Svalbard, April 2008

On the first day, I did a small dog sledding tour.

It was only a half-day tour and there wasn't that much actual dog sledding involved. The sledging part lasted about an hour and with two people per sledge, this meant only getting half an hour 'at the wheel'. Also, since the dogs just followed the sledge in front of them, there wasn't any steering involved, so 'driving' the dogs mainly consisted of stepping on the brake.

But that wasn't the main attraction of the trip anyway.

The main thing was that you got the full experience of handling the dogs and not just the sledge ride.

I had only been on two dog sledge trips. On both, I was just a passenger on the sledge and everything else was handled by the guide.

On this trip, the dogs were still at their boxes (and not in front of the sledge).

Sledge dog Sledge dog Amy Sledge dog

So we were given a short instruction, a dog harness and the name of a dog. And then it was our job to go to the dog, remove it from its chain, put it into the harness, guide it to the sledge without allowing it to start fights with other dogs and then attach it properly to the sledge.

And, while attaching the final two dogs (the strongest pullers) making very sure that someone was standing on the brakes of the sledge with his full body weight...

Then we went out for the tour itself, which went through a valley that is prohibited for motorized transport, so it was a quiet ride, close to the one remaining active coal mine in the area and the big scientific radar antenna. (Yes, up there, motorized transports are obviously allowed, but dog sledges were on their own in the valley.)

Coal mine and radar

With the dogs in the valley...

Sledge dogs ready to go Sledge dogs ready to go Sledge dogs going Relaxing on sledge Ready to drive the sledge
Ready to drive the sledge Ready to drive the sledge Dog sledge on the trail Dog sledge on the trail Dog sledge on the trail

Back at the starting point, it was our job to unclip the dogs, bring them to their individual boxes, remove the harness, attach them to their chain, and also to feed them (as a reward for a job well done).

Dogs back at their boxes

Short trip, but some experience gained in handling sledge dogs.

Next day, it was time for a snow scooter tour.

I took the longest tour they had, for two specific reasons. (Well, three, if you count having nothing else to do that day anyway.)

First, I really wanted to do a long trip on a snowmobile. I had previously only been on short tours, which are always exciting, and I wanted to find out whether driving a snowmobile remains fun, even after the original excitement is gone, or whether it becomes just a dull driving experience, where you hope that it'll be over soon.

The second reason was going to the East Coast of Svalbard. The 'usual' tours go to either Barentsburg (a Russian coal mining community to the west of Longyearbyen, where I had already been) or to Tempelfjorden to the north-east of Longyearbyen, which is nice, but a very popular destination for all kinds of trips (snowmobile, skiing, ski-kiting, dog-sledding), so someone said "it's like a highway going out there".

So I opted for the third choice, the East Coast. Seemed like an interesting destination for another reason as well. When I talked to the dog sledding guide on the previous day, he mentioned "Oh, the East Coast is great. That's where most of the polar bears live. On my last trip recently, we spotted six of them."

Now, one thing that has become almost standard in any travel log about Svalbard is the theme of not seeing polar bears. There are supposed to be a couple of thousand and you are not allowed to leave the settlements with either a weapon or a guide with a weapon due to the risk of polar bears, but essentially every travel log I read said "we were told about the polar bears, but have never seen any." So maybe I would see some at the East Coast. (To avoid building any suspense: No, I didn't.)

Shortly after we started, we spotted a couple of reindeers grazing nearby.

Svalbard reindeer grazing Svalbard reindeer grazing Svalbard reindeer grazing Svalbard reindeer grazing

As can already be seen, visibility wasn't the best.

A bit later, it started to get a bit windy and it started snowing a fair bit. Time for a short stop and decision making.

Landscape in snow Snow scooter pause Snow scooter pause

The guides gave us the bad news: We didn't have enough visibility and we needed to cross a glacier to get to the East Coast. To cross the glacier, we needed visibility, so we couldn't do it.

What we could do at that point was to turn towards to north-east and visit the Tempelfjorden area "which is also very nice".

So, in the end I ended up on the tour I was trying to avoid. (Even though it is a nice place and I hadn't been there before and it is well worth visiting and...)

To be unfair, I didn't believe the guides.

The whole visibility thing doesn't seem very plausible. First, it wasn't that bad to begin with (we're talking about more than a hundred meters here, not "you couldn't see the hand before your eyes" kind of conditions). And second, weather conditions do change quickly. About 15 minutes after we switched tracks and went towards Tempelfjorden, the drifting snow had already stopped and if you take a look at the pictured from Tempelfjorden, there is lots of visibility.

