Vancouver man on board U.S. Coast Guard ship on rescue mission

VANCOUVER, Wash. -- This is an international mission with a local love story.

Koda Harpole proposed to Katelyn Kirsch on the Benson Bridge in front of Multnomah Falls in June when he returned from boot camp for the U.S. Coast Guard.

His first major mission just a few months later: become a crew member on the Polar Star. It's a Seattle-based U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker that just completed a three-year, $90 million overhaul. The ship left in early December and was in route to Antarctica to restock other research ships, but it got called on last week to rescue two ships stuck in ice in Antarctica.

"That's one thing I asked him before he left, I said, 'Are you scared?' and he said, 'No,'" Kirsch said Monday while holding back tears. "He asked me why, and I said, 'I don't have to be scared then. If you're not scared, I don't have to be scared.'"

Kirsch is constantly checking her email inbox in case she'll hear from Harpole. Email is the only way they can communicate right now.

"If I have something super exciting happen, I can email him, but he might not be able to email me back for a couple days, so that's hard," she said.

While it's emotional for her to talk about, Kirsch recognizes the reason her fianc is gone. She knows they are helping people.

"I'm so proud of him and all those men and women on [the Polar Star], they're so strong," she said.

Koda Harpole is scheduled to return to the U.S. in April and the two hope to get married in their hometown of Vancouver in November.

The Polar Star, which is nearly 400 feet long and can break through two stories of ice. It is expected to reach the stranded ships this week.

The Russian research ship Akademik Shokalskiy has been trapped in ice-clogged Commonwealth Bay since Christmas Eve, while the Chinese ship which came to its rescue, Xue Long or Snow Dragon in Chinese, reported on Friday it too had become stuck nearby.

A day earlier, the Chinese ship's helicopter had retrieved from the Russian ship 52 scientists, journalists and tourists who are now on their way home aboard an Australian icebreaker, Aurora Australis.

Authorities say the 101 crew aboard the Chinese ship and 22 aboard the Russian ship were well provisioned and in no immediate danger.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.