Sailing North into the Arctic Ocean

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Europe » Svalbard » Nordaustlandet
September 19th 2009
Published: March 26th 2016
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I took in a deep breath, smiling as the icy air shot into my lungs and filled my body with a strong sense of being alive. It was still technically summertime, yet the multiple layers of fleece and nylon I was wearing did little to cut the Arctic chill. I looked down to my small backpack and hoped that I had brought enough clothing to stay warm. From my vantage point on the tourist dock I watched the infrequent boating traffic go by on the fjord. Each time I saw a new boat rise up out of the distant horizon I got excited, only to be let down when the small dot turned into a large fishing boat or a research vessel. Just as I began to wonder if my boat was going to show up, I spotted her tall profile rounding a large fishing boat that was moored nearby. Three tall masts rose up out of her lovely turquoise hull, several square sails hung from the yards on the fore mast, and a web of ropes and lines tied them all together. I watched in awe as the tall ship from my dreams approached the quay and came to a stop. The name Antigua was painted on the bow in big white letters – My ride had arrived!

The crew got to work unloading the garbage from the previous voyage, so I went to help and to introduce myself. When we finished with the garbage they welcomed me aboard and showed me to my cabin, a cozy two bunk room called Tortola. I spent the next half hour settling into my room, which was fittingly named after a Caribbean island that had once been the haunt of famous pirates, and then I headed up to explore the ship.

The Antigua was built in 1957 as a fishing boat. It was converted to a three-masted barkentine in 1997 and its turquoise hull had plied the oceans around Europe and the Caribbean ever since. Its foremast was rigged with square sails, much like the foremast on the bark Europa, on which I had sailed across the southern ocean a few years before, but, unlike the Europa, the mainmast and the mizzenmast had large fore-aft sails on massive booms. The wheelhouse sat on the elevated poop deck and below it, occupying the entire rear portion of the ship, was the well-appointed dining area and lounge, which was decorated with wood and nautical décor. The mizzenmast passed through the center of the lounge and there was a giant poster taped to it explaining the dos and don’ts regarding traveling amongst ice bears – It was a sobering thought that we would be walking amongst them in the coming days!

I was the first passenger to arrive, so I waited on deck as the crew got everything ready for the voyage. While I waited, I re-familiarized myself with all of the different lines and traced out the rigging. By the time everyone had arrived and it was time to set sail I knew what each line did and where they were located on the pin rails. When I signed up for the voyage I was assured that I would be able to go aloft and help with the sail handling up there, but all of the sails were hanging loose on their yards, none of them had been furled from the previous voyage. I asked the crew when they would be doing the training for going aloft and they said they wouldn’t permit us up into the rigging! We all gathered in the lounge and the captain introduced the crew, which outnumbered the passengers, and then spent a long time talking about safety and how the ship would be run. He was clear that the extent of our participation in sailing the ship would be pulling on the ropes. There would be no time at the helm, no late night watches, no furling of the sails – We were not voyage crew, like we had been on the Europa. We were simply passengers - I was crushed! My favorite place on the Europa had been up on the royal yard near the top of her masts and it was off limits on the Antigua!

I did my best to accept my position on the ship and look at the bright side. There were benefits of being a rope-tugging passenger. I didn’t have to take part in the watch system, which meant I could get all the sleep I needed. Of course, I had enjoyed the watches and the camaraderie that went along with sailing a tall ship at all hours of the day and night. Ultimately it was the stunning landscape we were in and the pleasant people aboard that calmed my disappointment, but I never stopped looking longingly up the masts.

We gathered on deck as we pulled away from the quay in Longyearbyn and we watched as the cute little town receded in our fantail. We motored along the coast for a while, passing the mining town of Barentsburg in the distance off our port rail. As darkness was setting in we turned out of Ice fjord and headed north on a course that would take us between the main Spitsbergen Island and the long, narrow island of Prince Karl’s Forland. After several hours scanning the sea for wildlife, we had spotted several interesting birds, including Fulmars, Glaucous gulls, Arctic terns, and a lone Black Guillemot, but the Arctic’s famous whales and walruses remained out of sight. Once the darkness made wildlife viewing difficult, we gathered in the lounge for our first meal onboard.

