With their nerves on edge, a few brave passengers from the Akademik Shokalskiy take a frigid dip in Arctic waters. With water temperatures barely above freezing, such swims are not for the faint of heart.
Spitsbergen – Long Read

Only 800 kilometers from the North Pole

Photo by Jochem Wijnands

Spitsbergen – Long Read Only 800 kilometers from the North Pole

Hello Spitsbergen, high in the Arctic on Norway’s desolate Svalbard archipelago and the jumping-off point for cruises into the icy waters a mere 800 kilometers from the North Pole. The ice-covered sea and landscapes have an beauty all their own, and hide a remarkable wildlife population. Birds, reindeer and seals abound but the top predator – and the largest on land – is the polar bear.

Jochem Wijnands
Jochem Wijnands Founder / photographer

Four hundred years ago, Willem Barentsz discovered Svalbard in his wooden sailboat. Today, our SAS Airlines Boeing 737 comes in for a smooth landing at Spitsbergen’s Longyearbyen Airport, the most northerly airport in the world. But any delusions of safety I may have harbored are quickly dashed as I look down at the scene below. Icy, snowcapped mountains, glaciers and frozen peaks reveal the rugged and desolate nature of these islands, islands I will soon be exploring by boat myself.

I drop my luggage in my hotel room and, ten minutes later, find myself basking in the glow of a massive campfire with the rest of the town. Midsummer’s eve is being celebrated in a big way. A pretty blonde girl with a garland of flowers in her hair approaches me. “Would you like a glass of glühwein?” she asks. She looks like a little pixie that has fluttered from the pages of some enchanted fairytale. “I’d love one!” I say. It’s one o’clock in the morning and the sun is still high in the sky. People are dancing the night away on the beach as icy waves lap at the pebbled shore. Sleep is far from our minds. I decide then and there to abandon any expectations I may have and allow myself to be swept away in the moment.

“Hi folks, welcome aboard!” our Canadian expedition leader Brandon says next day as I board the Akademik Shokalsky, the Russian ship I will be calling home for almost two weeks. With a boundless energy and an irresistible smile, Brandon is a delight to be around and his enthusiasm is infectious. The captain and the expedition staff have all gathered in the bar – which looks more like a cozy living room – to make the initial introductions. “Who wants to see a polar bear?” asks Brandon. Everyone immediately throws their hands into the air. With a maximum of 49 passengers, the Shokalsky is the smallest and coziest ship to sail the Svalbard Islands. “But remember, folks, this is not a zoo,” says Brandon. “This is pure and untamed wilderness. There are only about 3,000 polar bears in an area the size of England, or Louisiana, so it would be incredible for us to spot one.” That silences everyone.

This is a real expedition

“The majority of Svalbard is covered in ice and the sea is frozen solid,” he says. “This is a real expedition. Hopefully we’ll be the first to sail the Hinlopen Strait and Svalbard Island this year. Will we make it? Maybe not, but at least we have Oleg, the best captain in the Arctic Circle. Most captains hate ice, but not Oleg … he loves it!” We let out a cheer and break into happy applause for our Captain Oleg. The mood is light and cheerful. Hannah, the barmaid, uncorks a bottle of champagne and together we toast the moment. After running through the necessary boat drills, the anchor is lifted and we set sail. I make my way to the top deck with a few of my fellow passengers and watch as the town of Longyearbyen slowly fades from view. The adventure has begun.

Svalbard is a chain of Norwegian islands in the Arctic Ocean a mere 800 kilometers from the North Pole, with Spitsbergen being the largest and only permanently inhabited one. The name means “cold coast” in Norwegian. The area has no indigenous population – all 3,200 residents are imports from elsewhere. Tourism and mining have surpassed whaling and seal hunting as the main sources of income.

After a good night’s sleep on our gently swaying ship, I am awakened by Brandon’s voice over the intercom: “Good morning, folks, good morning!” A hot shower and a hearty breakfast later, we gather on deck for our first expedition in our sturdy rubber Zodiac boats. The Shokalsky is anchored in a fjord of breathtaking beauty. The water is tranquil and serene. In the distance a bluish-white glacier snakes down between two enormous mountains to the sea below. The expedition staff hand each of us a pair of sturdy rubber boots and a bright yellow windproof and waterproof parka. We descend the gangway one by one, find a seat in one of the Zodiacs and head to shore. Our guides, Tim and Dimitri, head up the expedition with loaded guns as we begin our initial exploration of the area. “Folks, bears are dangerous,” says Brandon. “We’d never go ashore if we spotted a bear, but they could always be lurking behind a rock or the next bend. You just never know. That’s why we have guns,” he explains. “So make sure you always stay with the group and listen to the guide if we do spot a bear. If the guide tells you to take your clothes off, you take your clothes off! The scent trail we create could be a lifesaver.”

