August 7, 2016
Bellsund to Longyearbyen, ‘All Good Things…’
After an evening anchored in Fridtjofhamna fjord, into which spills ice from the Fridtjofbreen Glacier, Migration gets underway, bound for my final stop, Longyearbyen. The fine weather we had been enjoying is now a distant memory; yesterday was overcast with periods of rain, while today is positively snotty, fog, rain and a relentless heavy swell. As is so often the case, with the calm conditions Migration’s crew has become complacent; as we leave the anchorage we entered a ferocious tidal rip between Spitzbergen and Akseløya, in which there are standing waves, the likes of which we have not encountered since arriving in the archipelago. The first one we pitch into throws open unsecured cabinet doors and drawers, and sending loose gear sliding across countertops and onto the sole. We quickly regain our seagoing composure and settle in for what begins as an uncomfortable day-long passage; thankfully, however, within a couple of hours conditions moderate.
While the sun does not shine, the fog lifts and rain abets, and while we’ve traversed this shoreline on two previous occasions, previously it was completely enshrouded. Now we’re able to absorb its majesty, steep cliffs covered in iridescent green vegetation, reminiscent of the patina that forms on brass when exposed to salt air, deep gorges, river valleys and hanging glaciers. We pass the abandon settlement of Grumant, yet another former Russian mining town idled since 1962, which clings to a cliff side. Cruising this coastline it becomes apparent just how much scenery that’s likely gone unseen as a result of poor weather. We’ve determined that in the 25 days Migration has taken to circumnavigate Svalbard, only five have been cloudless or mostly clear. It’s universally agreed upon by Migration’s crew that to properly cruise Svalbard, without being rushed, one would need at least another three weeks.
My time aboard Migration, from Tromsø, covered exactly 1,900 nautical miles, 1,303 of which were in navigating the archipelago, with 293 hours of engine run time over 28 days. A testament to the her solid build quality, and impeccable upkeep, Migration’s equipment failures during the passage were few and minor, a leaking raw water pump and hydraulic steering ram, a frozen float switch, and a burned out panel indicator light bulb, made all the more impressive considering how hard, and under the trying conditions which, she was run.
At 3PM the anchor drops once again in Longyearbyen harbor; here, and with a heavy heart, I will take my leave of Migration, George, Marci and Gulliver. The passage has been among the most memorable I’ve undertaken; a collage of land and seascapes, wildlife and unmatched good company. Providing inspiration and insight for years to come. It’s one I’ll not soon forget.” – Steve D’Antonio
August 6, 2016
“Bound for Spitzbergen’s Southern Cape and return to Hornsund: It is universally agreed among Migration’s crew, particularly Gulliver, that last night’s anchorage ranks as the most unpleasant of the entire passage. Fifteen degrees may not sound like much; however, when you are incessantly rolling through that arc it grows tiresome, making all shipboard activity a chore and restful sleep nearly impossible. By 0515 we are underway, much more stable, and glad of it.
Spitzbergen’s south west coast slips by our starboard side, lit by early morning sunlight which, thankfully isn’t in the helmsman’s eyes for a change. While still grand on any scale, as Migration has moved south the size of the island’s glaciers has diminished, and the once snow-covered mountains have given way to those that are simply daubed with white. And still, we see no other vessels or AIS targets; the VHF radio hasn’t uttered a sound in days. The latter is so quiet in fact that I check the squelch during my watches to make certain it’s working. No contrails have been observed since departing Tromsø, or as the sound of a cell phone ringing echoed through the cabin.
Today, few can say they’ve walked where no other has. There’s something attractive about this to me, which is one of the reasons why I find locales like Svalbard so very attractive. Even here, however, I’ve encountered foot prints, literally and figuratively, where I’d hoped to find none. I suppose this shouldn’t be too surprising considering the number of tourists and eco-cruise ships that visit this ecological jewel. We’ve had the misfortune to select a landing location on one occasion just as one of these behemoths disgorges an army of tourists, typically all clad in the same brightly colored parkas, and festooned with cameras, walking sticks and other eco-tourist accoutrements. I’ve been one of them, and thus am not casting aspersions, I appreciate the fact that not everyone is fortunate enough to travel aboard a vessel like Migration. I did, however, have the opportunity a few days ago to truly stand where no one has stood, or ever will again; on a piece of frozen real estate, an iceberg. The conditions were dead calm, and while it’s not something I recommend others do, I simply couldn’t resist. Migration backed up to the frozen platform, I stepped “aboard” with little more effort than boarding a bus, and was “marooned” there for fifteen minutes while George flew the drone overhead. It was an other-worldly experience, one I enjoyed thoroughly. Marci jokingly commented that this would be a fitting punishment for any who dared criticize her cooking. It’s a sentence that has no danger of being carried out, save those of my wife as her culinary skills are second to none.
Just after noon we cross our original inbound track, made nearly three weeks ago when arriving on this coastline. The conditions couldn’t be more different, then we only caught, through fog and mist, fleeting glimpses of the land, a mountainside here, a dark rocky outcropping there. Today, however, the sun shines, offering up Svalbard’s coast, its glaciers, fjords and peaks in all their natural glory.
Rounding Sørkapp, Svalbard’s southernmost cape, and running up the coast for three hours into Hornsund is simply sublime. The sea is placid, rolling like thick oil, the bow pennant hangs limp in still air; and the low hanging sun to our west illuminates the mountains off our starboard side. Light clouds have rolled in partially obscuring the otherwise azure sky; however, like a photographic filter the sun’s rays penetrate them, softening and enhancing the quality of the light.
Migration enters an area called Storfjordrenna, which is near where we will anchor for the evening, adjacent to the island of Ammonittøya. From our vantage point no less than seven glaciers can be seen, it’s truly breathtaking. We decide to take maximum advantage of the scenery by motoring through the area slowly as we dine in the pilothouse. After dinner we cruise in close to the Hombreen Glacier, the lighting is, once again, photographically irresistible, and once again we ensconce Migration in an ice field; this time however, we drop the anchor, on an ice flow, to hold our position. Just as we complete our photo shoot, we notice a pod of beluga whales feeding nearby, close to a glacial stream outfall, and we head their way to get a closer look.
By 11 PM the crew is ready to call it a night. We thread out way through an eye of the needle-like opening to enter a small circular pool, in which we anchor for the night. Sun continues to filter through the scattered clouds, alternately illuminating surrounding snow-capped mountains and one of the many glaciers.” – Steve D’Antonio
“Ammonittøya Island to Bellsund: We’re surrounded…by nesting Arctic turns. Our pool-like anchorage is ringed by low mound-shaped islands made up of soft soil, giving them the unmistakable appearance of a landfill. That, however, is where the similarity ends, as they are teaming with life. George, Marci and I make a three minute tender hop to the island and step ashore, landing to the accompaniment of a raucous cacophony of turns swirling overhead by the hundreds. In an effort to avoid inadvertently stepping on a nest, we begin our walk by staying below the high tide line. Terns are known for their aggressive behavior when protecting a nest, diving on the unsuspecting victim’s head, man or beast, from as high as thirty feet, often drawing blood on the first pass. I realize at that moment I forgot to wear a hat. In fact, so good are terns at this defensive behavior, other bird species are known to build their nests among tern nesting colonies for the air cover alone.
The tern’s “nest” is in fact nothing more than a barren patch of ground, which are plentiful here. There’s little with which to make a nest, no twigs, or grass, so dirt has to do, and because the nests are on the ground, they are susceptible to predators, including foxes, glaucous gulls (the archipelago’s only bird of prey) and even hungry polar bears. One wonders how many tern eggs are required to satiate a polar bear’s hunger. Sure enough, after a few minutes we encounter bear tracks, which were made by a mother and cub, no doubt on a nest raiding party.
I mentioned this bird’s epic Migration in an earlier post, however, it bears revisiting. The eponymous tern spends the summer in the Arctic, however, as the northern hemisphere’s fall approaches it abandons this region and heads south, way south, to the Antarctic (I’ve been fortunate enough to photograph them there), where it spends the austral summer, returning again for the Arctic as the days grow shorter. Studies have shown, however, that it does not take the shortest route; instead the Arctic tern flies from feeding ground to feeding ground, and thus racks up a round trip distance of approximately 45,000 miles per Migration. Studies also indicate that the Arctic tern’s lifespan is as much as 30 years, and in that time it would cover an impressive 1.4 million miles.
