The Arctic “Expedition” – Part 2: The Icy Wastes

Mainland Europe disappeared into the ship’s wake, Nordkapp growing ever smaller as our latitude inexorably increased. Clouds and cold blue seas the only view from here on, as I occupied my sea day with my usual regime of laps of the deck (4 to the mile), guest appearances at the morning quiz and afternoon quiz, and of course meals, fortifying my carcass for the rigours of the arctic wastelands ahead.

Turning our back on mainland Europe
Turning our back on mainland Europe

The following day we reached Bear Island, the setting for the Alistair Maclean novel and film of the same name (although they went somewhere more dramatic to actually shoot the film). It’s a protected nature reserve so unless you’re a meterologist from the station there, or a bird, or indeed a bear, there’s a limit to how close you’re allowed. This was as close as we got, which was close enough to see it’s a pretty barren place.

Bear Island
Bear Island

We were now technically in Svalbard, although actually only halfway, and a further day’s sailing, between Nordkapp and Spitzbergen itself. The landscape of Bear Island giving clues to what may lay ahead. Little can prepare you for the actual sight though.

Longyearbyen
Longyearbyen

Functional-looking buildings cling to the land alongside the fjord, skidoos outnumber more conventional vehicles, and the tracks out of town bear warnings about polar bears. One had rocked up a couple of weeks before, wandered around a bit and then buggered off. We were taking no chances: two armed guides and a husky to accompany my son and I on our trek up to the Longyearbyen Glacier.

Tooling up for the walk. Two guides, two guns and a husky
Tooling up for the walk. Two guides, two guns and a husky

We wandered through dark, bare ground, the main feature being rocks and stones and devoid of vegetation. Raging streams of glacier meltwater were crossed by planks, and mist swirled around us. It was certainly atmospheric.

Heading for the glacier
Heading for the glacier

x

A look at the map

The misty conditions induced a certain reluctance on the part of the guides to actually go as far as the glacier itself, preferring a look from afar at a bank of cloud covering where it was. This seemed to be mainly borne out of concern for the demographic of the party. A bit of protest, some words of caution about it being something like “volunteers only”, and the entire party pushed on to the glacier itself.

The glacier
The glacier

And it’s a dirty bugger. Striated ice flecked with black is the main impression, the detritus marring the surface bearing witness to the bits of bleak terrain the glacier is cutting away. We stood on the glacier, an eerie feeling, the ice stretching away into the unseen distance.

Edge of the glacier
Edge of the glacier

At the edge where the ice is thinnest, bits had collapsed and muddy meltwater swirled around our feet, coloured dark by the soil.

The glacier
The glacier

We spent a quarter of an hour or so taking in the scene and then retraced our steps to town.

The roadsigns are a bit different in Svalbard
The roadsigns are a bit different in Svalbard

We explored the town, an intriguing blend of everyday functional necessities and stuff for the tourists, but my attention was now largely taken up with what was going on the other side of the fjord. Here a glacier was reaching the end of its journey, a ragged face of ice rising up above the cold grey waters of Adventfjorden.

On this sort of excursion, there’s a limit to what you can achieve in such a place and so later that afternoon we were off into the arctic sunset.

Svalbard sunset
Svalbard sunset

A new day, a new arctic settlement, this time Ny-Ålesund a little further north on the shore of Kongsfjorden. Very little to do here, so this was a walk around the settlement and an attempt to soak up the atmosphere. here there were even stricter limits as to where you could go, due to the ever present threat from Ursus Martimus.

Moored in Ny Alesund
Moored in Ny Alesund
Ny Alesund
Ny-Ålesund
Ny Alesund
Ny Alesund

Despite the signs warning you of polar bears, a more immediate danger came from the arctic terns, fond of dive-bombing people.

Arctic Tern
Arctic Tern

We walked to the margins of town and looked into the bleak distance.

Here be polar bears...
Here be polar bears…

“Town” itself doesn’t have much to commend it, as you would expect in a place that essentially comprises of basic huts used by research scientists. It does, however, boast the world’s northermost post office.

The world's most northerly post office
The world’s most northerly post office

We soon exhausted the attractions of the built area, and I settled down for a while overlooking Kongsfjorden in an attempt to capture on paper the scenes before me. Not hugely successful, this would have to wait a couple of years until my skills had improved.

Imagine waking up to this view every day
Imagine waking up to this view every day

We turned our back on Ny-Ålesund and headed south again.

Ny Alesund
Ny Alesund

The climax of the trip now reached, we settled down for a couple more mundane days. First up was a stop in Kristiansund, principally a leg stretch on the way home. There wasn’t a huge amount here of interest, and we basically spent the day ambling around the town, climbing up to viewpoints and the like. After Svalbard it was all a bit tame.

Kristiansund
Kristiansund

Our next, and final, stop – Olden – was a dfifferent story. We’d been here before and liked it. A few miles inland lies the Jotunheimen National Park and on our previous visit we’d gone on an organised trip to see the Briksdal Glacier. On that day we’d failed to reach the glacier itself, having to content ourselves with looking across at it from the other side of its meltwater lake. The downside of travelling with small children and the lack of walking pace they can sustain. Today, though, we wanted to make up for it by catching a local bus to Briksdal and doing it again, with the added bonus of not being tied to the timings of a coach party. It went wrong pretty quickly though, as we waited at the bus stop only to see a rammed bus go sailing past us. With no more buses for a couple of hours, the glacier was a no-no. We’ll try again on our return visit in 2017. Instead we explored the countryside behind the village.

A walk upstream and a circuit of the lake got the legs going a bit better than laps of the deck. A pleasant, but low key end to a magnificent trip.

We bundled back aboard and set sail again for Southampton.

 

Postscript

It’s taken me a few years to get around to writing the second part of this story (part 1 is here), but my wife’s demands for some words to accompany the pictures in the scrapbook for that trip spurred me into action at last. It also helped that the artworks I’m currently working on were mostly spawned by the sights seen on this trip. The search through the archives for reference pictures rekindled the drive to finish writing this up. These artworks will (hopefully, and if accepted) form my submission to an exhibition taking place in London later this year, and will be semi-abstract. Here’s a small taster…

Part of the Longyearbyen Glacier. Acrylic on Canvas 20" x 16", 2017
Part of the Longyearbyen Glacier. Acrylic on Canvas 20″ x 16″, 2017

These artworks, and others, will also appear eventually on my new art website matthewkingarts.com

 

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