“We are sitting in a bar on a ship, drinking a beer in the middle of the arctic, while a Philippino cover band busts out ‘Country Roads’ by John Denver. What.”
This was uttered to me by my erstwhile travel companion, Hate, as a reality check. It served its purpose well.
We started off in Oslo, where I met up with Hate and Damage.
The former was named thusly for reasons that are obvious to anyone who spends more than five minutes with her. The latter earned her name through copious amounts of self-inflicted damage through use of various and sundry power tools or yard-taming devices.
We had a seven hour layover in Oslo. Since Damage is the most organized of the group, she decreed that we would use our time to go in search of boats. Specifically, the Fram and the Viking ship museums. I will just brush over this stuff as Oslo deserves far more time that I gave it. The town itself is clean, historical, beautiful, and full of character.
One of the main buildings was having a remodel done, and they printed out a tarp to look like the real thing, just to maintain the illusion. Well done:
From there, it was short ferry ride to the boat museums. The Fram is basically a temple to Roald Amundsen and crew, documenting their impressive polar expedition.
The most impressive part? The boat itself. It was designed to get stuck in the ice, built bulbous and massively curved to keep from getting crushed but instead pushed up on the ice, and the plan was to just let the ice flow carry them.
The museum is well worth a few hours of time, reading through everything they went through and picturing how dangerous and crazy it must have been at that time to attempt what they did. While in Oslo we also had to check out the Viking museum. Because, well, VIKINGS.
I was a bit crestfallen to learn that each of the three impressive boats there weren’t actually used for the pillaging of far off lands, but instead were burial ships. However, my imagination is not bound by silly things like reality, so I just jettisoned that “fact” and let my mind wander.
Soon it was time to go. We had to acquire some snacks though. Two things to know about Norway:
- They love their queues. If you get in a line, you need to look out for a number dispenser. Several times I went to talk to someone only to be rebuffed and sent away, chastised, to take a paper ticket from a dispenser.
- Buying anything, even a cheeseburger, will likely involve taking out a mortgage or providing collateral. Example: simple cheeseburger at the airport? $35. Hate opted for “cheez doodles”
Damage had been good enough to agree to Sherpa various cold weather gear across the Pacific for me, since I didn’t want to haul this across Mexico and Spain. Elder Wanker agreed to supply these from his rich cache of snow boarding equipment, and so it was that she arrived with several pairs of gloves, a hat, goggles, snow pants, parka, several pairs of wool socks, and enough hand-warming packets to burn a hole in a glacier. He also provided me with a little taste of home in the form of “Mike & Ike’s”. I mentioned potentially missing these once in some obscure blog post that has now been long forgotten, and for those of you unfamiliar, these are basically elongated jelly beans and I’ve been known to plow through a theater-sized box in one sitting. So, I was tickled to receive a box. I was more tickled to discover a second box. The third and fourth box seemed like they were just overdoing things a little. To quote Monty Python: “Five, is RIGHT OUT”. Yep, diabetes here I come.
From Oslo, it was a short ride up to Svalbard. More specifically Spitsbergen. More specifically than that, Longyearbyen.
Flying into Svalbard (the archipelago) is magical. I didn’t have a window seat, so my ability to snap pictures with my little camera phone was limited. But picture God’s own vat of Cool Whip, all smooth rounded piles of white and elegant pointed ridges and tops, with a few jutting and ragged mountains of rock stabbing out of the whiteness and you’ve got a decent idea. And looking out at that landscape reminded me: I would not see darkness again for more than week.
The plane landed in Longyearbyen (the town of Longyear, if that is correct interpretation of Norwegian naming), and promptly disgorged us through both for and aft doors (already getting the hang of sailor-speak, see?). The town isn’t large enough for all the trappings of a modern airport, so the plane just drops you off on the pavement and basically says “welp, good luck to ya.”
We settled into the “Radisson Blue”, which was a surprisingly good hotel for being out in the middle of nowhere, then experienced our first “night”. Note: it is basically required for all houses to have curtains thick enough to survive a nuclear blast so as to keep out the blinding sun 24 hours per day.
