A 16th-century engraving of William Barents and his men hunting walrus in the Oransky Islands (Illustration: DeAgostini/Getty)
Seal hunting

My Midlife Crisis as a Russian Sailor

For a book project about 16th-century polar explorer William Barents, Andrea Pitzer needed to reach the remote Arctic island where he and his men came to grief. She booked passage on an expeditionary boat out of Murmansk, then headed north on a trip marked by unforgettable scenery, unexpected loss, and wild magic that changed her life.

I’m heading to the Arctic thinking about death.

Lying facedown in the top bunk of an overnight train inching from Saint Petersburg toward the Russian port city of Murmansk, I have a berth waiting for me on an August expedition sailing north.

I’m working on a book about Arctic explorers, and that means swimming in a sea of sorrow. In my train compartment, dead adventurers haunt me: Faithful sled dogs eaten by humans or swallowed by chasms in the ice. Sailors devoured by polar bears or their own shipmates. Even when no animals or people are stalking them, polar explorers have a tendency to starve or freeze or succumb to disease.

I’ve come to Russia at age 51 to re-create parts of William Barents’s third voyage to the Arctic from 400 years ago. Crossing and recrossing the sea northeast of Scandinavia, Barents, a Dutch navigator, went looking for a passage to China, but he and 16 men were trapped by sea ice during the summer of 1596. For nearly a year, they were stranded hundreds of miles above the mainland on Novaya Zemlya, a pair of large islands extending all the way to 77 degrees north. Five sailors died, including Barents himself, who perished at sea after they abandoned their ship and he and the remaining crew tried to get home on small boats. His quest to find the lucrative route to China was a brave but dismal failure.

Once we leave Murmansk, our boat will sail the same formidable waters. Setting out with a Russian crew aboard a yacht called Alter Ego, I’ll follow in Barents’s wake over the sea that now bears his name. 

But Barents isn’t the only thing on my mind. Other grim news is preoccupying me as much or more. Arctic sea ice is collapsing, with few signs of reversal. I’ve been to the far north twice to report on climate change, and in the meantime it’s only gotten worse.

My family seems equally vulnerable. The night before I left home, my cousin Joe messaged me about the trip. As kind a man as I’ve met, and a traumatized veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, he had checked himself in for alcohol rehab earlier that summer at the age of 47. By the time I was packing my bags, he’d been sober for more than a month. On the last day of July, I sent my love and told him to hold down the fort while I was gone. 

But I’m wondering if the fort will be standing when I return. Weeks before, my father and stepfather were diagnosed with cancer; my mother is now deep in the throes of paranoid dementia. My two teenage children are fine, but I feel bad about leaving my husband parenting solo for so long while he’s working full-time. Meanwhile, the contract I signed before all this happened says my book is due by Christmas. 

I feel both grateful and ashamed to have a chance to go off the grid to focus on research. I’m running from looming family mortality into the arms of historic—and historical—tragedy. Part of me thinks I shouldn’t go. But I know it might be the journey of a lifetime.

A black guillemot perches near the shore at Little Oransky.
A black guillemot perches near the shore at Little Oransky. (Photo: Evgeny Fershter)
The <i>Alter Ego</i> off the coast of Novaya Zemlya
The Alter Ego off the coast of Novaya Zemlya (Photo: Marthe Larsen Haarr)

My traveling companion on the train, Tatiana Ponomareva, spent nearly two decades as director of the Nabokov Museum in Saint Petersburg, until political machinations pushed her out. She helped me in 2011 with my first book, a biography of Vladimir Nabokov, and I invited her along this time as my interpreter. The year before, Tatiana connected me with Vicaar, the Russian polar-expedition agency that matched me with this boat and crew. I’m using my book advance to cover passage for Tatiana and me. We’ll set sail with ten people aboard. 

Rolling into Murmansk, we’re met by a tall Russian whose dark mustache and beard are kissed with gray. He’s our expedition leader, Evgeny Fershter. Smoking cigarettes with the furious commitment of a French Resistance leader, he walks us out of the train station. We cross a footbridge over the tracks and make our way to the harbor. A single long dock stretches before us. On its left squats a black behemoth of an icebreaker, with blocky white Russian letters on the side spelling “Lenin.”

