Our plane was finally on its approach into Longyearbyen. It was bumpy coming in to land, but nothing we haven't experienced before.  We felt the jolt of the landing gear hit the snow blown runway, shrouded in arctic night, and immediately the plane erupted with applause.  No one applauds a plane's landing anymore... Where the hell are we?  The plane slowed and the applause subsided.  The Pilot made an announcement in Norwegian, and some people laughed, while others seemed to not even take notice.  Finally, in English, the pilot reported, "Welcome to Longyearbyen. Please be careful as you disembark the plane; there is a polar bear within the proximity of the airport.  Enjoy your stay."

Brooklyn 2 Backcountry was just an idea between two old friends, and had in no way come to fruition when I called Leo and asked if he wanted to do something stupid.  His immediate reply was yes.  No further explanation needed.  He was in.  I explained that I had come across an archipelago north of Norway, well above the arctic-circle, while perusing an atlas, and I wanted to go visit.  His reply:  when are we leaving?

We spent a month planning our trip, meeting up with each other, doing research while we were supposed to be working, and learning all we could about our "arctic paradise".  We would seek our adventure in the dead of winter, where polar bears outnumber people.  So in October, over the phone, we booked our trip to the northernmost permanent city in the world; Longyearbyen, Svalbard.

 

... Our arctic paradise, where polar bears outnumber people,

and we would seek it out in the dead of winter.

 

We flew into Oslo from New York City and, while it was beautiful, we were underwhelmed.  It was just another city.  It was not what we were looking for.  We had a few days to kill before our flight to Svalbard (they only fly to Longyearbyen a few days a week), so we planned some activities in Oslo.  We met up with my old roommate for drinks and a burger, we rode the train to go ski at Oslo Winterpark, and finally it was time to get to the real adventure: Svalbard.

Our plane was delayed more than once on our trip.  This was annoying to say the least, but it was one of the greatest experiences of the trip.  We were held overnight in Oslo because of bad weather over the arctic-ocean.  Norwegian Airlines put us up in a hotel, and this is where we made our best friends of the trip; like-minded people, seeking adventure, and something off the beaten path.  After a long night of drinking in the hotel, and exchanging plans for adventure upon arriving, we retired to our rooms, and left for the archipelago early the next morning.  We took off as the sun was rising, and from the plane we watched the sun set to the south; it was the last day light we would see until we returned to “the main land”.

 

"Welcome to Longyearbyen. Please be careful as you disembark the plane; there is a polar bear within the proximity of the airport.  Enjoy your stay."

 

Our plane was finally on its approach into Longyearbyen. It was bumpy coming in to land, but nothing we haven't experienced before.  We felt the jolt of the landing gear hit the snow blown runway, shrouded in arctic night, and immediately the plane erupted with applause.  No one applauds a plane's landing anymore... Where the hell are we?  The plane slowed and the applause subsided.  The Pilot made an announcement in Norwegian, and some people laughed, while others seemed to not even take notice.  Finally, in English, the pilot reported, "Welcome to Longyearbyen. Please be careful as you disembark the plane; there is a polar bear within the proximity of the airport.  Enjoy your stay."

We exited the plane, taking stairs down to the tarmac, then shuffled our stiff bodies across the frozen landscape to baggage claim.  There is one carousel from which to claim your luggage. This is where we met some returning locals, and I had to ask why people applauded when the plane landed.  Turns out, they can’t use radar to land the plane in Longyearbyen.  It was all done manually, in the dark, in the snow.  That certainly is worthy of applause.  We grabbed our bags and got onto a bus that would shuttle us all into town.  Once aboard, driver with a rifle next to his seat, we were again reminded that a polar bear was spotted right near the airport, and to keep a sharp lookout (see video)

 

… they can’t use radar to land the plane in Longyearbyen.  It was all done manually…in the dark…in the snow.  That certainly is worthy of applause.

.

We were already late for one of our overnight excursions due to the delayed flight, so once we reached our hotel we disembarked the bus, dropped our unnecessary gear (which we pre-sorted, a true testament to our DPL abilities) – Insert Hyperlink to DPL page on website – and met up with our tour guide who would lead us on our first excursion. 

Neils, a giant, Viking-esque individual, greeted us and told us to eat before leaving.  He wanted to make sure we had energy for the long cold ride ahead of us, and to make sure we were at least partially recuperated from our flight into Longyearbyen.  Our Hotel had a restaurant attached to it called Kroa.  We took our search for a meal into the restaurant.  Here we dined on local delicacy that was predominantly fish based, with bread and pate as staples. I’ll tell you this; the whale blubber was interesting.

 

The snow mobile base is located past the edge of town, and it is illegal in Svalbard to leave the town without a weapon

 

With food in our bellies, and antsy to get going, Neils took us from our hotel to the snowmobile base where we would be outfitted with gear to ensure an enjoyable snowmobile safari experience.  As we left the hotel, Neils grabbed his shotgun as we walked to the car.  The snow mobile base is located past the edge of town, and it is illegal in Svalbard to leave the town without a weapon.

