Friday, 27 February 2015

20th - 23rd February - Spitzbergen, Svalbard

The train took us quickly and efficiently back to the airport, where we joined up with our flight to Longyearbyen, the main town on Spitzbergen, one of the islands of the archipelago known as Svalbard.  The archipelago is within the high Arctic and was orignially discovered in 1596 by the Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz, he named the islands Spitzbergen after the jagged mountains along the west coast, but when the islands came under Norwegian sovereignty in 1925 it was renamed Svalbard an old Norse term meaning "the Old Coast".

It was clear cold conditions as we left Oslo, and looking down there were snow covered fields and little colourful villages.

The flights takes just over 2 hours 40 minutes, and follows the west coast of Norway as far as Tromso, then heads north across the Barents Sea to the islands.  All the way you had the feeling the sun was setting despite the fact it was not even midday, the light on the wings showing that late evening orange glow.  

As we approached the islands the clouds broke, and it was possible to see the sea below, it was not frozen, the Gulf Stream ensuring the water temperature is high enough to prevent this, but in places you see patterns in the water that were due to areas of ice that were collecting due to the wind and current.

Finally ahead of us there was land, jagged snow covered mountains appearing, bathed in a very strange pink orange light.

It was about 12.30 as we started the descent towards Longyearbeyn, and it was clear that the sunlight was fading.  The sun had appeared above the horizon in Svalbard for the first time on the 16th February, this gave 2 hours of sunlight for the first time since early November.  Because of the mountains the sun would not be seen until the 8th March on the ground, but daylight would increase by 40 minutes each day as the earth moved to turn this area from total darkness to total sunlight.

As we came in lower the ice on the sea could be seen, individual flows all knitting closely together.

Sitting on the left hand side of the plane I was afforded some wonderful views of the "jagged mountains that gave the islands there original name.  These mountains bathed in some wonderful light.

The low light and the mountains brought back memories of the early morning sunlight on the dunes in Namibia

The plane banked to the east, and took its final approach into the airport, As we dropped lower the mountains blocked the sun once again and the light changed producing another world, one of cold and menace.

The airport is 4 km from the town of Longyearbeyn, and has been in operation since 1975 providing a year round air link.  Two major airlines serve the route.  In summer cruise ships bring more tourists, and the docks are an important hub for the freight of goods.  The sea is relatively free of ice due to the warmth (relative) of the Gulf stream

The runway was ice and snow free, but the area around the terminal building wasn't and we had to walk from the plane to the arrivals lounge.  As we stepped out from the plane the cold was immediately apparent, my trousers no real protection.

With this technically a domestic flight there was no passport control, so it was straight to the baggage hall, and the wait for our bags.  As we stood watching the bags arrive it was clear that "The North Face" did very well up here.

While we waited for the bags I nipped outside to catch the last of the sunshine, and a sign brought home exactly where we were, from the perspective of distance and the wildlife.

It was hard to imagine as I looked to the north that we were closer to the North Pole (1300 km) than home.

 Once the bags arrived we boarded the shuttle bus and headed into Longyearbeyn, passing plenty of old mining structures, and warehouses as we went.

About 2400 people live in Longyearbeyn and Barentsburg, the rest are dispersed among smaller settlements as well as trapping, research and weather stations.  According to the Svalbard treaty all signatories have equal rights to trapping and commercial activities, but only Norway and Russia take advantage.

At the hotel, we were given a room on the top floor with a view out over the town and away to the north east, there were distant mountains, snow covered and the tops bathed again in waning glow of the fading sunlight.

 Most of the buildings in Longyearbeyn are recent.  Longyearbeyn is named after the American John Munro Longyear who founded the settlement in 1906 to start coal mining there.  The town extends from the mouth of the Adventdalen valley up to the the glacier of Longyearbreen.  The town holds all the local administration offices, shops, bars and restaurants, and of course hotels.  More recently tourism has become very important on the back of the Aurea Borealis or Northern Lights.

Many of the relics of the mining culture leave their mark on Longyearbeyn, relics such as the cable way which was used to transport the coal to the town and harbour.

While other features are more recent to support the population such as the power station with its looming chimney, and the telecommunications mast alongside further "Star Wars" like buildings from the coal mine days

The light was so different creating an almost unreal environment.

Our hotel was on the main street close to the bars and shops, and once settled in we dressed suitably and ventured out down the street.

It was now just after 15.00, the sun was gone and we were into a pink and purple twilight.

After a walk and something to eat we  returned to the hotel, the light was now moving towards night, but the distant mountains still retained that look of ice cold blue.

