Svalbard 2015: the last blog

I am sitting in the lounge of the hotel, next to a very hot radiator and wishing the Norwegians on the other side of the room weren’t there so I could be.

The trouble is that it’s Sunday. Longyearbyen is a ghost town on Sundays. Everything is closed, I’ve seen no more than about three people out and about, there’s a snowstorm, big fat fluffy flakes everywhere, the sky is greyish, yellowish and even the Svalbar, where I thought I could shelter from the storm, doesn’t open until 12.

The other trouble is that you have to check out of your room by 11 and the bus comes at about 12.30 and there is nothing to do in the meantime. You can’t go in the bar, you can’t wander the shops, you can’t even enjoy the scenery.

So I sit next to my radiator and look at the storm raging on.

When I’d sat there long enough, I collected my luggage and went down to the bus stop. Well, I say “bus stop”. The place where the bus stopped when I arrived on Tuesday. I waited and I got cold and a little bit concerned that no one else was there and eventually I went into the Basecamp Hotel where I lurked by the door in the warmth and read their information board which had, amongst other things, the bus timetable.

I waited outside again and soon I was joined by a couple from southern Norway. Well, if there were other people then this must be the right place and time.

Sure enough, the bus turned up. We were all quite cold – we’d packed all the warm clothes that we wouldn’t be needing on the plane but waiting for the bus in a snowstorm wasn’t very warm. At least, the actual snowstorm had passed and the sky had cleared for twenty minutes or so but even then, there was a wind and the snow is so light and powdery that the slightest breeze blows it around and makes it look and feel like an epic storm.

The last thing I saw as we were leaving Longyearbyen was a pair of reindeer who’d wandered into town and were quite happily occupying themselves in the road next to the Radisson.

We drove the mile and a half to the airport, jumped out into pristine new-laid snow and then checked in. My luggage is to go straight to London, no need to worry about collecting it at Tromso. I wasn’t planning to collect it in Tromso, it’s the same plane but I was a bit worried about having to collect it in Oslo where I only have just over an hour to change planes and they have the worst security process in the world, or at least in any European airport I’ve ever been in – so slow! Such queue!

My bag and I made it through security here at Longyearbyen with no problem and there’s a little kiosk on the other side, along with proper tables and chairs. The trouble is, the only drinks I can recognise and make sense of in the kiosk are cold and fizzy and now I’m sitting in an airport with very painful hiccups.

18:28, Oslo Airport Gate 50

Of course, the problem with Svalbard being non-Schengen is you get the opposite on the Svalbard-Tromso-Oslo flight to what you had on the way up. I arrived on, basically, an international flight which meant we started with passport control and this I’d kind of anticipated – hadn’t expected a teeny-tiny room with two very small doors meant to force a planeload of people (from Svalbard. Nowhere else. I refuse to believe Tromso has any other “international” flights) into a bottleneck, leaving most of the people outside in the snow for a while. But there’s worse. Once you’re through passport control, you find yourself at a baggage carousel and there are only two ways out of that room – Nothing To Declare or Something To Declare and of course, once you take one of those routes, you find yourself in the departure hall and have to go back through security to get to your domestic gate, which is an appalling way of managing it and one that, mercifully, Oslo doesn’t mess around with. I initially assumed I was the one who’d done something stupid, that I’d missed a door somewhere, that I shouldn’t have wandered out of the security zone, until I realised there were a few of my fellow Svalbard passengers in the queue, some with their luggage because they were not continuing to Oslo but to somewhere else and therefore needed their luggage on a different plane. But I’d spotted a departure board as I left the luggage carousel which had a flight to Oslo at the top next to the fatal words “gate closing”. And now here I was in a queue to get through infamously slow Norwegian security! But there were other people from my flight and I picked the man behind him and asked if I was in the right place. I was. This ridiculous way is just the way things work at Tromso and it turned out that flight with the gate closing was not mine. In fact, I had time to grab a drink before I re-boarded the very same plane (Tora Viking) that I’d just alighted.

Oslo is much more sensible. Once you’re in, you’re in. There’s a gate separating domestic and international and at the far end of the international, there’s a passport gate separating non-Schengen. So give or take the fact that I turned right instead of left when I stepped into the domestic wing and ended up at the far end instead of in the middle, getting to my plane was much easier here than in Tromso. And now I’m eating the bread that I bought yesterday and the cheese that’s been sitting on my windowsill-fridge and using the free internet. Nearly home.

Svalbard 2015: Sightseeing & Northern Lights

Part 1 was to be picked up at 10 o’clock, the earliest I’ve been out so far, by Father Christmas – actually a Norwegian called Viggo with a huge bushy beard, a fur hat and a pipe. While we waited for the other half of our group, he and the Danish man discussed the BBC, who apparently here filming again (“too much!” said Viggo), presumably a second series of The Hunt. According to Viggo, Jeremy Clarkson is here in the Svalbard Bar “too often” and “Prince Harry – Carrothead – he is here in the pub also!”