The food was laid out cafeteria style with salad and bread and a beautiful pan of beef lasagna. We gathered around the three tables and got to know each other. Of the nine passengers, I was the only native English speaker, everyone else being from Germany, Holland, and Norway. The conversations ran on in German and Dutch, and occasionally in Russian, but everyone was good about pausing to translate for me. After dinner, I sat with a cup of tea and got caught up in my journal, and reviewed the photos I had taken that day. Later, I walked out on deck and scanned the sky for auroras, but the sky was still a little too bright. Eventually, I headed back down to my cabin and drifted off to polar dreams.

I woke up refreshed and feeling great. The view from my porthole was of bright blue skies and icy mountains. We were still motoring northward toward our day’s first stop at Ny Ålesund, so grabbed a cup of coffee in the lounge and headed out on deck to take in the beautiful morning. All of the hills and mountains were covered in new snow from the snowstorm that had blown through Longyearbyn a few days before, only it looked like it had been more intense up north. It felt good to be back in the polar realm. It was a place where the landscape was painted blue. From the bright blue sky and the inky-blue sea to the blue-tinted snow and ice that blanketed the land – The polar regions of earth were some of the most colorful places I had traveled!

At breakfast our guides filled us in on our day’s explorations and explained the importance of staying together and keeping a close eye on the surrounding landscape for the ever-present and extremely dangerous ice bear, as polar bears were known in Scandinavia. After breakfast we all gather on deck as we turned east into Kongsfjord. The cloud-draped peaks of the Three Crowns rose up in the distance and accented the majestic landscape of jagged peaks and glaciers across the fjord. The fresh snow along the shore made wildlife spotting difficult, but we all scanned the landscape for our first view of the archipelago’s most famous resident. Eventually signs of civilization became apparent on the southern shore. First it was communications antennas and then the small airport and, finally, the small collection of colorful buildings that made up Ny Ålesund. It was approaching lunchtime when we tied up to the snowy quay and went out to explore the area.

Ny Ålesund was considered the northern-most town in the world, though a few other settlements are a bit closer to the pole. It was the only settlement on Spitsbergen to avoid the bombardment of the German Navy during World War II. Because of that several of the buildings were old enough to have greeted explorers such as Amundsen, Ellsworth and Nobile on their polar explorations. Ny Ålesund started as a coal mining operation before a mining accident shut the place down in 1963. In the ‘80s the town started its new life as a scientific research station. Now the place is almost exclusively dedicated to research with ten nations maintaining a presence.

Ny Ålesund’s other industry was tourism. The most common way to see Svalbard is on a cruise and most of them include a stop at the town’s ‘northern-most’ post office and shop. We were no exception. A representative of the town met us at the dock. We were told that the shop and post office and museum would be opening in 5 minutes and would remain open for an hour. We walked up the ramp from the quay and headed straight for a picturesque building with an ancient steam locomotive sitting out front. The locomotive, which was left over from the coal mining days, had been restored and put on display with several antique coal cars on a short section of track to maintain its ‘northern-most railroad’ designation. It was beautiful sitting there on a bed of freshly fallen snow, with the blue waters of the fjord and the deep blue sky above!

Our guides gave us half an hour to roam around town, buy souvenirs and send postcards home. Afterwards we gathered in the center of town near a giant memorial bust of Roald Amundsen, who disappeared in the ocean between the Norwegian coast and Svalbard on a rescue mission in 1928, and then we set off to explore a few sites just outside of town. We walked past the Chinese research station with its two beautiful marble guardian lions and then we headed out of town. Our destination was a giant metal tower that resembled an old-fashion oil well. With each step, our boots crunched through the thin crust that had formed over the new snow. Our path took us along the shore for a long way. The two guides had their rifles over their shoulders and their binoculars in their hands, occasionally pausing to scan the area for bears. One of the guides let out a quiet whistle to alert us to the presence a few reindeer that were grazing on the slopes of the nearby mountain – They were our first large wildlife sighting for the trip. We continued toward the tower following the footprints of an arctic fox that had passed a few hours before. We paused at a memorial dedicated to Amundsen and Ellsworth’s failed first attempt to fly to the pole and another dedicated to Umberto Nobile, who designed the airship Norge.

