Part I: Arrival on Svalbard
It was the summer of 1996. I just had to roam the Scandinavian wilderness, which I had become to love so much, again. The sheer quietness of it all, the ability to see nature at first hand, the wonder of being able to walk around for days without being disturbed by anyone but nature. What other purpose does life have, than to enjoy nature? As life is nothing more than evolving from nothing, to end up in nothing.
As I said, the summer of 1996. 400 years after Willem Barentsz and his merry men suffered an arctic winter on Novaya Zemlya. Moreover, 400 years after he discovered the archipelago of Spitsbergen. Spitsbergen or Svalbard as is it’s common Norwegian name, is a group of islands about 900-km south of the geographical North Pole. Some 1100 Norwegians and about 2000 Russians inhabit it. It is supposed to be Norwegian, but the Russians claim it as well. Most of the inhabitants are involved in mining activities and arctic fishing; mainly whales and seals.
Since it is so far north, the ‘capital’ Longyearbyen lies at 78 degrees northern latitude (actually 78° 10”, 15° 30”), there is not much natural life here. Some small plants and lichen stay close to the ground covered by snow and is pushed upward by the permafrost. The island’s animals consist of the Svalbard reindeer, a smaller version of its Scandinavian brother, polar foxes, and some birds and of course the king of the arctic, the polar bear. He reigns alone in this vast wilderness he calls home.
The Norwegian airliner ‘Braathens S.A.F.E.’ flew me from Tromsø in northern Norway to Svalbard’s Longyearbyen. S.A.F.E. doesn’t have anything to do with safety; it actually means ‘South Africa and Far East’. The name was chosen due to some ‘ancient’ Norwegian law not allowing more than one airliner to fly up north.
On board I took my seat next to a girl outfitted with to me well-known clothes. She wore outdoor garments with brand names I had come to admire during my travels. Being a ‘The North Face’-devotee myself, I had respect for her ‘Fjällräven’-gear. Naturally we started talking, since I was quite intoxicated due to my ‘pre-flight-preparations’ which had included some beer and whiskey. She was flying to Svalbard to join an all-female group of ornithologists. After finishing her studies in this she now went out on a field trip. Her knowledge of birds came in handy when dinner arrived. After downing a couple of more whiskeys and the exiting upcoming event of having a small bottle of Chardonnay with my onboard dinner, I was ready to eat anything. Air-food is usually not much more interesting than a thundercloud on a rainy day, so I wasn’t expecting much to caress my intestines. Some chicken tandoori apparently made ín India, fresh fruits, and so on. But the most interesting thing was an egg, actually half an egg. My ornithologist friend pointed out that it was a seagull’s egg and acquired no additional salt. Yes, a seagull’s egg and it was the most delicious egg I have ever eaten. It being naturally salty, one could taste the Arctic Ocean and the beauty that surrounds it.
On this particular cloudless day, the astonishing beauty of the snow-covered landscape really gets to you. The plane’s landing-procedure gives you a first-class view of an iceberg-filled bay as one descends towards the landing strip at Longyearbyen’s airport.
The negative change in temperature blew through my clothes as I descended the airplane onto the ground. My first view was a sign saying ‘Svalbard airport’. I had finally arrived in one of earth’s last true wildernesses.
Before my luggage arrived, the airport’s announcer summoned everyone who wished to travel unescorted outside the premises of Longyearbyen to report to the representative of the Sysselmannen. That was meant for me! The Sysselmannen is an interesting character. He represents the Norwegian government and is responsible for maintaining law and order on Svalbard. He is the prosecutor and executioner combined in one person. I am sure that Machiavelli will have some problems with this non-submittal to his theory in dividing judicial-, legislative-, and executive power!
I told the representative that I planned to do some extensive walking through the surrounding mountains. To try to find solitude amongst nothing but wilderness and snow-covered horizons. That I was allowed to do provided I did not go unarmed. He gave me the address of a place where I would be able to hire a rifle for a few days and wished me good luck on my journey.