Directly opposite the nuclear-powered ship, which is now a stationary museum, a lone vessel is moored to the dock: the Alter Ego. Painted white and autumn red, it seems small from a distance, but I looked up its specs before the trip. At just under 60 feet, it’s almost exactly the same length as the ship that carried Barents and his men to Novaya Zemlya. 

To the right, past a flock of cranes hoisting cargo, the city stretches up into hills. On the summit of the closest slope stands an enormous statue of a soldier. This is Alyosha, a symbol of Russia’s Arctic forces, which suffered brutal losses holding this corner of the world against German onslaughts during World War II.

We cross a wooden plank and board. Mikhail Tekuchev, the ship’s captain, is clean-shaven and almost as tall as Evgeny. Greeting us with a smile, he warns us to fill up on food tonight, because we probably won’t feel like eating for a while once we head out. 

We unpack our bags, finding the odd cabinets and crevices that are essential to life at sea. Our cabin mate, Olga Chumachenko, is the designated ship’s cook, but her real trade is photojournalism. She has already traveled to the North Pole and Antarctica. 

Next we meet Andrey Ianushkevich, who makes a vivid impression with a full beard and a right-arm tattoo of Saint George killing the dragon. Formerly a boxer and a businessman, he’s also a licensed captain and will serve as first mate.

The last crew member, Alexander Bogdanov, nicknamed Sasha, has a salt-and-pepper crew cut and knows some English. In his striped shirt, he looks like the archetype of a Russian sailor. In fact, he’s the newest member of the crew, and spent decades as a professional paraglider before setting foot on the Alter Ego. 

Feeling tense and overfed from lack of ­exercise, I go on deck to do push-ups and sit-ups. This might mark me as strange to my new companions, but it’s probably too late to kick me off the boat. Before long, I learn that others already have their own shipboard workout routines.

That evening, we leave the harbor without fanfare, abandoning Kola Bay and heading east along the coast. I meet two other passengers, marine biologists Marthe Larsen Haarr and Michael Pantalos, who work for the marine consulting group SALT and are joining the expedition with support from a Norwegian-Russian partnership. They’ll be mapping the amount of trash in the Barents and Kara Seas north of mainland Russia.

The last passenger, Alexey Neumoin, is a tourist. A Russian mystic as intense as any character in Dostoevsky, Alexey comes with some 21st-century updates: he’s also a web designer and martial artist. He intends to meditate along the entire route of our expedition and sees himself, quite seriously, as having a personal mission in the far north.

Before we can land anywhere up there, though, we have to cross the Barents Sea, traveling hundreds of miles to reach Cape Desire, a spot on the northeastern corner of Novaya Zemlya in the protected Russian Arctic National Park. There we’ll pick up the last member of our party—a ranger, whose presence is required on any expedition visiting the preserve.

Alexander Bogdanov plays his accordion aboard the <i>Alter Ego</i>.
Alexander Bogdanov plays his accordion aboard the Alter Ego. (Photo: Olga Chumachenko)
Andrey Ianushkevich steers <i>Mikhalych</i> near the Chaev Glacier.
Andrey Ianushkevich steers Mikhalych near the Chaev Glacier. (Photo: Alexander Bogdanov)

I volunteer to help with the sailing whenever possible, and since I can’t speak Russian, I ask Tatiana to tell the crew that I hauled lines on sails during a prior Arctic expedition. I don’t have much experience, I say, but I’m strong. “If you’re so strong, why don’t you pull up the anchor?” Sasha replies. He’s a smartass, but he’s already impossible to dislike.

That night, as we sail along the shoreline, I step out from our skylit cabin into the dark coffin of the hallway just as the ship rolls in the trough of a wave. I brace myself against the wall. Nausea drives my lurching stomach up into my skull.

I will my internal organs into obedience and go up to the deck. First mate Andrey is at the wheel, and he tosses me a piece of an ­orange. He speaks little English, but there’s no need to talk. I notice that the compartments on deck are filled with bananas, apples, oranges, leafy greens, and carrots. Whatever else might go wrong, we won’t die of scurvy.

Mist and clouds linger above the long plateau of an offshore island that we pass, its rocky surface glowing mossy green in the predawn light. As waves break along the sides of the boat, I feel a rush of delight. 

That afternoon, Captain Misha hands me coveralls to wear. We go on deck, where he leans in close to the long boom that nestles perpendicular to the mast. Inside one end is a set of levers. 

