Thursday, April 29, 2010

Hvor er alle isbjornene?

So let me get this out of the way at the outset - we were unsuccessful in our quest to see a polar bear.  Which is a little bit ironic because this week there have been four different polar bears sighted in the tiny town of 3000 in which we are staying.  It has made national news.  Residents have Facebook status updates saying things like “Arming myself to run to the store.”  It’s like the polar bears are mocking me.
One of the major hindrances to polar bear viewing turned out to be the weather.  The snowstorm that started at the end of the last blog post continued throughout the next day.  Which certainly made the next day’s dogsledding activity slightly less pleasant, but did give it a certain air of authenticity.  Johnny Norseman and I took turns driving our six dog team through the blinding snow.  I couldn’t see anything at all without my sunglasses.  The sled would get stuck in the fresh powder, necessitating the driver hopping off and pushing to get the dogs started again, jumping back on quickly before the dogs ran off with the passenger.  And as well trained as the dogs were, they were still dogs.  At one point, our team hooked a sharp right and took off after a reindeer.  I have to say that it has greatly increased my sympathy for polar explorers.  It would truly suck to have to do that for weeks at a time just to see your compass spin. 


The next day was our big snowmobiling trip to the east coast - polar bear country.  It was a long day, nearly 150 miles roundtrip, driving a snowmobile across tundra, glaciers and sea ice at speeds up to 55 miles per hour.  It was a cold day too - the air temperature was only in the teens when we started, plus the wind chill plus the wind speed.  This would have made things uncomfortable, but blasting across the top of a glacier, clouds blending in with the blowing snow to make it seem like the top of the world, frozen sea looming up before you, is really so god damned badass that you don’t care much about the temperature.  (Though I guess it is all fun and games until someone loses as toe.)  The rules for glacier driving and similar to that of the sea ice that we would cross later that day - follow the tracks in front of you.  The lead snowmobile has a GPS that has a map made by helicopters.  If you fall into a crevasse the whole group is going to have to wait in the cold while you and your compound fracture are towed out.  Follow the tracks in front of you. 

Have I mentioned how badass it feels?  It’s like a really cool Super Mario Cart board come to life.

Anyway, when we got to the East Coast, where the polar bears are usually found, it was snowing like crazy with wind coming from the ocean.  Taking off your gloves, even for the 30 seconds it takes to switch a camera lens, put you in imminent danger of frostbite. I hunkered down next to the heat of my snowmobile engine for a few minutes while I scanned the horizon with my 300 mm lens (basically the equivalent of a pair of binoculars) before I really didn’t care that much about the polar bears anymore.  I wanted to keep my fingertips.  (It didn’t help that there was a guy on my plane on the way up that was missed significant chunks of his extremities.)  Fortunately, “forget the bears” was a pretty popular sentiment among the group, and we headed back across the glacier.  The rest of the day was spent cruising by seals and reindeer while skimming across the sea ice with ice blue glacier walls rising at the edge of the shore.  In case I haven’t mentioned this - totally badass. 

Today is our last day here in Svalbard, and the weather is impeccable.  Ice blue sky and no wind.  Of course we chose today to explore the completely enclosed ice cave.  The ice cave is formed by glacier melt water and runs for miles about six stories below the surface, with the melting and refreezing forming incredible ice stalagmites and stalactites.  The tunnel ranges from walking comfortably with cathedral ceilings to wiggling on your stomach below giant chunks of ice.  The caves obviously aren’t lit, so everyone has a miner style head lamp to guide the way.  (Those who know me well can certainly picture the scene where I have my tripod set up on the timer and am trying to coordinate the position of my fellow hikers to most dramatically light a particularly nice ice formation.)  At the end, we all had coffee and cookies in a particularly large chamber, then emerged back out into the blinding light of the glacier surface. 
So tonight it is down to Oslo for a couple days - then back to Washington.  Unless I meet a polar bear on the way home from the bar tonight, I will have to try again another day...

