North Pole 8: Flower garden, steam-bath and football on ice
Excerpts from the diary of Nikolai Blinov, who headed the station’s second crew

The plane is flying almost due south, and an endless icy desert looms under its wing. The twelve young men sitting inside are smiling joyfully, but these smiles suddenly give way to a fleeting sorrow that they are trying to conceal by being boisterous and by cracking jokes. We are flying home, to Leningrad. The North Pole 8 drifting research station remains far below and over 1,000 kilometers from the mainland. A small town with prefab plywood houses and smoking chimneys is located on an old ice floe measuring just over one square kilometer.

Leningrad-Arkhangelsk-Dickson-North Pole

It is impossible to forget the days that we spent on an ice floe in the central section of the Arctic Basin among dedicated polar explorers. I lived with these men, most of whom are Young Communist League (Komsomol) members, and worked with them for 370 long days.

It was business as usual at Leningrad airport on a bright and sunny day in late March 1960. Some people rushed to board their airliners, others placed their luggage inside lockers and checkrooms, hailed taxicabs and asked for information. A group of young people wearing brown leather suits and surrounded by their families and friends attracted everyone’s attention. Apart from their unusual-looking clothes, the team’s appearance and unhurried behavior riveted the eye. At long last, a young woman said in a ringing voice: «Flight No. 04176 Leningrad-Arkhangelsk-Dickson-North Pole now boarding…»

As we settled noisily into our seats, the plane taxied toward the runway and quickly took off. It carried the North Pole 8 station’s second crew, made up of Young Communist League members, mostly research associates from the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute.


New North Pole 8 crew

The ice glare is so intense that it is painful to look at it without sunglasses. We are in the middle of a cold, silent, awesome and seemingly endless desert. This is where the famous white silence rules supreme. It is even hard to imagine that flowers are blooming somewhere far away, and that people are taking refuge from the heat under the trees.

Everyone is looking intensely down below because the station’s camp is to appear soon, and each of us wants to be the first to see it. But the station showed up all of a sudden: We saw several dark dots below, the plane started descending, and the dots turned into houses and tents. This was what the North Pole 8 drifting station looked like.

We got out and basked in the sun, with air temperatures hovering at minus 36 degrees Celsius. For the first few minutes, we did not feel the biting cold because we were really excited and overwhelmed with emotions while meeting with our comrades. Just think: We left Leningrad just 38 hours ago.

We were surrounded by all the members of the station’s crew, except on-duty radio transceiver operators. Our canine friends, Silva and Chernysh, jumped merrily around us.

Two days later, the first crew left for the mainland, after handing over the station to us.

Summer, flower garden and football

… Time passed by fast. A polar summer season sneaked up on us all of a sudden, while we received cargo planes and settled down. In mid-June, when air temperatures hovered at about zero degrees, the never-setting sun began to melt the snow, and the first puddles appeared on the ice surface.

Day after day, the snow became looser and looser, and it was very hard to walk on it, with people sinking waist-deep. Water began to accumulate under the snow, and we had to quickly remove it. Polar explorers turned into professional ice reclamation experts. We were particularly careful to keep the runway intact and prevented even small meltwater pools from forming there.

The polar summer has its own charm. Plenty of sunshine allowed our amateur gardeners to start growing their own flowers inside houses using earth delivered from the mainland. In July, hydrologists and meteorologists were able to admire pink asters, sweet peas, green onions and garlic, inside small boxes. We were so happy to see tender green plants amidst ice and snow.

Sometimes we played football on quiet and sunny days. Although there were five to six people per team, the football pitch was much smaller than usual, with no fans around. But the players were extremely enthusiastic

The camp changed completely by late August: All the houses and tents stood on improvised 100-centimeter icy pedestals. It may be a paradox, but the Arctic, this ultimate refrigerator, boasts enough solar heat to completely melt all the snow that has accumulated in winter. At the same time, air temperatures seldom rise above plus 1–2 degrees Celsius.

