Judd Hill is the kayaking guide aboard Aurora’s Polar Pioneer, the stalwart former-Soviet vessel used so successfully by the company founded by Aussie adventurer and mountaineer, Greg Mortimer.
After the initially complex ordeal of wrapping my ample self into a dry suit, donning a waterproof “skirt” and gloves and inserting the whole clumsy package into the wobbly kayak, we are away on our little water-borne adventure.
Paddling the still waters in front of 14th July Glacier is straightforward enough, and the occasional chilly splashes certainly keep me alert. The receding glaciers of Spitsbergen are calving off great chunks as the warm summer sun melts them. Beginning with a sound like a howitzer blast, hundreds of cubic meters of 50,000-year-old ice plummets into the bay. A rolling crescendo of thunder accompanies the collapse and a mini tsunami rolls out into the bay.
“Never get closer than me to the glacier face,” warns Judd, recalling earlier moments of “excitement” . . . “and never get caught in shallow water (were breakers will form and swamp you). See that neat berg over there? Let’s check it out.”
We paddle a few hundred meters over to the largest berg in the bay, a bright blue almost architecturally formed mass about the size of a ten-story building. And remember, we’re only seeing the top floors. Judd is still cautious, “That’s close enough.”
No sooner had his warning sounded, than chunks the size of refrigerators start dropping off the side of the berg, then a whole side sheers off with a mighty rumble and splash. “Wow!” is the only word that I can manage.
The change in balance is enough to upset the equilibrium and the entire mass begins to rotate; slowly at first, back and forth. More bits collapse like sunstruck guardsmen fainting – and then the climax. Like Neptune himself coming forth, the giant cube upends itself in its own mini-cataclysm showering the surrounding water with more high-velocity fragments.
When it’s all over and my throat is hoarse from hollering, the water around us is choked with icy debris, and we have to clobber the pieces and ride high over lumps to escape the carnage. As I look over to Judd, I see him loading a hefty block into his kayak, his face smeared with boyish satisfaction, “That’s going in our whisky tonight!”
Doing It: Aurora Expeditions, in conjunction with Southern Sea Ventures, offers sea kayaking as an option aboard its 10-night Circumnavigation of Spitsbergen itinerary annually in July. For further information, contact Aurora Expeditions.