naturally, nothing went as planned ..." Read the travel diary of Maude and Mathurin, after their artist residency on board Vagabond from March 10 to 22 2020 in Arctic Bay. Download.

Science on board Vagabond.. without Eric the scientist

  • Leonie et Aurore site numero 1
  • Leonie reine du labo
  • Niskin Leonie France

With the current crew composed by Aurore 10 years old, graceful dancer, Léonie 13 years old, fortunately a budding scientist and me, artist, almost 50 years old, we managed to deal with a small part of the scientific program, at the cost of trials and errors that Eric would have never known.

By a beautiful afternoon all our little troop snorts with dog, pulka filled up with all the necessary equipment, and good mood to the nearest site, 2.3 km away from the boat. Perky, we pierce the sea ice with three auger holes, break with the tuk the remaining ice between the holes (the longest part!) to make only one big hole, in order to send to the bottom the Niskin bottle re-tamed before. After having taken the precious water from the bottom of the sea and covered with insulating snow our little messy site, one hour of happy walking brings us back to the boat, where serious things begin. With Léonie as queen of the lab; I'm just helping her. Carbon, mercury chloride... duly gloved and equipped with pipette and syringe, she filters, she does a good job... until the last drop available, but there are still two samples to collect! Rage, disappointment, three hours of work outside to do only half of the job...

In addition, we understand that the water samples must be taken from the two dedicated sites on the same day. First, find the second site. Loaded with my unshakeable memories, I'm leaving light for a reconnaissance. My goal is also to train the dog Stone to pull a skier, before harnessing a pulka. 12 km and three hours later, after a lot of sweating due to the dog training, I'm back on board, empty-handed. I didn't see the pile of ice and the pole that should have been there! Two days later I leave with a GPS, re-tamed too, and arrive right on the so hoped vision. With a tuk and an auger, I can make the holes in advance, and admire Stone's progress as a tractor.

Finally arrives the big day, we are ready. This morning, leaving Léonie and Aurore at their boat-schooling, the pulka loaded and the dog in front, I cross the bay and open the three holes before realizing that the tuk has disappeared! I turn back alone on ski, following our footsteps, but Stone tears off his ice screw and joins me. I tie myself to him as good as I can with the hanging ice screw and travel almost the entire way back to Vagabond before finding the tuk. Back to the holes I get angry: this time I lost the ice screw! The dog drags the large block of ice he is attached to like a ball, slowly but surely around me ... This water sampling is not easy. Back at the boat, ice screw found, Léonie officiates in the lab-kitchen, I nibble a ready lunch then set off again. Three hours later I am back from the second site, after an incredible field work: all went perfect! It is 6:30 pm, Léonie has finished the lab work and we have finally managed to do a day of water sampling as it should be!

Alone on board

  • Aux falaises embrumees
  • Maud Mathurin Christian Leonie et ananas du pole nord
  • Chant de gorge en peignat devant un comedien et un photographe

In Arctic Bay all is fine, the Corona virus (Covid 19) is spreading slowly, people here know about it thanks to Internet. They don't see it like an obstacle, but more like something big, but they don't panic, they stay calm. We don't know exactly when neither how dad will come back... It's hard but we keep hoping and we think he will be on priority. Christian (photographer) who joined us since the beginning, left on March 20th together with Maude and Mathurin (actors) who where supposed to stay until March 28th. It is strange to find ourselves alone, three of us, so quickly. Initially, this was suppose to happen after Maude and Mathurin departure... No!!! Not even!!! Never because dad was suppose to be back 2-3 days after Christian and us...

Crew changes

  • Kapitan Dranistsyn et Polarstern
  • La banquise craque sur MOSAIC

Today, March 12th, the sun rose for the first time on MOSAIC since October 5th. But he stayed behind the clouds, and the strong winds cracked the sea ice right through the working area, spectacular. No instruments neither any scientific installation was damaged, miraculously.

So I'm still on board the German icebreaker Polarstern. My colleagues from Leg2 finally left on March 6th, heading to Norway, on board the Russian icebreaker Kapitan Dranitsyn. They should arrive in Tromso early April with one month delay from initial plan. I decided to stay with Leg3 team because I was offered to take the first flight from the MOSAIC spring airborne campaign. Then I should arrive in Longyearbyen in Svalbard, beginning of a long journey to Arctic Bay in Canada where ma family is waiting for me on board Vagabond.

