78 degrees North: a kayak expedition in the Arctic

Even though the sun never sets, we face another cold night. The icy wind cuts through my windproof jacket and gives me another chill. And even though standing still in freezing temperatures for three hours would be more than enough reason for some swearing, it get’s worse. Every minute of the cold night that passes, you hope there won’t be a polar bear wandering in your camp unexpectedly. Why do we always suffer when we travel? Why can’t we do like other travelers and book ourselves a relaxing holiday in a tropical destination? It’s a question that crossed our mind many times during our polar bear watch. Fortunately, during our kayakexpedition in Spitsbergen, we received a good response on many occassions. 

Arctic wilderness

‘So, you’re traveling to Spitsbergen? Alone in the wilderness?’ We nod. ‘You’re going to be eaten by a polar bear.’ This time, people in our social environment were really fearing for our lives. Spitsbergen than again is, one of the last wilderness regions on our planet. Situated at 78 degrees North, close to the North Pole and populated by more polar bears than humans, it doesn’t get much wilder than this. Spitsbergen always has been one of my favorite destinations and even though I was confident and really looked forward to the trip, Linsay was having doubts. Especially since every one in the last few months we were telling our plans to, got this scared look in their eyes. Her doubts had been the decisive factor to rent a rifle afterall and not just the flaregun to scare off the polar bears. Despite my scruples to shooting a polar bear in his own habitat.


Polar bear watch

Not that we would just let the polar bear have a nibble when we ran into one, but carrying a rifle to shoot an approaching polar bear is a last resort. Something that might be done too quickly if the option is available? Especially since most adventurers that explore the Svalbard wilderness only rent a rifle and not the different options to scare them off in the first place. An attacking polar bear is an exceptional situation and one that could be prevented in most case scenarios. For this reason, we had choosen to opt for the polar bear watch, instead of the much used trip wire, a system that sets off an alarm when a polar bear enters your camp. This would give us the benefit to take early action and avoid a polar bear confrontation. We have to admit, the polar bear watch has been by far the hardest part of our kayak expedition. Especially, since it meant us only to have three to six hours of sleep, this being in three hour shifts. In practice, it meant keeping guard twice a night for three hours in freezing temperatures with a cold wind penetrating your clothes, while the other person is asleep in the tent. The experience was so terrible, that the moment when the person keeping guard wakes up the other person to change guards, has become one of the most hateful moments in our lives. ‘But why would you be so crazy to go out on an adventure in polar bear territory?’, you might wonder. To be truthful, it has been a question we asked ourselves many times during the polar bear watch. Fortunately, we got many good reasons during our expedition.


Pursuing seals, surrounding beluga’s and glaciers

Kayaking in the fjords of Spitsbergen is one of the best ways to explore the trumps of the archipelago. Paddling in between icebergs or in front of a glacial wall, spotting unique wildlife in their own habitat and an arctic silence only interrupted by the movement of our paddles in the water. And above all, having an unique experience in the pristine wilderness. There were plenty of reasons to think off why we wanted to take the polar bear threat.  And even though the number of times we asked ourselves why exactly we were doing this, the number of rewards were at least as high. Our camp surrounded by a herd of svalbard reindeer and a family of arctic foxes, an afternoon on the water, hearing and seeing a fin whale, the second largest whale species, breach or the moment where two seals were pursuing our kayaks for two hours. It would be easy to label any of these experiences as the highlight of our trip, still we will give you a different answer.


It has been by far the warmest day on Spitsbergen and even though two hours ago we were still enjoying a well-earned break in the sun, the temperature was dropping quickly. No doubt, the icy wall of the glacier we’re approaching, had something to do wit hit. ‘I expected the glacier to be bigger and more impressive.’, Linsay had mentioned earlier, but as the wall got bigger and bigger, she withdrew her words. It had been the story of traveling in Svalbard. A mountain, the shore or glacier never seem to be that far, but appearances are deceptive. Time after time, we were fooled by how far our goal eventually was. Even the Von Post glacier, at the end of the Tempelfjord had fooled us. For two hours, we had been paddling in between icebergs, but the glacier sticked to a distance. Even though the temperature drop gave away we were getting closer.


One last effort brought us to the crevassed and calving glacier. The thundering sound of pushing ice interrupted the silence. ‘Did you see that?’, I yell, to Linsay. ‘A beluga.’ The back of a white whale disappeared underneath the water surface before Linsay could turn around. It didn’t take long before the beluga reappeared in between our kayaks. The cat-and-mouse game played by the white whale made clear that beluga’s are social creatures and not easily impressed. When suddenly six more beluga’s appear and set course towards our kayaks, our heart skips a beat. If they push our kayaks, we capsize, hit the ice cold water and risk hypothermia. Nevertheless, the beluga’s disappeared under the water only two meters away from Linsay’s red kayak.


Originally, our plan was a dropping in Nordfjorden, to paddle 250 kilometers back to Longyearbyen, but we are here in the Arctic, a place where it is not easy to get things done and so you have to change your plans more than once. A dropping would have cost us a lot of money, so we decided to explore the nearby Sassenfjorden, Tempelfjorden and Billefjorden. Three fjords that would offer us everything we were looking for. Our farthest point would be Pyramiden and the Nordenskiold glacier, the location where I spotted a polar bear two weeks ago. After seven days of paddling, we reach the abandoned Soviet mining settlement. Abandoned… apart from the ten Russians still present, and a hotel in the hope of boosting the town’s reputation. A lost cause, we like to think, because nowadays Pyramiden is no more than the perfect terrain in a remote location to do some urban exploring. However, we weren’t here only to do some urbexing, but our hopes were set on catching a glimpse of the polar bear spotted on the Nordenskiold glacier near the Russian town. Still, our hopes were a bit of a double standard. On the one hand we wanted to see the polar bear, on the other hand, it would be mighty close to the campsite we were thinking of for this evening. When the ‘residents’ of Pyramiden informed us about a polar bear hidden in the mountains, it would give Linsay some extra stress to keep guard that night. A polar bear we wouldn’t see that night. But things would change the next few days… (to be continued)

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