We search out a path through the interior of the island that appears to be free of nests, and as we do we spy two chicks, both of which are mature enough to walk, run actually (they are able to do this just two days after hatching) and even fly short distances. We observe on a walk about, one who ventures 50 feet from the nest, and then hurriedly flitters back and crash lands, seemingly overwhelmed by his foray into the world. His reward…a returning parent bearing a small silver fish clasped in its beak. We also observe on several occasions adult terns landing together, one handing off a fish to the other, beak to beak, a division of labor of sorts. It’s awe inspiring to watch this biological poetry in motion, and even more impressive when one considers just how well travelled each one of these avian marvels may be. On our return to the tender we witness yet another unusual sight, two chicks, swimming. Terns are not sea birds per se, in that they don’t land on the water; they dive in from altitude, snatch a fish and quickly fly out, which make seeing the downy chick swimming all the more interesting. As they do so, several adults keep watch over them, flying just a foot or so overhead.” – Steve D’Antonio
August 5, 2016
“Edgeøya bound: My alarm goes off at 0545; I splash water on my face, brush my teeth and stumble up to the pilot house. Another first, two clear mornings back to back (there are no sunrises per se), however, the wind still howls at 25 knots. George heads out to the foredeck to unlock the anchor rode, while I assist him by working the thruster, helm and throttle. The anchor comes up easily and, another first, it isn’t fouled with kelp. I wheel Migration 180° and begin to motor away from the anchorage, when I notice a series of standing waves, and the water ahead is roiling heavily, a clear indication of upwelling and cross currents. The depth here changes from 33 feet to nearly 300 feet in less than a hundred yards, where the waters of Bakan Bay, a large body of water, think Tampa, are forced through a narrow passage, in the middle of which is K?kenthaloya Island, The collective pass through which this water flows is just 800 yards wide. With that observation I also notice that the boat icon on the plotter is crabbing, offset 30° from the vessel’s actual heading. I add throttle, and place the autopilot into the AUTO mode to steer a heading, and watch as the rudder deflects as much as 16° to hold the course, and realize we are transiting a classic maelstrom, which we pass through without further incident.
We’ve now experienced 24 hours of undiminished sunshine, and 24 hours and no contact with any other vessels, two records for our time in Svalbard.
At noon we reach our intended anchorage for the afternoon, if it could be called that, a barely perceptible point that extends out from the Edgeøya’s rocky and otherwise inhospitable shoreline, behind which a vessel might find a lee, if the wind is just right, and it’s not. Called Stretehamna, it’s reputed to be the home of a walrus colony, and vantage points offering a view of southern Spitzbergen. Migration pokes her nose in, it’s rolly, but the wind is light so we chance it, dropping the hook in 15 feet of water half a mile off the beach. Through binoculars we confirm the presence of 20 walrus. Launching the tender is a chore, as is boarding; however, we manage both, and George, Marci, Russel, Gulliver and I motor to the shoreline. Small waves are breaking at the landing area, necessitating careful timing and willingness of at least two people to jump out of the tender into knee deep icy water, preventing it from going beam to the waves. But we manage this as well without incident. We quietly walk to a vantage point overlooking the herd and it’s impressive, a tightly packed yet docile mass of blubber, tusks and flippers, with the lone very large bull separated from the others, keeping watch. As I move down from the overlooking cliff, and onto the beach, he raises his head and looks my way, I can see his tiny eyes, which are completely out of proportion to his body, set in an equally disproportionately small head, blinking as he sizes me up. I imagine the process goes something like this, ‘1500 pounds vs. 145 pounds, I have tusks and incredible heft, I smell awful and belch and perform other unpleasant bodily functions at will, he has a camera, this is not a threat’. From here our landing party walks along the shore and slightly inland to a flat, mossy, sodden field that is remarkable in one respect; it’s strewn with hundreds upon hundreds of old bleached bones, which appear to be from seal, walrus and reindeer. It’s obvious this was at one time a hunting base. From here we hike inland encountering a reindeer adult and calf, and a pair of Arctic skuas, which dive on Gulliver periodically, establishing their territory, which he respects.
The vistas are as promised, spectacular; the clear weather has remained, affording us staggering visibility, the snow-covered mountains and glaciers that run down Spitzbergen’s spine can be seen across Storfjorden Straight with startling clarity, and they are nearly 50 miles distant. On our return hike to the tender we encounter a lone reindeer, which sports huge antlers, grazing in a meadow. We quietly move closer, if he sees us he pays us no mind, and sit down at a rocky outcropping, drinking in the scenery, solitude, and up close wildlife. After a few minutes he stops grazing, kneels on his front legs, then tucks his back legs under his body and lies down on his side with his head up, much like a dog might when resting in front of a fireplace. As he does so, the four of us look at each other and exchange knowing glances, we realize this is a moment we will all remember and cherish for a very long time to come.
As we leave the anchorage and head across the Storfjorden Straight, and on to our next destination, the afternoon katabatic winds kick in; it’s a steady 30 knots on the nose, and we steer directly into the perpetually setting sun which, with few clouds to mask its rays, is blinding. One cloud does make an appearance, blocking the sun, albeit briefly, and it’s welcomed, its leading edges are rain bowed.”
“Dufferin Point, Svalbard: We find an anchorage, Dufferin Point, in the lee of a mountain that gives us refuge from the 30 knot winds we fought on the way in. By no means is this a harbor, cove or even a bay, its mountains simply protect us from the howling westerly wind. There are essentially no true harbors on this side of Spitzbergen Island. We set the anchor in 20 feet of water, the bottom is silt, which we know would provide poor holding in the event of heavy winds. Here, however, it’s blowing just 12 knots from shoreward, which would blow us seaward in the event we do drag. We roll lightly in swells. The shoreline looks completely untamed, there are no signs of civilization, sloping cliffs intersect the sea at a narrow beach, waterfalls, covered with ice domes, burble down the cliff face.
We awake to yet another sun-filled morning, the third in a row. I ascend to the pilothouse and look off the port side and see, 75 yards in the distance, the telltale swirling and turbulence that can mean but one thing, submerged rocks. The tide has dropped since we entered last evening, revealing this menace. Charts along this infrequently traveled coast are weak at best, and this obstruction isn’t shown. The rollers have moderated during the night; winds remain light at 12 knots, making it possible to launch the tender and go ashore for a hike. We’ve encountered just one vessel in the past 72 hours, an eco-cruise ship that passed us yesterday while we were anchored.
Marci, George, Russel, Gulliver and I tender ashore, however, George returns to Migration, he’ll retrieve us after our hike. We walk south along a broad sloping tidal flat, which is covered with bird, and reindeer tracks; as well as a variety of minerals and even natural coal deposits. We also encounter bear tracks, however, they aren’t recent; at least one tide has covered them. Waterfalls cascade down to the beach; in their outfalls the surface over which we walk has the consistency of thick stew, our feet sink into viscous mud up to our ankles. We encounter a series of conical piles of black earth, some as tall as a man, others as large as a multi-story house. They are eerily symmetrical, and appear as if a front end loader piled them here yesterday. The passage through them is a warren of blind alleys; I suggest to Russel, our bear guard, that he unsling his rifle and have it at the ready as we begin to pass through them. If a bear were here he would be upwind of us, and thus we would be likely to surprise him; not a good thing.
On the return we encounter a rare treat, a quartet of ivory gulls, a bird native to Svalbard, yet one we have not yet seen. We are able to approach remarkably close to them as they sip water from one of the glacial streams.
Underway by noon, the already welcomed weather conditions continue to improve, winds die away to a paltry 5 knots, the sea surface takes on the quality of thick oil, smooth and glassy with barely perceptible swells. Snow bound, brilliantly illuminated mountains at Svalbard’s southern cape are visible 40 miles away.
As Svalbard is wont to do, the weather rapidly changes as we press southward, katabatic winds kick in and before we know it, it’s blowing 30 knots. As afternoon turns to evening we look for an anchorage on this picturesque and icebound, yet inhospitable, coast. The first one is a bust, it offers too little protection and we roll mercilessly, so we move on to another, again through poorly charted waters. We explore another option and find protection from the wind in the lee of a mountain, however, it’s at the outfall of two glaciers, and we still roll, though not nearly as much. We set the anchor alarm and shut down the engine, however, it’s not long before the anchor drags…and then sets, and holds, for now.” – Steve D’Antonio
August 4, 2016
Southbound, Sparreneset, on the coast of Nordaustlandet, Svalbard’s “other island”: After a continuous 36 hour run to the ice cap, Migration tucks into a low half-moon cove, located at the entrance to Hinlopenstretet, the body of water that separates Svalbard’s two main islands. It offers good protection from the sea, but it’s hardly necessary, the wind is a mere zephyr. George, Marci, Russell and I drink a celebratory toast to our latitude high water mark, and safe passage to and from the ice pack.
The following morning dawns with spectacular clarity, snow covered mountains and glaciers fifteen miles distant are clearly visible to our west, while in the east a series of low, dark hills are dusted white; their backdrop is a rarity, a blue sky with no more than a hint of cloud cover. Because they are so few, I can recall each equally clear day from this passage, there have been no more than two or three like this.
We are anxious to go ashore and stretch our legs; instead, however, we opt to get underway and cover ground, affording us additional time to explore an upcoming, and what promises to be more interesting areas on the island of Edgeøya. The ever present fulmars and guillemots have remained our companions throughout the passage, and continue their escort as we cut through the Straight’s placid waters. Literally hundreds of bird flocks pass us traveling in both directions. We turn off the hydraulic stabilizers only for the second time during the passage.
