Expedition Journal

Scotland, The Faroe Islands, & Iceland: North Atlantic Saga

Jun. 21–Jul. 1, 2018

© Dennis Minty

Our hosts and guides came aboard to share a well-considered after dinner cultural program that included music and Faroese chain dancing, which they encouraged us all to try. What made these cultural cross-overs even richer was the presence on staff of people who live in the places Adventure Canada stops.


North atlantic saga 2019 trip log map
  • Day 1: Aberdeen Embarkation
  • Day 2: Jarlshof and Fair isle
  • Day 3: Mousa
  • Day 4: Vagur, Suðuroy, Faroe Islands
  • Day 5: TÓrshavn on Streymoy
  • Day 6: Gjógv
  • Day 7: Runavík
  • Day 8: At Sea
  • Day 9: Heimaey & Surtsey Island, Iceland
  • Day 10: Southern Iceland
  • Day 11: Reykjavík, The End of the Line

Day 1 – Thursday, June 21

Aberdeen Embarkation

So here we are in Aberdeen—sometimes called the Silver or Grey City, because of its granite, which contains a distinctly metallic sparkle from the mica that it contains. We’ve all gotten here on different wings. Some have come directly from our home countries, others have been here in Scotland or the British Isles for a few days, or even a few weeks, soaking up the hues of the summer coasts and countrysides before gathering together here amidst all this sparkly Scottish granite.

Here, where the rivers Don and Dee flow together to make a natural harbour, the boat traffic is as bustling as probably has been for hundreds of years with fishing, shipbuilding and now, for sure, with the ships tending the offshore oil industry in the North Sea.


© Mike Beedell

We’re all aboard by late afternoon. But even before we embark, change is in the wind. There’s a persistent forty-knot breeze growling out of the northwest. But great spirits prevail in the Nautilus Lounge as the meet-and-greet continues. There are folk here from all over the world, including three Young Explorers, who have been awarded research fellowships on this journey through sponsorship of Adventure Canada and the Explorers Club. Our pilot comes aboard at 19h00, about the time our Expedition Leader MJ Swan’s evening briefing begins. In his opening remarks, we learn that more than half of us on this North Atlantic Saga are return Adventure Canada guests! Many aboard are greeting each other like old friends. But betwixt and between MJ gives us all the chance to see the lines cast off and watch as we make out way to sea through a crowd of oil rig service ships rolling at anchor outside the main harbour.

A first dinner aboard the Ocean Endeavour. A mandatory “Abandon Ship” Drill. Quick intros from twenty-eight expedition team members. New voices. New faces. New beds. There’s a half moon in a clear blue sky, but the wind is strong and the swell is … well … noticeable. A last view of the fiery glow of the cloud-shrouded sun setting over the North Sea from the railing on the boat deck confirms we’re on our way and heading up toward Shetland (our planned first stop in Orkney has already been thwarted by the high winds and rough sea conditions … but “flexibility is key” when it comes to building rewarding itineraries in northern waters). The crew is tying down the chairs and making sure that any loose things on counter tops are secured. After the flurry and excitement of getting here, everybody’s more or less pooped. Time for sleep on a moving ship. Break out the Gravol!

Day 2 – Friday, June 22

Jarlshof and Fair isle

Overnight, we have sailed north past the Orkney Islands and are approaching the south end of the Shetland Islands. The wind is still brisk. “It’s morning and we’re already changing the schedule to adapt to conditions,” says Program Director Devon Bayly-Jones. Seems the ship has made slower progress than expected through the swell kicked up by a blustery west wind, so we’re not at our destination just yet. Instead of a landing operation at Jarlshof starting right after breakfast, as predicted last night, ornithologist Pete Ewins presents “Birds of the Northeast Atlantic Islands” in the Nautilus Lounge. Devon assures us all that as soon as we’re within shooting distance of a landing, MJ will let us know.

Jarlshof Shetland

© Dennis Minty

Eventually, we anchor in the lee of an isthmus of land off Jarlshof, in the parish of Dunrossness, very near to Lerwick Sumburgh, the main airport serving Shetland. With North Sea Oil platform helicopters coming and going, the sky overhead is noisy and busy for a first landing of the journey. We go ashore to a sandy beach in a flurry of Arctic terns fishing the shallows and get a quick chance to check out a ruin at West Voe. It is the layers of human habitation going back into the mists of time that leave a lasting impression on everyone who goes ashore. The tide drops during our time on land, making it an interesting and wet (for some) experience reloading the Zodiacs for the transfer back to the ship.

