Svalbard - Dogsled and Snowmobile, March 2011

The plan was to meet the guide the next day at 9 am to go for the one day dogsledding tour, before embarking on a four day tour.

The guide showed up next morning, bringing us bad news. "You realize that we can't go dogsledding today, do you?"

Snow storm in Longyearbyen

There was a snowstorm outside and while it wasn't that cold and visibility was still kind of ok, the dogs don't like to run in the storm and it was unlikely to get better during the day. (That was pretty much the weather we had been worrying about on the snowmobile tour the previous day.)

As far as the schedule was concerned, this wasn't much of a problem. The trip normally included a 'day for sightseeing in Longyearbyen' at the end (also as a 'buffer' day in case of delays), so we would have this now and just move all the dogsledding by a day.

Due to the snowstorm, most activities outside of Longyearbyen (such as snowmobile day tours) had been cancelled anyway, so all there was to do was walking around in Longyearbyen.

Since I had been to most of the local attractions three years ago, there wasn't much I hadn't seen yet, but I did try to head for the Spitsbergen Airship Museum, which hadn't existed back then.

I'm not sure whether it exists now.

The guest house I was staying at had a poster of the museum on the wall, which listed the daily opening times in the main season and for the rest of the year. And a vague description where to find it (barn, 200 meters from the church, other side of the street). There also was a stack of flyers, describing the museum, but not giving opening times or the location.

There were only two barns that did fit the description (depending on which direction you walk along the street from the church), but one didn't have any hints to its purpose at all at all (except an 'entrance on the other side' sign - where the other side was blocked by a huge snowdrift) and the other turned out to be the local pistol shooting range.

But nothing that looked like a museum.

Coming back later to the guest house, someone commented on the word 'closed' scribbled with a pen over the poster there (which I hadn't noticed when I looked at it). And, looking later at the web page of the museum, it just mentions 'Closed from October', but doesn't make any mention on whether this is a seasonal closing or whether it's closed for good.

Given the general appearance of the building (according to the picture on the museum web site - which doesn't give any description of the location at all - it must have been the first barn I had been looking at), and given the facts that there weren't any 'museum' signs at all, that the original museum poster did have opening times for all months of the year, the visitor numbers they had in their first year and the fact that there is no indication of the re-opening date, I assume that the museum doesn't exist anymore.

But at least I got to the area around the museum at a time when the wind had died down a bit, so I could take a picture of the 'Sykehustrappa', though a day too early.


These stairs have to do with a local tradition.

While technically the polar night ends in Longyearbyen on the 16th of February, Longyearbyen has mountains on the south side, so, though there is daylight, the sun itself can't be seen until the 8th of March. So, traditionally, the sun was welcomed back on that day. And the 'official' celebration was held when the rays of the sun hit the stairs in front of the hospital (the 'Sykehustrappa').

Trouble is, the hospital doesn't exist anymore and the new one is in a different location and facing in the wrong direction.

So, for the sake of tradition, a small set of stairs was built at the site of the old hospital, just to be able to continue to hold the yearly celebration there.

But I took the picture on the 7th of March, so even if the sky would have been clear (which it wasn't), it was still one day to early to see the sunlight on the stairs.

And for pretty much the same reasons, I wasn't able to tell the time using the sundial nearby (which has, in summer, the unusual feature of being able to show the time for all 24 hours).

(The sun dial even has a small box nearby with a guest book and a small brush, so if you're interested in seeing it in the winter, you can at least remove any snow on the dial.)

sun dial sun dial

Not having found the airship museum and having pretty much exhausted all tourist attractions in Longyearbyen three years ago, I went back to the guest house.

Time to sit around in the 'lounge room' and talk to the other travelers.

Oddly enough, all five people on the dog sledding tour were from Germany. (The snowmobile tour had attracted a somewhat wider geographical range - a DJ and art photographer from London, a photo retouching professional from California (though currently living in London) and someone from Denmark.)

