Summer Quarter 2017

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A little light summer reading, feet up, drink in hand, contemplating the horrors of North Korea and Afghanistan and the merits of anarchy. My favorites were #9 in the Sandman Slim series and anything ever written by China Miéville, but the biggest surprise was the George Saunder’s novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. I have never been a huge fan of his short stories because they just seem to start vague and trail off, but all that wispiness really worked for me in this short contemplation of death and the after life.

  1. China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan
  2. Stiletto (The Checquy Files, #2) by Daniel O’Malley
  3. Trials of the Earth: The True Story of a Pioneer Woman by Mary Mann Hamilton
  4. The Chimes by Anna Smaill
  5. Kraken by China Miéville
  6. Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits by David Wong
  7. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
  8. Anarchism and Other Essays by Emma Goldman
  9. The Searchers by Glenn Frankel
  10. 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster
  11. Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
  12. The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston
  13. Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
  14. African Silences by Peter Matthiessen
  15. Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eichar
  16. Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West
  17. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
  18. The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower, #1) by Stephen King
  19. After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back as Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan by Ted Rall
  20. The Kill Society: A Sandman Slim Novel by Richard Kadrey

I’m keeping my reviews and reading list here at Goodreads.com. Friend me there if you want to see what I’m reading now.

Day Thirteen and Home: Ingebrigtsenbukta

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After a rough, tossing night as the ship beat its way up the west coast of Svalbard through the Greenland Sea against the Greenland current, we have finally arrived at the last day aboard ship. Our last stop is in Van Keulenfjorden, an 1930’s whaling station with the beach covered with piles of old beluga whale bones. At some point, they’ve come through, counted the bones, and estimated 550 beluga were processed here. Bones decay slowly in the Arctic, but having picked up whale bones before, I can attest that they are surprisingly light (even the fresh ones), like styrofoam copies of bones. (We were under strict instructions on this trip not to touch or move anything, like bones or rocks or pieces of driftwood, on this trip because their current position was considered historically important, so I didn’t touch these.)

There was also a sturdy cabin, still in use, gingham curtains and polar bear toughened doors and shutters with 4 inch nails sticking out. It’s currently used by a hunting club. There’s no settlements in Svalbard (besides Longyearbyen and Ny-Ålesund), but every cabin, every trapper hut is named. This one was named Cabin Bamsebu.

The views were of mountains and the long bay, a small herd of reindeer grazing the tundra.

Bamsebu
Bamsebu  Bamsebu panorama

Running around the cabin and its collection of decaying boats and sheds and piles of bones, were 3 snow bunting chicks.

snow bunting chicks
snow bunting chicks

Snow bunting being the only song birds in Svalbard. They nest in indentations in the ground which means that they are vulnerable to gulls and foxes, but these had wisely burrowed into the loose debris that collects near any dwelling in a rural, open landscape. The chicks were loudly complaining for food and as the adults rushed back from the water, the chicks would bolt out to meet them and then scurry back undercover. Which seemed to mean that only the fastest chick for that pass got fed. But all three chicks look fat and healthy so I guess it was working out for them.

From Ingebrigtsenbukta, we headed back to Longyearbyen which still took several hours. Lunch was served, dinner was served, we drank, we napped. The ship docked at 11 pm. And they roused us at midnight to gather our things and catch a bus for the airport. Most of us booked on a 2:30 am flight back to Oslo because, well, what difference does it make with 24 hour sunlight and then you pull into Oslo at 5:30 am which gives you plenty of opportunities to catch a morning flight going onward from there. (This also caused some confusion during the planning phase of the trip because I understand the timing and booked a 8:30 am flight from Oslo to Copenhagen, 12:30 flight from Copenhagen to San Francisco, so I was home the same day. But my Canadian friends thought we were arriving in Oslo at 5:30 pm, so booked an extra night at an airport hotel so they could catch the morning flight back to Canada — which I think went Oslo to Brussels to Heathrow to Halifax to Toronto. See previous note about traveling on airline points.)

Fun fact, the airline employee in Longyearbyen was very concerned that I was only checking in one bag. That meant that I hadn’t purchased enough local goods, didn’t I understand that there were some fine outstanding people that needed me to spend lots of money here? But he did check my luggage through to San Francisco which was all that I was worried about.

So, it was a hellishly long day with 2 three hour layovers. And on the long leg from Copenhagen to San Francisco, something had gone wrong with their aircraft, so they’d had to pull the “reserve aircraft” out of mothballs or packing peanuts or whatever they were storing it in and use that. It was filthy and dripped water on people’s head, it wasn’t fully stocked with food and liquids, so they were reluctant to give you anything. The attendants retreated to the gallery and just kept repeating, not my fault, not my fault, whenever anyone tried to approach them.

