Martin Chambers

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Kayaking Spitzbergen

published: November 2nd, 2014

Kayaking Spitzbergen

When I was a young whitewater kayaker one of the senior members of our club returned from Colorado where he had rafted the Grand Canyon. During a presentation to us we questioned his kayaking integrity. Kayaks could, and should, do everything. To raft rather than kayak those big rapids was treasonous.

His response was that there are appropriate craft for each circumstance. We use ships to cross oceans, smaller vessels to cross lakes. Kayaks have their place but inside the Grand Canyon where you need to carry two weeks of supplies down enormous rapids, a raft was the appropriate vessel. A good answer, and yet one might equally say there are places humans should not go. Down the Colorado, into space, climbing Everest. And yet, we continue to go.

Spitzbergen is one of those places humans don’t belong, and a kayak is entirely the appropriate way to see it. A sea kayak gets you close to the shore, over shallows and in amongst the ice and up close to the wildlife. A kayak moves at a speed that immerses you in the landscape, you see the slow unfolding of a vista, the subtleties of colour or the movement of clouds. You take notice of the weather. Wind and waves mean something to you and you know that without all this modern equipment you would survive less than an arctic summer. You will notice the tides, and with it, the mud, the crabs, the weed, the seabirds. And because of this, when you land and walk along the tundra, you will notice arctic flowers and understand just how harsh this place could be. When you come across the ruins of a hut, some long ago Russian hunter, it causes pause not to wonder that they survived here, but that they chose this place to live. And when you paddle to the glacier fronts you will appreciate their cold indifference. Humans are nothing.

And when you see a polar bear it will be a special thrill.

The locals will tell you that Spitzbergen has four seasons. Autumn comes in August, then winter in September.  Spring of course comes after winter, in June, and summer comes for a week in the middle of July. It is in that week that Svalbaard Wildlife Expeditions run an eight day kayaking expedition. 

We started our expedition the day before summer. It was rainy, cold and cloudy as we loaded the kayaks onto an RIB for the two hour trip across Eckmanfjorden. Beforehand, we struggled into dry suits and trembled at our guide’s insistence that we demonstrate a capsize and exit from the kayak. But either our guide, Calle, was forgetful or he was joking. I’m still not sure. It is difficult to tell when these northern types are joking.

At our start point we huddled on the shore, not so much from cold, but from fear of polar bears. ‘Try to look big’ the advice was. I thought looking big to a 3m tall 500kg bear might be difficult and instead studied my companions, thinking of an alternative strategy - ‘You don’t need to run faster than a polar bear, just faster than the people you are with.’  There were five of us. Richard and Tess, two long lean and fit looking Scots. Kerryn, my wife, who I know can run faster than I do. That left Calle. He was calmly loading the gun. 

‘If I have to shoot the gun, it will be to kill a polar bear,’ he said. He added that if that happened, it would be because something had gone wrong. The risk from polar bears is real, and taken very seriously, but they are inquisitive rather than hunting us and if we saw them before they saw us there would be no problems. ‘They much prefer the taste of seal flesh over humans,’ Calle said.

I wondered how he knew that. At least we would be safe while in the kayaks as Polar bears only hunt on land. But hang on, a curious polar bear could easily overturn a kayak. How fast can they swim?

That was when Calle told us that walruses have been known to follow and attack kayaks. Even the polar bears avoid walrus.

I watched the RIB disappear over the horizon. What would it come back to in eight days?

We paddled along an easy shoreline. The cloud began to lift and the wind dropped. We passed a hunter’s shack. Calle told us this hunter has lived alone here for 37 years and if we get too close he might shoot at us. We paddled out to sea.

We stopped for lunch on a long pebble beach cluttered with driftwood. Calle introduced us to the watch system –there was always to be someone on lookout- and the idea of always landing as a group at a place with an overview. Basically this meant keeping together and not landing in secret little coves or under a steep shore. 

Calle seemed pretty relaxed about the whole thing and he also seemed to be very competent. I decided to relax and enjoy the trip. After all, if they lost too many tourists it would not be good for business.  That night, Calle told us this was the first time he had run the trip.

Night is that in name only. At this time of year Spitzbergen has 24hrs of light. The sun slides around the horizon, occasionally disappearing behind a high mountain to give the illusion of twilight. This might happen mid morning or midnight. This, and the interrupted sleep forced by the two hour polar bear watch keeping, makes for an interesting time. Eventually you get used to it. Once, after a long day of paddling, we ate dinner and set up camp to discover it was midnight. Another time as I sat on watch, below me on the beach in the tents everyone else was asleep. Two walruses landed next to the tents and also went to sleep. Another group of kayaks paddled by, around the cape towards the glacier. For them it was mid-day.  It probably was.

This endless light makes for easy kayaking trips. There is no imperative to get to any particular place by dark.  If the weather is not perfect, there is no need to get up. But conversely, if the weather is good it is time to go. After our first day of rain we had seven days of glorious weather. I was so tired, I was looking forward to some rain and wind, something to keep us tent bound. None came.

Our route followed the shoreline around Eckmanfjorden from the east side to the west. We camped and explored tundra and pebble beaches, found old hunting traps and arctic flowers and nesting birds and polar bear footprints. Slowly the landscape changed, from steep rocky shores to low muddy moraine islands and then around a rocky headland. And there, away in the distance but seemingly so close, is the first of three glaciers. We paddle towards it but it got no closer. It is huge.

Drift ice and bergs float downwind from the glacier and the tinkling of ice under the hull is magic. The wind and waves form shapes of bergs - look, there is a face, a rockingchair, a swan. We get closer and there is a roar as the glacier calves.

Finally we arrive at the ice edge. On a kilometre wide ice floe hundreds of ringed seals. They lie relaxed. Behind them on the shore, a mother and cub polar bear. 

And there it is. A wonderful kayak trip that gets better as the days go on. Of course, you might not see a polar bear. Such is the nature of wildlife tours. But as I looked across at the mother and cub and saw them looking curiously back at me, I realised it was across what is to a bear the chilled food section of the supermarket. 

If you are curious, here is a link to their website.