Travelers talking to local guide

© Dennis Minty

During a late lunch onboard, the captain repositions the ship to Fair Isle, a few dozen kilometres to the south of Jarlshof. To keep things flowing, while MJ puts together a landing plan, Mike Beedell invites everyone to presentation called “The Art of Seeing” that gets the photographic juices flowing for all of the natural and cultural phenomena that surround us. But Mike is encouraged to finish up early to get the landing underway and to make the most of the sheltered sea conditions and the day.

We anchor off North Haven in the middle of Fair Isle (the name comes from Fridarey in Old Norse, meaning “Island of Tranquility”) and execute a short but bumpy (at least to start) Zodiac ride into the harbour. Happily, the closer we got to shore and into the lee of the west wind, the calmer the sea became. By the time we reached a floating dock, there was a gaggle of very enthusiastic Fair Islanders to greet us.

Puffin Fair Isle

© Dennis Minty

This turned out to be a perfect location for checking out cliff dwelling birds, including puffins along with fulmars, kittiwakes, skuas (they call them “bonxies” here), gulls, guillemots and shags, among others. For those who got past the birds, it was a bit of a longer hike (or bike, because the day-rental program was happening here) to get to the museum and community centre, but well worth the extra effort. It was a great help to have personal cars from our hosts as taxis along the road across the island.

Day 3 – Saturday, June 23


We headed back north from Fair Isle overnight. At our morning briefing for the planned landing on the Isle of Mousa, ornithologist Pete Ewins told us a bit about doing past research here and talked up a visit to this birder’s paradise just off the main island of Shetland owned by the Scottish Land Trust. MJ arranged a series of long (six kilometre), medium and short walks to appreciate the birds and mammals of the island (mammals would be seals and sheep, mostly) but the main attraction here was another Iron Age “broch” dating from 400–200 BC, one of the most intact and interesting of its kind anywhere here in the Scottish isles.

Sir Walter Scott described it in 1914 as “A Pictish fortress, the most entire probably in the world.” It was a blustery and wet day but by now almost everyone was well-kitted with the exact right blend of insulation and waterproof layers and ready for anything.


© Dennis Minty

Long walkers were treated to Selkies (grey seals) in the surging waters in protected bays on Mousa’s outland shores as well as Tirricks (Arctic terns) vigorously protecting their nesting areas, with Bonxies (great skuas) doing the same. And any time we were near the network of stone dikes that divide the island or within the broch itself, you could hear the hollow “churning” of storm petrels nesting deep in the wall cracks and well out of sight.


© Dennis Minty

In the afternoon, after pulling anchor and starting the long crossing to the Faroes, we were treated to a spectrum of presentations from the diverse experts on board: “First Farmers of the Northern Isles” by Jane Sproull Thomson; “Scotland and the Independence Question” by Ted Cowin; “How to properly use your binoculars” by Pierre Richard; a Crofting Panel and Crafting Circle with Dawn Bazely, Pete Ewins and Callum Thomson.

Afternoon tea followed by “Scotland and Canada in Song” with Lizanne Henderson and JR, led directly to MJ’s briefing for tomorrow and the Captain’s Welcome Reception. Without question, however, the highlight of the pre-prandial presentations was an address to haggis by David Reed, in full highland regalia, preceding a Scottish dinner and a few tunes from Tyler on the piano. A full and satisfying day.

Day 4 – Sunday, June 24

Vagur, Suðuroy, Faroe Islands

Up at 7h00 to an overcast day with new land close at hand on the starboard side, and soon we’re tied up alongside in Faroe’s southernmost port. A stone, on display in the village church, covered with thirteenth-century runes indicates that Viking Torkil Onundarson was the first to settle the area. V.U. Hammershaimb, the founder of the written Faroese language, was born here in 1816. During WWII, the Faroes were peacefully occupied by the British. Now, however, a Danish protectorate. Our host says “We like to think of ourselves as an independent country inside the Kingdom of Denmark.”

