Lindblad to set sail on voyage to top of the world

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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 lesser-known islands.

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.

Lindblad Expeditions has chartered the Russian icebreaker Kapitan Dranitsyn for its trip to Franz Josef Land in the Arctic Circle, about 600 miles from the North Pole. 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 adventure."

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 expeditions.

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 helicopters.

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 lions.

"They are the top of the heap," Lindblad said, "and very charismatic."

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 also large.

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 fun."

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) 762-0003.

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].

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