ends-of-the-earth

Stuck in the Arctic for three weeks...and counting

Nov. 13, 2008 at 8:20 PM ET

From Peter Alexander, TODAY correspondent

Note: This blog has been updated to include a new slide show. It was originally published on Friday, Sept. 26.

So, here we are. In the Arctic. Day 23. Good times!

Producer Paul Manson and I, along with cameraman Callan Griffiths and soundman Ben Adam, were sent here on assignment to report on climate change and the Arctic for an upcoming broadcast. The primary news peg -- and one reason for our visit -- is that for only the second time in recorded history the Northwest Passage is ice free, effectively clearing this shortcut between Europe and Asia.

Our intention was to stay on board for 10 days, shooting video and interviews.  Mother Nature, apparently, had other plans.  Inclement weather, along with an emergency search and rescue mission, has spoiled all five of our attempts to leave the ship.  Getting stuck in the Arctic is not uncommon; getting stuck five times is like punishment.

Joining the team

We left NYC Sept. 3, joining up with a team of scientists from ArcticNet on board the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker, Amundsen. (In Canada, the Coast Guard is civilian, not military. It is part of the country's Department of Oceans and Fisheries.) This particular Coast Guard ship has been dedicated to scientific research and outfitted with all the necessary tools. In a unique partnership, the scientists work side-by-side with the Coast Guard crew. For example, the scientists are testing water samples and sediment samples (from the ocean floor) as well as mapping uncharted territories in this remote part of the world. There are 40 scientists, 40 Coast Guard members and the four of us. By now we're part of the team, learning to help on deck, in the lab and at dinner.   See more photos here.

We boarded the Amundsen Thursday, Sept. 4, in Resolute Bay, a small Inuit village, along the Northwest Passage. The plan was to fly off by helicopter at the northern most civilian community in North America, Grise Fjord, and then begin our long journey home. Freezing rain and harsh weather kept our chopper grounded both Monday and Tuesday. The ship kept going and our chance to get off passed. We continued North with the expedition along the coasts of the Canadian Arctic and Greenland, coming within 900 miles of the North Pole.

Over the next couple weeks, we would make three more attempts to fly to land. Each one failed due to weather. Unbelievably, on Thursday our absolute best chance to get off the ship failed, too. The ship was diverted back north to assist a search and rescue mission, something the crew says has only happened once or twice in the last couple years.  From the beginning, we were warned that the ships primary mission was science. The cost of operating this icebreaker and moving the expedition forward is $50,000 a day. While we've been welcomed guests on board, we knew the ship wouldn't be stopping for us.

Close quarters

Paul and I have been sharing what would normally be the infirmary on this overloaded ship. To our eye, it’s roughly, 10 by 12 feet. A thin curtain is the only thing separating us -- and our dignity. Callan and Ben share a bunk bed in a slighter larger room downstairs.

Soundman Ben Adam, producer Paul Manson, cameraman Callan Griffiths and correspondent Peter Alexander

In our 23 days on the ship we have covered more than 2,500 miles. The ship rocks incessantly and a sonar machine used for ocean floor mapping ticks loudly all day and night. It’s akin to being audibly poked day in and day out. (Callan has lovingly promised to buy each of us a metronome when we get home so that will be able to sleep as comfortably in NYC.)

Since we were done shooting two weeks ago, we’ve been left with a lot of time to fill. Meals have become a priority. It's often the only way we can keep track of what time and day it is. Thursday is a favorite -- breakfast crepes. Speaking of crepes, we'll remind you this is a French-Canadian ship, and so we've been more than well fed. In fact, we're convinced Fabien, the ships pastry chef -- yes, I said pastry chef -- is trying to kill us slowly with desserts.

Meals are always heavy and large. (Now, so are some of us.) But fear not, there is a fitness club on board. Let us describe it for you: it's half the size of our bedroom (read: infirmary), and consists of a treadmill, two bikes and a bench that’s hidden beneath a four-foot ceiling. (Running on a treadmill when the ship is rocking could easily pass as its own Olympic sport.) Not to worry, we've now collectively run or biked the length of Greenland six times over. The other hours have been spent staring at the ocean, staring in the abyss and staring at each other -- followed by routine games of Scrabble, "what's for dinner?" and "if you could be any kind of animal, what would you be?"

A once-in-a-lifetime experience

Let's be clear, although we've been mentally ready to leave for a long time now, we have seen and done some extraordinary things, including meeting some inspiring scientists whose dedication to their field reminds us daily why we’re here. We've seen polar bears, beluga whales and icebergs the size of floating hotels. Each sighting reminds us how far away we are from home. In addition, we've seen sea creatures from far below the ocean's surface that would rival the characters at the Star Wars bar.

The scenery is both breathtaking and intimidating. We've been awed by sights that most people will never see and appreciate that this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. (Hopefully.)

VIDEO: Peter Alexander and Paul Manson phone home to describe the (mis)adventures

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