Nordaustlandet, to our left, is the archipelago’s second largest island; the vast majority of it is compressed under the world’s third largest glacier, Austfonna, which dumps its ice on the southeast side (not the side we are transiting) of the island. It’s devoid of any inhabitants save reindeer, arctic fox, birds and polar bear.
We detour from our route to stop at a series of cliffs called Alkefjellet; towering above the sea on the west side of the straight, they are home to thousands of nesting Br?nnich’s guillemots and a smaller contingent of kittiwakes. We maneuver adjacent to the sun-splashed vertical face and loiter there for nearly two hours, taking in the mass of avian life, the sky and the sea, both on the surface and beneath – the guillemots dive and swim underwater – are so crowded with birds it’s a wonder there aren’t regular collisions. Chicks can be seen and heard, their plaintive high pitched cries a stark contrast from the adult bird’s raucous squawks, swimming with adults. In a wildlife photographer’s life there are moments seared into his or her memory; I recall each one of these, when I captured images of Galapagos giant turtles, Antarctica’s great wandering albatrosses, and Heligoland’s Atlantic gannets. To these I will add Alkefjellet’s Br?nnich’s guillemots, where I filled a 16 mb memory card in one shooting session.
We continue down the glassy calm straight, in brilliant sunshine, its reflection from the surfaces of the many glaciers making them appear satin-like. The water’s color alternates from cobalt blue to dusky brown, the latter evidence of the many glacial stream outfalls; the demarcation between the two is as clear that between an asphalt and concrete. We hug the coast in the hopes of seeing more wildlife and it’s just more interesting. As the day wears on the conditions remain sublime, little to no wind, abundant sunshine and scenery that takes one’s breath away with each new heading. The entire day passes, 12 hours underway, and we encounter not another vessel, not so much as an AIS target.
Toward the end of the day we approach a narrow channel, between Spitzbergen and the island of Wilhelmoya, and katabatic winds roar up to nearly 40 knots, yet it remains clear, bergy bits and growlers litter our path, blown out from the many nearby glaciers; we thread our way through them. Climate conditions in this part of Svalbard, the northeast, are different, it’s considered high arctic, with no moderating influence from the Gulf Stream, making it generally colder and with greater overall precipitation, which is why the largest glaciers are found here.
The final four hours of the passage the wind continues to build, reaching a steady 40 knots. Waves are short, steep, 3-4 foot, and nasty. Winds sluicing through the mountains and over glaciers scream through Hinlopenstretet, white clouds envelope and conform to the windward mountains and glaciers like a tablecloth. Migration is buffeted on her starboard side, she heels 5 degrees continuously and spray flies over the bow and pelt the windshield as we eat dinner in the pilothouse. The view is mesmerizing. As we make the final dog leg turn toward our anchorage the conditions moderate somewhat, winds drop to 27 knots and the waves subside to just a foot or two, we’re in a pseudo-lee.
Our original intended anchorage is out, it’s open to the east, and that’s the direction from which the winds are blowing. We divert to another which, on the chart, looks snug and well protected from this wind direction, called Straumslandet, adjacent to the tiny island K?kenthaloya. Its shoreline is rocky and looks like the surface of Mars; however, there is a small sloping beach, populated by a flock of Brent geese, it holds promise. It isn’t mentioned in any of our cruising guides; we take a chance, drop the anchor, it sets, tentatively at first but then holds.” – Steve D’Antonio
August 2, 2016
Trinityhamna and points north: After dropping off one of our guests at Ny-?lasund we turn Migration’s bow north once again for a 40 mile run, retracing our earlier route, to Trinityhamna. Weather is less than ideal, 6 foot seas that are mercifully long in period, rain and fog. When we arrive at the anchorage at 9PM it is devoid of all but an 18 foot open Sysselmann (the ‘Sysselmann’ is the governor of Svalbard, and those working for this office are a cross between park rangers, coast guard and police) patrol boat near the beach. We otherwise have the cove to ourselves. Shortly after setting the anchor we watch as the Sysselmann crew of two leave their shore side cabin, don dry suits, pack up their gear and get underway. Their outpost huts are scattered throughout the archipelago, many include emergency food and fuel stores, including jet fuel for their search and rescue helicopters. They come alongside to chat with us for a bit. They are young, fit and have a rugged look about them, one has a large full beard and would need only a battle axe and horned helmet to complete the picture of an archetypal Viking. The boat is completely open, something one might cruise aboard on the intra-coastal waterway in Florida, it’s equipped with a large outboard motor, and a smaller “get home” outboard as well. They tell us they are heading north to Sallyhamna, a 20 mile run, mostly in open waters. Sysselmann crews are known for their hardiness, seamanship and back country skills, and this encounter serves to reinforce that notion.
Because we’ve been to this anchorage before, and taking into account the 100 mile run ahead of us, when morning comes we opt for an early start. We get underway, however, we make a diversion to a bank at the mouth of this fjord and decide to fish for cod. In this region patience is not a prerequisite for fishing, if you don’t catch a fish within five minutes, you move to a new location. The seas are lumpy and the air temperature has dropped to a frosty 29°, however, patches of blue sky are visible from time to time. We drop two lines in 80 feet of water and within three minutes Russell cries out “I’ve got a fish!”, and then Marci has one; within 15 minutes we have five cod each weighing 4-5 pounds, at which point we terminate our fishing expedition. As we are fishing, a herd of walrus surfaces nearby, they too are fishing on the same bank, although their tastes are different, they primarily eat shellfish, scallops, and clams; the group of approximately 10 stays on the surface for a few minutes, blowing and swimming, storing up an oxygen reserve, before diving back to the bottom again for another meal.
As we approach our intended anchorage, a name on the chart catches my attention, Worsleyhamna, named after the famed Commander Frank Worsley, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s captain and navigator; the former led an expedition to this region in 1925, and wrote a book about his experiences, “Under Sail in the Frozen North”, a good read, as are all of Worsley’s titles.
The inlet is the very epitome of protected, the most protected we’ve encountered in this region, an oval-shaped bay bordered by a straight-as-an-arrow gravel peninsula on one side, and snow-covered (they are no longer just snow-capped) mountains on the other. The entrance is no wider than 30 yards. The beaches surrounding the inlet are strewn with piles of Siberian driftwood, the inlet acting as a one-way trap of sorts. There is a hunter’s cabin ashore, which includes a raised platform for storing food out of reach of polar bears. Unlike other anchorages, which have been heavy with kelp, this one’s muddy bottom seizes our anchor quickly and securely. A quintet of small pleasure boats is incongruously rafted here. In spite of rain and fog, parents and children alike motor around the bay in tenders, decked out in full foul weather gear, into the small hours of the morning, the Svalbard version of a summer holiday.” – Steve D’Antonio
|August 1, 2016|
“Sallyhamna, 79°48 north latitude: This is Migration’s second night at this anchorage, the weather has been magnificent, a full 24 hours of sunshine, and the sights in the area, not the least of which is the polar bear sighting, and the need for two full night’s rest, all conspire in encouraging us to remain for an additional night.The following morning we prepare to get underway for 10 hour run to Ny-?lasund. The weather has returned to its usual Svalbardian gray scud, drizzle and 30 knot winds which, along with the waves, are square on the bow. Fulmars take up their positions, gliding past our bridge wings and over the bow, with barely any perceptible movement of their wings. As the voyage progresses we lose the protection of outlying islands, the waves build for s time, and the ride becomes uncomfortable. Slowly, however, conditions moderate, and Migration settles into a comfortable, predictable motion.
We raise Ny-?lasund by late afternoon, nudging our way into a tiny floating dock amongst a slew of small rib-like (they actually are not inflatables, they are a sort of welded plastic) vessels that belong to the research station. Two large research vessels are present, one dockside and the other anchored, both are preparing to depart. Gear and personal are being loaded aboard both. Scientific research equipment litters the dock.It’s the first time we’ve been dockside since mainland Norway nearly three weeks ago. We are afforded two additional luxuries, 16 amps worth of shore power, and…internet access, which outside the Iridium satellite, we haven’t had in a week. The latter, however, is somewhat unusual. It consists of a broom closet like vestibule attached to the dock master’s pier side shed. Inside is a credit card-only telephone, and two hard wired data cables, which must be plugged into a laptop, providing (free) access to the community’s internet network and it’s quick to boot.
Ny-?lasund is a scientific research station with a population of between 40 in winter, and 150 in summer; groups from many nations are represented here; any form of radio frequency transmission is discouraged lest it upset the sensitive measurement instruments. A dockside sign requests that visitors refrain from using devices that emit radio signals, including cell phones, which in any event don’t work here. Thus, I park myself in the “radio shack”, plug in and download a week’s worth of e mails, return to Migration, respond to those that call for responses, and then head back to the wire to empty my out box.
