It is 34 degrees and the gusting wind makes it feel a lot colder. I'm hiking behind a man with a rifle, my hands freezing inside my two layers of gloves. I'm wearing four layers of clothes. We hike through ankle-deep snow.
I'm on Nordaustlandet (northeast land), the second largest of Svalbard's islands, a little less than a 1,000 miles from the North Pole. The island is surrounded by ice.
We're hiking in the Arctic desert, following the man with the gun, naturalist and geologist Jason Kelley, who stops periodically, pointing out whale bones from the 18th century and tiny fossils (they look like flowers) 180 million years old.
We leave the bones behind: This expedition is all about finding life in the Arctic. No one complains about getting roused from bed before dawn when there is a chance to see a polar bear lolling on an ice floe or whales playing in the water beside the ship or thousands of sea birds nesting on high cliffs. Our sense of day and night is off anyway since it never gets dark here this time of year. It is nearly as bright at 2 a.m. as it is at 2 p.m.
Then, quite suddenly, we see the Walruses. Sixty of them. Weighing in at a ton a piece, they are huge creatures, like oversized leather bags adorned with long white tusks. They are in a "haul out," Kelley explains, rubbing up against each other, rubbing themselves against the pebbly sand in order to slough off their skin. (Think dermabrasion writ large.) The females and the their calves are several miles away on the ice. We joke about this being a bachelor party.
Approaching the Arctic Ice Shelf
Walruses can be dangerous, which is why we're staying several yards away and being told to keep silent. We watch through binoculars and camera lenses. (I've never seen so much sophisticated camera equipment among travelers.) We're very still and I begin to remember, despite the fog of adrenaline, that I'm tired.
I woke at 5:45 a.m. to see a colony of birds, a giant condo filled with tens of thousands of Brunnich Guillemots.
"It looks like chaos,' bird expert Ian Bullock acknowledged, looking out on the cliffs of Kapp Fanshawe. "But it is as organized as a street in Manhattan. These birds return to exactly the same spot as last year and the year before that. They will find their partner on the ledge and will nest shoulder to shoulder."
By afternoon, we were passing one of the most stunning sites I've ever seen--the Brasvellbreen, an ice cap that covers over half of the island. Some of it almost a thousand feet deep. Size became beauty and vice versa.
The sun came out and we were stunned by the austere beauty--the white cliffs, the thick ice pancakes in the water, the waterfalls. Our ship, the National Geographic Explorer, shuddered as we cut through the solid seas and the standing on the bow are splashed by the waterfalls.
Now I'm taking a deep breath of the cold, musky air and listening to gossip of walruses. I blink twice, feeling my eyes are beginning to freeze.
For more on Eileen's trip to the arctic, read her travel diaries.
Eileen Ogintz interviews families and experts around the world for her widely syndicated column "Taking the Kids™" and is the creator of www.takingthekids.com. She's written seven family travel books, most recently The Kid's Guide; NYC and The Kid's Guide: Cruising Alaska. E-book guides are available in the Nook and Kindle e-book stores. For more "Taking the Kids," visit www.takingthekids.com.