I don't like conspiracy theories (because they never make sense), but if you want one from me, I can give you one: There are no polar bears left on Svalbard and the tourist office wants to keep you from finding that out. "I've just seen six polar bears at the East Coast." "So can we go to the East Coast and have a look." "Well, just today the weather conditions happen to stop you from going to the East Coast. But if you could have gone, there would have been lots of polar bears!"

This doesn't make sense and I don't really believe that this was the reason.

But I do think that the "visibility" argument was just a pretext for not going to the East Coast. For me, the real reason was that we were going very, very slow. Snowmobiles can go fast. Lots of fast. But we had one driver in the group (which was pretty large anyway - two guides and twelve snow scooters for clients) that was driving very careful and hardly ever going faster than 30 km/h, even on flat, open terrain. They also re-arranged the driving order to put that driver right behind the first guide, but there was still a large gap left between the guide and that driver, even when the guide was taking it slow.

Since we had about 240 km to cover, we would probably have had ten hours of pure driving time, so with lunch break and photo stops, it would be a long tour indeed, especially if we would slow down even more on the glacier and in difficult driving conditions.

Since guides are probably not allowed to say to their clients "you are the weakest link, good-bye" (which suits me fine, since there were other trips where that would have been me), I assume they used the visibility argument to justify a change of plans without putting the blame on one of the clients.

But, as I mentioned it before, that is unfair from my side. I have no knowledge of the real reason. It's just an assumption, based on frustration.

Next stop was an interesting little canyon, where we were protected from the wind (which had abated by that time anyway) and had a nice lunch.

Svalbard canyon Svalbard canyon Svalbard canyon Svalbard canyon and birds
Svalbard canyon Svalbard canyon Svalbard canyon

And that really was nice. Usually dried "just add water" food is ok to eat, but that's it. If you travel for the culinary experience, you are probably not out on a camping trip anyway. So anything that doesn't taste really disgusting will be fine on a trip. But the guides managed to find some outdoor food (in this case curry chicken) that was tasty. And had a nice texture to it, so it wasn't just a sort of thick soup, but you could still feel the rice separately from the chicken. If I would have gotten that as a regular dish in a Chinese restaurant, it would have been fine.

Then it was onwards to the old trapper huts close to Tempelfjorden. Somewhat small, but comfortable and with probably one of the best views in Svalbard. And it looks tougher than it was for most of the time. A modern hut with multiple rooms, stove, kitchen and radio antenna is standing about thirty meters away from it. Both huts are unused today and only open for special occasions.

Tempelfjorden trapper hut Tempelfjorden trapper hut Tempelfjorden trapper hut Tempelfjorden trapper hut

Visibility was quite good from there, even though what could be seen was bad weather coming in from the north. We should have headed east instead...

Tempelfjorden weather

Then we headed across the frozen fjord, watching some seals lying in groups, close to a hole in the ice. Quite a different behaviour than in Greenland, where these seals would have been dog food about five minutes later.

Svalbard seals Svalbard seals Svalbard seals

Along the coast towards the glacier. The mountains really look like that. When I looked at the pictures, especially the middle one below, I thought I had inadvertently taken a double exposure, since it looks a lot like some parts have been cloned and copied, but the scenery really looks like that and the only thing I did with the picture was downscale it for the web page.

Svalbard coast Svalbard coast Svalbard coast

Then it was time for the main attraction, a photo stop at the Tempelfjord glacier.

Tempelfjord glacier Tempelfjord glacier Tempelfjord glacier Tempelfjord glacier
Tempelfjord glacier Snowscooter at Tempelfjord glacier Me at Tempelfjord glacier

And heading on to the "Noorderlicht"


The "Noorderlicht" is a sailboat that cruises the area around Spitsbergen in summer, but is moved to Tempelfjorden for the winter. Her it gets frozen into the fjord ice and serves as a tourist destination. Its most important function is probably as a toilet facility on the ice (if you are on a long tour, you have to go somewhere and most tourists probably aren't too fond of the alternatives).

But at "Noorderlicht" there is also coffee served (and quite good brownies, I have to add) and since the ship has cabins, it also serves as a destination for overnight tours or a night stop for longer tours. No wonder that it is quite popular with tour organizers, for example a dog sledge tour.

Noorderlicht with dogs Noorderlicht with dogs Noorderlicht with dogs
Noorderlicht with dogs Noorderlicht with dogs Noorderlicht with dogs

Then it was time to go back to Longyearbyen, this time even breaking the 50 km/h barrier... (Another participant of the trip had been on the tour to Barentsburg the previous day. They had been in a small group of four people and since the guide noticed that everyone was ok with the snowscooters, they were going at 110 km/h across the hills. Probably not the recommended safe speed, but probably more fun. But then, he the guy had been riding his motorcycle in Barcelona and if you survive that past the age of twenty, you're likely to be able to drive anything that moves.)