The shore side facility includes the remains of a narrow gauge coal mine railroad. Regrettably, the steam engine has been taken back to Norway to be restored, however, the wagons remain. Of greater historical significance is the mast that once tethered Roald Amundsen airship Norge, aboard which he flew from here, over the North Pole, landing in Alaska, in 1926. The mast is considered a Norwegian national treasure, it is lovingly maintained, and there is a bust of Amundsen located in the middle of the “town”. For polar exploration enthusiasts like me, Ny-?lasund is a Mecca of sorts, with four polar aviation expeditions departing from this location in the 1920s, including Amundsen’s, Nobile’s and Byrd’s. The town also boasts the world’s northernmost post office, an excellent museum and a restored telegraph office.
Using our last moments of dockside internet connectivity, we retrieve an updated ice and weather maps, and use them to plan our intended course north, to the polar pack ice, which appears to begin at 81°N.” – Steve D’Antonio
July 31-August 1, 2016
‘To the Ends of the Earth’, The Polar Icepack, 81.27° north latitude. We leave the relative safety of the Svalbard Archipelago and venture north, hoping to reach the edge of the polar ice pack. After a few hours underway, and in over 300 feet of water, we encounter a lone walrus, not the first solo creature of this sort we’ve seen, but the first this far from land.
Six hours underway and we are in a gray fishbowl; in all directions a pewter sky meets a slate-gray sea, like a sea-going treadmill, we keep passing the same featureless scenery. There are no landmasses; we’ve gone ‘off the chart’, literally, and are forced to switch to different charting software, however, it’s hardly necessary because on our present heading, save the ice, there’s nothing between us and Alaska.
Visibility improves as Migration edges further north; we are no longer “in the milk”. We pass the final landmass, the Sjuøyane (“Seven Islands”), small pinnacles of rock with creased mossy green vertiginous slopes that are home to countless nesting birds. The most northern, Rossøya, is barely more than a rocky outcropping devoid of any vegetation, it serves as Norway’s farthest north toehold.
Approximately 11 hours after getting underway Migration’s crew sights the first vestiges of the polar ice cap, a slew of bergy bits and growlers dotting the horizon. Conditions are deceptively calm, we are far from home, and help should the need arise. Our bow pennant flutters in a 13 knot breeze, seas are less than one foot. The magnetic compass reads 335°, while the true heading is 44°, a variation of a staggering 69°, a function of our proximity to the magnetic pole, (which is not synonymous with the geographic pole).
We first encounter drift ice at 0330, the pack ebbs and flows in density and Migration threads her way through it for several hours, pushing further north. Conditions are as calm as a lake, with fog; visibility is roughly 3/8 of a mile, sea surface temperature has dropped to 34°, while the air is 32°, light sleet falls every now and then. At 0515 Migration reaches her most northerly position, 81°27.7, just over 500 nautical miles from the North Pole. The crew poses for a quick photo on the bow, after which we launch the drone from some quick aerial images. We dally no longer, turning Migration’s bow south and once again thread our way through the pack and back to Svalbard. Within a few minutes we encounter ice where there was none before, our northbound track is already impassable, ice has drifted in closing it off, and we seek another route. I have the tiniest inkling of what Shackleton’s men aboard the Endurance felt when beset in the Antarctic icepack. Called ‘ice blink’, an iridescent white haze hangs over the field, it’s brighter where pack ice is denser or completely covering the dark waters on which it floats. We use this feature to look for ice-free water. After what seems an eternity, but is in fact no more than 45 minutes, probing the pack, we at last find a promising lead that is parallel to but east of our inbound route, the opening simply drifted with the ice, and with this exit strategy established the tension level in the pilothouse drops perceptibly. Looking back, like a ray of sunshine, the brilliant white line of the pack’s margin is visible in all its glory. From this vantage point it is resplendent.” – Steve D’Antonio
|July 30-31, 2016|
80°02 north latitude, or less than 600 miles from the North Pole: When Henry David Thoreau said, “I have never found a companion so companionable as solitude” he could have been describing Svalbard. Its isolation, sublime desolation and the shear sense of being cut off from the world is intoxicating; it’s nirvana for the escapist.Our destination, Kinnvika, is a day’s run. Shortly after leaving the inlet we nose in to within 50 yards of shore, at the outlet of a small stream, its cloudy outfall clearly visible, and set a gill net hoping to catch Arctic Char. We conduct a dry run to assess the conditions and depth and then go around a second time to set the net, anchored at one end and buoyed with floats, it runs perpendicular to the stream’s outflow. With at times less than ten feet of water under Migration’s keel it’s tricky business, however, it goes off without a hitch. We save the position and Migration backs away, loitering for 45 minutes, and then return to haul in our catch. This time, however, we strike out, the net is empty, and we move on.Sea conditions are sloppy, the worst we’ve encountered on this passage since the run from Tromsø three weeks ago, Migration meanders and corkscrews through confused, breaking waves, while visibility ebbs and flows in fog and mist; outside air temperature hovers around freezing. The landscape continues to evolve, mountains begin to give way to long, flat, ruddy-colored plains, where herds of reindeer are said to graze, over a thousand on one peninsula alone.
Upon our arrival Migration’s anchor drops in a bay that affords her excellent protection from waves, yet virtually no respite from the relentless northwesterly wind. The landmass surrounding the inlet is low, sandy and devoid of virtually any meaningful topography, offering as much lee from the 25 knot gusts as a chain-link fence. A stinging rain beats down on the pilothouse windows; stepping outside I have to remind myself that this is July 30th, in the northern hemisphere, my exhaled breath turns the salty air into billowing vapor clouds. Eight wooden buildings from a now-abandoned Swedish research station, first established in 1957, are visible on our starboard beam, all seemingly intact, along with the remains of an amphibious tracked vehicle, its rusty hulk now being reclaimed by nature one molecule at a time.
While we are relaxing in the saloon at about 11:30PM we notice our old friend the Sysselmann helicopter as it circles and lands on the beach nearby. Five crew members disembark and they are carrying something but what it is we are unable to ascertain. A few minutes later we are hailed by the pilot, he informs us that they have dropped off a “trouble polar bear”, who has been sedated, he asks us to keep an eye out for him, and to call the Sysselmann if the bear acts “abnormal”. The four of us in the pilothouse stifle our laughter, we are from Georgia and Virginia, and know nothing about polar bears. However, we dutifully agree and take down the phone number given to us.
When we awake the next morning the weather is noticeably clearer, however, the temperature still hovers in the low 30s. We’ve been joined in our remote anchorage by the Sysselmann’s helicopter support vessel, the 289 foot Polar Syssal, a former oil rig supply ship, which has a bow that looks as if it was borrowed from a 747. Our suspicion is they are here to keep an eye on the newly relocated polar bear.
Through alternating snow showers and patches if blue sky, Russell and I tender ashore for a quick look at the settlement, and to let Gulliver have a run. Most of the buildings are accessible, and intact, they include a dormitory with central heat, kitchen and sauna (it was, after all, a Swedish facility). Much to my surprise I find that he amphibious tracked vehicle is manufactured by Studebaker. We also chat with guides that come ashore from a visiting Norwegian “mail boat”, one of a line of 375 foot ships that runs along the coast of Norway and around Svalbard, carrying passengers and cargo, although the route to Svalbard is primarily tourist oriented. She tells us she recently encountered seven Polar Bears in one location, all were raiding birds’ nests for eggs and chicks. Polar bears are opportunistic eaters, especially during the summer for those “stranded” Ashore, where their normal fare, seals, is scarce.
We now prepare for our departure, and run up to the polar ice pack, roughly 100 miles north from here.” – Steve D’Antonio
July 30, 2016
An update e-mail to Dan from the owner of “Migration“
Sorry to be silent for so long but with only sat connectivity I cannot access my Outlook email account.
We are currently in a secluded and relatively protected anchorage above 80N. Depending on the weather forecast I receive in the morning we may set out for 81N+ and the ice. I’m fairly confident we can exceed 81 but I don’t know to what degree and it will be somewhat dependent on how much time we want to spend slowly picking our way through the ice. From our prior experience in Greenland it’s pretty slow going.
The trip has gone exceedingly well and Steve has provided engaging updates. I hope everyone has enjoyed his reports. Migration hasn’t missed a beat and the only problems I have had have been keeping the watermaker pre-filters clean and keeping the anchor chain mud from staining the area around the windlass.
The wind is currently blowing about 20 knots and I can hear it roaring through the railings. The air temp is hovering just above freezing and we are toasty warm inside. In the best money spent category the Kabola is near the top.
