Svalbard circumnavigation attempt
I derive joy from paddling. When I paddle long and hard days, I find paddling relaxing, fun and fulfilling. Each paddle stroke, in and out of the water, the blade cutting through the sea surface, splashing the water gently around, being pulled out only to go back into the water again. Stroke by stroke moving forward, letting my mind wonder into a void, or, sometimes, thinking really hard on "important things" I normally never have time for and smiling when I recall funny events from my childhood.
I hoped that Svalbard would be no different but even our first paddling day there didn't give me even one single moment of that. Tim was sick, throwing up every few moments on his spray deck. I was really worried, thinking whether he would cope later on, being sea sick in such calm water. It didn't happen again, it was just a reaction to the dried figs of which he ate too many that afternoon (and won't eat again for a long time). But I was worried at that first day, as he must have been later on when my toes got numb. If to be honest, we were worried about each other not only because of our wellbeing but also for the sake of the expedition. We knew that if one of us could not continue it will be the end for both.
In an expedition, I always take extra care when walking or doing off water activities. I don't want to end up with an injury that will force me to stop the trip. I always felt I am better in paddling than in anything else. I can paddle better than I can climb, play basketball or even walk.
This wasn't my first worry. Tim was injured the week before we arrived in Svalbard. He broke his foot while doing whitewater in Norway. Then we found out that one of the kayaks was damaged on the transfer in three places and we had to spend a good few days just to fix it again. It wasn't all bad since there was still a lot of ice in the north and it also gave Tim some time to rest his foot.
Our aim was to circumnavigate Svalbard, probably the northern most land which have enough water to paddle around. Tim, was looking for a sea kayak trip, and I was looking for a partner for this trip so we teamed up and started a year long of preparations: finding sponsors, buying charts, learning about the climate and sea conditions in the archipelago, calculating the amount of food that will be required for the circumnavigation of the four main islands of the Svalbard group.
In my first years of paddling, I was sometimes wishing for the bad weather to come, for nature to challenge me and to witness the powers of nature. As time went by I learned to respect nature and started to wish only for good weather, knowing that I will meet enough wind and challenges regardless.
In my trips I have always thought more than once about the possibility of being forced to quit the trip. I thought it might be because of equipment failure such as a broken boat, losing a tent and sleeping bags, a stove that fails or an injury preventing me to continue. All of these have happened to me but i still continued. I guess that to overcome such challenges is part of any trip. I never thought this trip will end the way it did.
Anna Amalie, my partner was back home sms'd the forecast twice a day and also informed us about the ice chart situation. Svalbard's climate is harsh and change rapidly. Calm weather soon can turn into a fearful storm or just strong katabatic wind. There is not much rain, and sometimes, not even clouds above. This deceiving beauty and sun is nice. We might even remove our poggies and hats and feel the crisp coolness on our fingers. Our ability to resist the cold never lasted long and soon had us covering our exposed skin in order to get warm again. Often the wind would pick up soon after and then we just wanted to rest.
The ice charts did not look good when we left Longyearbyen. Big dense sheets of ice were covering almost the entire north and east of Svalbard. Last July there was hardly any ice there. I guess that the irregular cold during the month of May was the cause of the late ice melting, or maybe it was the global warming; Ice disconnecting from the north pole ice cap and traveling south while the north wind pushing more and more old pack ice south towards Svalbard.
We started anyway hoping for a quick melt and an open passage in the north by the time we get there.
Every day Anna's report about the ice condition didn't improve dramatically, but there was a slow change in the ice thickness. Slowly Fast Ice turned into Very Close Drift Ice, and Very Close Drift Ice was replaced with Close Drift Ice, but still it did not look good. We progressed slowly, knowing we would have to wait if we arrived north too early.