Vagur Faroe Islands

© Dennis Minty

With an excellent and informative introductory briefing from our two Faroe Island specialists, physician Pál Weihe and filmmaker and expedition team member, Klaus Kiesewetter, we set out for a day of exploring. Those wanting to stretch their legs embarked on a long hike from the ship to a lookout just south of town called Eggjarvegur.

The high winds of Shetland had given way here to thick fog, which added ambiance to the hike and made the “view” an exercise in imagination. After days of these conditions, everyone was rolling with the weather as it came and enjoying every minute of this unfolding adventure. A medium hike went to the same destination, only starting at the base of the hill with a shuttle ride (about half the distance). And that was complemented with a bus tour to two locations which originally was to go to a lighthouse and the nearby town of Sumba.

Vagur Faroe Islands 2

© Dennis Minty

At some point in the day, everybody was offered the chance to take a little detour to Vagseidi, a boat launch place just west of town that had some very clever public art to show how Viking row/fishing boats were launched here to get onto the sea. The surf was pounding in and, with the boat sculpture set against this in the coastal scene, gave a strong impression of how well adapted the Faroese are in their relationship with the sea.

As happened in one of our evenings in Shetland, some of our hosts and guides came aboard to share a well-considered after-dinner cultural program that included music and Faroese chain dancing that they encouraged us all to try. What made these cultural cross-overs even richer was the presence on staff of people who live in the places Adventure Canada stops.

Klaus and Pál made a very strong connection to this place and its peoples through their contributions to the program. Pál, particularly, who is a medical doctor, environmental researcher, filmmaker, and all-around Renaissance man has been working hard to engage people—particularly the Young Explorers—with stories of Faroe. Klaus has been excellent as well in imparting local knowledge.

It’s Sunday in Vagur. Foggy but fun. A few actually manage to attend a local church service.

Day 5 – Monday, June 25

TÓrshavn on Streymoy

A day in Tórshavn, capital of the eighteen Faroe Islands! This city of 13,000 is on the island of Streymoy and has been the capital of the Faroes since the Vikings established their parliament here on the Tinganes peninsula in 850 AD. The city is located between two mountains, Húsareyen and Krikjubøren and, with the sea and harbour close at hand, has a very rugged north Atlantic feel to it.

Torshavn Faroe Islands 2

© Dennis Minty

There is lots to do here in town but, in consultation with our local guides, we set out on a bus trip to various places to the northwest of town. The original plan called for shuttle to the town of Vestmanna, on the main island of Streymoy, where we were to board a small vessel for a boat tour of the bird cliffs and sea caves in the area. Sadly, because of totally unrelenting winds which made the boat tour part of that agenda impossible, we had to move to a tasty alternate plan cooked up by our host and main guide here in the Faroes, Hilda Thompson.

Torshavn Faroe Islands 1

© Dennis Minty

This alternative journey began with a guided hour-long crossing of the Faroes to the impressive waterfall and cliffs at Gásadalur, transiting both a sub-mountain tunnel, going from Kaldbakfjordur to Kaliafjordur and a sub-sea tunnel under Vestmannasund, from the island of Streymoy to Vagar. Walk-on guides like Per Hansen chatted along the way about everything from geology to politics and the islands long cultural history shaped by a current mix of 70,000 sheep and 50,000 people.

Gasadalur Vagar Faroes

© Dennis Minty

Beyond Gásadalur, we wended our way back to Tórshavn via the Nordic longhouses at the town of Kvivik and various viewpoints, including Kaldbaksfjorour/Mjorkadalur and a commanding point of prospect overlooking the capital city itself.

On arrival back in centre-town, there was more choice. We could either be dropped off at the local art gallery (which turned out to be totally captivating) or at the Nordic House where a free live concert with Pierre Dørge & the New Jungle Orchestra (which included Tom Waits’ drummer from Copenhagen!) that absolutely engaged and reenergized everyone who attended. Because the ship remained alongside at the Tórshavn wharf until 23h00, the “blue jackets” were free to wander, shop, and sample the local Faroese culture and cuisine, many staying in town for dinner.