“Look,” he says, pointing to his eyes and then to the levers. After he adjusts something, he holds up three fingers and has me find the third metal ring in the sail, which sits accordioned atop the boom. After leveraging the ring, called a cringle, onto a nearby hook, I haul the sail into position. I’m not prepared to captain the boat just yet, obviously, but if the entire crew becomes incapacitated, I think I have a fighting chance to reef and hoist the mainsail, on which I could scrawl an SOS.

As we prepare for the open sea, all passengers get basic safety training. If we smell smoke at any time, we should alert the crew immediately. We must always wear a life jacket on deck. We practice putting on our flotation suits and learn what to do if we encounter a polar bear

At the end, Evgeny tells a joke about a new expedition member who’s advised that, if he comes face-to-face with a hungry bear, he should smear shit on the animal’s nose. “Where does the shit come from?” the trainee asks. “Don’t worry,” the instructor replies, “there will be plenty.”

Sailing in the season of the midnight sun, we see daylight around the clock for most of the trip. The temperature usually hovers just above or below freezing.

Our last hour close to shore, the waves are a vivid teal, the color of some alien gemstone. Sasha appears on deck, cradling a Russian button accordion, and starts playing Eugen Doga’s haunting waltz “My Sweet and Tender Beast.” We sail between two long spits of rock toward the horizon, a thin, blurry line that becomes more indistinct in the days that follow. Below us, the water darkens to slate blue. Above, the clouds sit like some pale country, as if the sea is a shadow of the sky.

We leave land behind on the morning of August 8, two days into the trip. When we hit the open sea the going gets rough, and nobody shows up for breakfast the first morning, not even Olga the cook. I spend the next three days thoroughly nauseous, with my body rejecting food and sleep. I’m able to keep tiny meals down only by constantly reminding myself not to throw up. 

Taking the edge off my misery, Captain Misha invites me on deck to learn how to steer. The wheel is almost as tall as me; it looks like an oversize steering wheel on a toy dashboard. 

Pointing and demonstrating, Misha tries to show me how to use a gauge to maintain our current bearing. It quickly becomes apparent that steering a boat is just like driving a car—that is, if wind regularly blows you off the road, and the road moves up and down like a roller coaster. I have a tendency to oversteer, waiting too long to correct the course, which leads to sweeping turns that necessitate corrections of their own, slowing our progress.

With more gestures and a handful of English words, Misha explains that the gauge and digital map of our course are lagging indicators. He shows me how to watch the “little magicians”—short plastic strips fastened to the sail and a cable securing the mast. Like tiny windsocks, they provide instant feedback on whether the boat is really catching the breeze.

While we’re at it, I learn that we have other vessels on board. One is a bright red boat called Mikhalych, attached to the back of the Alter Ego and lowered into the water by a motorized winch. (It will ferry us to shore on Novaya Zemlya, if we live long enough to get there.) The second is an inflatable raft, Pchyolka—“bee” in Russian—which is folded neatly and strapped to the deck before the mast. The captain’s drone, nicknamed Zhuzha—“buzzbuzz”—makes regular circuits to survey the sea and sky when Misha isn’t at the wheel.

During this sloshy ride I keep trying to take notes, but my aggrieved stomach makes writing an ordeal. Others have it worse. Apart from Michael, no one even sees Marthe for several days—and it’s not easy to vanish completely on a boat this size. I watch with wonder as Andrey, when he’s not on duty, manages to sit quietly with his e-reader, devouring a historical novel set in the time of Peter the Great. Among the passengers, ­Tatiana alone floats unperturbed through the unsettling waves.

I take to using bungee cords on the bedframe to strap my legs in at night, so I won’t roll onto her if I ever manage to fall asleep again. But sleep doesn’t come, and in my darkest hour on the longest night, I hear the rustle of cellophane. I look over the side of my bunk to see Tatiana calmly eating crackers and scrolling through pictures on her phone. 

Hours later I sit at the dining table, feeling despondent. Expedition leader Evgeny sprawls in the seat across from me. It’s day four, and I realize I can’t remember ever seeing him eat. Like some 1970s supermodel, he appears to subsist entirely on cigarettes. 

I ask him if he feels sick. He doesn’t answer but says that if I’m feeling bad, the best medicine is to take the wheel. I go on deck, where we’re still surrounded by endless water. The sun has come through the clouds, turning stretches of the sea’s surface a milky white.

