Monthly Archives: August 2014

Dog Sledding on Wheels in the high Arctic

Dog Sledding in Svalbard/Spitsbergen Norway

Contrary to what you may think there is little or no snow in Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen in the summer time. Snow will gradually slow from May and start again in October so during the summer months of 24/7 sunlight the sled is swapped for wheels. I honestly think this is one of the best adventure experiences you could experience either pre or post your Arctic expedition.

The dog sleighing lasts for a morning or afternoon and start at one of the local dog compounds of which there are many. The dogs are a cross between the Greenland Husky with a local breed which originates in Alaska and are known as Alaska Huskeys. They are very well looked after and loved by the dedicated dog handlers at these compounds. They are well exercised and then well rested, fed, watered and tended to. If you are dog lover and know dogs you can see that they get very excited about the possibility of going out for a run and could be out on three runs per day for one week then completely rested for the following week. They also breed dogs very selectively and at any time they will have puppies in the compounds being looked after by their dedicated mothers in a separate pen. There were four puppies whilst we were there two of them with bright blue eyes you sometimes find in this amazing breed. They are outside dogs but do have their own hutch and feeding area but really flourish in the extreme cold of the winter months. Sometimes in the summer when the sun is shining and the temp reaches around 10 degrees they get hot easily and required a couple of water stops on each run.

Dog Sledding in the Arctic - The dogs are loved and very well looked after

If you are visiting Svalbard do not miss this adventure and an opportunity to spend time with real Arctic dogs. After the sled ride we had time to see the recent puppies and play with the dogs.

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Curious Polar Bear, Whales & Harp Seals

Heading ashore in a zodiac

Yesterday evening we ended with a landing and walk in a really visited location Beach called Faksevagen in the bay of Llomfjoreen. 100’s of year ago there was a glacier in this valley but now only remnants are left as evidence. Whether it’s the currents of the gulf steam or from Siberia there’s an overwhelming mass of plastic waste which is washed up of the shores of this archipelago. Lengths of fishing nets seem to be the worse culprit and it’s the end to many a marine animal when it accidentally get tangled up and experiences an agonizing and slow death. But also amongst the litter are bottles, commercial fishing floats, ships ropes, fishing lines, timber of various sizes, crates, polathyne bags. Most expedition vessels have a policy of collecting as much as possible and between a hundred passengers in only 20 minutes we filled two large half ton sand bags – just scraping the surface I’m afraid as we left tons more which we could not manage in the time we were there. The Norwegian government do clear patches but it’s a never ending task with new debris on each tide. We witnessed two lots of dear antlers fast in a fishing net tangled ball where three animals in each had been caught up and died together unable to release themselves.

a curious polar bear

We headed north of Svalbard last night towards the ice edge and only 500 miles from the North Pole. Within a short period we spotted several bears, most minding their own business but one female who was extremely inquisitive she came for some distance sometimes at a canter with great interest. She reached us eventually by which time the captain nudged us next to the ice. This bear showed absolute signs she wanted to investigate holding her nose up as if smelling the remnants of breakfast we had just finished a few minutes before. It was an amazing sight and she performed as if on Que, rolling over, jumping across ice, swimming, sliding and a finally of a roll and stretch on the ice. Absolutely wonderful and the best sighting we could have expected. I was a little worried in the last day or so that our sighting options had been scuppered by weather but this made it all worthwhile. The expedition team team say we have one of the best sightings of the season and although curious bears are out there it’s still quite rare to find one so dead set on visiting the vessel.

As mentioned previously we have greatly benefited and our expedition enhanced by the presence of a historian on board called Paul Harris. Paul is very well published with over 40 books but has great knowledge of Arctic history to present day. For some time the first human to reason the North Pole was a disputed piece of history with at least two separate expeditions fabricating their success when in later years it was proven they had both lied to seek publicity and fortune and were so disgraced. Did you know the first Human to reach the North Pole wasn’t until the 1960’s when an obscure and little known English man called Wally Herbert made an attempt and reached the pole but it was unfortunately for Wally unfortunate that mans first landing on the mood completely over shadowed his brave and courageous achievement and Wally never attained the lime light, recognition and fame he truly deserved.

Frank Todd who as I mentioned previously is a well known Polar expedition leader with over 40 years experience and over four wildlife books published knew Wally very well and shared many an expedition cabin with him Over the years.

