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.

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