When we reached the tower our guides explained how it had been constructed in 1926 as part of the ‘Norge’ expedition. It was the mooring tower for the dirigible Norge, which Amundsen, Ellsworth and Nobile flew from Europe to America, becoming the first people to officially reach the North Pole – Amundsen had been the first to reach the South Pole in 1911, so that feat made him the first explorer to reach both poles!

We retraced our route back to town and then we spent a few more minutes walking amongst the building. Our grumbling stomachs eventually led us back to the Antigua and our waiting lunch. We said farewell to Ny Ålesund and the remnants of the heroic age of exploration and we continued with our voyage. While we ate the captain moved the ship across the fjord to a small island called Blomstrandhalvøya where a failed marble mining operation called Ny-London had been situated. After lunch we loaded into the zodiacs for our first shore landing on a wild coast. The guides scanned the shore for any signs of ice bears and then gave us the go-ahead to land on the rocky shore. Once everyone had landed we started exploring.

An Englishman named Ernest Mansfield founded Ny-London in 1911 to supply high-quality marble to England. He spent a lot of money building infrastructure and developing what he and many other experts thought would be the finest marble mine in the world, only to discover that the marble was so fractured due to the harsh, Arctic climate that the blocks deteriorated quickly and crumbled to powder. They tried to run the mine until World War I and then they stopped production. In around 1920 the mine was abandoned and most of the equipment and houses were moved elsewhere. What remained of Ny-London was an interesting collection of rusting industrial equipment, mostly scattered haphazardly across the landscape. Most of the buildings were in an unrecognizable state of ruin, though the residents of Ny Ålesund have maintained a few of the old houses at Camp Mansfield as cabins. We walked among the ruins for about an hour. Other than the cute cabins at the camp, the giant steam crane that sat on a lonely section of rail up on a hill was the most striking and recognizable feature of the mine.

After we explored the ruins we took a long walk across the snowy tundra. We had two curious reindeer come up close and we watched them for a while. The path we followed took us over a frozen stream that was fed by a frozen waterfall. The water was flowing behind the ice, which made for an interesting sight. Eventually we climbed up a large hill on the island were we got sweeping views of the fjord, the huge glaciers, and Ny Ålesund. The beautiful Antigua sat at anchor just off of the beach at Camp Mansfield imparting a timeless beauty to the scene. When we had seen all there was to see we headed back down to the beach where the zodiac was waiting. Back on the Antigua we got cleaned up in our cabins and then gathered in the lounge to go through our pictures from the day’s adventures. At around 6:00pm we raised the anchor and sailed back out of Kongsfjord. Dinner was served shortly after and it was amazing as usual. After dinner, we all gathered on deck to watch the colorful Arctic sunset. The huge cloud formations told of big storms to come, but we were in the Arctic, where such things were expected!

We sailed north through the night. We were headed to the remains of a seventeenth century whaling settlement called Smeerenburg, located on Amsterdam Island in the extreme north-west corner of Spitzbergen. I slept well during the voyage. At around 3:00am I was shocked awake by the rattle of the anchor chain. A short time later the engines shut off and all was silent again. When I walked out on deck before breakfast I was greeted by a hazy, extremely cold morning. The harbor we were anchored in felt remote and far from civilizations, yet in the 1630s there was a thriving Dutch whaling station there with up to 400 ships in the harbor.

Smeerenburg was a storied place in its day. Several writers, most famously Herman Melville in Moby Dick, have talked of its grandeur, but the reality was much less romantic. The Dutch settled Smeerenburg as a summer whaling camp in 1614 with canvas tents and simple blubber ovens. The camp was reestablished in three of the four following years and then in 1619 a giant ship showed up with building materials and they constructed a permanent settlement with giant copper blubber ovens. By 1630, in Smeerenburg’s heyday, there were seventeen buildings, including a central fort, all connected by cobbled streets with drainage ditches. There were seven double blubber ovens and as many as 200 men working ashore boiling the blubber down to oil and putting it in casks. By the 1640s whaling operations changed significantly rendering Smeerenburg’s ovens obsolete. The fabled arctic town was abandoned and the relentless march of the centuries slowly erased it from the landscape.