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Brief history of Svalbard

Svalbard - By zodiac

Straight of Freemansundet

Around 10 am last night was an optimum time to see Polar bear as we passed through the straight of Freemansundet between Edgeoya and Barentsoya on the west side of Svalbard. We were not disappointed as we saw at least five bears high of the hills and clefts of the mountain side to our port side. But the surprise of the evening was a group of Belugas on the Starboard side extremely close to the edge of the side jumping and diving. The reason they spend time so far in is to avoid their main potential predictor Orca, that that you would expect to see common sightings of Orca in these parts buts it’s a learnt strategy according to a Russian research student who is studying Beluga and writing a current thesis on Beluga.

Today we are heading for Gustavo Adolfo Land which remained partly un explored and unchartered. Polar expedition vessels keep depths and chart information they have gathered over the years a secret unless shared in an emergency situation to come to the assistance of another vessel. The weather is certainly more Polar like with much more ice flow in this area and this morning we had a little snow for the first time. The wind is between 30 & 40 knots and sea conditions are too rough for landings. We planned to land to see walrus this morning after breakfast which we had to make do from the vessel and then sail on 2 hours to Alkefjellet (Mount Guilliemot). Which is where we are right now. The sea is still swelling and dangerous to cruise of Zodiacs but we have super views of the vast Brunich Guillemot colony and the dramatic towering cliffs with over 60,000 breading pairs.

As we were unable to land This morning two exceptional lectures we given. The first one by Frank Todd on The Polar Bear which was amazing from start to end. The second lecture was delivered by Paul Harris the historian on board on a brief history of Svalbard. Again, a riveting story right the way from 15 & 16 Century to the present day Svalbard and the Treaty of Svalbard.

Vikings supposedly recorded a fist sighting of Svalbard mean Edge if the Ice although it’s not confirmed this was in deed Svalbard however the Norwegians would like to think so to assist in their claim to soverenty.
It’s been the Russians who have tried in recent years to prove a claim to the archipelago by The Pomers, ancestors in 15 Century who were Russian trappers from Siberia who were funded by the Orthodox Church. This again is an unconfirmed claim and not proven 100%.

The first proven and definitive recorded sighting of the land was by a Dutch adventurer in 1596 called Willem Barents who first gave this land the name Spitsbergen meaning the land of spiking peaks. He died possibly of scurvy related illness in 1597 marooned on the Spitsbergen ice with some of his men however a few were rescued which lead to tales of rich pickings, furs, whale oil from blubber and walrus tusk.

In 1607 an English man named Henry Hudson who worked for Muscovy Trading Company started serious seasonal whale hunting and for the first time oil was created from the blubber of the whale and used for many everyday items such as oil lamps, make up, soap, lubricants. By this time the Dutch and British were the main players one nation taking the north and the other the south of the archipelago. Business and profits were good.

Did you know we nearly didn’t have an Horatio Nelson hero figure of the British Royal Navy as our history books record today? In 1773 Young Horatio served as an officer on HMS Carcass and spent time on and around Spitsbergen. Against orders the story goes he went ashore alone hoping to kill a Polar Bear to skin and take home to his father. Once ashore after finding a likely candidate he took aim with his rifle but to his utter shock his gun failed. He tried to escape the tricky situation and used the rifle but end to try to stave off the wild and possibly hungry creature and nearly came to his end until a marksman on board the ship took aim and killed the bear. So Nelson survived to fight another day! This period in Nelson’s naval carrier isn’t as well known as his Trafalgar days.

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Birds & Bear

After setting sail last night we travelled throughout the night south to reach Hornsund the Southern most fjord in Spitsbergen. At 6am there was an announcement that there was a feeding frenzy in front of the ship involving Fin whale, Humpback, Dolphin and 1000’s of Kittiwake. The surface of the sea was teaming with activity for at least 60 minutes. Great start to the Expedition. To reach Hornsund we had to motor until 1pm when we set anchor is the Picturesque Bay of Brepollen the location of the Storbreen Glacier. Cruising by Zodiac in the afternoon we spotted a white figure in the distance towards to glacier. Polar bear alert – our first view. A young 3 / 4 year old bear. A welcome sight on only our first day. It’s suprising how speedy it swam after diving in the water from the iceberg to seek a peaceful position right under the Glacier. Incredible sight and whilst it sunbathed we had to pinch ourselves as we enjoyed the show of several carvings from the glacier with dramatic sounds of thunder as they ripped away from the main glacier creating tsunami. Yet another lucky strike, several Ivory Gulls feeding and resting in the bay apparently a rare but lucky afternoon and we felt blessed on our first afternoons expedition out on Zodiacs.