The airport’s information-desk was of much help to me in finding a place for the night. I had anticipated on going to the camping-ground close to the capital. But since it was still closed, I was forced to find some other place where I could spend the nights. With the help of a free map I was directed to the end of the city where one could hire a room in a block of buildings used by frequent visitors to Svalbard, breakfast included. Every arriving plane is met with a bus to the city; it brought me to the place where I had to go.
My room was in a building across the street from the reception-, breakfast-, and meeting-room. It was a small room with just the basics, a bed, a writing table, and a cupboard. The toilet and shower were down the hall.
The building was build at the foot of a mountain so that the view from my window consisted of a snow-covered steep rocky slope and since it was the time of 24-hour daylight, the sun constantly reflected its ray’s, by means of snow, into my room.
Part II: Preparations
The following morning I slid into my sport-sandals at the entrance of the building. It’s sort of an unwritten rule not to wear shoes inside any house on Svalbard. In order to keep the floors free of black dirt, people take their of shoes and leave them at the entrance. Sandals on walk 25 meters to the breakfast-room and take them of again. I guess one could get used to that.
After I had taken my breakfast it was time to go out and hire myself a rifle. The place where I could get mine was longer away than a mere 25 meters so I had to go up to my room and dress properly for the arctic summer. The shop I entered was a sort of have-all adventure place. They sold anything from hiking equipment to guided tours. I was to sign a hire-agreement after which I was handed my temporary license. The rifle with my name on it was a 1942 Karl Gustav; I could only hope it would still work when needed. Of course I was also given some bullets, rather menacing looking things. Since I had never used a rifle in my life, I had absolutely no idea what to do with these cool things. But I kept my overall coolness, smiled, and said ‘takk’.
Back in my room I taught myself to load and unload my new toy I was to take with me on my journeys through the arctic wilderness. I was now ready for business.
In Tromsø I had bought a detailed hiking map of the area I was in. I had studied it a few times and thus recognized the surrounding mountains. The valley Longyearbyen lies in has a mountain-plateau to the south, which I was going to explore.
I didn’t exactly know where to start, and whether there would be any established routes, but my guess was that I was on my own up there, hence the rifle. There appeared to be a way up to the east of the capital. At least it didn’t look too steep to climb. I had planned to hike about 20 kilometres, which can be a lot through deep snow. But I was confident of my health and the 24-hour daylight wouldn’t be broken by darkness.
I figured that my journey would consist of 3 stages: uphill, plateau, and downhill. It being about 20 kilometres long, I had to take enough to eat and drink along with me. My apartment-block was equipped with a kitchen, which I could therefore use to prepare my meals. In a nearby shop I bought some nasi-goreng and a few mars-bars; I had enough tea and instant soup left in my backpack. So, along with my little gas-stove I should survive hunger and thirst.
Part III: Uphill
The next morning I had my breakfast as usual and afterwards I found myself in the kitchen preparing food for my arctic picnic, probably too much. I cooked the nasi-goreng and divided it in useable amounts. I would only have to reheat it for use. In order to avoid dehydration at an early stage, I prepared myself a litre of fine Earl Gray tea to take along in my Sigg water bottle. My tea was ready, my meals were ready and I had packed enough teabags, instant soup and mars-bar’s to be on my way.
In my room I got myself into my gear. Thermal underwear, fleece pullover, Gore-Tex socks, -gloves, -mountain jacket and -pants. The shoes were -of course- downstairs at the entrance. A small daypack contained my stove, food, and water bottle. Rifle flung around my shoulders and Leki Makalu hiking poles in my hands.
It was about 9.30 in the morning when I set off to the east. After about 100 meters I had passed the last houses along the road. This is where the road ended and my journey took off. If I would have known then what I know now, I would have chickened out and headed for the first bar down the road. Barentsz pub would have done just fine.