It turned out that this was mainly because the dogsledding tour had been 'packaged' and promoted by a German travel agency.

Which had also led to some confusion the previous day, since I had booked the trip directly with the company doing the actual dogsledding, while everyone else had booked the trip together with the flight connections, so when everyone was welcomed by Pritta (who owns the dog-sledding company with her husband), there was some worry about me missing, since she assumed that I would be on the same plane as everyone else (while I was still out at the east coast on a snowmobile).

Luckily that got resolved when I turned up at the guest house, since there was a late evening flight incoming from Oslo that day and Pritta would have gone and tried to welcome me then, which would have been frustrating, since the flight arrives at 23:30, so it would have been past midnight until she would have realized that I wasn't on that flight either.

But, anyway, this was sorted out in time.

While the weather had been quite stormy during most of the day, it cleared up at night. There were even some (very faint) northern lights in the sky, but they had been gone by the time I got my camera set up outside. While waiting for the lights to reappear (they didn't), I took some long-exposure pictures of the hills around Longyearbyen, reflecting the light from the town.

Longyearbyen mountains at night Longyearbyen mountains at night Longyearbyen mountains at night

Even though the night skies were quite clear, it was cloudy and windy (though not stormy) the next day.

Good enough for dogsledding.

The revised plan was as follows:
We would get our sleds fully equipped for the four day tour. If the wind came from the right direction, we would do the four day tour first and then do the day tour afterwards. If the wind was from the wrong direction, we would do the day tour first, since both possible tours went through valleys at right angles to each other, so if on of them was windy, the other one was likely to shield us from the wind.

But regardless where we were going, it was time to meet the dogs and get the sleds ready.

There was a 'roll call' sheet for the dog teams and my team was team six, consisting of seven dogs, with Nyalla as the sole lead dog, followed by Luke and Leo, then Vakan and Virgo, with Barens and Nuuk as the wheel dogs. (The numbers next to the dogs indicate their harness sizes and, implicitly, the size of the dog. Usually, but not always, the larger dogs go directly in front of the sledge (the wheel dogs), while the smaller ones are in front of the line (the lead dogs).)

Dog sledge team list

My team turned out to be 'color coordinated', which is unusual for these kind of trips, since sledge dogs are bred for performance and not for looks. While looking nice in photographs, it actually makes it harder to tell the dogs apart and remember their names. While I usually could identify Nyalla due to a more alert personality, I could usually tell the rest of the dogs apart by direct comparison (Leo had a slightly more reddish nose than Luke, Barens a slightly more 'fuzzy' face than Nuuk), but not if I saw them individually. Luckily there's seldom the need to address a dog directly by name - which is probably also obvious by having dogs with names like Luke and Nuuk in a team, which sound too similar to enable a dog to figure out who you are addressing.

My dog team for the trip

With the teams assigned, it was time to get the sledges ready and the dogs harnessed and in place. The whole procedure was slightly different from the way it was handled on the dogsledding trips in Canada.

In Canada, the dogs were harnessed off the sledge (while still being attached to their kennels or ground lines) and only when all dogs were essentially ready to go (give or take a couple of harness chewers), they were put on the gangline in front of the sledge.

Here, the dogs were just attached with their collars to the gangline, the gangline stretched out and secured in the front with a snow anchor, and then the harnesses were put on with the dogs already on the gangline.

Another big difference between dogsledding in Canada and (both of the tours) in Svalbard was that there was only one guide who was also riding a dog sledge. Which made for slightly more 'storybook' kind of dogsledding, but made it also more difficult for the guide to assist in cases of problems. So in effect, this trip required much more troubleshooting ability than my previous ones.

All trivial tasks (like untangle the dogs in case some lead dogs decided to pay the wheel dogs a visit and suddenly they were just a pile of dogs and a knot of wires and strings between them), but everyone was implicitly (and justifiably) expected to be able to handle that. (Which was maybe also a reason for the original plan to start with a day trip first, in case someone wasn't.)