Monday, April 26, 2010

Snowmobiling 101

So today I learned how to drive a snowmobile.  Johnny Norseman and I took a trip with three other tourists and a guide (armed guide - every one leaving the city limits must carry a rifle or sizable handgun in case of polar bear attack) to dash around the glacier and visit Barentsburg, a random little Russian coal mining town about 60 kms from Longyearbyen.  (It is sort of a long story how there is a random little Russian coal mining town in the middle of the Norwegian Arctic.  It involves intricate international treaties, but the necessary bits for this story is that it was built between 1950 and 1980, is staffed by 400 Ukrainian miner and there assorted dependents, and very much feels like not only stepping into Russia, but stepping back in time into Russia.  But I digress.)

The basic concept of snowmobiling isn’t that difficult.  On the left, there is a brake, very similar to the one found on every 10 speed bike in the world.  On the right is a level that serves as that throttle, the harder you pull back, the faster you go.  The only vaguely complicated bit is that the terrain you cross is very uneven, so when you turn on any kind of gradient, you need to shift your weight by climbing off the seat and leaving hard to the high side to keep the machine steady.  (It is sort of like a combination of leaning into a turn on a motorcycle and sitting on the high side on a little sailboat.)  They are relatively heavy - with the one I rode weighing as much as my little Rav4 back home - but they do go over if you aren’t careful - as we will see firsthand later on in our story. 

Anyway, these things a frigging blast.  Blazing along the top of the glacier, under the crystal blue sky, ice flows in the ocean looming ahead, reindeer scattered on the hillsides… (A note about the reindeer here, they are pygmies!  They have these stumpy little legs to keep them low to the ground so they stay warmer during the bitter cold months.  If I wasn’t positive I would be run through with an antler as soon as I got too close, I would certainly bring on home - and be the envy of all the designer dog snobs at the park. But I digress.) 

The trip out of Barentsburg takes a few hours with picture stops along the way.  You can tell you are getting close when you see the giant plumb of black smoke rising into the sky.  We had lunch at the Soviet style cafeteria - where everything was served with beets and mayonnaise.  We say the aging mine entrance, the aging school, the aging social hall, the aging hospital, the aging church, the aging sports club…  It must have been a veritable worker’s paradise a generation or so ago.  Now the only people crazy enough to work there (there was a giant coal dust fire a few years back that was only extinguished when the entire mine was filled with sea water for a little while) are chain smoking Ukrainians on two year contracts.  Cheers to those boys - after two hours I was ready to get the hell out of there.

Which only left the trip back.  But Mother Nature had added a new wrinkle.  It has started to snow.  Less than 30 minutes into the ride, conditions were near complete white out.  I was the first snowmobile behind the guide and I was struggling to keep the black speck in sight.  Also, when you can’t see the terrain, you are less able to anticipate when you are going to need to compensate, leading to a few exciting moments when you hit an embankment or large bump in the snow.  After an hour or so, we stop for cookies and to admire what I would assume is a fine view if the visibility ever crawled above zero.  (And it was cold.  It, in general, is cold here, with the high for today being only in the low 20s, but there isn’t any wind so with enough layers it isn’t too bad, unless you are on top of a glacier in the middle of a swirling snowstorm.  Then it is a little chilly.)  I have trouble getting my machine started, but eventually it turns over and off we go.  Conditions now are really tough.  I am struggling to stay upright and keep pace, but we don’t want to slow down too much because things aren’t likely to get better weather-wise.  Halfway into this final push, the guide stops.  I pull in behind him and turn around to look for the others.  But there are no others.  The guide drops the supply sled and turns around to find them. 

