10 days kayaking in the Svalbard archipelago

» Posted by on Jun 18, 2013 in Featured, svalbard

In Summer 2011, I had the opportunity to go kayaking around the Svalbard archipelago. The archipelago is about 61,022 km2  or 23,561 sq mi and consists of many islands including the Spitsbergen, the largest and only populated island of the Svalbard. The trip was a full 10 days in complete autonomy with more than 3000 polar bears living in the area. Since I never went to the Arctic region before as the closest I got to the Arctic Circle was Iceland, I signed up for the Svalbard trip.

Do you know where Svalbard is? Below is a map. The group of islands ranges from 74° to 81° north latitude, and from 10° to 35° east longitude. One of the Svalbard settlements (Ny-Ålesund) is the public and permanent  settlement (with a post office) closest o the North Pole  at 78°55′N 11°56′E. Longyearbyen, the main city on Spitsbergen is the Northernmost settlement with a population of over 1,000 at  78°12’N. For comparison, Prudhoe bay in Alaska is only 70°N, Ilulissat (Greenland) is also 70°N.

map of spitzbergen

map of the spitzbergen island

No question about it, it’s the Arctic there.

For my first time there, I used a French company called Grand Nord Grand Large (GNGL in short), which I would not recommend based on this trip.

This map shows you where we were supposed to go (top left corner, in blue) and where we actually went (around Longyearbyen). The gray lines are the boat transit.


View Spitzbergen (or svalbard) in a larger map

Polar bears are common here. There is 3000 of them.

Polar bears are common here. There are 3000 of them.

Polar bears are no joke, it’s one of the few species that actively hunts humans. Polar bears are considered by some to be the most fearless predators on Earth. Our guide was required to have a gun and to be trained on how to use it. There is only two efficient ways of protecting yourself against polar bears while you sleep: you either have a dog or you have someone keeping watch. We did not have a dog, so we would setup  a watch group every night.

At our arrival the fjord was full of ice (see the first photo), making our planned trip to the “Bay du Roi” impossible. Our team leader devised a backup plan on the fly. We would be dropped off at Pyramiden and we would paddle back to Longyearbyen. By the time we would end this trip, we would have learned that plans in the Arctic are meaningless, everything will change anyway.

Drop off at Pyramiden

Our boat is leaving us. Now it's too late to go back.

Our boat (Aleiga) is leaving us. Now it’s too late to go back.

That’s it, we are on our own! At that point, if I had any doubt that it was a good idea, it was too late. Since we were at Pyramiden, we went for a stroll (at 11pm) around the town. Founded by Sweden in 1910 and sold to the Soviet Union in 1927, Pyramiden was closed in 1998 and has since remained largely abandoned with most of its infrastructure and buildings still in place. There is now a handful of people living there trying to restore some of the buildings for tourism.

A russian ghost town. Recently 5 peoples have moved back to Pyramiden (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyramiden)

A russian ghost town. Recently 5 people have moved back to Pyramiden (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyramiden)

A firmware is a requirement for any walk outside of Longyearbyen.

A firearm is a requirement for any walk outside of Longyearbyen.

I hope you don't need gas

I hope you don’t need gas

The buildings are open and look like everybody left in an hurry abandoning their belongings. The reason why there is so much stuff left behind is that the cost of shipping it somewhere else is prohibitive.

The swimming pool at Pyramiden

The swimming pool at Pyramiden

Kayaking in the Arctic is fun, the water is at 3°C (37°F), and if you fall in the water without any survival suit, exhaustion or unconsciousness occurs in 15 to 30 minutes (in the best case…). You can die from the initial temperature shock (when you fall in the water) by cardiac arrest. With a dry suit or survival suit our chances to survive a fall in the water were a lot better but not great. Our kayaks were so heavily loaded that if the kayaks flipped over, there was almost no chance of flipping them back. That meant swimming back to shore… For those reasons and others, we were trying to be near the shore at all times, except for the first leg when we had to cross Billefjord to reach our first camp.

We have to carry 10 days worth of food, tents, camping  and camera gear.

We have to carry 10 days worth of food, tents, camping and camera gear.

My friend Stephane with his survival suit (remember the water is at 3C).

My friend Stephane with his survival suit (as the water is at 3C).

So after lunch (it was 12am anyway), we left Pyramiden and paddled across the fjord. Those double kayaks are not the fastest around but they can haul a lot of gear. Our first kayak ride was on a relatively calm sea. Despite some rudder issues by some team member, which will stay nameless  (you can read this blog, section svalbard 2011), we made it to the other side.