After a while all dogs were in position and we were ready to go.

Laying out the ganglines Hooking the dogs up Getting the harness on One pair done Ready to go

Though some were more relaxed about it than others,

Almost ready to go

And then it was time to set off.

Dog sledge in windy conditions Dog sledge in windy conditions

By the time we got started, the wind had increased again and while there wasn't that much actual snowfall, there was also a bit of snow being blown around. And the dogs weren't overly enthusiastic in heading towards the first stop of the four day tour.

So the decision was made to turn to the right and head for Bolterdalen for the day tour route.

Which turned out to be a good decision, since the weather in that valley turned out to be a lot better, with blue patches starting to appear in the sky and the wind decreasing.

Bolterdalen dog sledding Bolterdalen improving weather Bolterdalen improving weather
Bolterdalen bluish sky Bolterdalen blue sly Bolterdalen dog sledding

While we were dogsledding, Anton (the other co-owner of the dogs and Pritta's husband) had been driving with a snowmobile and checking out the other trail and came up to confirm that the decision had been right - the conditions on the other trail were much worse.

So we went on to the ice cave and gave the dogs a chance for some rest.

Resting dogs

We donned some helmets and head lamp and headed down into the glacier.

Being in a cave in a glacier (technically, it's not as much a cave as a meltwater channel) is quite fascinating, since it is like being in a glittery and strange fantasy world, especially with the light of the headlamp causing sparkly reflections all over the place.

But if you try to photograph it, the flash makes everything just flat white and non-magical, so these pictures don't properly represent anything of the experience of being there.

Bolterdalen ice cave Bolterdalen ice cave Bolterdalen ice cave
Bolterdalen ice cave Bolterdalen ice cave Bolterdalen ice cave
Me in Bolterdalen ice cave Bolterdalen ice cave

After coming back up from the cage, it was time to get on the sledge and head back to the kennel.

Returning on dog sled from Bolterdalen Returning on dog sled from Bolterdalen Returning on dog sled from Bolterdalen
Returning on dog sled from Bolterdalen Me returning on dog sled from Bolterdalen

We didn't return to the guesthouse in Longyearbyen that night. There is a small guest house next to the kennel, so we spent the night there.

And by the time it was dark, the skies had cleared up completely, and there were some impressive northern lights in the sky as well. (The bright electrical lights nearby belong to mine 7, the only active coal mine in the Longyearbyen area and two other dog kennels.)

Northern lights, Svalbard Northern lights, Svalbard Northern lights, Svalbard Northern lights, Svalbard

So with clear skies and little wind outside, weather conditions were looking good.

Until the next morning.

Snowstorm morning

Another snow storm had come up and there was no chance of dogsledding that day.

So all there was to do was to watch the weather, ask for the latest weather report, write postcards, sit outside and enjoy the storm (then go inside for some warming up and a coffee and then head outside again) and photograph some dogs.

An unexpected thing during the wait was getting a sensible answer to stupid question. It had been reasonably cold (about -15°C) the previous night, but it was supposed to be warmer with the snow storm. So when someone came in from the outside after feeding the dogs, I asked whether it was cold outside.

I realized the moment I asked the question, that the answer would sarcastic and along the lines of 'You are in the Arctic and there's a snowstorm outside - what do you think?', but the question was placed into the right context and I got a sensible answer (it was getting fairly warm at about -3°C), which impressed me a lot.

Dog after snow storm Dog after snow storm Dog after snow storm
Dog in snow storm Dog in snow storm Dog in snow storm
Dog in snow storm Dog in snow storm Dog in snow storm

Followed by some more sitting around and waiting. But at least in comfort. (It would have been slightly worse if we had started on the four day trip on the previous day and then had to sit out a day in the yurt or a tent.)

Waiting in guest house

In the evening, as a bonus, Pritta gave a slide show about her overwintering in a trapper's hut near the north coast of Svalbard a few years earlier. Including some remarks that gave ordinary things a quite different perspective, like "I decided to pay a visit to our nearest neighbor and loaded three days of supplies on the sled."