The first flight was scheduled to land today on the ice near Polarstern, but all aircraft engineers are currently in quarantine due to the corona virus! My return from almost the North Pole is delayed until further notice... The virus impact is definitely worldwide.

Polarstern became the northernmost vessel during an Arctic winter, reaching 88°36'N on February 24th, 2020, during her transpolar drift. While the Kapitan Dranitsyn did the northernmost navigation during an Arctic winter, up to 88°28'N on February 26th, 2020.

The Leg3 team arrived full of energy, after a very long voyage from Tromso, and the crew change was efficient and faster than the 40 tons cargo transfer (supplies and scientific equipment) which lasted one week due to the extreme cold (-40°C, down to -60°C wind chill).

The crew change on board Vagabond, overwintering near Arctic Bay, was much faster: half an hour! Since March 3rd, France, Léonie and Aurore, are setting up again and they started the artists' residence with Christian Morel.

First week onboard

  • Light painting petites vagabondes
  • Retrouvailles avec Vagabond

Georges, the Pilatus pilot, did a good job with a technical flight due to the cold weather. It was -35°C when we arrived in Arctic Bay so he stayed only half an hour not to let the Pilatus freezing, before to take off with Louis who as replacing us on board Vagabond. No long handover of instructions, but just enough time to sing Happy Birthday to Louis for his 30th birthday and share his birthday cake with friends at the airport!

After four months of absence we find Vagabond almost unchanged, a bit more ice inside and nothing but white all around. Sumptuous. We organize ourselves in this cold that we must get used again. A major difference with the other years: we are three girls and a boy but it's not Eric, unfortunately kept on the Polarstern icebreaker with no fixed return date, much further north than us!

Christian, the first artist in residence on Vagabond this year started and ... amazes aficionados of the Facebook page of the village with his light painting photos: the "models" hurry to take their turn! And ourselves, we shift towards the night that Christian needs for his photos, night that goes back 10 minutes each day. On board we take our rhythm, French school in the morning, before some tours in town where the inhabitants of Arctic Bay warmly meet us again.

After half a dozen nights at -39 ° C, the days are not pretty hot and we still don't stay outside for hours at a time;)

End of Mosaic Leg2, almost!

  • Tom assiste Louis pour plongee site pH
  • Louis plonge sur site pH
  • Louis a la chasse au phoque pres d Arctic Bay
  • Mosaic Leg2

Mosaic Leg3 should have started since February 15th. But the replacing team is still on board the Kapitan Dranitsyn, going at an average speed of 1 km/h with 80 tons of fuel per day... The Russian icebreaker left the Norwegian fjords on February 3rd and was expected on the 15th next to the Polarstern for an almost complete crew change (100 people) and to deliver about 40 tons of freight (food and equipment). We even celebrated the end of Leg2 on February 8th, in order to be ready for mid-February handover!

No ship has ever reached the North Pole in winter. All 145 successful voyages since 1977 happened between the end of May and mid October, 81% were done by nuclear icebreakers. Even if the ice thickness and the ice cover have been decreasing spectacularly for the past thirty years, chartering a middle class icebreaker to get close to the North Pole in winter is still a real challenge! If the Kapitan Dranitsyn cannot reach the Polarstern, Mosaic expedition will probably use aerial logistics... Stay tuned on Mosaic blog.

Meanwhile, scientific field work continues, intense and fruitful. The drift keeps taking us to the north-west, the expedition is now North of the 88° parallel at 200 km from the Pole. The sun will not rise before mid March, but the twilight is more and more each day, with Venus nicely visible above the horizon for the last two weeks. In addition to the hiking or skiing trips allowing everyone to go out on the ice, the last full moon was time for another great camping trip with the braves. Very few animals have been seen since we joined the Mosaic expedition mid December: a fish caught in a net by 1000m depth, a seal seen in the ROV hole (underwater remote operated vehicle), a polar bear on a picture near remote sensing instruments, a fox running around Polarstern. Together with nutriments and plankton regularly sampled, the symbolic Arctic food chain is complete, even in the middle of the winter near the North Pole. All are waiting for the light to return.

