A little while has passed since my arctic adventure and the photos still aren’t fully edited and this blog is long overdue, however I’m still going to write it.
Back in February, in celebration of a milestone, a bucket item got ticked off my list, but never from my heart.
Svalbard, a remote Norwegian island just 650 miles short of the North Pole, had long been the magical land that had captured my imagination, a frozen landscape filled with glaciers and Polar bears.
Let’s get this clear, anyone who knows me, knows I don’t like being cold, but somehow, since my first Arctic trip, I have fallen in love with the vast frozen landscape and somehow don’t mind being in conditions of between -16 to -30 ºC.
Getting to Svalbard is relatively simple, a quick flight to Oslo and then a connection to Svalbard, which although much further in distance from Oslo than it is from London to Oslo, it still comes under Norway, which is quite convenient for European mobile home from home packages! But feels like one of the furthest and remotest place on earth.
Svalbard has 24 hour darkness in the winter and at the time of my arrival, was just beginning to emerge from this into the polar night, casting a deep blue magical twilight all day and night with just a little increase of light each day until the inhabitants celebrate the first full day of light in March.
Kitted out in sub-temperature North Sea fishing gear (an eBay special), we stepped out from the airport and breathed in the magic. There is something breath-taking about the pure white landscape, and deep blue sky.
Longyearbyen is the main town and the nearest human habitation to the North Pole. It’s a small and friendly town, surprisingly well stocked with eateries and supplies, however, it is illegal to leave the city limits without a firearm, but equally you are asked to politely leave your weapon by the door along with your shoes when entering a shop or building. There is little danger of crime on the island, but a real danger of Polar Bears.
Svalbard, however, recently did suffer its first attempted crime……..a bank robbery. A Russian thief entered the local bank and announced it was a stick-up. The cool Nordic staff smiled and told the gentleman politely to leave his firearm at the door like everybody else. Insulted that his stick up was not taken seriously, the thief insisted it was a robbery. The bank staff agreed and gave the robber the contents of their safe. Pleased that he had finally been taken seriously, he left the bank and strolled down the ice compressed road, only to be met by the Police who reside a few doors down!
That’s the thing about Svalbard, there are vast open uninterrupted spaces of frozen wilderness, but actually there is nowhere to go. Svalbard is unusual, in many ways, it is the only place in the world where a visa is not needed and you can reside there as long as you are able to support yourself. However, you are not allowed to die there, and are strongly urged to return to the mainland as age or illness sets in, due to the ground being too frozen for burials.
Svalbard is home to the world’s seed store, meaning that seeds are sent from around the world to be banked and stored, due to such extreme cold, the seeds are not going to risk being germinated and are stored just in case we need a pack to start things off again after nuclear fallout. Another appealing bonus for residence is that the common cold and other common illnesses are uncommon in Svalbard, it is just too cold for germs to survive!
Exposure to such stunning, vast and hostile wilderness, highlighted our very real vulnerability, and also explains the unique community feel of Svalbard. Nearly all of the residents are immigrant and have chosen this place to call home. There’s a sense of tolerance, acceptance and reliance that I have never encountered before. The support of your neighbour and community is vital for survival.
My first days outing dressed like the Micheline man, on a snowmobile gave me my first photographic challenge of how to photograph the stunning landscape whilst travelling at 20/30 miles per hour, keeping equipment warm, dry and tucked away to preserve battery life. This was not easy, dressed in many layers with restricted movement, and fingers that can only be exposed to the elements for about 30 seconds before turning numb, I persevered and captured shots along the way simply hoping for the best.
Later that night in celebration of my milestone, the Aurora Borealis came out to play and honoured me with a dance. Having read up on how to capture the northern lights, I had diligently set up my camera beforehand as best I could and then the chase was on to find the lights. Driving around Longyearbyen, we were finally rewarded with a magical lightshow. Delighted and excited I set about capturing the night sky, moving myself and camera around to make the best compositions.
There are so many technical details to remember with the camera and I am the first to admit the technical side is my weakness, not only when it comes to photography, actually this relates to anything that doesn’t just work the way I want it too! What I omitted to remember in my excitement of seeing the northern lights dance before me was that the camera focus is near enough impossible to set in the dark, and although I had set focus prior, this became redundant as I moved around trying to capture the best composition as the light display danced before me.
Needless to say, I was very disappointed when loading the images up to my PC and sadly this was to prove the only time the aurora Borealis would make an appearance during my time In Svalbard, but this mishap has ensured my arctic return and I can’t wait until my next frozen adventure, where I will do my best to contain my excitement and remember more of the technical details needed.
As my mother always told me practice makes perfect!