Soviet research floating station
Soviet research floating station ©RIA Novosti.G. Makarov
Timka the mosquito

In early June, a plane delivered some essential equipment and several boxes of potatoes to our camp. It was a cold and windy day, and we unloaded the potatoes as quickly as possible, placed them on sleds and covered them with tarpaulin and reindeer skins, so as to prevent them from freezing fast. All the potatoes were stored with other heat-loving foods in the mess-room 10–15 minutes later.

The next morning, we had breakfast as usual. Only five or six people sat around the table, and the rest were resting after a night watch. We were talking in a relaxed manner. All of a sudden, we heard a high-pitched intermittent buzzing sound. We knew all the station sounds very well, but we had never heard this high-pitched buzz before. To our surprise, a mosquito, one of the thousands that annoy us in forests or on the bank of a quiet-flowing river in summer, was here to keep us company. This seemed rather unusual 1,500 kilometers from the nearest landmass and in the center of the Arctic Ocean. Against all odds, the mosquito survived after traveling several thousand kilometers inside a box of potatoes.

His appearance prompted us to recall the summer season on the mainland, as well as forests with fresh leaves and fields covered with juicy green crops. We felt a little sad because it would take us a year to see all this again

As we ate lunch, we heard the business-like buzz of our new friend once again and watched him fly. Someone suggested calling him Timka. From then on, anyone entering the mess-room stopped at the entrance, listened and proceeded to his seat only after hearing Timka’s buzz. The mosquito made friends with us, he never bothered or bit us, and we did our best to protect him. We entered and left the mess-room quickly and shut the door tight, so that the mosquito would not fly out and freeze to death. Before he showed up, on-duty crew members sometimes forgot to put some extra coal inside the stove, but they always kept us warm while Timka was around. One day, we entered the mess-room but did not hear our little mosquito. Maybe he found a crack and flew out, or perhaps someone crushed him by accident. All of us felt sorry for him.

Letters from all over the country

In late October, we started receiving all essential items under a fall resupply program, so that our station could last another six months. We were overwhelmed with joy to see a plane land after a long interval. But it was the letters that thrilled us most of all. An entire stack of envelopes after a four-month period made us happy.

Letters have a special appeal to those who leave their homes for a long time. This is particularly true of polar explorers. I recall an episode during a polar night at the North Pole 7 station. A polar explorer asked a coworker to read his letter out loud. Although he knew its text by heart, he wanted to listen to it again.

There was nothing special about the letter: «We are healthy and going strong, and Lyalka is asking about you…» But the polar explorer sat with his eyes closed as if listening to music. It seemed that he had drifted off into another world he held dear, a world filled with a special light and joy

Apart from families and friends, people from all walks of life, including collective farmers, workers, scientists, housewives and many others, write to us. But, of course, school students are more inquisitive than the rest. Many letters are signed by entire classes and Young Pioneer units. The children want to know all about living conditions on ice floes and the Arctic nature. I was particularly impressed by letters from members of a geography hobby group from a secondary school in Pshekha, the Krasnodar Territory. We corresponded with them on a regular basis, even after returning to the mainland. Many of our crew members visited our young friends on the banks of the Kuban River.

The Soviet North Pole 8 drifting research station. A researcher is taking readings
The Soviet North Pole 8 drifting research station. A researcher is taking reading ©RIA Novosti.S. Preobrazhenskiy
Steam-bath and Kvass

Many of those who wrote us letters asked whether we had a steam-bath and claimed that it was impossible to wash inside a tent in the middle of an ice-covered station, with subzero temperatures freezing everything stiff.

