Sailing North: An Arctic journey in the footsteps of Amundsen

During all my travel stories I never liked describing myself as a mountaineer, a hiker or a paddler. Reason is I Iike different types of adventure activities and therefore prefer the term ‘adventurer’. But things have changed since sailing from Tromsø to Svalbard. I may be an ambitious hiker , a decent paddler and a strong mountaineer, but in no way am I a sailor! (Dempsey’s travel journal, day two of crossing the Barentz Sea)

I’m taking one more picture of the hull of the Framm at the Framm Museum in Oslo. I look at the display of my camera and shake my head disapprovingly. I’ve tried several angles to captivate the size of it, but none of them seems to do it justice. The Framm is a former polar expedition vessel used by Norwegian explorers like Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen to explore the polar regions. Since I was a child I always envied the time when historical figures like Colombus or Vasco Da Gama explored new regions and discovered new territories. That is way I booked myself a spot as a crew member on the Hummingbird, a top class expedition yacht. The journey? Sailing from Tromsø to Svalbard or in other words: sailing the Arctic. I’m on my way to Tromsø, where my journey begins in about two days. With no prior experience, this sailing expedition will be a complete new challenge for me.

The Hummingbird

Crossing the Barentz Sea

How big of a challenge would become clear only days after departure when we cross the Barentz Sea to reach the Svalbard archipelago. Heavy winds would allow us to do the 550 nautical mile crossing in only three days. A speed record. The downside: it also meant me vomiting and being bedbound for three days. Fortunately seasickness does pass and when Svalbard was within sight, I stood back on deck firm and solid. Ok, that might be a little bit exaggerated but still… I was able to enjoy the first views of Spitsbergen. More than enough for me. Our free afternoon in Longyearbyen would give me the extra time to fully recover and regain my strenghts for the rest of the journey.

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First view on Svalbard: very clouded but still impressive

Glaciers

Pretty much 60 percent of Svalbard is glaciated and with hundreds of impressive glaciers all over Svalbard, there seems no logic in why we were heading towards Lilliehookbreen in the Lilliehookfjorden two days of sailing away. It’s just one of those things you have to see to be convinced why the journey is worth it. Lilliehookbreen is one of the biggest and fastest calving glaciers in the world and is situated 65 nautical miles northerly than Longyearbyen, which meant we were crossing 79 degrees north. Bits of icebergs surrounded us when entering Lilliehookfjorden and a thick mist made the experience even more surreal. The glacier ice wall was still over ten kilometers away when we already had to dodge icebergs, growlers and bergy bits.

If a glacier cracks and nobody hears it, does it still make a sound? It probably does, but we are even more sure that even when you don’t see the glacier, it makes a sound. Cracking sounds of ice moving came creeping in while views remained zero to nothing. Hearing nothing but the crackling, rumbling and fizzling sounds of ice pushing more ice is as close to nature’s force as one can get. And as if the sounds of ice pushing and glaciers calving wasn’t enough, the thick mist cleared up like a stage curtain and revealed the massive 11 kilometers wide ice wall in full glory.

Lilliehookglacier slowly revealing its beauty

…and wildlife

The first part of our sailing expedition had been a combination of crossing the Barentz Sea and finetuning (or in my case: developing) our sailing skills. Skipper Susie had made several attempts of demonstrating us the reefing technique, even though crashing puffins to the sea surface had drawn the attention of the crew on well… most occasions. Puffins weren’t the only type of wildlife we would spot during  our voyage. Our hopes were set on spotting the mighty polar bear, one of world’s most feared predators and endangered species. However, no polar bear was to be seen during our first days up north but we forgot about him for a whale (get it?) when we were privileged to spot seals, walruses and even a sperm whale spouting and tail flipping. Soon we would add the Svalbard reindeer and the Arctic fox to that list when hiking around Ny Alesunds, world’s most northerly settlement.

 

King of the Arctic

When we were talking about the highlights of our trip on our last evening before returning to Longyearbyen, many different stories where shared. Seeing the walruses on the sandy beach at Brucebukta, the cracking sounds of the Lilihook glacier or even the slow journey towards it avoiding icebergs along the way in the clouded surroundings. Or what about the many evenings to be memorized, playing a very vicacious game of uno under the midnight sun. Without doubt the most northerly game of uno ever played. Every member of the 2017 Hummingbird crew to Svalbard has captivating moments that are unique in one’s lifetime and should and probably will be cherished forever. Different moments during our journey experienced from different points of view. Little did we know that only eight hours later all of this would change.

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Polar bear (picture made by fellow crew member David from a fair distance)

A tip of a Russian guide in Pyramiden was the initiation of seeing the mighty polar bear, king of the Arctic, on the rocky peninsula near Nordenskioldbreen and of what will without doubt be the highlight of everyone’s trip. One last time on this trip we made an early start, hoisting the main and plotting our course towards one last stop. Whether we were doubting we would actually still see the polar bear during this trip, or were convinced fortune would turn in our favour once again, or just  struggling with a hangover caused by some serious drinking the night before, our hopes were the same: catching a glimpse of one of the most fragile and endangered species, in his own habitat. The emotions flaring, were of intense joy, happiness and even relief. Witnessing the polar bear truly was the highlight and a perfect ending of one heck of a journey in the Arctic.

Sailing the Arctic: one heck of an adventure
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