The slow progress gave us the opportunity to adjust to Svalbard's conditions and to develop some expedition routines: paddle during "night hours", having one or two stops for midnight lunch or rest, and then, later on, between 4am to 6am, finding our next camp place. Once we Once we land in the new camp place we removed almost everything from the kayak's decks and emptying the front compartment in order to make the carrying of the 90kg boats a bit easier. Back and forth with the gear we had just removed from the kayak to the campsite. Then carrying the still very heavy kayaks, one by one and meter by meter. Later on in the expedition, when we arrived to the icy areas we discovered that pulling the boats across the ice or snow was a bit easier. Then it was tent duty for one and fire for the other. We soon decided to make fire in every camp just because it was a way for us to feel comfortable outside our sleeping bags and keeping us busy in the long waits for the weather to improve. We were using the fire - a more reliable source of energy than the stove - to boil the water for our REAL Turmat meals. We added some olive oil for more flavor and energy into the Turmat bags and ate quickly. We also had some dried meat, hard cheese, tahini, dried fruits, Harduf chocolate spread and oats porridge for breakfast. By the time the tent was up and soon after Tim assembled the snublebluss- a trip wire against unwelcome polar bears, dinner was served, usually around 7am or 8am. An hour later we went into our sleeping bags. The best place to be in the entire expedition. When I first got the thick down Exped sleeping bag I was concerned that it was too big and too warm, Tim called it “over kill”. But when we arrived to the cold northern parts of Svalbard we were very happy to have these oversized sleeping bags and mats. In the constant light we were not always able to sleep well. I suffered from it and slept quite lightly but Tim snored
After eight or nine hours we would slowly wake up and check the weather forecast Anna had sent us. In almost half of the messages we got predictions for bad weather. It didn't bother us too much since the ice in the north was still there. We were in no hurry.
Then remaking the fire for breakfast, eating quickly and going through a quick process of taking down the camp and repacking the kayaks. We soon learned where everything goes and how to do it efficiently.
In days we didn't paddle, we went to take a look around, read, sit by the fire, or ate, but mostly we were bored. Maybe that was the route of our bad end.
In every camp, as part of setting up the camp was installing the snublebluss, the local version of a tripwire which was supposed to alert us if a bear was approaching our tent. The existence of polar bears was known to us, of course, but we, yet, didn't see this big white animal.
On our 9th day into the expedition we finally saw one. We were in our kayaks, paddling, when we saw a white bear walking close to the water on his way south towards our previous night camp. I was glad we were no longer there. I pulled the video camera out and managed to get a few seconds of the bear. In a way, I didn't want to meet bears, since I knew they might see me as food, but on the other hand, being in the polar bear world kingdom and not to see any would be very disappointing. This attraction combined with fear followed me till the end of the trip. We saw the snublebluss as polar bear armour. We accidentally tripped over it a few times and the noise reassured us, or so we thought. At the end of one of the most annoying paddle nights, in which we faced a strong head wind, we reached a hut. It looked like some construction was going on and we hoped for shelter however meager. We landed just in front of it, I was a few meters behind Tim when I pulled my boat out of the water. He rushed towards the hut and, of course, activated its snublebluss, two flares went off, one after the other with an awful sound. I jumped, turning my head to Tim, and saw that it wasn't only sound, but also fire and light! Our snublebluss seemed a bit weak and insufficient ever after. Of course at 3am two tired confused Norwegians came out holding some serious hardware and looking for bear. We camped across the bay.
As we moved north there was more ice floating around us. In the north west corner we decided to go in between Vasahalvøya and Fugløya, and reached a blockage of ice. There was a thin area next to the rocky shore and where we squeezed in order to get through to the other side of the ice. We continued only to get to another ice blockage. It was frustrating. We decided to camp and start walking with the boats to the other side of the ice after a good sleep.
I woke up the next day with a desire to release excess liquids from my body. I stuck my head out of the tent only to see that all the ice was gone. Happy we ate, got organized and left towards east. We were over the corner, navigating the cold north. It was significantly colder and the mountains had much more snow on them, glaciers in every valley and more ice on the water surface.
While paddling, we didn't fear the bears, there were walruses to look out for. I remember an incident with a sea lion back in Stewart Island – New Zealand, it was scary even though a sea lion is half the size of a walrus. One walrus had already chased us, we saw a few more along the way but they were calm and remote from us. Seals, however, is a different story. At some point we got our own little seal, who followed us the entire day, he was getting closer and closer, only to jump back. Then he started to touch my kayak with the tip of his nose. I think he was surprised by the material and the noise that every hit made. He then checked Tim's boat. It was magical. Svalbard has large variety of animals. Sea birds, rain deers, polar foxes. I looked at these animals as heroes; surviving in such climate is not easy. But yet, the will for life is stronger than the environment I guess. Humans could not prosper in such place prior to technological age.
