By Joan Larsen
It was to be a journey to the far north – the lands far above Norway that are the stepping stones to the North Pole – an island group called Spitsbergen on our world’s far edges. There is only a tiny window in summer when the ice opens up enough to allow a small ship to explore one the world’s scenic masterpieces. And so, in the midst of a hot and steamy summer at home, I was happy to pack my bright red parka and assorted Arctic gear needed for “the ice”. . . and head to this icy world.
How can I describe Spitsbergen to you? It is magical, at times close to heaven itself. I always feel blessed to be surrounded by such changing beauty, beauty that no one else has seen . . . at least in this moving landscape of ice. It truly is a place that has the ability to draw you into its web of the spiritual.
The lucky few of us had flown north by chartered aircraft – 600 miles above Norway – to this island group the size of Ireland, but covered with ice. The land of the Ice Bear – the polar bear – was to be the beginning of an expedition on a small ship that could maneuver through 3 feet of ice as it guided us on what is truly the greatest expedition in the world’s high arctic.
Seeing polar bears – yes, huge polar bears weighing up to 2000 pounds – on the ice from the low vantage point of a Zodiac raft drifting between icebergs in the yellow light of late evening inspires awe. The elements of risk at such a time serve to only enhance the moment. At least for me.
There are two small towns – Longyearbyen and NyAlesund — that were bases for polar exploration in the not-so-distant past. . . and, as you might imagine, they are visited often by polar bears who consider this land their home. Rifles are carried by the populace, kindergarten children are protected by 10-foot high fences ringed in barbed wire, and sirens go off if a bear has been spotted. Interestingly enough, it is against Norwegian law to actually KILL a bear. The idea is to frighten them with charges of high explosives shot from guns, causing them to run away.
The bears, however, are enormous white giants and not easily put off. On our many landings, staff went ashore first to scout the area for bears. Flags on sticks were raised, denoting the area that we could safely roam. I have to tell you that the bears blended in so well with the snow and ice environment that they were a challenge to spot. Only their noses, black against the white of the snow, gave them away. Finding a bear, following it, was easily the highlight of the expedition . . . unbelievable!!
But the scenery ravished the eye. Above the Arctic Circle, the sun shines this time of year 24 hours a day, staying high in the sky even at midnight. The bluish tint of the icebergs and glaciers glowed as if the sky’s color had seeped into the white ice and stained it through. The air? Pure and clear. The water in the bays, lying there glossy and compact, was like shot silk in the sun.
Enormous bearded seals, sporting distinguished-looking mustaches and looking like English royalty, sunned themselves on ice floes, fearless of human interlopers.
Only the great broken crackle of a glacier’s ice, gleaming like shattered mirrors in the sun, would occasionally disturb the silence.
My own close encounters with the bears deserve a story all their own. But none could match the tales told by one of our world’s leading polar bear experts, a youngish man who had spent the last two years filming a BBC wildlife special. His own bear stories made mine – which I thought were GREAT – pale. In one over-winter season in remote Spitsbergen in -40°F, he had camped out in a tent or lived in a hut that was surrounded by trip-wires – an early warning system against extremely hungry bears. Polar bears think nothing of breaking down doors and windows in search of food. Humans make a good meal. Alarms had sounded 671 times in that one winter as polar bears came investigating! He had the further protection of hand grenades that he tossed to scare the intruders.
One day he was down at the shore filming when a polar bear attacked. His partner – actually filming him filming – doing that part we know as “The Making of the Special” — ran for the boat. The first grenade thrown only served to make the bear angry. THE BEAR KEPT COMING! The second grenade’s explosion had an unplanned effect. It triggered AN AVALANCHE. Snow plummeted down from the mountain top. The bear looked up and took off in the opposite direction to escape. But now, the filmmaker found himself in the most unusual position of running AFTER THE BEAR, racing for his own life. He lived to tell the tale – and many, many more – of life among the polar bears of Spitsbergen, allowing the passengers to live vicariously as we drifted among the ice bears ourselves.
There were moments – and sometimes long hours – when the water was a mirror, reflecting the ice mountains and glaciers, making you truly believe you were in another world. At times like this, there was quiet among all on deck as we had our own private moments of reflection, and a time we did not want to end.
Coming down to Norway itself, as beautiful as that country is, came as a culture shock. The ship’s passengers were actually polled and all wanted to return to the ice world once again . . . to the landscape that is Spitsbergen.
I had said goodbye in that tentative way of a summer visitor waving from the curb, looking back but looking ahead, too, to the possibility of return. Some places you depart with finality, thankfully, having savored them once; others you can never fully leave except as an interlude.
It is that way with Spitsbergen — the land of the ice bears.
Behold, a door has been opened to you that no one can close.
– Book of Revelations
Writer Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth. But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again. She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home.”