At breakfast we were told to eat well and then to wear warm clothes – The temperature was dropping quickly. We took a short ride in the zodiacs to the beach and then we started our exploration of Smeerenburg. As our guides gathered us together on the beach and explained the ruins and what the place had been, somebody pointed out into the water and said, “What is that?” We all looked where she was pointing and let out a chorus of, “Walrus!” The walrus was bigger than I had imagined and he was close to shore, allowing us excellent views of his large ivory tusks. I was excited. The animal I wanted to see most on the voyage was the walrus and at the start of my second full day on the ship that dream was fulfilled!

We watched the walrus swim away into the sound and then we turned our attentions back to Smeerenburg. Three and a half centuries of Arctic climate had done its job well. There were no signs of the buildings, other than a few scattered posts and boards, or of the cobblestoned streets. The ovens were completely gone as well, though their outline remained in the form of short walls of sand, which had been cemented together by spilled whale oil. It was amazing to see how quickly a town could be wiped off of the earth! There wasn’t a lot to see of Smeerenburg, so we left the ruins and walked along the shore of the island for a while. The landscape was sparsely populated with wildlife, but we managed to see Eider ducks, a lone harbor seal, arctic skuas, which resembled their Antarctic brethren, and some snow buntings. We played on a frozen lake and we watched large chunks of ice bob up and down in the gentle surf.

The haze on the sound started to burn off with the coming of the sun and it made for an amazing vista of the mountains on the mainland. We walked across the rocky tundra to a large monument and burial ground dedicated to the whalers who lost their lives when Smeerenburg was in operation. We stood in silence at the monument. All was quiet except for the gentle wisp of the wind and the lonesome song of an Arctic tern that flew past us. Near the monument we found two boney toes of an ice bear with the claws still on them. That was proof enough for us to know that the bears could be anywhere, even on the tiny island we were on. We continued walking out to the far shore of the island where we found a large, completely unexpected, logjam of dead trees tangled up on the beach. Our guides explained that the trees likely came from Siberia and that they could have been there for hundreds of years. Looking past the sun-bleached trees I could see the boundless horizon of the Greenland Sea. There was nothing separating us from the wild coast of Greenland five hundred miles away.

We walked back to Smeerenburg following a different rout across the tundra. Along the way we spotted a herd of reindeer, but they spotted us and ran away. Back at the beach, we took one last look around the ruins and then the zodiac whisked us away, but not to the Antigua. Instead we motored across the sound to a tiny chunk of land called Virgohamna on the shore of Danskøya, a large island just off of Svalbard. Virgohamna was first settled in the 1630s as a Danish whaling station. Later, Virgohamna was the starting point for Swedish explorer Soloman A. Andre’s balloon expeditions in 1896 and 1897. Andre’s journey to the pole ended in disaster when weather forced his balloon down on the pack ice. After months wandering on the ice, the explorers perished on the island of Kvitøya in the far northeast of Spitsbergen. Andre build a few structures at Virgohamna, including a massive balloon hanger, most of which was dismantled and used as building materials for later expeditions. After Andre came and American named Walter Wellman. He built a giant airship hanger on the site in 1906, but he, too, failed to reach the pole. Most of the ruins at Virgohamna are remains from Wellman’s expedition. The large hangar collapsed long ago, but its timbers were lying in neat piles all over the site. Virgohamna was littered with old rusting drums and industrial waste from the expeditions, which imparted an even more surreal feel to the place than it did at Ny-London – It was amazing to think that Virgohamna was such an important center of activity during the heroic age of exploration, yet the whole place seemed lonely and forlorn. Virgohamna had one other claim to fame – There was the foundation of a house that had been built by Svalbard’s first eco-tourist, a man by the name of Pike, who went to that remote place to see the seasons change and to hunt ice bears! Virgohamna was a powerful place and I am glad that we got to see it – It was rumored that it, like Smeerenburg and many of the other historic sites in the archipelago, would soon be off limits to tourists making us one of the last groups to trod their fabled shores!