Marine biologist Marthe Larsen Haarr at the wheel
Marine biologist Marthe Larsen Haarr at the wheel (Photo: Andrea Pitzer)
Alexander Bogdanov (left), Andrey Ianushkevich (center), and Mikhail Tekuchev (right) discuss the expedition route.
Alexander Bogdanov (left), Andrey Ianushkevich (center), and Mikhail Tekuchev (right) discuss the expedition route. (Photo: Olga Chumachenko)

We sail all day and night for almost a week. Crew members take the helm in four-hour split shifts: two hours steering and two as backup. Tuesday morning we spot land. As we approach shore, the collective nausea begins to subside. Sasha makes blini for breakfast and lets me practice doing a stovetop flip.

Working our way around the same coastline that Barents mapped, we come to Cape Desire. Lowering Mikhalych off the back, the crew gets ready to take us ashore. Once we hit the beach, Tatiana and I, along with a ranger from the station, walk up the bluff and climb exposed lighthouse stairs to look at the sea. Birds wheel and scream, creating a wild melody of their own invention. Due north, nothing is visible but the Arctic Ocean.

The next morning, leaving Cape Desire behind, we cross into the frigid Kara Sea, east of Novaya Zemlya. As if recognizing that we’ve abandoned normal space-time, the GPS glitches and for a while shows the boat sitting off the coast of West Africa.

The ranger who’s joined us for this leg of the voyage turns out to be another Sasha, blond and quieter than the one we already have. The day after Sasha II’s arrival, we aim the boat toward a legendary place called Ice Harbor—home to the ruins of William Barents’s cabin, which he and his men named the Behouden Huys, or Safe House. It was built using driftwood and lumber from their icebound ship.

Barents wasn’t the first European to reach the high Arctic, but he sailed his ships farther north of Europe and Asia than any prior explorer on record. A journal narrating his discoveries—and his months spent stranded—was printed in five languages almost immediately after his death, becoming an international bestseller. Commercial European whaling soon exploded along the Barents Sea and points west, over time nearly driving the North Atlantic right whale to extinction. 

Europeans never left the region. A similar push for trade routes and imports expanded worldwide and brought industrialization, which in modern times eventually delivered climate change. As we sail toward Ice Harbor, I brace myself to witness the bleak late stages of a process abetted by the characters in my book.

For nearly a year, William Barents and his men were stranded on Novaya Zemlya, a pair of large islands extending all the way to 77 degrees north. Five sailors died, including Barents himself.

In the last hours before we arrive at Barents’s cabin, Andrey helps me modify a weak clasp on the GoPro I’ll use when we land. He will later fix the broken hinge on my glasses, the controller on a winch, and whatever is making a mysterious thumping sound near the engine. In his spare time, he sits grinding the rust off an old drawing compass with a dremel, cauterizing frayed ends of ropes, or regluing leather on a shipboard game, like some benevolent god whose gift it is to make the world whole again. 

At Ice Harbor, we land in mist and fog. Evgeny, Misha, and I disembark with the ranger, then head up the slope and start hiking toward the ruins of the cabin. They don’t appear immediately, so I pull out a book that has a map of the site. 

One more march over a low rise and a cross marker comes into view. The relics sit not far from the edge of a low plateau bordered on three sides by a rock-strewn beach. It’s ­terrible to imagine how lethal the conditions would have been in this part of the world during winter, exposed to the wind in every direction and the sea on three sides.

Now, 423 years later, we see the long timbers that formed the base of the shelter where Barents and his men spent months praying not to die. Blizzard after blizzard came, until more than an inch of ice built up in the cabin’s interior.

Pacing out its dimensions—roughly 36 feet long by 22 feet wide—I walk through the space where the crew huddled in fear as a polar bear rampaged on their roof, trying to claw its way in. I stand on the site of the fireplace that couldn’t keep them warm, at one point nearly killing them with toxic fumes from ship’s coal they burned. I wander along the beach where the men dragged makeshift sleds over ice and snow for miles, scavenging firewood. 

Evgeny comes over and pulls a flask out of his pocket. I swallow a mouthful—whisky—and hand it back. I can hardly believe we’ve arrived at the end of the world.

Wonders keep coming, day by day. A bird lands on Sasha’s head while he’s at the wheel. We spot a polar bear running on the beach. The Arctic makes itself known to us, though not always on our terms.