Given the time of the year -June- it was relatively warm. A summery -2 degrees centigrade and the 24-hours of sunlight had heated the snow long enough to melt into small but fast-running arctic rivers. I constantly used my hiking poles to investigate the space where I was to set my foot next for toughness. Although I had somehow already gotten used to stepping knee-deep in the snow, the thought of walking into an icy under-snow river wasn’t a pleasant one and one I wished to avoid. Wet boots and trousers -even if they were made of Gore-Tex- would no doubt shorten my trip due to hypothermia. After pole hauling over a few ‘rivers’ and carefully tracking a route farther east, I came upon a fallen bridge of some sort. Since mining-activity had been going on in these regions for at least the last 70 or 80 years, such a sight did not surprise me. To the left was a mountain-slope with -close to the top- the deserted remains of a mine. To the right a small equally deserted building at the end of a road which apparently rolled back towards somewhere close to the capital. Had I known that before, I would have taken it.
A polar fox surprised me as it ran from one side to the other. No doubt that it was pursuing a prey of some sort or maybe I scared it of. I continued walking east and noticed that the walk slowly started to take me uphill. I was finally ascending the plateau.
Once in a while encountered beautiful fluffy pieces of hair. On a closer examination of these pieces I noticed that it felt kind of ‘nylonish’. I was sure at that time that it was regular polar bear hair. But I took a piece along anyway so that I could have a closer look back in my room and even compare it to some polar bear rugs I had seen in many places throughout Svalbard, just to be sure.
Apart from the few birds that flew around the surrounding slopes, there was no other sound hearable than my own breathing and the sucking sound of snow around my shoes as if the snow wanted to keep them embedded with every step I took.
The way up changed from snow-covered to icy water flowing down over black rocks. I had to be very careful where to set my feet. The melting snow had made the rocks slippery and I learned that first-hand when stepping from one rock to another. I slipped, lost my balance, and ended up with a wet butt. Luckily it wasn’t too wet and I could continue without much trouble.
I was already able to see the top of the slope and thus knew that the end of the uphill part was near. Just a few more meters up and I could take a well-deserved break. One I was really looking forward to because the walk so far had taken its toll on my legs, my thighs were burning and screaming for a rest.
As I came over the top and had my first glances of the plateau the only thing I could see was snow. Snow, snow, and snow as far as I could see. The brightness of the sunlight added to this white that was surrounding me; even the sky was white. It was as if I had stepped into a fairy-tale sphere where the evil godmother ‘White’ was all around me. I definitely needed my rest in this astonishing beauty.
Part IV: Plateau
As far as my eyes could stretch along the horizon, there was only snow. Snow and light. Knowing that I would probably freeze my butt off, I emptied my daypack, spread out all the goodies in front of me, laid the daypack on the ground, and placed myself on top of it. It takes an extremely imaginative mind to visualize what I saw. My only point of reference was the sky. It was slightly blue and therefore different than all that surrounded me. Without it all sense of vertical direction would fade away immediately.
It gave me sort of a proud feeling to be up there. You can stand here doing whatever you want without having to consider possible spectator’s feelings.
While I was preparing my hot meal, I sipped the last of my tea. So after the meal was heated I would have to start melting snow for another bottle of tea. During my travels I have learned that it’s better to take too much along, than too less. I wouldn’t die of thirst given the snow and all the teabags!
Although I can eat nearly anything, the meal tasted surprisingly good. I love rice and it did me a lot of good up there. But I mustn’t forget to take some hot chilli along the next time. Eating ‘warm-climate’ food in a cold environment makes you feel you can accomplish anything.