Back on the Antigua, we got cleaned up and then met in the lounge for lunch. Meanwhile, the crew raised the anchors and got us underway. The sunset the night before had told us that we would likely be getting some interesting weather and the fog and mist that was rolling in quickly, confirming our suspicions. Because of the weather we reluctantly sailed past the whaling station and high lookout on Yter Norskøya and went straight to Sallyhamna, where we planned on riding out the storm.

Snow was already falling and accumulating on the deck when we pulled into the small bay at Sallyhamna. Everyone was scanning the snowy slopes. It didn’t take long before we found our first bear. At first it looked like a small patch of yellow snow, but, as we got closer, it took on the form of a sleeping ice bear. The noise from the ships motor woke the bear from its nap and we stood on deck and watched as it stretched and yawned and finally stood up and walked away. Everyone was excited. It was an amazing first sighting of an ice bear, but none of us could believe what was to come next!

The captain, having been in Sallyhamna less than a week before, had a surprise for us. He motored the Antigua over to a small alcove near the mouth of the bay and then he backed the ship as close as he could get it to the rocky shore. We didn’t see it at first, so one of the guides pointed out the massive whale carcass that was grounded on the shore. There was a gaping, gore-filled hole in the carcass and glaucous gulls were tearing into its flesh. It was clear that the birds had not created the giant hole in the whale, so it was no surprise when the bears started arriving. The Antigua’s anchors were set so that the stern of the ship was close enough to the whale that we could watch the action without the help of the binoculars. The captain shut off the motors and the boundless arctic silence filled the air. The snow intensified until we had a full on blizzard raging around us. The captain had chosen our safe harbor well, because large mountains surrounded Sallyhamna and there was little wind.

With the anchor set and the motors off, all that was left to do was to watch the feast, and what a show it was. It started with a lone bear of massive proportions walking up over a small ridge and down to the shore. His snout was a pinkish-red color – It was clear that he had been gorging himself for days! He walked over to where the gulls were picking at the carcass and did a mock charge to scare them away. After a while more bears showed up until there were five ice bears sitting around the carcass ripping out mouthfuls of whale flesh. There was so much food that the bears didn’t mind sharing, though there were occasional disagreements. At one point the booming roar of two bears shattered the whisper of the falling snow in a spine-tingling explosion of primeval rage that I will never forget. The excitement ended in the two bears forgetting about their differences and taking another bite of whale, but it was exciting! We spent the rest of the evening watching the bears and playing in the thick snow that was piling up on deck and in the rigging. The gulls and bears were constantly present at the whale, but we also had a visit by a small, blue-phase arctic fox, but the bears seemed to be too much for it and it took a mouthful and ran off. Sallyhamna was a magical place to ride out an arctic snowstorm with a bunch of ice bears! After dinner the wind picked up and the storm intensified even more. I bundled up and went out on deck and let the storm rage around me. The feel of the cold wind and the pelting snow on my face has always been one of my favorite feelings and the Arctic did not disappoint! Eventually darkness moved in and the final two bears went off to find a place to sleep, so I did the same, but I knew that the bears would be back the following morning!

That night I was visited by one of my favorite polar phenomenon – Extremely vivid dreams! First, I was helping my brother out at a shop he worked at that sold strange vehicles. I was helping him move a monster truck he was trying to sell, but somebody had stolen the steering wheel. He decided to move it anyway with disastrous results – He crushed all of the other cars at the shop and then crashed the truck into a giant crane like the one I had seen as Ny-London. He wasn’t hurt, but it had been a costly little adventure! The second dream was even more vivid than the first. My girlfriend Maria and I were on a long road trip driving along Georgia Historic Route 44, a road that I am sure doesn’t exist, and we were exploring all of the amazing industrial towns and factories, which also don’t exist, along the way! Every detail of the towns and the road was as clear as if I was watching it on a movie screen. I have always marveled at the supper-vivid dreams that I have when I am close to the poles. I have talked to several other people that have had them as well, which makes me think that there is something happening in the polar regions that isn’t present in the lower latitudes – Perhaps the same energy that releases the photons in auroras sends our brains into overdrive when we sleep?