Once at the snowmobile base, we were given top of the line gear that included one piece snow suits with hoods, heavy duty winter boots, mittens, liners, balaclavas, and helmets with full face shields.  We brought our own knives, of course, and we never completed our permits for handling our rifles in Svalbard because we would have Neils.  We were properly outfitted and ready to roll.  Neils brought us outside, and we beat the ice off of our motorized snow chariots, turned them on to warm up, and then grabbed our extra gear and secured it to the vehicles.  Neils packed a towable sled with items for the overnight trip, and we were off to see the country side.

 

We were in a near complete white out, with no noise but the howling arctic wind.  You could barely see a foot or two in front of your face.  There was no horizon, everything was just white.

 

We rode out to the east from town, into the actual arctic wilderness.  Here we turned a corner that made a nearby mountain block the town’s lights, and we were immersed in the arctic night.  We drove a bit further and the snow started to get worse.  Neils stopped us, told us to turn off our snow mobiles, and kill the head lights.  We did.  We were in a near complete white out, with no noise but the howling arctic wind.  You could barely see a foot or two in front of your face.  There was no horizon, everything was just white.  It made me dizzy.  It made me feel like, despite gravity, I was floating even though my feet were firmly in the snow that was well above my ankles.  It was eerie.  Neils called out over the howling wind, telling us about the area, and about the dangers, telling us that if we got lost we should just stay put.  He would double back and find us.  He was relying on us to keep tabs on each other as we traveled in a convoy across the tundra and into the mountain range.  And last, but certainly not least, keep an eye out for Polar Bears.

He was relying on us to keep tabs on each other as we traveled in a convoy across the tundra and into the mountain range.  “And last, but certainly not least,” he said, “keep an eye out for Polar Bears.”

Leo and I, being the awesome outdoorsman and most prepared friends that we are, came equipped with cameras, flashlights, extra batteries, medical kits, knives, extra clothes, and extra food and water.  You name it, we had it.  We were ready.  Neils led the charge into the whiteout, and Leo and I followed, ducks in a row, all the while keeping our eyes peeled for the ferocious Polar Bear we knew to be lurking in the area.  Keeping your eyes peeled in a white out is impossible, but when you’re scared and excited, you try pretty damn hard.

The snow let up a bit as we came into a valley.  Neils was about 20 feet in front of my vehicle, and Leo was in the rear.  Many times along this bumpy, freezing, snowy ride, I would lose Neils’ tail lights, only to turn around and see no head lights from Leo’s vehicle.  It was almost as if I was entirely alone in an arctic blizzard.  But I maintained my speed, stood up into the wind and looked over the front of my vehicle to see what was left of the tracks from Neils’ vehicle, and I just followed those.  Eventually he would again come into view.  I can only assume that Leo was doing the same thing behind me because once the wind died down for a second, he would reappear, riding strong.  Then the fear would subside… for a while. 

…the high sugar content is ideal to maintain hydration and functionality in an environment as extreme as this.  We were glamping in the arctic.

We came to a halt in a small area between 2 rock formations.  Here the wind was not as bad, and the swirling white was not nearly as blinding.  We disembarked our snowmobiles, and grabbed a snack, some energy for the remainder of the ride.  This was not that physically demanding in the traditional sense, but it was taxing nonetheless.   Neils served us some tea biscuits and a hot beverage that I could only describe as jello powder mixed with boiling water and ingested before being allowed to set into gelatin.  It was delicious, and the high sugar content is ideal to maintain hydration and functionality in an environment as extreme as this.  We were glamping in the arctic.  After our snack, and a brief explanation of where we were exactly in this desolate part of the world, we were right back at it.  We cleaned up our site, mounted our snowmobiles, and headed back into the white out.  Oddly enough, the snow and wind picked up just as we left.

We finally reached our destination, an old trapper’s lodge located inside the boundary of a dog park, just as the storm was starting to let up.  Neils let us roam the area and introduced us to the dog keeper, Mika, and went into the two trappers lodges to build some fires in the wood burning stoves.  Mika gave us a tour of the park, showing us the dogs, as well as some other prominent points.  Leo and I were only interested in the dogs.  She asked if we would like to help feed them and clean up the yard a bit.  Was she being serious?  Of course we want to feed the dogs!!!

Sled Dogs are amazing.  They are powerful, head strong, and they adapt.  When you look at them and feel bad because they are outside, remember, this is where they are comfortable.  Most aren’t even in their little houses; they are lying in the snow outside of the house.  News spreads among the pack that feeding time is at hand rather quickly.  One dog sees that they are going to be fed and the howling begins.  The howling starts and never seems to end.  It moves like a wave throughout the camp of little dog houses.  Those who are sleeping are woken up and immediately let you know that they are expecting a meal.  They jump around as you approach with the food and affectionately acknowledge you before giving their undivided attention to their meal.  Once feeding time is finished, the dogs are ready to relax until their next run. There will be more on this later, in our next post.

