Muffled British accents tear me away from a vivid dream of warm sand and tan flesh. I couldn’t have been asleep for more than two hours. Waking up deep within the dark warmth of a negative forty-five degree rated sleeping bag that smells like the inside of a gym locker stuffed with smoked seal meat doused in Norwegian brandy, I hear my tent rat tat tat like a machine gun in the 60mph winds. I’m a long ways away from any tropical sand. It’s scary cold outside, the type of cold that can kill you in just a few minutes without proper clothing and shelter. Poking my head out of the bag I turn on my headlamp and see ice crystals covering everything inside the tent, even the ceiling. It’s still dark which means it must be sometime between midnight and 4am, the only hours of complete darkness this far north in late March. I’m about to jam myself back into the rank bag when Cody sticks his head inside the tent. Pulling his goggles up, he speaks through a neoprene facemask.
“Get up Kitt, it’s an absolute gong show out here, two of the tents are completely buried, and two more are almost gone, we need to start digging again,” he says with a nervous laugh, but his eyes don’t lie. I’ve seen that look in my twin brother’s eyes before, the casual amusement masking real fear.
Struggling into six different layers of clothing while still inside my sleeping bag our precarious situation sinks into my sleep deprived brain; our group is sixty rugged miles from the nearest shelter, 400 miles from the North Pole, the snowmobiles are inoperable and totally buried by snow, and now two of the tents are gone, snapping under the weight of the drifting snow. We are marooned in the Arctic Wilderness, surrounded by the densest population of Polar Bears on the planet (the only known mammal to actively hunt human beings as prey) and it’s the third day of an intense arctic blizzard. If this storm doesn’t let up soon the entire camp will be under snow and the luxury arctic safari I thought I was going on to witness the mighty polar bear in its natural habitat will be dangerously close to becoming a full on survival mission. During the last three days of heavy wind and snow I’ve come to a realization; life in the high arctic has nothing to do with conquering a new frontier. The truth about the arctic is simple; up here, death is never that far away.
Pushing through the tent door and into the whiteout I hear voices and stumble towards them, unable to see past my outstretched arm. Cody hands me a shovel and yells in my ear so I can hear him over the wind, “we need to get the gear out of this tent, it’s probably buried about two-feet down already.”
With a shrug of supplication to the power of the Arctic I grab the shovel and start to dig. Five days ago, still full from the four course meal at a luxury hotel in Oslo the night before, looking down upon the intricate lacework of blue fjords and sharp mountains covered in white as the plane bounced into the small airport at Longyearbyen on the island of Spitzbergen, the arctic landscape looked so peaceful. It sounds silly now, as I curse under my breath and blowing snow stings any sliver of exposed skin on my face, but then again, I thought this trip was going to be easy. After all, it was with the legendary adventure company Abercrombie & Kent, famous for bringing fine dining, crystal glassware and white glove service to some of the most remote areas of Africa and the world, a company that has made its name, according to their website, by creating a “luxury cocoon” anywhere in the world. What the brochure didn’t mention was that luxury in the arctic is an oxymoron. Out here, luxury means a frozen toilet seat and shitting into a plastic bag.
Walking across the snow covered runway and into Longyearbyen’s tiny terminal the town’s reputation as an emerging eco-tourism destination becomes abundantly clear to me. I had thought this northern outpost of humanity (Longyearbyen is the northernmost year round community on the planet) would be full of hard scrabble individuals, but instead it’s a goddamn gathering of the beautiful people; tan, fit, and smiling with perfect teeth, they are decked out in the best cold weather gear money can buy. Joking with each other in five different languages as one shiny North Face expedition bag after another circle the carrousel. With a crowd like this it’s no wonder Abercrombie & Kent has chosen Longyearbyen as the base for their newest endeavor, an “Extreme Adventure” to the remote Eastern Coast of Spitzbergen (the largest of Svalbard’s islands), an area only accessible by snowmobile in the winter months and home to the most robust and unaltered population of Polar Bears in their natural habitat found on earth.