We finally set camp for our first night, after being up for more than 23 hours. Sleep was welcome but not for everyone, my friend Stephane took the first watch and I was going to relieve him two hours later. Being awaken after only two hours was tough. It felt like I only took a short nap. But the light and the beauty of the island kept me awake. The surprising thing happening during a two-hour watch is that the first 90 minutes fly very quickly but the last 30 minutes seem to last forever.

During our trip we saw no polar bear which is unlucky for me as a photographer but at the same time, we were very fortunate. A couple miles away, a group of young British teenagers (which we met at the camping in Longyearbyen) were not so lucky. A young male that had  some injured teeth and was probably starving, attacked the group. They were sleeping and did not setup a watch relying instead on a tripwire. By the time the guide got out of his sleeping bag and tent, the bear had killed one teenager and injured several others.

First night! Well it's not dark. Pyramiden can be seen in the background (4 miles away).

First night! Well it’s not dark. Pyramiden can be seen in the background (4 miles away).

The next day, we did a quick hike to Nordenskiöldbreen (a glacier at the end of Billefjord) and then we prepared our kayaks to travel to our next camp.

It's important to have a firearm with you at all times. Polar bears killed 3 tourists while we were there.

It’s important to have a firearm with you at all times. Polar bears killed one tourist while we were there.

Temperature was nice, slightly above freezing at night and a balmy 10C during the day (when the sun was shinning). One of the main tasks was to keep a fire going, mostly while we were taking turns to guard the camp. When you guard the camp, you have nothing else to do, so maintaining the fire is a good activity. Obviously you cannot leave the camp to gather wood, so we generally stocked up on wood during the day.

Step 1: Gather some wood

Step 1: Gather some wood

Step 2: Light a fire

Step 2: Light a fire

Step 3: Stay warm

Step 3: Stay warm

Our schedule was dictated by the tide, we wanted high tide going on low tide to use the current to carry us (and our kayaks) towards our next destination. Our kayak skills were not up to the challenge for the Arctic sea. One day we paddled for a total of 711 meters, less than 1/2 mile, that must be a world record! Unfortunately, that was not intentional. It takes a bit of time for a group our size to take down the camp, store everything back on the kayak, and hop in the water. That particular day, we were ready to go at high tide. But the sea and the conditions deteriorated quickly so between the first kayak and the last kayak to be pushed in the water, white caps were forming on the waves. Our guide took the smart decision to abort the kayak ride and get to shore as fast as possible. When we were all safely on shore, we discovered that we had drifted 711 meters from our start. Easy enough so we went back to our original camp to get some still smoking fire logs to start the new fire. As the conditions were not getting better and would not permit us to continue with the kayaks, it was time to call the “rescue” and we got the Aleiga to come and bring us back to Longyearbyen. It was time for a plan C. We were then off to a new location Ymerbukta and Barentsburg.

Ymerbukta and Barentsburg

Plan C was to set a semi-permanent camp near Ymerbukta glacier. We would drop off our gear at the camp and then paddle to the glacier with our empty kayaks. We moved a lot faster with our empty kayaks.

That was the highlight of the trip, we went hiking and kayaking for several days around Ymerbukta.

Svalvard has more than 100 glaciers but during this trip we really had the opportunity to approach only two of them (Nordenskiöldbreen and Ymerbukta). When the weather was sunny and the sea calm, kayaks were the perfect vessel to come close to the glacier. There is no better way to explore the fjord. There was a magical moment where we could come really close to a seal and not even bother it.

Svalbard (or Spitzbergen) is home for more than 100 glaciers.

Svalbard is home for more than 100 glaciers.

Kayak was perfect to get close to the glacier

Kayak was perfect to get close to the glacier

hiking around.

hiking around.

Kayak was the right tool to let us come close to the glacier and seals

Kayak was the right vessel to let us come close to the glaciers and seals

The camping was not necessarily a great idea, it’s cold and one can be miserable but we were lucky and the weather was fair most of the time. You should be an experienced camper before signing up for a trip like that.

I'm not sure camping was such a good idea.

I’m not sure camping was such a good idea.

The area really reflects what the Earth would be without humans, with birds and other wildlife everywhere. They have no fear of humans because we are not supposed to be there. There, birds are everywhere and there is a lot of them.

Birds are everywhere

Birds are everywhere

Arctic stern

Arctic stern

Arctic fox with its summer coat

Arctic fox with its summer coat

Ice details

Ice details

Even if we did not do one tenth of what we had planned, visiting the Svalbard is a very rewarding experience. It’s probably the closest I will ever be from the North Pole.

Stephane watching the inlet.

Stephane watching the inlet.

Alone.

Alone.

My memory of the Svalbard is the light. The light has a quality that is quite unique and beautiful. The Svalbard is also changing quite rapidly, so if you are thinking about going, start planning now to go.

Storm is coming

Storm is coming

References

All the images presented here are available for licensing or as fine art prints.