We set up a steam-bath inside a small plywood house twice a month. That house had a primitive wood-fired camp-style stove with three large stones on top. Steam-bath lovers asked pilots to deliver these stones from the mainland. Two empty gasoline drums with cut-out bottoms stored cold and hot water. Two or three people could wash there at a time. Dense smoke billowed from the steam-bath long before breakfast, as on-duty crew members stoked up the fire. There was a lot of work to do: They cut up 15-20-kilogram snow cubes using a hack-saw and hauled them toward the steam-bath. They melted the snow and heated the water.

As usual, it was hard to find those ready to be the first to go to a steam-bath because almost everybody are busy. The steam-bath crew begged everyone to come and get washed because all the hot water would eventually cool off. An off-duty meteorologist and radio transceiver operator would be the first to take a dip. Sixty minutes later, a whole crowd with towels and clean clothes would approach the steam-bath only to hear the adamant attendants say that it was now the aerologists' turn because they had to launch a radio-transceiver balloon soon.

After spending some time inside the steam-bath, people would leave looking younger and excited, and they dashed toward the galley where Georgy Kosov, the cook, treated them to some heady kvass fermented bread drink.


Evacuating the North Pole 9 station

The North Pole 9 station’s ice floe broke up many times during the 370-day expedition, and the elements apparently decided to finish it off after the polar day began. The runway, which was constructed during the long polar night, disintegrated on the very first sunny days. The camp also suffered. Polar explorers relocated the camp to one of the ice floe’s largest fragments and continued working as usual. There could be no talk of accommodating an Ilyushin Il-14 Crate commercial passenger and cargo plane there, and only an Antonov An-2 Colt was able to land in the vicinity. As the North Pole 9 station had no on-call plane, our An-2 had to take off. Everyone worked hard without respite, and the plane was ready to take off on the morning of March 24. After receiving a weather report from the North Pole 9 station, Makartsev took off and returned safely by evening with a sick person who was loaded aboard an Il-14 that flew him to the mainland.

However, the Arctic nature decided to test our resolve once again. About seven days later, the station’s ice floe started moving once again and disintegrating. We received the following radio message: «Absolutely urgent… For Shamontyev (North Pole 9) and Blinov, Makartsev (North Pole 8) … Under the circumstances, start relocating personnel to North Pole 8 (Blinov) … Take nothing but research materials… Gordiyenko, Moskalenko.»

We carefully inspected our airfield once again and checked the plane. After that, we told Gordiyenko that we were ready to accomplish our mission. It took us four flights to evacuate all the people, research materials and the most valuable equipment.

This was not an emergency evacuation or even a retreat. People clung tenaciously to this battered ice floe fragment until the last moment. After seeing off our comrades from the North Pole 9 station to the mainland, we started preparing to receive the new crew who were scheduled to arrive here in the next few days.

Gagarin and the new crew

On April 12, 1961, the world was thrilled to learn that Soviet citizen Yury Gagarin had flown the first mission in outer space. On that day, thousands of kilometers separated us from the mainland USSR, but we celebrated this victory with the entire Soviet nation, and we wholeheartedly toasted the first Soviet cosmonaut and those who would follow in his wake.

Deeply impressed by this event, we suddenly heard a message come through, telling us that members of a relief crew were on the way. At 1:10 pm on April 15 Moscow time, Ilya Mazuruk landed his plane at our airfield. After a cheerful reunion, we went to the camp and got ready to turn the station over right away.

We returned to the airfield 12 hours later and took off, watching the station camp’s houses and tents that were our home, sweet home for a long time. We said goodbye to the Arctic, and our plane flew to Leningrad and the mainland USSR

In March 1962, the ice floe where the North Pole 8 station was established in 1959 reached the Pole of Inaccessibility after an arduous journey. It covered about 6,000 kilometers in three years. On March 19, 1962, the Soviet flag that flew proudly over the icy central Arctic expanses for three years was lowered, and the station’s crew members sent their final radio message: «Today, the North Pole 8 station is concluding its work.»



Excerpts from the chapter Drifting Komsomol Station of the Twelve Heroic Feats collection
Hydrometeorological Publishers, 1964