This expedition is the brainchild of Geoffrey Kent, son of Colonel John Kent, and the scion of Abercrombie & Kent, currently operating in 100 countries on all seven continents with 2,300 employees. This is A&K’s first trip to Svalbard and we are Kent’s arctic guinea pigs. Kent first visited the arctic in 1999 when he went to the North Pole and came back an arctic convert, completely “fascinated by the region.” For Kent, an avid adventurer whose travels have taken him all over the world, it is the power of the High Arctic’s climate that left the biggest impression on him and was the motivation behind creating this Svalbard adventure. “Experiencing nature at its most extreme is the ultimate challenge. It stretches you to your limits, altering your understanding of what is possible, of the obstacles you can overcome. That sort of challenge provides a new perspective that carries with you into everyday life.”
I have to admit; it sounded a bit cheesy before I went to the arctic, waxing poetic about the power of nature always seems clichéd, but by the time we reached our hotel in Longyearbyen my head was already full of lofty adjectives, and I had only been in the arctic for thirty minutes.
Located at latitude 78 degrees North, Longyearbyen (pop 2,500) is closer to the North Pole than the Arctic Circle. Driving from the airport to the town center takes us along one of two roads (with a total length of 5km) on the island and past a large coal plant that belches black smoke on the outskirts of town (once the major industry on the island, they now mine only enough coal to power the island itself, no coal is shipped off-island anymore). Discovered by the Vikings in 1194 and quickly abandoned, Svalbard was rediscovered by the Dutch explorer Willem Barentz in 1596, who dubbed the place Spitzbergen or “sharp mountains” in Dutch. It remained a disputed territory until 1920 when the kingdom of Norway was given sovereignty over the region. Today, the landscape surrounding Longyearbyen looks much the same as it did over four centuries ago; a beautifully stark, intimidating place, the color of cold and completely devoid of trees. Imagine a wind-scoured white moonscape with 3500-foot peaks and blue icebergs jutting out of a frozen ocean. As we drive into town the sun’s low angle catches some frozen humidity and creates a sparkling mist, casting a glow of glistening soft yellow light on a herd of Reindeer grazing in the middle of town. Pulling up to the only stop sign, I can hear a cacophony of yipping and barking across the road that sounds like an animal shelter on steroids.
“Yah, this you are hearing is the kennel for the sled dogs from Greenland, not allowed in town anymore they are kept outside city limits for safety reasons’” Mats Forsberg, our expedition leader and polar bear expert, explains in a Scandinavian accent devoid of humor (I found out later the sled dogs were notorious for fighting; other dogs, within themselves, the occasional human, and had been banned from town limits a few years ago). Mats, a Swede living in Norway with bushy eyebrows, pale blue eyes, and a large bulbous nose covered in frostbite scars, has spent years exploring the arctic and observing polar bears. But this is his first expedition with Abercrombie & Kent and I sense he’s not sure what to expect from our mixed group of journalists, photographers, lawyers, businessmen, public relations representatives and a nineteen year old Russian banking Heiress on spring break.
The buzz of snowmobiles quickly drowns out Mats and the barking dogs as a dozen or so of the machines zooming past us surrounds the van. The main form of transportation in the eight-month winters, there are more snowmobiles (called “snow-scooters”) in Longyearbyen than people and everybody rides them. A couple of kids that can’t be older than twelve roar past us when the van stops at the local snowmobile shop, a centerpiece of the community. We pile out and get outfitted in heavy-duty boots and one-piece Finish snowmobile suits. Cody takes one look at me, waddling around in my oversized boots and puffy suit with a fur-rimmed hood, and cracks up. “You look like an Ewok wearing one of those sumo wrestling fat suits!” he says with a cackle. Looking at him, dressed in the same gear I am and wearing a large white helmet I realize that he’s telling the truth, and start laughing and slap my thighs before I charge at him with my chest out in mock-sumo fashion. With our arms full we climb back in the van and drive a short five minutes on road number two to our hotel, tucked into the base of a steep mountain dotted with Reindeer tracks.