In the “morning” (really, such distinctions fall away out here, we’ll just say, when we woke and dragged ourselves through our starting rituals of showering and such), we explored the bustling burg of Longyear. They are good enough to supply a couple tourist attractions. The museum is surprisingly well appointed and extensive for a town of a couple thousand people. Also, walking around town you find a few curiosities:
We wanted to get down to the coast, but were impeded by a sign explaining that the Arctic Terns would attack you if you came near their nests, and explained that you could hold aloft a stick (provided, happily) to keep them from pecking your head off. It also instructed you not to wave the stick around, which might hurt the birds, but just hold it above your head. So while we weren’t sure if this was some sort of practical joke the locals entertained themselves with (“look, more tourists holding sticks! Ha ha!”) we took the sticks and went along.
Turns out they weren’t kidding. Two birds came leaping and screeching at us, then saw the sticks poised above our heads and thus stayed a safe distance from us, boiling hatred and menace in our general directions. This prompted Hate to observe:
“So, you don’t have to fend them off with the sticks, they just get intimidated by it? So they are stupid. And angry. They are basically Americans.” And thus the Tern would be known as “The American Bird” for the rest of the trip. One of the many nicknames to be generated.
But I get ahead of myself. Finally it was time to board the ship:
Now, while this is a cruise ship, it’s not really your “typical” cruise ship. It holds a little over 100 guests, and was converted from a car ferry. Still, it was perfectly nice for our voyage. We got the first of many briefings (this one of security, general rules and structure, how to put on life vest, etc), then prepared for departure.
We got underway and had our first meals and first sleep-period on the boat (really, you can’t call it a night when it’s just blazing sunlight the whole time). Now, this is a cruise ship, so food is plentiful. This is dangerous, as there’s also a lot of down time while cruising around between destinations where there’s not a lot to do, so eating always sounds like a great idea. Urp. As a down-side, the hand sanitizer provided smelled like tequila gone bad, so that put most people off their appetite. All the more for me.
Day two saw us on our first expedition, but it was rather a let-down. We rode out in groups of ten on zodiacs (big rubber boats) and walked around our first arctic tundra. We were told to keep well behind the guide who would be armed with a rifle. They posted several other long-range lookouts to scout for bears. They take their bear sighting seriously. They pointed out many different kinds of plants, which I found hard to get too excited by. The landscape was stark and beautiful, though the day was gray and cloudy. The tundra was surprisingly squishy, like walking on brains.
Near the end though, we came back to the landing spot and found a couple of walrus. Everyone gathered a safe distance away to take photographs, then Frank, one of the on-board wildlife experts, went up close to the walrus, barking and woofing. It was impressive to watch them respond, they wobbled up to him, confused, trying to see if he was actually one of them. I would always wonder if I was saying something insulting about their waistline if I attempted this. No pictures taken as I couldn’t get anything useful without a zoom lens. Ah well.
Every night there would be a “debrief” where on-board experts would do presentations about what we saw that day, or history of the area and other topics. I wasn’t expecting this, and honestly found it to be one of the cooler parts of the trip. You come away with a bunch of knowledge every day that you didn’t have before, ready to apply it to what you encounter the next day.
At dinner every night, we were joined by Damage’s friend who was the Kayak Master on board. He fit right in with the levels of sarcasm provided and more than earned the name Caustic. So, while the days were filled with beauty, the nights were balanced out with a dinner recap between Hate, Damage, Caustic, and myself. It was as strange counterpoint, but I left most nights weary from laughing so much.
Day three we stopped off at a research base, and a place named “Ny London” (New London), which was rather ambitiously named. First the research base: we walked around the town, took in the scenery, saw some birds, and learned about how Amundsen died looking for his one-time partner, then competitor, Umberto Nobile and the saga of airship exploration to the north pole. Overall good stuff.
As I mentioned: ambitiously named. Some guys were panning for gold and failed for many years. So then they found marble and set up a company to ship marble from here to all around the world. Got hundreds of thousands of pounds invested, set up lots of infrastructure then found that the marble, while beautiful when in the ground, basically crumbled to dust once you moved it. Heartbreak and tragedy followed. So we basically just get to be tourists in their misery.
Day four knocked it outta the park. We saw a blue whale. Now, taking a picture from the deck of a boat, even of something as large as a blue whale, just doesn’t do it justice, so I didn’t even try.
But come on people:
A Blue Whale.
I was pretty much happy to end the tour there. Largest living thing in the world, and I got to see it. Now, there are some pictures taken by the on-board photographer that they say will be made available to us all, but on last checking there’s nothing on the site they provided for us, so at some point I hope to update this post with those pictures. They are worth it. There was even a police boat that came to check on us, and almost got wiped out by the whale. Both boat and whale scared the hell out of each other and both buggered off. Fun times.