Kvivik Streymoy Faroes

© Dennis Minty

In the evening, there was different fare in the Nautilus Lounge brought to the ship by our new Faroese friend, Pál Weihe. A filmmaker had followed Pál for nearly five years as he had gone about his business a chief public health official in the Faroes. The result was a new film called “The Islands and the Whales,” a cinematic exploration of tradition versus health in the Faroes, focussing on the hunting and eating of sea birds and pilot whales, which are now, because of trophic magnification in a post-industrial world, causing mercury poisoning of the Faroese population. This was a beautiful film with some very tough-to-watch whale hunting scenes that raised a number of very significant global issues, which became the subject of many conversations that followed.

The beauty, of course, of ship-based adventures such as this North Atlantic Saga, is that everyone is free to follow-up with onboard presenters at meals, at quiet times on deck and in other reflective moments in the schedule that the Adventure Canada style of programming provides.

Day 6 – Tuesday, June 26


Gjógv is located on the western side of the Faroes on the northeastern tip of the island of Fysturoy and, with the winds that persist, is of great interest to us because it is one of the best natural harbours in the Faroes. The place is small but steeped in history. Apparently, a stone has been found covered with thirteenth-century runes that indicated that the Viking Torkil Onundarson was the first to settle in this area. And the rune stone itself is on display in the picturesque village church.

Among other claims to fame, this Faroese town, population 50, has been home to fishing and fishing related industry since at least 1584 and, when that activities started to wane in the 1980s, Gjógv became the site of a factory producing prefabricated concrete elements, the only one of its kind in the Faroes.

Fugafjordur faroe

© Dennis Minty

But, once again adapting to winds and heavy seas, our day began with a bus to Tórshavn and to reposition the ship at Gjógv for the end of the day. The day’s excursion was a full one. Four buses with the same stops but in different orders to minimize crowding. We began at Fugafjør∂ur, meaning the fjord of the birds, population 500, where fishing factories dominated the shoreline.

Next, to Duvagar∂ur Farm House, sites of an ancient Viking installation where the stone stalls in the original byre at one end of the house indicated just how small cattle were in the early days. In Oyrabakki over coffee and lunch, we experienced the ‘bridge of the Atlantic’ linking Eysturoy with Streymoy over Sundini Fjord.

Saksun Streymoy Faroes

And, true to the “adaptive nature” of Adventure Programming, instead of finishing the excursion ending, as planned, at the small natural harbour at Gjógv (because of high winds and swell), the ship was repositioned to Funningur where, according to the Faroes Saga, was the first Viking settlement in Faroe, founded by Viking Grimur Kamban in 825 BC.

Then, aboard ship, we sailed by Risin og Kjellingin, “The Giant and Hag,” two massive basaltic stacks that are said to be two trolls who tried to move the Faroe Islands toward Iceland but they were caught by the rising sun and turned to stone.

Giant and Hag Eysturoy Faroes

© Dennis Minty

In the evening, led by Viking Newland and a host of “corruptible” judges we had the “Most Efficient Viking Party Ever” wherein a totally heartening number of us dressed up, both with costumes brought from home and/or made and with costumes from the Adventure Canada “Tickle Trunks.” And, when everyone was dressed and ready to party, a surprising number of folk chose to stand up on stage and say who they were, some with Viking language (or so you’d think) utterances and some (one in particular) with excellent historical research. This was won by an inventive couple from Florida who presented as “Leif the Lost and Wench” … no names here because … some things that happen on ships should probably stay on ships.

Day 7 – Wednesday, June 27


This was our forth and last day on the Faroe Islands. Our next destination was Runavík, on the southern tip of Eysturoy (Eastern Island). It was an early start today (early-bird brekky at 05h30). When some of us groaned a little at the news of a foreshortened sleep, Expedition Leader MJ came back without missing a beat, saying, “You paid a lot of money to be here. Don’t you want to get the best possible value that you can while you’re with us?”

Runavik Eysturoy Faroes

© Dennis Minty

It was just an eight-minute Zodiac run from our anchorage to the jetty on this, Faroes’ third largest (and longest) community, spread out along the coast of Skalafjørdur. On the way in, we passed Russian trawlers in port and lots of other fishing vessels. Here, we had a variety of hiking options, including a long and medium hike on paths surrounding a freshwater lake just outside of town, and themed hikes for people who wanted more intensive exploration of birds, rocks, plants, and photography. A couple of hours of hikes here were followed by time to shop on the longest main street in the Faroes. One of the most popular spots here was the Faroe Tourist office with ample clean washrooms and speedy Wi-Fi.


