This summer Glen Lyon Coffee’s Jamie travelled to Svalbard in the Arctic to crew on the sail training boat Ocean Spirit. Coffee and adventure have never been far apart, so it seemed fitting that he took along a kilo of our Las Brisas Colombian coffee that had itself been sailed from South America to the UK aboard the Gallant.
Here is a taste of his trip with some extracts from his journal that include encounters with Arctic wildlife, melting glaciers, abandoned settlements, and a Russian coal town.
Wilderness in the Arctic is ever present. You can feel it in the cool wind blowing off the glaciers; watch it drift as mist swathing the mountains; hear it in the winged beat of a solitary diver, a vanishing shadow under mirrored water.
Tourists and guides may buy gifts in smartly laid-out gift shops in the settlements, but the last street blends seamlessly into arctic tundra. ‘Don’t take another step without a rifle and a flare gun,’ the signs tell you. Wilderness isn’t distant and aloof here as it is in so much of the rest of the world. In the Arctic it is fluid and ever ready to creep back in: As a fall of snow, a sudden darkness, or the silent pad of a polar bear.
In many ways the far North is like a distant planet that human beings have reached but failed to colonise. So many of the stories and remains tell of abandonment and loss. A visit to the Arctic is a reminder that our own existence is smaller and more perilous than we imagine.
This summer I joined the crew on the sail training boat Ocean Spirit on a week-long voyage along the western coast of the archipelago of Svalbard. Also known as Spitsbergen, this grouping of islands is situated northwest of the Norwegian mainland and extends as far north as 81 degrees. It’s so far north that around 60% of these islands are permanently covered by glaciers and the whole eastern side is gripped by sea ice over the winter. The main settlement Longyearbyen is 3,043km to London and only 1,308km to the North Pole.
Svalbard is one of the most remote and least populated places on this planet. Covering a total landmass of some 61,000km, the estimated 2,900 residents are thought to be narrowly outnumbered by polar bears. First used as a staging post for whalers in the 17th and 18th centuries Svalbard has been popular with trappers and miners since the 20th Century. Svalbard has been administered by Norway ever since 1920 when the international ‘Svalbard Treaty’ was agreed to preserve the islands’ unique natural and cultural heritage. Today 65% of the land and 86% of the territorial waters are protected by 29 nature designations.
Svalbard is an arctic reserve and home to some of the most critically endangered wildlife on the planet. It hosts internationally important seabird populations such as the diminutive little auk, marine mammals that include the walrus and beluga whale and, on land, reindeer, arctic fox and polar bear. The island also bears witness to a unique human heritage of human settlement and exploration. The dry climate has preserved the remains of whalers, meteorological stations, mining towns and even a mooring mast for an airship.
ALL ABOARD THE OCEAN SPIRIT
I am relatively new to sailing and it reminds me of fishing, hours of inactivity and relative boredom punctuated by moments of panic. We crew the boat in four-hour shifts, sitting idly up on deck with half an eye out for passing icebergs or wildlife. Whoever is on the helm is seconded by another to help keep the wind angle optimum to the sail.
When the captain gives a sudden command we are all jolted into action, to hoist or trim a sail, tack, jibe or drop anchor. When the wind really picks up, the boat feels like it is surfing the swell and cooking in the galley below becomes a dynamic sport accompanied by the clatter of flying utensils. The best of it all is the sense of wind-powered and silent journeying through a vast and hostile environment.
We sleep on the boat as the mainland is dangerous to camp on with the ever-present possibility of an encounter with a polar bear. Every time we are shuttled on the rib to the shore for a walk three of the men in the party have to carry rifles and flare guns. If approached we are told to huddle and make lots of noise. Should a bear decide to charge then it is a straight choice of kill or be killed. Thankfully these sorts of encounters are rare, and the polar bear population on Svalbard has recovered well since hunting them was banned in the 1970s.
We spot a sleeping polar bear on our first day at sea—more of a yellowy dot than the pristine white that I had imagined. The next morning we strike lucky and watch a mother swim and dive in the sea while her cautious cub looks nervously on from shallower waters.
At first there isn’t much to see on the sandy spit of land that juts for several kilometres out into the sea. It rises imperceptibly above sea level, a long finger smudge above the horizon as we approach in thin morning mist. There are no trees on Svalbard but as we get closer we see that the beach is littered with driftwood from some distant shore, most likely Russia.
Swathes of brilliant green moss cling to the thin soil and old whale bones lie scattered around a low, triangular hut. There are structures like this all over the archipelago—some are long abandoned but many are used in the summer by trappers or residents of Longyearbyen, escaping the humdrum of their already extraordinary lives.
Just beyond the hut we are arrested by the overpowering smell of rotting fish, and before us we see a colony of Atlantic walruses asleep in a huddle on the shore. Lying immobile, they look like some abstract public artwork made from rusting metal—until one moves to prop his head up on a long set of tusks. Once widely persecuted for their ivory, blubber and meat, these bombastic-looking creatures have made something of a comeback in the Arctic, although their populations are still fragmented. Famed for hoovering up molluscs and other benthic invertebrates they are known as a ‘keystone species’ for churning up the sediment and recycling nutrients on the ocean floor. Their greatest threat now is climate change as the retreating sea ice serves as their main breeding ground.
GLACIERS AND CLIMATE CHANGE
Approaching a glacier in a state of tumultuous collapse is a nervy undertaking in a boat. We drop the sail and manoeuvre in past the icebergs by motor. One of the crew stands at the prow to keep a look out for the ice that is virtually the colour of the water and only barely breaks the surface. Occasionally one of the smaller chunks scrapes ominously along the length of the hull.
