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,