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Published on: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 in 07:03 PM.
In the following categories: Travel notes, Journeys.
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The rhythm of the ship’s engines rumbling under my claustrophobic cabin lull me into a deep sleep despite my firm intentions to take a nap of only half an hour. I wake up—I don’t know how much later—to an alarming silence. I strain my senses. Suddenly the painful peace is interrupted by a dull blow on the ship’s deck.
A second one follows—a weaker one. After that a drawn-out squeaking starts centimeters away from my head. It sounds as though a scaly mastodon is rubbing himself against the ship’s hull. And then, silence again. Without delay I jump out of the berth and bolt for the deck. We have been taken prisoner! In every direction I look, blocks of ice surround the Nordstjernen, our ship. The situation looks desperate, but my heart is singing with excitement. The Arctic! I have dreamed for such a view since my childhood.
We were in the Greenland Sea at no more than 79 degrees northern latitude, and 15 miles away from the west coast of Spitsbergen, the largest island of the polar archipelago Svalbard. Simply to reach it wasn’t easy at all, and now—in these circumstances—no one could any longer say how our ambitious plan to reach the northernmost point of Spitsbergen would be carried out.

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According to experts, Svalbard is one of the most easily accessible arctic territories. However, for us it took four extremely strenuous attempts to land in an impenetrable fog, and two flights from the mainland to the archipelago before we managed to land in Longyearbyen, the administrative center of Svalbard. And yet, at length the Arctic was kindly disposed and allowed us to penetrate its “heights”. It is no accident that the polar explorers gave these regions the byname “high latitudes”. Of course, this is “the crown” of the earth, isn’t it? Look at the globe and you’ll see for yourself.
We arrived in Longyearbyen—a former coal mining center with about 1300 permanent inhabitants—just in time to board the ship Nordstjernen that offers coastal tours of Spitsbergen during the short summer, conditions permitting. The northernmost extensions of the warm current, the Gulf Stream, not only keep the eastern half of the Greenland Sea open for navigation during the season, but also ensure a favourable environment for the diverse sea fauna—as we were about to find out.
For the present, though, we stand still amidst the drift-ice with its hypnotizing charm, and it doesn’t seem that we’ll get out soon. Regardless of the serious risk of damage, such as breaking a screw or a helm in a clash with underwater ice, the crew doesn’t give up and patiently tries to find a passage in the ice labyrinth—albeit with the speed of a snail. For hours we slowly move in zigzags getting out to sea farther and farther. As we find out, the currents and the winds pile up the drift-ice with precision along the coast and especially at the mouths of the bays, where thick belts are formed.
I didn’t notice when exactly we came out into clean waters because in the neverending day of the arctic summer one stops keeping an eye on the clock. The different parts of the day blend and time becomes absolutely relative—if we may use such an oxymoron. We have already been above the arctic circle for 20 days and haven’t yet experienced a night, and as we know the chronometric sense of a human being is organically determined by the change in the intensity of the light—something that with the usual cloudiness and rainy fog above the arctic circle is hardly perceptible. Sometime before dinner—the voice of the stomach turns out to be the most reliable time reference—Nordstjernen squeezes through several icebergs with sculptural forms and goes into the Magdalena fjord. The glaciers descend straight into the sea and above them rocky mountain peaks do indeed rise, which explains why in 1596 the discoverer of the archipelago, the Dutch seafarer Willem Barents, gave it the name of Spitsbergen—“sharp/pointed mountains”. The present-day name, Svalbard, comes from the Norwegian sagas where “a cold land far away in the north, at the very end of the ocean” is mentioned.
We drop anchor and by means of pontoon boats set off for the shore. I happen to have landed in fairly isolated and wild places of the planet, but such an inconsolable and lonely spot as this cove in the Magdalena fjord I think I have never seen. Not that we are particularly welcome guests either: the arctic terns, nesting on the gravel beach, meet us with belligerent animosity. With blood-curdling shrieks they fly very low over our heads in an attempt to drive us away from their territory. The accompanying guide, armed with an impressive bear-killing gun (everywhere in Svalbard you run the risk of meeting a polar bear), foresightedly raises the muzzle of the gun high above us and the birds, in waves, take turns attacking the “aggressor” while leaving our fortunate heads in peace.
On a small height there one can see a heap of stones piled up by human hand: Whaler’s graves. Dutch whalers were the first to set up a support base for hunting in the sheltered bay as these waters abounded in the majestic mammals. Later came others as well: English, French, Norwegian and Danish ships competed in the wholesale slaughter of whales on the west coast of Spitsbergen. The Dutch whalers alone killed at least 60,000 of the sea giants between 1612 and 1729.

