Life in the Wilderness

Svalbard Travel Blog

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LR. Beautiful Scenery

26th June: I left home after a fantastic 4 weeks catching up with everyone. It really was one of the best few weeks I’ve had at home in years, probably because so many people are sewing roots back home in Sunny Norn Iron. You all know who you are!! Cheers all for making me now want to sew routes in Norn Iron too. I’ve always had doubts about where to set up home but especially after this trip my heart is very very much at home.

I flew Belfast-London Oslo and checked into a very decent hotel in downtown. The main airport is about 45 minutes out by bus. Quite Ryan Air “esque” but is actually Oslo’s main airport.

Oslo is a nice city, bloody expensive.

Nelson tied up. 0200!!
I went to a restaurant that the hotel recommended as middle of the road in terms of price. I had a coke and two courses, 40 quid!! The coke alone was nearly 3 fifty!! I thought this must have been very expensive but I did some window shopping on the way home and it appeared pretty normal among the city centre restaurants. I was wondering why I didn’t see any backpackers, now I know why!!

 

27th June: Toured around the city a bit. Did the old bus tour as usual which was pretty good. There is an old Olympic ski jump over looking the whole city which is well worth a look. Got chatting to some old couple who were in the seats opposite, very nice they were too, not exactly riveting company but very nice.

off to snap the bear
(I would have much preferred to be beside the hot well travelled looking girl at the front but it never happens like that.)

Went to a “cheap” eatery this time, 15 quid burger and fries, bargin!! I was also in the supermarket and priced cans of beer just to see. Exports were all about 2.20 a can!! Lets just say a stag do to Oslo will not be on the cards any time soon.

 

28th June: Up super early, 4.30, to get my “Skybussen” to the airport. Lucky I wasn’t late as it was right on time to the very second, judging by the time on the bus stop. They seem to be very efficient the old Norway folk, Norwegians I think they’re called.

Riding Shotgun!!

Then it was onto the plane, first to Tromso and then on up to Longyearbyen Airport. The pilot said on the Tarmac in Oslo that they could not fit all the bags on board as one of the holds had jammed, jolly good I thought, great place to arrive with no clothes, the Artic!! We sat for over an hour and all that the pilot could tell us that we had left 60 bags behind, was one mine? No point worrying about that yet!!

Once again I was sitting beside the oldest couple on the plane, this time I have no idea if they were nice or not. I think they were German from what grunts and groans I heard go between them.

Nova, other boss tender

I was actually very surprised at the size of the plane, a 7somethingsomething, carrying enough passengers to make life at the very small airport a bit of a shit fight!! It made me laugh when the lady announced over the loud speaker “ we do apologise for the crowdedness but come back next year and our new terminal will be ready.” It reminded me very much of the old Eglinton airport with a very small carousel room and far too many people.

While I was sitting on the plane waiting to get off I was trying to suss the temperature by the body language of the people already walking across the tarmac. As I had about 3 layers ready to go in my hand luggage I didn’t want to appear either like the Michelin man or a right wuss by putting them on straight away.

 

I saw varying degrees of shiver from a woman (obviously a tourist too!!) who had gone for the Michelin look to a business man in just a suit and not a hat or gloves to be seen, I thought he might have visited these parts before!!

By the time I got off I was actually pleasantly surprised at the “balmy” temperature!! Really there and then it didn’t feel any colder than a crisp January day at home, with zero wind.

after the boss has left!! Life is so tough!!
That is the important part, zero wind, little did I know that when the wind gets up even very slightly the temperature literally plummets and your ears feel like they want to fall off. Later I was to realise that doing 40 knots in our tender makes a lot more than just your ears want to fall off!!

June 29th:

First night back on board was good. Oh yes my bags did make it after a good while waiting and watching the wee door where the bags come out with bated (and visible) breath.

The boss was due to arrive that afternoon but in the morning we got word he is not very well unfortunately and won’t be joining us until wed the 4th July. This was most unfortunate as it meant that the weekend would be “off” as the guys had been working very hard the last few days.