Which means that it was really great to get home and fall into my bed in a pile with the dogs.

Day Twelve: Isbjørnhamna & Samarinvågen

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Back in the boats first thing in the morning. The gearing up to stand sweating in the hallway waiting for your turn at the ramp to load the zodiac. The bobbing, rolling of the small boats while you waited for the rest of the zodiacs to load. This set of guides / zodiac drivers had a trick of setting themselves in a line along the ship’s hull, with just a small twist of the outboard control, enough engine to keep you pushing against the hull and out of the wind. On some of the other adventures I’ve taken, there were more passengers than zodiacs, so the drivers didn’t wait and go in as a group. They were going to be making multiple trips anyway. But those were also places where there wasn’t the threat of polar bears suddenly appearing in the landscape as you dropped off passengers.

Today we were headed for a bird cliff of little auks. Little auks are in the same family as thick-billed murres / guillemots that we’d been seeing. They’re even in the same family as puffins, which we have seen on this trip, but no I have no pictures of them (or the ivory gulls). Apparently I am holding out for the picture prefect shot of a puffin with its bill filled with small herring.

Now they told us the night before, bird cliffs, little auks. What they forgot to tell us was that they were dropping us off at the foot of a glacier with the rolling ridges of fist-sized loose rock of the glacier moraine and the bird cliff was two miles that way. More than one person slipped and fell (not me, I had hiking poles), the slow group took considerably longer to get there. And when we finally got there, we could sit down on the reindeer poop covered tundra. (I didn’t really do a definitive photo study of the different poop in the Arctic landscape. One of the Swedes was doing that apparently and his partner looked at him and said, how German of you, taking pictures of poop. But I will tell you that reindeer poop comes out a long poop, a log shaped item, and then breaks apart into small rabbit-like pellets about the size of your littlest fingernail and spreads out.)

little auks
little auks

The little auks were flying around in a thick cloud, but I would not have described as a “bird cliff”. The little auks look for boulder fields that are steep, but more importantly have small enough cracks between the loose rock so that they can get in, but the foxes can’t. Their defenses for their nests are small spaces which still leave the small adult birds at risk because they have to keep going back and forth to the sea to get food.

And of course there were foxes.

arctic fox
arctic fox
blue arctic fox
arctic fox

In fact, a fox (hard to tell male or female at a distance) and 2 kits. And one of the kit was a blue fox. Now arctic foxes predominately are white in the winter and the striped brown on cream during the summer. But a small percent have a coloration where they are slate gray all year round (a little lighter in the winter). They are still arctic foxes and not a different species or sub-species. It’s just a recessive gene, like blue eyes in humans.

The afternoon stop was Samarinvågen with the glacier, Samarinbreen. The planned activity was to give everyone a chance to walk on a glacier. I actually have walked on a glacier, ice crampons and axes and the whole bit. So, I decided to stay on the ship. The morning hike had been strenuous enough. And someone from our group, actually the one person from our group that went out, said she didn’t even make it up to the glacier because it was too steep. And it’s easier to take pictures of a glacier from a distance.

Samarinvågen
Samarinvågen panorama
Samarinvågen
Samarinvågen panorama

One of the things that drew me to take a trip to Svalbard is that for years I’d heard photographers rave about the quality of light there. The god light that would warm and infuse every frame you took. I’m not sure if my photos are a good example of that. Mostly because it was gray, flat overcast, most days of the trip. Which I don’t mind (which I shouldn’t mind because I seem to be the storm goddess when I travel, dragging rain in my wake) because is actually better for details and flowers and animals. Bright sunlight creates shadows. Landscapes are always better with dramatic skies. So, while I saw a lot of beautiful country, I’m not sure I saw the thing that I thought I would see. But that’s really the point of travel, isn’t it? To see what it is, not what you think it should be?

But with today, we have made the last turn back toward Longyearbyen. The last couple nights the ship had been fighting through heavier seas as it rounded the bottom southern edge of the archipelago. Bouncing up off the mattress as we tried to sleep.