It couldn’t have taken more than 10 minutes.  (Johnny had hit a bad bump in the snow and went over.  The others had stopped to help get the snowmobile back up, but they had lost the two of us in the process.)  But the guide took the gun.  And I was all by myself.  In the middle of a snowstorm.  With almost no visibility.  With a supply sled full of things a polar bear might like to eat.  And me, which the polar bear might also like to eat.  It has been 15 years since the last fatal attack - mostly because of new safety precautions - but I was a little nervous.  If I saw a polar bear, I could probably outrun him on the snowmobile, but without a GPS and in the snow, I would be causing a second set of problems.  And I had had trouble getting the engine to turn over last time I started up.  Just as I was convinced that I could hear the snorting and shuffling of a hungry polar bear behind my back no matter which way I turned, the guide and my fellow riders come roaring up.  Back to town.  Where, having faced the first situation in my life where I had a practical use for a firearm, I was now faced with a somewhat more immediate need for a drink. 

And for those in the audience keeping score: in the last two days I have eaten seal, (minky) whale and reindeer.

Sunday, April 25, 2010


As I guess most of you have heard, Washington DC had the snowiest winter on record this year.  Feet and feet of snow fell, closing schools and office buildings for more than a week.  You could ski right down the main 16th St. route to the White House.  But fortunately that has all ended.  Birds are singing, flowers are blooming, and the first traces of the characteristic heat, humidity and spike in the crime rate so typical of the DC summer are beginning to creep into the air.  So, what did I decide to do to celebrate the dawning of the spring season?  Take a vacation.  To the Arctic Circle.

There is still plenty of snow up here in Longyearbyen, Norway, the largest city on the Svalbard Islands.  This is supposedly the northernmost inhabited place in the world.  It is certainly northern.  I am 3.5 hours north of Oslo.  I am 2 hours north of the Arctic Circle.  I am north of most of Greenland.  You name it, I am north of it.  In fact, if you had the money or inclination, the north pole is only a 16 days dogsled away.  You would leave from Longyearbyen. 

And what in hell am I doing up here?  I must admit, that is a fairly good question that I don’t necessarily have the answer to yet myself.  This trip is the brainchild of one of my grad school friends, Johnny Norseman (who previously achieved fame on this blog by being the photographer for the famous picture of me tongue kissing a giraffe).  We are going to go hiking and snowmobiling and dog-sledding, and maybe, just maybe, see one of those elusive big white bears before global warming kills them all.  (Like taking a no hitter into the 8th, I don’t want to jinx it by saying the word.  They are hard enough to see with all your mojo working in the right direction - though there apparently was one across the bay from the airport when we landed.  All I saw was a tiny black speck at the edge of the water - and the opposite bank lined with camera toting tourists.  I hope to do better later in the week.)

But all that will have to wait a day or so.  I am confined to Mary Anne’s Polarrigg (the decidedly quirky lodge where we are staying) until Scandinavian Airlines finds my luggage.  Lost luggage in Africa is a pain in the ass.  Lost luggage in Svalbard is a frostbitten toe.  And in one of the more impressive customer relation moves I have seen recently, the woman at the SAS counter thought it was highly irresponsible of me to have packed my boots in my checked luggage.  Didn’t I know that they lost bags all the time?   How stupid could I be?

So I spent the morning sleeping in, reading my book, and gorging myself on Norwegian Sunday breakfast.  And examining the d├ęcor.  I guess it would be best classified as a nouveau taxidermy/mine motif.  The walls are painted with coal mining scenes (which, along with tourism and observational astrophysics, makes up the bulk of the economy up here).  In lieu of table runners, there are seal skins.  The floor has reindeer rugs.  And there are stuff polar bears everywhere (including one wearing boxing gloves that you must remember to duck when walking down the hall).  The hotel key chains are made of reindeer antlers.  Despite all the incredible natural splendor outside, I am starting to suspect that this might not be the place to the more strident environmentalist in the world.

Anyway, I will sign it off here.  There is a nice cozy seal skin armchair waiting for me and my book.  Besides, I will have regular internet access up here (bonus quirk of vacationing in the developed world for a change), so you will probably hear from me fairly often this week.  The photo selections are taken from my seat in the plane during the approach.  It was exactly like coming into Nouakchott over the Sahara, but pure white.