Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The first glimpse of Svalbard was a couple of mountaintops poking through the dense cloud cover. Snow-capped and not very sharp, they looked like little islands in a sea of foam. Then we cut through the clouds and there it was: the bay off of Isfjord, the little hardscrabble town of Longyearbyen, and finally the airport.

It looks like Wyoming on the ocean. Uh, but with glaciers and no trees.

The first day, we took an open boat up the fjord, packed into our survival suits and looking through our goggles, the sea not terribly rough, the sky grey and low and looming, the cliffs beside us jagged and with a colony of murres diving and fishing all around. Abandoned mines and villages line the fjord, melancholy, beautiful in their ugliness. Then at last we came out from under the clouds, and the sea was suddenly deep blue, the sun intense, and we could at last see the tops of the mountains. The guide took us all the way out to the end of the fjord, to the old radio station, which has been converted into a lonely hotel, at the tip of nowhere.

"The problem is that during the spring and summer, the only way to get there is by boat," the guide, Klas, told us. "One time, I had to take people back to the airport in the middle of the night and the sea was so choppy, they threw up the whole way and had to get right on the plane soaking wet and exhausted."

(For some reason, there's only one flight a day in the afternoon, and the rest of the flights are at 3 and 4 and 4:30 a.m., depending on the day of the week.)

The next day - although it all seemed like one long day of course, with the sun rolling around the sky instead of rising and setting - we climbed up a high ridge overlooking the town. The clouds rolled in and rolled out, all ghostly and magical, and we drank water racing down from somewhere far above us. When we reached the top, with Longyearbyen spread out below us, and beyond that the bay and more mountains, I could barely look down.

"The reason we have to have guns," said our hiking guide, Marthe, with her rifle casually slung over her shoulder, "is because in 1996, two girls were climbing up over there- " she gestured to a high ridge on the other side of the town, "and they ran into a polar bear. One of the girls jumped over the side."

We - the husband and I, and the sea captain and the children's book author - gave a collective gasp.

"But she was the one who survived," Marthe said. "Just a few scratches. And now we always have to have guns outside the town."

"So the lesson is that if you run into a polar bear, jump over the cliff," the children's book author said.

Unfortunately, I would be the girl who got eaten by the polar bear. Jumping over a cliff is not something I could do.

We walked down the other side of the ridge, onto a glacier, avoiding the really wet spots, hopping over streams of icy water, picking our way through occasional piles of rocks and looking for fossils of leaf marks, and eventually making our way back to the car and the town of Longyearbyen.

The Swedish word for the day is ishavet. It means the arctic ocean.

- by Francis S.

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