BEST OF 2014 In Svalbard, where you sail among the bears


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Svalbard“…the miracle island, the last Thule, the last land granted to man’s life. For there is no other region in all the world that is so close to the Pole, and where life persists..” Paolo Monelli, Journey to the Cold Islands, 1926

Boating on the roof of the world, 600 miles from the magnetic pole, among seals, whales and walruses: at the invitation of Captain Michele, owner and skipper of Ecland, I could not resist. One plane to Oslo, another to Longyearbyen, and by the end of July they are in Svalbard, the large, mysterious boreal archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, 1,000 kilometers north of the North Cape. It is midnight when, bag over my shoulder, I walk down the pier and board Ecland, docked among the few sails at berth in the harbor: Canadian, French, Norwegian flags. And the sun is high in the clouds that hide the mountain peaks. It will take a few days to get used to the dazzling light of the polar night, the sharp wind, the absence of stars….

farewell to red wine As a herd of white belugas swim in the fjord, Andrée, Alberto and Filippo, as well as Michele my traveling companions, offer me a welcome beer: it will unfortunately be one of the last, as we find out the next day in the Longyearbyen commissary. On Svalbard, Norway’s relentless laws do not allow the sale of beers and liquor to boat crews without written permission from the Sysselmann, the archipelago’s governor whose office, on weekends, is closed. Wine is not restricted but we have to make do with six bottles of a very bad merlot that we will end up using in the kitchen. We console ourselves with a visit to the polar museum and the “northernmost town on the planet”: two thousand inhabitants, a hotel, a couple of restaurants, a bank, a movie theater, a church, a university center, brick-colored wooden houses and little else. Tourism has all but supplanted the mining industry (the town is named after the American coal magnate John Munro Longyear, who began exploiting Svalbard deposits in 1904), and the only operating mine, run by workers, meets the needs of the local power plant. By contrast, the Global Seed Vault, the underground tunnel that has been collecting and storing hundreds of thousands of seeds of the seven thousand known varieties of edible plants in the permafrost since 2008, cannot be visited-the Earth’s biodiversity bank.

Screenshot 2014-12-19 at 4:14:15 p.m.We set sail in favor of the current and sail into Isfjorden, a deep inlet of Spitsbergen, the main island of the archipelago: we aim for Prins Karls Island, uninhabited and a protected nature park, like all of Svalbard. Flocks of seabirds follow us: puffins, fulmars, skuas, Arctic terns. We are in the highest latitude in the world into which it is possible to go deep: only in July and August, when the pack retreats further north; and only because of a Gulf Stream puff, which laps the islands’ western shores while to the east, even in midsummer, the sea is covered with ice. The cold is biting. Water temperature does not exceed 3-6 degrees, air temperature fluctuates between 5 and 10, but it drops near glaciers that carve valleys between dark mountains and dump icebergs into the sea, with crashes of thunder. The lows, in winter, drop to -50°. In the sun’s rays the ocean transcolors from molten lead to bronze to gold and cobalt blue, then becomes covered with pearly mists and vapors. Rapid flights of birds glide over the waves; the outline of the coast disappears in the mist. When the clouds lift, the light reveals a white cliff, the bright green and purple tundra, the rocks mottled with grasses, mosses and lichens. Then the curtain closes again, amid mists and fumes.

It is impossible to work halyards and sheets with bare hands: even with gloves, fingers are frozen. But the body is warm. I equipped myself well: microfiber “tactical” jerseys and tights, goose down jacket, oilskin, boots, balaclava, wool cap. Inside Ecland there is a pleasant warmth, the oil stove works, but in the bunk we sleep clothed. We proceed on autopilot (in turn at least one of us stands watch at the inner wheelhouse or in the cockpit) to the placid anchorage of Salvagen Bay: still water, the sun shines on the glacier, a stream roars through the beach rocks. Two walruses pass puffing aft. And we are alone in the primordial nature. No ships, sails or fishing boats. In the morning we notice some signs of life: next to the remains of a shack of trappers, bear and Arctic fox hunters, are the tents of a scientific expedition.

Apart from Longyearbyen the archipelago (62,500 sq. km: 60 percent covered by ice and only 10 percent with some form of vegetation) is almost completely depopulated. In Spitsbergen 400 Russian-Ukrainian miners are holding out in the Barentsburg settlement , a hundred Norwegians in the Sveagruva mine, a handful of Polish meteorologists in Hornsund, a team of international scientists in Ny-Ålesund, and a couple of misanthropic seal and blue fox hunters who have chosen to isolate themselves at the edge of the world, drifting into the vast spaces of Europe’s largest wilderness. There are also the Soviet ghost towns of Pyramiden and Grumantbyen, long since evacuated but intact, with busts of Lenin, Cyrillic inscriptions, even a swimming pool and a music school.

Screenshot 2014-12-19 at 4:15:18 p.m.