We started off with a lecture on population in the bus. 2186 people in town, 600 children (three kindergartens and a school that teaches in every language necessary). The biggest nationality here in Norwegian, then Thai, then Philippine then Swedish (“always the Swedes are there!”) and fifth is “Russian-speaking people. It was easier when it was just Soviet. Now it’s Russia, Ukraine, etc. Russian-speaking people”. The 42 nations of the Svalbard treaty, signed in the 1920s, are allowed to place citizens here, under three conditions. I forget the first but the second is that they must have a job and the third is that that job must pay enough to live on. Taxes here are just enough to for the cost of living. There are no old people here, there are no disabled people – other than the children, this is entirely populated by people of working age and ability. There is one policeman who has nothing to do because there’s no crime, so he gets bored and invents things to do (you wait until a mammoth comes out of the permafrost, then there’ll be plenty for the police to deal with…). The current governor is Kjerstin Askholt, who did not come to the window of her house to wave at the minibus. I’d thought “the governor” was just what the Svalbard administration was called but it does refer to one person. Fortitude may have been filmed in eastern Iceland but this is the real thing.

There are currently only about 250 people working in mining, 29 people working at the satellite station and 50 or so in the governor’s office. Viggo didn’t say how many people worked at the Polar Institute but he did say that about 80% of jobs in town now are in tourism.

We went past the governor’s offices and buildings, down to the church, where we heard all that’s been officially released about the history of Svalbard during WW2 and then paused at the cemetery. There have been 729 deaths in the mining industry here since John Munro Longyear set up operations in 1906 – some of them before that, when people fell off the boat on the way. A lot of them have been buried and sealed inside the mountain, some of them were blasted across the entire Longyear valley when one of the mines exploded and all in all, there are only 30 crosses in that graveyard.

Next stop was the far end of town where the mining barracks used to be. The toilet barrels, delightfully, were kept in the basement of the mess hall to stop them freezing, so it smelled lovely in there!

Our first proper stop, first time out of the bus, was on the outskirts of town. We were told the story of the bear who ate all the dogfood again and we stopped at the polar bear sign where Viggo produced his rifle and we all posed with it. It’s heavier than I expected and I wasn’t sure how comfortable I was with us playing with it, especially on ice so slippery Viggo kept having to rescue us.

Next stop was at the top of the mountain above Mine 7, at the satellite station. Mine 6 isn’t finished but they had a problem with the entrance tunnel and rather than go to the time and expense of repairing it, they just left the mine and opened a new one, so Mine 6 is dormant rather than empty, mined-out, finished and closed. They were using the radar so we couldn’t get close but we could get photos of the enormous dishes against the mid-blue sky. Dishes up here can apparently stay in constant contact with satellites around the equator whereas further south, they’d vanish every now and then around the back of the planet. I think the Americans started this project and as part of it, they funded fibre optic internet here in 1983. That’s the same year the power station was opened, to finally provide the town with running water (it’s cold. In order to keep the water liquid, you have to keep it warm, so all the pipes flow together and the warm water pipes keep everything defrosted). The airport was opened in 1975, the previous one having been a patch of frozen swamp. That’s what we were riding out snow scooters over – swamp. Before the current airport opened, the terminal consisted of a hut and the runway markings were a car parked at each end of the swamp to give the pilots something to aim for and it could only operate in winter.

Although Svalbard’s mountains sort of resemble Iceland’s, in being layered and flat-topped, there is nothing volcanic going on here (although the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates do meet out in the fjord). The mountains here are higher than the ice caps during the last Ice Age so they haven’t been flattened by glacial action, they’re just flat because they’re sandstone, they’re really old and they’ve been eroded for several billions years.

The last stop was the Global Seed Vault. Previously a Norwegian thing housed in Mine 3 until they realised they’d lose it all if the mine exploded so they started storing it inside solid stone inside the mountain. And then one neighbour asked if they could borrow a corner for their seeds and then another neighbour and then somewhere around 2008, “it was easier to rename it – the Global Seed Vault” and amongst many other things, it stores something ridiculous like 140 thousand different species of wheat.

Viggo did say one thing I was a bit suspicious of – there are a few species of bear in the world but all vegetarian except the polar bear. Is this true? I can’t picture a grizzly bear not eating meat. I can imagine it as an omnivore but would a grizzly bear really reject tasty human flesh if it caught it? Apparently polar bears are moving westwards and some of them are breeding with their grizzly cousins (having once, half a million years ago, been the same species) and creating a hybrid bear, which I’ve also seen called a superbear, which is far bigger than a polar bear and far more aggressive than a grizzly bear and eats everything. The only drawback (saving grace?) of the superbear is that it may not be able to breed. Apparently no one’s sure about this minor fact yet.

Is that everything Viggo told us? Almost certainly not but I think it’s probably a lot more than most people would remember and be able to write down at the end of the tour. I only wish I’d thought to take my notebook with me.

Oh! I remember one more thing! In the summer, there are 92 species of bird nesting on the swamp. Viggo can recognise a parrot from a swan but he can’t identify 92 different birds and he doesn’t know their names in 42 different languages. “But I do have a favourite bird. Fried chicken! Or tandoori chicken. That’s a bird.”

We came back home for lunch. After lunch, I decided I really had to drag myself into town as I needed a little more food and I’m not at all sure what time Svalbardbutikken is open on Sundays – possibly not until the afternoon which is no good for someone who’s leaving town at 12.30.

In the afternoon, I was picked up for looking for the Northern Lights by Alex of Spitzbergen Travel, who really does seem to be the only employee of the entire company. He was the one who took me on the snow scooter on Thursday.

We paused by the polar bear sign because it’s apparently one of the most famous landmarks on the island but Alex doesn’t wave the rifle around unnecessarily (although when he produced it later on, it was wearing a bright green sock on the business end) so we didn’t get to take rifle photos. We also heard the story of the polar bear that raided the kennels for dog food again, only with a personal touch – Alex met the polar bear in question because those kennels are where he keeps his own dogs. He saw the nose marks where the bear stood on its back legs to look through the window of the hut, he saw it when it returned the next day, looking tired and lazy and overfed and he also talked to the men in the helicopter that took it away. It seems dog food doesn’t necessarily agree with polar bears and the pilot said the return flight was a very long one.

