After spending a couple of days in Longyearbyen, we were all ready and excited to board the Antigua. We hauled all of our gear onto the ship and into our cabins. The cabins seemed tiny at first, but within a day my cabin mate and I were negotiating the space beautifully and smoothly and it became our comfortable home for the next two weeks. Luckily the pom-poms were able to reside elsewhere, otherwise I would have had to literally sleep on top of them.
At this time of year, we were losing 20 minutes of daylight per day, so we moved our clocks 2 hours ahead to “ship time” so we could take advantage of as much daylight as possible and be ready to go ashore when it was light enough.
We quickly got into a daily routine. Breakfast was at 8 am and then we would typically have a morning landing right after the 9 am short information meeting. People could either do project work or go on a hike. Sometimes there were zodiac trips to view ice and glaciers. We were back on the ship at 1 pm for lunch followed by an afternoon landing. And then back to the ship at 5pm for the all important CAKE time (or 4pm cake time if we were sailing and not on land). I had such a huge appetite the entire time. Hauling and working with the pom-poms, hiking, and even standing still in the cold required so much extra energy that I often had second servings of the fabulous food and I couldn’t wait for cake and tea in the afternoon. Cake was a very important time for everyone! After cake there was a request time where special requests for project work could be made. Our itinerary was based very much on weather and project work and since you had to be with an armed guide on land, special requests had to be coordinated. Dinner was at 7:30 and many evenings we had presentations where we got to see and hear more about our creative companions. It was such an interesting and diverse international group. We also heard about the history and environment of the land from our informative guides.
At all times, when on shore we must be in the safe area or with an armed guide on a hike. We had 4 fabulous guides (including Nemo the dog) plus our expedition leader Aaron. The guides would first scout the area for polar bears. Once it was determined to be safe we would take a zodiac to shore. A safe area would be set up which usually consisted of a triangle made up of 3 of the guides. Nemo would always be with Sarah, or couldn’t wait to get back to her if he went on a hike. A guide would take a maximum of 8 people on a hike and if there was a large group, 2 guides would go and the safe working area would become smaller. Polar bears are a constant risk and the guides take them very seriously. Therefore we were not allowed to use the term “polar bear” while on land. Instead we had to refer to them as PB’s or white furry friends.
Every day I marveled at the magnificent landscape. Spitsbergen is the name of the large main island of Svalbard and it means “pointed mountains.” Everywhere you looked there were spectacular pointed peaks.
We visited many glaciers and saw and heard calving, and zipped around in zodiacs to get a closer view of the icebergs.
The light and colors throughout the trip were incredible. It was easy to lose track of days and time with all we saw and did. The sounds were amazing too. The absolute silence or the sound of ice crackling, or the wind, or the boat gliding through the water.
The hike opportunities were varied. Project work always came first, so I selected my hikes with that in mind. Some were easy paced and afforded lots of photography, others were faster or more vigorous in terms of terrain. One hike along a glacial moraine was essentially like bouldering. My favorite hike was at Blomstrandhalvøya on a glorious clear day. We hiked up to the summit of the mountain and had the most stunning views. We also had incredibly fierce winds that were 40-50 mph sending snow pummeling into us, stinging any bare skin. I loved every minute of it!
Because our journey was late in the season we didn’t see any other boats or people until Day 9 when we visited Ny Ålesund which is the northern most community in the world and is a research station. Currently there are about 30 people living there, but this increases during the summer months to about 150+. The store was opened for us for about half an hour. We visited the Norwegian Polar Institute but since many people had left for the season there wasn’t much going on to discuss. Since it was Saturday night the town bar was opened, so we headed to the bar after dinner and we easily outnumbered the locals that night.
The other settlement we visited was Pyramiden which is an abandoned Russian settlement. It was a coal mining town which was abandoned in 1998 and everything was just left. There have been two people living here and recently more Russians have come back to maintain the facilities and accommodate tourists. I think there were about 10 people living there when we were there. We walked around town in the morning and then three buildings were opened to accommodate project work in the afternoon. Again a safe area had to be set up as polar bears can easily wander into this ghost town. The culture house, cantina and swimming hall were opened and it was fascinating and potentially a little creepy to wander around these abandoned buildings on your own and discover new things in every corner.