Day Eleven: Boltodden & Isbukta

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Today’s morning hike was at Boltodden, a wide stretch of tundra with 2 trapper huts, distinct for having wind and tide carved sandstone and dinosaur footprints.

sandstone

There’s a lot of coal in Svalbard which means that in past geological periods, there were tropical forests on this land. The land that is now in the Arctic would have been much closer to the equator before continental drift pushed it north. There would have been animals in addition to plants. So, it should not be surprising that somewhere in our journey, we would be in a place where dinosaur footprints had been found. Unfortunately, we spent all morning looking for said dinosaur footprints because none of the guides were quite sure where they were supposed to be and didn’t find them. Here is link to an article about the dinosaur footprints at Boltodden complete with pictures, so it’s kinda of like being there… Kinda. Looking at the pictures, I now know that we were looking in the wrong place, that we were not right on the water’s edge. And sandstone in an environment with ice gets worn with dips and circles, so everything looked like dinosaur footprints.

What we did see were two trappers huts. One abandoned and exposed to the elements and one locked up with a fuel depot next to it. I’m told the Svalbard search and rescue out of Longyearbyen stashes fuel drums at various places (and this was a wide flat, helicopter friendly place) in case of emergencies.

trapper hut
trapper huttundra

There were long vistas of mountains and glaciers.

boltodden panorama

And the delicate flowers of the tundra. This is the Sulfur-yellow Buttercup.

sulfur-yellow buttercup

And if you look closely at the lower right of that photo, you will see the polar bear poop. There was a considerable amount of polar bear scat, as well as footprints, at this location. I’m told one of the faster hiking groups got to a top of a hill and the guide said, no, I smell polar bear which means it’s probably close, but I can’t see it. And polar bears are known for being stealth hunters, hiding behind rocks and jumping out at you. They’re not big on chasing prey if they can avoid it, mostly because they overheat easily.

But alas no polar bear sightings here.

From here we cruised in the ship to the Isbukta glacier.

isbukta panorama
isbukta glacier
isbukta glacier
isbukta glacier

To entertain us, the guides told a long story about the bullet that killed 4 men, which as you could guess does not have a happy ending. There was a trapper that lived north of Ny-Ålesund that told everyone that he’d be back for Christmas dinner, save me a spot, see you then, and then headed out. Well, he didn’t arrive and he didn’t arrive and finally 2 men went out in a small boat to look for him to make sure he was alright, taking 2 months worth of food with them for what should have been a 2 day journey. They ended up getting stuck in the ice and drifted north and south for months and ended up finally escaping the ice into a bay where they built a snow cave and hoped for rescue. And if not rescue, well, eventually summer would come and the birds would come back and they’d have food. Well, except that it was a winter where the ice didn’t melt and summer didn’t come and the birds didn’t come. And they saw a ship that was out looking for them, but the ship didn’t come into the bay because of all the ice. (We know all this because they left behind extensive diaries.) Finally, they just laid down and died of starvation. When their bodies were found, years later, the man who had sent the two young men to find the original trapper was so upset that he committed suicide.

Now the original trapper you ask, what happened to him? His body was also found considerably later. Apparently he’d been on his way, but started to have problems with a polar bear stalking him. His story ends with the polar bear leaping out from behind a rock and him raising his rifle to fire and kill the bear, but there was a faulty bullet and the gun jammed and he died.

So, they figure that faulty bullet killed all 4 of them.

Ah, Arctic adventure. No one dies in a nice warm bed.

Day Ten: Kapp Waldburg & Negribreen

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What I didn’t mention about walrus in the post for day nine, was that walrus eat mostly clams. (There is some rare evidence that walrus will kill and eat seals, but that has only been filmed once or twice and I don’t think the science has caught up as to when and why this happens.) But for the most part, walrus will dive down to the bottom and use their whiskers and tusks to probe the mud and silt for clams. Then once the clams are in their mouth, they have the amazing vacuum ability to suck the clam out of the shell. They will go out and eat 10,000 clams in a single session. The walrus that are pink in the photos are the ones that have just come back from diving down and feeding.

Mike has a great story about being in the Canadian Arctic with an Inuit in a situation where they had no food and were very hungry, so the Inuit killed a walrus and slit open its belly and said, yes, we eat well tonight, and scooped out a fist full of raw clams from the walrus stomach. Mike said to get over his first world sensibilities, he had to wash the handful of clams in the ocean, but that they were delicious. (Ok, hungry makes the best sauce.)

Mike also has a story about the time he ate the traditional Inuit meal of walrus that had been buried for 6 months in a sealskin sack in the sand. It tasted so noxious that he immediately threw it back up and then spent the next 2 weeks constantly brushing his teeth trying to get the taste of it out of his mouth. So, I guess that’s a thumbs up on the clams in the walrus belly and a thumbs down on the fermented walrus.