80.02.838N – 18.11.855E
|July 29, 2016|
Sallyhamna, 79°48 north latitude (630 miles from the North Pole): While partially exposed, this anchorage has proven to be one of the more comfortable, inducing only a gentle motion. More importantly, the day dawns clear once again, and calm, the air temperature approaches 50°F. After breakfast we set out on the tender, first going east and visiting Holmiabreen glacier, and then heading west toward an abandoned trapper’s cabin. While it’s still chilly on the exposed beach along which we walk, we all hungrily take in the warm sunshine. Terns hover along the shore motionless, riding the breeze, searching for fish, while a pair of skuas circles overhead and periodically alighting drift logs.Over lunch in the pilothouse we notice a far off sailing vessel leaving a nearby inlet, which abruptly alters course. We spy a white object in the water just ahead of it, and speculate it may be a beluga whale, however, we quickly realize, much to our delight, it’s a swimming polar bear (ursus maritimus). Marci, Resell and I jump in the tender an head out for a closer look, from a safe distance, and one we are certain will not stress the animal, gaping the entire time in wonderment. He reaches shore, casually looks back at us, and majestically climbs up on the rocks. He shakes off much like a dog would, and then lumbers up toward a nearby glacier, where he then proceeds to rub first his face into the snow, and then rolls onto his back, sticking his feet into the air, arching and scratching. He’s no less than 8 feet long and appears to be every bit of 1,500 pounds. Sadly, there was a time not long ago, until the 1970s, when these magnificent beasts were trapped and hunted, taking 400 to 500 per year on Svalbard, one expedition boasted in taking over 300 bears. Today their numbers have rebounded, approximately 3,000 live in Svalbard and nearby Franz Josef Land, which is encouraging but only 60% of what could have been possible if hunting never took place.” – Steve D’Antonio
July 28, 2016
Virgohamna, N Danskøya, 79°43N latitude (for reference, Pt. Barrow, the northernmost part of Alaska, is at 71°23N, nearly 500 nautical miles south of Migration’s current position): Enveloped in a velvety fog so thick that water condenses on clothing almost as soon as one steps outside the cabin, we drop anchor 200 yards from a tiny rocky island inside this cove. Special permission must be obtained to visit this site as it is rich with archeological remnants from two historic North Pole expeditions which departed from here, both unsuccessful, Andrée’s Swedish 1896-7 balloon, and Wellman’s 1906,07, 09 US zeppelin launches. Andrée and fellow balloonists Fraenkel and Strindberg crashed on the ice and managed to make it to one of Svalbard’s far northeastern islands, Kvitoya (White Island), here they perished it is believed from eating under-cooked trichinosis-infected polar bear meat. The remains of their camp were not discovered until 1930. Remains of hangars from both of these expeditions can be seen at this far northern outpost.
Earlier today air temperature reached a high of 50°F, and wind speed was in the single digits, and now, at 11PM, it’s dropped to 30°F, and wind speed is nearly 20 kts; although visibility has improved dramatically. While it’s said that weather changes rapidly in many areas, Svalbard’s is among quickest I’ve ever experienced. There is a noticeable change in geography and weather as Migration ventures further northward.
In the morning Migration’s crew first visit Smeerenburgbukta, which means “Blubber Town Bay”, a low lying spit of sand littered with bleached driftwood and on which stand the remains of a Dutch whaling village dating from the 17th century. In its heyday the settlement consisted of sixteen buildings, seven rending ovens and upwards of several hundred men, women and children. After a ten minute tender ride we land on a gently shelving sandy beach, where remains of some of the ancient structures are visible, along with a small walrus herd and a substantial nesting area for arctic terns.
As we approach the tightly packed walruses, they occasionally lift their heads and glare at us, showing off their gleaming white tusks, and then return to their digesting slumber. The terns, on the other hand, are active defenders of their territory, and vocal, whenever we so much as approach the outer perimeter of their nesting grounds, their nests are on the ground, they immediately begin shrieking and diving on us. George is wearing a large Russian-type fur hat and they take particular interest in it, singling him out for special strafing runs. We give them a wide berth, not wishing to stress this extreme migratory bird, which can’t afford to waste a single calorie on us.
While the weather has warmed slightly since the previous evening, it’s 40°F, the sand spit is exposed and after half an hour of walrus and bird watching, we are all chilled; we head back to Migration for some hot drinks and a short warm up session, after which we go back out, this time making a short run to the aforementioned Virgohamna, adjacent to whose beach we are anchored. We carefully walk among the remains of the two polar expedition bases, taking particular interest in the heaps of iron filings, which when exposed to acid were used to generate hydrogen for Wellman’s dirigible, along with a host of artifacts including cable anchors, stoves and countless sections of wooden truss works, all of which are remarkably well preserved. Here too are located the now ubiquitous 17th century whalers graves, of which roughly a dozen are visible among the rocky shoreline. On the return tender ride we take a detour into a cove and happen upon a score of harp seals lounging on rocks. We cut the motor and drift in among them, they seem curious about our presence but none depart their dry perches.
By 3 PM Migration is underway, with an azure sky and placid cobalt sea as our sole companions, the clouds have blown out and the visibility is seemingly limitless, we cruise through Smeerenburgfjorden, surrounded by glaciers, sea ice and jagged peaks, and all is right with the world.
On the way to our anchorage for the evening we turn into a fjord and make our way to Svitjodbreen glacier. We thread our way through a screen of bergy bits to get within two hundred yards of the glacier face and once again launch the drone. A chunk of “rotten” ice, ice that is old and riven through with holes and caverns, the size of a large multi-story home, rests on a stone island one hundred feet in front of the glacier’s face, separated by open water; one can only speculate how long ago it was deposited here by the glacier. After loitering here for an hour we carry on to Sallyhamna, a rocky semi-circular cove, and our anchorage for the night. Steve D’Antonio
July 24, 2016
July 23, Engelsbreen, and Sjettebreen Glaciers, “Svalbard, 79°27 North latitude: We awake to dead calm and decide to take advantage of it by going ashore for a hike. Marci, Russel, Richard and I tender around the bay looking for a suitable landing location. We ultimately land on a gravel beach just to seaward of the Engelsbreen glacier front. In the absence of familiar objects by which to judge scale, such as trees and manmade structures, distances are deceiving. From Migration it appeared we would be able to hike to the glacier, however, when we arrive there we see a large gap of water between it and the beach on which we stand; never the less we begin our hike. Over the course of the next three hours we encounter common seals, guillemots, turns, long tail ducks, puffins, a lone beluga whale lazing in the bay, and a seal skeleton, as well as a variety of fauna including, for the first time, mushrooms. While it doesn’t litter the beach, and in spite of its remoteness, plastic trash and discarded fishing net material is notable by its presence, along with the ubiquitous hollow aluminum fishing net floats. I come across one piece if net approximately ten inches across, which is intertwined with downy feathers of some sort, yet another bird that met its end as a result of an encounter with this scourge of the world’s oceans. We also encounter polar bear tracks; from the size of them, and the length of the step, they appear to have been made by a juvenile, they follow tracks made by reindeer, and they are fresh. Armed with a rifle and flare gun, we remain vigilant .
After returning to Migration we up anchor and get underway, bound for Trinityhamna. It’s a longish haul, 53 miles, however, once again the weather is good and we wish to take advantage of it, as we will be out of the lee of Prins Karls Foreland. We opt for the coastal route, traveling just half a mile off shore and often in 20-50 feet of water for much of the route, hoping for sightings of wildlife ashore, particularly reindeer and polar bears. We do encounter several reindeer and swimming walruses, but alas no bears. The coastline has changed since departing Longyearbyen, the mountains are taller, sharper, and snowier, there are more and larger glaciers, and it’s generally more rugged. There are fewer signs of civilization.
We pass by and Sjettebreen Glacier (“breen” means glacier in Norwegian, it is therefore technically redundant to say “glacier” after “breen”) and find it irresistible, we venture in for a closer look. It is massive in scale, with atypically large sections of crumbling blue ice piled at its face. Migration’s master takes her over a ledge that at one point provides less than a foot of depth beneath her keel, and after which it is uncharted, in order to get a close up vantage point. Once past this sill, depth ranges from 25 to 110 feet. We edge our way in closer to the blue behemoth, pushing our way into a sea of slushy bergy bits, and “garage” Migration there in order to launch the done and take photos. It’s an other worldly experience, Migration held motionless in the the ice, with periodic cracking and booming reports emanating from the glacier just 200 yards away.
Magdalenefjord, Trinityhamna, 79° 33 north latitude: This anchorage is described by cruising guides as Svalbard’s most beautiful, most photographed, and one of its most protected, and it doesn’t disappoint. Fortune favors Migration, the sun shines brilliantly as we enter this fjord, illuminating its many glaciers, as well as casting a soft glow on Gravnaset, or Grave Headland, the whaler’s graveyard located on a tiny peninsula, in whose lee we anchor. When we finally go to bed at 11:30PM the sun is still a full hand above the horizon, we are in the fabled land of the midnight sun.
Trinityhamna, first visited by Willem Barents during his exploratory expedition in 1596, was home to a British whaling station until 1623, which is when the grave yard was established, however, it continued to be used afterward; approximately 130 burial sites are visible. It’s a dramatic setting for an eternal resting place, flanked by jagged snow-capped mountains and no less than nine glaciers.
