Yesterday, I was making tuna salad for lunch in the Barba galley where we were anchored in Kinnvika on the west side of Nordaustlandet when I decided to open the window to air out the steam from the kettle, simultaneously taking a glance toward the far shore.
There, about 300 meters from the boat, an absolutely enormous figure was padding along a rocky shoreline that’s changed from seal-grey to desert-gold in these parts. I think I stopped breathing in that moment just to make sure my eyes were properly registering what I knew I was seeing. And I believe the exact, stunned words that came from my mouth next were “I see a mother f*&ing polar bear!” Because in that instant, even though I have not see so many of them in my life, I was sure that this bear warranted some extra (if inelegant) adjectives.
Everyone clambered up onto the deck to have a look through the binoculars at the second, and by far the most well-fed and intimidating, polar bear we’ve seen (“It was like an elephant,” Andreas said later). Within just a few minutes, the animal, a male, had wandered over a hill and out of sight. And as much as I willed him back for another look, he was gone. Apparition-like, these guys, materializing out of the barren landscape when you least expect them and then melting right back into it like they were never even there.
We’re above 80 degrees north now, a landmark occasion for Barba, and making our way farther north still as I type this. We are also now, officially, off the charts. The digital maps no longer work, so we’re reading paper charts and plotting navigation routes first that way before inputting them into the computers. We’re also making good use of Barba’s forward-scanning sonar to see what’s coming, depth-wise, in the 100 meters ahead of us and using the radar, too. Watch is not nearly as lax as it’s been during other moments of the trip, as there is more ice around us now (although still not a lot), not to mention bouts of fog that cut visibility to 40 meters or less. Even just a small glassy piece of ice that could easily trick your eyes into thinking it was merely a reflection on the water’s surface could pose real risk at our usual cruising speed of 5 knots, so we are all on high alert.
I think readers might wonder how we spend our days out here on Barba, out of range of cell contact, with no internet distractions, no other people to mingle with and truly into the lonely wilds of Svalbard. If you’re thinking every moment is a revelatory one – like catching sight of a polar bear while you’re whipping up a tuna sandwich – the truth is there’s a fair bit of monotony when it comes to living on a boat, no matter how interesting the surrounds.
Due to the nature of where we are – traveling through an archipelago where over 3,000 polar bears roam in the most densely concentrated polar bear habitat on earth – we spend a lot more time than we’d probably like to actually onboard Barba.
Shore outings require a bodyguard in the form of Andreas or Jon, armed with their rifles and on constant alert for something large and white-ish moving through the near and far landscapes. And five people living on a small floating island is a roommate situation I, for one, have not experienced for this length of time before. But it’s also a roommate situation just like any other complete with squabbles and delegating over chores, gripes about the state of the bathroom, personality differences that flare up on occasion and the expected silent volleying for a moment of solitude in a communal living space that’s very communal. Add to this the fact that we have four quite diverse nationalities onboard between our five crew members (Norwegian, German, Russian and American) – the majority of whom had never met eachother before this trip – and it makes for some interesting, often humorous and sometimes quite frustrating explanations and conversations.
Mental or physical, one person´s state-of-being in these tight surrounds can´t help but have a ripple effect, the best recent example being a cough I somehow caught in Longyearbyen that poor Jon is also suffering from now. Ever positive, he says the wheezing effect is making him discover new core muscles he didn´t know he had, but I feel so bad every time he coughs or someone else shows signs of a weakened immune system. A damp boat in the Arctic is no fun place to suffer a cold. But it´s easy to remind yourself that our hardships are nothing compared to all the Europeans and Russians before us that plied these waters since the 1600s as whalers, trappers and North Pole bound-explorers. You can still see the remains of their settlements and graves, pushed open by permafrost, on these unforgiving shores where they lived, sailed and perished.
There are plenty of cozy crew moments, too, of course, including Russian card games and laptop movie “nights,” where we try to make Barba as dark as possible despite the midnight sun, covering the hatches and even popping popcorn for the full cinema effect. With provisions dwindling, there´s also been a recent debut of some talented bakers among us – Dani! Andreas! Ivan! – all of whom have taken to making freshly-baked bread for the always-hungry crew.
Needless to say, dinghy-ing to shore is always a cause for celebration, and we’ve had some great land outings of late.