Dawn comes slowly in the high arctic; the morning light is a mix of deep purple and blue, creeping down the mountains above Longyearbyen like cold blueberry syrup. Although the equinox was only a week before, the sun is gobbling up the polar night at a rate of 20 minutes per day. By the time we’re scheduled to leave Svalbard in the beginning of April the dense polar darkness that holds this place in a stranglehold for over two months will have disappeared entirely. It’s 4am and jet lag has me wide-awake in our hotel room, watching the dawn and staring in disbelief at the thermometer outside the window. I hear Cody moving around and tell him to come over and give it a look.
“What the hell does negative thirty degrees Celsius translate to?” he asks groggily. I have already done the math. “About negative twenty two Fahrenheit…and that’s the ambient temperature, I bet it’s closer to negative forty with the wind chill.” Looking at Cody’s lips turn up in a grin I know what he is going to say next. “Let’s go out there and walk around. I want to see what negative forty feels like.” Today is the day we leave our warm hotel with its five course meals and fully stocked bar, charging sixty miles into the arctic wilderness and setting up camp on the east coast. I’m not really in any hurry to get outside, but sleep is hardly an option and once a challenge is set between twin brothers there’s no turning back, so I agree to go have a look around. Stepping outside, the twenty pounds of insulated clothing I’m wearing keeps the cold at bay, shielding me from the external elements like a space suit as I walk clumsily towards town.
Walking through the deserted pedestrian mall that forms the center of town I feel like a character in a post apocalyptic movie. My breath freezes in mid air and all I can hear is the wind whistling through my hood, strange metal statues of supine minors with stern faces pop up at random and the only window without the shutters drawn is full of seal skin blankets, arctic fox pelts, and reindeer hide rugs set amidst a dramatic taxidermy display of a polar bear with glowing glass eyes. The houses in Longyearbyen are brightly painted and well organized, like a group of army barracks taken over by hippies inspired by Rainbow Bright.
After about twenty minutes we reach the edge of town. Reminiscent of a military controlled perimeter during wartime, there are warning signs everywhere. The two largest signs read, “Take Polar Bear Danger Seriously,” and “Are You Properly Armed?” (The governor of Svalbard recommends that whenever leaving the settlement you should carry a 30-06 caliber or higher weapon with expandable lead core bullets and advises that, if you must shoot a bear, “shoot to kill.”)
I look over at Cody and state the obvious, “Kind of ironic, don’t you think? We’ve come all the way to the top of the world to see a polar bear but these warning signs make it seem like that’s the last thing you’d want to see out there.”
“I know,” Cody says with a chuckle, “last night at dinner I was talking to this local lady and apparently an average of three bears a year are killed in self defense on Svalbard and five people have been killed by polar bears…they can be dangerous bastards I guess.” With that thought, we turn around and walk back to the hotel, loading the gear sleds as the first golden sheets of sunlight reach the valley floor. Even in the weak sun it’s still hovering right around negative 30 with the wind chill when we fire up the snowmobiles and head into the frozen wilderness.
Frostbite burns. The cold air rips at the surface of my skin, and the wind feels like hot fire on my nose. My thumbs are completely numb and my balaclava is frozen solid, forming an ice mask around my mouth. Our group has been on the snow for just over two hours and nearly everyone is suffering from some form of frostbite, blisters and inflamed red skin are the tell tale signs. The extreme cold, coupled with riding a snowmobile going 25-40 mph, have blasted any exposed skin with temperatures well below negative fifty. Duct tape is applied to helmets, gloves, and goggles in an effort to seal any possible gap where the wind and cold can push their way in. Even the hair inside my nose goes rigid with the cold, tickling my nostrils like tiny feathers. With a sudden jolt the snowmobile in front of me stops, and I see our local guide Audon tense visibly and reach for his gun before I see the tracks.
