As we departed Oslo this morning, and flew north along the coast of Norway, you could see pockets of light blue in the shallow water at the entrances of the fjords. As the archipelago of Svalbard appeared in the distance, the white snow reflected off the sides of the mountains. When the plane began to descend, snow flurried against the window, an unusual sight in June, even for the Arctic.
Svalbard was originally settled by miners, interested in the coal contained in Svalbards mountains. Before miners, there were small fisheries and whalers who lived in Svalbard year-round. Now, Longyearbyen, one of the larger mining settlements that still remains, is inhabited by citizens from all over the world. In this small town, the main street is barely the size of one city block, and the roads are only accessible in the summer months. Most of the year, dog sleds and boats are the only form of transportation. Longyearbyen is the northernmost town in the world, and can claim a few other northernmosts – northernmost church, northernmost college, northernmost airport with scheduled flights, northernmost post office, and even the northernmost ATM.
When we landed at the one and only terminal, and walked onto the tarmac, we were greeted by wet snow flakes and gray skies. We loaded onto a bus to make the short trip into town before boarding our ship. It didn’t take long for us to have our first wildlife sighting – reindeer! – out the bus window. The houses in Longyearbyen are all painted bright colors – reds, oranges, yellows, blues, and greens – and stand out in contrast next to the steely, snow-covered mountains in the distance. On both sides of town, on the drive in, we pass signs warning of the dangers of nearby polar bears. Every few years, there will be a tragic accident reported, someone hiking without a rifle, or not spotting the white bear against a snowy background until it is too late. A few years ago, we were told that two girls spotted what they thought was a white reindeer in the distant hills. As they approached the animal, they realized all too late that it was a young male polar bear. No one leaves town without a rifle.
Before boarding our ship, we take a tour of a local art gallery. In Longyearbyen, it is custom to remove your shoes before entering any building, whether it is a public building or someone’s home. This tradition started because of the mining history of the town – miners didn’t want to track coal dust inside. Finally, we arrive at the dock, and see our ship, the National Geographic Explorer. An ice-class expedition ship, the Explorer is much smaller than a cruise ship, holding 148 passengers. This will enable us to visit some of the smaller fjords, and the ice-breaker on the front of the ship will allow us to travel into the pack ice in search of ice bears and other wildlife.
I am staying on the bottom deck with the ship’s staff, in a room with two other educators. We have simple fold-out cots, and a porthole that looks out just above sea level. In the neighboring rooms, we have naturalists and photographers that have traveled all over the world with National Geographic. Our ship has one dining room where we will have all of our meals together, and a lounge where we will have evening lectures and photography workshops. There is a library on the top deck, and surrounding the shelves of books are arm chairs were passengers sit, binoculars in hand, scanning the horizon for possible bears, whales, or walrus. In from of the library is the bridge, where the captain and crew will chart our course, carefully reviewing daily ice charts and changing our course accordingly.
After a toast and a celebratory dinner as we embark on our first night at sea, I make sure my jacket and camera are easily accessible before falling asleep – just in case.