France, Léonie and Aurore will be back on board Vagabond on March 2nd. I hope to meet them as soon as possible to carry on the scientific program (winter study of the coralline algae) and for the Artists' residence. The end of the winter and spring will be nice and busy, as well as the summer cruise (August and September) which will be following-up the 2019 summer cruise.

On February 9th, Louis was invited to go seal hunting near Arctic Bay. He's telling us about it: "Departure at 8am for hunting with Rex, Olayuk, Tom and Logan. We meet about ten skidoos on the way and when stopping for tea. We go as far as the floe edge, it's great to watch the open sea. Wind is picking up, it's cold. We need more than one hour to get there, the terrain is quite rough due to the strong winds of the past few days. It's -41°C. Cold is biting, even for some Inuit which get a few frostbites, although their are more resistant. We catch 5 seals. We don't waste time and we are back around 17:30 for the volleyball game, but before we meet at Tom's place to eat fresh seal stew with potatoes. The next day, we eat grilled seal meat with barbecue sauce at Rex's place. I sew a parka with help and advice from Rex and Darlene! Sun returned yesterday."

Tom also helped Louis for diving on Saturday. Louis managed to change in his truck, parked on the ice by the diving hole, and he was warm inside to download the loggers data (pH and salinity) between the two dives. Visibility underwater is excellent!

Sea ice stories

  • Mosaic camping pres du pole nord
  • Balade pleine lune mission Mosaic
  • Un ours inspecte les instruments de Mosaic
  • Plongee par-36C pour collecte coralline

Mosaic expedition keeps going, following the transpolar drift which is getting us slowly closer to the North Pole (less than 300km), and at the pace of a busy scientific program.

At 87°30' latitude North, even during the polar night, northern lights are very rare; we recently observed a green and red one. The full moon was also very beautiful with a penumbral eclipse on January 10th. And the starry sky as well while camping out on the ice last week-end: about twenty scientist accepted my invitation to leave the Polarstern cocoon for a night, to better feel the Arctic Ocean they are studying.

A well educated bear visited carefully part of the numerous instruments deployed on the ice, he didn't do any damage, and he even avoid stepping on the snow under the radiometers that look down at the surface and measure up welling radiations and surface temperature. Only one timelapse camera could see the bear, not long after midnight on January 19th. His foot prints told us about his route.

Ice has been breaking-up quite a bit in the Polarstern surroundings lately. Yesterday, while watching for two teams willing to work on the other side of a crack, ice was squeaking, moaning. Standing by near the opening and pressure zones, with two snowmobiles and three sledges parked on the 'right' side of the crack, I suddenly watched a multiple breaking. Ice was moving under my feet. One sledge ended up like a bridge on top of a one meter wide crack. When I started the snowmobiles, one ski was already touching the water! Luckily the engine was still warm and the machine jumped out of the crack just before sinking (4500m depth...). Simultaneously, a pressure ridge was growing fast, it was time to gather everybody and move back to our vessel. What will become the Mosaic floe?

At Vagabond near Arctic Bay, Louis had some help from one or two seals to keep his diving holes open in the ice and reduce his work before diving! With -36°C yesterday, water probably felt almost warm to him, at -1.8°C. In these conditions, it is a technical and logistical challenge to collect a tenth of coralline samples that were set up on the sea floor last September, and to download data from various loggers measuring light, temperature, salinity and pH. Johan, Leonie's teacher, was there to assist Louis from the surface, and friends from the community to warm up our diver with caribou, Arctic char and seal feast.

A bit of winter on board Vagabond in Arctic Bay, by Natasha Leclerc

  • 20200114 Louis et Natasha ©Jack Willie
  • 20200111 Copains Arctic Bay ©Natasha Leclerc

After weeks of anticipation, I left the warmth of my heated home and the convenience of big city living to go live on the Vagabond, lone ship trapped in sea ice, near the small and quaint community of Arctic Bay, NU. All of my friends and family feared for my sanity and called me “brave” for relocating my life to the North for close to two months. I didn’t feel brave at all, only that this was something I needed to do for my soul. As I arrived, after 3 days of transit, I was greeted by the Vagabond like an old friend. Other than it being much cooler on-board than it had been during the summer, I thought to myself “Buddy, you haven’t changed a bit”. Since participating in the summer mission I looked back fondly at my time on the Vagabond. It filled me with a thirst for the sea and the Arctic. I finally understood what drew so many people to this “barren land”, it was full of life, in the sea as on land in the communities that speckle its coastlines. So obviously, seeing Vagabond now surrounded with ice was an inviting sight as any. It seemed like no time until Louis and I were breaking ice with the chisel and continuing the scientific program of the year.