Tax free shopping!!!!!!Just bring a gun and you can take anything!!!
I announced that I had too and therefore would be looking forward to a much needed weekend off too!! All in jest of course.

I did end up getting talked into taking a trip ashore that afternoon after the realisation that once the boss arrives he will be here for basically two months. So what I'm saying is that I really wanted to work but the captain said to take all the time I can while the going is good!!

It was this afternoon that I got to see Longyear properly for the first time. It really is not a big settlement with apparently 1800 residents of which we probably saw a total of 20 at any one time (and that was in the pub). Sort of place were a car passes every ten or fifteen minutes. It seems pretty geared up for the wealthy tourist with a couple of very good outdoor type shops selling everything you would need to trek to the North Pole. Also a couple of tour guide places offering everything from husky dog sledge trips to mine tours.

Whose the Irish terrorist!!
 Apart from that not a lot, two pubs, a post office and a Radisson Hotel. (Now I know what the SAS in Radisson stands for.)

Coal mining is a major part of life here and has been for many years, there are ruins of mines dotted all over the surrounding mountain sides with a few mines still in operation hence the Coal power station in the town. To make coal of course you need vegetation and compression which means this peace of rock was once covered with lush forest and at a much lower latitude. Today you are lucky to see a flower due to the cold climate up here at 78 degrees north.

After our quick tour of the town we went for what turned out to be a 4 hour hike/walk up to the nearest glacier. First thing a bit odd was that we have to carry a gun for all trips outside the town for risk of Polar bear attacks.

going wakeboarding, mad men!!
These of course are very rare, especially around Longyear but there was a student killed by a cub just outside the town in the late 90s. So with that thought we shared gun carrying duties, loaded her up just outside the town so we were all ready to pop one off if necessary. The aim or should I say goal if a bear was to appear would be to scare it off with the noise but of course if it did keep advancing shooting it would not come as a second thought, otherwise you definitely wouldn’t have a third thought!! Our rifle carries seven rounds. “What if you miss seven times?” someone asked. With that as another thought to keep us occupied we started walking!!

The scenery was just spectacular. The biggest thing that is very easy to do here is to underestimate distance. As there is no other reference than huge mountains, what looks like a short jaunt is actually very very far indeed. You could see how this could be the undoing of some people if not prepared.

couple a drinks in the pool

After a great walk we stopped into what could be described as the local tavern in town. Loads of hangers at the door, shoe holes for wet muddy boots and a rack behind the bar for drinker’s guns. Quite a funny thought, you can walk in with a gun, hand it to the barmaid, drink 15 pints (if your loaded that is) ask for your gun back and walk out!! I was the one to walk into the pub with the rifle over my shoulder and of course lots of jokes started about Irish terrorist groups setting up training camps in the Artic!!

The food was great and much welcome and the pub very cosy indeed, apart from the steam rising off our feet!!

Sleep was in abundance that night. The air doesn’t come much fresher than up here and really does knock you out.

 

5th July:

The weekend was good.

Where's that bear!!
I was on watch so did some pottering around to try and get back into the ways of work!! Monday, Tues and Wed were spent making sure the cold is not too much of a shock to the tenders. Also a few oil and filter changes to be done and last minute aesthetics. The downside of the coal mining here means that the ship and the tenders get very dirty very quickly.

The Owner’s son flew in and arrived at 0200 in the the early hours of Thurs. We launched the Nelson and docked up waiting for them to arrive. It really was very surreal waiting for them at that time of the morning in the bright sunshine.  We got them onboard and then off to bed for a few hours kip at around 0300. Very difficult to get to sleep as I think being out in sun at that time does confuse ones timeclock somewhat.

The Owner himself arrived at 0930 so it was up again at 0700 as usual to get the Nelson ready and warmed up for his arrival.

are they mad??
  He arrived and we got him on board without a hitch. It is always a pleasure to welcome him and he makes it very easy for us. As long as the tenders run according to plan then I’m happy and this time the Caterpillars behaved themselves so all was well.

Pretty much straight away we lifted the Nelson back on board and off we went cruising up the west coast of Spitsbergen.

