Svalbard - Dogsled and Snowmobile, March 2011

Total number of visits to Svalbard: 3
Number of different tours on this visit: 4
Number of polar bears seen: still zero.

After two years spending my holidays dogsledding in Canada, it seemed like it was time for a change.

Getting to Canada takes a while and it seemed to make more sense to find a place closer to home.

So I decided to go dogsledding in Svalbard instead.

But I decided that rather late (around November), so my favourite trip (going to the north coast of Spitsbergen) was already fully booked and I settled for a five day tour. One 'introduction' day trip, followed by a four day 'camping' trip.

But since going to Svalbard takes about two days of travelling, the situation was pretty much the same as in Canada the previous year. It's not really worth to spend four days 'en route' for a five day vacation. So I started looking for some other trips to do in Svalbard. (The first bit is not entirely true - technically you can do with one day of travelling, but that means taking a flight at 4 am. And that's not something I like to do when on vacation. And you stay in the same time zone, so at least there's no yet lag.)

So in the end it became two snowmobile trips and two dogsledding trips...

Getting to Svalbard meant delays on any single flight on the way. Usually I wouldn't mention that, but I had been quite impressed with SAS when I went to Lofoten last November and they were justifiably proud of promoting themselves as Europe's most punctual airline - so having the significant delays were much more noticeable than they would have been normally.

So when I arrived in Longyearbyen, it was already after sunset.

Longyearbyen at dusk

This, admittedly, sounds more dramatic than it is, since at that time of year sunset is before 4 pm. And that doesn't even mean that the sun can be seen in Longyearbyen during the day. While there is daylight, the sun still is so low in the sky that the mountains block the view. Only on March, 8th will the first ray of sunshine (assuming clear skies) actually hit Longyearbyen.

The first night was spent in Mary-Ann's Polarrigg, a hotel with rather spartanic rooms (like almost everywhere in Svalbard), but a fairly eclectic decor in all other areas - and a great restaurant (I had been there for the celebration after going to the North Pole and liked the place.)

Mary-Ann's Polarrigg room Mary-Ann's Polarrigg corridor

Next day it was time to go on the first snowmobile trip.

I had been on a day tour to the east coast of Svalbard in 2008, but due to bad weather (mostly) we didn't make it to the coast. Instead we made a detour to Tempelfjorden (nice place, but not the place I wanted to go to).

So this time I went on a three day trip, which would essentially give me three chances to get to the east coast.

Since there were a lot of supplies to bring along (specifically fuel - for cooking as well as driving), we needed 'trailer sleds' on three of the five snowmobiles.

Loading the snowmobiles

When everyone was packed, we drove east. After a while we spotted some Svalbard reindeer in the distance, so it was time for a short photo stop. (Though the excitement about spotting reindeer quickly waned. They are quite common and about everywhere. In fact, at that time of year it's much rarer to see a bird than a reindeer. The ptarmigan is the only bird that winters in Svalbard and it's much smaller than a reindeer (obviously) and has a camouflage colour (well, white in winter), so it's a bit harder to spot. Though, at the beginning of March, returning with the sunlight, the first petrels started to come back to Svalbard as well. But still, reindeer a are very noticiable presence in Svalbard.)

After about two hours, we reached the hut, which would be out 'base', had a quick lunch and dropped the supplies.

Although 'hut' makes it sound a bit grander than it was. Essentially it's just a wooden box that gets dragged out into a remote valley at the start of the season and needs to be dragged back before the snow melts again. But it has an oven, the lower wood sleeping panel can be converted into seating and a table - so it's about as comfortable as a travel trailer.

Hut for snowmobile tour

After leaving the gear behind, we set out for the east coast in the late afternoon.

Checking the trail Early evening snowmobile ride

But at the beginning of March, 'late afternoon' means 'around sunset'. (Days get longer quite quickly that far North. Every day, sunset was about ten minutes later than the previous day. But at that day, sunset was still at 4:06 pm.) And when it got fairly dark, we still were six kilometers from the coast. It would have been easy to get there, since the rest of the way was just flat snow, but we wouldn't have been able to see much and just getting to the east coast to have been there (without seeing much of it) seemed silly. So we turned back.

Good idea too, since my snowmobile was a bit odd and it just shut down while driving over a glacier. Turned out to be nothing but a bad connector at the battery, but it took some time to sort that out, so we came back to the hut later than expected.

Looking out of the hut, the weather looked promising.

Rosy dawn Snowmobiles at hut

Time for some breakfast.

And then it was time to head out to the east coast again, this time on a slightly different route. While the sky wasn't quite as clear and blue as the morning had let me hope, there was little wind and visibility was good.

Svalbard hills Svalbard hills Glacier crevasse

Until we crossed over a small hill onto a glacier, where we suddenly were in a snowstorm with a visibility of 50 meters or less. We continued for a bit, but with still more than 15 km to go and conditions not getting better, the decision was made to stop and turn around.

Low visibility on glacier

The bad weather was surprisingly localized - after going back over the hill, visibility was back to normal. The small hill acted as some sort of weather divide.

So the guide decided that we would not try to go to the east coast, but drive to Tempelfjorden instead. Which caused a bit of deja-vu for me. Because I had been on a tour to the east coast in 2008, which was aborted, we stopped in a canyon for lunch and then went to Tempelfjorden instead.