We spend an hour or so at Camp Barentsz. I’m not entire sure what the place used to be or is but it consists of a handful of wooden huts (one contains “the nicest bucket in town”) and we had a fire and some bonfire coffee – you heat the kettle over the fire, then you stick your hand in the fire, take out a burning piece of wood and stir the water with it. Alright, he had a glove on but a glove isn’t much protection against a burning log taking straight from a roaring fire. I declined the bonfire coffee and was given instead some more hot blackcurrant. I assume it was made using the same water, it didn’t really taste of burnt wood.

There was also food – healthy, doctor-recommended salted meat, flatbread and butter. The trouble was that it’s cold – the butter is rock-solid and the flatbread is so flat and crispy (exactly the same texture as poppadoms) that when you try to spread solid butter, they just crack and fall on the floor. I eventually decided the best way of dealing with it was to put a lump of butter on the flatbread and hold it over the fire until the butter was soft enough that I could slide it around with my fingers. It was tasty! I wish I’d been able to spot any in the supermarket.

We also watched a little video on Svalbard – just pictures taken year-round with a few of the Northern Lights and then Alex talked. About what people used to believe the Northern Lights are, about Norse mythology but pronounced in Norwegian, so I didn’t immediately recognise them (Thur and Udin, apparently), about Snorri Sturlasson’s opinions on them (Snorri being a famous Icelandic politician and writer who Norway are trying to steal – they call him Snorre and I have been to his house and dipped my feet in his private pool), about the Inuit belief that the lights are sparks caused by spirits playing football in the sky with a walrus skull and finally, to what they really are.

Then we diverged. The entire rest of the group spoke Norwegian so although they talked to Alex in Norwegian, he answered them mostly in English but then they drifted off into something and I just enjoyed the fire and tried to pick out a word here or there – I could recognise “Svalbard” and “thirty” and that was about it. When he switched back to English, he was talking about his dogs – there was no vet on Svalbard until two years ago. A vet would come “from the south” twice a year for rabies vaccinations and he’d deal with whatever problems he could with the 800 dogs in the two days but apart from that, if you had dogs, you had to deal with any problems yourself. One of Alex’s dogs has Alzheimer’s, which I didn’t know dogs can get (apparently it’s fairly common in dogs over about eight) and the dog has tablets which can only be got now there’s a proper local vet.

We packed away the food and flasks, the socked rifle was collected and we got back in the car to climb the same mountain as this morning, to park next to the same satellite dishes to look at the view. Looked a bit different. That noontime pale blue light was gone, it was quite cloudy apart from a patch of stars directly above us and it was freezing! Alex suggested to keep moving my toes inside my boots (I was already doing that) and if I needed it, he had a sharp knife. Thank you, Svalbardian.

The Northern Lights were not playing. Not a flicker. Not even a flicker that can only be seen by a camera. Nothing. Eventually, when we all had hypothermia, we got back in the car and descended, to stop next to Camp Barentsz for the penultimate story. There is a little field of antennae – short ones four or five feet high researching clouds made of crystals that glow and longer ones measuring meteoroids. “In winter, I like them. In summer, I think they’re quite ugly. But they’re the closest thing we have to a forest. That one on the right is going to be my Christmas tree”. Pause. “That is a good joke. I will write it down in my notebook.”

The last story was about another polar bear. A few people were camping around the next fjord and some bears were getting a bit close. They fired their flare guns and the bears would run away to the next camp, who would fire their flares and scare the bear away to the next camp etc etc and then when the bears got used to the flares, they banged saucepan lids because the bears had never heard that before and they did not like it. But one day, the camp next door failed to scare the bear off and had to evacuate to their boat and watch while the bear destroyed everything. And then it ambled into their mess tent, stayed in there for a while, presumably eating everything it could get its paws on and when it finally emerged, it had a shopping bag (from Svalbardbutikken) hanging from its mouth. This very bear, in fact:

Adolfbukta2014_-Elida-Langstein

That was the last story. We were on our way back into town, delivered back to our various warm rooms, I wrote a blog and ate some cheese and now I’m going to have a bath. Because that’s what you do here in the evening – and it was a longer evening than expected because I thought it was at least ten o’clock only to find it was half past seven.

Svalbard 2015: Longyearbyen

I didn’t have any adventures planned for today.

I got up at a relatively leisurely pace and went into town. Nothing in Longyearbyen opens until 11, so I wandered down the hill towards the Polar Institute and watched the sky behind the mountains to the south east. No, the sun doesn’t rise but yes, the sky does change colour and by the time I was going home for lunch, it was quite an astonishing pale blue – almost a sunrise. The path down the hill is tricky to get down, a bit icy and slippery until you get a quarter of the way down and realise that while you’ve been clinging to the edge, the middle is pure gravel and about as slippery as sandpaper. Coming back up is much easier.

I stopped in the shopping centre. There was a shop inside selling jewellery that I wanted to look at and very quickly established it wasn’t to my taste (I’ve not quite got the hang of currency conversion but I suspect it wasn’t to my taste in pennies either) but they did have some wonderful badges for my camp blanket and that was the one and only important souvenir I desperately wanted. As Svalbard doesn’t have a flag (it’s sufficiently not-Norway to not be part of Schengen but it is sufficiently part of Norway to use their flag. That doesn’t entirely make sense) I had no idea what kind of blanket badge I could get but a badge I indeed have.