The first place we cruised to really was pretty amazing. Only a couple of hours around the coast from Longyear is a settlement called Pyramiden. It was a Russian coal mining settlement set at the foot of two huge mountains. It had a population of 1000 people until one day in 1998 the Russian government evacuated the entire place, Miners, Wives and Children just like that. So quickly in fact that they even left a lot of their personal possessions behind! For what reasons no one is too sure it seems, only the Russians know.

Exploring in the cold
Like a lot of things ��" only the Russians know!!

We got quite close in and it really is a proper ghost town in the middle of no-where. There is even a pile of coal just sitting there that they just left. Apparently until recently there was still a full library in the centre of the town books and all. As it is so remote only a few boats land there every year.

As I write now it is 2000 and I have just finished various duties for the day. As we are in tight and not very well charted waters extra watchkeepers are a must, both for “growlers” (semi-submerged icebergs) and uncharted shallow water. At present, seas are calm as we are in a huge fjord with a spectacular Glacier at the head of it.

The scenery so far today has been nothing short of astounding.

Bed soon I think as its been a long enough 24 hours.

taking aim

Just heard the owner call Kevin (Captain) on the radio to tell him how spectacular he thinks the scenery is, good to know he’s happy!!

 

6th July

After passaging all night this morning we arrived in Ny Alesund and tied up on the dock. This is the only other Norwegian settlement in Spitsbergen. To call it a town is a bit of an exaggeration as it is purely a base for conducting research and welcoming tourists such as ourselves. It is home to the world’s most Northerly post office at just short of 79 degrees!! There isn’t even a grocery shop as all the residents are fed and watered in the research stations canteen. Quite an experience to see people living in such an isolated place.

great shot

I have to say I didn’t even step ashore here other than to have my picture taken with the sign, look out for it later.

After the guests went for a brief walk we casted our lines and were off again. The weather at this stage had turned purely fantastic with our guide repeating that we are so lucky to have hit the weather so good. I’m guessing it is the equivalent to the one day a decade when you can sunbathe on any beach in the north of Ireland!  

Next it was off to Magdalena Fjord, definitely one of the most spectacular anchorages I have ever been in, a real natural wonderland.

We launched our tenders and after the guests dinner went for a tour up to the face of the Glacier at the head of the Fjord.

Andy claims a berg
It is very dangerous to get too close to the face as at this time of the year the face is still carving and large parts of the ice are falling off and creating a large tidal type wave, which is not what you want when your in a small tender. The boss’s son asked if we could kill the engine, at this stage about 200 meters off the face of the glacier. That turned out to be a great idea as we drifted closer in the smaller bergy bits we could hear the ice in the water crackling much like the crackling you get when you pour a drink “on the rocks”.  The other sound that was even more overpowering is the rumbling of the glacier itself as it moves. It sounds like very deep thunder as millions of tonnes of ice grind together. At this stage the sound of the glacier was definitely intimidating enough to make us hang back from going any closer. One of those sounds that make you realise that nature is in charge, no questions asked.  We sat there watching and listening as the face of the glacier looked as if it wanted to break off and plunge into the water at a seconds notice.
Steve riding shotgun

The other caution that has to be taken  when approaching the glacier is that bits can actually break off below the surface and therefore rush up like a giant torpedo to the surface, not what the hull of a small fibreglass boat needs, never mind the people in it!!

It truly is phenomenal to witness such power. To think that ice carved the Fjord we were anchored in 1000s of meters high and hundreds deep it makes you realise ice is a very much underestimated substance in terms of its strength.

Back to the ship that evening about 2130 and the owner’s son and his girlfriend decided to go kayaking round the Fjord. Our guide said this particular evening was probably one out of two per year you may get that are so idyllic! Bit like the one night a year you can have a barbecue and sit out in shorts until 11pm in Ireland.

bow with the amazing scenery in the background
Not sure Ireland will even get that in ’07 though.