The further we edge to the glacier the more bedazzled we are by its airy beauty. The sheer scale of the luminous blue ice wall dwarfs all of my previous imaginings of what a glacier would look like this close up. We launch a drone which disappears up and over the high lip of ice to relay back live video footage of the glacier’s immense snaking tail, riven deep with crevasses.
Only 20 years ago the Kongsvegen glacier filled most of the Kings Fjord (Kongsfyord) that we are now sailing across, raw testimony to the fact that the mean temperature in Svalbard is now more than five Celsius above seasonal average. Every year the sea ice shrinks further north over the summer and even the permafrost on the island is melting.
Once a solid foundation for houses on the archipelago, the very land is becoming fluid and unstable. Even the dead are being disturbed, uncovered by landslides and meltwater. The pace of this change, so fast and in our own lifetimes, is almost impossible to comprehend.
Sometimes you have to admire good old fashioned British ingenuity, even when it is completely misplaced. In 1906 the mining engineer and explorer Ernest Richard Mansfield thought he had struck gold in the form of marble in Svalbard. The deposit on the remote Blomstand peninsula presented a huge logistical challenge. How to extract, process and ship this stone from the Arctic back to the UK?
Ever an optimist, Mansfield’s company the Northern Exploration Company Limited set about building an extensive camp that was once home to as many as seventy British workers. Called New London or Camp Mansfield, the barren split of land around the mine became a hive of human industry. Numerous wooden residences were built together with workshops, a railway, steam engines and a dock. In 1911 the first shipment of marble was successfully loaded and shipped to London.
It was when the marble was unloaded at the other end that Mansfield’s audacious project turned to dust. The stone was only firm when it was frozen and once defrosted on the journey south disintegrated into a murky mess. The camp was swiftly closed and still stands in ruins today, a testimony to both the pluckiness and the folly of the human spirit.
A STROLL ON THE GAFFEL GLACIER
The light as we sail into St Johnsfjorden is so flat that it feels like dusky evening despite it being the middle of the day. The colour seems leached out of the bay and the Gaffel Glacier is monochrome and crisscrossed with a dark lattice of spidery threadwork. It crunches underfoot as we walk up onto it, trickles and rivulets of water running under the ice beneath us.
I am struck by a near complete silence, like that stillness between breaths. Until a crack of thunder heralded the collapse of another tower of ice. So many millennia in the making and only a moment to sunder into the sea. Each carving creates a mini wake of waves, like horses’ manes of unfurled energy, racing in sets along the shore. It is profoundly unsettling to think that these little rituals of dissolution are being constantly repeated right across the Arctic as climate change takes hold.
Under the terms of the 1920 Svalbard treaty all signature countries retain the right to extract natural resources from the archipelago. Only 485 km from Murmansk, it is no surprise that Russia has made the most of this arrangement, even if for more geopolitical rather than economic gain.
The Russian coal town of Barensburg is the second largest settlement on Svalbard after Longyearbyren, with a permanent population of around 500 souls. Only accessible by boat, helicopter or snowmobile the town has a school, heated swimming pool, athletic complex and scientific research centre. Its residents are entirely dependent on food imports from Russia for their survival.
Although the locals’ working lives are dedicated to the extraction of coal it isn’t actually economically viable to export. A sprawling power station at the dock spews smoke into the fragile Arctic environment, the coal only producing heat and electricity for the town. In recent years tourism has provided a limited alternative income with the Red Bear Inn and a brewery in the centre serving real ale, borst and vodka to disorientated visitors, trying to get their heads around the fact that they have unexpectedly rocked up in Russia.
Russia’s other Svalbard settlement and mining town, Pyramidon, has been abandoned since a plane crash killed 141 of its residents in 1996.
ABANDONED COAL TOWN
The ghosts of the past still linger on here in the Arctic with so many remains of abandoned industry and settlements scattered across Svalbard.
In the natural harbour of Colesdalen we explore a collection of large housing blocks that were once home to Russian miners. There is a big communal kitchen with yellowed newspapers from the 1960s still spread across a table.
Upstairs the bedrooms that run off the long and gloomy corridor are remarkably intact. They still have their beds, curtains, and swirly wallpaper. In some rooms the workman’s jackets hang in the cupboards, waiting to be donned the next day.
You can so easily imagine the miners coming in from a long shift, kicking off their boots and lighting a cigarette in the 24-hour light that shines diffusely through the single paned windows.
Roald Amundsen’s imposing bust is the centrepiece of the small scientific settlement at Ny-Ålesund, officially the most northern town in the world. Still admired across Norway for beating Scott to the South Pole, Amundsen also set off from Ny-Ålesund on the first successful expedition over the North Pole. He teamed up with the Italian pilot and engineer Umberto Nobile and the American explorer and financier Lincoln Ellsworth to fly the airship ‘the Norge’ across the Pole to Alaska in May 1926.
Despite the resounding success of the expedition, Amundsen and Nobile bickered incessantly in the freezing forward air cabin of the Norge. Matters were only made worse when Nobile dropped a huge Italian flag over the North Pole and went on to claim much of the limelight. Amundsen put aside their differences and flew to Nobile’s rescue when he disappeared in the Arctic on a subsequent expedition in 1928. Nobile survived after 58 days in the wilds; Amundsen perished in a sea plane searching for him.
The mooring mast that the Norge sailed from still stands tall outside of Ny-Ålesund, a testimony to the bravery, ingenuity—and insanity—of the age of Polar exploration.
The Arctic is a blank canvas that reflects back the best and worst of humanity. In one short week I have seen evidence of our incredible bravery, ingenuity, folly and greed. I have also seen in the Arctic a compelling example of international cooperation and a shared desire to protect this fragile habitat, as over everything in Svalbard hangs the impending spectre of climate change.