© Dennis Minty

The plan for the afternoon was a couple of presentations by Dr. Pál Weihe on “Oceanic Pollution and Children’s Health in the Faroe Islands” and “The Geology of Iceland” with our onboard geologist, David Edwards. When we set sail to start making our way toward the west, and to Iceland, the captain navigated a ship cruise of the Vestmanna Cliffs as we made our way through Vestmannasund, separating Vagar and Streymoy, pointing out that this was where we tried unsuccessfully to go by smaller ship on our bus outing a couple of days ago. This track offered our last views of the Faroes but under broody clouds interspersed with moments of brilliant evening light, the unique Faroe land and seascapes never looked better.

Day 8 – Thursday, June 28

At Sea

It is about three hundred nautical miles from the westernmost tip of the Faroe Islands to the easternmost extent of Iceland. After our last looks at the Faroes about 16h00 yesterday, the captain swung the ship around to 270° and started steaming for Iceland. All night and all day today we will be making sea miles to get us to the site of our first landing in Iceland by breakfast time tomorrow.

Western Cliffs of Streymoy Faroes

© Dennis Minty

It was a day of amazing presentations, varied and expertly delivered by a diversity of expedition team member voices: “Unn and Gudrid: Viking Women Explorers” with explorer, Milbry Polk; “A Primer on Marine Mammals of the Region” with marine biologist Pierre Richard; “Seal and Selkie Traditions of the North” with folklorist Lizanne Henderson; “Documenting the Adventure Experience” with JR and then a series of concurrent workshops that included “Developing Your Photographic Eye” with naturalist and photographer, Dennis Minty, “Journal Keeping” with writer JR, and “Talking Future Trips” with Adventure Canada’s own Martin Aldrich. And, after a break for tea, David Edwards rang in with an introductory exploration of “The Geology of Iceland” and then Klaus wowed the crowd with an incredibly well-researched story of “Arab Pirate Attacks on Iceland.”

Northern Fulmar

© Dennis Minty

And, if the day couldn’t get any more diverse or draw more deeply on the team's talents, at 18h00 Host David Newland convened a showcase of Adventure Canada musical talent that included contributions from Lizanne, JR, Mike Strizic, Ella Swan, Newland himself, Pete Ewins and a couple of ensemble numbers with the whole group … not including Tyler Yarema, who has been holding the ship together musically since day one of this cruise.

Then, after dinner, it was the “best ever” whisky-label contest with the three young explorers winning with their spectacular label and description for a cheeky young whisky called “Maybe” that won them a bottle of single malt—first prize in a very tough competition vying for another series of extremely valuable prizes like cans of out-of-date mushy peas and other dodgy items that clearly have been won before, put into the lost and found, and used again for prizes.

Day 9 – Friday, June 29

Heimaey & Surtsey Island, Iceland

We found ourselves in Iceland with an impressive arrival at Heimaey (meaning “Hill of Fire”) Harbour here on the main island of the Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Group) off southeastern Iceland. This is a very young geological place, and we were reminded of that this morning as we came into a harbour which used to be eight hundred metres wide but which is now less than half of that because of a relatively recent (1972) volcanic eruption.

So today was blessed with thick fog with a generous spattering rain and wind but in spite of all of that everyone got a quite powerful sense of the power of the volcanoes here have been and how recent the volcanic has been. Over the journey so far, we’ve talked of millions, hundreds of millions of years prior to now, of events happening in time unfathomable. But here in Vestmannaeyjar, the formative geological activity happened five minutes ago, relatively speaking!

Heimaey Vestmann Islands Iceland

© Dennis Minty

With such tight maneuvering to get into Heimaey harbour, this in itself was a seriously fun spectator sport. We picked up a pilot at 07h30 outside of the harbour, as always, but anyone who looked out the Polaris dining room window were perhaps shocked by the fact that there was rock about ten metres outside of the starboard windows! Ouch! This is not something that you want to see when you’re on a ship.

The show got better. At the narrowest point of the harbour mouth, the ship slowed and we came to a stop and with that started turning slowly to starboard. For those standing on the stern deck outside the Nautilus Lounge, it looked like the bow would be scraping the porous rock on the cliffs that surrounded the harbour mouth. Slowly, we turned 180° and then, if you please, backed into the only available slip in the inner harbour. It was a pretty amazing feat of navigation, even with a little wind blowing that must have made the manoeuvre even more delicate.

