There can’t have been many Arctic holidays quite as enjoyable and fulfilling as that recently embarked upon by our own senior travel advisor here at WILDFOOT. Alas, in our latest blog post, her journey to Spitsbergen is coming to an end, but not without yet more great memories being made.
Day 5: Coal Mine Number 3 Visit & Camp Barentz
Now visiting a coal mine is not something I ever thought I would do, or would particularly want to do. Having visited one I can now confidently say that it’s somewhere I would never like to work! Crawling through narrow tunnels, deeper and deeper into a mountain, with the weight of millions of tons of rock above…then releasing the jacks holding up the roof once a coal seam has been fully mined? No thanks! We did get to crawl through a ‘fake’ tunnel which was a small taste of the experience. It was fascinating to learn though, how the miners plied their trade. They are incredibly brave and hardy – hats off to them! Before the arrival of tourism, coal mining was the main source of income for Svalbard. There are 7 mines in central Spitsbergen, only one of which is currently operational, although the industry here is highly contested with the UN and environmental organisations urging its phase out. All the more reason to preserve Mine Number 3 as a museum piece.
The finale of our trip was a northern lights evening at Camp Barentz. Named after William Barentz, Dutch explorer and discoverer of Svalbard, the cabin where we were to have our dinner was a rough copy of the one built by Barentz and his crew during the 11 months that they were stranded on Novaya Zemlya after their ship became stuck in the ice. With a roaring fire in the centre of the cabin, a hearty stew and chunks of bread to fill the stomach and a glass of wine in hand it was a fitting and fun end to an amazing trip. And the northern lights didn’t disappoint with their strongest display of the whole visit. Perfect!
It’s one thing to go on an Arctic wildlife viewing holiday, but quite another thing for some of the animal natives to help you on your way! That’s what our travel advisor discovered on the latest day of her trip, and it’s a testament once more to some of the incredible experiences that one can have on a Svalbard break with WILDFOOT.
Day 4: Ice caving and dog sledding
It was back outside with a vengeance today, starting with a snowcat ride up the Longyearbyen valley to an ice cave. The valley runs through the town and up into the mountains, and at its head is a glacier. Within this glacier is an ice tunnel that visitors can explore, with a fresh entrance to the cave being dug each winter to allow access. The track up to the head of the valley is steep and, needless to say, very snowy – so much so that our snow cat, even with its thick treads, struggled at one point. Once 14 well-fed members of my Arctic winter expedition group had been ejected from the vehicle and trailer, it did manage to make it up there, but only thanks to the perseverance of our indomitable driver! Inside the small igloo that has been built around the cave entrance 14 anxious faces gazed down into an icy hole. The nervous mutterings, which had been heard intermittently since the announcement of the planned ice cave visit, were somewhat quietened by the appearance of a reasonably sturdy looking metal ladder leading down into the depths. In fact, it was only a few metres to the tunnel floor and then a simple walk along a narrow channel into the cave – all that worrying for nothing! And it is stunningly beautiful down there, with the contours and colours of the ancient ice.
Back into the fresh air it was time for the next adventure: dogsledding. It may seem cruel to us temperate island dwellers to keep dogs outside in the middle of winter only 800 miles or so from the north pole, but in fact their preferred temperature is around -15 centigrade so for them -20 would be the equivalent of just a bit of a nip in the air. I have always wondered how huskies are able to pull heavy sleds but now I understand – they are incredibly strong. As part of our mushing experience we helped harness the dogs to the sleds and my job was to take Wasabi (a very friendly mid-sized, black and brown boy) from his pen to the harness. Huskies love to run, and once he realised he was about to go on an outing it was as much as I could do to stay on my feet as he literally dragged me from his kennel to the sled. Once given the go the dogs were off, happy to be running. It’s a wonderful thing, guiding a sled pulled by 6 beautiful huskies, through the darkness, with the northern lights flickering above, and the icy silence of the arctic winter all around. Add to that the slight frisson of fear of being eaten by a polar bear and it makes for a truly memorable experience!