The stories made me a bit wistful. Originally I wanted to go on a slightly longer dogsled trip to the north coast, but by the time I had finally decided to book the trip, it was already sold out. So seeing all the great pictures from that area made me kick myself a bit for having been too slow.

But then, no crying of spilt milk and all that. And weather reports looked reasonably good for the next day, so it seemed that we might get going for the longer tour.

Or, the slightly shortened longer tour. While one reserve day had been built into the schedule, we had already waited out snow storms on two days, so we couldn't do a four day tour.

So there was a new plan. (Though, as a guide from another tour said a couple of days later when I asked whether he managed to reach any of the places as planned: "That's why we don't have a plan. We just have a list of places that would be interesting to visit and make the rest more or less up according to the weather. Planning is useless at this time of year.")

The new plan was to do pretty much the route as planned, but doing the last two days sledding in one day (so that would be a long day on the move) and just cut out a little detour on the way back. Since it turned out that the detour would be a canyon in a valley on the north side of Sassendalen (where I already had been with the snowmobile five days earlier), I didn't mind that much.

Weather still wasn't great on the next day, but it seemed ok, so it was time to get the sleds cleaned from the snow, loaded and the dogs in front of them.

Packing the sleds Sled and kennel Dogs looking attentive
Dog sled ready to go Packed dog sled

Something I liked about the sleds was the 'compartments' on them. So far, I had only seen sleds with one big bag across the whole length, but these sleds had a small bag at the front (mainly for tent, sleeping bags and thermo-mats), a large bag at the back (for common gear like dinner, dog food, equipment and for personal stuff and clothing), with a large alu box in the middle for stuff that needs to be accessed on the trail (like snow anchors, lunch, snacks, thermos, replacement ropes, emergency gear and similar stuff).

The only thing I found lacking was some kind of 'handlebar bag' for things you want to use or stow away while moving (like snacks, cameras or goggles).

When we were ready to go, the sky was overcast and it was still a bit windy, but not snowing. The visibility wasn't great, but sufficient. So we set out for the destination of the day, a fixed yurt in Trehøgdalen. (The yurt had an oven and (barely) enough room for all of us, so we wouldn't need to set up the tents on the first night.)

Dog sledding Adventdalen

Everything went well for the first two hours, but then the wind picked up again and visibility dropped significantly. Usually it was possible to see only about three sleds ahead, sometimes even less. Since the guide needs to be able to see the last sled (in case there are any problems) and it was also difficult to see the trail ahead, Reeta decided to stop and wait out the storm.

Sitting out the snow storm Sitting out the snow storm Sitting out the snow storm
Sitting out the snow storm Sitting out the snow storm

The situation was a bit strange, since there was no further guidance beyond "we'll wait the storm out", so nobody had an idea how long this might take (after all, we had been watching the storm outside for all day the previous day) and whether we should seek or set up some sort of shelter.

In the end I more or less just stood around, waited, ate lunch, drank tea and, getting bored, just lay down on the downwind side of the sled and relax.

Since it was still fairly warm (probably -8°C or so) and we were dressed for much lower temperatures, there wasn't any risk of freezing or even of getting cold, but it just felt weird reacting to a snow storm by just standing around and doing our best in ignoring it.

After more than an hour the weather got slightly better and we were on the move again.

Well, everyone else was.

To get back on the track, the other teams started to move in a semi-circle and my lead dog, seeing where they were heading, tried to take a shortcut and follow the guide directly instead of following the team in front of us.

I stopped the sled and the lead dog tried to get back to the correct track.

But going around my sled, instead in front of it.

Leaving seven dogs in a big knot of entangled ropes and harnesses.

I managed to get the mess sorted out after a while, but by then the rest of the group had started to wonder where I was, so everyone had stopped again and Reeta had turned her guide sled around to come looking for me.

Eventually we got moving in a proper line again.

