Svalbard

I was emailing (a bit warily) with my ex a little bit ago, and he commented that in Finch, I seem to have found not just a compatible lover but someone who opens up a tremendous world of adventure.  Beyond my wildest dreams, really.

I’ve always been a bit of an armchair adventure traveler, reading books about women walking or riding their bicycles across continents, around the world, fantasizing about myself alone on my bike, little tent in overstuffed panniers.  I know the moment where my imagination about this was ignited.  I was 8 or 9, slugging across Europe in an orange VW camper, taking in every country then outside the Eastern bloc except Portugal as my parents’ marriage ticked through its last miles.

We were camped one night in the Netherlands — I recall it as Rotterdam, but I have no idea if this is true or not — and a cyclist stopped beside us.  He opened up a little pack, seemed to instantly set up a tiny tent, and sat down, contented, and bit into a tomato.

“I want to do that,” I said, entranced.

“You don’t even like raw tomatoes,” said my mother.

It was the whole scenario, of course — everything he needed simplified down to two wheels, his own pedaling power, a continent (well, half a continent) beneath his spokes.

Despite some back country hiking and paddling, and one solo four day bike trek on my own, I’ve never managed to live into this moment. I was semi-seriously planning a trip around Iceland a few years ago, but I couldn’t quite figure out how to schedule the necessary learning about how to fix my bike into my ridiculous schedule, and then everything in Iceland went kerflooie and it stopped feeling like a hidden mystery.  And life overtook.

I still had this yearning, though, for adventure, for glaciers and North and barren land opened up.  And along comes Finch, offering me this raw truffle of an adventure this summer, on a slice of land I’ve never even really heard of.  Svalbard, aka Spitsbergen, just below the 80th parallel, waaaaaaay north of Iceland, sort of shrugged off the left shoulder of Norway.

(click on the image to make it bigger)

Svalbard is the bit just to the left of the fold in the bottom half of the page, sort of 7:30 from the pole.  (Love this north-o-centric perspective on the world).

We’ll spend a few days on land, just the two of us, navigating glacial mountains and polar bears with our cameras, then getting on a small ship and sailing around the fjords of the perimeter for a couple of weeks with a group.

Mostly the history of this clutch of islands is whaling, until they used up all the whales and started mining, and then had to stop that.  Now it’s one of those incredibly few, almost inaccessible spots on the earth that defies habitation, human impact visible only in the ache of the whales missing from the sea.

I’ve never been much of a creature person, really, my green politics folded into a predictable discomfort at disappearing species, but without any real emotion around it.  What Finch has given me are spaces where wildlife is steady and ancient, and gut-wrenching hints of what it must have been like when creatures weren’t thinned and frightened and forced to uneasily adapt because of humans.  The grey whales in Laguna san ignacio that came up to be stroked, the sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apaches that ventured within 4 metres of us.  (Even Finch and his Dr. Doolittle ways couldn’t get the sweet little lambies of northern England to let me stroke them, though).

Svalbard is ancient and empty of whales, and we’ll have to carry a polar bear gun when we tromp on the land.  It’s not a place for riding a bicycle, and I don’t imagine we’ll have a lot of fresh tomatoes to bite into.  Which is fine, because I still don’t really like them raw.

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