My colleague Steve promised instant wildlife hit and he was right compared to Antarctica where you also experience up front wildlife but not in close succession – maybe it’s just our luck, let’s see. The weather has been very kind so far and although it’s been around 7 Degrees most of the day the sun has shone and it’s been warm and clear. The scenery has much in common with The Antarctica Peninsula so far although the seas have been flat and calm which I have no complaints over. No need to sea sickness medication yet. The guides on board are top notch, experienced, friendly and delighted to share their expert knowledge. The Published Frank Todd gave a lecture this morning on Spitsbergen wildlife which was entertaining and a first class introduction to the wildlife we can expect to see If we’re lucky!

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01 August. Russebukta, Diskobukta & MS Expedition

Located on the west coast of Edgeoya the third largest island of the Svalbard archipelago. The landing at Russebukta was on a sandy beach leading to colorful flat march lands and lagoons and huge hills beyond some with a showing of snow. Historically an area where trappers built huts and trapped Arctic Fox and Shot Polar bear. Arctic flowers were everywhere but coming to an end in the next two weeks – Snow buttercups, Arctic cotton grass, Arctic saxifrage, Purple saxifrage and Arctic willow. A good morning for the birders – Red throated diver, Barnacle goose, Long tailed duck, Common eider with young, Snow bunting adult and young and Arctic Skua. Overcast but excellent visibility and bright.

The ivory Gull yesterday keeps springing to mind as it’s high on any birders list when in the Arctic regions. It’s a true Arctic species living and breeding entirely 70 degrees north, one of very few birds including the snowy owl and the ptarmigan, the Arctics only game bird which reacted to the last ice age by adapting to severe cold and half year darkness and remaining year round. The ivory gull lives off caught fish but principally scavengers they are great followers of hunter Polar Bears and no strangers to feasting on bear leftovers along the coast. But also common near pupping grounds of the hooded seal where they find sustenance in dead pups or afterbirth. They also follow dog teams and not shy to take whatever hand outs they can get – anything for an easy meal. As our experience showed yesterday they are quite tolerant of human presence and seem extremely bold especially if there’s a potential meal on offer.

The MS Expedition is a very good quality vessel. I’m surprised because the inside, whether it’s common areas or cabin are really clean, well maintained and for an expedition vessel easy on the eye. The dining in the evening is waiter service and 4 courses with a choice of three main courses but vegetarian option, excellent food and very friendly service. Breakfast and lunch are buffet style, but varied and again delicious. I keep reminding myself this is an expedition vessel and should therefore be limited on its level of dining but its hitting above mine and most passengers expectations every time. There are also a group of Chinese on board and the kitchen has also provided a good level of buffet style food for them. One can burn off the excess calories from the amazing cuisine in the gym which is a good size for the limited space available but is limited in equipment offering two running machines, one cross trainer, spin cycle, loose weights and multi gym, fresh towels and water machine.

The cabins are spacious for an expedition vessel all with private WC & Shower. The beds are comfortable with a firm mattress. Cabins are light and modern. We are in a grade 3 with twin beds large picture window, writing table or for dressing, adequate wardrobe storage for clothes and luggage space under beds. service is good, helpful and friendly mainly Philippine hotel staff and the cabins are cleaned thoroughly in the morning and turned down with a tidy up early evening whilst you are at dinner. Hair dryer, shower gel, shampoo and conditioner are provided. Temperature gauge for air conditioning in each cabin. In grade 4 cabins you will expect a little more space with larger windows and in grade 5 a double bed if required with floor to ceiling windows and lounge area. I will remind you that this is not a luxury expedition vessel and if you are looking for 5 Star on board Silversea Explorer, Le Boreal, La Austral, Hanseatic are the best options but this is a 4 star expedition vessel and I have no hesitation in recommending it to discerning adventurers with high expectations.

The outside and inside viewing areas very good with 360 views for whale and bird spotting from the top outside deck. It’s easy to navigate your way around the vessel and bars, restaurants, lounges are simple to locate. The Library is well stocked and you are able to take a selection of the books away from the library if needed except for the reference books and guides.

The briefings, de briefs and lectures are given in the main lounge where there’s hot and cold refreshments and snacks readily available 24/7 with the bar open during lecture times and evening. Alcoholic beverages are reasonable and priced in US Dollars. During happy hour the main beverages are $4 usually $8. Bottle of wine with meals from $15.