We picked the busiest bar, enjoyed dinner then back to settle in, another long day along with the cold takes it out of you and we had to be ready for the excursion tomorrow.  Eating and drinking is expensive, a meal costing over £20 per head, and a good beer £8 a pint.  But it doesn't seem to stop the locals.

While the hours of daylight are for only 4 hours at the moment there is an huge amount of twilight as the sun teases with us just below the horizon.  In the morning the skies were clear, and there was an low amount of light that showed the outline of the mountains in the east

 We were off Snowmobiling today, and we were taken to the outskirts of the town to pick up our vehicles, and to get kitted out in the Arctic suits.  It was one Snowmobile each and they were waiting for us after our briefing.

We headed out along the valley.  Snowmobiling is a popular tourist attraction and there was plenty of others about.  The suits we were wearing did well to keep out the cold as we travelled at around 40 - 50 kph, another welcome feature was the heated handlebar grips.  Our guides carried rifles, just in case.

We stopped after awhile as we came across a couple of Reindeer.  We had seen some in Longyearbeyn when we arrived, and I must admit I expected to see many, but these were the only ones we came across.

The Reindeer arrived (not these two!) in Svalbard from Greenland, probably walking across the ice many years ago.  They have no real predators, and do not travel around in large flocks like those on the main land.  Polar Bears are not a major threat as they prefer to hunt seals on the pack ice.  At this time of year they are eating scraps of vegetation that appears when the wind blows the snow away, their is little sustenance in it, but it serves to keep the animals stomach working, the spring and summer is when the Reindeer look to pile on the fat.

We headed on turning into a smaller valley and up hill towards a small glacier.  The was little snow due to the very dry conditions.  It was extremely cold with temperatures around minus 25 degrees centigrade.

We stopped at a tent where we had lunch of reindeer stew heated on a fire in the tent.

The inside of the tent, despite the fire, was covered in a frost from our breath, and standing around on the snow covered floor you could feel your feet beginning to get cold.  The cold had also got to the camera equipment, batteries were rendered useless and the equipment had to be kept inside your suits in an attempt to warm it up.

There was still sunshine lighting the tops of the mountains, but in sheltered places everything was blue and very cold.

After lunch we returned to the snowmobiles and set off back to the town, 

On the way we stopped at a strange glacial geological feature.  This is known a pingo, and is like a small volcano of water coming out of the ice. It is a mound of earth-covered ice found in the Arctic and the Sub-Arctic.  The term originated from the Inuvialuktun word for a small hill. 

You could see steam rising from the top, and there was flowing water that was a little salty. Pingos usually grow only a couple centimetres per year, and the largest take decades or even centuries to form. The process that creates pingos is believed to be closely related to frost heaving.

Pingos form as a result of hydrostatic pressure on water from permafrost, and commonly form in drained lakes or river channels. Permafrost rises to the drained body's former floor. Pore water is expelled in front of the rising permafrost, and the resulting pressure causes the frozen ground to rise and an ice core to form.

By now the cold was definitely settling in, and the sun was almost gone, the twilight was coming.

My ride back to the town was a little difficult as my goggles misted up, I found myself peering out of a small clear spot on the side.  No matter we made good time.  The light closing in.

The experience was amazing, one I never expected to have, and would recommend that if you have the chance to do it, take it.

Back in town, the twilight was fading, and a crescent moon appeared over the top of the mountains to the west.

The closest we got to seeing Ptarmigan was over dinner when we tried some as a starter, but I must admit I think I would prefer to see the bird in the wild rather than eating it, I wouldn't recommend.

The following day we were off dog sledding, a mode of transport that embodies the essence of the Arctic, something I was looking forward to.  As we waited to be picked up though Helen alerted me to a barking from the other side of the valley.  As we listened I saw a dull shape scampering across the snow to the bare patches.  It was definitely an Arctic Fox, but also a very distant Arctic Fox.  Still they all count!

We were kitted out once again, then taken to the dog kennels at a site that was set up to look like an old trappers settlement.  Dead seals hung from a stand, a typical method of storing food to get through the winter.

The dogs were now quite excited by us being there, and they wanted to get out and run.  We walked amongst them to meet with them and get used to them.  They were beautiful looking dogs

Their coats were very thick, and they seemed quite at home sleeping on the ice.

The Husky is not bred for beauty, its bred to work, but that said they have a quality, and some of them had the beautiful steely ice blue eyes.

Some like to be outside, some liked to be in their kennels, while a few took advantage of both.

The dogs now were very excited and the noise levels increased as the dogs barked and howled

Helen and I had our own sled, and we had to get the dogs into their harnesses, and attach them to the sleds.  This involved holding the dog between your legs, gripping the dog with your legs, and then putting the harness over the dogs head.  Once over the head you lift the dogs front legs through the harness, and then lifting the dogs front legs off the ground carry it by its rear legs to the sled and attach it.