Next stop was Svalbardbuttiken – the supermarket-vínbúð-department store-junk shop. I had run out of anything to drink and was getting low on bread, plus my face was starting to freeze. But the trouble with leaving -9 outside and wandering around a heated supermarket for a while, while still wearing the outdoors clothes is that you reach a point where you just overheat and that came as I was waiting to be served, when I could have yelled “forget them, serve me before I die of heatstroke!” (I didn’t. I am good. Sweaty, but quiet). I found the real drinks, hiding away right at the back, next to the baby food, nowhere near the fridges full of cans and juice and 800 types of milk. I knew there was some kind of blackcurrant syrup somewhere on the island because I was given some yesterday out on the snow scooters and told that they drink a lot of it but I hadn’t spotted it before.

The last stop, after I’d paused on the road behind the shop to behold the really light blue sky, was one of the outdoors shops. The majority of Longyearbyen’s shops sell the sort of warm clothes you need to survive this climate and since I already have those clothes, I haven’t been in them thus far. I don’t really know why I did today but as I prowled and contemplated buying a Svalbard woolly hat, I spied water bottles and flasks, an entire rack of them, all stamped with a little map of Svalbard and I couldn’t resist. It’s come in handy for drinking that blackcurrant syrup, although I was getting on fine with the mugs provided in the room when I was drinking the apple and mango juice.

Actually, the last last stop I made was the tourist information centre next door, and finally I found one of these mythical places where you take your shoes off when you come in. I acquired a map of the town at long last and a glimpse of the airport bus timetable. When you look more closely at the map, you see that Longyearbyen is highlighted in pale pink and you don’t think much of it at first – emphasis that here is the only town on the archipelago but no, the pink is to show this is a polar bear-safe zone, this is where you don’t need to carry a rifle. Incidentally, because it’s dark, you can see right into any window where the lights are on inside and I have observed stuffed polar bears in a lot of windows. They’re protected now and although you can shoot them in self-defence, it’ll still result in an enquiry by the governor but I suspect in less careful times, they’d kill them and then find themselves with a huge body to deal with – the answer seeming to be “just stuff it and give it to someone”. I don’t know. I’m guessing, based on what I’ve spotted.

In the afternoon, I ambled up to the swimming pool (followed the “main road” rather than the footpath through town and decided that’s not the best way to do it – no visible pavement under the snow and I’m not wearing anything reflective. All the kids here wear hi-viz vests and all the adults wear either reflective sashes, armbands, or my favourite, the blue flashing LED armbands) only to find that the pool doesn’t open until 5. At least, I was fairly sure of that. I was certain that reception wasn’t open and I attempted to interpret the Norwegian sign up next to it. But my Norwegian isn’t even as good as my Icelandic and the two languages don’t look as closely related as they’re said to be. I like to think I would have been able to understand much better if it had been in Icelandic. I came home and I didn’t do very much until quarter to five.

The pool was open and the Shower Ordeal is alive and well here too. The pool is upstairs, which is weird, and a third of it is a five-metre deep diving pool. I’m not a huge fan of swimming over deep water, even if it’s only in an indoor swimming pool, even though I know two metres, five metres, makes no difference, so I stuck to the shallow end and played in the water like a child. There were quite a lot of people there – not “quite a lot” like at home, but quite a lot considering there are only 2000 people on this archipelago. 20 or so people in the pool means 1% of everyone. Imagine 65,000 people in one swimming pool at home.

On the way back, the five or ten minute walk back through the town, across the bridge, daydreaming about what would happen if a polar bear strolled across the street, my hair froze. Of course it did. It had been -9 at lunchtime. I have no idea what it would be by evening but probably colder and I had wet hair which I had deliberately not put inside my hat because it would get my hat wet. It froze! It went solid and I could bend it as if it was made of pipecleaners! It didn’t freeze so badly that it just snapped off but frozen hair!

Of course, after that, there was only one thing left to do with the last of a very cold dark evening. I had a bath.

Tomorrow I’m doing the local sightseeing tour in the morning (the Global Seedbank, the mines etc) and in the afternoon, I’m going looking for the Northern Lights. The website hasn’t mentioned snow scooters so I’m assuming a bus of some kind. I’ve definitely had my fill of snow scooters. It was cloudy for the first couple of days but the cloud has lifted today and I’ve seen stars and actual blue-ish sky so that’s promising for seeing the lights.

Svalbard 2015: snow scooters

I’ve always called these things snowmobiles but apparently on Svalbard they’re snow scooters.

That’s what I did today. Body clock completely confused by the neverending darkness, I didn’t wake up until 9.20 this morning and still wasn’t entirely awake by the time Alex picked me up to take me for a ride on the scooters.

We were given special padded boots, overalls, balaclavas, helmets and finally big mittens (no real need to take your own big warm clothes; if you’re doing anything outside, they’ll provide it all) and we were shown how to use the scooters, on a huge one they’d somehow got not just inside the building but upstairs. At least, I thought it was huge, but Alex said these are the small ones. It’s bigger than the one I drove in Iceland, I’m sure.

We had a scooter each – none of this business of two people to a scooter, one drives out and one drives back. We all drove all the way. We had to cross the road twice but that was ok – very little traffic in Longyearbyen – and then off we went across a knobbly rocky field while I made “I don’t like it!” noises as we bumped and skidded and the engines kangarooed because they weren’t warmed up yet. The handlebars had heating and we could fiddle with that if we wanted but there was really no need -if the gloves could protect us from the snowstorm, they could protect us from chilly rubber handles.