Lectures so far have been well delivered and I particularly enjoyed Frank Todd who gave an intro to the Wildlife of Spitsbergen. Briefings and de briefings are very informative and given by a selection of the expedition team including Doug in charge of fire arms who is entertaining and precise in delivery of information. Alexander the lead guide is first class and you can clearly see he wants to deliver the best wildlife experience whilst safety is paramount. Paul Harris is an inspiring and interesting historian from the Uk but lived in China for many years. I’m looking forward to his Polar history lecture in the next day or so. Its clear to see the credentials of these experts is of a good level. Zodiac landings could be a little quicker but I’m sure there’s a reason and it’s not the slowest I’ve experienced in the Polar regions. The photographic lectures by Chasi Annexy have apparently been extremely informative and helpful, aimed at beginner to intermediary level but Chasi has been assisting one to one and seems very helpful. The other guides also have good photographic knowledge and are also available either on deck looking for overt unities or other times on board or on landings.

Kayaking isn’t available on this expedition but I’ve inspected the Kayaks and they are top quality most of them double Kayaks. Whilst there are hiking options on some landings we are encouraged to take our walking boots on the landings but the rubber boots are comfortable and essential for the Zodiac landings. The boot room is a good idea and not available on most expedition vessels. It’s where the landings are co ordinated and where you may leave your rubber boots, Polar parka, wet weather pants to dry out instead of them taking up useful room in the cabin space.

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Playing safe in Spitsbergen

Today I was picked up first thing to take a hike and fossil hunt close to Lonyearbyen near one of the glaciers. The area we walked to was just outside the settlement but Polar Bear had been sighted up there in the past so there’s a minor risk. Maria our guide for the morning, as well as being fully trained and licensed to carry a rifle also brought along one of the dogs, a three year old half Greenlander and half something else from theses parts called Ram. You can imagine with a dogs sensitive smell and hearing they can raise the alarm for Polar Bear way before a human. Whilst we looked for fossils, and we were not disappointed, Ram obediently guarded us and did a fine job of too. No bears today but some wonderful views back down the Bally towards Longyearbyen and beyond. If you have 3 to 4 hours even if you are picking up an expedition that day it’s an excellent idea to take a hike and get out of the village even if you are not too much in to fossil hunting. Fully recommended and interesting not to mention dead safe.

Strangely on the walk down we passed a group of 8 adventurers going up the track away from the settlement lead by a chap from Chc. Republic and obviously staying out overnight with full pack of tents and sleeping bags etc. Our guide shared her extreme concern with us that the guide carried not gun at all. Seems crazy to even take minor risks in this region especially when you are responsible for other lives, not just your own. Ok it’s rare to see bears around hear as there’s not obvious food source but why would you take this risk and disregard what locals always agree on.

There are various choices of lodging in Longyearbyen from Hostel type accommodation similar to Spitsbergen Guest House and 102 to The Spitsbergen Hotel and Radisson Blu which are probably the highest grade in Spitsbergen. If you are looking for clean but basic digs the guest House and 102 will suit you fine but if you seek high end The Radisson and Spitsbergen Hotel are the best choice. However if you have stayed in other Radisson Hotels worldwide don’t expect the same of Radisson Blu Spitsbergen as it falls a lot short when compared so bring your expectations down a few notches. Even the superior rooms are a little basic of what you may expect from Radisson but it’s very central and short walking to the museum, restaurants and bars in the village plus the staff are helpful and friendly. The Spitsbergen Hotel by comparison is a 15 minute walk with slight incline at the end but better quality in a more classic in style with excellent fine dining restaurant called Funken Restaurant. I,d recommend this hotel over the Radisson to discerning travelers even though The Radisson is more expensive. An alternative is The Trappers Hotel is an interesting themed hotel with only 16 bedrooms and well located in the middle of town. It’s not for every one especially those who don’t like the thought of sitting on animal skins and seeing paintings of trapping scenes plastered around. But I loved the cosy ambiance theme of a trappers log cabin inside the hotel the fact they have cleverly used local washed up beach wood to build the inside of the rooms and hotel common areas.

Embarked MS Expedition at 4pm and set sail at 5pm. We have just seen Beluga from a distance of the starboard side and apparently there were 10’s of them when the vessel came in to dock the early hours and they are still there. Hope this is just the start of a wildlife feast for the next 8 days.

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Arctic Moose

The Arctic moose is hard to miss, particularly in Canadian, Alaskan, Scandinavian and Russian territories. Check out these fun facts about Rudolph’s cousins: