Crossing the ocean on an ice floe: Chronicles of a drifting ice station
Based on notes by Nikolai Volkov, head of North Pole 5

On a clear, frosty day on April 3, 1955, having said goodbye to the institute staff, friends and family, the crew of the North Pole 5 drifting ice station flew to Tiksi. All the worries and concerns during the preparations for the expedition were forgotten; we were looking forward to the difficult, but honorable and interesting work ahead

Found it!

After four hours above the ocean, we seemed to have found a suitable ice floe for a new drifting station.

I wanted to find a large, hilly, round, monolithic field surrounded by young ice on all sides. At 82°04’N and 156°52’E, two large pack-ice fields, which stood out sharply from the surrounding hummocky one-year-old ice floes, caught our attention.

"It seems we found what we were looking for," I told Vitaly Maslennikov.

"Now let’s look for a landing strip nearby."

Rising to 600 m, Maslennikov examined the surroundings and spotted a strip of even ice sandwiched between the two pack-ice fields; the pilot flew low over it and landed after dropping a smoke bomb to determine the wind direction.

On April 19, Burkhanov, the expedition chief, gave us the go-ahead to set up a drifting station at our chosen location. On the same day, the first Il-12 aircraft arrived

On the next day, more aircraft began flying in with personnel and equipment from Tiksi. At the same time, other aircraft began to deliver equipment and houses from the closing North Pole 3 station to our transshipment base.

First day at the station

The morning of April 22. Weather: -40°C, cloudless sky. A fresh east wind takes our breath away, caressing us with cruel tenderness and leaving pale traces of its kisses on the faces of heedless polar explorers.

We will remember this day forever, the first day of the NP-5 station. It is no small feat putting up a tent in the wind and severe cold. But two hours later, Vladimir Zagorsky set up a stove in one of the tent’s corners and began to cook his first lunch on the ice floe.

There were more firsts on that day: Ryurik Galkin determined the coordinates for the first time; the radio operators made the first contact with the mainland; and meteorologist Georgy Kizino delivered the first weather report on time. By the end of the day, when we finished assembling the fifth residential tent, the first blizzard also broke out

The unloaded cargo scattered across the ice quickly became covered with snow. Spades, axes, hammers and small objects left in the snow disappeared right before our eyes. Despite extreme fatigue, we had to move all the goods to one place and cover them with a tarp before we could take shelter in the warm and comfortable tents.

During the day, the helicopter made 15 flights, delivering almost all the goods we needed to begin priority work from the transshipment base. But the blizzard! It seemed that nature, outraged by the invasion of man who violated the eternal silence and peace of the polar ice, sought to expel us and cover with snow any traces of our stay.

The camp was growing. Three days later, a house was erected on one of the hills, where radio operators moved from the tent. On the southwestern side, our magnetologist, Galkin, put up a white tent for the magnetic variation station. The weather station’s towers and booths were built to the side, and further north, behind a ridge of hills, geophysicist Alexander Selivanov began to prepare a site for the ionosphere station.

More goods arrived. Airplanes landed at the transshipment base to unload boxes of equipment and food, fuel barrels, gas cylinders, bags of coal, plywood, boards, dismantled houses and other things we needed to live and work on the ice during the year.

The Flag plane of the Soviet expedition
The Flag plane of the Soviet expedition ©RIA Novosti.A. Kochetkov
Neptune, we’ve come to bargain

On the western edge of the camp, behind the high hills, hydrologists began to drill hydrological holes. This is not easy to do. They had to cut holes of 2×2.5 m in 3–4 m thick ice. However, ammonite explosive did the trick, and the work progressed quickly. The hydrologists were assisted by everyone not engaged in urgent work or observations. By the end of the third day, tents had already been put up over the two holes, and hydrologists tossed change from their pockets into the ocean to appease Neptune. But Neptune, apparently dissatisfied with the meager offering, occasionally caused them trouble by tearing off their flowmeters, bottom samplers, trawls and plankton nets.