And we got to the yurt. A bit later than expected, but at least we got there.

Moving stuff from the sleds to the yurt was a bit harder than expected, since the snow storms during the previous days had piled up a lot of fresh snow in the valley where the yurt was, so, at the beginning, we were sometimes sinking up to our hips into the snow on every step. But after a while some pathways emerged and walking got easier.

The weather forecast for the next day was clear blue skies, some winds and a sharp drop of temperature.

Which turned out to be quite correct.

Getting out of the yurt next morning, we were greeted with clear blue skies and a beautiful view.

Yurt Sunny Svalbard day

It looked like this would be another good day for dog sledding, so it was time to wake up the dogs.

Lazy dogs Packing the dog sleds Packing the dog sleds Packing the dog sleds

It turned out to be a pretty perfect day for dog sledding.

When we started out, the valley with the yurt was still in shadow, but once we got back to the main trail towards Tempelfjorden, we could see sun-lit Sassendalen below us.

Towards Sassendalen Towards Sassendalen

Even the dogs relaxed in the sun and tried to get a bit of a tan.
(Well, not really, but they seemed much easier going than on the previous day.)

Dogs catching some sun

Driving across Sassendalen was a bit chilly, since the temperature had been droppin significantly in the previous night, but foremost it was dogsledding in a beautiful landscape and scenery.

Sassendalen Sassendalen Sassendalen
Sassendalen Sassendalen Sassendalen

Turning into Tempelfjorden, it was still mostly in shadow (the mountains on the south side of the fjord are about 700 meters high, so they block the sun during noon time), but we could already see the glacier front in the sunlight ahead.

Tempelfjorden Tempelfjorden Tempelfjorden

Time for some lunch before heading to the glacier edge.

Tempelfjorden lunch break

And on to the Tunabreen glacier for another extended rest and photo stop.

Tunabreen glacier Tunabreen glacier Sledge dogs at Tunabreen glacier
Sledge dogs Tunabreen glacier Tunabreen glacier Sledge dogs Tunabreen glacier

While the dogs were having a short nap, it was fun to notice that some were doing that with the same orientation...

Dogs napping mirror images...

Dogs napping

...just any random way...

Dogs napping

...or staying awake and paying attention.

Dog paying attention

Or just dripping blood.

Which looks a bit gruesome. For some reason the necklines for the dogs were metal chains and if it gets cold (by now we were at -20°C and dropping) and the dogs happen to touch the chains with their mouth, the metal sticks to their skin. And since there is a lot of blood running through a dog's mouth, that means that every wound will bleed quite impressively. While the dogs don't seem to pay much attention to that (and the guide also shrugged it off as "Yes, that happens sometimes. Don't worry about it."), I wonder why they don't use steel cables instead of chains. (There might be some rational behind it - for example, individual strands of the steel cable might break, stand out and be a source of injury - but I don't know the actual reason for the chains.)

We remained near the glacier edge until the sun was fairly low in the sky and then set out to a point at the northern side of Tempelfjorden to set up camp for the evening.

Tempelfjorden at dusk Tempelfjorden at dusk Tempelfjorden at dusk

The camp site was impressive. Located at the side of the fjord next to a small hill, protected, but with the option to walk up the hill and have a good view in all directions.

We had a short demonstration on setting up a tent on the previous evening (even though we were staying in the yurt) and now it was time to apply the lesson.

The camp consisted of one larger community tent (for cooking and eating and two people to sleep in) and two smaller expedition 'tunnel' tents for sleeping.

Camp at Tempelfjorden Camp at Tempelfjorden

In retrospect, I was now even more impressed by the tents used on the Canadian dog sledding trip than I was on that trip itself. Comparing trips, for most of the other gear and the way of handling things, it seemed to me that each had its pros and cons and it came down to personal preferences and style which one to use. But the tents, these seemed to be just impractically designed.

My pet peeve here is that you need to guide the poles through a long cloth sleeve and that is fiddly work. While there wasn't any actual problem with this (we were still quite warm from handling the dogs and it wasn't windy), this is something I wouldn't want to with freezing fingers under windy conditions.