I was up by 6:00 the next morning. I grabbed a cup of coffee and walked out into a winter wonderland on the deck. Everything on the ship was blanketed in white fluffy snow several inches deep and there was a new crew member standing watch right in the center – His name was Frosty the snowman! I walked to the stern and looked out on an impressive sight. There were nine bears tearing into the dead whale and enjoying their morning feast. The show got even better when two of the bears walked away from the whale and decided to go for a swim. They frolicked in the glassy calm waters of the bay, showing off just how capable they were in the water. Eventually it became clear that the two swimming bears were playing a game that I named ‘Break the Iceberg’, in which they chased each other from one floating sheet of ice to another, using their weight to break the ice into small chunks. The game brought them close to the Antigua a few times and it was clear that they were having a lot of fun. I watched all of the ice bears for several hours, pausing for a while to eat breakfast. Near the end of our meal one of the crew ran in and said the bears were right beside the boat. The lounge cleared and we watched the two bears as they swam less than fifty feet away – It was a great show! By the time we left Sallyhamna we had seen as many as eleven bears at once. Our time in Dead Whale Bay, as I called the place in my journal, was the best ice bear encounter any of us could have hoped for!

We spent the rest of the morning motoring our way north toward Moffen Island. The ocean was choppy and cold and the wind was in our face, but the scenery was amazing. We crossed 80° north latitude at around 2:00 in the afternoon. We had all hoped to heave-to and go for a swim in the Arctic Ocean, but the Captain felt that the water was too cold and the wind too strong to stop. King Neptune still paid us a visit on deck in a strange little ceremony where we were all baptized in the Arctic Ocean – The first Mate dressed as King Neptune and dumped freezing cupfuls of water out of the ocean on our heads! I was fairly disappointed that we didn’t get to swim, because the Arctic Ocean was the only one I had not swam in, but I still had fun with the ceremony. After the ceremony I spotted another tall ship off of our port rail. It was a schooner with a red hull, so I suspected it was the Noorderlicht (Northern Lights), another Dutch ship like the Antigua. I knew of the ship because Gert, the first mate on the bark Europa during my voyage across the Southern Ocean, said he owned it and I had originally looked into sailing with them, but the voyages were sold out.

The Captain confirmed that it was the Noorderlicht and that they would be joining us on Moffen Island. It was fun seeing another tall ship out there and sailing with it (though their sails were down, too). We sailed together for about half an hour before we spotted the low, gravelly profile of Moffen Island in front of us. We dropped our anchor and shut the motors down, but instead of silence we heard strange noises coming from the island. Through the binoculars we could make out several large, brown animals huddled in a group on the snowy shore and we knew we were looking at Moffen’s most famous residents – Walruses!

Moffen Island was a nature reserve just north of the main island of Spitsbergen. Our guides told us that it was strictly forbidden to approach the island or land on it for most of the year, since it was the main haul-out location for Atlantic Walrus in that part of Svalbard. With a smile, he then told us that the end of the forbidden period coincided with the beginning of our voyage and that we were some of the lucky few that would be allowed to land. He then explained the rules we had to abide by while on the island, including staying a safe distance from the colony and not disturbing the colony in any way, including talking. To lessen our impact we landed with the passengers from the Noorderlicht and we toured the island together.

We disembarked on the dark, pebbly shore well away from the colony. A few walruses surprised us by swimming up to the zodiac as we were landing. They followed us on to the shore and inquisitively looked our way. We gave them plenty of room, mainly because they were enormous and well armed, but there were no problems. Eventually they returned to the water and continued swimming. We turned our attention to the big colony and to the island itself. The wave action kept a small band of pebbly sand along the shore snow free, but the rest of the featureless, low island was blanketed in fresh, powdery snow, which imparted a lovely Arctic feel to the place. We walked in a group toward the colony, being careful to stay down wind of them. Even with the required minimum distance, we were able to get quite close to the massive pile of walruses and they didn’t seem to mind that we were there. We stood and watched them sleep, and play, and fight amongst themselves. They wielded their massive ivory tusks like twin sabers, swinging and stabbing with them, though their opponent’s two inch thick hides were more than enough protection, so little damage was done. The noises we heard when we were on the ship ended up being flatulence of an epic proportion – The reverberating burps and farts coming from the colony were impressive! After about half an hour we slowly made our way back to the beach. We got in the zodiac and headed back to the Antigua, getting another wonderful close encounter with swimming walruses along the way. Our adventure on Moffen Island was short, but amazing. My dream of seeing a large group of walruses had been fulfilled and then some! We said farewell to the Noorderlicht, who turned southward, and continued motoring our way to the east toward the Hinlopen Strait.