So Kayak they did until 0100!! Of course its still as bright as midday, so why not. I was on watch so of course I had to be there when they got back to get them back on board safely and pack away the toys. It really felt bizarre at that time of night. A few of the crew were also awake and someone said it made them feel like they had been drinking all night and the sun had come up and it was time for bed! Only difference was that it was 0100, it hadn’t been dark and unfortunately we hadn’t been drinking all night! Anyway, time for bed it was.

 

7th June:

We were on the move fairly early that morning, even after my late night on duty.

Blue Ice
After we hauled the anchor we actually took the ship to within a couple of hundred metres of the Glacier face. I was in the tender taking snaps, the sight was amazing. This time a very large chunk of ice did carve as we sat there and created an enormous crash as it hit the water. The wave created was not to much to worry about but it certainly rocked the ship a bit, all 2000 tonnes of her!!

 The weather was really funny as we had bright blue skies over the land but out to sea we could see clouds moving at what looked like 100 miles an hour. A bit worrying really with the guide/pilot explaining to us that the weather up here changes quicker than anywhere else in the world. Full respect has to be given to that and its something that gets complacent people into a lot of bother. On that note I forgot to say that yesterday a small boat approached us in the calm of Magdalena Fjord and turned out to be a group of scientists who were conducting research in a very small speed boat type vessel.

Me and me Nelson
Of course the seas had changed outside and they couldn’t get back to their base around the headland. They very nicely asked us if we had the comms for them to call back to base for assistance. Of course the boss kindly let them use our sat phone and another boat appeared to pick them up.

As a result of the inhospitable and changeable conditions our bridge watching and navigation is even more meticulous than normal up here. It has to be, navigating through the Fjords with charts that seem very good but that are still very old can be a bit daunting. There is ice around of course and the possibility is always there of having to run from that weather that can change at a seconds notice. We always have two men on watch and then our guide/pilot to keep us right however the responsibility still relies with us. Our main procedure when in the Fjords is to plot position from the radar every six minutes accounting for whether we are on, port or starboard of our desired course and changing as required.

crew tender
The Fjords by their very nature are generally very deep but of course prudence is still very much required as there are a lot of shallows around Spitsbergen too. Keeping a damn good lookout at all times is of course required as well. “The eyes are our most useful tool for navigation; don’t stare at a radar screen all day.” I was told a few years ago and how true it is, until we hit fog of course, very common up here!!

Often on more relaxed passages the bridge can become a bit of a social hangout with other crew members coming to visit the watchkeepers as they go about their duties. I remember doing the 2000-0000 watch on my own on the way across the Atlantic and a visit from some of the crew before they went to bed was so welcome, a bit of a chat and a chance for them to see where we were and whats going on.

The bridge is a very much more serious place up here due to the conditions and geography.

amazing bergs
 We are constantly taking about our course and position and some watchkeepers can be quite short with people who interrupt, quite rightly so too.

The other very important duty is Polar Bear watch. We are half way through our “long weekend” cruise of Spitsbergen and we have seen no sign yet. We have decided that we are not leaving until we see one, whether the owner likes it or not. This means that anyone extra on the bridge is handed a pair of binnocs and told to Polar Bear spot. Course we have a bet on to see who will find one first. Tor Arne (guide) has to be favourite since he spotted a reindeer on a mountain at about three miles the other day!!

The other reason our navigation has to be very precise is because we really are back to basics with the paper chart. It has been very easy to become dependable on electronic GPS chart plotters but unfortunately up here they simply can’t be relied upon.

LR in the Bay
This is due to Norwegian charts not using WGS84 data system which normally allows you to plot straight onto a chart, anyway, enough jargon, back to the polar bears.

That afternoon we anchored off Virgohamna home of some of the most historical adventure attempts in history. The most important of which was the attempts between 1896 and 1909 to hot air balloon from a site there to the North Pole. The Richard Bransons of that era set up shop here with everything to wait until conditions were correct for an attempt. They shipped the lot from mainland Norway.

We were very lucky to get ashore on this windswept and very bleak island as it is strictly protected by the government as a heritage site. The reason we got ashore is because we are relatively few in numbers in comparison to the cruise ships and our guide is obviously a well connected man!! The remains we saw certainly didn’t look like they had been there for well over 100 years.