However, that wasn’t all! We also went kayaking out to glaciers and saw some fantastic calving happen. Giant towers of ice splitting off from their wall, crumbling to the sea in a cacophony of cracks and booms. Impressive. No action shots of calving, sadly. In fact, no shots from this day at all because I didn’t even think bringing my phone with me while kayaking would be a valid option. I remedied that in future excursions.
Day five we got what everyone wanted. First off, we got up to 90 degrees north (very close, geographically speaking, to the North Pole), we got into massive ice fields, and we saw our first polar bear.
So, yeah, the image is pretty underwhelming. Again, I’ll update this when I get access to all the excellent zoom-equipped images. For now, use your imagination.
Day six, disaster struck. Well, it struck me, at least. I came down with the same Montezuma’s-revenge type of stomach hell that I last experienced in Mexico. There was a family from Portland on board that all came down with it in the previous days, so I blame them. I stayed in my bunk, alternating between sweating, sleeping, and running to the bathroom. I heard people went out to “the bird cliffs” and saw another bear. I hobbled up on deck near the end of the day and took a few pictures. I couldn’t get terribly excited about it.
The following day I was magically all better. Sadly, it turns out that I had passed the evil to Hate. She lay in her bunk and plotted my demise, promising no less than ten times that I would die for this. I chose to enjoy my final days on this earth. I kayaked around more ice bergs. I climbed a glacier. I got to see an ice berg roll, break apart and disintegrate right near my kayak, which was alarming and impressive all at once. And I took pictures:
Eventually Hate got better and we agreed on a hold to hostilities long enough to take a zodiac tour around an ice field full of bergs. Fun fact: ice bergs have five different names. The top three aren’t all the interesting (small berg, medium berg, large berg), but the first two are great. The smallest ones are called “growlers”. Yep, just like those things you fill beer with. The second largest are called (and I’m not making this up) “bergy bits”. Yep, that’s the actual name.
The following days start to run together, and since this post has gotten ridiculously long, I’m just going list some high points:
Kayak trip out a relaxing coast line where we got out and hiked a rocky beach and found a perfect place for solitude at the base of a monstrous glacier, looking out at a perfectly blue sky day.
A shore landing with five walrus, as well as a walrus bone yard and old shacks used for over-wintering. If living with no darkness was strange, how hard would it be living with no light? No thanks.
Many many polar bears, some of them eating seals leaving bloody smears across the ice. Nature in action!
The final kayak trip out to a shelf where we found a berg that must have broken off from the base of the glacier; super-compacted ice along with dirt and rocks that gave it a stunning and unique appearance.
A shore landing where we found arctic fox kits, a small herd of raindeer (named derp-deer, ’cause man do they look derpy when you see them up close), birds that dive-bombed both the deer and one of the guys trying to photograph the attack, and more raindeer poop than you can shake a stick at.
Some assorted beauty shots:
In between all these excursions, there was much food eaten (the chef kept a pretty good variety nigh-to-night). Nightly on-board music was provided by an LA dude named Clayton (which was quite the contrast: a sun-drenched musician in the arctic). We gathered for drinks at the bar most nights, and one night the staff band got up and played for three hours (covering, among other things, “country roads”, as mentioned).
Things in the bar weren’t always strictly logical.
Then finally back to Longyearbyen, onto a plane, and back to the real world. Looking back, the arctic has more majesty and mystery than I could possibly appreciate immediately. I find myself constantly thinking back and reliving my days there: being on the ice, or looking out from land at what the world looks like in its pristine, untouched, unpolluted state.
Sadly, the real world does encroach there: plastic washes up on the shores, and the ice is retreating rapidly. If I return to visit again in five years it will likely be a different, and lessened place than I saw now. But I am completely grateful I got to experience it as it is now.
On a clear day you can see forever. The air is crisp and has a clarity I haven’t experienced before. The land is raw, elemental, and strikingly beautiful. If you are in need of mental clarity, surrender, and tranquility, this place can provide it. This is a world so separated from your normal life it can take you completely out of your tiny self-important state. And if you want to see this world unspoiled and pristine, this is a stunning example of it.
Now I’m back to real life, and big cities. There are some benefits though: