Whatever the fifty individually wrapped birthday presents I had carefully chosen for my husband’s big birthday contained, tickets for a trip to Svalbard were not amongst them. Nevertheless that is where we spent his 50th birthday.
Svalbard consists of a group of Norwegian islands situated at 78ºN, almost half way between mainland Europe and the North Pole, and is the most northerly place in the world to have a permanent population.
With three months of polar night when the sun never rises above the horizon, the very real danger of roaming polar bears, obliging everyone leaving the security of a settlement to carry a shotgun, it is a remote and wild place, dotted with mining companies, snow and very little else. A real wild west of the North whose very name, Svalbard, evokes wilderness, the spirit of adventure, exploration and danger.
First established as a whaling base in the 17th Century, the largest island of Spitzbergen now hosts Russian and Norwegian mining operations, scientific research establishments and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which securely stores more than one third of the most important food crop varieties in the world.
Dressed in our warmest ski gear, which had comfortably survived temperatures of minus 25C, we were issued with even more robust arctic wear: thick waterproof overalls and boots as we set off to visit an ice cave on the glacier. There are few roads on the island; the only way to reach the cave is by dog sled.
The dogs were chained in their pens, howling for the chance to run, for running is what these huskies want most in the world. Some of the dogs were luckier than us, and had actually been to the North Pole, an ambition I am unlikely to achieve unless I become a TV personality in which case someone will pay me to go there for charity, and provide me with state of the art clothing along the way. We helped to harness the dog teams to their sleighs and set off to much barking, snapping at heels, and jostling for position.
Ice caves are formed when melt water from the surface of the glacier penetrate cracks in the ice, creating hollow spaces inside the glacier. The water drains away beneath the slowly moving glacier causing the tunnel formations inside to twist and turn.
An unassuming plank of wood somewhere on top of the glacier marked the opening of the ice cave, and was held down by large stones. Our guide removed the lid to reveal a hole dropping steeply into the ice, somehow, a knotted rope had been fixed in place, but that was for the way out. Turning on the lamps we wore on our helmets, we launched ourselves one by one into the dark hole, slipping feet first down the icy slide.
Inside, the smooth ice glittered like crystal in the light of our torches. The stalactites and stalagmites we have come to expect in rock caves were replaced by icicles and frozen waterfalls as the walls of ice swept in graceful arcs around us. The breath of previous visitors had solidified into hoarfrost on the roof of the cave and we walked on the frozen bubbles of a stream beneath our feet.
Our second expedition over the glacier was by snowmobile. It was late in the season, and some patches of ice had turned to slush, making for some interesting technical driving to get through streams of water; maintaining enough speed to stay afloat, and avoid too much of a wetting. We drove up over the glacier, from Longyearbyen, admiring the pristine arctic scenery, and worrying about global warming and how coal spoils from the mines contribute to the loss of ice in the area.
On the far side we stopped for a lunch of trekking food, dehydrated packages topped up with hot water from flasks. A chance to stretch our legs after several hours riding, to take some photographs, and to look out for bears; hoping, in a nervous sort of way, to catch a distant glimpse of a bear or two. On the return journey, finally at ease with our machines, we rode with the blissful exhilaration of freedom and the beauty of nature
There are a few Icelandic ponies on Svalbard. On our last morning, we spent with these handsome animals, preparing them for our ride, encouraging them along the bleak shoreline out of town, the bracing wind in our faces, before turning back towards their stables and holding tight as they trotted enthusiastically back to the warmth and comfort of home.
Finally, we visited the Svalbard Museum, attached to the University and Scientific Research Centre. Here we finally saw some specimens of local flora and fauna, albeit stuffed and mounted for display. Magnificent Polar Bears, Svalbard Reindeer, and Arctic Fox. Marine mammals of Whales, Dolphins and Seals have survived the hunters, and more than thirty species of mostly migratory birds can be seen around the islands. The poignant exhibitions of 18th Century hunters and trappers, followed by 19th Century mineral prospectors, reflect the hardships uncertainty and risks these pioneers encountered in their hopes of freedom, adventure and success.
The spirit of adventure is alive and well in Svalbard. A special place, to mark a special birthday. The beauty of the Arctic is breathtaking, and while we saw neither the Northern Lights or the Midnight Sun, we met a dog who had run all the way to the North Pole.