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Articles Blog

Filtering by Category: Polar Regions

Solovetsky, Russia

Karyn Planett

Anguished Agony and Ecclesiastic Ecstasy

White Sea winter winds slam ashore with wrenching brutality. Summers can be heavy … laden with heat, humidity and Arctic mosquitoes in the bogs and Russian boreal taiga forests. Spring signals the hope of renewal while autumn announces a repeat of this seasonal cycle. There is an honest rhythm to life in the Solovetsky Archipelago. Her people possess the inner strength to endure these conditions, and choose to do so. While daily life remains one of endless challenges, the devout pray before the painted altars, listen to massive church bells peal from whitewashed belfries, and take comfort from the bearded black-robed priests who live, preach and seek spirituality by their side.

Important Dates and Facts

While scientists date man’s presence here to as long ago as the 5th millennium B.C., human habitation in this rugged landscape really began in approximately the 5th century B.C. when the climate was far more favorable than it is today. Our focus, however, is the history beginning in the 15th century when zealous monastic life began on Solovetsky, evidenced by the churches that were fully functioning from the 16th to 19th centuries. Followers built stone and timber villages, carved out an irrigation system with a series of canals to supply fresh water, and designed curious stone labyrinths, cairns and burial mounds. Birch, larch, and alder forests supplied the necessary lumber. Fieldstones became valuable building materials. And the waters around Prosperity Bay provided fish for all. Though this is all quite interesting, the important attraction for today’s visitors and the faithful alike is Solovetsky Monastery, the medieval Russian Orthodox monastic settlement.

It was during the 1430s that this important religious site was founded by a trio of monks from other monasteries, lured here by the isolation that suited their cloistered lifestyle. Over time the original site grew to incorporate locations on surrounding islands and the adjacent mainland. Within 200 years, the monastery had a vibrant economy featuring dairies and factories that produced such items as ceramics and bricks. The arts followed with woodcarving, lithography, engraving and icon painting. In addition, the area’s hothouses supplied not only the local demand for produce, herbs and medicinal plants but that of many Russian cities, as well. A temperate microclimate of warm southern air nurtured this farming environment.

Six hundred fifty miles from Moscow this prosperity enhanced Solovetsky’s importance, elevating its status to that of the region’s economic hub as well as its religious and cultural center, even its military headquarters. Just beyond the Arctic Circle, it was recognized as Russia’s most remote religious enclave. The sad story is that Solovetsky also became a prison and that’s the tale most often told.

The Long Arm of the Russian Revolution

With the changing tide of history, this successful enterprise suffered its demise as revolution raged across the nation in the early 20th century. Monastic life was abandoned in 1920 and in its place came the Solovki State Farm. As the Soviet Union’s first concentration camp, the entire complex was converted to a living hell for political prisoners and others. It literally became the poster child for the nation’s gulag system. Escape was almost impossible and some historians estimate that from 1923 to 1939 approximately 40,000 of the 80,000 prisoners condemned to Solovetsky perished at the hands of their guards. Others place the number much higher. Many were intellectuals, poets, academics, and those considered potentially dangerous individuals who were labeled “enemies of the people”. Their punishment was beyond cruel, and death often their only escape. For that reason, visitors are asked to pause, reflect, and remember the history that played out on this very soil. Curiously, it was the reality of WWII that prompted Solovetsky’s closure.

Following Lenin’s death in 1924, Solovetsky was ultimately transformed into a naval training base.  It became a museum in 1967 and, in 1990, was converted back into a religious site when the monks returned. Today, it is still a destination for pilgrims who arrive by small boat to pray, sing, and seek the blessings of the many priests who reside among the 1500 permanent residents. The handful of annual visitors, adventurous travelers like you, also encounter babushka’d women in long skirts, tending their gardens and going about their daily routines quite undisturbed by outsiders and their curious gazes. Meanwhile, the men spend long days laboring in the forests while the children are simply children in a world far kinder than it was not so very long ago.

