On maps of the North Pole, Russia and Canada are close neighbors,
part of an Arctic Circle elite that includes the extreme northern
points of Alaska, Finland, Greenland, Norway, Sweden and some
Among them is Svalbard, a Norwegian island group that crosses
the 80th parallel (the 90th is the North Pole).
Lindblad Expeditions, which has been running expeditions to
Svalbard for 20 years, is now venturing even farther north, to a
small group of islands beyond the 80th parallel, called Franz Josef
Land. The islands, part of Russia, are among the most northerly
land masses on earth, about 600 miles from the Pole.
Little is known about Franz Josef Land. American maps show 87
islands in the archipelago. Russian maps show hundreds.
According to Bud Lehnhausen, the leader of Lindblad's planned
expeditions, he and owner Sven Lindblad were aboard the company's
ship, the Endeavour, on an expedition to Svalbard when the subject
of Franz Josef Land first came up.
"Svalbard has always been my favorite voyage destination," said
Lehnhausen. "Even after traveling in the area for about 20 years,
we are still finding new places, and every trip is a different
At one point, the captain of the Svalbard expedition suggested
designing an itinerary for the Endeavour that included Svalbard as
well as some other parts of the western Russian Arctic,
specifically the islands of Franz Josef Land.
Lindblad expressed interest, and the team set out to determine
what would be required.
The Russian government doesn't like to give permission to
non-Russian ships to enter the territory, so the company worked out
a deal to charter the Russian icebreaker Kapitan Dranitsyn.
The ship is a conventional diesel-powered icebreaker built in
Finland, remodeled for passengers in 1996 and refurbished in 1999.
It's a working ship that keeps the northwestern coast of Russia
accessible in the winter and also carries scientific
The operator now has one departure planned, for Aug. 20, with a
capacity of 92 passengers.
A small fleet of Zodiacs will be used for trips to or near the
shore. The expedition will also be equipped with two six-passenger
The crew and officers will be Russian. The expedition will be
accompanied by experts in oceanography, geology and ecology.
The 16-day itinerary sails roundtrip from Oslo, Norway, for a
total of four days at sea. The remainder of the time is spent
exploring the islands.
According to Lindblad, the islands are "virtually untouched by
human civilization." They were discovered in 1873 by
Austro-Hungarian explorers who were trying to reach the North Pole.
They named the archipelago in honor of the their emperor.
There were a number of expeditions to the islands over the next
60 years, then in the 1930s the islands were declared off-limits by
the Soviet Union.
The islands remained closed to civilians, with the exception of
a few scientists, until the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The wildlife of the islands provides a unique spectacle for
visitors, with the polar bears headlining the show.
The polar bear is the supreme predator of the north, Lindblad
said, representative of what is called "charismatic mega fauna."
It's a category that includes such animals as elephants and
"They are the top of the heap," Lindblad said, "and very
In Svalbard, the closest the operator has been to Franz Josef
Land, "You see polar bears in the wild, in their habitat. To see
them on the ice, hunting seals, is a different experience."
According to Lehnhausen, there is a good chance of being able to
observe polar bears and ice seals. Walrus and seabird colonies are
And then there is the intangible attraction, the mystery, the
exhilaration of exploration.
"The idea of being in a place where there is not another human
for hundreds of miles, where you have to live by your wits, that is
a powerful feeling in this day and age," Lehnhausen said. I think
from the guests' point of view, it's going to be incredibly
Prices start at $9,990 per person, double occupancy, or $12,500
for single occupancy. For more information, see www.lindbladexpeditions.com or call (800)
To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].