We’re always excited to see a hunter’s or trapper’s cabin marked on the maps, hoping it will be unlocked. These hyttes, a Norwegian tradition on the mainland, too, have all been impeccably well kept. And stocked with all the essentials for building a fire in the chimney as well as reading material in the form of guestbooks dating back to the 1960s full of tales of fishing escapades, dog sled arrivals in subzero winter temperatures and, of course, polar bear break-ins or run-ins. Other cabin accoutrements we’ve enjoyed have included a help-yourself-bottle of Single Malt Scotch (Glenmorangie, 18-year) that led to some touchy cultural etiquette debates among the crew regarding just how that phrase “help-yourself” should be interpreted (Norway and Germany were on one side of that argument and Russia and USA on the other). There were whittled walrus sculptures, empty bullet casings and polar magazines dating to 1969. And the odd piece of racy lingerie, too, pegged bedside, trophy-like, to set lonely sailors minds racing. So far, there hasn’t been a hytte we haven’t loved warming up in for a bit.
After we left Virgohamna, we rounded the northwest corner of Svalbard and made our way into the Woodfjord, where some friendly Finns we’d met in Ny-Alesund had set us dreaming over the briefest mention of a hot spring. I hadn’t asked for many details then, because hot spring means hot spring to me, and any hot spring is a good one. Considering my only shower since leaving civilization has been a bucket shower on the stern of Barba with water so icy it paralyzed my shoulders with cramps, I was most looking forward to a warm dip, as were the guys. We had visions of a bubbling hot oasis with views of snowy mountain flanks. Perhaps the water would be even too hot to dip in! Well, not so. When we arrived at the end of Bockfjord to the promised hot spring it was more like a stagnant pool atop a barren hillside with orange/green-hued water heated to about body temperature. Barely. Still, Jon and Andreas hopped in for a quick rinse and I took the opportunity to at least shave my legs in a lukewarm rivulet. It´s amazing how the littlest things – listening to a favorite song, cutting into that fresh baked bread, pouring a gin and tonic with a lime from Mexico and some glacier ice – can give you a taste of comfort and the civilized life when you’re living in the Arctic on a sailboat.
Ivan working his magic on a haul of Arctic char filets after what you could call a good day fishing. By Daniel Hug.
There were many highlights during the past week, but perhaps the most exciting one came from a tip we got from a Norwegian sailor Andreas and Jon met in the harbor in Longyearbyen. He’s a man who has thrice circumnavigated Svalbard and has proven an important resource for us along the way. And he’d pinpointed on the map a certain fishing lake as a jackpot for hooking one of the polar region’s tastiest seafood treasures – Arctic char. Still, nothing prepared us for the enormous beauties – all gold and silver-scaled and specked with pearly pinks and greens – that we reeled in on over the course of a few hours. And the open-fire feast that ensued in the shadow of the coziest of fishing huts (where Ivan was stoking a fire inside and prepping the filets) was a Barba culinary top-three moment, I think it’s safe to say. The captain even conceded that this char and experience of hooking it trumped his beloved scallops when it comes to bucket list seafood and fishing moments.
Also in Woodfjord, we anchored for a night in the ideal lagoon at Mushamna that’s sheltered almost 360-degrees around. And on the way in we were treated to a surprising shoreline spectacle. “White whales!” came the shout from Andreas on watch, and we all popped up to see about 70 or so belugas blowing their fine mist in a raucous procession north along the fjord’s edge (we could hear their vocalizations, which I read described, fittingly, as a mix between a fingertip circling a glass rim and the buzzing of bees).
Andreas and I quickly pulled on our drysuits, hoping for the chance to intersect the whales in the water on their course north for what would have surely been an epic snorkeling moment. But they were too quick. Or, rather, we were too slow. Still, it was incredible to be just a few meters from their billowing ivory-white backs as they paraded past. We also spotted a large minke whale in Woodfjord thanks to a flock of dive-bombing glaucous gulls that revealed its location. The birds follow the whale and dive in for easy seconds as it surfaces, pushing hundreds of tiny fish up with its momentum. We were surprised to see the whale’s throat pouch was a cotton-candy pink when it breached, presumably from its krill diet.
Moments like these are the ones we’re living for right now on Barba. The chance to more or less stumble upon these animals in Svalbard that we’ve only ever seen before on documentaries or read about in books. And to have them come within a stone’s throw of our floating home at times, too. The chance, I guess, just to linger for however fleeting of a kitchen-window moment in their unfathomable Arctic world.
We are only uploading a limited amount of photos per blog while on the sat phone connection in Svalbard. More photos to come when we´re back on the mainland!
Featured photo: Any shoreline littered with logs that float in from Siberia is reason enough for a Barba bonfire. The crew warming up by the hut at Sallyhamna. By Daniel Hug.