Friday, November 20, 2015

Time traveling as well as actually traveling - Arctic Trip 2007

After I'd posted the picture of the polar bear sign a few weeks back in Animal Road Signs Snap, a few people were asking me to write more about the Arctic Trip so here it is.

The photo's were taken in Spitsbergen, an island in the Svalbard Archipelago, north of Norway and 660 nautical miles (758 miles) from the North Pole.

This trip took place in July 2007. Some things may have changed, but I'll include links to websites which look pretty up-to-date to me.

When we first looked at doing this 10-day trip, it was  so expensive we nearly considered not doing it at all. But we wanted to see polar bears, and since we were planning to move to California the following summer, we wanted to stay in Europe. At first we'd looked at a tour from Explorer.co.uk, but there were two things we didn't like - 1) the cost and 2) the itinerary was back to front for us. It began with a cruise and ended with a camping trip.

We wanted to get the camping out of the way first. I wanted the experiences that portion of the trip offered, the glacier hiking, and the kayaking, but I didn't relish lying awake in the freezing cold for two nights and then being wrecked for the rest of the trip. We'd camped in Donegal that Easter and it had been pretty Baltic! How much worse would the North Pole be? (And, yes, I know we weren't actually at the North Pole but close enough for me.)

Then we took note of the tour companies Explorer were using and decided to approach them ourselves, camping first, ending with the cruise. It became much more affordable. Saying that, it was, and still is, the most expensive vacation we've ever been on, if you consider cost per per day. Worth every penny though - the memories are still so vivid and so unique.

We booked the cheapest combination of flights to get there. It took nearly 24 hours to fly from Belfast (where we lived at the time) to Manchester to Oslo to Tromso to Longyearbyen,  one of four settlements on the island. We could have flown to New Zealand in the same time.

You couldn't tell it was 3 am when we landed at the airport in Longyearbyen since the sun was still high in the sky.
Spitsbergen at 3am
What was the interior designer thinking when he installed orange curtains in the budget hostel we stayed in that first night? Seriously - sunlight, all night, through these! Good job we'd to get up for an 8am start, so we'd only to stay in that crazy bright room for a few hours. If you go, take eye masks!
There are no roads out of Longyearbyen - the roads just vanish at the edge of town.  To get to the other settlement you go by sea or skidoo in the winter.
 
Surprisingly the camping was really comfortable. We went with a company called Svalbard Wildlife Services on a three day wilderness camp. They were amazing the guide was brilliant - friendly, knowledgeable and an amazing cook. Our group was small too, just me, My Husband and two others, nice women from Switzerland.

It's the most remote place I've ever been to, I think.
 
We lucked out with the weather. It stayed in the low to mid sixties and because it didn't get dark at night it didn't cool down much either. We had good sleeping bags and down jackets. Being cold was never an issue...in fact it had been colder to camp in Ireland in April!
We had an armed guide at all times. I hoped we didn't see a polar bear while camping as the guide would need to shoot it. The campsite was surrounded by tripwires that would ignite flares, as much to wake up the guide with his guns as to scare of the bears. You don't mess with polar bears.
You had to use this gate to enter and leave the campsite so you didn't trigger the flares. I worried that if you were going off to have a pee during the night you might trip over the wire, but it didn't get dark so it wasn't an issue. You still needed to bring a buddy in case a polar bear did catch you with your pants down! 

Solid human waste was an interesting problem. It had to be taken off the site with you, so you pooped in a bag, tied a knot in it and kept the bags a a bucket until it was time to take the ship back. 

Our campsite was at the base of a glacier and we went glacier hiking on it with crampons. I was nervous about falling down the crevasses. We were all roped together, but I was the smallest one in the group and where the others just stepped across I had to take a run and jump!
The ice formations were amazing.






I had the chance to geek out on the amazing rock collection in the terminal moraine deposited by the Glacier - Sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic all in one spot. I wish I'd studied geology ...
 