Weather in Longyearbyen was not great, but ok that evening.

Longyearbyen weather

I had a half day tour planned for the next day, but was considering to cancel that and book for another East Coast tour the next day, just for a second chance to get there. But then I decided to go with the tour I had already booked. Since the weather was worse the next day, it was probably a good choice.

The tour started with a Häglund trip. I had been in one of these a couple of years back, where they had a "Häglund ride" at the polar centre in Christchurch, New Zealand. That was a ride across a specially prepared course in the backyard of the centre, while this time, it was for getting somewhere.

Or, in this case, not getting somewhere.

Häglund and passengers outside

Due to the freshly fallen snow, the Häglund couldn't get up a steep bit of hillside with all the passengers inside, so we had to get out and walk a bit, so that the empty Häglund could catch up with us.

Häglund, having caught up

The goal of the trip was this non-descript entrance somewhere in the snow. But then, all entrances to hidden fairy places must be small and unassuming in the story...


The entrance led under the glacier over Longyearbyen. In Summer, when the glacier surface starts to melt, the melting water borrows into the ice and forms little tunnels. In winter, when there is no melting, it is safe to enter these tunnels. Safe being a relative term, of course.

Short detour: During the whole North Pole trip, I had heard two lines that sound utterly wrong when heard out of context, one being "Antarctica is not a dangerous place."

Which is true, compared with the Arctic. In Antarctica, you need to screw up to get in a dangerous situation. The only surprise that can kill you are crevasses when getting near mountains and the polar plateau, but otherwise, it is quite safe there. In the Arctic, the ice may break under your feet or you might be confronted with a polar bear and there is very little you can do about this in advance.

So, by this definition, crawling around in glaciers is quite safe.

And, just for the sake of completeness, the second line that seemed strange out of context was: "In Switzerland, everything is flat." (The context here was the ice condition near the North Pole. There are many small bumps and ice edges, while skiing areas in Switzerland are usually well prepared and maintained, so they have a flat surface."

Back from detour: Crawling, climbing and sliding around in the glacier were fun. I liked the 'hands on' travel in the cave in Hungary the previous year, and this was pretty much the same. Slightly more slippery, but with better sights. (When having the choice of staring at rocks or at ice, ice wins every time.)

Too bad it doesn't photograph well. It was much more impressive being there, than these pictures can tell. (And I hadn't noticed the Escher-like situation in the last picture of the first row when I took the picture. We just had a coffee break and the guy on the floor was still relaxing.)

In the glacier In the glacier In the glacier In the glacier In the glacier In the glacier
In the glacier In the glacier In the glacier In the glacier

Back to Longyearbyen now.

Longyearbyen from glacier

Not much left to do except to take a good-bye walk through Longyearbyen. While it wasn't quite the right time of year for it yet (and, with weather like this, it wouldn't have made any difference anyhow), I went to visit the 24 hour sun dial. Nice idea, if you can get the sunshine...

24 hour sun dial 24 hour sun dial 24 hour sun dial

The rest of the time was spent seeing (or more accurately, trying to see) the other local attractions.

Funicular centre Road (probably)

Some houses The road to Nybyen

No musical activities this winter, it seems. The 'Musikverksted" was pretty well snowed in.

Musikverksted Musikverksted

Next morning a final good-bye to the Spitsbergen Guesthouse, which was still standing.

Spitsbergen Guesthouse

And why should it not be? Well, mostly due to avalanche risk. It had been snowing quite a bit in the last couple of days and a lot of snow had build up on the hills above the guesthouse. Since the temperatures were close to thawing, the snow might have come down onto the guesthouse. (Which, supposedly, wouldn't have done much damage, since the houses are built on stilts.) There was even talk that they might evacuate Nybyen on the following weekend (all seven houses of it) and use explosives to get the snow down, but I have no idea whether they really did that.

Avalanche risk?

On the way back, I had a stop-over night in Tromsø

Tromsø panorama Tromsø bridge Tromsø house mosaic

Usually, I like Tromsø a lot, but I had picked a bad time to visit. Temperatures were around freezing, so during the night it was snowing and during the day, the snow was melting, so I spent most of the day walking through slush.

Still, I managed to visit the Polar Museum and Polaria (which had the most specific sign to a parking spot I have ever seen) before having to head home, so it was a nice, relaxing day at the end of a rather unusual journey.

Polaria parking sign Polaria side view Polar museum walrus Waiting for the bus

Time to go.

Melancholic in Tromsø

Back to other travels