We sailed through the night. We gathered in the lounge after dinner and watched a video, in Russian, about a German weather station on Nordaustlandet, the large island northeast of Spitsbergen Island. It was the last place to surrender during World War II and it hadn’t been visited much since, due to difficult ice conditions. We set our course for the station, located on the shores of Rijpfjord on the north side of Nordaustlandet, but late in the night the captain changed course, not trusting the ice conditions between the station and us. Instead, we sailed to another place on Nordaustlandet called Kinvika, just within the mouth of Hinlopenstretet. We dropped anchor in a calm harbor at around 4:30am.

I was up early the next morning. I grabbed a cup of coffee and walked out on deck where I was greeted by bright, sunny skies, a calm, blue bay and the most perfect Arctic vista imaginable – The gleaming white, snowy expanses of Nordaustlandet stretched away from us to the north. It was the second largest island in the Svalbard archipelago. As its name implied, it was located to the northeast of the main island, separated from it by the narrow, ice-clogged Hinlopenstretet. The bulk of the island was covered in a permanent icecap, but the snow we were seeing around us was covering one of the small portions of tundra that lined its western coast. The snowy expanse stretched unbroken to a distant ridge. To the right of the bay rose a small mountain named Konnberget and to the left, on a large, flat coastal plain, was a small research station for Finland, Sweden and Switzerland. The station was closed for the winter, which meant we were probably going to be the only people on Nordaustlandet that day. We quickly ate breakfast and geared up for a long cold walk and then we loaded into the zodiac and headed into shore.

We landed on a pebbly beach beside an odd, mushroom-shaped chunk of ice that had broken off of a glacier and grounded itself there. Just past the band of snowless beach there was about a foot of fresh snow. Other than a confused web of arctic fox tracks, there was no sign that anybody had been there since the big snow two nights before. The place felt very remote, despite the buildings of the station, and the landscape was forbidding and cold – Just how I liked it! We set our sights on the summit of Konnberget and we started walking. One of our guards walked in front of us, scanning the landscape for polar bears, and the other guard walked at the end of the line protecting the slower people in our group. Our route gently climbed up toward a ridge that would lead us to the summit. The cold wind had formed a frozen crust over the powdery snow making the going a bit tough. ‘Crunch’, ‘Crunch’, ‘Crunch’… Each step was a challenge as we sunk to our ankles, or deeper – Post-holing our way to the summit. Once we reached the ridge our path got steeper and the snow more compact. We had to kick our boots into the hard snow to gain footholds and even then we would often slide backwards a bit. Eventually the slope ended in blue sky and we walked out onto the highest point of the mountain, where we found a nice rock cairn marking the spot.

The wind was roaring around us and it was bitterly cold, but the view in every direction made us linger. The whole island stretched out around us. The icy expanses, the frozen, snow-covered tundra, the deep blue bay – It was an Arctic wonderland! From our vantage point about 600 feet above sea level, the beautiful Antigua looked like a toy ship on a vast ocean, but looks can be deceiving in the polar realm. We posed for pictures and enjoyed the views for as long as we could, but eventually we had to retreat from the wind.

We followed a different route back down the mountain. The landscape was rugged with lots of potential hiding places, so we walked slowly and scanned for bears. After about half an hour we turned between two large, rocky ridges that would lead us down to the research station and then we stopped in our tracks. Ahead of us was a small herd of reindeer digging through the snow looking for food. They were startled by our presence, but we were still and quiet and they eventually went back to grazing. We watched the reindeer for a while and then we pushed on to the station.

