Friday, March 5, 2010

Frozen Baltic Sea...

That danged global warming is at it again!  The Baltic Sea has frozen over this year (see at right, click to enlarge), something that occurs regularly but far from every year.  Every time this happens, ships get stuck in the ice.

About 15 years ago, on a very chilly winter visit to Tallinn, Estonia, I had quite an adventure on just such a frozen Baltic Sea.  I rented a car and drove out to the very end of the large peninsula just northeast of Tallin, past the small town of Rohuneeme.  The road petered out into a dirt track and ended up on the shore at the northernmost point on the peninsula.  It was quite lonely out there at the end of the road; not another soul was in sight.

The sea was frozen over that year (I think it was 1995, but I'm not certain of the date).  I was fascinated by two aspects of it – the beautiful blue color of the frozen sea ice, and the fantastically complex surface.  Sea ice is nothing at all like lake ice – there's nothing smooth about it at all.  It gives the appearance of having frozen in various sized chunks, which are then all mooshed together and frozen in random orientations. 

It was clear that the ice was frozen quite a ways down, and was quite safe to walk on – so off I went on a little hike.  I walked perhaps a mile offshore, maybe a little more.  The beauty of the blue ice entranced me, and the sense of isolation and aloneness out there was quite profound.  I had good warm clothing and sturdy boots, so I was quite comfortable.

At some point during this walk I became aware of a commotion towards the shore.  Looking that way, I saw something I certainly didn't expect: a jeep (looked like something straight out of World War II) was making it's way, fitfully, out onto the ice.  It looked like it had left the shore right where I had parked, and it was headed towards me.  A guy in the jeep was waving at me, a bit frantically and conveying some urgency. 

At the moment I thought they just figured I was some stupid tourist who'd gotten lost and was in trouble, and they were coming to rescue me.  I'd had my fill of ice-walking, so I headed back in toward them.  They kept moving toward me, but I'm not sure they were going any faster than I was – the surface was so rough that the jeep was having difficulty finding a route.  Finally, after perhaps 20 minutes had gone by, we met up.

There were two men in the jeep, fit young men who looked like military guys.  They were in uniform, but not carrying any weapons.  Neither of them spoke any English (and of course I didn't speak any Estonian).  They weren't at all unfriendly, but they made it clear they wanted me in the jeep, pronto.  So I hopped in, they turned around and headed for shore as fast as they could go.

At some point during that trip back to the shore, I noticed that both men kept glancing to the east, looking worried.  At some point I looked to see what they were looking at, and got a terrific shock – an absolutely enormous ship was bearing down on us!  After watching it for a minute or so, I realized that it was an icebreaker, larger than any icebreaker I'd ever heard of, much less seen. Its path would have taken it between where I was and the shore, making it impossible for me to walk back.  Now I knew where that sense of urgency came from!

When we got back to shore, one of the guys got on his walkie-talkie (another refugee from World War II – a monster thing that looked like it weighed 20 pounds).  He finally found someone on the other end who spoke English, and we had a strange conversation involving me, the two guys with me, and the helpful translater on the other end of the walkie-talkie.  The translater kept injecting his own disbelieving comments as I explained what I was doing out there.  Somehow none of them seemed to believe it was credible that an American would be walking on Estonian ice just for fun.  The term “crazy American” came up frequently.

Eventually they decided against summary execution, and later decided I didn't even need to be arrested.  However, they told me to follow my two rescuers off the peninsula; they wanted me out of the area.  So I got in my car and followed the two of them back south, toward Tallinn.  They stopped in the town and got out of the jeep, so I did likewise, not knowing why.  One of the guys went into a shop, had a short conversation, came out and then my two rescuers motioned for me to follow them as we marched into another shop.  This shop had two people inside: a woman perhaps 40 years old and a girl who appeared to be 13 or 14 years old.  The girl spoke English, and she was the reason we were there.

It seems my two rescuers wanted a more detailed explanation, and for that we needed someone who could better translate.  The girl (whose name I've forgotten) did an admirable job.  The older woman was her mother, and she participated in the conversation as well, with great interest, asking all sorts of questions.  She was the first person I'd run into who had no trouble understanding my desire to walk out on the ice – she was all smiles when she figured out that I simply thought it was beautiful. 

Towards the end of our conversation, my rescuers asked if there was a place in town to get dinner.  Next thing we knew, we all were invited to the shopkeeper's home for dinner, and my adventure continued with a family dinner at an Estonian home.  That dinner was a delight: the food was simple, but very good and plentiful.  My rescuers had more beers than they should have, but they were considerably more relaxed afterwards.  I don't drink beer, but it turns out that the man of the household (who was at dinner as well) shared my taste for alcoholic cider, and he and I had a few glasses with dinner.  We all stayed there talking until evening time, having a grand old time. 

None of these five Estonians had ever met an American before; from their point of view I was an exotic specimen, but not at all what they expected.  As on many other occasions in the early years of my Estonian visits, I got questions like “Do you know any movie stars?”  But I also got lots of questions about what life was really like for ordinary Americans, and we swapped many tales of life.  Naturally we both discovered that while our circumstances were different, people were still people, much the same no matter where they happen to live.

I drove (slowly and carefully!) back to Tallinn after that dinner, with the satisfaction one has after having a fine adventure.  I knew even then that this would be a memory I'd cherish...

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