We stopped not far away from town -Alex had spotted a small herd of wild reindeer nibbling on the sparse grass, reindeer who felt it was worth taking the chance that we might kill them over using their energy supplies to run away from the food. We kept our distance – didn’t want to scare them away from the food but we got quite close considering they’re wild reindeer living on an island where everything from the climate to the environment to the wildlife is trying to kill them. Unlike Jakob yesterday, Alex has seen polar bears and this is the area they tend to be seen in, but he thought it was unlikely there would be any. The population of bears on Svalbard has tripled in the last few years, research says they’re very well-fed around here and they’re venturing into human areas more and more often. They’re often followed by Arctic foxes, so if you see little fox footprints, there might well be a bear nearby. The foxes like to eat the bears’ leftovers and there are apparently lots of foxes – about five separate populations. There’s the one that hangs out by the sea with the bears, the one that follows the reindeer, the urban ones that no one is confessing to feeding and I forget the other two – all Arctic foxes but using five different strategies to get food.

Stop two was at the Iron Beds. Every local guide has their own story about why there are two iron bed frames abandoned in the middle of the valley. Alex’s version, which he claims to be the boring truth, is that they were renovating a hut further up the valley and bringing stuff back on the dog sled when they discovered that the river was higher than usual so they simply abandoned everything in their quest to get home without drowning. The Iron Beds are now a landmark and they’re also a race – when the snow comes, who can be the first person to get out to them?

Our last stop was next to a pingo, a sort of bubble of a mountain formed over thousands of years when an air bubble trapped in the ice gets forced up and out by ice expansion. I have no idea how this work. I know the pingo was the bed of the river but how could the ice bubble be underneath the ground? We stopped for coffee or hot blackcurrant (much less dehydrating than coffee and much more sugary – very popular in winter with the snow scooterers) and I tried to take some photos of the scenery. It’s hard because you can see plenty. Yes, it’s dark but the snow is very white and your eyes adapt to the tiniest bit of light from the sky but the camera’s not seeing it at all. I was glad the scooters had headlights but you can get off and amble around with no lights whatsoever and it’s fine. It’s dark. That doesn’t mean it’s pitch black, even miles from civilisation. We were supposedly travelling about 35km. I assume that’s half there, half back but I’ll find out how far I was from town when I get home to a computer that can cope with my GPS tracker. I guess we must have been about ten miles from home, which is actually quite a long way to ride even on a big chunky snow scooter. It does get easier and less scary after a while – it gets smoother if you can get some speed up and it’s a lot easier when it’s flat and smooth. We drove in convoy with me in the middle because I happened to jump on scooter number two back in town.

Having made a few stops on the way out, we drove the entire way back in one go. My hand kept getting cramp from holding the throttle and if the wind went the wrong way, it went under my visor and froze my face but other than that, no, it actually wasn’t particularly cold driving along at 30-35kph.

At least, that’s what I thought. Until I got home and discovered that everything other than hands, feet and face was stone cold and needed to be put on the heated bathroom floor for a couple of hours to defrost. All the same, I had begun to wonder if Svalbard is better in summer when it’s all covered in sunshine and wild flowers and I’ve concluded that it’s not. You can’t go dogsledding, you can’t ride snow scooters and you can’t… well, I don’t know what else there is to do. I don’t think there’s much skiing or snowboarding here, not least because you’re risking polar bears if you leave town (although they’re making the polar bears sound less of a problem than they sounded when I was doing the reading before I came here). I suppose kayaking on the fjords opens up in summer, boat trips etc.

No idea what my plans are for tomorrow. I’d like to go looking for the Northern Lights before I leave but it’s been so cloudy it hasn’t been possible. Of course, clouds mean lovely fluffy snowflakes falling from the sky and that’s very nice too,

Svalbard 2015: Dogsledding

After I wrote yesterday’s blog, I ate lots of bread and cheese because it had been a long day with very little food (breakfast at 6.30am and then nothing until I arrived in Longyearbyen at nearly 3pm) and when I was all full, I knew I really had to go back out into the cold and have a look at the town (the city? The village).

I know from photos and Google maps and the like that it’s a small town situated in quite a narrow valley between the mountains. I can see the mountains – white snow glows even in the dark. I assume either it’s reflecting the light pollution from Longyearbyen (it generates a surprising amount of light pollution for such a small place but as it spends nearly four months in total darkness, of course it should be allowed as many lights as it wants) – either that or astronomical twilight is slightly lighter than I thought.

No, it isn’t as dark as I expected. Well, it is but – it’s hard to explain. You can’t deny the great black sky overhead and yet it’s lighter than I anticipated. Town lighting, reflective snow, the fact that you could probably see a hint of pink or orange or baby blue in the sky at noon if it wasn’t cloudy, I don’t know. I know it’s not as oppressively, miserably dark as it’s made out to be, not in town.

It appears to be laid out with all the tourist stuff straight down the middle, with a mostly-pedestrianised street. My hotel, evidently the newest in town, is at the top of the “high street”, there are a few pubs and bars, a couple more hotels and an astonishing amount of shops. Perhaps understandably, it has an extremely high ratio of outdoors shops, higher even than Kendal. I suppose people come unprepared. At the moment I feel like I’m ok for warm stuff but I haven’t been out of the shelter of town yet so we’ll see.