The scene appeared  one of chaos, with dogs barking and leaping about, and oversized people dragging dogs about to attach them to the sleds

Our lead dog was a female called Jules, she was a lovely dog, very affectionate as you can see but also turned out to be an excellent lead dog too.

Once all the dogs were attached and the persons were on board, we set off.  To drive I stood on the skis at the back, and would hold on to the back of the sled.  There was a brake that you pushed down on with your feet.

As we headed out of the compound we went straight on to ice, and almost all the sleds had a problem.  We were the first over, I fell off leaving Helen to be dragged for a short way, fortunately she was OK.  This bit was difficult, and there was a lot of standing around as we waited for sleds to be righted and people picked up.  The dogs too were impatient and the barking was incessant and loud, and they would fight, twisting their leads up requiring them to be untangled and only adding to the delay.  Even though I say so myself our dogs were extremely well behaved, and stood barking but waiting in an orderly fashion.  All they wanted to do was run 

However once we got going it was an amazing experience, in more ways than one.  With the brake off all you could hear was the sound of the sled over the snow, a quiet sound in amongst the silence of our surroundings.

The dogs became silent, their tongues flapping as they ran.  They wanted to run, and nothing was going to stop them, not even a call of nature!

In places as we went up hill I had to scoot the sled to help, and on one occasion I was given a funny look by the dogs as I steering the sled of the course.  It was wonderful, a true sense of the Arctic, and again not something I ever imagined I would do.

We looped around and headed back to the compound, and then had to return the dogs back to their kennels.  For me the loading and unloading of the dogs added to the experience.  I think if we had just turned up and got on a sled that someone else drove a sled already prepared would have not been as wonderful.  Getting involved with the dogs added to it and made it for me the highlight of the trip.

After the dogs were all back in place I had a little walk about.  There was an example of a trappers cabin, and set against the distant sun capped mountains brings home the true wilderness these people would live in.

Today only a few people make a living from trapping, and after Polar Bear hunting was banned in 1973, only the hunting of Arctic Foxes, seals and birds and the gathering of down is allowed.

Many of the trappers huts remain as monuments to the past along  the coast.

Before we left we had warm drinks and chocolate in a hut that was again built to resemble the conditions trappers or expeditioners would have lived in.  Looking out of the window it looked bitterly cold, and it was.

We arrived back in Longyearbyen a little earlier than the day before, and decided to have a walk around.  Not only was it a little earlier, but also a lot colder.  Here are some views looking up the valley.

As the light faded the old mining structures such as the cable ways and cages contrasted well against the harshness of the bare rock in the snow on the side of the valley.

After a drink, and something to eat, I ventured out again in the extended twilight a very strange experience at 16.00 in the afternoon.

The night was the coldest yet, reported at below minus 30 degrees there was a lot of condensation on the windows in our hotel room, the water freezing up the mechanisms.  When I finally cleared the condensation and managed to defrost the frozen window with a hair dryer you could see the moon coming up above the mountains while the sun was still well below the horizon.

We were leaving at midday.  The weather while very cold had been wonderful, clear skies and plenty of light.  There had been a Northern Lights show at night, but we decided not to venture down to the harbour to see it.  We had been fortunate to experience it a few years ago in Tromso, and it was a spectacular event.  Here we were a little wary of walking so far at night without protection to see it.

The good weather though was changing, and as we waited for the bus we could see the clouds beginning to build.

On the way to the airport we had a good view of the harbour.  The sea though today was frozen.

Our flight was late arriving so we were a little later in setting off back to Oslo, although a concern for our connecting flight to Gatwick, the delay allowed the sun to drop a littel and produce some wonderful scenes as we took off and turned south towards Oslo.

Looking to the east a Glacier makes its way to the sea and shows how this amazing geomorphological feature carves out beautiful "U" shaped valleys leaving wonderful rounded peaks.

We passed huge snow covered cliffs, and as I looked out at them I imagined what this must be like in the summer when millions of sea birds such as Kittiwakes, Puffins Guillemots and Little Auks use them as nesting sites.

As we gained height and left Svalbard behind, looking out across the island and the snow covered mountains I was once again reminded of the dunes in Namibia, the difference here about 60 degrees of temperature.

It had been a wonderful experience, one we never thought we would encounter.  The wild life was minimal, only 3 bird species the whole trip, a distant Arctic Fox and a couple of Reindeer, and of course NO Polar Bear.  No matter it was wonderful, and the dogs were just fantastic.

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