The first dive was shall we say… eventful. We were maybe too ambitious for our own good. We wanted to recover 10 algae samples to be used for the monthly growth calibration experiment as well as the environment recording instruments, and calibrate the instruments and to place them back underwater. After setting up the “warm” tent, which felt only slightly warmer than the outside, and preparing the safety line, we quickly got ready for Louis to dive. I guess we had underestimated the cold’s impact on everything. After Louis came back from his first dive, with free-flowing regulators, algae samples, and a few of the instruments (not being able to grab all of them due to cold hands), we realized that the instruments quickly caught cold and were not doing the data transfer. Louis was getting colder waiting for the instrument calibration and we had to make the call to wrap things up, do all the calibration work on-board the Vagabond and come back to set the instruments back up on the experimental platform. The following dives improved in efficiency, while the temperature continued to drop presenting new challenges. Gladly, by this time, we had started to make friends in the community, who helped us.

The people of Arctic Bay were very thoughtful and caring towards us, always offering for us to pop by their houses if ever we got cold or needed a shower. We joked to ourselves, that we must have looked very Vagabond-ish or smelled funny for people to stop us in town to invite us to their house to use their shower. But week by week we felt becoming closer to community in general. During the Christmas games period, the two weeks of nightly dancing and games, we missed maybe one night. Being an only child, Christmas was usually a quieter event. But here, the quiet was replaced by laughter and loud square dancing music. The music filled our ears and even when we weren’t at the games, the music continued playing in our heads until we were back the next night. We were glad that we had friends that could also translate the rules of the games to us, as our Inuktitut was very poor. We enjoyed asking people how they preferred to eat their country food, which we had become fond of, and hearing how many had diverse ways of preparing and enjoying their favorite foods: fried, baked, raw, right after the hunt, frozen, in soup, with barbecue sauce, hot sauce etc. I struggled to thank them enough for their care of us, all I could do was promise I would be back someday.

Happy 2020!

  • Natasha et Louis
  • Eric mission Mosaic par MarkusBeck

Kapitan Dranitsyn reached Polarstern on December 13th, at 350 kilometers from North Pole. He left again on December 18th with the previous team, after instructions, fuel, food and equipment transfer. We all (250 peoples) had a party on the ice the evening before, with hot wine and soccer game!

We are now 100 people on board Polarstern, half scientists, for Mosaic Leg 2. Our little international community (18 nationalities), the northernmost in the world, is slowly drifting north with an incredible network of instruments. I'm part of the logistics and safety team, assisting field work on the ice, watching for polar bears, moving equipment disturbed by the drift, looking for new access to scientific sites... There is a good mood on board, despite the cold (-34°C today, -50°C wind chill) and the permanent darkness which some participants are experiencing for the first time. However far from our families and friends, we celebrated the winter solstice, Christmas and New Year!

The journey on board Dranitsyn was memorable. I was on board before, when we met in Greenland in 2001, and we met again in Murmansk in 2002. At that time, I never thought one day I would embark with a bunch of scientists almost to the North Pole, in the night, breaking thicker and thicker ice... Our speed dropped down to 1 knot in the end! Not sure if the Dranitsyn will be able to come back for the next crew change, mid February, and other options are possible: nuclear ice-breaker assistance, Russian helicopters, Canadian planes... Let's see how far the drift will take us first!

Meanwhile, Natasha and Louis are looking after Vagabond, north of Baffin Island. They are also in charge of the monthly dives and water samplings for the scientific program. They are handling better and better the logistics and challenging protocols in the cold polar night, especially when recovering the data from the loggers set up at 15 meters under the ice, next to the coralline samples. After diving on December 28th, Louis said "it was -20°C (-30°C the previous dive), so good to be too warm when getting ready!".

They also take part in the local social life, with the nearby community Arctic Bay. Traditionally, games are organized every day for about two weeks during Christmas and New Year. It is a very friendly time of the year, good to know each other better, to taste some arctic char, frozen caribou or fermented walrus, join some seal hunters, learn how to make a parka or an ulu (women's knife), repair a skidoo, go out skiing with the cadets...

Happy New Year to everyone!