Longyearben is the capitol of Svalbard. It is also the only settlement on the entire archipelago. Getting this far was easy enough; relatively inexpensive too, if you're willing to work the red-eyes and are given to bohemian inclinations. Bottom line is you can make Spitsbergen from San Francisco for about $1,000 or so, R/T. One overnight layover was a waay inexpensive hostel in Oslo's redlight district – but that digression can wait.
Our small group flew from SFO to Logan, Boston, where we were joined by Robert, Chicago; John coming up from New York New York. SAS to Oslo, with a short stopover at Reykjavik; SAS then runs up to Longyearbyen International Airport thrice weekly, with a touch and go at Tomsk.
Main Street offers One Stop Shopping, but if Scotch is on your shopping list, be sure to have your return plane ticket in your pocket. Sales to local residents ist verboten. Policies vary between Arctic destinations (except Russian ones), so a man could grow thirsty if he hasn't done his homework in advance.
Italian journalist Renatto had flown up from Naples to an Oslo rendezvous; contributing his share of expedition cost in cash – one million lire – which he'd carried on his person across Europe, remarkably. This added an international tone to camp, so we'd added an exotic sounding name to our Permit paperwork: “2007 EuroAm North Pearyland Expedition.”
Not certain if this official title was ever manifest to Renatto, as he spoke no English, nor any other language but his native tongue. Dennis, fluent in 7 languages (including hard ones – Russian, Norwegian...Inuit!), couldn't communicate any better than the rest of us, but for Holly's Spanish.
SAS owns and operates a Radissun Hotel here, which looked nice from the outside looking in. For about $3.50/night you can dirtbag in comfort and convenience, right next to the airfield. Showers, toilets, a small common dayroom with Kitchenette is over in the campsite's caretaker's cottage.
Up there, you may feed the bears. We don't mess around with “bearproof canisters” for our own feed, neither, not when you're packing enough to lay down a withering field of fire. When's the last time anyone's mugged for a photo op, with a Mauser at an airport terminal?
Fact is, field safety against the top of the local food chain is a Permit requirement, if you think you can 'bear whisper' your way around a hungry adult male who may weigh more that 1200 lbs, and can take our a full grown walrus with a single backhand.
Outbound over northern Spitsbergen. Everything's been climbed; no possibility of a FA here, so move along-
Like the Grand Canyon, the edge of the Polar ice cap is something I've always wanted to witness for myself. Like a hard edge separating what is profane, for that which is holy; definitely the feeling of crossing into another world.
Encountering the exceptionally rugged terrain described by the complex surface drainage hydrography brings the heros of the golden age of Arctic exploration to a life you can feel.
Above 82 N, Denmark's Station Nord is the northernmost permanent human habitat, although its architecture speaks mostly to steel hangers, barracks, shop buildings, clusters of aviation fuel storage tanks which left the air rich with hydrocarbon aroma. Here I where your paper will be checked, before heading into the hinterland. Ours filled a 3-ring binder; I remember proof of SAR insurance ($5,000) was a big part of it, along with a full inventory that needed to include a satellite telephone. The excellent “Lonely Planet” guidebook to Greenland and the Arctic included just 2 laconic sentences to the world's largest National Park, which encompasses all of the NW quarter of Greenland. “Expect no tourist facilities...” And advice to allow for about a year's lead time (ours also needed a trip to Copenhagen's Danish Polar Institute) because, “due to the difficulties in Permit acquisition, only the most determined scientists and climbers tend to make it into the Park..”
It's also home to the world's northernmost bar, which wasn't hard to locate, since all of the roads and pathways ultimate led there. Didn't want for company, as Station Nord is the logistical staging center for high arctic mining operations personnel; Western Europe scientific expeditions, giving the spotless “dayroom” the feel of a Faculty Club.
After the main groups dispersed, my own group sacked out for the “night,” a young Danish mining geologist and I were feted like royalty by two of the locals (Tim was a native Greenlander, in fact, with his doctorate) for some apres party amusement. I'd imagine some new companionship can be welcome from time to time.