As big as my head (polar bear paws can weigh up to 40 lbs apiece), with massive claw marks, the tracks can only be from the world’s largest land carnivore. Staring at the crunched snow in front of me brings a sudden surge of adrenaline, as much from the excitement of seeing the large paw prints as from the acute fear that comes with realizing I am no longer on top of the food chain. The tracks are fresh, less than an hour or two old, and solitary, which can mean only one thing; a large male, curiously far from the ice and water’s edge where their favorite prey, ringed seals, live and breed.
Both Audon and Mats have the loaded rifles that they’re required to carry clasped tightly in their hands. Like army lookouts they encircle our careless group and keep their eyes pinned to the horizon. Walking towards them I can hear them speaking Norwegian, and even though I can’t understand the words the tone is obvious; they are nervous, keyed up, and feel vulnerable on this ridgeline. Guides in Svalbard walk a thin line. People come here from all over the world to see the bears, often envisioning the cuddly white teddy bear faces of T.V commercials and company logos. It’s the guide’s job to show them the bears, while keeping them safe from one of the most dangerous predators in the animal kingdom.
Currently there are an estimated 20,000-25,000 polar bears in the wild spread throughout the arctic regions of Russia, Greenland, Alaska, Canada and Svalbard. The scientific name for them is Ursus Maritimus, meaning Sea Bear in Latin, the Norwegians call them Isbjorn, Ice Bear, and the Greeks named the far north, the top of the world, after them, calling it Artikos, land of the bear. One of the most mysterious, fearsome, and awe-inspiring animals on the planet, the polar bear has always captured the human imagination. As comfortable in the cold water as on the ice, Polar Bears spend the majority of their lives floating on, and swimming between, massive chunks of sea ice. Recently they have burst into the media spotlight, one of only three species, and the only non-plant species (the other two are types of Coral) to be protected under the Endangered Species Act due to global warming. A study performed by the U.S Geological Survey predicts that two-thirds of the world’s polar bears will disappear by 2050 as the bears main habitat, floating sea ice, shrinks as a result of warming temperatures in the far north. On May 14th, 2008 the United States Department of the Interior listed them as a “threatened” species and The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) cites global warming as the main threat to Polar Bears. The scientific evidence is clear; the pack ice has begun breaking apart an average of 9 days earlier each year and permanent ice is declining at a rate of 9% a year while glaciers are retreating 3,250 feet every decade. Five of the nineteen subspecies of polar bears are currently in decline. The population along the western Hudson Bay has declined significantly, falling 22% between 1987 and 2004. The dilemma is straightforward; the bears live on the ice, no ice, no ice bears.
The Barents Sea bear population, of which Svalbard is included, was hunted extensively until the 1973 treaty signed by all the arctic nations (Russia, Denmark (Greenland), United States, Canada, and Norway) regulating the harvesting of polar bears. At that time it is estimated that less than 1,000 bears lived on and around the Svalbard archipelago. Since 1973 the bears have made a dramatic comeback, now numbering around 3,000, about the same number as people living in Svalbard. With no native population to hunt them, 60% of the land covered by glaciers, and large swaths of bear habitat heavily protected by the Norwegian Government, Svalbard is an exception, with a population of bears actually on the rise. Driving through Svalbard on my snowmobile, expecting to see a bear around every turn, I can’t decide which emotion is more powerful, the excitement and desire to see a bear for myself, or the apprehension and edginess that comes with being prey amongst a large number of predators.
After eight frigid hours on the snowmobiles we turn up a canyon and reach our base camp, which consists of a small canvas covered outdoor-john (the one with a frozen seat), and a Russian “cook tent” with a WW II era kerosene stove inside. The cook tent, measuring about 80-100 square feet, will be the only heated structure in a sixty-mile radius. It is the only place for all nine of us, plus three guides, to dry out our gear, eat dinner, and stay warm. Warm being a relative term as the average temperature inside the heated cook tent will be just above freezing. The logistics involved in an arctic expedition are mind-boggling. Everything you need must be brought with you, and since we are camping in a protected area of a national park we must bring all our waste back out with us. Over 2,000 pounds of food and equipment have to be transferred across the rugged island by gear sleds; a total of 216 meals (3 meals per day per person for 12 people over 6 days) must be planned and prepared. Three fifty-gallon fuel drums for the snowmobiles, 10 five gallon cans of Kerosene for the cook tent heater, propane for the large 4-burner stove, an entire industrial sized kitchen set of pots and pans, kitchenware for 12, 7 two man tents, 12 heavy duty sleeping bags, 24 insulated sleeping pads, 12 pairs of touring skis, 4 rifles, 3 flare guns and 15 bags full of camera gear and personal affects must be unloaded and organized.