Polar bear, on the other hand, rarely eat walrus because they’re trouble, what with those big tusks and all. Polar bear will attack walrus if they’re really hungry, but if the walrus manages to hurt them with their tusks, the hurt / damaged polar bear will usually die of starvation because he can’t successfully hunt if he’s hurt. Walrus will also drag the polar bear into the water where the walrus has a distinct advantage and try to drown the bear. But a big male polar bear can sometimes kill a walrus and then eat really well.

Today’s goal was another kittiwake cliff at Kapp Waldburg.

Kittiwake Bird Cliff
Kittiwake Bird Cliff

The faster hike went up to the tops of the cliffs and up and over to the higher peaks. But the slower / photographer hike went to the base of the cliff. And this was where the action was — finally arctic foxes from a stable position, not bobbing and weaving in a tiny boat. In fact, as we arrived at the bird cliff, I turned back to my companions and said, oh, look an arctic fox behind us. And it took me a second to identify what I was looking at because the fox was dragging a pink footed goose (minus the head) that was easily as big as it was.

Arctic Fox
Arctic Fox

It was so struggling with this massive kill, this bonanza of food, that it didn’t care that we were right there. It kept dropping the goose and panting and sweating and catching its breath and then soldiering on and as long as we weren’t getting in its way, it didn’t care about us. We were part of the furniture.

Some of our group followed it up the hill looking for the den, but the guides got in the way and ordered them back. There apparently a den with a couple kits.

But the fox immediately reappeared at our feet at the base of the bird cliff. (See previous comment about how this is the only chance for foxes to gather foods, so they never stop moving.)

Arctic Fox
Arctic Fox
Arctic Fox
Arctic Fox

It found a rotten egg that had rolled down and ate it was great satisfaction.

It difficult to see eggs and chicks on the bird cliffs, they are ferociously protected. But we did manage to see a chick peer out around its parent.

kittiwake chick

And again the circle of life here, the birds feed the foxes, the bird guano feeds the tundra, which feeds the reindeer.

Svalbard Reindeer
reindeer from bird cliff

The afternoon hike was to Kapp Lee. I had decided not to go because they told us that there was a dead polar bear there. That they’d found the carcass the week before when the ship had come through. A young male. They hadn’t moved it or turned it, so they didn’t know how it died, but guessed that it had been injured and starved to death because of the inability to hunt. This was probably a mistake that I didn’t go, because apparently they had another really nice walrus encounter, where everyone sat down and the walrus made clown faces for them. I still didn’t want to have to say that the only polar bear I saw on the trip was a dead one and how many walrus pictures do you want to see from me?

After dinner, we cruised by the Negribreen glacier which is currently experiencing a surge. It has accelerated from its “normal” rate of 1 m a day to 13 m a day.

Negribreen Glacier
Negribreen Glacier

The water in front of it was noticeably filled with more chunks of ice than we’d seen at other glaciers in Spitsbergen. And even a few icebergs.

icebergs
iceberg
iceberg

What you should notice about the iceberg in the last two photos is the line along the bottom where the tide has washed into the iceberg. This means that iceberg is run aground and isn’t floating. The water here was 130 m or roughly 425 feet. I took the shot from the bow of the ship which is about 20 m above the water line, so the iceberg is about 50 m above the water.

Day Nine: Alkepjellet, Torellneset & Bråsvellbreen

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We’d been on a regular schedule up to this point in the trip. The cabin speaker goes off at 7:30 with the wakeup call and announcements, breakfast, and then the first hike of the day. But to get everything in today, we needed to get going at 5:30 to see the thick-billed murre bird cliffs at Alkepjellet, then breakfast.

murre bird cliff

This wasn’t a hiking spot. The beach narrow and rocky.

Our zodiac driver admitted that she’d only landed here once, when she was traveling with her dog and it needed to get out and pee. Apparently there are cruise ship working the Svalbard waters that allow people to bring dogs onboard. These might be the smaller boats. This might be only for the guides. I didn’t get a long story. And frankly as much as I love my dogs, they’re such princesses, I don’t think they would take to the whole ship thang.

murre bird cliff
murre bird cliff
murre bird cliff
murre bird cliff
murre bird cliff

We fought the tide and the wind while hugging the cliff line. The small zodiacs bobbing madly. Without anything to brace against, any photo that turned out was an accident. You just have to set your shutter speed at 1/1000 and hope for the best. There was, of course, a fox working the bird cliff, sprinting up near verticals and jumping from rock to rock. Hmmm, no, didn’t get a picture of that. But even I couldn’t miss a sky with thousands of birds aloft.

