Into the Land of the Ice Bear

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September 13th 2009
Published: March 20th 2016
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I have always been an insatiable dreamer. When I was young I would devour the pages of National Geographic Magazine as I accompanied the authors on grand adventures all over the world. In school, I was the kid that sat in the back of class blankly staring forward with a thousand mile gaze, daydreaming about being an explorer and sailing across the ocean to an unknown land. As the other kids studied English and math, or slept soundly at their desks I could be found in Antarctica, or the jungles of South America, or in Africa on some grand, but fictitious adventure. I often found myself plying the deck of a tall ship in the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean, surrounded by a boundless seascape of floating ice and strange animals. In my dreams I could feel the heaving of the ship’s deck beneath my feet and the icy touch of the wind on my face. There were always wild storms raging around me and the Aurora Borealis was constantly dancing overhead in amazing curtains of green. As an adult I have been fortunate enough to actually live and experience many of my childhood dreams, though not exactly as I dreamed them so long ago. From Antarctica to the Amazon, my travels have helped me paint a realistic image of the world outside of my dreams. It was finally time to add some reality to my dreams of the Arctic.

I chose the remote Svalbard Archipelago in the Norwegian Arctic for my icy adventure. Svalbard is considered my many to be the last true wilderness in Europe. The archipelago is located more than 400 miles to the north of the northern coast of Norway, between 74° and 81° North latitude. Despite its remoteness, Longyearbyn, the main town in Svalbard, is easily accessible from mainland Norway via a short flight from Oslo, or Tromsø. Longyearbyn is a dusty old mining town and relics from its industrial past dot the steep hillsides around town. More recently, Longyearbyn garnered some fame by opening the much-talked-about ‘International Seed Vault’ in the hills outside of town. The town is a popular stop for budget travelers who want to get a brief glimpse of the arctic landscape, though to actually see the amazing wildlife you have to get out of town. Most tourists opt for one of the massive, luxury cruise ships that ply the waters around the archipelago during the summer season. The luxury cruise didn’t really fit the image in my dreams, so I searched for a while and found another way.

My first view of Svalbard came from the window of my plane as we flew in over the rugged brown landscape. Jagged peaks and flowing glaciers stretched to the horizon, accented by deep blue water – The scene was wild and beautiful. After the plane landed I walked down the rolling stairs and took my first steps in the Arctic. I walked into the small passenger terminal where I came across a startling sight – A giant polar bear was standing on the baggage carousel and looking right at me with his menacing, glassy eyes. The sign at his feet simply read, “Please don’t touch the ice bear!” It was fitting to be met at the airport by Svalbard’s most famous resident. In town I found several more stuffed bears wherever tourists congregated. The people in Longyearbyn knew exactly why the tourists were there and what they wanted to see, but it wasn’t just a show. There was a real danger from the ice bears, as polar bears are known in Scandinavia. Rifles were standard equipment for anybody leaving town and stories abounded about the occasional ice bear that roamed amongst the buildings reeking havoc.

I spent about a week in Longyearbyn taking in the sights. I found a bed in one of the dorms in the Nybyen Guesthouse on the outskirts of town. From there I explored all that the town had to offer. I walked out to the edge of the ‘safe zone’ where I found the famous sign that warned people of the extreme danger from the ice bears. I also took a long walk in a cold snowstorm to see the old miners’ graveyard on the far side of town. I explored the town’s museums and poked around in the strange old mining facilities that lay in ruin on the steep slopes that surrounded the town.

Overnight, the landscape changed from a brown boulder-strewn moonscape to a winter wonderland befitting the Arctic. I was in the land of the midnight sun, but it was getting darker every night. I had planned my trip for the end of the summer season in hopes of seeing the amazing aurora borealis, so the growing darkness was a welcome sight. I managed to see a good bit of wildlife during my stay in Longyearbyn, but I knew there was so much more to come. My excitement grew every day until my day of departure came. I called home one last time to say farewell to my girlfriend Maria, who I was going to be out of touch with for two weeks, and then I walked down to the waterfront with my bags and waited for my ride north to arrive.

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