Reflections 18th June
Tue 19 Jun 2018 10:42
We have just had a proper night’s sleep and it was wonderful. The boat gently swaying and a very cosy feel in our down sleeping bags. I can see patches of blue above, and the forecast for this afternoon is good. Land based activities today. We have to register our arrival with The Sysselmann (governor) and do some food shopping. Then we hope to climb a hill and stretch our legs. Meanwhile a cruise ship will arrive, disgorge its thousands of passengers who will disappear on a myriad of trips, and leave within 10 hours or so, a mixed blessing for the town.
We arrived safely and that was the main thing. I had been anticipating this trip for some months with some dread and awareness that the Barents Sea would make sailing in Scotland look easy, and it was my first long ocean passage. I love the arrival in a new place, and views when sailing, but somehow I wasn’t sure the Barents Sea would offer my style of sailing. Too challenging maybe? Well, I think it met my expectations, but having survived it, there is an immense feeling of achievement and an appreciation of the simple things in life: a hot shower, a warm bed for a whole night, a beer, good food with company, and the amazing world around us.
We did see a lot of ocean, but the dolphins breaching will stay with me for a while, and the clouds, the enormity of the world and my smallness, those tiny birds that inhabit those places, were all good memories. I expect the scariness will fade in time too! Lessons are always learned from such trips and we will no doubt have a debrief today.
Longyearbyen is a remarkable place. I’ll post some pictures that sum it up. It has a population of 2200 and is a big cruise ship destination, so gets inundated for several hours a day during summer months. The average cruise ship brings 6000 passengers, quadrupling the population.
The top of the nearby mountain is littered with “golf balls”, clearly visible on our arrival. These control satellites in polar orbits and there is lots of science going on, research on the northern lights, a MAB (man and biosphere) station, UNIS (the university here) and EISCAT (European incoherent scatter) all of which is a bit incoherent to me, but clearly there’s an important scientific community.
The town was founded by the American John Longyear in 1906 who exploited the coal here, after a visit to the place with his family by cruise liner. There is still a little mined, the wooden infrastructure of cableways are a dominant feature of the landscape set against scree covered slopes of high (1000m) mountains. The town architecture is utilitarian - still looks more like a coal production settlement than a community. It’s advertised as tax free (lower taxes than mainland Norway due to the Svalbard Treaty) but still seems pretty expensive than us. There are more skidoos than cars!
xplorations 19th June
After a morning shopping (very good supermarket and plenty of choice but expensive of course!) we made some sandwiches (homemade hummus and Norwegian bread with the luxury addition of fresh tomatoes and avocados) and packed some cake for a stroll up the hill. Of course we choose the “decidedly athletic approach” (Rolf Stange, “guidebook spitzebergen”, the bible up here) and aimed for the local summit Nordenskioldfjellet (1050m).
Snow buntings greeted us almost immediately with their lovely black and white coats and loud song. The snow was tough going in trail shoes and although we wore microspikes they didn’t really help as we were going through the soft stuff. The views were amazing and Lizzie had plenty of time for photography waiting for the older generation to catch up. Peter carried the gun and reminded me of Pakistan, and Patrick had the flare gun. We think we saw polar bear footprints...
As we had a dinner date for 9pm (already changed from 7pm) we decided not to summit but to cut across the glacier (snowmobile tracks so surely safe?!?) and visit the “golf balls” on the plateau above the airport. It was a long plod through the snow but the sight of an arctic fox, in his black and white coat, was exciting. The antenna were all shapes and sizes, approximately circular, but annoyed the mathematician amongst us with their lack of symmetry. If you’re going to have a polyhedral then surely it should be symmetrical and not have irregular triangles making up both hexagons and pentagons in the same shape. Anyway I’m a low level Maths teacher not a high level scientist so what do I know?
By now we were getting weary and plodded back down the service road toward the airport with magnificent views and a reindeer just walking and eating beside us. Snow buntings back with us and a passing view of the “Svalbard global seed vault” which opened in 2008 and houses 4.5 million samples of food crop seed varieties, each sample of several thousand seeds. The seeds are kept in the permafrost at -18 degrees.
We finally got to the restaurant at 9:30 and the boys had their meat ration for the next few weeks. Lizzie vetoed whale but Patrick did have a moose burger. And Arctic char even in minute portions was quite delicious. We returned to the boat where Lizzie and Peter upended the entire stowage system in the cockpit after Lizzie complained of a strong smell of diesel in her cabin. Then Peter decided to do some engine research at 0100 whilst I opted for bed. An excellent day with probably the best weather we will have. Three sleeps in two days has been good too!
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