Dancing dolphins, Wild Longyearbyen, Dog Cart Overbooking Fiasco, West End of Dogs Going East, Further north to Magdelene Fjord, Polar Bear false alarm, 80+degrees north latitude with whales and bergs, Killer Bee Norwegian buffet
We are now heading south again, after two amazing days in the far north of the Arctic Ocean. When I last reported in, we were watching for whales and dolphins as we approached Spitsbergen. Shortly after that update, we saw several whale spouts and then a group of black-nosed dolphins that converged on the ship and decided to have fun. We were in Horizons and almost everyone had left to get ready for dinner. We looked straight down on the animals as they were swimming to keep up with Nautica, then they would go diving under the ship. One even surfed in the wake of the ship.
We arrived bright and early Monday morning in the town of Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen. This far north outpost has nearly two thousand people, who devote their time and energies to coal production, science installations and experiments, and tourism. The town has brightly painted homes and apartments, lots of shops, and a free university (no political science or philosophy offered, but mostly sciences and engineering). Many of the residents walk around with rifles over their shoulders. In fact, we had an announcement that polar bears were sighted on Mt. Plateau, the peak next to the dock area and they requested that people not hike on their own. We decided not to go into town on the free shuttle, as we were scheduled to head out on our dog cart ride at noon from the dock. A nice lady we met in Horizons at breakfast agreed to find us two t-shirts in town with the 78 degree north latitude info on the shirt, plus a refrigerator magnet.
We went to the room and donned our multiple layers, jackets, winter hats and gloves and went down to the dock to meet others from our group. The temperature was in the upper thirties and some rain showers were starting to come in. Two more couples showed up and the chaos began. A small SUV pulled up, looking only for Steve and me (he only had room for four). One other couple piled in and we headed for the Radisson hotel in town to try and figure out how to rendezvous with the others. The other couple at the dock was picked up in a larger Toyota truck SUV with bench seating in the back (more about this vehicle later). We waited and waited as lots of discussions were going on and finally found out that the tour was overbooked. The dog cart rides accommodate ten people and we had twelve. Recriminations flew from the couple that originally found this tour and advertised it on our Roll Call and they blamed Steve and I for the overbooking, although we did exactly what they wanted us to do and we booked the noon tour months ago directly with the tour company, asking for a pickup at the ship and let this couple know we were booked via email. This same pair found the Honningsvåg tour that 14 of us took, but they refused to handle the money for the booking. Steve volunteered for this decidedly complicated task and was never thanked by them for doing it. I guess it takes all kinds, but we are reluctant to play travel agent in the future when people behave this way; this is the risk you take trying to do independent tours. Ironically, this couple’s booking on the dog cart tour was for the 9:00 am departure according to the paperwork, but they still insisted that we were to blame. At this point I wanted to say to hell with it and the tour company did offer to compensate us with lunch and museum admissions. But I got a little stubborn – I really wanted to experience the dog cart ride, so we finally got an agreement that two people would swap out at the halfway point and we would get to experience half the ride. One of the guides assured us there would be plenty of volunteers to get off the carts after sitting there (or standing, if they were driving the cart) in the cold air and intermittent rain showers for thirty minutes.
So off we finally went to the dog farm a few kilometers east of Longyearbyen in the Aventdalen (Advent Valley). On our way, we saw other sled dog farms, a scientific scheme (scam?) to inject atmospheric CO2 into old mines, antenna installations for atmospheric studies, and mine shafts on several mountains. Only a few coal mines are still operating. Longyearbyen uses coal to generate electricity for the town, but the other mines export coal to other locations.
We arrived at the dog farm, where several teams of eight dogs were arranged in a large fenced yard by their “pecking order”. The lead dogs were at the front of the yard and their teams were in rows behind them. Each dog had a wood hut to go into, mostly when the weather is warmer or the sun is out (they prefer very cold weather). These dogs were mostly mixed breeds of Greenland and Alaskan Husky dogs. The racing sled dogs also have greyhound in the mix, but they are less tolerant of cold. Our group was instructed to go into a wood hut and don rain gear and mud boots. I crammed my walrus-sized rear into a pair of the pants and found a jacket, then struggled with the big rubber boots, which did nothing to keep my feet warm, but did make it very difficult to walk.
Waddling out again across a rickety boardwalk to the dog yard, we got the instructions on the dogs and their handling. There were two sleds with two seats and a driver platform, one with one seat and the driver and two seats available with the lead sled and guide (hence the ten). We stood alongside the Toyota truck, since we would follow the group to the midway point, and watched as the guides went in the yard and began the protocol of bringing dogs out to harness them up. The lead dog and his/her companion dog are harnessed first, then the next pair, the third pair and finally the fourth pair. On one of the teams, the second pair of dogs obviously hated each other with a white hot fury, snarling at each other, baring teeth and barking frantically while the other dogs watched in a bemused manner. The guides actually led each pair of dogs by short chains with their front legs off the ground to the harness position, with the dogs yipping fiercely.