Discovered by Dutch navigator Willem Barents in 1596, Svalbard (“Cold Coast”) soon became the destination of a wild northern gold rush: whale oil, walrus ivory, seal, fox and polar bear skins. Remains of whaling stations, ancient cemeteries, fat boiling pots, mandibles and vertebrae of whales are scattered throughout the archipelago. Between the late 17th century and the mid-20th century, fleets from Holland, Russia, England, France, Denmark, and Norway exterminated millions of mammals. So much so that large cetaceans such as the Right Whale and Blue Whale are now threatened with extinction. Bears-protected since 1973-are on the rise and pose a real danger. Michele, in order to obtain permission to sail in Svalbard, had to ensure that there was at least one crew member aboard Ecland with a gun permit. And the manuals go on and on in their accounts of lethal encounters and recommendations: use powerful, large-caliber weapons, from shotguns to semiautomatics, with magazines always engaged and ready for use. We, actually, bluffed, having only the boat’s flares in the boat…. But of bears, fortunately, we did not spot any.

Heading north, the light becomes more vivid, the blue of the sky paler and chillier, the visibility crystal clear: coastlines can be seen 50 miles away. Toward Ny-Ålesund we cross the 79th parallel: we sail carefully between icebergs that break off from the fronts of two huge glaciers and float in the fjord current. We moor English-style in a small dock; there are no other boats: only the dinghies of the Polar Institute and the science stations that occupy the tenements of the old mining company. We are greeted by Sebastian, a Swiss who ended up here by chance four years ago (“I got a job at the Oceanographic Institute and stopped by”), who helps out in the harbor in his spare time. There is water, fuel, hot showers and a list of available supplies: we order tea, apples, smoked salmon. No alcohol. But Sebastian, when he brings us our groceries, has a surprise in store: 12 cans of beer from his personal stash! “Winter,” he says, “is not so terrible. You get used to it. And when the moon comes out they are great nights.” Our arrival is a small event at Ny-Ålesund, “the northernmost permanently inhabited human settlement on the planet.” In his little wooden office (one enters by taking off one’s shoes) Dag, the harbor master, a two-meter-tall big man, says that Ecland is the first Italian boat to call there since he took over in 2007. Shortly thereafter, the four researchers from the CNR Arctic base come to visit. Fabio Giardi, an atmospheric chemist at the University of Florence, is the only Italian of the 30 or so scientists wintering at Ny-Ålesund: “Next,” he says, “will be our second winter. We study air pollution, rocks, ice.”

Screenshot 2014-12-19 at 4:23:50 p.m.

The village is surreal: the little houses painted red-yellow-blue, the commissary, the disused mine train, the post office (of course: “the northernmost in the world”), the stone bust of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, the cable car that leads to the geodesic telescope on Mount Zeppelin, the sign inviting people to “unload their weapons here” and the one enjoining “do not continue unarmed beyond this point” planted where the houses end and the bear tundra begins. In one field there is still the anchor flagpole of the airship Norge with which Amundsen and Umberto Nobile, in 1926, made the first flight to the North Pole; from the same flagpole, two years later, Nobile’s Italy detached, which after reaching the pole crashed on its way back: and Amundsen lost his life in an attempt to rescue his friend. Past adventures I brood over as we face the long route back: heading south, 30 hours of sailing to Bear Island, then another 270 miles to the northern shores of Norway. Ecland advances slowly among the ice blocks that clash and creep along the waterline: from the large icebergs, radiating greenish-blue and turquoise glows, we keep a safe distance. The sea is calm, dense, oily. Then the wind strengthens from the northwest, 28-30 knots with gusts to 35: we spin at 8 knots with full mainsail and reduced yankee. A group of whales, always signaled by a flurry of seabirds, passes half a mile to starboard: the sprays, high and regular, stand out against the blue sky like fountains of snow. We stop at Bear Island, remote, lonely, desolate, always shrouded in fog and low, rain-laden clouds. We bottom out in a deserted roadstead surrounded by reefs with millions of birds; rest a few hours, then resume our course in the Barents Sea.

Screenshot 2014-12-19 at 4:25:02 p.m.

As we descend south, the air softens: by now I can stand in the cockpit without gloves. And at midnight the sun begins to lower through the clouds that turn pink and orange: it’s almost a sunset! We’re fast, at the big slack and with the waves pushing us, with dolphins playing with the keel and fulmars escorting us aft. In twelve hours, we ground nearly 100 miles. And everywhere, upwind and downwind, you can see the whales’ splashing, colossal leaps and their tails beating the sea, raising cascades of froth. Then we sight land: the Torsvaag Fjord, 40 miles ahead, west of the North Cape. The wind drops, the sky turns gray. Ecland motor sails through narrow green fjords. Here are the houses, the ferries, the fish farms, the roads with cars: the world of men. And in the fog the dim lights of Tromsø Harbor.



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