I’ve also found the supermarket (it’s not a supermarket! It’s a department store/junk shop/warehouse with a supermarket attached), the post office, the pharmacy and the bookshop. I saw a large white furry animal which turned out to be a largish dog but it seems my reaction to spotting ursus maritimus is to go “… is that a polar bear? It can’t be” rather than “RUN IT’S A POLAR BEAR! RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!”

Having more or less reached the end of the high street, I slithered down the hill towards the next set of shops and the “sports centre” which didn’t look so much like a sports centre as a gun shop. There’s something quite American about this place – gun shops, requirements to carry and use rifles, shops declaring they sell ammo and all the other shops with big signs on the doors that say NO GUNS IN HERE. I’ve never been anywhere where I’ve had to worry about whether there are rifles being carried around the supermarket.

That next set of shops is on the vehicle road, more or less parallel to the high street and at this time of year, it’s impossible to tell where the road ends and the pavement starts, so I tend to leap back into the thicker snow when I see a car coming, just to make sure I’m out of its way. And on the subject of how dark or not it is here, I saw one car that hadn’t noticed it didn’t have its lights on. Other cars noticed and enlightened it but that’s what it’s like here. You don’t actually need your lights on to be able to drive around.

I spotted a car park and a path that would lead me back to the high street so I attempted it, slipped on the ice and fell in the most awkward and ridiculous way. I knew it was going to happen but first I had no control whatsoever over mad flailing. Gravity was going to have me in the end but first it was going to play with me for a bit.

When I got back, armed with apple & mango juice, chocolate and a carton of chocolate milk (the windowsill makes a good fridge or if you open the window, a good freezer), I thought I would have a bath. Because it’s there. The trouble is that the light in the bathroom doesn’t have a switch, it has a motion sensor and if you fall asleep in the bath, the light goes out.

The only problem I have so far with the perpetual darkness is not having a clue what the time is. I woke up in the middle of the night, convinced it was morning and discovered it wasn’t yet 3am. The trouble is that 3am doesn’t look any different to real morning. Other than that, I’m still enjoying the novelty of the dark and the teeny-tiny nuances of darkness, like the slight sheen of lighter blue in the sky at noon.

This afternoon was the dogsledding. I’ve never done it before and I really liked the idea of it. We were taken to the lower kennels, about 12km from Longyearbyen, sent into the changing rooms to put on some specially padded boots and a huge overall (so huge because it has to go over your clothes, which are already huge. I was already wearing four layers, the outer two of which are enormous and then this tent-thing over the top) and then we were introduced to the sled, told all about the brake – everything is about the brake – and then we could either stand and wait or we could help Jakob harness the dogs. Guess which option I chose?

The dogs were all very excited, all yapping and howling and playfighting and all desperate to get out and since we were beginners and all a little nervous, he chose the quietest dogs, showed me how to fold the harness (I just couldn’t get the hang of this) and then how to put it over the dog’s head and put its legs through the straps. He supervised dog one, I managed dog two more or less on my own and dog three clearly knew exactly how this worked and lifted her own paws before I even tried to put her legs through the straps.

Gaia had specially requested to ride with the guide, so that left me with Sarah and apparently I was marginally less nervous about driving first than Sarah was. There are two problems with driving first. 1) The dogs are very excited and they go extra-fast at first and 2) there’s a big patch of very rocky ground where the brake won’t do anything. It was terrifying! I knew which bit of the sled I had to hold onto but it was awkward trying to hold it, keep one foot on the sled and the other on the brake and eventually I just wrapped my arms around the entire back of the sled with both feet on the brake. It didn’t make any noticeable difference. Also, you have an anchor and that was on the right side of the sled. But I wanted my left foot on the sled and my right foot on the brake and that meant I couldn’t reach it.

We ran a little and then we paused, after only about thirty seconds for Jakob to distribute headtorches, which he’d forgotten to do before we left. For some reason, we put the anchor down but I couldn’t get it up and stowed before we took off again, so there it was trailing along behind us. Sarah, afraid of getting her hands cut off by the sled, managed to pull it up by the rope and hang it safely on its hook and for a second, we celebrated having weighed anchor while running. But then we hit the rocks.

The sled got caught. The dogs were pulling and pulling and it just wasn’t moving so Sarah hopped off to try and free it. You see where this is going. We didn’t. The second it was free, the dogs took off, leaving her behind and there was absolutely nothing I could do to stop them. We rattled and bumped over the rocks, I was nearly jolted off and I was screaming and shrieking like a mad person – the dogs were out of control, the ground was terrible and I’d lost my passenger! Fortunately, Jakob stopped eventually and my dogs knew that meant it was time for them to stop and poor Sarah came trudging along in the snow.

Once we were past the rocks it got better. Not comfortable, exactly, never comfortable. It was never entirely flat and smooth and I was certain I was going to fall off, I was making scared noises and swearing occasionally and Sarah was making terrified noises. At one point we crossed some large footprints – maybe a human in big padded boots like ours, maybe on snowshoes… maybe a bear. But there wasn’t time to think about the possibility of meeting a polar bear, I was too busy hanging on for dear life. Forget steering, there was no steering. No need to steer, our dogs just followed Jakob’s dogs, although I think they would have liked to overtake.

Gradually, as I got used to it, I let the brake out a little. Or at least, I put one foot back on the sled and controlled the brake with the other. It was a bit like driving a car except that there wasn’t necessarily much response from our canine engine if I put the brake down. I don’t say I got any more comfortable with it – it was still stressful and scary and my hat was sliding down over my eyes and for a lot of it, I couldn’t see any further ahead than Sarah’s feet, and my headtorch kept slipping down to illuminate nothing more than the top of Sarah’s head. It would have been nice to see where we were going but it wasn’t really necessary because I wasn’t guiding or controlling the dogs at all.