Pretty much what I had been trying to avoid by going on a three day tour (with the base in a hut two-thirds along the way) - and now we were already on the second of three days, with the second failed attempt to get to the east coast. And the second day was supposed to be the one with the best weather. The forecast for the third day was pretty dire and there was already talk of heading back to Longyearbyen on the shortest possible way in that case.

Admittedly, Tempelfjorden seems to be a bit of a local good weather zone - on all three multi-day trips the day at Tempelfjorden had the best weather - and while we got closer, the skies cleared up.

Towards Tempelfjorden Towards Tempelfjorden Towards Tempelfjorden

The guide announced that he knew a good place for lunch, which - not surprisingly, at least for me - turned out to be the canyon in which I had eaten lunch on the snowmobile tour in 2008. And it turned out to be the same kind of 'Real Turmat' dry food as well. While I like that stuff (it's quite tasty for 'adventure food'), but I would have preferred to eat it at the east coast. But enough of the whining.

Svalbard Canyon Svalbard Canyon Svalbard Canyon

Arriving in Tempelfjorden, it was time for some nice pictures of the glacier edge and the setting sun.

Tempelfjorden glacier Tempelfjorden glacier Snowmobile rider at Tempelfjorden Snowmobiles parked at Tempelfjorden
Tempelfjorden sunset Tempelfjorden sunset Tempelfjorden sunset Tempelfjorden sunset

A quick stop at the old trappers cabin Fredheim and another stop at the remains of an old light signal that helped dog sleds to find their way across Sassendalen and it was time to head back for the hut.

Fredheim trapper hut

My snowmobile was acting up again and the lights didn't work. It's a rather odd feeling to drive through the dusk without seeing the ground in front of you. Finding the way isn't the problem, you just follow the guide in front of you, but you can't see any bumps and dips in the track right before you, so can't anticipate the jolts. Luckily, the lights came back on after bump and stayed on.

Next morning, the weather was inconclusive. The weather report was still kind of negative, but not as bad as it was two days earlier (for this day). And looking outside didn't help much either, since all there was to be seen was a lot of greyishness.

Hut and snowmobiles

But the guide decided that the weather wasn't as bad as feared and we might as well try to make another attempt for the east coast (instead of heading back to Longyearbyen directly) and, depending on the situation, turn back or do a large circle, visiting Svea (a small mining settlement) on the way.

And that morning, we finally got lucky. The skies cleared up and we didn't just end up with bland greyness, but had sunny blue skies and good visibility on the way.

Close to east coast, Svalbard Close to east coast, Svalbard Close to east coast, Svalbard Close to east coast, Svalbard

Our guide also spotted some polar bear tracks (the black thing in the first picture is my mitten, just to give some indication of size). We wondered whether it might be worth following the track, but it was probably too old to make it worth it.

Polar bear tracks Polar bear tracks Polar bear tracks

Since we had stopped already, it was also a good opportunity to have a short break and enjoy the view for a while.

Close to east coast, Svalbard Me, close to east coast, Svalbard Close to east coast, Svalbard Close to east coast, Svalbard

The weather stayed pretty much as it was, so we got to the east coast without problems and drove a bit north along the coast. There's a place where there's a bit of a cliff, which not only gives a good viewpoint, but also separates you from the actual coastline below. So if there would have been any polar bears around, they most likely would have been close to the ice/water boundary, so standing up there on the cliff would have been good for polar bear watching, without being in direct danger from polar bears below.

Well, would have. But there weren't any polar bears around, so it didn't matter.

But the view was good and even though it's not visible on the pictures, we could make out the mountains on Barentsøya and Edgeøya about 50 km away.

East coast, Svalbard East coast, Svalbard East coast, Svalbard

So, after a number of tries, I got to the east coast of Svalbard in the end.

Since the weather was still fine, we continued our trip towards Svea (a Swedish mining settlement on Svalbard) instead of heading back to Longyearbyen directly.

On the way, we came across the polar bear tracks again on the other side of Agardhbukten, vanishing somewhere over the mountains.

Polar bear tracks, Svalbard

We continued toward Svea, having a lunch break at Kjellstromdalen.

Lunch break, Svalbard

The weather was turning bad for a while, but it was still better than on the glacier the previous day, so we got to Svea without any problems


All that there was left to do was drive back on the well maintained and marked trail across the glacier from Svea to Longyearbyen.

It is a nice trail to drive, with some interesting bits where the trail curves through some hills and it's really hard to tell the flat bits from the hillsides, since all you see is just white all around you. Fun to do, as long as you just follow the movements of the snowmobile in front of you, but I haven't the slightest idea of how the guide in front knows where to go.

And sometimes reindeer use the nice, easy and well maintained track as well, so there's something else the guide needs to pay attention to.
(And the pictures below are fairly accurate as far as visibility goes. Do you see the valley between the hills? Can you see the snowmobile trail? Would you want to drive on that trail at 70 km/h? Does that seem safe? I that fun? - My answers to the first four questions is 'barely' and to the fifth 'yes, a lot'. Your milage may differ.)

Svalbard reindeer Svalbard reindeer

We arrived in Longyearbyen after dawn and the first tour of the trip was already over.

Track of snowmobile trip
The route of the trip (as a Google Earth KML file) is here.

Next day it would be time for the main trip - the five day dogsledding tour.

Or so I thought.

Continue to the next part of the Svalbard 2011 trip.

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