Entries in Norway (20)
Getting into our wet-weather gear
Hayden may have fallen asleep on the bumpy ride
Dolphins swimming in the fjord
Goats from a local farm
This village was the setting for Arendelle in Frozen
While docked in Honningsvåg we took a bus up to Skarsvåg, the most northern fishing village in the world. We took a small commercial fishing ship out onto the Barents Sea, and gave Hayden his first experience fishing. Hayden took to the sea well, happily munching on cookies while watching the waves and talking to the captain. After cruising past puffins, reindeer, seal and seabirds we dropped our lines over the side, and within a minute we all had fish at the end of the line. Hayden’s first fish was a small coalfish which he was quite proud of even though we threw him back. His second fish was a large cod, the second largest fish of the day. After 10 minutes of fishing there was more than enough to cook dinner, so we heading back to shore, stopping only to check the nets for King Crabs. Hayden was so proud of his first fishing trip that he even ate some of the steamed cod, after checking that it was indeed “his fish”, and not some random fish he was eating. Another wonderful day out with the family.
The North Cape is considered to be the most northern tip of the European continent, the final rock before what was once considered endless water and ice. Strictly speaking, there is a low beach that goes out a further 1.5km, but the dramatic geography of the North Cape has made it the icon of the edge of the world for centuries. We were there at sunset/sunrise, that peculiar arctic time where the sun dips down to kiss the horizon before rising again. Spectacular.
The highlight of our visit to Svalbard was certainly the dogsledding. We went and picked up a summer wagon and a team of 14 huskies. They were so eager to run and pull the sled that getting them to stand still long enough to harness them was a challenge. My job was to hold the leader dogs (GoPro and Yulia) while the rest were being hooked up, and (having to keep GoPro from mounting Yulia) I can attest that they were strong and energetic!
The second the dogs were allowed they leapt off with shear joy at being able to pull the sled. Up and down hills, through the outskirts of Longyearbyen and into the surrounding countryside we had enormous fun. Our guide had to stop the dogs every now and again to water them and cool them down (overheating is a big problem on such a sunny summer day - 10 degrees!), but they howled and yelped until they were allowed to run again. We did have one mishap when Yulia decided to go for a swim in a creek near the road. GoPro was eager to follow her anywhere, and the whole team plunged into the creek and got tangled up. Our guide, swearing under his breathe in Norwegian, jumped down and led the dogs out, demoting Yulia on the spot and replacing her with a new dog Peanut. When we were ready to go again, Hayden pipped up "that dog was a rascal", and our guide replied "no, she is an idiot, a complete idiot".
Apart from the pleasure of watching the dogs run, my favourite moment must have been coming across a placid reindeer, chewing grass in an arctic meadow. Hayden's favourite was piling up the rocks by the side of the road into a tower.
Longyearbyen glacier is slowly grinding up Svalbard, crunching through the slate and sandstone hills and churning the rocks into dust. We hiked up to the foot of the glacier to search through the moraine for fossils carved out of the mountains by the ice. After climbing up the snow banks and loose rocks we were only able to find a few nuggets of coal and half a leaf, dating back 30 million years.
We are in Svalbard, at the very edge of the world. From the far northern reaches of Norway, Svalbard is several days travel by ship. North through the Arctic Ocean, the Svalbard Archipelago is the last desolate rock before the North Pole.
At the moment, we are in the polar day, with continual sunlight lasting from 20 April to 23 August. The constant sunlight (from 99 days to 141 days, on island to island) is just enough to thaw the top few centimetres of soil in the lowlands and allow some tough lichen to grow, but below is the permafrost and nothing grows above ankle height across the land. A little higher and the land is frozen year-round, in glaciers and snowfields.
The polar night is dire. Imagine a night that lasts 128 days, with temperatures averaging -20C for months on end. No roads connect the settlements and anyone who steps foot outside is legally required to carry a rifle due to the risk of polar bear attacks. The land is so desolate and isolated that the Global Seed Vault, storing crop seeds for a post-apocalyptic recovery, is based on Svalbard. Only 2,642 people live in this, the last outpost of civilization. 2040 of them live in the “big city”, Longyearbyen, the world’s most northern settlement. Few of them manage to stay long – the average is 6 winters before people give up and move south. The “city” is merely a few rows of company housing and a shopping street, plus the export facilities to support the mining. Many of the longer-term residents have a house further away, “where it is less crowded”.
Despite the mere handful of people clinging to these rocks, the population is surprisingly diverse due to the Svalbard Treaty. I first found out about the Svalbard treaty listening to an Iraqi doctor who left during the American invasion. The treaty (known as the Spitsbergen Treaty at the time) was signed in 1920 and gave Svalbard a unique status. Svalbard is part of Norway, but it exists under a strict “non-discrimination” clause. Unlike every other scrap of land on the planet, Svalbard has no citizenship restrictions on immigration. Any person on the planet has the right to become a resident on Svalbard, and use the natural resources of the islands, as long as they can maintain themselves without government support. There is still a population of 400-odd Russians that are mining the land and sending ores back to Russia (down from several thousand using USSR times), and the industrial landscape of Longyearbyen is harshly utilitarian, with coal heaps and abandoned mining equipment. The innovative Iraqi doctor heard about the open immigration policy, and when the tanks rolled in he packed up his family and moved to Svalbard to open a kebab shop. I wonder how many winters he will last? He might have left already, as we did not see a kebab shop in Longyearbyen.