The trash-studying biologists have the most worthwhile mission of anyone on the boat: by scanning the ocean and exploring shorelines on foot, they’re using equipment to map where washed-up litter is and isn’t found in the Arctic. But ultimately, the sea and sky decide what they will allow. Plans for exploratory landings can blow up at the last minute. A bear sighting or fog can kill any chance to gather data from a particular spot. It becomes apparent that my ghost-chasing forays, Alexey’s meditation, and the natural challenges thrown up by the sea will make it harder for the scientists to get their work done. 

On August 16, we head toward the Orange Islands—the Oranskys, in Russian—with a plan to visit the two main land masses, Big Oransky and Little Oransky, which together total about one square mile. Evgeny has heard of a memorial placed on Little Oransky more than a century ago, commemorating its discovery by Barents. Watching for bears, we go ashore amid thrashing waves and fan out to find it. Soon a memorial slab comes into view on the rocky ground, cracked but legible.

As we quickly discover, Little Oransky is also a wonderland of birds. Gulls and their aggressive cousins, skuas, shriek and cry their own improvisations—birdsong that Andrey will later call “merry and badass jazz.” They wing back and forth along populated cliffs like morning commuters in some vertical city. 

Elegant murres with dark eyes and black feet nest in the rock face near the top of the island. They turn their sleek heads to look at us but don’t fly away. Puffins sit in vague wonder, their black and orange beaks just inches out of reach. They don’t seem to know that it’s wise to be wary of humans.

When the time comes to go back to the boat, Alexey is nowhere to be found. I run along the rocks above the water calling his name. After a while, he appears on one corner of the cliff, as if stepping in from another universe. He had been off meditating again.

The next day, the biologists land with their gear and get some surveying done before we head toward Big Oransky, a split stone slab rising out of the sea. Suddenly, we see walruses on shore and walruses approaching. They’re all around us. They’re huge.

We had dropped the anchor, attaching a bobbing, bright yellow buoy to mark its position. The walruses take up the buoy and start playing with it.

The crew has seen an anchor buoy stolen by playful walruses before, so it has made them harder to pilfer. But Andrey is worried that a walrus might get caught in the line. The buoy is exiled from the water and brought back to the ship. The walruses stare with what is surely disappointment. 

But we aren’t done here yet. Sasha appears on deck with his accordion and begins the same Doga waltz he played before. Dozens of walruses swim to where he perches near the gunwale, on the port side of the boat. They listen, watching him. Occasionally, a small mosh pit forms, then dissolves. Mostly his audience floats before him, snorting and hawing with rapt intensity while we look back.

The author aboard the <i>Alter Ego</i>
The author aboard the Alter Ego (Photo: Olga Chumachenko)
Expedition leader Evgeny Fershter at the Chaev Glacier
Expedition leader Evgeny Fershter at the Chaev Glacier (Photo: Alexander Bogdanov)

Eventually, we move on to run Sasha II back to Cape Desire. As we leave the Oranskys behind, the original Sasha calls belowdecks. He’s spotted a bizarre sight: buildings or smoke or something on the bigger island. 

Baffled, we watch through camera lenses and binoculars, trying to understand the terrain shifting before our eyes. Someone asks if it could be an optical illusion, which reminds me that a polar mirage had amazed Barents and his men, too.

When we get to Cape Desire, I jump out of Mikhalych, as I’ve done before, to drag it to shore. But today I leap too early and end up waist-deep in freezing water. I haul the boat in all the same, but there’s no way to ignore my gaffe. I slip off my boots to pour out water, standing barefoot outside the station in the Arctic air, stripped to short pants and wringing out my clothes in shame.

We leave the next day and keep following the beleaguered Barents route back along the coast of northern Novaya Zemlya. Meanwhile, it’s become a pleasure to eat again, and I do so continuously—fried cottage cheese patties, lard, dark bread, borscht, sour cream, and dried fish. Kasha—hot porridge—is a breakfast staple most mornings. Olga cooks a fish and tomato dish. Sasha flips more blini and leads the crew in singing Russian songs after dinner. He offers to teach me a sea shanty, but we’re hard-pressed to find one that isn’t about the problems caused by bringing women on a boat.

With visits to the Barents sites wrapped up, we leave the national park and go ashore near the Chaev glacier on the western coast of Novaya Zemlya. Nearly everyone heads out on a morning hike to see a series of tiny, exquisite waterfalls that reveal themselves from above, one after another, as we scramble along the rocks. Afterward some of us stay on shore to climb a low mountain, unnamed on our maps, that sits between the waterfalls and the glacier. 