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We don’t stay long in this sad and harsh place. The somber monotony of the rocky, icy landscape is broken only by a green spot of grass absurdly growing here. We continue to the north.
We pass through a true tunnel through the steep black mountains carved by sparkling icy rivers which hatch icebergs in the leaden sea, and come out at the mouth of Raudford. It is located at 79º 45’ /79 degrees and 45 minutes northern latitude. Only 15 nautical miles more and we will cross the 80th parallel. From the information we have collected beforehand we know that in a normal summer this is approximately the easternmost point that Nordstjernen reaches in its coastal expeditions, whereafter it heads straight to the north, to 80º, and then travels back to the south.
Now, however, the ship is sailing to the east. It goes round the northern coast of Spitsbergen in order to reach the Hinlopen Strait that separates Spitsbergen from Nordaustlandet, the second-largest island in the archipelago.
The “night” turns out to be clear and sunny, and for the second time since we have been in the Arctic we have the chance to see the midnight sun in its entire splendor. Enchanted, we are watching how the sunset and the sunrise merge in an unearthly phenomenon. It is past 1 am and the sun is tenaciously aiming down at its cherished destination, the west horizon. It gains ground and is already only five fingers above “the line”. Then, on the strength of cosmic law, it begins slowly creeping back up in a flowing diagonal towards the northeast so that it can continue–like a condemned ghost ship–its never-ending oblique tour over the polar lands and seas.
We have hardly slept that night and in the morning we pass into a thick, cold fog. We clearly feel the breath of Nordaustlandet—90 % of the island is covered with ice. We have already got fairly down to the south, to the Hinlopen Strait on the east coast of Spitsbergen. Gradually, the ship draws close to the land and the visibility improves. In front of us appear the incredible shapes of weather-beaten rocks decorated with glacial tongues from which mighty waterfalls gush out. The engines stop and in the silence that sets in, the simultaneous shrieks of millions of birds resound. We are in front of Alkefjelet, the famous bird’s rock on Svalbard. This bird dwelling place is 100 meters high and 300 meters wide and every projection, ledge and jut on which a feathered creature could possibly perch is occupied by a bird. The view is at once exceptionally life-asserting and frightful: Darwin and Hitchcock in one.
I have no idea how long we have drifted in front of Alkefjelet. It feels like time has stopped. In the end Nordstjernen gives a long toot and turns to the north. We stop at Sorgfjorden and get off to stretch our legs on the deserted shore. It is littered with processed timber probably carried along from Siberia because here already the Gulf Stream gives in to cold currents from Russia’s north coast. Eolusneset is a former trappers’ and whaling station. We even see preserved an intact hut built of planks decayed by the time and the climate. And again graves pressed down with stones, and again the hard drama of adventurous hearts: in 1855, a belated Norwegian sailing-boat was trapped by the autumn ice and spent a harsh winter and a 4-month-long polar night on Spitsbergen which ended fatally for part of the crew.
We put out to sea and not long after we can distinguish even with the naked eye the radiant band of impassable ice in the northeast. This is the way to the North Pole, at a distance of “only” 600 miles. Well, we proceed a little farther in the same direction until in the end Nordstjernen successfully rounds the northernmost point of Spitsbergen, Cape Verlegenhuken, located at 80º northern latitude. We feel as though we have climbed a peak. The euphoria is quickly gone and the descent begins. However, the emotions are not over.

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Having stepped exactly on the 80th parallel, Moffen Island is a remarkable creation of nature. Its altitude is only 8 meters and three quarters of its negligibly small territory is occupied by a freshwater lake. Its gravel shores are strewn with timber gnawed by the storms. We come closer and suddenly some of the logs start moving as if alive. Have we become a victim of the notorious phantom Fata Morgana, who has lured more than one polar explorer with false hopes? We focus our binoculars and the pine trunks transmute into large-toothed monsters—walruses, a whole colony. While we are lost in admiration of the indolent “sea elephants”, someone cries out from the bridge: Bjørn, bjørn! As poor as our Norwegian is, we realize that he is speaking of a polar bear. Indeed, the King of the Arctic is parading among the sprawled walruses. The engines stop again and the show goes on interminably. As if realising that it has been watched, the bear takes an imperturbable round of bows, performs an encore, and even gets dangerously close to the walruses. However, unlike us they are not paying any attention to it. The walruses might not be very fast but their 5-centimeter-thick hide makes them a difficult bite to swallow even for this omnivorous beast of prey.
Soon after dinner we enter the ice world of Liefdefjord frontally encircled by a gigantic glacier 50 to 60 meters high. The temperature drops and the sea among the numerous icebergs turns into an icy mash. On an isolated block of ice we see the yellowish stain of a comfortably lounging bear. We joke that it is probably the one from Moffen Island who has come to finish off its show.
The next day the weather deteriorates and the sea, the sky and the land merge into a steel-grey infinity. Only the storm-birds constantly accompanying us—plus one or two large misguided pieces of ice—spoil the feeling that we sail in a slimy aquarium. We moor in Ny-Ålesund, the northernmost permanent settlement in the world, which is located at 79º10’ northern latitude. Here, coal was discovered for the first time on Spitsbergen, which confirms the theory of the terrestrial axes shift. About 100 million years ago Svalbard was in the tropics densely covered with lush vegetation. Nowadays, the exploiting of the coal deposits has been stopped and Ny-Ålesund has turned into an international center for polar research. Except for its miners’ stories the settlement has its dramatic past as well. On the southeastern shore of the bay still rises the metal tower to which the Norge Airship was secured. In it Roald Amundsen and Umberto Nobile successfully flew over the North Pole in 1926. Two years later The Italia took off from here with an entirely Italian crew led by Nobile but crashed on the polar ice.
Some more days pass and it is time to leave the Arctic, this land of contrasts: from the delicate Svalbard poppy to the ominous Monaco Glacier, from the dead rock shores to the vital birds’ colonies, from the everlasting day to the everlasting night. They are right, the “polar wolves” from Spitsbergen, when they say that you either fall in love with the Arctic for the rest of your life, or you never again set foot there. So repulsively attractive is this magnetic place.

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