While the teams finished their preparations, Steve and I decided to get into the Toyota truck. Well, now I had a real problem. With all of the gear I had on, plus the residual weakness in my left leg from my herniated disk , I could not climb into the front seat. We decided to try the back entrance, with a very high step into the seating area, with no handles to help out. Nope – no go on this route and I was not about to put pressure on my knees (very unpleasant). We asked one of the guides to bring out another step. He found a wood crate and I tried again. I finally got in backwards and scooted onto the floor of the back passenger area and decided to sit there for the ride. Time to get back on the exercise bike when we get home (major red-faced embarrassment). The guide who drove us was very nice and spoke English quite well. He told us about Longyearbyen and the work required to take care of the dogs. This Spitsbergen tour group has 130 total dogs and they rotate thirty at a time to the compound for cart or sled tours. We slowly followed the teams as they set out on the road.
We reached the halfway point and one of the carts nearly turned over because the person driving didn’t turn it properly going through a sharp turn. That problem got fixed and we got out of the vehicle to wait for a transfer. Three women on the ride immediately volunteered to get off and go back to the compound in the truck and Steve and I were able to get on the lead sled with the guide. The guide asked Steve if he wanted to drive and I got into the front seat. I had a scare for a few moments when the stupid rubber boot on my left foot caught in the foot pad and twisted my left knee at a very uncomfortable angle. Fortunately, there has been no long-term damage since I don’t have a meniscus, ACL or PCL in my knee anymore.
Hee-Yah! Off we went! The guide told us about the lead dog on this lead sled. This dog, Topp, is trained to be a leader instead of a follower, because he has nothing to follow and must have the disposition to move forward when commanded. The second dog in front, Maud, is also of a similar disposition. It was fun watching the eight dogs run a few feet in front of me (except when one of the back pair went poop right in front of me while running – bleah). We stopped after a fairly short run and the guides and some of the riders got water for the dogs. Although the temperature was hovering near 35 degrees, this is hot for the dogs and they quickly get very thirsty. I took some short video with my camera and lots of pictures, smiling at the waving tails in front of me. One dog, a large white one looked quite tired near the end. We finally reached the turn-off for the road into compound. Steve skillfully negotiated the turn and we made our way into the compound. Whoa!! We stopped and the guides went through the reverse protocol putting the dogs in the compound while we took off the rain gear and boots. I practically ran to the smaller vehicle so I could make sure I didn’t need to climb into the Toyota truck for the ride back to the pier. All in all, this was a fantastic experience, in spite of the annoyance with our fellow passengers on the booking (we noticed that they didn’t volunteer to get off at the halfway point – I don’t think they will be on our Christmas Card list).
We had a late lunch at Waves, sitting outside. Nautica sailed at 6:00 pm and made its way through the long Isfjord west, then turned northwards to head to Magdalene Fjord, on the far northwest corner of Spitsbergen.
We woke up very early on Tuesday, threw on the warm clothes and went out on the veranda. The view was spectacular, full of imposing mountains and glaciers and dramatic cloud layers and the sun peeking through. We even had snow briefly. Another ship was in the fjord, a Compagnie du Ponant expedition ship called Le Boreal. Passengers from that ship were zipping around in zodiacs and many were walking on a spit of land known as Gravenset, the site of numerous graves of whalers who were in the area in the 18th century. We turned around near a tidewater glacier and slowly made our way back out of the fjord. Captain Hansen maneuvered the ship into an inlet near the Gravenset spit, making me wonder about his sanity briefly (a sailboat in that same area quickly backed out of our way).
Finally, as we were heading out again, we stopped because one of the bridge crew thought he had spotted a polar bear off the port side. The ship nearly listed over with the stampede to that side of Horizons, with everyone elbowing each other with binoculars and camera lenses, looking for that elusive bear. We joked that the bear was probably on the starboard side, waving at the ship or even dancing a chorus line number. Finally, the word came back – false alarm! The movement that was spotted was a reindeer high up on a moraine glacier. Sigh – well, just because we didn’t see a polar bear, we still think it is exciting to be in places that they inhabit.
After leaving Magdalene Fjord, we turned north again, now in pursuit of crossing 80 degrees north latitude and to find ice from the Polar Ice Cap. This quest was successful, as we encountered small and large floes and actually made it to 80 degrees, 28 minutes north latitude, within 600 miles of the North Pole. They lowered a rescue boat and had several crew members go out and chip off some of ice to put on display in the bars. We also saw quite a few whale spouts in the area. The Horizons lounge was packed with people so we were glad we got there early enough to get a front table. Some people were disappointed that we didn’t get to 81 degrees north and a few thought we would cruise up to a wall of ice (I don’t believe it looks that way in the summer). The intent was never to circumnavigate Svalbard, unlike the depiction in the map from the cruise itinerary, so that was a bit misleading. Apparently, there is still fast ice all the way to shore near the Northeast Island (Nordauslandet).
We turned around after getting the ice and began heading south. In celebration of this event, everyone got a certificate in their room with the exact latitude and longitude of our furthest point north. After this busy day, we had dinner in the Terrace Cafe, where they featured Norwegian specialties. Everything was delicious and we ate too much, as usual.
Today, July 17, is a day at sea as we cruise back to mainland Norway, with a stop tomorrow in Harstad, our last port above the Arctic Circle. We are renting a car tomorrow and have another couple going with us to see some sights. I know this is a ridiculously long post, but thought the information would be fun and we also use these posts to remember what we did. Steve will post some photos soon.