By Peter Alexander, NBC News correspondent
There we were, in the Arctic and on a ship for 23 days. Pass the Dramamine!
It promised to be one of those rare opportunities to visit one of the world's most extreme environments -- a place few people, including scientists, ever get to explore. Producer Paul Manson and I -- along with cameraman Callan Griffiths and soundman Ben Adam -- were sent on assignment to report on climate change and its impact on the Arctic. The primary news peg for our trip? For only the second time in recorded history the Northwest Passage was ice free this summer, effectively clearing this shortcut between Europe and Asia.
Our intention was to stay on board for 10 days, shooting video and interviews. Mother Nature, apparently, had other plans. Inclement weather, along with an emergency search and rescue mission, spoiled all five of our attempts to disembark the ship. Getting stuck in the Arctic -- due to bad weather -- isn't uncommon; getting stuck five times -- on a swaying ship, no less -- is mentally exhausting.
Joining the team
We left New York City on September 3, joining up with a team of scientists from ArcticNet on board the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker, Amundsen. (In Canada, the Coast Guard is civilian, not military. It is part of the country's Department of Oceans and Fisheries.) This particular Coast Guard ship was dedicated to scientific research and outfitted with all the necessary tools.
In a unique partnership, the scientists work side-by-side with the Coast Guard crew. For example, the scientists were testing water samples and sediment samples (from the ocean floor) as well as mapping uncharted territories in this remote part of the world. There were 40 scientists, 40 Coast Guard members and the four of us. By the end of our stay, we're treated like members of the crew -- learning to help on deck, in the lab and at dinner (cleaning dishes, really).
We boarded the Amundsen Thursday, Sept. 4, in Resolute Bay, a small Inuit village, along the Northwest Passage. The plan was to fly off by helicopter at the northern most civilian community in North America, Grise Fjord, and then begin our long journey home. Freezing rain and harsh weather kept our chopper grounded both Monday and Tuesday. The ship kept going and our chance to get off passed. We continued North with the expedition along the coasts of the Canadian Arctic and Greenland, coming within 900 miles of the North Pole.
Over the next couple weeks, we would make three more attempts to fly to land. Each one failed due to weather. Unbelievably, on Thursday, our absolute best chance to get off the ship failed, too. The ship was diverted back north to assist a search and rescue mission, something the crew let us know had only happened at best two times in the last couple years. From the beginning, we were warned that the ship's primary mission was science. The cost of operating this icebreaker and moving the expedition forward -- $50,000 a day. While we were welcomed guests on board, we knew the ship wouldn't be making any unscheduled stops for us.
Paul and I have shared what would normally be the infirmary on the overloaded ship. To our eye, it was roughly, 10- by 12-feet. A thin curtain was the only thing separating us -- and our dignity. Callan and Ben shared a bunk bed in a slighter larger room downstairs.