Pingvin and Malysh

By the end of the month, the entire crew had arrived at the camp. The last to arrive was the head of the geophysical group, Vladimir Smirnov, who delivered an ionospheric station and Mamai, the best pack-leader dog ever, from the NP-3 station. The NP-4 station also gave us the dog Pingvin and the puppy Malysh, who was extremely smart and brave. More than once he saved the polar explorers, warning them of a bear and fearlessly attacking the beast. Surprisingly though, the dogs did not want to stay in the camp. As soon as they were unloaded from the helicopter, led by Mamai, they fled 8 km to the landing strip. This continued until the aircraft stopped flying in.

Only then did it sink in that they were to stay on the ice floe and that life in the camp was relatively tolerable, and they finally got used to it

An ice palace

May Day was approaching. Expecting many guests, we decided to build fairly roomy accommodation out of snow. We decided to erect what we grandly referred to as a "palace" across from the headquarters. The architectural design of the facade and construction management were entrusted to the engineer Shaposhnikov. Every day, the entire staff of the station joined him for two or three hours after lunch. The structure was built using "cutting-edge construction equipment" from large snow blocks that we sawed on the spot.

Three days later, the frame of the palace was ready, and by April 30, the construction was completed. Despite the half-meter thickness, the sun penetrated the snow walls creating the illusion of an underwater world, only without jellyfish or sea anemones. As for the fish, thanks to the efforts of our cook Vladimir Zagorsky, we had it pickled and fried in abundance for May Day.

May Day came. The blue spring sky seemed transparent and fragile, with rare clouds swimming west like white swans. The sparkling snow and scarlet flags on the white palace and podium created an elevated and festive mood.

At four o’clock Moscow time, a helicopter brought the mission leadership and the plane crew to the camp. After a May Day ceremony, the guests, accompanied by the camp hosts, went into the palace for a dinner reception.

On May 7, the last group of our team arrived at the station — the crew of the Mi-4 helicopter, which stayed for the winter with us.

A Mil Mi-4 multirole helicopter was developed at the Mil Design Bureau
A Mil Mi-4 multirole helicopter was developed at the Mil Design Bureau ©RIA Novosti.Boris Vdovenko
A month-long drift

On May 20, a month from the start of our drift, the ice floe crossed the 83rd parallel and turned east. The construction of the camp had been completed; research was in full swing. Life on the ice gradually got into a rhythm.

With each passing day, the sun rose higher, and the first icicles grew on the southern slopes of the hummocks. A snow bunting — a polar sparrow — visited the camp; God knows how it got into the North Pole region. This tiny bird lived in the camp for four days, put on some weight, then disappeared.

The first crack that opened on May 5 west of the camp divided our field in half. On the same day, we began to cut out a new series of holes on the eastern side of the camp. Thanks to collaborative efforts, the crew completed this painstaking work in a short time, and soon the hydrologists began their first relocation.

In the meantime, tents were set up above the holes, and deep-sea winches and other equipment were lowered into them. One of the holes was for complex hydrological gauging. The hydrologists took the water temperature and water samples from varying depths to determine its salinity and the hydrogen ion and oxygen concentration fished out plankton with special nets, collected benthos from the bottom of the ocean with trawls, and extracted soil core for evaluation. Other tents were intended for measuring currents using automatic recorders suspended at various levels.

Of the five houses delivered during the dismantling of the NP-3 station, one was given to the hydrologists and equipped as a hydrochemical lab. At a distance west of the camp, platforms were built to observe the freezing and melting of the ice

Along with the usual weather vane, the meteorological station in the southwestern part of the camp had a precipitation gauge, and a remote weather station tower connected by cable to the house nearby, so that the crew could measure the wind direction and speed, temperature and humidity without leaving the house, which greatly facilitated their work.

Away from the weather site were devices for monitoring solar radiation; part of the equipment was automatic. A long cable connected them to the recorders installed in the house.

Aerologists camped next to the weather site. A hydrogen generator and a tent were installed to prepare the radiosonde for launch and fill to balloon with hydrogen. We also installed a theodolite for observing the pilot balloons and small towers for a radio station sitting in a nearby house to receive signals from the radiosonde twice a day.

The aerologists’ observations and weather reports were immediately transmitted to the radio, which forwarded them to the Central Institute of Weather Forecasts and numerous weather bureaus of the Soviet Union.

We gradually arranged the science pavilions, the labs, and observation sites, and by the middle of May, research at the station reached full swing. We got immersed in our routine painstaking systematic research. But our calm did not last long; the insidious arctic nature soon reared its head again.