The interesting bit about the thick-billed murre cliff (as compared to the black-legged kittiwakes we’d see previously) was that they don’t use any nesting material at all. They pick out and defend a tiny shelf of rock and lay their eggs directly on it. But the eggs are very asymmetrical, very pointed on one end, which means that the eggs roll in a circle and don’t tend to roll off.

We got back to the ship just in time as the wind picked up and the rain set in.

The mid-morning activity was a hike up the beach at Torellneset, which is a well known walrus pullout. And what surprised me is that the walrus wouldn’t climb out anywhere. There’s plenty of beaches. But they seemed to have just a couple spots where they would come together in numbers. Which makes it easy for the cruise ships because they know where the walrus are most likely to be.

At Torellneset, there was a long beach covered in loose stones about the size of my fist. We walked out and sat down in a line and the walrus swam up to us. First two of them, then 4 of them, and then a dozen. And really, I’ve seen less attractive boy bands.

walrus
walrus

Until there we were lined up along the beach and there they were lined up just in the surf in front of us. They are at this point about 3 to 4 feet from the people in the front, leaning in to smell their boots. I swear one was blowing kissing.

walrus
walrus
walrus
walrus
walrus
walrus
walrus
walrus

I hope you don’t think less of me that I was a little further back. My personal philosophy is that when one is dealing with wild 1 ton animals that I don’t need to be the edge of the herd. Yeah, the people in front got some amazing shots from below the walrus, silhouetted against the dramatic sky. But I just like my space, dude.

But it was lovely, very calm encounter. Walrus are not hunted in this part of the world like they are in the Canadian Arctic and they are less aggressive on land because they’re so clumsy out of the water. They were delightfully curious in us and were contend to just hang out. I took several hundred shots here.

And then at some point, I realized there was only about 3 of us still standing there and the guides were working at pushing us further along the beach where there was a pile of walrus sunning themselves.

walrus

The problem was that I now found myself “on the hike” with the fast walkers over a large plain of rolling, loose stone and not much to see and moving inland away from the walrus. I was told that I had no choice, get moving, and I said no. In fact, I kind of threw a bit of a tantrum. This was not the herd I came to be part of. And after my revolt, other people joined the don’t-want-to-travel-quickly-over-rough-terrain-for-the-hell-of-it group. Mike’s reaction was that, well, the guides are all young and haven’t learned the client-gets-to-be-right thang yet.

But, wait, the day isn’t over yet. After dinner, we cruised by Bråsvellbreen. Now the two largest ice shelves in the world are Antarctic (number 1 even after the Delaware sized chunk fell off) and Greenland (number 2). But number 3 is tied between Patagonia and Svalbard. We have been circumnavigating the biggest island in the Svalbard archipelago, Spitsbergen, but at this moment we are in the channel between Spitsbergen and Nordaustlandet (which translates to North East Land), the second largest island in the archipelago. Nordaustlandet is covered by ice, mostly 2 separate ice caps, Austfonna and Vestfonna, with Austfonna being the largest. Bråsvellbreen is the name for the glacier at the southwestern edge of the Austfonna ice shelf. If we had followed it all the way around, it would have been 90 miles.

Bråsvellbreen (which translates to “The Sudden Swell Glacier”), in particular, is noteworthy because in the 1930’s it had a huge surge where a glacier for a short period of time can start moving up to 100 times faster than normal, shuffing off icebergs and fresh water at a tremendous velocity.

ice shelf
ice shelf

We also passed by a pile of female walrus and calfs.

female walrus and young

And can I just say that watching shifting light over amazing scenery while sitting in a comfortable lounge chair drinking an adult beverage is the bomb.

Day Eight: In Which We Come to the Ice

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If you’re a “real Arctic explorer”, you keep track of how far you’ve gone latitude-wise. The north pole being, of course, 90° north. The souvenir shops in Reykjavik had t-shirts that said “64° N”. Kangerlussuaq, Greenland (which I’ve been to) is 67° N. When I’d camped on the ice floe in the Canadian Arctic off Bylot Island that was 72° N. Longyearbyen, where we started our Arctic adventure, was 78° N. But the goal for today was to take the ship up into the sea ice and reach 80° N. Which required sailing north all night from the Spitsbergen main island of the Svalbard archipelago into the open Arctic ocean.

