Svalbard is an archipelago, and the island we were trying to sail around on our trip — Spitsbergen — is the largest island. As I posted about before, we were stopped about halfway through the circumnavigation by the morphing, drifting pack ice. The pack ice was a surreal, restless landscape, a reminder that at the extremes of the earth, nothing is solid, nothing is predictable.
This polar domain is so far out of most people’s experience that in my recounting now that I’m home, I’ve had people ask me questions like “if you were so close to the north pole, why didn’t you just go all the way?” It’s true that looking at the map that neatly provides us with a view of landmasses and water, the reality of a world of ice is obliterated. But poking a small boat through each tiny space between shifting floes is an intense, risky art, a deep relationship between a skilled captain, his boat and time.
We couldn’t go much further north even in our stout little boat, but we did land on Nordaustlandet, the second largest island in Svalbard, at around 80° N. (For perspective, when I was watching a doc on the Greely expedition on the plane on the way home, I realized that they’d reached 83°N, which was then the furthest north any person had been known to be. (European, I must add — presumably Inuit people have been further north).
This landing was one of the most deeply moving experiences I’ve had. The environment felt different, truly polar, compared to “northern.” Nordaustlandet is deeply inhospitable to humans, with 80% of its area under an ice cap. Like all of Svalbard, there are no indigenous people known to have ever been on Nordaustlandet (too far away from all other inhabited areas and never apparently discovered), and it was only first explored in 1873.
There have been a few expeditions on the island, and there was a German weather station during WWII, and a project conducted in the International Geophysical Year in 1957/58. That’s really… it.
I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that the number of human beings in the history of time who have walked on this land could be in the hundreds. There has really been no reason to be here except adventure. This is not a place that normal touring boats would go. And, we stepped out of the zodiac onto this land.
The bay (“bukta”) was the first place we really encountered pack ice, in perfect sunshine. There were two walruses on one ice floe, a bearded seal on another, a curious, completely fearless black guillemot investigating our ship.
Purple saxifrage circled by reindeer antlers.
… and a reindeer vertebrae, silent reminder of the absoluteness of trying to survive in this environment.
On Nordaustlandet, like so many of our landings, our boat’s guide wanted to march briskly uphill, while most of us wanted to discover the tiny things on the ground, take photos of the arctic skuas we’d disturbed, worship the gems of the polar desert. As we were led out of the bright, photo-friendly sunshine and into the dark shadow of the hill, we rebelled a bit and listed sideways closer to the shore….
… crunching over stones and feeling the tiny bits of moss with our fingers like toddlers just discovering texture, being awed by the discovery of a glacial spring erupting abruptly out of dry stone, and finally making our way back to our perfect little boat.
Pure, essential land and sea.