Researchers at the SP-5 station monitoring snow cover in the Arctic
Researchers at the SP-5 station monitoring snow cover in the Arctic ©RIA Novosti.Morozov
The drifting newsletter

At one of the meetings, the crew elected the editorial team for a bulletin board newsletter led by hydrologist Vladimir Spichkin. On May 25, the first issue of our newsletter, Under the Flag of the Fatherland, was posted on a large plywood board at the entrance to the headquarters. In short notes, polar explorers shared their experiences and proposed ways of improving our life and work. But it was the humor section, In Mamai’s Footsteps, that took up half of the newsletter and enjoyed the most popularity. That smart old dog not only impeccably performed his canine service in the camp, warning us of approaching bears, but was also our constant source of laughter. Mamai got mentioned in every single issue of the newsletter in cartoons and short funny rhymes.

Since there were no artists on our team, the faces on the friendly cartoons were cut out from amateur photos. After some time, many polar explorers started to avoid being photographed, and photographers became their worst "enemies"

One sunny evening, someone set up a volleyball net on flat ground. Since that day, volleyball replaced skiing; most of the skiing equipment had been broken on the steep hummocks anyway. The volleyball enthusiasm continued while the snow crust was thick enough to hold the players. Then the crew turned to chess and dominoes and played that until the end of the drift.

Polar summer

The polar summer was approaching. It crept in stealthily, bringing the unbearable radiance of the sun, the dripping of thawing snow and the shrieking of seagulls. We still had occasional snowstorms and severe cold. But the sun rose higher and higher, and under its rays, the snow began melting.

By early July, surprisingly warm sunny weather had set in. After the chilly fogs and snowfalls alternating with drizzling rain, which prevailed in the second half of June, the Arctic summer came to our ice floe. And although the air temperature stayed near zero, the sun was warm enough that we could be outdoors wearing just a sweater, without a hat or coat, for hours in calm weather.

Some brought their cots outside and, shielded by tents and houses, managed to sunbathe for 10–15 minutes

The half-meter-thick snow became saturated with water and so loose that even on skis, one sank knee-deep. It did not even feel like snow anymore, but more like watery slush. Moving on such snow was incredibly difficult. Imagine our hydrologists, who had to transport their 100-kilo batteries 300 m from the hydrological tent to the radio station tent to charge every two days!

About one meter of ice melted away over the summer in the camp area, but not under the houses, tents and warehouses. As a result, all the buildings sat on high pedestals, and stacked boxes with food and equipment collapsed into the water. So we had to move the houses, tents and warehouses around several times.

But melting snow was not the only thing that kept us on the move: the shifts of adjacent ice fields and compressions often accompanied by hummocking cut the  size of our ice floe.

Winter is coming

We were on our fifth month of the drift. Over that time, our ice floe covered more than 1,000 km zigzagging in the ocean, ending up about 400 km to the north-west

The last plane delivered paint and some other materials. The camp began preparations for the winter, repairing and insulating the houses. But the headquarters was in a truly bad condition. It was moved three times from place to place over the summer; it was way too small, damp, cold and dark, so the team was enthusiastic about the proposal to build a new one from three old houses rather than wait for the delivery of a new one.

The new headquarters exceeded all our expectations. The builders were not thinking that they were building it on ice and would spend less than a year in the new place. They thought about coming in from the severe cold, passing through a long vestibule into a warm room painted in bright colors, where tables would shine with white tablecloths and music would play, and forgetting that they were on an ice floe 1,500 km from the nearest village, hummocks piling 100 m away, and a snowstorm howling outside.

Hydrologist Spichkin wrote in the log: "I am not sure that people on the mainland would relate to our enthusiasm, but if they imagine the lifeless, ice-covered ocean stretching thousands of kilometers around us, and in the middle of it, a tiny ice floe inhabited by people, on which we have built a warm, cozy shelter with our own hands, where we will gather as a friendly family on a long polar night and relax after exhausting work, they will see why this house is so dear to us. And we wish our ice floe more strength and resilience than ever."

We opened the new headquarters as another important event took place: for the first time, the sun completely disappeared behind the horizon, and electric lights had to be lit in residential and office premises. Although for the moment we used only small 12-volt bulbs powered by batteries, but we knew that diesels would be delivered soon, and we would have searchlights illuminating the entire ice floe.