Each time I step out onto a bridge wing or onto the foredeck to take it all in, and take photos, it’s difficult to resist breathing deeply, the air has a scrubbed clean quality about it, it simply feels good to inhale. This morning we awake to continued sunshine, 2 knots of breeze, and a balmy 50°, it’s a veritable Arctic heat wave.
We get a comparatively late start, and regret it as we lose the sunshine in the process. Never the less we spend several hours hiking ashore. Because of its fragile nature, the grave yard itself cannot be entered by visitors, however, George and I make our way up to one of the hanging glaciers, Brokebreen. The footing is precarious at best; the boulders and rocks over which we climb appear to have been recently deposited by the glacier, a stream can be heard, but not seen, running under foot, making them extremely unstable. We press on and are able to reach the glacier’s face within an hour, and the vistas alone from this elevation are worth the climb.
Shortly after leaving this anchorage a Sysselmann (the Svalbard Governor) Arctic Rescue helicopter passes us at low altitude, heading in the opposite direction. Within a moment, however, the aircraft turns 180° and takes station a hundred yards off our port quarter. We’d all just sat down to lunch and thus were gathered in the pilothouse, we speculate about what’s going on when the pilot hails us on the VHF and makes a request, he asks if he can use Migration to practice hoisting personnel. We all look at each other as simultaneous big smiles come across our faces. We agree and are given instructions, we are asked to place a person on the aft portion of the flybridge deck to retrieve a tag line that will be dropped by the hoist operator. A rescue swimmer will then be lowered to Migration by the helicopters winch. We are also asked to remove loose items from the cockpit, to prevent them from being blown away. The helo comes in closer and engulfs Migration is a cloud of salt spray; the noise is deafening. Over the next ten minutes a rescue swimmer is lowered to our flybridge deck, he stays long enough for us to give him a Migration T shirt, shakes our hands and then he’s hoisted back up. All goes off without a hitch until we realize that the downdraft from the rotor blades flood our tender, which we are towing, and its seat, cushion, under-seat storage compartment and anchor are all blown overboard. The helicopter pilot reports this to us and he hovers over the only item still floating, the seat cushion, to assist us in its retrieval (George is at Migration’s helm, he sees this gear blow out of the tender while watching on the aft facing monitor, as soon as it did he placed a man overboard marker). We retrieve it and bail the tender. We then converge in the pilothouse, over our uneaten sandwiches, and marvel at our serendipity. Steve D’Antonio
|July 23, 2016|
“Return to Longyearbyen: Migration returns to this port to retrieve two guests who fly. They land two days apart, so we are relegated to hanging on the hook. We use the time to provision and catch up on vessel maintenance, as well as clearing in Migration’s mascot, Gulliver, with the local officials and vet. While I mentioned earlier that the town is more of a waypoint than a destination, I may have been overly harsh in describing it as gritty. When the sun shines, which admittedly isn’t often, the views of the surrounding mountains and glaciers can be stunning. It’s chockablock with hikers and campers, it’s not unusual to see them walking through town carrying rucksacks and the ubiquitous rifle, and it’s not uncommon to see these arms stacked up in the vestibule of the grocery store. And speaking of the grocery store, which includes a department store section and liquor store, it’s extremely well stocked with a great selection. There are several very good restaurants in town, last evening we dined at one called Kroa (which simply means “pub” in Norwegian). The interior is rustic and decorated with drift wood and seal skins, while the walls are adorned with historic photos from Svalbard’s past.During a hike ashore I venture up to the now disused (it’s a national monument) coal gondola system, to have a closer look. While simple in design, from a gearhead’s perspective it’s a marvel of engineering. A large elevated “roundhouse” interconnects two cable lines; I climb one of the timber towers that supports the cables to get a better perspective on how the gondolas are attached to one cable and roll over the other. If you like this type of stuff, it was a fascinating hike.” – Steve D’Antonio
|July 22, 2016|
“Skansbukta, On the return from Pyramiden we take a detour to a fjord called Skansbukta. We plan to spend no more than an hour here; however, the stop proves to be well worth it. George and I land on the southwest beach, where a small trapper’s cabin is located. About 40 yards from the beach we notice what we first take for a beached lone seal, however, based on the size we quickly realize it’s a walrus. We decide to land a few hundred yards down the beach and approach him on foot. I walk to within about 20 feet of him, he tilts his head to look at me a few times but otherwise is uninterested. The area includes yet another defunct mine, but this one is different, its objective was gypsum. How it could have been even entertained as a profitable operation is a wonder, clearly it didn’t last, although it ran long enough to create substantial tailings, atop which is the mine’s miniature railroad. Down the beach from the mine is a beached timber vessel, perhaps 30 feet in length, and in her day I suspect she was good looking, and a god sea boat, and once again fairly well-preserved. One can only imagine how she came to be wrecked here, her solitary hulk lying mute, dwarfed by the steep cliffs that tower over her.” – Steve D’Antonio
|July 21, 2016|
“‘From Russia with Love’, Pyramiden, Billefjorden, Svalbard 78°39N. Coal, and mining, runs through the fabric of Svalbard like an obsidian thread. Mines have opened and closed here as the world fought wars, while enduring depressions and revolutions. Coal mining is thankless and dangerous work even under the best of circumstances, and the Arctic serves up anything but favorable conditions, where any sort of commercial activity is concerned, especially mining. Most of the coal seams in Svalbard border on the edge of profitability, many are relatively thin, making common mechanized removal difficult, which means much of the coal needs to be dug by hand.You’ve heard of ghost towns; most are in fact orchestrated tourist attractions, with a cashier at the entrance. Pyramiden, named for the pyramid-shaped mountain in whose shadow it is located, a former Soviet-era mining settlement, is the real thing, a town that once housed over 1,000 inhabitants that is now completely deserted. Located adjacent to the Nordenski?ldbreen glacier, it was first established just prior to WWII. The original buildings were little more than log cabins, some of which still exist, with expansions occurring in the 50s, 70s and 90s. The mine was productive; however, the fjord on which it located is frozen for much of the year, making coal shipment difficult and costly. That, along with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and its subsidies for the mine, spelled its demise; the last workers and their families bid it farewell in 1998. Today, like a metaphor for Communism, Pyramiden is a shell of its former self, piles of once productive machinery now idled and rusting away, structures of wood and masonry crumbling and decaying.Because tourist groups do come here from Longyearbyen, George and I tender in early in the morning, to afford ourselves the experience of being the only ones wandering the town. We are ashore by 0715 and begin our trek by walking up to the power station. It’s drizzling and the roads, which appear to be “paved” in coal dust, are a black morass, coal is everywhere. We wander from here through the village, past drab brick apartment blocks, a vase stands forlornly in one window, while the sills of others have been taken over by clamoring flocks of hundreds of fulmars, nearly all of which have chicks. A large central grassy promenade is surrounded by somewhat nicer timber buildings, at the head of which is a large “culture house”, in front of which is a bust of Vladimir Lenin, where he watches over the whole complex. The vista from this vantage point includes the fjord and nearby glacier, I suppose under the right circumstances it could be inspiring. In the center of the grassy strip is large crest, which depicts a polar bear standing atop a globe, on which is emblazoned “79°”, the mine’s latitude, which is flanked by red banners and crossed hammers. While the rooms inside the buildings we were able to enter were uniformly disheveled, there was some indication of the haste with which occupants departed, including dirty dishes and long deceased potted plants.
In spite of its deserted appearance, there are a handful of Russian caretakers, who we bump into from time to time, they speak no English and my Russian is rusty and limited so we’re relegated to smiles and handshakes. One building has been converted into a small hotel and restaurant for hikers and extreme tourists. We stop here on our way out, and it’s incongruous at best, we’re greeted by a grand foyer of ornate stone and metal work, and a marbled ceiling, classic Soviet era decorating, as well warmth and odors of the culinary variety. Here there’s a café, a bar, a gift shop and a small museum, overseen by a manager, Sasha, who tells us they receive one supply shipment from Murmansk during the ‘summer’ (early summer includes snow and ice) tourist season, which lasts from April through September.