Longyear Harbour Master
Even though this area is swept with some of the strongest storms in the world in the winter time a lot of the wood that formed the huts remains intact. Also littering the beach are hundreds of large fuel drums. We also found a hot air balloon anchor sitting in the middle of nowhere, this is a sign of how well protected the area is as anywhere else things like that would have “walked away” long ago. Yet another great experience. Full respect has to be given to these explorers who must have had such determination to be the first man to the Pole in a balloon. We also agreed that men like them back then were made of very different material than ourselves!! We had top of the range cold weather gear on and all were ready to head back to the ship after 20 minutes. The cold wind funnelled down the valley and was cutting to say the least. I can’t even imagine sitting there for months on end over a hundred years ago only to jump into a balloon some day and not really know 1. Where you were going and 2.
washing the Nelson, just for a change
What your fate would be!! Different people that is for sure. It is still not really known who was first and still debates surround the subjects. Of course ballooning to the pole is one thing, getting home again is another!! There is a story our guide told of one Norwegian who set off over the horizon never to be seen again or so people thought. He turned up again alive three years later, discovered by a group of walking explorers!!

 

See Polar Bear Sighting for July 8th.

 

 

9th July.

Today was the day we tried to make it as far north as we possibly can!!

Anchor up early as usual.

good times
I was on watch first thing, navigating us back out of Bockfjorden and Woodfjorden. We are starting to believe we must have some weather on the way as it is still perfect. We passed our “bear Island” on the way back, no sign of him this morning though. Probably sleeping off all those birds’ eggs he ate!!

Yet more amazing sights ahead of us as we progress towards a very small low lying Island, Moffen, just North of Spitsbergen. So low I didn’t sight it at all until we were 7 miles out.

Moffen is a resting place for the Walrus, pronounced Valrus if you’re Norwegian!! We were able to get 300 metres off the beach to check out the Valrus. They are monsters. Huge to say the least. To be honest they don’t exactly look active as they were all lying on the beach in what looked like their families.

Not too cold
The tusks look a bit threatening to say the least, I don’t think getting too close would be advised.

Moffen is one of the largest communities of Walrus in the world and therefore is very heavily protected and conserved. Once again, a great sight, even if they were just lying there!!

After a few snaps being taken we were off again heading directly north towards the Polar Ice Cap. Our goal was to get as far north as close to the North Pole as possible. This all depends on the loose bergy ice that flows out from the cap. If the wind is Southerly then all the smaller bergs get packed up into the cap and so getting further north would be a possibility. Although we have had fairly light northerlies our guide was correct is his assumption that the ice would be quite spread out.

Only after about an hour we were surrounded by flows and progressing very slow and with great caution.

Feeling the chill. Nelson below
All this ice around of course provoked climate change debates and we were all interested to hear what our guide had to say. Basically the ice is melting for sure, slightly quicker than normal. The glaciers are also retreating. However Glaciers have retreated before and advanced again. What is causing the ice to melt is what causes the biggest debate. Is it really solely down to man?, is it a natural cycle of the earth like the “ages” that have gone before or is it a combination of both? These are the big questions. Our guide was not really committed either way but did seem to sway towards the fact that climate change is both cyclical and down to technology as well.

We eventually had to slow down due to the ice really starting to pack up and the bergs getting much bigger.

We did cross 80 degrees north!! Pretty far north to say the least. We had a plan to tie up to an iceberg, so we did!! A couple of the guys got dry suits on and with sledge hammers and poles in hand, went ashore to hammer in our “pegs” to tie up to.

Andy all wrapped up
We got a couple of lines ashore and tied up for a short time!!  The sheer density of the ice is unbelievable, the guys broke the heads off two sledge hammers, quite amusing to watch. The only way to get a peg in properly would be to drill the ice.

We ended up launching the tender a kayak up there, less than 600 miles from the North Pole.

