This was an expedition cruise designed for people who wanted (1) to experience the solitary mid-summer cold and snow of endless Arctic mountains and pristine glaciers, (2) to see a polar bear, reindeer and perhaps a walrus, (3) to go where the sun shines for four months without setting.
Few of them expected to also (4) discover a puffin dog with an extra toe, (5) learn how to domesticate an eider duck for profit, and (6) get a whiff of thousands of cod hung out to dry.
Indeed, most of the 148 people came on this two-week Lindblad-National Geographic cruise seeking experiences unique to the very far north – from the Norwegian fjords to Arctic Svalbard and Longyearbyen, the most northerly permanent settlement in the world.
Norway’s Svalbard region, covered by the third largest icecap (after Antarctica and Greenland), shares the top of the world with the northern tip of Greenland and a few Canadian and Russian islands in the mostly frozen Arctic Ocean.
When the National Geographic Explorer sailed across 80 degrees north latitude, she was a mere 560 nautical miles from the North Pole. Sea ice willing, another day and a half and we would have been at the pole. In any case, the sun, which rose here on April 19, had no plans to set again until Aug. 23.
Hikes along the shore or up steep hills to waterfalls and viewpoints, depending on your stamina and inclination; Zodiac cruises to remote coves and caves; sightseeing from the ship – like watching a polar bear with rambunctious cub who fell behind and then had to scamper to keep up with mum, and a male bear eating a seal kill; daily knowledgeable illustrated briefings about Arctic inhabitants, culture, geography, history, exploration and nature from the naturalists/guides; fine dining on board with Executive Chef Jesper’s meals focused on sensible portion sizes (you could always have more than one) of healthy food (salads, soups, fish, meat, vegetables, fresh fruit) plus dessert, cheese and other indulgences; reasonably priced laundry services; an open bridge policy: this was truly the best of expedition cruising.
The cruise started in the slightly milder climes of Bergen, a historic port on Norway’s coast at 60 degrees north latitude.
As we sailed toward the Arctic, the temperatures started to go down – and it was time to test the layers of clothing the “to bring” list had suggested: t-shirt, shirt, fleece jacket, parka, rain jacket; cap with brim; waterproof gloves; long johns, jeans, waterproof pants; rubber boots. I felt – and looked like – the Michelin man. But I stayed 100 per cent dry and warm.
“This is the best year ever for wild orchids,” said our guide as we hiked across the rocky ground just outside Nes, in the Vega Archipelago – careful not to step on the miniature purple blossoms. “The flowers here consider themselves alpine because of barren terrain, cold and wind.”
Back in town we heard the story of how local inhabitants befriend eider ducks for mutual benefit, creating safe nesting places with dried seaweed for the ducks. The locals take half the eggs and when the ducks leave, remove the super-soft down which the female had plucked from her breast to line the nest.
The tiny feathers, which have no “spine” like normal feathers, must be very carefully cleaned: buyers shake them thoroughly to see if there is any dirt before setting the price for this super light, super warm natural insulation. (Eiderdown duvets typically sell for up to $10,000.)
After crossing the Arctic Circle we sailed into the Nordfjord arm of Melfjord. The scenery was truly awesome, with sheer snow-covered mountains rising sharply out of the water and waterfalls fed by melting snow cascading over glacially smoothed rocks. Super-buoyant two-person kayaks were lowered so people could get up close and personal with nature.
We went ashore in Vaeroya where the remaining houses from an abandoned village at the base of a steep cliff had been turned into very remote holiday cottages. Still, we could easily imagine how life must have been in the past.
“The villagers used to fish but in particular relied on the puffins so much that they bred the Mastad puffin dog,” our guide told us. “These fairly small dogs had an extra toe to help them extract the puffins from their nests in the ground.”
That afternoon we also visited nearby Reine, where thousands of cod bodies plus their separated heads, which are prized for cod cheeks, had been hung on outside racks to dry. After several months, workers were cutting down the fish to be shipped to markets around the world.
In the evening, Capt. Leif delicately turned the ship around in its own 367ft/112m length in very narrow Trollfjord – edging the bow so close to shore that 19-year-old merchant marine cadet, Nina, could excitedly reach out to pick an overhanging branch.
In Tromso, our final mainland port, we learned about the nomadic indigenous Sami people of northern Scandinavia and also the harsh conditions overcome by Arctic explorers like Roald Amundsen.
And so we ourselves headed toward the far northern reaches of Svalbard – stopping briefly for a Zodiac cruise along the shores of Bear Island to see both nesting birds on the cliffs above and the surprising wreck of a Russian supply ship on the beach below – surprising that any boat could have managed to run into this dot of land surrounded by thousands of miles/kilometres of open ocean (we were told vodka had been involved).
After a lecture on polar bear safety – “stay with your armed guide whenever you are ashore” – we saw our first bear (of 11), a large male probably weighing about 1,100lbs/500kg, walking across an ice floe, pausing to occasionally look in our direction as the captain eased the ship slowly closer.
Now the ship was scrunching through the sea ice, with the occasional thump as she hit a larger or thicker chunk. Off we went in the Zodiacs to see puffins swimming in the water, then walruses were spotted off the ship’s bow. And whales. And Brunnich’s guillemots which use open wings to “fly” as deep as 100m under water chasing their prey.
All around the ship we marvelled at the endless jagged mountains and valleys covered with creamy or glistening white snow, plus the glaciers – some of them several miles/kilometres across – towering over us if we dared to approach their edges where they met the sometimes frozen ocean.
We disembarked in Longyearbyen, that most northerly permanent settlement in the world, and caught a charter flight south to Oslo. We had one last look as we flew over the frozen Arctic land/seascape, secure in the knowledge our memories of that unique northern cruise and life were tucked away safely in our minds and cameras.