An achingly beautiful panoramic view

There are three groups on this hike: the chargers (fast), the moderates (average) and the contemplators (slow). As I’m feeling sprightly today, I decide to join the chargers. David, our guide, wastes no time at all and immediately storms the hill. Sweat pours down my back when we reach the highest peak an hour later, but I am filled with joy when I see the reward that awaits me: an achingly beautiful panoramic view. We even encounter a mother reindeer with her wobbly new-born calf.

David, an ornithologist, tells us about the Arctic Tern that comes here to breed. This beautiful bird, also known as a sea swallow, breeds on the North Pole and hibernates on the South Pole. All of our guides have their own specialties: Robert is a geologist, Dimitri is a biologist, Phil is an historian and Tim is a survival expert and glaciologist. Why doesn’t a polar bear slip on the ice, one might wonder? Why, because the bottom of their paws are covered in sticky bumps and hairs, of course. No question goes unanswered here, making our hike an infinitely interesting and entertaining one.

Day three on board the Shokalsky and everyone seems to be suffering from a brutal case of polar bear fever. Passengers and crew spend hours on deck, eagerly scanning the horizon with binoculars. Rocks are regularly mistaken for bears and people are slowly beginning to lose hope in ever spotting one. Understandably, the excitement is almost unbearable when Brandon announces at lunch: “Hello folks. Robert spotted a bear…” We instantly abandon our meal and scramble outside. “Where? Where is it?” we yell as we stumble on deck. “He just disappeared behind that hill!” Robert shouts, clearly pleased to be the first to spot a polar bear. We squint and stare at the hill until finally it reappears.

Island of laughing birds

“I see him!” says Brandon. “Congratulations Robert, that’s quite an extraordinary bear you spotted… it has antlers!” he says with a laugh. Needless to say, Robert does not live that one down for the rest of the trip. That afternoon we go on an exhilarating hike around Fuglesangen. This ‘island of laughing birds’ is home to a colony of Little Auks – short-winged black and white birds that nest under rocks and make peculiar giggling sounds. We quietly and stealthily inch our way towards the birds, now only a few meters away. I feel like I’m in a wildlife documentary. It’s a marvelous sight, all these mating birds, but at the same time also slightly unnerving: movement catches my eye and draws it upwards until I spot the source of my discomfort: an arctic fox. He’s watching the scene approvingly, knowing that in a matter of days, when the birds have laid their eggs, he’ll be the one having the last laugh.

Back on board, the anchor is lifted and the Shokalsky resumes its northerly course. “Folks, please gather on deck. We have something to celebrate…” We arrive to see Tim counting down on his GPS. “Two more minutes!” he cries as Hannah fills our glasses with vodka. “One more minute to go!” And then, suddenly and wonderfully, we pass the 80th parallel, only ten degrees away from the North Pole. I look at the select group of people with whom I share these coordinates and feel a real bond. “Cheers!” we cry. I can’t help but wonder if I’ll ever be this far north again.

“Good morning folks, good morning!” I awake the next morning to a startling sight. When I open the curtain of my porthole, I am instantly struck by the radical change in scenery. As huge chunks of ice float past the window, I realize that the tundra and green slopes of the west coast have given way to the vast ice sheets of the Hinlopen Strait. We are now attempting to sail around Spitsbergen Island. Our mission has begun, but will we succeed? Brandon and Oleg are engaged in constant, heated discussions. Weather maps and satellite photos are examined and reexamined and plans are adjusted accordingly. The excitement is palpable when we sit down for breakfast.

I’m surrounded by smiling faces

“POLAR BEAR!” Could it be? Anthon, the first mate, is the bearer of good news. Movement was spotted between the rocks, driftwood and melting patches of snow on a small beach far away. My fellow passengers, undeterred by the fact that nothing can be seen at this distance, eagerly snap hundreds of pictures. The Zodiacs are quickly readied to take us for a closer look. As we navigate through the seemingly impenetrable ice, we realize that ours is an unrequited love: the bear seems completely indifferent to us and we quickly lose sight of him. Were we disappointed? No. It didn’t matter at all that our scene looked nothing like the stunning photographs of polar bears so artfully displayed in the travel guides.

I look around and see that I’m surrounded by smiling faces. This mood can be largely accredited to Brandon, who has an amazing talent for tempering unnecessarily high expectations while simultaneously introducing people to the astounding beauty of the Arctic. The morning comes to a hilarious end when we discover that the ice has closed in and left us stranded. The four Zodiacs find themselves engaged in an epic battle to find a passage through the impassable ice. That same day we spot our second polar bear. And what a discovery it is. Under a clear blue sky, a mother bear frolics with her happy cub in the snow.

The Shokalsky quietly inches closer and we marvel at the scene that unravels before us. When they’re done playing, the cub climbs on top of its mother’s back and they swim off together. “Polar bears mate year round,” Dimitri explains. “The female polar bear can store the seed in her womb and fertilize the egg whenever she wants.” At the end of the day, during our routine recap in the bar, Brandon makes another announcement: “Folks, we’ve done it! Let’s have a round of applause for Captain Oleg!” It turns out that the three ships that were sailing behind us earlier that day got stuck in the ice when the wind turned and caused the floes to block their passage out. In addition to the routine bar recap, we are also privy to our own personal poetry reading. Each night, David recites a poem that he wrote earlier in the day. Tonight’s poem is dedicated to the polar bear: “Miss Ivory Fur / shuffles, slippers and robe / like a flake falls / this snow snake stalks / hope of survival / on the horizon lies.”

A dot adrift in the unforgiving Arctic

While most of the passengers head off to bed at around 10 pm, I can’t possibly sleep that early. The relentless sun follows us day and night and fills me with a boundless energy. Most nights I’ll have one last beer in the bar, slip into my parka and head up to the deck to enjoy the view, the crisp night air and the sound of ice crunching under the hull of our brave vessel. It reminds me of how fortunate I am to be having such an experience. After all, we are but a lonely little dot adrift in the unforgiving Arctic. There’s no phone and no internet – a liberating feeling.

The Shokalsky is like the Big Brother house – a social melting pot where you’re forced to get to know each other very quickly. It’s working out quite well so far and everyone seems to be getting along despite the diversity. Our group boasts several energetic young couples, like Nicolas and Emanuelle from Paris who are here on an ‘extreme honeymoon’. There’s a bird-watching club from England that take frequent trips together, an American family with daughters in their 20s and a few empty-nest older couples. A surprising number of people are taking this dream trip alone, because “My husband/wife can’t stand the cold!” But, according to Tim we all have something in common despite our differences: “We all have high altitude sickness! We share a passion for the Pole.”

On day eight we lay anchor in the most beautiful frozen landscape I have ever seen. The Zodiacs glide across the still water, gracefully dodging floating blocks of ice that have melted into the most peculiar shapes. Sculpted by nature for nobody in particular, we bear casual witness to this untamed beauty.

It’s time for the Arctic plunge

The polar bears, walruses and beluga whales we have spotted so far are certainly breathtaking, but they offer only glimpses into the much larger system that unfolds before us today. Back on the Shokalsky, Brandon says: “Folks, it’s time for the Arctic plunge…” Now this will surely separate the heroes from the scared and faint hearted. The crystalline water may look inviting, but with a temperature of just one degree above freezing, I’m sure it’s not. So why on earth would anyone willingly jump in? To my utter amazement, nearly half of my fellow passengers show up in their swim gear. Even those that I would never have expected to see, like the entire American family and the prim-looking 80-year-old English woman. As the ice floes drift by, they plunge into the freezing water one by one. “Shit!” the respectable English lady shouts to our great amusement as she surfaces.

As we round the southern tip of the archipelago, we are treated to one final highlight before our journey comes to an end: Isfjorden and Alkhornet. We sail on until we reach the foot of an enormous cliff that is home to tens of thousands of nesting birds. Here, we practically stumble over the arctic foxes and reindeer, so numerous are they. Yet they all seem rather indifferent to our presence. “Reindeer in Svalbard have very short legs,” Tim explains, “because they have no natural enemies from which to flee.” As we gaze across the land, we see the dilapidated huts and mud ovens used by whalers to convert blubber into oil so very long ago. Moss-covered whale bones also bear witness to the history of this place. The ground is soggy and dotted with rosinweed, whose colorful flowers bloom on the south-facing side only. It is a delightful sight to end this fabulous journey.

“Good morning folks, good morning!” I peek through the porthole one last time and my heart sinks: civilization. We are back in the village of Longyearbyen where 11 days, 14 polar bears and 1,125 nautical miles ago we set off on this extraordinary adventure. Somewhat dazed, we bid farewell to the crew and to each other. As always, Brandon has the last word: “Well folks, sometimes you think you take a trip, but the trip ends up taking you! Thanks everyone and see you at the South Pole!”

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