Then it was off back as to make it back to Longyear to make flights in the morning we were a bit pushed for time. Another great day. I took it pretty easy in the evening and then was on watch from 2000-0000. One of the most amazing watches I’ve ever had, the weather was still unreal, flat calm and the visibility was absolutely phenomenal . We saw mountains on Spitsbergen at 35 miles, the air is so crystal clear.

 

10th July

Well that’s it, trip to the Artic over.

on top of the world
We arrived back in Longyear at 0800 this morning, launched the Nelson and the owner departed for his flight around 1000. I think he had a great trip as we all did, once in a lifetime for sure.

After he had left it was straight into getting the vessel ready for sea as we had to head straight towards Trondheim in Norway, were the owner would meet us again in about three days.

It was sad leaving Longyear, even after such a short time. It really was a fantastic trip.

 

 

 

flying_dolphin7 says:
Very nice photos and interesting travelouge, my friend going there in March .. making me really jealous..hehe.
Posted on: Feb 04, 2008
mellemel8 says:
wow, i enjoyed your pics. i am planning to visit there within 2 years. i just got back from norway and i loved it. when is the best time to go?
Posted on: Sep 16, 2007
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LR. Beautiful Scenery
LR. Beautiful Scenery
Nelson tied up. 0200!!
Nelson tied up. 0200!!
off to snap the bear
off to snap the bear
Riding Shotgun!!
Riding Shotgun!!
Nova, other boss tender
Nova, other boss tender
after the boss has left!! Life is …
after the boss has left!! Life is…
Tax free shopping!!!!!!Just bring …
Tax free shopping!!!!!!Just bring…
Whose the Irish terrorist!!
Whose the Irish terrorist!!
going wakeboarding, mad men!!
going wakeboarding, mad men!!
couple a drinks in the pool
couple a drinks in the pool
Wheres that bear!!
Where's that bear!!
are they mad??
are they mad??
Exploring in the cold
Exploring in the cold
taking aim
taking aim
great shot
great shot
Andy claims a berg
Andy claims a berg
Steve riding shotgun
Steve riding shotgun
bow with the amazing scenery in th…
bow with the amazing scenery in t…
Blue Ice
Blue Ice
Me and me Nelson
Me and me Nelson
crew tender
crew tender
amazing bergs
amazing bergs
LR in the Bay
LR in the Bay
Longyear Harbour Master
Longyear Harbour Master
washing the Nelson, just for a cha…
washing the Nelson, just for a ch…
good times
good times
Not too cold
Not too cold
Feeling the chill. Nelson below
Feeling the chill. Nelson below
Andy all wrapped up
Andy all wrapped up
on top of the world
on top of the world
Crew tender
Crew tender
going in search of the polar bear
going in search of the polar bear
Longyearbyen in all its glory!!
Longyearbyen in all its glory!!
Nelson on the move
Nelson on the move
a bear has been spotted!!!
a bear has been spotted!!!
LR off Longyear
LR off Longyear
Ice sculpture
Ice sculpture
Waiting for the boss to arrive
Waiting for the boss to arrive
Kevs birthday
Kev's birthday
Glacier
Glacier
skipper and crew
skipper and crew
Watching the Walrus
Watching the Walrus
Tea Time
Tea Time
life on the bridge
life on the bridge
Getting onto the berg at the ice c…
Getting onto the berg at the ice …
Cant get too close to the glaciers…
Cant get too close to the glacier…
Nova on deck
Nova on deck
we tied up to it!!
we tied up to it!!
The noise is unreal
The noise is unreal
Paul and Kev on watch
Paul and Kev on watch
snowball fight
snowball fight
Fantastic!
Fantastic!
Tor, our guide
Tor, our guide
Lines ashore!
Lines ashore!
Crew on the bow
Crew on the bow
Original bridge wings
Original bridge wings
our own berg at 80 degrees north
our own berg at 80 degrees north
We saw a huge piece fall off.
We saw a huge piece fall off.
the weather ws fantastic
the weather ws fantastic
simply amazing
simply amazing
Blue ice from the tender
Blue ice from the tender
getting the guys off the berg again
getting the guys off the berg again
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