The last day:
Every good thing must come to an end. Svalbard was not only good. The anxiety I felt months before the trip didn't leave me after I started. But so far there was no real reason for me to feel frightened. There were difficult moments but no more than in other trips.
Waiting for improvement in weather and ice conditions was annoying. There was some tension between Tim and I over the right paddle conditions a few times already. But we had one rule: avoidance will win; in other words, each of us had a veto right on whether we should paddle. So the decisions in the critical hours were mutual. I went back in my mind over and over reviewing the decision making process of the last few hours and I don't think we could have made any other decision back then.
The Forecast we got for this day was southerly wind force 2. The ice chart showed close drift ice next to the tip (on yesterday's map), but from a radio communication from a passing ship that came from the north east we were told: "lots of open water, no problem to land on the other side".
The crossing from our current place Velkomstpynten to Rekvikodden was about 45 kilometers long of open water and two huge Fjords. The conditions seemed perfect. There was some ice floating around, but we found it easy to navigate around it. We paddled for a few hours, aiming to 80°00.000' north 16°00.000' east. We had perfect visibility with very light wind for 25km.
Shortly after the half way mark I started to feel the wind. The barometer dropped by 7 millibar within the last two hours, only to complete a total drop of nine millibar over 4 hours.
The wind picked up and it was force 4 after a short while. We were paddling from west to east. The wind came from our right side. The force 4 became force 5 with gusts of force 6-7 soon after. It was much colder as well. We wrapped ourselves with poggies and hats and continued. Ice from the Fjords was pushed out by the increasing wind. What was open water, quickly turned into big lakes surrounded by ice. Those lakes started to shrink as time went by. We felt like we were in a race. We could see the land and got closer, but at the same time, the ice got thicker too. We couldn't just paddle, the ice forced us out of the kayaks to jump over ice barriers. Returning was not an option because the ice that was pushed north cut our way back as well. The GPS indicated 7 kilometers to land when paddling was no longer possible.
Calling for a rescue now would be admitting failure. It took much more for me to reach that point. My 90kg boat wasn't easy to drag over the ice. Almost five hours of hard slow walking on the ice. Tim fell into the freezing water, through the ice, a few times, I fell twice. I felt great sadness. A feeling of being trapped where all options closes till there were no alternatives left.
The ice kept moving north while we were walking on it. The distance towards land grew as we progressed. I am not sure till today how far we walked during those 5 hours, only that we had about 5 km left to land at the end. I believe we walked around only 3 km that day trough hard terrain.
My old back injury awoke again. My lower back suffered pain which I didn't feel for a long time. The more I walked, the more the pain crawled down my right leg. By the time I decided to call off this madness, I couldn't even paddle. It took more than a month of peels and physiotherapy for me to recover.
Two hours after we called the Svalbard's rescue team we were picked up by a helicopter to Longyearbyen. We left our kayaks on the ice. Later on half a kayak was discovered by travellers not far from where we left them.
Many expeditions are still to be overcome by paddlers. I know how to paddle Svalbard successfully now: start only if ice melt enough and don't make long crossings. I don't think I will return to complete what I started however. I prefer to visit other remote beautiful areas, such as where I went this summer, the Faroe Islands, another amazing kayaking location.
Tim and I shared a unique experience and although we were both frustrated by not completing what we set our minds doing I feel happy with what we did accomplish.
I would like to thank the sponsors of this trip, in particular to mention:
Nigel Dennis of seakayakinguk.com
And Alf Andreassen
More details about this trip can be found on: my website
Katabatic winds: from the Greek word katabatikos meaning "going downhill", is the technical name for a drainage wind, a wind that carries high density air from a higher elevation down a slope under the force of gravity. Such winds are sometimes also called fall winds. (from wikipedia).
Fast Ice, Very Close Drift Ice, Very Close Drift Ice, Close Drift Ice: technical terms describing the ice dencity, where fast ice is more than 95% of ice (and less then 5% water), Very close drift ice has 5% more open water and so on.
Paddlers: Alon Ohad