Heimaey Vestmann Islands Iceland

© Dennis Minty

This experiential introduction to volcanism in the narrowing of the harbour mouth is a perfect setup for the day’s activities, which included a morning bus tour to some of the local sites and a Zodiac cruise of the cliffs and caves along the Heimaey Harbour.

The Zodiac cruise, in this same fog, which had thickened at sea level before we put eighteen boats in the water, was moody in the extreme and set a most engaging tone for coastal exploration. The young volcanic cliffs here in Vestmannaeyjar with their birds, eroded “Face of God” sculpted rock configurations, and crazy-form caves were spectacular and captivated everyone who braved the elements. Enthusiastic reports of the outing that were filtering in to the coffee station in the Compass Lounge as cruisers re-embarked the ship.

By the time the captain let go the lines and started making his way back out through the narrow neck of Heimaey Harbour, visibility had decreased with even thicker low cloud and rain. MJ took the precaution of warning those with high hopes of seeing Surtsey, a volcanic island created out of the sea in November of 1963.

Day 10 – Saturday, June 30

Southern Iceland

We aome alongside at Keflavík Harbour and embarked on a day-long exploration of southern Iceland with stops at Strandarkirkja (Sailor’s Church) on Engilsvík (Angel Bay) and two very different waterfalls, including the spectacular sixty-metre Skógafoss, where intrepid adventurers could actually step out of the rain and hike behind the cascade. The most generative stop of the day for many was Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach, voted some years ago as one of the world’s finest non-tropical beaches. Here, as in the Westmann Islands, we could actually see, touch and feel the depths of Icelandic geology, history, and mythology. For those aboard one of the tour coaches, an added sparkle to the day’s peregrinations was their driver, who produced a guitar from under his seat and strummed and sang the Icelandic national anthem and a couple of other songs along the way (while the bus was stopped).

Seljalandsfoss Iceland 1

© Dennis Minty

While we were bus touring an appreciating the beauty and diversity of the Icelandic landscape, the captain repositioned the ship from Keflavík to Reykjavík Harbour. This allowed everyone to appreciate Iceland’s capital city by road, meandering through the municipality of 125,000 people, getting sense of what urban Iceland looks and feels like, eventually picking out the polar bear on the stack of the Ocean Endeavour sticking up through the masts and superstructures of working vessels tied up in the inner harbour just beyond the iconic Harpa concert hall.

Seljalandsfoss Iceland 2

© Dennis Minty

And with re-embarkation came the bittersweet realization that all good things must come to an end. Late afternoon, MJ’s mandatory final disembarkation briefing. And tonight, the Captain’s farewell reception, dinner, and a pub night with Tyler and friends in the Nautilus Lounge, and packing as everyone—each in our own way—began sifting, sorting, and savouring the highlights of a whirlwind journey through time and space in the vastness of the north Atlantic Ocean.

Day 11 – Sunday, July 1

Reykjavík, The End of the Line

Just as we all came to this expedition in fits and starts, some arriving directly from home, others meandering their way onto the ship through other touristic itineraries, as we say farewell on the wharf in Reykjavík, some are bussing directly back to Keflavík for immediate departure while others are settling in to harbourside B&Bs or picking up rental cars for further Icelandic explorations. But no matter what happens, or where we might go in the future, it is these indelible ten days that bind us and, no matter when or where we will meet up again, it is the joys and intensities the colours and wonders of these shared experiences on this North Atlantic Saga that we will toast when next we raise a glass. Until then!

About the Author

James Raffan

James Raffan

Explorer and Author

James is a prolific writer, speaker, cultural geographer, and tireless advocate for the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario. He has produced twenty books and written for film, radio, and media outlets including Canadian Geographic, National Geographic, Explore, The Globe and Mail, as well as for CBC and The Discovery Channel.

In 2020, James was named by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society as one of the ninety most influential explorers in the nation’s recorded history. He owes a great debt to his travelling companions, particularly the Indigenous Peoples of the circumpolar world.

His latest book Ice Walker: A Polar Bear's Journey through the Fragile Arctic is available at Simon & Shuster's website.

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