Kinvika was built in the 1960s as a Swedish-Finnish research/weather station. It was still in use, but our trip coincided with the start of the winter season and the station was abandoned. We cautiously approached the weatherworn, wooden buildings. Ice bears were a constant danger in the area and the buildings provided ample hiding places for them. We approached as a group and we slowly went from building to building. We found some relatively fresh polar bear tracks near the main building, which heightened our alert. After about ten minutes of walking around the buildings, we determined that there were no bears in the area, so we took a good look around. We entered the main building, which had an antiquated, heroic age of exploration feel to it, much like the historic huts near McMurdo Station in Antarctica. We looked around a bit, but we were respectful of the buildings and the materials inside and didn’t touch a thing. We then walked amongst the other buildings and antique equipment that was scattered about. It felt like the station had been abandoned for years. One piece of ruined equipment looked like it had once been an amphibious vehicle of some sort, but it didn’t appear to have been used since the 60s. One of our guides told us that the station had been plagued by ice bear attacks during the winter seasons, due to the darkness, so they stopped manning the station then – I don’t know if that is true, but being attacked by a polar bear during the remote winter would not be a good thing!

We said farewell to Kinnvika and we headed back to the beach. The waiting zodiac whisked us away to the Antigua and a much needed lunch. During lunch the captain moved the ship to an island out in the Murchisonfjord called Nordre Russøya. The island was famous for having an early settlement of Russian hunters called Pomors. We landed for a quick walk out to a cross that the Pomors had built on a hill to serve as a navigational aid and as a religious monument. The cross was more than three hundred years old, making it one of the oldest human relics in that part of Svalbard. We spent a long time on the island walking around and looking at things. We also found remnants of one of their hunting camps, where we found piles of reindeer and whalebones, including a large jaw bone from a fin or blue whale.

When we left Nordre Russøya we headed over to another island called Krossøya, where there was a second Pomor cross. Along the way we spotted a ship that the captain tried to contact – Eventually we discovered it was a research vessel. When we landed on Krossøya, I decided to leave my camera on the boat and, instead of viewing the island through the lens, I spent my time looking at the cross and playing in the deep snowdrifts. I also tried to start a snowball fight, though I got no takers. We watched the sun set from the shore of Krossøya and then we loaded into the zodiac for our ride back to the ship. The Pomor crosses and the islands they were on had an overwhelming feeling of forgotten history and of Arctic solitude – They were fun places to explore! Our day on Noraustlandet had been amazing, but we were all exhausted. When we got back to the Antigua we all collapsed in the lounge to write and go through our photos while we waited for dinner. Eventually we all headed back out on deck for some fresh air and bird watching.

After dinner the Captain gathered us all together and gave us some news on the ice conditions in the Hinlopenstretet. It was not good news. Our planned voyage was to sail around Spitsbergen Island, via the icy Hinlopenstretet and, eventually Edgeøya and then across the Barents Sea to the Norwegian coast. We all knew that we could run into some problems with drift ice in the straight and the Captain had been watching the situation closely. He gave us the latest satellite imagery, which showed a lot of ice with a few narrow channels of open water, and then he told us about a conversation he had had with the captain of the research vessel. He explained our options. One, we could continue on our planned route where we may get through the ice and sail on with no problems, but we could also be forced to turn around and be rushed for time to reach Tromsø and even worse, there was a chance we could get stuck in the drift ice for weeks or more – Option 1 was named the ice adventure. Option two was to turn around immediately and sail as quickly as we could south and around the southern tip of Spitsbergen to the island of Edgeøya – Option 2 meant we would not make any more landings on Spitsbergen and we would run the risk of not reaching Edgeøya in time and being forced to miss everything. Option 3 was to turn around and slowly sail southward stopping at all of the sites we had missed on the voyage northward – It was the safest option and one that guaranteed that we would see a lot more amazing places, but it was ordinary and removed all hope of us getting to the wild, eastern shore of Svalbard.

My heart was set on Option 1, the ice adventure, mainly because it was the most likely place to find the elusive narwhale, but I didn’t really like the idea of getting stuck in the ice and needing to be rescued. I liked the adventure of sailing into the unknown and the prospects of visiting the little known sites in eastern Svalbard, but I also knew that there would be amazing things to see on the western shore. We all cast our votes and the ice adventure won! The captain got the ship underway and we sailed off into the night. I stayed on deck for another hour taking in the searing cold and the crisp, icy air and then I went back to my cabin excited about the icy adventures to come...

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