Pyramiden is truly a time capsule, offering visitors a glimpse into life in a Soviet-era outpost.” – Steve D’Antonio
|July 20, 2016|
Lat 77.00° N, Hornsund Fjord, Svalbard: During the night I’m awakened by an unusual sound, as if Migration has been boarded by multiple intruders. I get up to take a look and see we are surrounded by a riot of small pieces of ice, bergy bits, and they are gently bumping into the hull. Their presence is accompanied by another peculiar sound, a distinctive crackling, tinkling and popping, something like the sound ice cubes make when dropped into room temperature water, only much louder. Hours later, in spite of the curtains on my ports, light streams into my cabin (this time of year the sun never sets, a blessing for sightseeing and passagemaking, but a curse for sleeping, one tends to go to bed very late and get up early), I can stand it no longer so I get up and look out, I’m greeted by absolute calm and drenching sunshine, it’s a glorious day and ideal for our passage to Bellsund, a day’s cruise away. We weigh anchor and are steaming north by 0600. As we depart the calm conditions beg for a final close pass on the glacier face, we take Migration in through the ice and memorialize the event with the drone, capturing some stunning images.As we depart Hornsund the vistas grow more enchanting with each passing minute, swirling mist envelopes moss covered hillsides and rocky coastline, with sprawling glaciers, one after the other, filing our starboard side bridge windows as Migration plies her way further north. Clutches of black guillemots and the occasional eider duck dot the glassy calm surface as we slip by; the air has a scrubbed, crisp scent, a mixture of cold sea salt and pristine land far from the effects of civilization. Svalbard is truly a land of glaciers, with over 2100, and the world’s third largest, some of which are 1,800 feet thick. We pass by two that are especially remarkable, one, Austre Torellbreen, veritably envelopes a mountain, a phenomenon called a nunatak, on its way to the sea, while the next, Vestre Torellbreen, is epic in its scale, its front seemingly miles long. We opt to detour for a closer look at the latter, motoring up to the face and, once again, launch the drone to capture images from aloft. As we begin to make the turn to starboard, into the Bellsund Fjord complex, a pod of fin whales, adults and minors, crosses our bow, arching and blowing several times. We drop anchor in Vestervågan, 77.30°N, at the mouth of Recherchebreen Glacier, setting the anchor “uphill” on a glacial moraine once again, and shut down the engine at 1630, with five glaciers in view. It’s drizzling now but there is no wind, which is welcomed. We launch the tender and go ashore to explore the remains of a nearby long-abandoned coal mining camp. There we find the very essence of forlorn, a decaying timber house with brick chimney and two grave sites, on a barren windswept bluff above a shingle beach. The backdrop, however, glaciers and snow-capped peaks is inspiring.Longyearbyen, Adventfjorden, Svalbard’s capital, 77.13°N: After a day’s run we arrive in Longyearbyen, “Longyear City” named after an American mining magnate from Boston, John Munro Longyear, who financed the settlement’s first coalmine, the Arctic Coal Company, in 1906. Longyear eventually sold the operation to a Norwegian company, Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani, SNSK, which still essentially owns much of the town today. Picturesque it’s not; this is a gritty, working former coal mining village that now primarily services the region’s tourism industry, including large and small cruise ships, many of which we’ve encountered during our stay here, and provides some lodging for a nearby Russian-operated coal mine at Barentsberg (stay tuned for a report on our visit to that piece of Cold War history), about 300 miners, mostly Russian and Ukrainian, live here and commute to the mine. Dating originally from the 1920s, an ingenious and now defunct, but fully intact and intricate gondola system, supported by dozens of timber derricks, which traverse a hillside from the coal pier to the power station, it’s reminiscent of an HO model railroad, once carried coal from the town’s mines to the port. It’s now a protected cultural monument. During WWII the mines and anything of strategic value were first destroyed by Norwegian troops, to prevent them from being used by the Germans, and then shelled by the German battleship Scharnhorst, with an invasion of troops afterward, during which most of the remaining buildings were destroyed, and the Norwegian garrison overrun, although a small allied force continued to skirmish with the Germans here throughout much of the war (how miserable that must have been). The town and mins were rebuilt after the war and remained firmly in the grip of SNSK through the 80s, it was purely a company town, complete with its own script or currency. Slowly that changed, however, and today only one of the original seven mines remains open, providing coal for the power plant and a small amount for export. Tourism has returned as Longyearbyen’s primary business, as it predates even coal mining, the first cruise ship visited here in 1892. It’s also the home of the archipelago’s only airport, the one I’ll fly out of in a few weeks. No small operation, it’s capable of handling Scandinavian Air’s 737s which fly exclusively to the Norwegian mainland.
At the time of our arrival the harbor is populated with over a dozen cruising sailing and motor-sailing vessels, some private other eco-tourist based. Other than Migration there appears to be but one other recreational power vessel, a handsome-looking Norwegian former fishing vessel named Isbjørnen (Polar Bear), with a polar bear stenciled on the bridge wing.
The water in the anchorage is among the most turbid I’ve seen in Svalbard, or anywhere else for that matter, it’s positively opaque and a muddy brown hue, run off from a river that carves its way through the center of the town, itself the product of snow melt from the town’s backdrop, a snow capped peak. This is a commercial port in every respect, and a stark contrast from the areas we’ve passed through in the last few days. We go ashore to treat ourselves to a meal off the boat and get a taste of this locale. The town of 2,000 inhabitants is the furthest north civilian year ‘round settlement in the world, it’s grimy and on the edge in many respects, a cross between an eco-tourism ski village and a coal mining town. Every car, truck and bus that drives by us as we walk the main drag is positively filthy, the roads are bordered by what looks like black sand blasting media, which must play havoc with everything mechanical. Many parking places are equipped with electrical outlets, not for electric vehicles, I see none of those, most everything is diesel; these are used for block heaters during the long, dark frigid winters. Rooms used for sleeping in prefab homes and above shops are easily identifiable; their windows are covered with aluminum foil, a deterrent against the relentless 24 hour summer daylight. While it is interesting in its own right, Longyearbyen is a place you stop at on your way to Svalbard.
|July 19, 2016|
Bjonahamna and Pyramiden, Svalbard 78°39N.
By 0700 George and I are headed ashore for breakfast at the Radisson hotel (the northern-most chain hotel in the word, this one was used for the Lillehammer Winter Olympics and then moved here afterward); our real mission is to access their high speed internet for weather and ice reports, as well as e mail, as we’ve been on satellite for the past week, which makes dial up look blindingly fast. When we walk into the hotel we are greeted by a large set of shelves affixed to the wall in the lobby, filled with shoes. A sign explains, in order to enter this Radisson guests and visitors are asked, in the tradition of Svalbard homes, to remove their shoes. Back at the boat and a short three hour steam and we reach the Bjornahamna anchorage. As Migration makes her way into this compact cove, located at the base of 1000 foot cliffs filled with swirling fulmars and terns, we spy two large antlered reindeer strolling casually on the beach. There are a few small huts here, one of which has a boat on the beach. We nose our way in, drop anchor and tender ashore. We meet the residents, a man and a woman and their husky (he is there to warn them of approaching polar bears, they say); they are just packing up to head back to Longyearbyen after a fishing weekend, and they proudly show us their catch, a lovely Arctic char. I note that she wears a heavy leather LL Bean belt, from which hangs a holstered semi-automatic pistol, while a rifle leans against the outside of the hut.We walk inland to get some exercise and on the advice of the residents, hike part way up the cliffs to gain a better view point. The ground is spongy tundra, mostly moss and grass, which is scattered with boulders, some as large as SUVs, which have rolled down from the mountain. Most are gray and reddish brown and covered with iridescent orange moss, but every once in a while we encounter a nearly pure white stone that has the consistency of a bar of soap, when picked up it crumbles easily. We continue our hike upward, with the slope becoming steeper and turning to loose rock; it’s arduous and at times uncertain. We finally reach a plateau with a commanding view of the fjord, and stunning layer cake geological formations, and there we rest and take in the vista before heading down via a different, less arduous path, and toward a beach. As we are walking we nearly stumble, literally, into the two grazing reindeer, we are downwind so they neither hear nor smell us, and their natural camouflage is so effective we simply fail to note their presence until we are virtually upon them. We hunker down and they walk to within 20 feet of us, and while the sound of my camera shutter arouses their suspicion, they continue feeding. Eventually we grow tired of crouching and stand up, and our visitors casually amble off.We return to Migration, weigh anchor and point our bow toward our next destination, the Russian mining ghost town of Pyramiden. Stay tuned, this one is going to be interesting. Das vidanya.
|July 12-13, 2016|
Lat 77.00° N, Hornsund Fjord, Svalbard: Once making the lee of the mainland and mountains Migration encounters katabatic gusts in excess of 55 knots. The wind is good for one thing, however; it’s blown out the fog and cloud cover, revealing a brilliant azure sky and sunshine, which reflects off snow-capped peaks and coastal glaciers, three of the latter can be seen at once. We beat our way through choppy waves and a 30 knot head wind for nearly three hours to what we believe will be a semi-protected anchorage; we quickly abandon this notion, however, seeing its exposure to these winds upon our turn into the bay. We then make for another possible anchorage adjacent to a Polish Arctic research station. But even this location proves unsound; an easterly wind is blowing ice from the Hansbukta glacier into that anchorage. After doing a slow cruise along the face of the glacier, we finally opt for a tiny inlet called Kamavika, across the glacier tongue, the same cove where, according to the Norwegian cruising guide, long-time friends Dave and Jaja Martin anchored in their 34 foot sailing vessel many years ago. It proves ideal; we’re able to set the anchor going “uphill” over an ancient glacial moraine. The wind here is just 12 knots, and it offers precisely the respite we need to rest and recuperate after an arduous passage. We are joined in the anchorage by a 50-foot Swiss-flagged sailing vessel with a crew of seven. I watch as the crew furl their sails, they are bundled up like Micheline Men, and I can only imagine what the crossing experience must have been like for them in the conditions we encountered. The next morning we awake to relative calm with winds ranging between 10-15 knots, and an overcast sky. During the night we could feel Migration rock periodically, reacting to the “wake” created by our neighbor, the calving glacier. Our decision to avoid the research station anchorage turns out to have been a sound one, the overnight wind has pushed into this cove a large collection of bergy bits and brash Ice.”