Your Personal Journey

Like those before you your journey begins at the Holy Gate, the portal set into the Monastery’s massive stone walls all part of what is now recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Once inside, you can’t help but be impacted by the attempt to preserve the gentle nature of this holy site, a site tended by the faithful and landscaped into a rainbow of flowers. Turrets, watchtowers, cobblestone walkways, a protected courtyard, and the onion-domed Spaso-Prebrazhensky Cathedral complete the backdrop. Once inside the structure you’ll see scratchy film and faded photographs recording the desecration of religious artifacts and structures during Stalin’s reign of terror. Your guide will lead you through the brick hallways where prisoners met their fate and reveal to you staggering statistics that are beyond comprehension. Finally you’ll stand before the gilded icons that bring hope to those who pray this barbarity will never play out again.

Once away from the harsh reality yet palpable serenity of Solovetsky, consider reading Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. It will fill in the stories where your imagination fails.

North Pole

Karyn Planett

You’re in for a Big Surprise

Oh, yes. A really big surprise. It will be very cold, lonely, and could be your unintended introduction to the Polar Bear Club. Why? Because the ice on the Arctic polar ice cap is only 6.5 to 10 feet thick. By the way, did you know that during winter, the ice cap is roughly the same size as the US? And in summertime, about 50% of that ice melts away. Anyway, it’s best if you just skooch your cozy chair toward the window today and simply watch the frosty scenery slip slowly past. Meanwhile, let’s think of everything related to the Polar Ice Cap and the North Pole.

Where the Heck is It?

Well, it depends what you’re asking about. The Magnetic North Pole or the Geographic North Pole? They’re not the same, you know. The Geographic North Pole, some people call it the North Terrestrial Pole or “true north”, is that tiny spot on the globe where all the longitudinal lines meet. Just look at a globe on the top at 90 degrees North latitude. From this exact point, all cartographers draw their longitudinal lines to the South Pole and it makes a tidy little grid so sailors and pilots and others will never be lost.

The Geographic North Pole is actually smack in the middle of the Arctic Ocean some 450 miles north of Greenland. So, if you manage to find your way to the exact North Pole and stand there then twirl around, everything within view would be south. And you would have to twirl because that part of the earth rotates at a snail’s pace, virtually imperceptibly. Not so if you were perched on the Equator where you’d be rocketing along at approximately 1,038 miles per hour. You also wouldn’t be able to perceive of this speed either because you’d probably be under a breezy palm next to someone adorable and you’d certainly not be thinking about geography, would you?

Oh, back to the North Pole. There’s also a Magnetic North Pole. So the North Magnetic Pole, per, “is located hundreds of miles south of the geographic North Pole at approximately 82.7 degrees North and 114.4 West, northwest of Canada’s Sverdrup Island.” It’s where the Earth’s magnetic field points vertically downwards. I know it’s kind of confusing especially because it moves some 50 miles from its average center point daily so don’t bother searching for it. Plus, the arrow on your handy scout compass always points to the “N”.

Santa Needs No Compass

So where does Santa come from? If there are children in the vicinity, stop reading aloud. They’ve got their own fantasies of sugarplum fairies and the like to fill their heads. It’s believed that the jolly ol’ St. Nick we all know and love evolved from a Turkish Bishop Nicholas. A right proper sort, he, who lived in the 4th century A.D. He shared his wealth with those less fortunate, especially children, and was known to toss gifts into the homes of the truly needy. Over time, the Catholic Church named him a patron saint, St. Nicholas. The English called him Father Christmas. In Germany, he was Weinachtsmann. But it was the immigrants from the Netherlands that settled in America who brought with them... Sinter Klaas. Santa Claus. And the children all believe he lives at the North Pole with Mrs. Claus and a houseful of elves who toil right through the year making gifts for all the good boys and girls. That elaboration to the tale was created by a Thomas Nast for Harper’s Magazine between 1860 and 1880. Didn’t we all relish those images?

Some Fun Facts and Stats

  • It’s warmer at the North Pole than the South Pole, though wintertime temps average 30 below zero.
  • Robert Peary is recognized as the first person to reach the North Pole. That was on April 6th, 1909 with four Inuits and Matthew Henson. Some challenge this report and believe the accolades belong to American explorer Dr. Frederick A. Cook who claims to have achieved this goal one year earlier.
  • In 1958, US nuclear subs named “Slope” and “Nautilus” actually cruised beneath the North Pole’s ice.
  • Animals who reside at the North Pole include the popular polar bear, the lesser popular polar hare, reindeer, polar foxes, and musk ox.
  • The South Pole sits atop a landmass while the North Pole is astride drifting sea ice.
  • There are no penguins at the North Pole.
  • Only about 150 people “live” at the North Pole though not permanently. You live someplace more hospitable.