A trip wire attached to a pyrotechnics display to ward off any curious or hungry bears that come too close surrounds the entire camp. After Mats gives us a lecture about safety around camp and points out where the trip-wire is set up as well as where the flare guns and rifles are kept reality sinks in; we are a long way from nowhere and completely on our own, entrenched like a platoon in enemy territory with trip wires set and weapons at the ready.
That evening a large red sun hangs on the horizon for over an hour, suspended by the cold air, as the snow around us turns a burnt orange in the still evening. It would be the last time we see the sun for four days.
Wind. Unobstructed and unrelenting, the arctic wind rules this landscape. If polar bears are kings, then the wind is god. When it decides to blow, life comes to a grinding halt. The bears just lie down and go to sleep during big storms, letting the blowing snow cover them, thus insulating and keeping them warm for the duration of the storm. For us, it’s not that easy.
The first day is all fun and games, part of the adventure. Huddled in the small cook tent, abandoning all thoughts of personal space Cody and I play chess, cribbage, hearts and some British card game called Sweaty Betty. We read and chat amiably, laughing and joking at war stories from adventures past. I drift in and out of sleep, sprawled on a pile of down jackets in the corner. Eventually I dare Cody to go outside with me and together we climb to the top of a small ridgeline above camp for some exercise. Losing sight of the tents quickly, we marvel at the power of the wind, jumping off a rock with our arms spread and feeling it carry us fifteen feet down the slope before following our footprints back to camp.
On the second day it starts to snow and movement becomes impossible. Walking between my tent and the cook tent I fall to my knees, crumpling from vertigo. The only chance I have is to stare straight down at my black boots, focusing on each step to avoid the dizzying cloud on either side of me. It’s the most intense storm I’ve ever witnessed at this point and the bubbling chatter of the cook tent has begun to fade. The guides are exhausted from staying up the entire night before, trying to keep the snowdrifts from enveloping the tents. We start to take turns digging the tents out. We have yet to see a bear, but the knowledge that the drifting snow has rendered the trip wire inoperable makes me uneasy. Visions of hungry bears camouflaged in the whiteout and attracted by the smoked seal meat we’re eating loiter behind my closed eyelids.
By the third night resistance is futile. The wind and snow have gained strength over the past two days and our camp is deteriorating rapidly. Digging is the only form of entertainment and sleep is secondary as we take turns trying to clear the heavy snow away from our tents, eventually losing the battle when the British journalist’s and the guide’s tents succumb to the storm. The discussion inside the cook tent has nothing to do with polar bears; I don’t even care if we see one at this point. Escape dominates everyone’s psyche and we talk about abandoning camp and getting the hell out of here as soon as the weather breaks.
On the afternoon of our fourth day the wind finally dies. Snow is still falling gently and the silence of our camp after 72 hours straight of wind driven pandemonium seems surreal. Stumbling out of the cook tent in celebration, our spirits finally rising with the change of weather, we get our first clear view of the camp. Snowdrifts measuring six to eight feet in places have completely taken over. The snowmobiles and gear sleds have totally disappeared, fuel barrels are missing, the two collapsed tents are four feet under the snow, and the other five tents are in various stages of surrender. After the requisite head shaking and nervous chatter the real work begins. A favorable forecast for the next two days has salvaged our hopes of exploring the east coast. In order to do this though we have to dig ourselves out, a job that will take us nearly eight hours of intense physical labor.
