The road through Norway, part IV: Svalbard

Being the last outpost before the North Pole, the backcountry of Svalbard is one that truly deserves to be called wilderness. On these desolate islands approximately 2500 people share the land with more than 3000 polar bears. The geography is striking: pointy mountains rising out of the sea, broad valleys crosscut by glacial rivers, ridgelines as sharp as the edge of a knife. 60% percent of the land is covered with ice.

Outside of the main settlements (and even inside of the smaller ones) carrying a rifle and a signal pistol are basic safety requirements. It’s a land of hunters and trappers, where sound instincts and a good intuition are necessary for survival, where us humans are not always on top of the food chain. I had seen Svalbard once before in summertime so a return to the islands while completely covered in a white, fluffy blanket was long overdue.

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The occasion was PJ’s aunt’s 70th birthday and her supposedly last trip to the Arctic archipelago. Though she has quite predictably already planned a new one in the mean time (we were with her on her 11th visit) it was the perfect reason for us to follow along. On the agenda we had an overnight snow mobile trip heading for Tempelfjorden and the east coast, a wilderness evening and a ride with dogs to an ice cave.

First up was the snow mobile trip which unexpectedly topped every other experience we had on this trip (predictably, both PJ and I were mostly looking forward to the dogs). Actually, it was without doubt one of the greater experiences of a lifetime. After the end of the Kiruna season I was a bit bummed when we had to cancel all plans for a few days of mountain hiking on Senja due to an incoming storm, the risk of closed roads and not in the least avalanche warnings all over northern Norway. After the season I just need to go to an empty, desolate, beautiful place and feel far away from people. It turned out two days of cruising endless white landscapes was just as good as pitching a tent on some scenic mountain.

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I think I can say I’ve been a part of a few exciting things in my life yet few so incredible as this particular tour. On the snowmobiles we crossed glaciers, navigated moraines, drove on the frozen sea. We had to turn around the first day in a near white out and the wind was blowing so hard that even I got the urge to go homewards. On the second day we did make it across the Rabot glacier to the east coast and that was a sight I will remember for a lifetime. The ice front awaiting us when we came down on the sea ice literally took my breath away.

Soon after we were on the sea ice we found fresh polar bear tracks in the snow. That of course got everyone very excited and we followed them carefully in the hope we would spot the actual bear. To see a polar bear live, at that particular spot, was something I could only think of dreams. It took a while and we found a lair, a feeding spot, and more tracks. Just as I gave up on the idea and we turned our scooters towards the ice front again, the guide stopped and intensely looked at something.

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There she was: a mother bear with her 2 cubs. A mother bear with 2 cubs! We spent 45 minutes watching her lounging while the cubs tirelessly played around that little ice bulge she was resting besides. What a bonus to an already really nice tour. Without a doubt, this was the highlight of the trip, if not even the highlight of the year.

Our guide Marte was very professional, capable and such a nice person. She tried extremely hard to make the trip worthwhile for us, even up to the point where we felt tired ourselves and called it a day. I feel great respect for the guides working up there, what they are doing is far beyond anything I’ve accomplished in Sweden.

Of course, when the highlight turns out to fall right in the beginning of the trip the rest feels less inspiring to write about. Not to say that it wasn’t nice. I enjoyed the wilderness evening at Camp Barentz and of course I enjoyed driving the dogs. It’s an entirely different experience driving them there, in this exposed, open, mountainous environment, than in the Kiruna forests I am used to.

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I had never been inside an ice cave before either. Created by meltwater, the cave changes from year to year depending on how it is carved out in summer and how snowfall affects it in winter. This year the ice cave was small: blocked by a wall of snow and ice a good 50 meters from the entrance. Still is was worthwhile going down there, as there were many formations in the ice that were invisible from the surface.

There were a few things about the dog sledding trip I felt disappointed about. One was that I didn’t find the dogs in such a good state of being. All of them had bad stomachs, both in the kennel and on tour. Some of them were very thin. They didn’t have any bedding inside their houses: they lay on ice. They ate a lot of snow on the way, indicating they should get more water in their food. Their pee was very yellow. Neither guide took their gun with them while we sat and ate lunch: both rifles were at least 50 meters away lying on the sleds.

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Mostly I found the sleds not to suit the terrain they are used in. We drove the Greenlandic type which is sturdier, easier to fix, harder to tip but also much heavier. I’m sure that when driving on ice fields with sharp ice, uneven terrain, rocks etc these sleds have a great purpose. To drive 400 height meters up and down a mountain however they felt like bricks being dragged by the dogs on the way up while providing dangerous dead weight on the way down. The brakes did not have any noteworthy spikes on them to grip in the snow. We had talked a few times about applying for jobs at this company but seeing what we saw that is one plan we can dismantle and forget about.

There were of course good things too. All dogs were very social, a good feature in a kennel that big where they can grow tired of new people all the time. They all got snacks at lunchtime. The landscape was breathtaking. The sun was shining, it was completely wind still. Another one in a million days to be out on the islands.

On the way back to the airport a seal was lounging on an ice shelf by the road. While queuing for checkin so many people passed with skis and pulka’s. I thought about the people we met outside the Coal Miner’s cabins on the first day who were heading to the North Pole. I thought about Marte who had skied across several islands of the archipelago. I concluded that my next trip up here will better involve skis and a pulka.

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