a  magazine  of  travel  and  discovery

by George Oxford Miller

After five days of brilliant sunlight, memories of darkness feel me with nostalgia. Our cruise through the fjords around Svalbard, the Norwegian island group closest to the North Pole, take us to 80 degrees north. From mid-April to Mid-August, the sun never sets. But midnight with the sun brightly overhead is not what keeps us awake. It’s the endless progression of some of the most stunning scenery on the planet. 

Our Norwegian Coastal Voyage cruise begins on Spitsbergen, the largest island in the archipelago. Before boarding the MS North Star, we overnight in the town of Longyearbyen, named after the American engineer who founded the coal-mining town in 1906. All the mines but one are closed, but the village remains a thriving settlement nestled between two 1,000-foot mountains with nearly vertical slopes.

While waiting for our afternoon departure, we explore the Arctic outpost. No trees, no bushes, no plants above ankle high survive in this frigid environment, but nature still decorates with vivid color. Splashes of red, blue, and yellow wildflowers dot the gravelly yards. Reindeer graze the sparse vegetation between buildings, Arctic terns dive bomb anyone who ventures too close to their nests, and rows of snowmobiles wait in anticipation of eight months of snow cover. 

In the perpetual sun, the orderly rows of houses reflect bright hues of the primary colors, a reminder of the bleak the monotones of winter. The Svalbard Museum, an easy two-hour visit, presents the whaling and mining history, the adaptations of Arctic plants and animals, and the climate and geology that make the archipelago so unique.

Onboard the North Star, we lift anchor and sail into the “evening,” a concept that at 79 degrees north has no relation to the sun angle. In keeping with the endless sunlight, our first landing begins at nine o’clock that “night.” We climb a 250-step stairway and enter a time capsule. Clinging to the side of the mountain, the Russian settlement of Barentsberg remains stuck in the 1970 Soviet Union era. Yellow-brick, block-house buildings line the broad sidewalks (no need of cars, here) and a bust of Lenin adorns the town center. 

“Barentsberg once had 2,000 inhabitants, but now only 500,” our guide Stanislav, tells us. “Some people find magic here and stay 5, 10, even 20 years. We have no cash currency. The government gives everyone a food stipend and all the businesses operate electronically on credit.” 

The town has a school (4 students), hospital, apartment buildings (mostly boarded up), and a 30-room brick hotel (100 percent vacancy) with the only bar in town. Our group crowds in and orders 15 Kroner ($3) shots of Russian vodka. The bartender empties a bottle of Stolichnaya and runs into the kitchen to refill it.

“I don’t care what the label says,” Harald, a Norwegian in our group tells us. “This is home-brew with at least a 90-proof kick.”

For our evening’s entertainment, we gather in the 500-seat auditorium for a cultural show. The folk dancers and singers delight us all with elaborate costumes and an energetic performance. At 11:30 we return to the ship in time to toast the midnight sun. 

At the breakfast buffet, I learn that we’ve already passed two polar bears on rocky islands and a pod of beluga whales. Soon the ship stops again for a polar bear and cub sleeping on a peninsula. Once the ice on the fjords thaws, the bears seek refuge on land. We crowd the deck for binocular views. At Moffen Island, our northernmost excursion above the 80th parallel, we spy a walrus colony, little brown dots  hauled out on a distant sandbar.

For three days we sail past frozen rivers and snow-covered giants. Blue sky frames the black and white peaks and ribbons of blue-ice glaciers lace down the slopes. In narrow valleys, glaciers create billowing fog that drapes the mountains like lacy curtains. 

At Monaco Glacier we board eight-passenger inflatables and boat along a towering one-mile-long face of blue ice. The crystalline ice began as snow that fell centuries ago. The fractured surface groans and pops as it inches forward. An occasional thunder announces the birth of another iceberg. 

The relentless sun shapes SUV-sized bergs into bizarre shapes. We weave through a performance art gallery filled with minimalist creations of breath-taking beauty. Tiny bits of fractured ice snap and pop as thought we’re floating in a bowl of Rice Crispies. 

Suddenly, some of the floating ice comes to life. The white backs of beluga whales slice through the water like scissors cutting wrinkled silk. The whales feed on fish along the glacial face. As we eat lunch, they cruise back and forth in front of the dining room windows feasting on their underwater buffet. 

The belugas start a mealtime trend. The next day during lunch, we rush to the deck to see a pair of fin whales, the second largest whale species. Then at dinner, a pair of blue whales, the largest leviathans, interrupts our meal. 

After boating along the glacier, we motor ashore at a scenic bay with a 1920s-era trapper’s cabin. “Everyone calls the cabin the Texas Bar,” Cecilie, one of the expedition leaders, tell us. “People from Longyearbyen like to party here, but the origin of the name is a mystery. With all the historical and scientific research on Spitsbergen, it’s nice the land still keeps a few secrets.” 

Armed with Ruger .308 rifles to protect against polar bears, the guides take us on a short hike to a scenic vista point. Needle-like peaks draped with necklaces of snow dwarf our ship anchored in the fjord. We step around dainty clumps of mountain avens and pink mounds of moss campion. With wildflowers and breathtaking scenery, nature turns the barren tundra into a 360-degree photo set. 

In the summer, the water temperature of the glacier-fed fjord reaches 35 degrees F. – perfect for a swim. The staff brings towels and sets up a beverage table beside a snow bank on Texas Bar beach. I race into the crystal water expecting the slap-in-the-face shock, but not the instant pain from the waist down. Afterward, we receive Arctic Swimmer certificates. 

“I’m going to frame mine and hang it beside my Princeton diploma,” Alex, a veterinarian from Maryland says. Having experienced the plunge myself, I understand her sense of accomplishment.

For our last landing, we visit Ny Alesund, the northernmost town on the planet. The former coal mining village and departure point for North Pole expeditions is now a scientific research station. Ten nations are conducting research on Arctic ecology and global warming. The nearby Kongvegen (King’s Road) Glacier has retreated 2.3 miles since 1970. The community of 100 has a post office, so I mail a postcard home from northern limit of human habitation. 

While the States swelter in the summer heat, the fjords and snow-capped peaks of Spitsbergen offer an escape to one of the most stunning wilderness outposts on the planet. At the frozen edge of civilization, we need all 24 hours of the day to absorb the glaciers, cultural history, and breathtaking scenery.
Postcards From the Edge of Civilization

Spitsbergen: Cruise explores fjords with blue-ice glaciers, white whales, and snow-capped peaks.

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