Staring into nothingness made my mind drift off even further than it normally does. I saw all kinds of images through each-other; one-liners from movies and parts from songs ran through my mind. A cognac and a cigar were all that was missing. I wondered why Lady d’Arbanville slept so still, wondered if there actually were 50 ways to leave your lover. I told myself that I would stick my neck out for nobody, that god is a concept by which we measure our pain and that from the moment I could talk, I was ordered to listen. I saw long forgotten cities and other archaeological sites I have visited, I saw images of busy metropolises, dusty roads leading to sleepy towns miles from nowhere, people I have met and the drinks I have drunk. I wondered about my position in the universe and whether there was a purpose to it all. Too difficult questions to be answered in such a beautiful place. But as the saying goes, time flies when you’re having fun. It was time to move on.
Although I still had a sense of direction, I could still see the ‘abyss’ I came from, I was in desperate need for my map and compass. The map was in the daypack and the compass around my wrist, I had brought my Casio triple sensor for just this purpose. The digital compass helped me to place the map in the right direction. A vast ocean of white lay before me, for me alone to explore. It is incredible to walk here; it gave me the feeling that I was the first human to ever set foot on these grounds. I felt like the great adventurers must have felt; to boldly go where no man has gone before.
There was no vegetation here at all. No form of life as we know it. In other desolated places I have hiked, I encountered some specks of life now and then; even in Iraqi deserts there was more life than here. Visions of Neil Armstrong raged through my thoughts, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
A pair of prints brought me back to reality. I am a bad guesser, but I reckon I saw prints about 15 centimetres across, in front of me. I had seen tracks of animal feet before, but the big round majestic feet of the polar bear surprised me anyway, scared me was more like it. I had entered polar bear area and had to keep looking around in order to avoid a dangerous contact with earth’s largest land predator. Nervous as I was, what would you expect with a rifle flung around my neck? I franticly looked around me. Nothing, maybe they were old prints. But then again, maybe not. They looked rather fresh though! There was no place to hide and outrunning was out of the question. Just to be on the save side I loaded the rifle. My heart was definitely missing beats here and although I saw nothing, I was scared. The Dutch would say that “I shat seven colours of shit.” But once again, there was nothing and nothing was all I had to fear.
Part V: Downhill
As I walked away from the tracks towards a general western direction that would bring me to the edge of the plateau somewhere between the southern outskirts of Longyearbyen and its airport, I secretly wished that I would not meet any polar bear. What would I do? It is not like meeting a squirrel or rabbit, these are major wild animals which don’t give no shit about some guy with an old rifle.
My worst fear came through though. Over the snowy field slightly to the southwest, I saw a polar bear. It was standing on all fours and –unfortunately– it had seen me as well. The bear was at a distance of about 100 metres and closing in upon me. I had read the stories about inquisitive bears coming towards anything they don’t understand; it is basically what I do as well. When there is something I don’t know or understand I investigate it as well. This time however I would argue that it was not the right thing to do.
At a distance of about 30 metres the bear stopped and lifted itself on its hind-legs. It stood there looking at me and –presumably– sniffing my smells. It had probably smelled the spicy food and came to investigate its source. Here I was, the smell of nasi still around me and an inquisitive bear in front of me trying to figure it all out!
I froze and waited for the bear to make a move. I had the loaded rifle pointed at its chest and was ready to shoot at any time. If it would come that far, then my first shot had to be a lucky one, for I would have to reload the rifle by physically inserting another bullet. The bear would probably be faster than me. I could hear the sniffing sounds and the sounds of slow breathing from the bear; I could see the vapour of exhaled breath and the majestic view of it all. A gigantic polar bear was standing in front of me, taking me into its view, and investigating whether I was fair game or foul prey. I had read that if one would just keep calm, not move, not breath and certainly not provoke, that the bear would go away on its own. The papers proved right. After what seemed to be an endless period of time it left and walked on towards the east. I keep saying ‘it’, that is because I didn’t figure out its sex. It wasn’t so big, while standing, perhaps just over two metres tall and therefore most likely a female and not a male.
Pleased that it had left me in peace, I anxiously continued my trip towards the west, towards civilization, towards the nearest pub. The ice-packed view of the sea surrounding Longyearbyen was a welcome sight; I had reached the end of the little trip and had survived.