As we were helping feed the dogs, Neils had made a solid fire in a wood burning stove inside the trapper’s lodge.  The sleeping area was laid out with animal furs for insulation, and sleeping bags that we brought with us on the trip.  The interior of the lodge was surprisingly warm, and HUGE.  We could’ve easily slept 10-12 in the space, and it would’ve been even warmer with the added people.  But it would more than suffice for Leo and I.

As we got our gear off and warmed up by the fire, Neils was in another hut, where he would be sleeping, and was preparing food for us, as well as a fire for himself.  We moved from our hut to his, and settled in for a nice dinner by firelight which consisted of breads, pate, butter, and hot beverages.  Fish is a staple in this part of the world, and we had smoked salmon accompanying nearly every meal.  With our bellies full, and our bodies warm from the fire, we lazily meandered back to our tent to settle down for the night.

I awoke with a start. It was dark.  The candles were still lit, but the main fire had gone out.  I could hear the wind howling.  Groggily I wondered, what the hell was going on?

I awoke with a start.  It was dark.  The candles were still lit, but the main fire had gone out.  I could hear the wind howling.  Groggily I wondered, what the hell was going on?  I had to pee so bad.  I dug around my sleeping bag, found my head lamp, and clicked it on.  The beam violently disrupted the darkness.  I struggled to put my socks on inside the sleeping bag, and then unzipped it as fast as I could.  I might piss my pants.  I swung out of the bag and threw my boots on.  I ran through the front door, and the foyer, and heard the snow crunch underfoot as I grossly ran, in my base layer bottoms, and a moisture wicking tee shirt.  I run hot, and I am on the side of the debate that you should wear as little as possible when sleeping in a sleeping bag (a habit I developed during the winter months in Afghanistan). 

The dogs were sleeping just a few meters away, and I was the only human outside in this area.  It was amazing

Once outside I made it to the ledge for peeing.  It was a little drop off from the camp where one can pee off the side and not have to fill up the outhouse basin with urine.  The storm had subsided, and despite the dark of night, I could clearly make out the mountains around us.  Looking over this ledge with my headlamp on, I was the sole light penetrating darkness for as far the eye could see.  I turned off my headlamp and enjoyed the beauty of the frozen tundra around me.  The dogs were sleeping just a few meters away, and I was the only human outside in this area.  It was amazing.

As I was taking in this amazing site, I realized that I was freezing.  I was so cold, but the need to urinate and the beauty of the desolate tundra had overridden that concept.  Once my body and mind got back on the same page, I realized I needed to get inside.  I turned and made a mad dash to our lodge.  Once inside, finally realizing it was so dark because we had let the fire go out, I realized this miserable cold feeling would not subside for some time.  I woke Leo with a loud profane outburst.  Confused, I explained why I was shouting.  He started laughing and began filming my misery.  I quickly shoved my torso into the sleeping bag, still relatively warm from my body heat that had vacated just a few minutes earlier.  It didn’t do much to shake the cold from my bones, but I would suck it up.  Just relax and let the bag work for you.  It did, and I eventually fell back to sleep.

We woke up a short time later, had breakfast in Neils’ hut, and readied ourselves for the journey back to civilization.  We said goodbye to the dogs and to Mika, all of whom we would be seeing again the next day.  We mounted our machines and drove off into the perpetual darkness.

Neils gave an extensive tour of the area, driving us deeper into the island, and further from the town.  He took us to his cabin where we stopped and admired his view from the deck he built himself.  He recanted about how he sits on his deck, drinking coffee or whiskey (AKA “Night Coffee”) and watches the aurora borealis dance across the arctic sky.  His description gave us chills, and the thought of that life still circulates in my dreams.

From his cabin we rode across open plains, trying to see just how fast these beasts would go.  We raced and played, and just enjoyed ourselves.  Neils brought us to a spot where a downed aircraft is still visible, and relatively intact.  Apparently it was shot down during WWII.  Just another cool and interesting relic from this off the beaten path adventure.

We made our way back to the fueling station, filled up the rides, and returned our gear.  What an excursion.  Neils gave us a ride back to our hotel, Hotel Basecamp (such a fitting name), and left us there.  We wished him well, and he did the same.  We would see him around town over the next few days that we remained in his part of the world.  He told us he looked forward to seeing us again.  We still look forward to seeing him again.  We made our way to our room, showered and settled in.  A new adventure would begin the next day.

 

This article is part of a series recounting BK2BC’s trip to the arctic.  It is a 2 part piece that will be concluded in the next section.  We look forward to your comments, and hope you enjoy this piece.

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