We woke up to ice floes and their soft thumps and grinding against the hull.

sea ice

What I love about this picture is that if you look carefully at the horizon line you can see the faint outlines of mountains. (Click on the photo to get the larger picture if you can’t see it.)

There are no mountains here. This is an optical illusion common in the polar regions called Fata Morgana. It was quite common for early explorers of the Northwest Passage to get diverted off course, sometimes to their doom, by the illusions of solid land. Right. There. We’re saved. Except that if you chase after it, you will never arrive, because you’re really seeing the shadow of land that’s hundreds of miles away below the curvature of the earth. And you will die chasing it.

Ah, Arctic adventure. No one dies in a nice warm bed.

This. This would have been the prefect environment to find polar bears this time of year.

sea ice
sea ice

Are you looking? Because we were looking… And we could even see the favorite food of polar bears, bearded seals, lounging around on the ice. Or as I would describe them, big sacks of food with tiny little heads. Literally I never saw them move, they were like stoners in the park watching the world go by with a slightly confused expression.

bearded seal
bearded seal

There was also a pair of walrus.

walrus on sea ice
walrus on sea ice
walrus on the sea ice

If you see more than one walrus, they are always touching each other. They are very tactile, in constant contact with each other. These are two male walrus and you get a sense there’s a real bromance going on.

After lunch, we took the zodiacs out to motor through the ice and get a close up view at the difference between rotting sea ice and the melting glacier ice that we’d seen earlier. There was a harp seal rolling around on the ice (another favorite food of the polar bear, but no *!#?@** polar bear). We got out and walked around on the ice floe.

And right about here we discovered that, because of the currents and wind, the ice had shifted and there was no obvious way back to the ship. We were stuck. Now true Arctic explorers would have roped themselves up and dragged the boat back around the scattered ice to the ship, falling in a couple time, getting thoroughly wet in an age where GORE-TEX® didn’t exist. We called up the ship on the radio and gave them our GPS coordinates and had the rough task of waiting for the ship to pick up the other zodiacs and then slowly move toward us. We ate chocolate and sang dirty songs and stamped our feet. An hour and a half cruise turned out to more like 4 hours.

I must admit this was the only time I was cold on the trip. But they had hot chocolate with rum to hand us the moment we came on board, so somehow it doesn’t fall into the category of life threatening.

But the good news is that I have now been above the 80° N mark.

Day Seven: Liefdefjorden & Monacobreen

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liefdefjorden panorama

Liefde is Dutch for “Love”. Liefdefjorden (our first stop of the day) translates to “Love Fjord” in English.

The passengers of this cruise of the Sea Endeavor were the Canadians (and me pretending to be a Canadian), a couple Australians, and the rest were Swedish. Which meant every announcement, every briefing, every story, every explanation had to be given first in English and then in Swedish. Which really slowed things down. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the head guide was a trained linguist. All but one guide, a British naturalist, spoke multiple languages, which caused for some confusion and reshuffling of zodiacs in the open water after they were loaded because the Swedes would realize they were in the boat with the guide that only spoke English. (And another OHN, I refused to slide between boats in the icy water which required slithering from one inner tube to the next in choppy waves. Just no. I don’t care what language you’re speaking or not speaking.) As Americans we’re told that the rest of the world speaks five languages and we’re the idiots. But that’s really not true, particularly the older generations that aren’t hooked into the internet, are just as mono lingual as any American.

But the first stop of the day was a trapper hut called “Texas Bar”.

texas bar
texas bar

The landscape of Svalbard was dotted with these isolated hunting / trapping huts. Some are used as temporary hunting shelters, some are used by trappers to overwinter in the Arctic. The Texas Bar hut was built by Hilmar Nøis and Martin Pettersen Nøis in 1927. Hilmar Nøis held the record for number of winters spent in Svalbard, 38, (and there’s a long complicated tale about his first wife that came up with him, had to deliver a baby alone while he made the week long trek back to Longyearbyen to get the doctor and the doctor refused to come because either she had survived or she hadn’t, too late for him to contribute, and she survived, but had some mental issues, but the second wife… the second wife loved Svalbard winters). Hilmar Nøis probably would have spent more winters, but everyone was forced to evacuate Spitsbergen during World War II because they couldn’t defend it, the allies where bombing it to destroy the coal mines and weather stations, and Norway was overrun by the Nazis.

purple mountain saxifrage
arctic hairy lousewort

We (the slow hike) wandered around the hills / boggy tundra / snow around the hut, taking plenty of photos. The beach was scattered with washed up kelp with packets of fish eggs clinging to them.

zodiacs on the beach
Arctic skua

The fast hikers took the ridge up to the highest peak.

hikers in the distance

After lunch, we traveled further up the fjord to Monacobreen and took zodiacs out to circle the bay.

