Expedition to the Top of the World
Following a wonderful reunion in Oslo with our long-time Norwegian friends, Jon and Solveig Stenberg, we flew north to Svalbard off the northern coast of Norway, one of the most remote and isolated places we have ever visited. Located high above the Arctic Circle, halfway between the northernmost tip of Norway and the North Pole, Svalbard was uninhabited for centuries, visited only by Arctic whalers and coal miners. After World War l it was placed under Norwegian jurisdiction.
The total population of the Svalbard islands is about 3,000 people, roughly the same size as its polar bear population. Of the nine islands in the archipelago, Spitsbergen is the largest. Longyearbyen is its administrative capital and the largest settlement on the island cluster. With a population of just under 2,000 people, this remote village lays claim to being the most northerly community of its size on the planet.
During the winter months Svalbard is a frigid and inhospitable place. Night falls in October and the sun does not return again until March. The temperatures drop to 40 below; the snows come and the Arctic gales howl. It’s hard to imagine living in the region during the winter months.
It was already full summer when we arrived in Longyearbyen in late July. The summer sun had edged the temperatures into the 40’s. The top few inches of the ground, which is frozen to a depth of several hundred feet, had warmed up and a rash of wild flowers temporarily brightened an otherwise barren landscape.
After April 20th, the sun does not set for the next four months. The fabled midnight sun completes a 360 degree loop around the horizon every twenty-four hours, higher in the sky by day and lower at night, but never dropping below the horizon for over 3,000 hours. The effect of constant daylight felt strange and it took us a while to grasp the idea that Arctic sunlight is a seasonal phenomenon and not a daily event. I don’t think we ever got totally used to seeing the sun outside our port hole at two or three o’clock in the morning.
We caught our first glimpse of our ship, the Akademik Joffe, waiting for us in the harbor the next afternoon. It was to be our home for the next two weeks. Our daughter, Jill, and her husband had traveled to Antarctica on the Akademik Joffe five years earlier and had recommended it to us. With accommodations for 100 passengers plus its 50 Russian crewmembers and ten expedition staff, the Akademik Joffe is relatively small ship, just 350 feet long and weighing only 7,000 tons. It was built in Finland in 1989 as an oceanic research vessel for the Russians. Its ice-strengthened hull makes it particularly suitable for polar explorations.
It is an expedition ship, not a cruise ship. In place of a gambling casino, we had a library and lecture hall. Instead of dancers and entertainers, we had experienced naturalists and historians, who lectured us on all sorts of subjects such as wild life, icebergs and Arctic history. Comfortable but not luxurious, the Akademik Joffe was strong, sturdy and stable – all reassuring attributes when one sets out to venture into the frozen North.
We spent our first three days underway exploring the islands of the Svalbard archipelago. It is truly a spectacular, frozen world of sparkling fjords, glaciers, ice floes and snow-capped peaks. We generally made two shore excursions each day, using rubber Zodiacs to transport us from the ship to “wet landings” on the beach. Each landing offered a choice of short or longer hikes to explore the local settlements, glaciers and wildlife. Every landing party included a rifle-carrying staff member as a precaution against inquisitive polar bears.
Despite the latitude, Svalbard’s wild life is surprisingly rich with diverse species including polar bear, reindeer, musk-oxen, Arctic foxes, seals, walruses and whales. The gulf stream keeps the ocean relatively ice free and nutures massive concentrations of plankton which, in turn, lure whales and fish. The fish provide food for the sea birds, who migrate to Svalbard by the millions, as well as for the seals. The seals, in turn, keep the polar bears fed.
Polar bears are the prize sighting in any voyage in the Arctic. Seeing them is never a certainty but we managed to spot a half dozen or so while traveling around Spitsbergen. In comparison to the scores of polar bears that we saw in Churchill ten years earlier, these bear sightings were less frequent and at a much greater distances, but it was still a great thrill to see these magnificent animals in their natural elements. We spent one particularly memorable afternoon lying offshore in our Zodiacs as a female polar bear swam several times out to the decaying carcass of a dead fin whale to pull off chunks of blubber, while her six month old offspring waited patiently on shore for her meal.
One of our hikes took us to the site of a 17th century Dutch whaling station with its remains of old blubber pots along with the graves of over 100 young whalers, who came to the high Arctic in search of their fortune, but instead paid with their lives. Of course, the whales paid dearly, too. The bow whale, the longest lived mammal on earth, which numbered in the tens of thousands initially, was reduced to near extinction in the course of just two centuries.
At the most northerly point of our travels around Svalbard, the ship crossed the 80th parallel. At that point we were only 600 miles from the North Pole. In fact, if the pole had been a little taller we might have been able to see it from there. We celebrated with a champagne toast on the forward deck and a long blast from the ship’s horn.
Our final stop in Svalbard was at a small research settlement at Ny Alesund. It was from this spot that several polar explorers launched their expeditions from Svalbard - Byrd and Amundsen among them. A short walk outside of town, we found the rusting pylon from which Roald Amundsen – polar explorer extraordinaire – launched his airship on a successful attempt to fly over the North Pole. It was a poignant reminder of the heroic era of polar exploration. Before leaving home, we’d read a number of books about the polar explorers and were fascinated by their stories.