The Christmas Story – In Svalbard, where you sail among the bears/1

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Bee_portiumGiovanni Porzio is one of Italy’s greatest reporters and a passionate sailor. In his book “The Sea is Never the Same,” he recreated the essence of reportage, that is, “reporting” from a journey news, but also stories, feelings and images. It is from this very book that the story whose first part can be found here is taken.

…the miracle island, the last Thule, the last land granted to human life. For there is no other region in the whole world that is so close to the Pole, and where life persists…” Paolo Monelli, Viaggio alle isole freddazzurre, 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 I am 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…. As a herd of white belugas swims in the fjord, André, 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 commissary in Longyearbyen.

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.

Tromso
Tromso

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.

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.

Discover all of Giovanni Porzio’s reports in his book “The Sea is Never the Same!”

 

 

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