Monacobreen
Monacobreen glacier
Monacobreen glacier
Monacobreen glacier
brenda
Monacobreen glacier

This was the first time this season that the ice had melted back enough that the ship could enter the fjord. And it’s not that this doesn’t roughly track with the last couple years, though the ice retreating in summer is not a constant — it was a bit of a problem that the ship’s internet / sat phone wasn’t working because then they couldn’t get daily up-to-date satellite maps of the ice coverage. But if you look at the ice maps over the last hundred years, the ice has significantly retreated. That picture where you can clearly see a gap, an island, in front of the glacier, apparently that wasn’t there last year. No one knew that there was an island there, because the glacier had always extended over it.

Glacier ice has a lot of air in it, so riding up to a glacier in a boat, the thing you notice is the sound of the glacier ice crackling as it comes in contact with the sea ice.

We also saw lot of birds.

black-legged kittiwake
northern fulmars feeding
arctic tern
Common guillemot
arctic tern

On the way back out the fjord before dinner, they claimed to see a polar bear and a cub. There was a dead whale washed up on the beach which would have attracted bears. It was an old carcass, maybe 6 months to a year old. But when the guides tried to point them out to me, in fact, took my camera and took a picture and then we zoomed in and talked about it, I still didn’t see a polar bear. And we’re talking about the zoom lens that I’m using to take pictures of birds… After dinner, they claimed to have seen another polar bear and cub and took the zodiacs out, but no one came back with a decent picture. Maybe something that looked like a yellow-cream rock on white snow.

I have a rule of thumb that if I can’t see an animal with my naked eye, at least enough to identify that it’s an animal, no zoom lens I’m carrying is going to get a good picture.

This unfortunately were our polar bear encounters for the trip. Which I’m told is very unusual, but it was also the season where polar bears would be out on the sea ice, not on land. Polar bears are excellent swimmers and unconcerned about being out of sight of land, so if there’s sea ice that’s where the seals are, so that’s where the polar bears are going to be.

Day Six: Virgohamna & Smeerenburgbreen

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Somewhere between day five and day six (and really without night, where does the day end and the other begin?) the ship passed one, maybe two blue whales. Blue whales are not traditionally common in this part of the world, but as the polar region has gotten warmer, they are seen more frequently now. And a pod of minke whales who were breeching.

glacier panorama

Now the key thing to remember when doing small boat adventure travel is that you can never say for sure where you’re going, only where you’ve been. The weather and tide and the random fates of man will take you somewhere you’ve never been before, but never get too wrapped up with the written itinerary. The planned itinerary for today (because they give us a briefing every night that explains where we’re going tomorrow) was to be Virgohamna and Smeerenburg. Smeerenburg was the center of 16th century whaling in this part of the world, you can still see ruins and traces of where they put the enormous cooking pots to render down the whale blubber. Virgohamna was the station where the famous hydrogen balloon that was one of the first to attempt to fly over the North Pole was set up and took off from in 1897. Spoiler alert: the balloon didn’t make it, doomed by gas leaking out of the small holes from the needles used to sew the silk together. In fact, it only lasted 2 days before crash landing on the ice. The crew had a terrifying and exhausting months-long trip across the ice to make it to solid ground, which turned out to be a yet-undiscovered island, and they died during that winter. Their bodies, possessions, and diaries were discovered 33 years later and I believe the discussion continues to this day as to what kind of special agony caused them to give up the ghost.

Ah, Arctic adventure. No one dies in a nice warm bed.

But when we arrived at Virgohamna and Dane Island, it was raining and the clouds were hanging low on the beach. (Fun fact, the Swedes had never heard the expression, “liquid sunshine”.) They took the zodiacs out, but didn’t end up going ashore because the visibility was low. I’m told that they saw a couple walrus and an arctic tern with her chicks. I put it that way, because I had chose to stay warm and dry in the observation lounge / bar with a nice hot cup of tea and the binoculars, you know, in case something showed up. I had a book.

Glacier panorama

The weather slowly improved over the course of the morning, but the wind picked up. So when we arrived at Smeerenburg, they put the zodiacs in the water again, loaded up 1 of them, but then discovered the waves were too high for a landing on the beach. So, instead the ship sailed up the fjord to the glacier, Smeerenburgbreen.