Finally Gaia begged to turn back. Sarah and I didn’t mind in the least. We’d already been muttering for five or ten minutes “how much further are we going? When are we going back?” and were most relieved, especially when we learnt that Jakob had planned to take us another three miles.

We swapped places. It was a lot more comfortable on the sled but Sarah had had the entire journey to realise that driving was a bit scary and she knew the rocks were coming and was a bit terrified of that – so much so that Jakob offered to call a colleague with a snow scooter to come and drive for us. I think if it had got that far, I’d have taken the wheel again but it didn’t. Sarah got on fine – the swearing came out when we hit the rocks but actually, the rocky patch is much shorter than we’d realised at first. Because the sled sometimes leans when it gets uneven, I leaned in the other direction – it didn’t tell the dogs to turn, it just stopped us overturning (it probably didn’t. We probably weren’t in any danger of that) and then the lights of home were upon us.

I held the lead dogs while Jakob put his dogs away and then we took it in turns to stand on the brake while the others took photos and of course, I also played with the dogs. I put the fiendish lead dog away (we had one beautiful blue-eyed sweetheart and one little fiend who was forever pulling and biting the chain and trying to jump on me) and then we opted to stay out while Jakob put the sleds away and I got to play with Fenris, the hugest fluffiest dog there, who likes to much on arms and things when he’s upright but fortunately rolls over onto his back for tummy rubs the moment anyone touches him. Jakob said he can be bitey – of course he can! His name’s Fenris. (If you don’t know your Norse myths, Fenrir or the Fenris-wolf was one of Loki’s monstrous children, an enormous wolf who was prophesied to kill Odin at Ragnarok. The other gods, seeing that Fenrir would be trouble, tried to contain him and in the end, he bit off the right hand of Tyr, god of war. This dog is named after the original hand-biting-off hellhound.) But he was a lovely fluffy soppy dog and I did enjoy playing with him while the sled was put away.

The next stop was at the upper kennels. We were done with sledding and now we were to meet some of the puppies. There are around twenty-five of them. Most of them now are big enough to put on a chain – this was new to them today and they cried and howled but they’ll get used to it and then they’ll go in with the bigger puppies and get used to that and when they’re around six months old, they’ll go to the main kennels and learn to run with the more experienced dogs.

But there were two small litters up there – a family of black and white Greenlandic dogs in their cage, who climbed up the wire and looked at us and a family of pure white baby polar bear puppies who were loose. They’re allowed out during the day to play and then put away in the evening and play they did. They jump over your legs and if you sit down to play with them, they all pile onto you and then they scrap with each other and roll around in the snow and I could quite happily have stolen the lot.

We went into the Russian cabin, which is a traditionally built log cabin full of interesting bits and pieces, to have hot chocolate. I was already toasty – my warm layers on their own were warm enough, I had a huge overall over it, I’d been out sledding and now there were puppies! – but I dran my hot chocolate and Jakob talked.

He’s from the Czech Republic, he’s lived all over the world, he learnt mushing at the Snow Hotel in Kirkenes (on the Norway-Russia border) and at the moment he’s in Svalbard because he likes the ice and snow and the dark. In fact, no one at Greendogs is Norwegian. Even at the Polar Institute back in Longyearbyen, 60% of the staff are not Norwegian and everything’s taught in English. No, he’s never actually seen a polar bear. They don’t come to this valley – except the one that raided another set of kennels two years ago, ate all their dogfood and had to airlifted to the other end of the archipelago because he wouldn’t take the hint that they didn’t want a polar bear there. This is apparently the way to deal with troublesome bears – there are planes and helicopters coming in all the time to deliver tourists and supplies and they keep an eye out for bears. Any that get too close to Longyearbyen get darted and then removed to another part of the island, which is good because I thought they just shot any marauding bears.

When we’d finished and said goodbye to the puppies, we came back down to the lower kennels and Jakob fed the dogs (and cuddled some particular favourites) while we got out of our enormous overalls and boots and then we were delivered back to town. I think a bath is in order.

Svalbard 2015: Oslo to Longyearbyen

I got the bus back to Oslo airport without catastrophe, attempted to check in out of habit, having completely forgotten I already possessed both boarding card and bag label until the machine tried to charge me for a second bag – quite reasonably, since I was indeed trying to add a bag because it hadn’t yet dawned on me that the system knew I already had a bag, went through security (got caught this time; I didn’t take the Kindle out because it didn’t occur to me that I needed to) and then settled down to kill the best part of two hours in the domestic wing of Oslo Gardermoen. I watched the Stavanger plane get emptied, restocked, refuelled, loaded etc (was a bit horrified to see the food delivery man deliver a snack directly to the pilots by means of a stick through their window – the pilots’ windows aren’t all sealed! One of them just lifts out!) and then went looking for my own gate. I’d suspected we were stopping somewhere on the way to Longyearbyen and I was right – Tromsø. In fact, to all intents and purposes, this was the Oslo to Tromsø service and when we arrived (very beautiful place, all snowy mountain rising out of blue fjord; looks like CGI) we had to get off the plane, go into the terminal, walk through a passport-protected gate and then get back on because although Svalbard belongs to Norway, apparently it doesn’t in some way and it’s not part of the Schengen agreement.