Seagulls and ducks took off with the onset of severe frost; the life in the ocean that we saw thriving during the summer gradually died away. Seals and beluga whales showed up in ice-holes less and less frequently.

But the kings of the Arctic, polar bears, still wandered along the ice cracks and leads in search of prey. For some reason, bears avoided the camp. Occasionally, we found fresh tracks in the neighboring fields, and when we left the camp, we took weapons with us — just in case

Female polar bear with two cubs walks along ice floe
Female polar bear with two cubs walks along ice floe ©RIA Novosti.Aleksandr Smirnov
Fear has many eyes

Once we had a comic incident that made the camp laugh for days afterwards. One night, two men were keeping watch, one of which was sleeping in a sleeping bag while the other lay on a bed reading. Suddenly he heard footsteps behind the wall. Then someone began to rummage around in a food box outside the tent and, finding nothing but cans, began to tear the tent.

The noise awakened his partner. Both were convinced it was a huge hungry polar bear about to stick its paw into the tent, but then…

We had not expected that bears could wander in the middle of the ocean on a polar night, so all the firearms were in another tent. Afraid to move and attract the animal’s attention, they lay in their sleeping bags holding their breath for several long minutes. Finally, they heard the footsteps of the departing bear. Carefully getting out of the sleeping bags, one of the men quickly charged a flare gun and stood at the entrance, and the other, getting dressed in feverish haste, lit a blowtorch. Listening carefully to the slightest rustle, they turned off the light, carefully opened the tent canopy and rushed to get firearms with a blowtorch. Along the way, one of them shot a flare in the direction of the departing animal, which turned out to be a bear cub. Frightened by the shot and the bright light of the flare, the little bear ran for dear life. But, if there is a cub, it means that its mother is wandering nearby. The two men were no longer sleepy. Quickly warming up the diesel engine, they turned on the spotlights and kept them on until the next shift arrived.

Soon the little bear became braver and returned to the tent. To appease its mother, who never appeared, the men fed the bear cub cookies, sweets and condensed milk. It even got used to being hand-fed and calmly approached the spotlight. Walking around with a lantern and not finding any traces of an adult bear, the people calmed down somewhat. The next day, the little bear came to our camp again and even made friends with the dogs. After that we could often see our Malysh trotting around the camp with the bear waddling behind him. Nikolai Shesterikov came up and, stroking its furry back, treated it to candy.

We hoped that the bear would get used to the camp and spend the polar night with us. But its instinct vagrancy must have prevailed — it began to disappear for long periods, and then left for good

The sun

On March 10, after the five-month polar night, the sun rose again. A flat red copper-colored disc rolled over the tops of the hummocks, marking the onset of a polar day. And although it did not at all look like the sun we were used to seeing on the mainland (it rather resembled a clumsy children’s drawing), it was still the sun. The pilots were the first to see it: on March 8, they gave us a radiogram from an altitude of 2.5 km: "We can see daylight. Long live the sun, let darkness go away."

On April 7, the radio brought us good news: the new shift had taken off from Leningrad. Since the ice floe would inevitably drift into to a very troubled area, the strait between Greenland and Spitsbergen (Svalbard), the station’s life and research plan were significantly shortened. In addition to the meteorological and magnetic observations we were to continue in full, the station’s program included depth measurements and some deep-sea hydrological work.

The piles of boxes to be shipped grew. Without waiting for the arrival of the new shift, the team began to gradually relocate the station to the bigger part of the ice field

Much has changed over the past year on the ice. The first thing that caught one’s eye was the high ridges of hummocks that surrounded the station and filled all visible space up to the horizon. The ice floe, about 3 km across last April, was less than one percent that size now.

On April 20, exactly one year since our landing, we said goodbye to the ice floe, which was not only our home and means of transportation across the ocean, but also the object of study. Our life on it was not easy; we went through good times and bad times, but we had no reason to be dissatisfied with our choice. It carried us over 2,500 km across the ocean, and even on the most difficult days we never lost faith in its strength and reliability.


Excerpts from the chapter "Crossing the Ocean on an Ice Floe" from the collection "Twelve Labors"
Hydrometeorological publishing house. 1964