– Steve D’Antonio
|July 12, 2016|
Svalbard, 76° north latitude: Migration makes landfall at Sørkappøya, Svalbard, 24 hrs and 174 nm after departing Bear Island (Bjørnøya in Norwegian). Mercifully the conditions are far better than the first leg to Bear Island waves are just 4-5 feet, with wind speed ranging from 5-15 kts. Although Neptune gets the last word on this leg, for the last few hours winds wind up to 47 knots, the seas become very sloppy and visibility drops to a few hundred yards in mist and spume, waves break over Migration’s bow and pelt the windscreen repeatedly, until we are in the lee of Svalbard’s Vesle Svartkuven peninsula. Outside air temperature has dropped to a frosty 33F, which is fitting as Svalbard means “cold coast”. All the while I’m sitting in a cushy helm chair in Migration’s pilothouse, in a T shirt and wearing bedroom slippers, sipping a cool drink, while typing away on my laptop. It’s good to be aboard a comfortable vessel. Fifteen miles out we pick up two escorts, a flock of fulmars and a pod of dolphin. The latter crisscross in front of our bow, and I can only think they must be frustrated by our stately 6 knot pace, while the fulmars repeatedly dive bomb our wildly fluttering red and white Nordhavn 30,000 mile pennant. Our fist anchorage, Hornsundet, a glacier strewn indentation in the Archipelago’s southwestern corner, was once a whaling station and now is known to be a haunt of polar bears.” – Steve D’Antonio
|July 11, 2016|
“Like a kid in a candy store” aptly describes today’s experience. I traveled to Sovik, Norway, near Aalsund, the home of Nogva Motorfabrikk AS, one of Norway’s largest diesel engine distributors, and much much more. The purpose of the visit was to evaluate one of their product lines, Scania, for use in a vessel to be built for a client. He and I made arrangements to visit Nogva’s facilities to meet with an application engineer and assess the suitability of the Scania for this new build. In addition to Scania, Nogva also represents John Deere, Cummins, and Nanni. More impressive, however, are three other products they actually manufacture, Nogva transmissions or “gears” as they are known in the industry, keel coolers, and Nogva controllable pitch propellers, often simply referred to as “CPP”. These two products, gears and CPP, are complementary as CPP must be used with specialized gears. Nogva casts their own gearbox housings, propeller blades and hubs, and I watched them assemble and test these, as well as preparing Scania, Deere and Cummins engines for propulsion and generator applications. The facility is as clean as an operating room, the machine and assembly shops are state of the art, and staffed by knowledgeable folks who were able to answer every technical question I threw at them. The waterfront facility also possesses the ability to haul vessels and work on them in an indoor shed, as well as pier-side facilities. While I was there two 300+ foot oil rig support vessels were in the final stages of construction and fit out. It was enough to make this gearhead giddy with excitement. The bucolic countryside vistas and ocean views made this visit even more enjoyable. – Steve D’Antonio
|July 9, 2016|
2330 PM, underway passing through Langsundkjeften channel, a 5 hr trek to open water. We departed Tromso at 2130, in light rain and fog. We leave now in order to make a perceived but somewhat tenuous weather window. Winds are forecast to be light, but wave heights at times significant, as much as 9 feet, however, no wave period is available so there’s no way to know just how bad it will be.We pass by isolated farmsteads and what look like summer homes, snow streaks down the mountainsides, which are wreathed in fog and clouds. We also encounter the occasional commercial ship and ferry, as well as an enormous, brightly lit, moored oil rig.After roughly 43 hrs, and 256 nm underway we make landfall at Bear Island. The passage qualifies as one of the most miserable I’ve ever undertaken, 8-12 foot waves, with a short period, on the nose and 20-25 knots of wind (so much for our forecast). Migration handled it well with all systems performing well and no failures; her crew on the other hand was laid low for much of the time. As for me, let’s just say I became intimately acquainted with the pilothouse head and leave it at that. There is one saving grace, because of our high latitude it never gets dark, which means you can see and prepare of every wave.
Upon our arrival we seek shelter in a cove called Sørhamna on the south east tip of the island. It’s foggy when we arrive, and cool, 37F (53F when we departed Tromsø) and shortly after we arrive the fog gets thicker. Still, determined to get some fresh air we launch the small inflatable tender and cruise the cove, we motor along cliffs festooned with nesting fulmars and puffins, the water around us is filled with bobbing birds, and most aren’t shy, some swim right up to Migration’s swim platform, however, we are careful not to lose sight of Migration for fear of not being find our way back.
Unfortunately we are afforded little time to lick out wounds; we have a weather window that calls for our departure in just a few hours. We take showers (never underestimate the restorative power of a hot shower), eat and catch up on chores before weighing anchor once again.”– Steve D’Antonio
|July 9, 2016 – Tromso|
It’s mostly gray, foggy and overcast now, with low clouds enveloping the surrounding mountains, Tromso, at 69°39’ north latitude, 3° above the Arctic Circle, isn’t exactly a shirt sleeve environment, a warm day is 60°F. In my walk around the town yesterday, however, I noticed that locals are easily distinguished from visitors because many of the former often wear just a T shirt.A statue of famous Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen, he won the “race” to the South Pole, beating Britain’s famed Robert Falcon Scott by more than a month, adorns one of the town’s squares. He is also the first person to reach both poles, and the first to successfully traverse the Northwest Passage. Amundsen, truly a giant among polar explorers, was lost on an Arctic rescue mission in 1928, with no trace save pieces of his float plane, which washed up at Tromso.Tromso’s harbor includes a collection of interesting vessels, it’s primarily commercial, with a small contingent of pleasure vessels; both power and sail, with features unique to the region and climate, most include full canvas enclosures, along with a handful of tour excursion vessels. There are also two research vessels in port as well, one from France, the 240 foot RV L’Atalante, and another, quite small, just 50 feet, the RV Clione, a motor sailor, registered in Amsterdam, the Netherlands; in Tromso for service work, she’s bound for Svalbard as well, where she stationed. Norway’s “mail boat”, a small ship which transits the coast year ‘round, stops here as well, carrying passengers, tourists and cargo. One vessel berthed nearby, named Northabout, an aluminum sailboat with a sloped “ice breaking” bow, is preparing to transit the “other” passage, the Northeast route, the one above Russia, and then the Northwest Passage, part of the Polar Ocean Challenge education and research group, she’s essentially circumnavigating the North Pole. Her bow rail is adorned with a collection of stuffed animal mascots, which she will no doubt need on a journey as bold as this one. Many of the vessels, both recreational and fishing, are made of timber and in most cases a portion or all of the hull and deck are simply varnished rather than painted over. All in all not your average harbor.
Yesterday, in preparation for our passage, we traveled to the fuel dock and took on 2413 gallons of diesel fuel, at a quite reasonable $1.74/gallon, just 56% of the typical price, which normally includes taxes. The discount was made available to us as a result of our destination, Svalbard, which is a tax-free zone.
|July 7, 2016|
“My first stop on the way to Svalbard, Aalesund is located in the southern part of Norway, on a nearshore island. To reach the town from the airport one must drive through two undersea tunnels, one of which is over 500 feet deep. In order to reduce the length of the tunnel and its grade, a 360° spiral roadway forms one entrance. The scenic town, with a population of approximately 45,000, is rich in seafaring and fishing heritage. As is often the case in high latitudes, one finds it difficult to go to bed too early thanks to the late sunsets. After dinner as tired as I was from my travels, I couldn’t resist a walkabout of the waterfront, the lighting from the low hanging sun was lovely and simply beckoned the camera’s lens.” – Steve D’Antonio
June 28, 2016
In early July I will head to Norway to join Nordhavn 68, Migration. This is the same vessel aboard which I traveled to Greenland two years ago. This year’s trek will be a bit more ambitious, as we will transit from the Norwegian coastal city of Tromso to the Svalbard Archipelago, via Bear Island. We are hoping to set a record for the Nordhavn traveling the furthest north.I’ll make posts here via ordinary email when available, and via satellite when it’s not.
My goals during this passage will be to write about and photograph the region, vistas and wildlife, as well as evaluating performance of this vessel and her systems, as I was involved in establishing her specifications before and during her build.A little background on Svalbard from Wiki…
Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole. One of the world’s northernmost inhabited areas, it’s known for its rugged, remote terrain of glaciers and frozen tundra sheltering polar bears, Svalbard reindeer and Arctic foxes. The Northern Lights are visible during winter, and summer brings the “midnight sun” – sunlight 24 hours a day.