The first shovel loads bring a sinking revelation. Far from the light, powdery snow found in the Rocky Mountains, this arctic snow is extremely dense, packed tightly by the wind; each shovel full weighs three times as much. Progress is slow at first as we start in on the snowmobiles. It’s tough, monotonous work but the exercise feels good after three full days cooped up inside the cook tent and every snowmobile we free from the snow means we’re that much closer to getting the hell out of camp. By sunset that fourth day, which comes around 10 p.m, we’ve managed to free all twelve snowmobiles and miraculously, they all start. Tomorrow, if the weather holds, we’ll finally get out on the ice and explore the east coast and maybe, just maybe, see a polar bear. Again, the mixed emotions; as much as I want to see a bear, fear dominates as I lay in my sleeping bag that night. The thought of them lurking around, hungry after the storm, makes my reindeer and seal meat infused bag with me inside seem like the perfect polar bear snack, an arctic Twinkie if there ever was one.
I don’t know how Mats saw it. After a morning exploring the pack ice, watching fulmars and black guillemots ride the thermals of large ice ridges and climbing around icebergs trapped in the pack ice our guide, finally out of the tent and in his element, slams on the brakes, shuts off his engine and starts dancing around in what can only be called a “polar bear jig,” clawing at the sky while signaling for us to stop.
I quickly hit the kill switch on my arctic stallion, jump off, peer towards the golden mountains on the horizon and, and, and, I don’t see a thing. With a smug grin of Swedish superiority Mats hands me his binoculars and points to the far distance. Bringing the binoculars up to my eyes I scan the horizon and sure enough, a milky yellow dot on the horizon is moving steadily across the ice. How that sly Swede spotted it with his bare eyes is totally beyond me.
“We have now seen the polar bear,” Mats announces triumphantly. “I think we will stay with this polar bear for a while.” Mats has a plan, we are in a nature reserve so it is against the rules to chase, pursue, or bother the bear in any way, not that I’d want to do any of the above having heard about how dangerous and aggressive solitary male bears can be. So we’re going to double back, stay downwind, take shelter near one of the large icebergs we saw on our way out, and wait for the bear to come to us. I want to raise my hand and ask, “wait, didn’t that little safety brochure warn us not to get in the way of any polar bears?” But I don’t, something inside of me wants the bear to come closer.
The next hour is spent creeping across the ice, avoiding ice boulders and stopping frequently to observe the bear. Arriving at our chosen iceberg all the photographers bust out the big lenses and we settle in to wait. The sky has been clearing all day long and the sun pops out just in time to begin it’s long sunset routine. My eyes are glued to the binoculars as the bear, still unaware of our presence, is now heading straight towards us.
The Inuit have a word, iliyra, which means fear that accompanies awe. As I watch the bear that evening the fear that I’ve had towards the bears slowly becomes secondary; replaced by the sheer awe of such an impressive animal. Geoffrey Kent’s words ring in my head, “the exhilaration of setting foot where few humans dare to go…every one of your senses is heightened in anticipation. And when you finally spot one, the thrill of watching such a magnificent animal from close range makes you feel undeniably privileged.” Iliyra and privilege soon replace any anxiety I have.
When the bear gets within four hundred yards I can make out every movement as he stops to sniff the air, lowering his massive head to the snow. Every so often he rears up on his hind legs and then smashes his front paws into the ice, all 1,000 pounds of him shuddering from the impact. He moves with the casual grace of one that is in complete control of their environment, totally comfortable in the harshest climate imaginable.
I am transfixed, breathless and unmoving for close to an hour as I watch this massive animal in its natural habitat. An animal and place so powerful and raw that humans will never conquer them, yet so fragile that the slightest change in climate can destroy both. Beneath the many layers of clothing goose bumps rise on my skin. The sun strikes the mountains in the distance, washing them in frozen gold while the ice glows a pastel pink and open water in the far distance shimmers blue. Eventually the bear gets a whiff of something, maybe a female in estrus, maybe a ringed seal den, and heads off into the sunset to pursue it, never having known we were even there. I watch the great white bear fade into the lengthening shadows, walking proudly into the mystic arctic landscape, and I feel thankful to have a story of my own about the great ice bear of the north to tell my children about someday.