Each day presented new and exciting challenges. The challenges varied from no snow –what, no snow in the Arctic!??, to a big snowstorm resulting in a long pom-pom recovery time in which I had to enlist additional help from others, to high winds –not good for pom-poms. In fact, one day several pom-poms took off and the wind got hold of one and it was over a cliff and long gone out of the safety zone before I could reach it. Amazingly, later in the day someone recovered it on the beach! When I worked with the pom-poms I was very active, and lugging 2150 pom-poms was just plain heavy, even with all the help I got, so I typically only worked with the pom-poms in the morning and then in the afternoon did a hike or pursued other art ideas. Other challenges included time constraints and every now and then someone may accidentally wander into your camera frame in the safety zone. But we all adapted well and were able to pursue our projects enthusiastically.
Weather, Swimming, Sailing and Sea Sickness:
I was so pleased with all my gear. I really did stay warm. Most of the time I wore 4 layers on top, 3 hat layers, and 2 leg layers. Sometimes removing a layer if I was very active and adding a layer if the wind chill factor picked up. The only thing that got cold was my fingers. I needed to remove my thicker outer gloves to work my camera, and had liners underneath, but would need to stick my fingers in my pockets every now and then when they got too cold, where I had placed toasty hand warmers.
And the only time my toes got cold was when I went for an Arctic dip. Yes, you read that right — a small group decided we wanted to swim. It happened to be on one of the colder occasions –the wind that day was fierce, but we were docked at Ny Ålesund which meant we were at a pier and there was a beach close by so we could be back on the ship and into a hot shower within 5 minutes. It was the fastest “swim” ever but incredibly exhilarating!
When there was enough wind, we could sail. Sailing on a tall ship requires a lot of extra hands to get the sails up and down. We learned how to tie the ropes properly and then helped as needed when we sailed. We only really experienced rough seas twice. I had an assortment of remedies ranging from wrist bands, to ginger pills and candies, to an all natural oil dabbed behind the ears (a favorite among many!), to over the counter Bonine. All of which I used in ascending order. Luckily I never actually got sick. The worst day was after the snow storm, when it was time to head south again, the captain had to sail during the day, since he needed to look out for ice. I spent the morning outside on deck, attempted lunch but quickly headed down to the cabin to lie down instead. And then stayed in my bunk for the next 7 hours like most other people, while the ship rocked and rolled endlessly. While I lay still I actually felt okay, as long as I didn’t try and get up. Finally we dropped anchor in a calm fjord and were all able to come upstairs for dinner, hooray!
PB’s, Northern Lights and more:
Yes, we saw polar bears! The first two sightings the bears were sleeping as we watched them from the ship. They became aware of us and stretched and looked around but were not too interested in us. I enjoyed viewing them through binoculars but since I don’t have a telephoto lens my photographs weren’t too impressive. Luckily Korean artist, Sungpil, was aboard and ready! The 3rd sighting came after dinner one night. The bear was investigating the landing site that we had spent the day at. Unfortunately by the time I came upstairs and found out about it I just barely saw a glimpse of it as it walked off in the dark. I also saw an arctic fox on two occasions, with its white winter coat. And reindeer which have much shorter legs in the Arctic. We also saw some curious seals and a walrus. Unfortunately we didn’t make it to Moffen island where we would have likely seen a lot of walrus. Moffen island is further north (we were just shy of 80º N, and Moffen is just above 80º N) and is apparently a tricky landing requiring calm seas. The snowstorm and wind hit us when we were up north so Moffen was out of the question.
We had a lovely display of Northern lights late one evening. They were definitely more subtle in the sky than what my camera would capture. It was rather addicting to watch and shoot them and I discovered that I spent 90 minutes out in the cold until bedtime finally beckoned.
When our journey had ended we had a couple more days in Longyearbyen before we all went our separate ways, with some different group activities and some alone time to reflect, as well as connecting back to the real world through Skype, cell phones and internet again! When we first arrived in Longyearbyen several weeks ago, it seemed like such a small town, however when we returned it seemed much bigger, with many more people and cars. And then when we departed and flew to Tromsø on our way to Oslo the first thing I noticed were all of the green trees everywhere. There are no trees on Svalbard and it was quite a jolt to see them again.
After a long trip home, the pom-poms spent a couple of days drying out in the California sun and then moved to the dryer to be air fluffed with some dryer balls and a fabric sheet. They are beginning to look rejuvenated after their journey. I am now very much looking forward to the next step of this project –editing and figuring out the ideas I want to produce from this incredible experience.