Surveying the coastline as we sail, Sasha has noted that the glaciers we see have retreated far from the leading edges shown on his map. I recall that in 2017, researchers found a new island near Chaev, made visible by the disappearing ice.

We raise toasts that evening and play a word game, going to bed around 2 A.M. Sasha and I wake up in the middle of the night. We ride Mikhalych back to shore, this time with Andrey along, and then climb the same mountain we’d climbed earlier. 

I step out from our cabin into the dark coffin of the hallway just as the ship rolls in the trough of a wave. I brace myself against the wall. Nausea drives my lurching stomach up into my skull.

In the quiet morning hours, the birds still silent, Sasha moves up the steep, smooth dome of the slope like a mountain goat, while Andrey chooses more ragged rocks that let him climb vertically for a stretch. I also head for the rocks, falling behind in my thick muck boots but catching up in the second half when the footing becomes simple again. 

Prior to this book project, I spent seven years researching and writing a history of concentration camps. The work was a litany of grief. During that time, the suffering of the living and the dead never left my mind, and I think about it now. 

My cousin Joe and I grew close in those same years, with our shared love of music and grim jokes, and a lack of faith that things will turn out well in the end. I worried about him the whole time.

For a moment, all that falls away. We stay awhile at the top of the cliff, looking out at the boat, the speckless sky, and the sea. I am filled with a happiness vast enough to break me.

Walruses greet visitors at Big Oransky.
Walruses greet visitors at Big Oransky. (Photo: Marthe Larsen Haarr)
Alexey Neumoin ponders ice from the Chaev Glacier.
Alexey Neumoin ponders ice from the Chaev Glacier. (Photo: Alexander Bogdanov)

On August 20, we wind up at the old polar station of Russian Harbor, our last stop before we set out to cross the Barents Sea again. Evgeny warns us that polar bears are common; we have to keep a wide berth when we go around the corners of abandoned buildings. He hands me a small firecracker pistol to startle any animals I meet. Fresh tracks appear everywhere, but we see no more bears.

Andrey, who dislikes compliments about himself but is quick to praise others, has already told me that Evgeny has gone on expeditions that in recent years made crucial Arctic discoveries. The next afternoon, while we’re still sitting at anchor, I prod Evgeny into telling me stories about Novaya Zemlya and Franz Josef Land—tales of 19th- and 20th-century explorers saved or damned by their own choices or fate. 

We take leave of Novaya Zemlya late in the day, most of us standing on deck to watch the shabby ruins of the polar station grow tiny with distance before the island ­itself vanishes.

I wake up that night to the smell of smoke. After lifting my head to scan the cabin in the dim light, I see that Olga is awake, too. Tatiana rolls over and, joking or still half-asleep, says, “Someone has burned the kasha.”

Olga hits the hallway and is intercepted by a crew member and sent back. I’m dying to know what’s going on, and after waiting a few agonizing minutes, I sneak out to the dining table in my long underwear. All four of the crew are sitting in grim silence; when they start talking it’s in Russian, and I can’t understand. After 15 minutes, Sasha turns to me. “You probably have questions,” he says.

Basically, the workhorse engine that powers our boat—designed in the last years of the Soviet Union—is running too hot. Over the next two days, I watch Andrey and Sasha try to fix it. Seals have deteriorated. Coolant has gotten into the crankcase, spoiling the oil’s viscosity and making the engine useless. We’ll have to travel from Russian Harbor on Novaya Zemlya back to Kola Bay—a journey that took us five days on our way out—using sails alone, just as Barents and his men did more than 400 years ago. 

We have enough food and cookies for an army, so we won’t starve, but there will be a lot of time to kill. Misha gives me a book on sailing, and I practice tying basic knots. Those of us who are able to take shifts at the wheel do so, to spell the crew. We get one fast day of sailing, but soon the wind subsides and we sit, becalmed.

That afternoon, Michael, the marine biologist, looks out and notices a bird beside us in the water. It’s a gray and white northern fulmar, paddling with its feet. The bird, he points out, is moving faster than the boat.