Smeerenburgbreen glacier
kittiwakes feeding at the salt / fresh water boundary
Smeerenburgbreen glacier


 

In the picture below, you see black-legged kittiwakes at the boundary where the fresh water is coming off the glacier and the sea water. This is where the copepods are hanging out, so you will see large collections of birds at these boundaries feeding on these small marine life. It’s what puts the pink in the Arctic bird guano.

kittiwakes feeding at the salt / fresh water boundary

And while I’m here, let’s include a map for reference.

We have, on this journey, made it to the upper west corner of the archipelago.

Day Five: Ossian Sars & Ny-Ålesund

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I seem to be completely incapable of reading the fine print for these fabulous journeys I sign up for. You remember that story about I found myself in a metal skiff on the Amazon river at 5 am, looking at birds, and I said, wait a second, this is a birding trip? Well, I didn’t realize that the fabulous Arctic adventure was a fabulous Arctic hiking adventure. You see, over the last couple years, I’ve had a little problem with my hip, developed a bit of a limp. I’ve been doing physical therapy for the last six months and can now successfully navigate flat, paved ground. But… there’s nothing particularly flat about the Arctic. It’s uneven and untracked, loose stones, patches of ice, boggy tundra.

But this cruise was set up that if you wanted to get off the boat and see the wildlife and the terrain, you went on a hike. And they did group the 45 passengers into fast, medium, and slow, but because of the lack of trails and the danger of polar bears, you need to keep up with the 20-something guide assigned to you. I was perpetually sweaty and breathless, moving faster than I wanted to. I tried to adopt the mindset that this was the most expensive spa that I’ve ever been to. You know, to avoid stabbing the 20-something guide with my poles.

The morning of the first day was a zodiac ride and a hike to the black-legged kittiwake bird cliffs at the Ossian Sars Nature Preserve.

Trapper Hut
Glacier Panorama

Bird cliffs are basically a steep cliff where a couple hundred thousand birds have decided to nest. They are very noisy and smelly, covered in guano. You have a high probability that you’re going to receive a present from the sky. And fulmars are particularly special because they have this defense where, if they feel threatened, they will throw up a particular vile substance on you. Through the magic of evolution, this substance is crafted to strip the oil off of the attacking birds (removing their waterproofing which leads to eventual death).

When you look at the landscape you can tell why these people have a hard on about bird cliffs. The landscape is as empty and beautiful as an abandoned movie set with these small temporary colonies of life. In fact, most of the vegetation gets its nutrients from bird guano, so that’s where the beautiful flowering inch high tundra is, that’s where the reindeer are, eating the beautiful flowering tundra, that’s where the arctic foxes are, stealing eggs and chicks and birds.

moss campion

And, of course, the birds.

Black-legged kittiwakes
Black-legged kittiwakes with ice

And we (the slow group) wandered the beach, climbed the hill parallel to the cliffs (with a good view back down to our boat).

Sea Endeavor

After a couple hours, we got back in the zodiac and cruised along the bottom of the cliff where we found a fox with 2 kits. Now I didn’t get a great shot because I’m in a bouncing boat trying to catch a small, fast moving target, but this will not be the only opportunity to see a fox.

Arctic fox

In the Canadian Arctic, there are lots of small mice and lemmings that an Arctic fox can eat to get them through the winter. But here in Svalbard, they don’t have that. There are no small mammals. So, the Arctic fox here only have the birds and only have them for the few months that they’re there nesting / raising their young. When the birds leave for the winter, the foxes have no more fresh food until summer when the birds return again. Now these foxes do cache food and there might be other scavenger opportunities, like a dead whale washing up on the beach. But it means that while the birds are here, the foxes are working the bird cliffs.

And as we sat and watched the full grown fox and the 2 smaller foxes for maybe an hour, they never stopped moving, never stopped working the bird cliff. They were amazing fast and mobile, scampering up the sheer cliff.

It was also here that someone (not in our group, someone in one of the faster hiking groups) fell near the top of the bird cliff, slipped off a wet rock and broke their shoulder. Now there was a doctor on board and he was Russian, so he might have had some excellent drugs. But fortunately, our afternoon stop for the day was the research station, Ny-Ålesund. We all got out and wandered the mud and metal huts. And the broken shoulder and her husband was helicoptered back to civilization, ending their fabulous Arctic vacation on the first full day. (This is why you should always buy the emergency medical evacuation insurance.)

Ny-Ålesund was originally another coal mining operation and was the site that the Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, and the dirigible, Norge, left from in 1926 and traveled via the North Pole to Alaska which is regarded as the first successful expedition to the North Pole.