And check out erosion in action - the rock has fractures along seams where water seeped in then froze and expanded.
There was something to amaze me around every corner. Herds of Svalbard Reindeer, sort, stocky little chappies, their rotund bodies adapted to conserve heat.

 
The Arctic cousin of the Irish bog cotton, fluffier to insulate the precious seeds better.
The next day we went kayaking.
We were lucky to catch this glacier calving on camera, and luckier still not to be too close to it!

The scenery was truly spectacular.
 Even though we didn't have the fancy camera we have now, it was impossible to take a bad photo.
This ringed seal seemed to be quite happy to pose for us. I suppose he was just glad we weren't polar bears!
Camping done, we transferred back to Lonyearbyen and stayed the night in a nice hotel before setting off for our cruise with Spitsbergen Travel. The ship was small. It had been a research vessel but we did have a cabin with a window...
...that had a metal hatch to close over it - great at keeping out the light and we had our first dark night since arriving there. Though the engine room must have been right in our closet (I joke - we didn't have a closet - two bunks and shower room!)

We cruised north out of Longyearbyen and stopped at Russian mining settlement. It was pretty bleak.
 
But someone seemed to be happy about finding coal!
It was nice to see that technology was making some inroads to these remote spots
Maybe you had to call to be let in the door, because that handle look pretty secure!

If you ignored the frigid temperatures, sometimes the colors along the coastal waters looked quite inviting.
 We set ashore each day for guided hikes and nature walks, most times using these wee boats.
 From the shore the scenery dwarfed the ship we though of as home.
The captain promised us lots of wildlife viewing, and we began to think the animals were on the payroll.

There were three languages used on board, Norwegian naturally, German and English. If the crew spotted some wildlife, they would announce the best place to go on the ship to view it. There were about 150 passengers all hustling for the best photo spot. Invariably animals would pop up when we'd be in the dining room (maybe because we spent so much time in the dining room!) and there'd be a stampede (of humans not animals!) for the doors

Sometimes the announcement would begin in English, "Ladies and Gentlemen, a polar bear has been spotted off the starboard side." etc. (or maybe it was Klingons?)  People who understood English, (and knew where starboard was) would head off. Then the language would change and others would move too. We soon figured out, no matter what language they started with, just follow someone who looked like they understood.Waiting for your own language would mean missing the front row!
 Right in the middle is a polar bear eating a seal - I kid you not...

 Blurry - sorry - how I wished we'd our Nikkon D5000 in those days!
The icebergs were such strange colors - Had the captain ever heard of the Titanic I wondered?
 
We drank champagne was we crossed the 80°N parallel (not sure why, but I wasn't going to question anyone giving me free Champagne - especially in a place where a coffee cost $20!) We came upon Moffen Island and saw the Walruses, animals I half suspected were not real, seeming more like mythical creatures and ranked a rather ugly, cumbersome version of the unicorn. But there they were...sorry again about the picture quality.

This was our turn around point.

Each night we'd have to tear ourselves away from the scenery, staying up into the wee hours of the morning, our brains unwilling to accept that fact, seeing sunlight as we did. These pictures were taken between 3 and 4 am...
 And this picture reminded me of the island described in C.S Lewis' Narian Tale , The Voyage of the Dawn Treader - the one the made everyone really gloomy...
We had just headed down to the rattle and hum of our cabin when there was another animal announcement at 4am - polar bears again!
This mother was suckling her baby. And how cute is this pose!

 This is a whale - I promise!
We stopped at the research station. It claims to have the most northern post office in the world...I wonder if this is where Santa posts his letters! I just had to send a post card to my Mum.


 Some insane people were having a swim...totally not tempted!
 Even if it looked as beautiful as this.
 

Spitsbergen was a magical place. I'm glad we figured out a way to make it work. I'd always wanted to see polars bears in the wild and it was definitely one huge series of ticks off the bucket list.



 Byddi Lee


 P.S. Some of these scenery shots look amazing if you click on them and view then full screen - go on - I dare you :-)


















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