Revealing a frozen land emerging from darkness – through camera and adventure
There is little so barren and unforgiving as the Arctic landscapes that few will ever be able to appreciate in their lives. These places, these frozen and harsh places, where wildlife still roam free and humans live in balance with nature, speak to me.
Svalbard is one of those places, and when I recently got the opportunity to visit, I could not pass up the chance.
Located a reasonable 3-hour flight from my home in Oslo, I deplaned in a remote place on the globe halfway between Norway and the and the geographical North Pole. Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago which is home to over 2,000 full-time residents.
The land area of Svalbard is dominated by glaciers and protected areas – the islands boast seven national parks, and 29 nature preserves, ensuring the breathtaking landscape is secured for generations to come.
Given its latitude, 78◦ north, Svalbard experiences both the Polar Night and the Midnight Sun, as do all areas of the Arctic region. During the peak of Polar Night, the land is encased in darkness from November through February. As the earth rotates, the sun returns when, from the end of April until August, the Midnight Sun reins and the sun never sets.
During my visit, in early March, I was able to experience the transition between the end of the Polar Night and the onset of the Midnight Sun. This incredible timing gave me the opportunity to experience the splendors of the night in the Arctic and the brilliant rays of sun throughout the daytime hours.
Each night the sky came to life with the magical Northern Lights. The pulsing colours and shapes dancing across the sky were truly amazing and brought me back to the 2014’s when I saw the Northern Lights for the first time… In many ways, it is still one of the most memorable and precious things I have ever experienced.
Svalbard is major polar bear land. While over 2000 people live in on the islands, they share the land and waters with nearly 3000 polar bears. You’re clearly warned when visiting that if you leave the safety of the town, you’re in bear zone. And you’d better have a rifle with you.
Determined to discover these bears safely, I joined a snowmobile trip to the East coast of Svalbard where I teamed up with my guide Ida and the five other adventurers. Ida, a member of the Better Moments tour team, was everything I could hope for in a leader – she was experienced, passionate about our destination, and full of both life-saving and unique information.
I have to admit, I’ve never driven a snowmobile before this trip! Ida gave a great introduction and lesson to help us get over this hurdle – there was absolutely no experience necessary to figure out how to work with the machine. Once everyone was comfortable, we headed out.
Wilderness was seemingly endless with the sun reflecting off the icy crust on the snow blanket that still covered every surface. It was all I could do to keep from stopping at every turn to drink in the views with my eyes and through my camera.
However, Ida was firm; we had yet a long way to go, and we had to keep moving.
As we approached the East coast, the traveling became hazardous – the conditions were near whiteout, and without all my attention focused on the sled in front of me, I would have easily been lost in a few seconds. Not only that, but we were firmly in the realm of the polar bear at that point.
After a grueling 40 minutes with my eyes glued to the rest of the team, the visibility eventually cleared, and we reached the coast.
We stopped to rest and enjoyed the panorama at the top of the glacier. From the summit, we had dazzling views of neighboring islands, Barents and Edgeøya. It was hard to remember that such beauty could be incredibly dangerous if the bears were to get curious.
As we stopped here to enjoy a warm lunch, Ida shared her stories about previous tours and her deep knowledge and love for this unbelievable place.
We decided to explore more after lunch, driving across the stretched of land and eventually spotting bear tracks across our path, but the bears themselves remained elusive. Obviously, they could see, hear, and smell us. But they kept to themselves. Although the point had been to discover bears, I realized I was happy we didn’t meet them. In some way it was better knowing they were there, safe but living as they were meant to be without interference from humans.
Plus, it is the unpredictability of nature that I truly cherish most.
Here, perched nearly on the top of our planet in biting cold, I could not have been filled with more joy and peace. The scale of nature compared to my frame coupled with the silence of a partially sleeping land transformed me from the person I had been before.
Before I knew it, it was time for the long journey back – through the whiteout, the endless valleys, and across the icy fjord. Despite my thrill over the adventure of the day, I may have been happiest of all when we could finally see Longyearbyen in the distance. Our entire journey took 10 hours as we traveled 184km. I had to admit it; I was exhausted at the end of the day.
Although I had intended to take it slowly the next day, I instead dove right into exploring one of the many ice caves near the town. This unknown world revealed untold beauties to us with the delicate, yet fierce ice crystals gleaming in the depths of the ice. It was a moving experience.
Up to this point, I couldn’t have asked for more out of my crazy 78° north journey, and I knew it was only the beginning. The following day, I met a truly unique and dynamic couple for a photo session. Their embrace of this wild world and their focused attitude on life matched the landscape of Svalbard hit me in a powerful way.
Read more about their story here.
For more travel photos, please visit my travel photo blog: www.apfoto.no