Journey to the Poles

Karyn Planett

Beyond the Beyond

“Lands doomed by nature to everlasting frigidness and never once to feel the warmth of the suns rays, whose horrible and savage aspect I have no words to describe; such are the lands we have discovered, what may we expect those to be which lie more to the South, for we may reasonably suppose we have seen the best as lying more to the North, whoever has resolution and perseverance to clear up this point by proceeding farther than we have done, I shall not envy him the honour of the discovery but I will be bold to say that the world will not be benefited by it.”

Damning words of frustration these were. Written by Captain James Cook in his Journal February 1775, his exasperation is palpable. This seasoned veteran of the seas had been sailing on his second voyage of discovery, this time aboard H.M.S. Resolution. This time to the land beyond the beyond. This time in search of Antarctica.

Early Polar Explorers

Historians believe that the very earliest voyages of discovery to the poles were undertaken for several reasons. Some scholars subscribe to the theory that men were driven to the extreme reaches of the earth in search of commercial shipping routes; for theirs or their government’s glory; or in the name of science. As these explorers were all from the northern hemisphere it was predictable that the early explorations would be in the Artic. The far north had long been known to the Norsemen who had sailed to Iceland, then Greenland, and finally North America sometime between 800 and 1100 A.D.

A new trade route to India and China would bring great riches to Northern Europe, especially for the Dutch and the English. Perhaps there was some safe passage through the Arctic. Captains with names like Frobisher, Davis, and Barents all attempted the discovery of this route via the north. All failed. So, too, Henry Hudson.

Ultimately, Roald Amundsen crossed the Northwest Passage. It took this Norwegian explorer three years, from 1903 to 1906, to complete his torturous mission. The American, Robert Peary, was the first to make it successfully to the North Pole, aided by four-dozen Inuit and sleds with teams of dogs totaling two hundred. The year was 1909.

Terra Australis Incognita

The Unknown Land. In the days of ancient Greece, the area on the maps where we now know Antarctica to be found was identified as “Terra Australis Incognita.” Many cartographers and scientists believed that this land, should it exist at all, would certainly be an extension from the African continent. The idea was dashed when the legendary navigator Vasco da Gama rounded the southern tip of Africa, the Cape of Good Hope to be exact, putting an end to this theory. The year was 1498. Some eight decades later, Sir Francis Drake rounded the tip of South America as far south as 57 degrees south latitude. He ascertained that the Pacific and the Atlantic did meet up there so no landmass existed in this location that would block his path.

Enter what many claim to be the greatest navigator of all, Captain James Cook. While on his second voyage of discovery (1771-1775), he and his chilled-to-the-bone crew circumnavigated Antarctica in search of this landmass. That was in 1773. In January of that year, Cook noted in his ship’s log “I am so fully of opinion that there is none that I shall not go in search of it, being now determined to make the best of my way to the East in the Latitude of 60 degrees or upwards, and am only sorry that in searching after those imaginary Lands, I have spent so much time….”
On January 17th, 1773 Cook and his men crossed the Antarctic Circle at 70 degrees south. He went on to report that “At about a 1/4 past 11 o’Clock we crossed the Antarctic Circle for at Noon we were by observation four Miles and a half South of it and are undoubtedly the first and only Ship that ever cross’d that line.”

One year later, Cook again sailed to the edge of known exploration. The captain reported that “I should not have hesitated one moment in declaring it is my opinion that the Ice we now see extended in a solid body quite to the Pole.” He was again at 70 degrees south latitude. He further noted in his log on January 30, 1774 the tremendous dangers he and his crew faced while sailing among the floating ice “islands.” At that point they were sailing at south latitude 71 degrees 10 minutes. Cook wrote, “I whose ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go, was not sorry at meeting with this interruption, as it in some measure relieved us from the dangers and hardships, inseparable with the Navigation of the Southern Polar regions.

Captain James Cook had come to the conclusion that a continent did not exist anywhere among the high southern latitudes he had already explored, especially not west of the South American tip of Cape Horn.

Even so, following a respite in the warmer climes of Easter Island and Vanuatu (New Hebrides), Cook again rounded Cape Horn while continuing his search for the Southern Continent. Charting a course to the east, he headed toward the Cape of Good Hope and ultimately back to his homeland.