Mikhail Tekuchev
Mikhail Tekuchev (Photo: Olga Chumachenko)
The author and Andrey Ianushkevich look for grave sites on Novaya Zemlya.
The author and Andrey Ianushkevich look for grave sites on Novaya Zemlya. (Photo: Olga Chumachenko)

With the trip unexpectedly extended, I’m in heaven. There’s no engine working at cross-purposes with the waves to make me queasy. No storms threaten. Because of the quiet, dolphins begin to appear in numbers, a dozen or more at a time. I whistle to them. Though they aren’t as responsive to our faces as the walruses were, they swim in sync with the boat and play for long stretches, the choreography of their splashing becoming the snare drum to the crashing cymbals of the sea.

The delay is bad for almost everyone else. The crew will likely arrive late for the start of their next trip, which means they’ll have to cancel it and lose income. Marthe will miss her daughter’s birthday. Olga will be gone past the window of vacation she has arranged at work. The crew, which has already tried to manage our conflicting agendas for more than two weeks, must stay on duty much longer than planned. 

Somehow, everyone is becoming dearer to me. But I have the vague sense that, thanks to all my push-ups and sit-ups, off-key singing, restless enthusiasm, and the long hair I shed like a dog, I’ve gone from amusing to oppressive. 

I worry about imposing, but I’m still freakishly happy about the whole experience. I spend more time alone on deck, perched out on the prow of the boat, where I watch for whales that never come and I sing to the sea.

Destiny arrives in the form of a tugboat. The vessel was assigned days before, and it looks as if we’ll get close enough to port for the tug to start hauling us on Friday.

It’s August 30, late enough in the season, and far enough south, that night has begun to move in again. But in the last hours of daylight on our last evening at sea, I hear Misha call my name and say “del-feen” in a musical voice from on deck. I climb up to look. I know this will be it—the final gift the sea will offer.

Dolphins soon surround us, arcing in groups of four or five to jump along either side of the boat, then splitting to chase one another ahead or dive under our keel. Several people are on deck now. I whistle and step from port to starboard and back as the creatures retreat. They disappear only to leap up before us once again. They have come to ­escort us home.

A half-hour later they leave. Soon after that, tugboat lights appear in the distance. Once the tug is hauling cleanly, most of us go below. Alexey brings out a plastic liter bottle of moonshine donated by a local just before we set out to cross the Barents Sea. I figure that if the liquor hasn’t eaten through the plastic in three weeks, it’s probably safe to drink. They pull out a variety of shot glasses—ryumki—and we make toasts.

(Illustrations: Lucy Engelman)

I set my alarm for 5 A.M., by which time we should be approaching Murmansk. As we draw near the Lenin again, I join in the work of moving our fenders from port to starboard. Andrey and Misha moor the Alter Ego, and I go back to bed. We’ll have one last day together on the boat.

A few hours later, I wake up to the first cell service I’ve had since we left. Scrolling through a month of messages with a mix of regret and nervousness, I feel pleased. There seems to be little I missed that matters.

Then I see a note with “Joe” in the subject line. Dread hits me like a wave, but I open it. My cousin has died—exactly how isn’t clear, but my mind goes to the darkest place. I’ve already missed the memorial service.

Standing up from the table, I go to the ladder and climb blindly up on deck. I can’t sit in my perch at the prow, which faces the harbor and anyone who might approach the boat. I go to the stern and hunker down near the trash and cry. 

The whole trip, which had filled me with such happiness just a few hours before, turns to ashes. Joe is gone, with his PTSD, his alcoholism, his terrible jokes, and his love for so many people. He’s already been gone for more than a week, while I was out in the Arctic, heedless of his disintegration.

I’m suddenly sure the crew is sick of me, and that they regret our whole voyage. Why did I need to see where Barents and his men had suffered? I’ve wasted everyone’s time. All my delight in these people and this place dissolves. I know I’m oversteering emotionally, just as I did with the boat, but I have no defense against this news.

After a visit from Tatiana, who wants to know what happened, I pull myself together and go downstairs. Sasha offers to make me fried eggs, but I can’t think about eating. If I lie in my bunk, I’ll inflict myself on Olga and Tatiana while they pack. I stay put while we work out new airline reservations. It takes hours and gives me something to focus on. 

As we finish, Sasha again offers to make fried eggs. Throughout the voyage, he has continually tried to find the one thing that might make each person happy in the moment. I still don’t feel like eating, but I say yes to his kind offer. He comes back shortly with an exquisite open-faced omelet that the phrase “fried eggs” can’t begin to represent. 