It also makes it hard to remove the poles again, since you have to push them out through the cloth sleeve (you can't pull, because the pole segments will separate, creating an even bigger mess), which is also hard to do with heavy gloves. (We just wore thin liner gloves while doing that, but I wouldn't want to do that when the weather turns nasty.)

So I am a bit partial to 'clip in' tents, where you build a basic geodetic structure with the poles and than just clip the tent into and/or over it. As an added convenience, the structure is self supporting, so you just need to anchor the tent with pegs, but you don't need a dozen pegs just to get the tent into shape.

When the tents were set up and the dogs taken care of, there was some time to admire the evening sky and the landscape before dinner.

Tempelfjorden evening Tempelfjorden evening Tempelfjorden evening

And then it was time for us to get some dinner.

Tent dinner

By the time we had finished, it has gotten darker, colder (-26°C by now) and some spectacular northern lights had come out as well,

The moon was shining as well (not a full moon, but at least some moon light), lighting up the fjord and the mountains on the other side, so it was a good opportunity to play around with the long exposure functions of our cameras.

Northern lights over Tempelfjorden Northern lights over Tempelfjorden Northern lights over Tempelfjorden
Northern lights over Tempelfjorden Northern lights over Tempelfjorden

Which led to a number of useful (but obvious) lessons learned the hard way:

While I wasn't really freezing that night, I didn't get much actual sleep that night.

Luckily, I wasn't the only one looking a bit tired the next morning.

Dog looking tired

Since this was already our last day, we needed to get back to the dog kennel and since it was essentially two days of the tour packed into one, it was going to be the longest daily distance to cover, so we got up almost an hour earlier than on the previous day. But the tiredness was soon forgotten, since it looked like would be another nice day.

Tempelfjorden dawn Tempelfjorden dawn Tempelfjorden dawn

Time for some breakfast for us and the dogs, to break camp, to store everything away and to get going.

Sled dogs having breakfast Ready to go Me and the dogs ready to go

On the way out of the fjord, we passed the Noorderlicht, a Dutch two-master schooner that is used for sailing trips along the Svalbard coast in summer and in winter moves into Tempelfjorden and gets frozen into the ice there to serve as a hotel for snow mobile and dog sled tours. My second dog sledding tour in Svalbard, a couple of days later, would take me there, but for now we were just passing it.

The weather stayed friendly throughout the day and while driving through Sassendalen it felt, once again, quite cold due to being exposed to the wind, the views were great and once we were back into Adventdalen and out of the wind, the temperature felt quite comfortable again.

We also spotted an interesting 'sun dog' on the way, which seemed oddly appropriate for dogsledding.

(The light in the middle of the next image is not a lens flare effect of the camera, but was actually visible in the sky. The rainbow-like colours derive from pretty much the same light scattering effect as in a normal rainbow, but it's caused by ice crystals in the cloud as opposed to rain drops.)

Rainbow cloud Rainbow cloud

We made some good progress and after a while we turned left from the main (and well travelled) route along Adventdalen and went through a side valley named Janssondalen instead, giving us the chance to experience a different and less common route.

Janssondalen Janssondalen dog sled rest Janssondalen dog sledding

The sun was getting low in the sky again and we were heading down from the slightly higher Janssondalen back into Adventdalen and onto the final stretch back to the dog kennel, where we arrived around 6pm for a 'welcome back' dinner before getting back into the guesthouse in town for some celebratory drinks.

Janssondalen dog sled rest

This is the route we took, covering 156 km on dog sled:

Track of first dog sled trip

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

Distances travelled:
Ice cave day tour20.5 km
Kennel to yurt29.9 km
Yurt to camp site41.2 km
Camp site to kennel  54.4 km

Time to head somewhere else than Tempelfjorden for a change...

Continue to the next part of the Svalbard 2011 trip.

Back to other travels