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.