Soon, however, I feel myself running back to despair. Tatiana needs to mail a package to Saint Petersburg. I realize I have to do an interview the next day in Moscow. I have no shoes with me but my muck boots. 

I’ve bragged about how much I loathe shopping, and in truth I would rather clean the deck with a toothbrush. But shopping will get me off the boat and give others some peace. If I don’t go buy boots, I might end up in a bar. I head for the mall.

Later, Tatiana and I return with a pair of ankle boots so femme that the idea of me wearing them makes the crew laugh. Olga has already left for the train station. The scientists are in a cab headed across the border to Norway. Out of the blue, Alexey asks if I want to go on a hike before dinner to see the Alyosha statue, with its eternal flame that marks the sacrifice of countless dead. Physical activity off the boat sounds perfect. While packing, I discover that my passport is missing, but surely I’ll have time to find it when I return. 

On deck, as we’re about to leave, Andrey laces up his shoes and comes along. During the voyage he has become friends with Alexey, and he’s good company. I feel the stirring of the same deep pleasure I felt on the mountain, one for which I don’t have a good name. An electric, unsettling joy.

My new boots are too dressy and high for the climb up to Alyosha. It’s a hot summer afternoon—a day for tank tops and T-shirts, even here in the lower reaches of the Arctic. I’m stuck wearing my knee-high muck boots through town. 

Not far into our two-mile ramble, we’re away from the crowds. We’ve begun what novelist Walker Percy called the painful process of reentry, the bumpy ride from transcendent experiences back to daily life. 

We climb the hill that leads to the statue and reach the top. Then, flashing his palms in the universal gesture for wait, Alexey runs off. He’s left us to go meditate again. Our story has not quite ended. Andrey and I wait for Alexey one last time.

When he returns, we walk down the long hill, stopping at grocery stores to gather vegetables for dinner. Back at the boat, Sasha weaves his culinary spells. I finish packing and strip the linens from my bed. I find my passport. I’ll have to leave after all.

Puffins on Little Oransky
Puffins on Little Oransky (Photo: Olga Chumachenko)

At some point, they call me for toasts. I missed the first round, but the second is for those who are not present, wherever they may be. I bring my hand up to chime our ryumki together, but they stop me. For this toast glasses don’t touch, they explain, and there are no jokes.

I think of Joe, but I don’t know if they’re thinking of him. We begin to eat. 

Andrey talks about going partridge hunting with a friend. When he found out that it was mating season, and realized the birdsong he’d heard was a mating call, he quit the hunt. He couldn’t bring himself to kill anything singing a love song.

Eventually, we start toasts again. Alexey has gone off to sleep. I present the crew with a wild scheme: a second, future expedition next August for a different project. In some mix of fantasy and seriousness, we begin to shape an idea of what it could look like. I’m already thinking of how things will have to be different. It’s not possible to re-create whatever wild magic just took place.

The crew brings out another bottle, and I am helpless before all of it. I have no more way to gird myself against the wonder of these people and this boat than I do Joe’s death. A little after one, we gather our bags to leave. Tatiana and I will go with Evgeny to get on a 4 A.M. flight to meet a Russian explorer in Moscow. Though Evgeny was a stranger before the trip, he has set up this interview for my book and invited us to stay at his house. 

Little Oransky is a wonderland of birds. Gulls and their aggressive cousins, skuas, shriek and cry their own improvisations—birdsong that Andrey will later call “merry and badass jazz.”

Sasha and Andrey carry our luggage. Back we go over the gangplank, down the long dock, out the locked gate, and through the park to a waiting taxi. A dead soldier watches over us from a distance, now finally cloaked in darkness. 

I hug Sasha and Andrey goodbye. ­Evgeny, Tatiana, and I climb into the taxi. A few hours later we’ll be airborne, vaulted away on the wind in a mechanical bird with functioning engines, leaving the Arctic behind. 

If there’s something I could have done that might have saved Joe, I didn’t do it. And I won’t find a way to save my parents, either.

The future we’re digging for ourselves is at the bottom of a cliff that grows higher every day. But that’s not the same as saying nothing can be done. There are eggs to fry. There is history to remember and glaciers to measure. There is trash to count. 

So much is already going or gone. But what’s still there is vast, stupendous. 

I’ve come back to say that this place is singing a love song. It may be shot through with grief and danger, but if you’re listening and you can hear this, it means we’re not dead yet.

Lead Illustration: DeAgostini/Getty

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