At the highest latitudes, the sun makes a low orbit around the sky, at an almost even azimuth of 23 degrees. The guys had constructed a summer sundial just outside the Rec Bldg; photo taken at the stroke of midnight – note my watch propped up against the sun pole! No dusk nor dawn twilight here; just high noon, all day. This really wrecked all sense of time, creating a sort of endless “Now.” And the clarity of the air made it difficult to determine if a distant mountain range was 5 miles off, or 15, a source of spatial confusion thrown in on top of time dilation.
We'd crossed 12 time zones on a nearly continuous air journey, then backtracked 3, to get here, and a night tossing them back with my new friends produced a state of almost complete disorientation. So, I guess if 80% of Life is just showing up, getting there is 50% of the fun.
Station Nord is also home to the Danish military's Sirius Patrol, whose mission it is to patrol and protect Denmark's northern frontier against Russian interlopers, prone to steal across the Arctic icepack to ensconce mining operations deep within the Benedict and the Roosevelt Ranges which separate the ocean from Greenland's icecap.
In winter. Online research showed a training regimen which make the US Seals look like Boy Scouts. Crown Prince Frederick captivated his countrymen by volunteering for two tours of duty.
“The Polar Desert!” exclaimed Dennis, “my home away from home.”
Unlike the interior, Pearyland is comparatively ice free. There's some academic debate as to whether Pearyland is a separate tectonic element to the remainder of the island, and our return flyover of Independence Fjord certain made it appear so.
The scale of the place is so immense as to feel oppressive, if we're talking foot travel. “The Endless Horizon” is how Dennis described the rolling quality of the piedmont tundra. Summit a rise, but instead of an orienting panorama, lies just another rise horizon
Cargo containers shelter the Sirius Patrol and supply caches. There's one in this picture.
Like ascending a horizontal mountain, timberline 1,000 miles south, the tundra and sedges give way to moss, then a desolation more complete than Death Valley. Followed by the ice.
A 1927 Danish coastal survey established Kaffeklubben Island as a few minutes (miles) north of Cape Morris Jessup, the “Ultima Thule” reached by Peary in 1906.
According to Dennis, and other serious end of the earth-ologists, global warming was and is beginning to uncover new land masses north of Pearyland, although detractors observe that these are not tectonic features, but more ephemeral depositional islands, liable to be bulldozed out of existence by the icepack.
Literally a needle in a haystack, these “Stray Dog Islands” were located with our $5,000 investment in Danish military sat photos, and GPS. Still a blank spot on the map, as far as Google Earth is concerned. And the Arctic equivalent of a significant FA for us.
Our own, at 83.40.38 N, set a new “Furthest North,” and this story is one of tenacity, and friendships gone to rivalry; really the stuff of legends, and far from finished.
The return flight included a touch and go pick up of a miner, so we got a good aerial cross sectional view of Pearyland's interior.
The Benedict Range is separated from the Roosevelt Range by the Sefts Trench and its namesake glacier; here one really felt as if flying over the floor of Creation.
A rognon in the making, these two photographs are distanced a mere ten years apart.
We were treated to a very low approach angel over north Spitsbergen on return to Longyearben. Close enough to notice that the peaks and walls looked to be a sandstone formation. I'll probably not return any nearly than idle speculation, but alpine sandstone beneath the midnight sun would make a peculiar combination. Lots of choss would be a reasonable guess, but – are these wall climbable?
The first time I was openly solicited in the street, I was astonished. That novelty soon gave way to an insomnia, as the girls shouted out turf wars all four corners of the intersection beneath our hostel room. Blacks, all of them, bringing forth a macabre suggestion of roosting ravens.
A couple streets over was the main drag, closed, evidently for the summer, to auto traffic. With twilight lingering very late, is was like the whole City had turned out for a free block party, as if to make up for their long, dim winters. Nearby were the Parliament and Crown buildings, in a Greek Revivalist masonry. Uplit from street level gardens, the effect very lovely, and the contrast from 3 weeks on the end of the earth – one of them – was very welcome.