Reporter's Notebook: Snow, Sky and Silence in the Arctic

Before we go to bed, we are asked if we want our names on a sign-up list to be woken up if there happens to be any Aurora Borealis that night. Sure enough, around midnight, there's a knock on our door. We throw on some warm clothes and leave our hut to go outside and admire the Northern Lights we have all read about. It is eerie the way the whole sky seems to dance, ghostly formations constantly changing shape in the night sky. The greens and pinks are somewhat muted, but they are awe-inspiring all the same.

The next morning, it is cold: minus-50 degrees Fahrenheit with the wind chill. We take a short helicopter flight to where the USS Annapolis is expected to surface. After waiting for what seems like hours (although it was probably only 30 minutes), a black tower slowly starts emerging from below the ice. Like a giant creature rising from beneath the surface of the Earth, the submarine causes massive cracks, pushing up chunks of ice as it rises.

Once the submarine is up, a helicopter lifts a ramp next to the submarine, and Navy personnel attack the 3-foot-thick ice with chain saws, cutting a hole above the hatch. It takes over an hour for them to get the hatch open.

We get on board and the submarine does a "vertical dive." Vertical surfacings and vertical dives are two of the most dangerous maneuvers submarine crews conduct. They are both very slow, deliberate processes, moving the submarine very slowly backward or forward, up and down, at specific degree angles. There is little room for error.

Torpedo Exercises in Arctic Water

While underway, the crew goes through a torpedo exercise. Torpedoes act differently in the arctic water, so the crew has to make adjustments. Amazingly, divers will recover the torpedoes and swim them to a hole in the ice. The torpedoes are then hooked to a cable dangling from a helicopter that will lift them out of the water so they can be re-used. Not only are they expensive, but the Navy doesn't want to leave them behind for others to find.

It is unbelievable how much stuff they manage to cram into a submarine: 130 sailors, their gear and food for up to six months at a time. Because they have surfaced at Ice Camp in the past couple of weeks, they have been resupplied, which means more fresh food than usual.

Sleeping is a different story. We are in "9 man," which are considered spacious accommodations aboard the sub. Three racks of three bunks each. I am on the bottom, and I have to do some yoga moves to get into my berth. There is not enough room to sit up, you lift your head a little bit and you hit it on the bottom of the bunk above you. I'm too tired to read, anyways.

The next day we get up and go up to "Control," where all the action takes place. There is one video camera that looks up at the ice. Otherwise, the only way to know what ice is around you is from various sonar displays. Of the half dozen surfacings the crew will perform, this will be the most difficult. There are large ice keels (masses of ice that project downwards) off the bow and the stern. Cmd. Michael Brunner, the sub's captain, compares it to parking a car, "It's like putting a Suburban into one of the spaces marked 'compact only'."

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