The plane had been full on the way up from Oslo but now it was quieter, funnily enough. I spent most of the flight entertaining myself by watching the sun disappear behind the horizon, making a spectacular band of orange and yellow above the cloud. I saw stars! There were a couple of twinkling little silver stars visible above the sunset at quarter past one in the afternoon. I’ve never seen actual stars at lunchtime before.

As we came in over Longyearbyen, I began to think that perhaps it wasn’t going to be as dark as I’d expected. Today it is, yes, because it’s cloudy but above the cloud is a relatively bright sky and the mountains are very clearly visible above the town.

We touched down at Svalbard Lufthavn Longyear at around 2pm. The sun had long since set – more than twenty-two days ago, in fact, and it’s not going to rise again until February 16th next year. The plane didn’t stop nose-in as they usually do – it approached the terminal and then swung round sideways so we could scurry across the ice to the door and before we were even off the plane, they were already deicing the wings.

I did have a small catastrophe before I’d even set food on Svalbard soil. I’d succeeded in getting to and from my hotel, I’d caught two flights, I hadn’t got lost in Tromsø, it was all going suspiciously well. I left my camera on the plane. I was still on the steps when I realised I didn’t remember putting it anywhere after taking photos out the window and once I’d hastily searched my bag, I approached the first official-looking person I could see. A small thing like a camera on a plane isn’t a big deal in Longyearbyen. She radioed a colleague to have a look for it when she brought the two small kids she was escorting and the camera was delivered (through security, which is in the same hall as baggage reclaim) long before the luggage arrived. That’s excellent service, and she even told me there has been Northern Lights activity for the last few days, so I’ll probably see them (cloud permitting, of course).

I’d been a little worried about the last step of the adventure – getting from the airport to the hotel but that was fine. There was a bus waiting outside and everyone dumped their luggage in the hold and boarded, so I copied everyone else and sure enough, when we were all on, the driver came down with his ticket machine to collect money. We drove the four miles along the seafront, into the town and he called out the important stops as we went so I knew exactly where to jump off. However, I do notice that buildings around here seem to try to hide the main door – that was hidden around the side.

I have a nice big room, with a huge window, wood panelling, a massive picture over my bed of a mountain and the remains of a hut (when I say massive, I mean it’s a wall feature, rather than a picture on the wall) and most importantly, I have a bath! It all seems very pleasant and cosy.

Last of all, in case anyone doesn’t know where I actually am, here’s a handy map:

 

Svalbard 2015: to Oslo

Act 1, Scene 1 – London Heathrow Airport, Terminal Two Departures, Section D

A ridiculous creature in ridiculous boots two and a half sizes too big approaches a check-in machine, enters her booking reference, scans her passport and is given in return a sticker for the big red tarpaulin bag at her feet.

Act 1,Scene 2 – London Heathrow Airport, SAS Tagged Bag Drop

CHECK-IN MAN: I’m sorry, you’ll have to pick up your bags in Oslo

The ridiculous creature is pleased by this.

Act 1, Scene 3 – London Heathrow Airport, Terminal Two Security

The ridiculous creature puts her watch into her coat pocket, takes out her laptop and places it in a tray with her documentation and coat, then takes the ridiculous boots off and puts them in the tray. She approaches the security gate with some trepidation, certain she’s not wearing anything metallic but expecting the detector to beep anyway. It doesn’t.

The trays containing her luggage go through the scanner. She waits for them to be shunted off to the side, to be inspected separately but they come straight down to her with no problem. She puts the laptop and documentation away, dons coat and boots and walks away, surprised.

Act 1, Scene 4  – London Heathrow Airport, Terminal Two departure area

The ridiculous creature sits with her laptop open and writes a screenplay about this memorable day.

END

Our flight was delayed by the late arrival of the incoming plane and it was 7.58pm by the time we took off. The wifi was free for SAS Plus passengers but not for us lowly SAS Go passenger but luckily, it didn’t actually work so I wasn’t missing anything. I was, of course, in the window seat and there was someone supposed to be in my aisle seat but he soon noticed there was no one in the entire row of seats opposite and shifted himself to the opposite window, giving us an entire row each, which was nice.

There was snow in the ground as we came into Oslo. I wasn’t expecting that. Hadn’t given a single thought to the idea that mainland Norway in November might be snowy. We disembarked from the back door of the plane, discovered that the area around the wing is very slippery and icy, presumably because it’s wet there from the wings being deiced and then had to climb a flight of stairs next to the front door to get into the airport. SAS, by the way, give all their planes Viking names and mine was Saga Viking. I’d like to start a collection but my SAS collection would take a lot longer than my Icelandair collection because Icelandair only have a dozen or so planes and SAS have… lots. I might count them in the back of the magazine on tomorrow’s plane.

I knew I had to pick up my luggage but it turns out, I would have had to anyway – something to do with coming in from an international flight and transferring onto a domestic. I had to when I flew to Trondheim as well, although I didn’t when I flew Narvik-Oslo-London. Presumably it’s a different story if it’s domestic to international.

Anyway. We landed at 10.37 and by 11.10, I was on a moving bus, heading for my hotel – which I reached with no problems whatsoever. My first ever successful arrival at a Thon hotel. The room is huge, the TV is enormous and the underfloor heating in the bathroom is so hot that you don’t need a sauna, just sit on the bathroom floor for a few minutes. Basic breakfast starts at 4.30, proper breakfast about 6.30 and my next job of the night is to see what bus I need to get so I can find out what time I need to be up.