Alone On Bear Island
Saturday, July 4, 2015
We’re alone at the ends of the earth.
Silversea Expeditions’ Silver Explorer dropped anchor off Sorhamna, Bear Island this morning shortly before 7 a.m., resting in the shadow of the island’s towering cliff faces that have remained unchanged for centuries.
Technically part of Norway and the Svalbard Archipelago, you’ll have to really hunt to find Bear Island – or Bjørnøya in Norwegian – on a map. It’s but a mere speck halfway between Svalbard and Norway’s North Cape. Latitude-wise, it clocks in roughly halfway up Greenland, at latitude 74°N. That puts it farther north than Barrow, Alaska (71°N) and just behind Ellesmere Island in Canada’s High Arctic at 83°N.
Bear Island was first discovered (bumbled upon, really) in 1596 by William Barents and Jacob van Heemskerk. As uncomplicated as its discovery, it was so named because both men saw a polar bear swimming nearby. Early polar exploration didn’t leave a lot of time for creative thinking; everyone was too busy trying to not freeze to death or die of scurvy.
In fact, to put our call today in perspective, consider this: the root cause of scurvy wasn’t fully understood until the early part of the last century. The disease, caused by Vitamin C deficiency, had disastrous results for early seafaring and polar expeditions. Once depleted of all sources of Vitamin C, the body begins to slowly disintegrate. Skin yellows and becomes taut. The eyes sink back into their sockets. Teeth loosen, and eventually fall out. Gums bleed. Death lurks in the shadows.
Simply eating an orange halts scurvy in its tracks.
Of course, “simply eating an orange” is possible only thanks to modern refrigeration techniques. So while we’re here in 2015 lounging around on our luxury expedition ship, starting our mornings off with fresh-squeezed orange juice in The Restaurant, early explorers had to make do without.
Their diets consisted of fatty meats like salt pork and, in the 1800’s, canned foods of questionable standards. Sir John Franklin’s doomed 1845 expedition to conquer the Northwest Passage was made worse, in part, by a cut-rate cannery owner named Stephan Goldner.
Goldner was the official victualler utilised by the Royal Navy to provision the multi-year expedition into the unknown, and the Houndsditch businessman found it more lucrative to cut corners wherever possible and pocket the extra cash. He used improper solder, which allowed air to seep in and spoil the food. He undercooked the food before canning it to save time (and, of course, money), which allowed botulism to run wild. He also routinely passed off questionable meat – like horse – as beef of the finest grade.
The result was that the men onboard the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were slowly poisoning themselves every time they ate a meal.
Of course, no one at the time knew this – it wasn’t until much later that the Royal Navy wised up to Goldner’s tactics, and longer still before the ramifications of his actions were fully understood.
In the Polar Regions like the Arctic, you also need more food than normal to sustain you. In 1881, a man named Alolphus Greely commanded an expedition to the North Pole. He and his 25 men made it to 83°N before being forced back – only they couldn’t go back. Their first relief ship got locked in the ice. The second one sank. Greely and his men were stranded in the Arctic.
Modern estimates gauge that the expedition was about two million calories short of survival rations. Up to six thousand calories per day wouldn’t have been unheard of for a single man to sustain himself in the Arctic.
To survive, Greely and his companions exhausted their food rations. Then, they moved on to other delicacies, eating their leather shoelaces. They ate their leather sleeping bags. Caterpillars. Lichens. Mosses. One man even resorted to bird droppings, convinced they held hidden proteins. Some men, including Greely, survived. Others weren’t as lucky.
And here we are, in 2015, aboard a ship that has a full buffet breakfast.
If there is one indicator – however slight – of our aloneness in the world, it is this: today we have no internet access. Not even a blip. The more-expensive-than-gold “Cellular at Sea” service, used to provide mobile phone access on the ocean, is unavailable. Even the ship’s satellite telephone service is inoperative. The reason? There just isn’t satellite coverage here. No satellite, no communications.
Bear Island is completely off the map.
This morning, we set off on a 90-minute cruise by zodiac off Sorhamna, on the southern tip of the island. In the afternoon, we saw civilisation (or, as close to it as we can expect to get) at Bjørnøya Radio on the northern tip of the island – a meteorological research station literally in the middle of nowhere.
During lunch, we repositioned to Bjørnøya Radio. Few expeditions get to call here; permission has to be obtained in advance, and our sailing is the first time this season that Silver Explorer has been able to offer guests an afternoon here.
Since it’s a working research station, access to the handful of outbuildings is strictly forbidden, with the exception of the small but fascinating gift shop. The shop sells postcards, patches, mugs, shirts, hats and even scotch tumblers. They get but a handful of visitors per year, and the young guy and girl who were manning the shop seemed excited to see us – and, of course, to collect our cash. Purchases can be made in NOK, EUR and USD.
Aside from the small cluster of red buildings surrounding the elevated shoreline, a Norwegian flag, and a wooden sign listing the distances between Bjørnøya Radio and major cities around the world, those manning this meteorological station are totally on their own. During the summer, the Midnight Sun permeates the land with constant daylight. In the winter, darkness envelops the station on a round-the-clock basis. It’s all or nothing here on Bear Island.
Most people came here to see the puffins nesting on the edge of the sheer cliff face. Not me. I’m here to see the barren landscape of this wild place in all its natural glory. The tundra is soft and spongy beneath my feet, and I’m careful to not step on any wildflowers or obvious vegetation – they have a hard enough time existing here as it is.
Still, there are spots of brilliant purple flowers. Delicate yellow buds. The faintest arctic crocuses.
Then, there’s the rocks. Lots of them. Rocks that have fallen into the sea – some long ago, others more recently gauging by the colour of the spilled soil on the beach. There are also rocks littering the permafrost. One of these I had to go investigate, as it looked obviously man-made. It was a cairn, a type of marker made by rocks. Think of it as the ancient equivalent of an orange traffic cone.
I walked gingerly over to it and inspected the cairn. It was definitely man-made, though its purpose was harder to discern. A cairn could have been used for anything from a supply depot marker to a cache storage space. A letter form Sir John Franklin’s doomed 1845 expedition was found in such a cairn. Sadly, this one is empty.
Despite its name, Bear Island actually rarely gets polar bears. Occasionally, the odd one becomes trapped on the island thanks to shifting pack ide patterns in the winter, but we didn’t see even the faintest trace of one today. That will change tomorrow, however, as we enter Polar Bear Country in earnest.
What I truly loved about today, though, was coming back onboard the Silver Explorer and hearing people gush – really gush – about their first day ashore. Silversea just won over legions of converts with this one day alone. And how could they not? Today was absolutely stunning in every respect.
If there’s one thing that makes this experience stand out, it’s the level of service and the quality of food served onboard – not to mention the attention to detail. The surprises aren’t bad, either.
When I came back onboard, I ran into my butler, Arpit, and suite attendant Roy. Both of them said they’d prepared a special surprise or me. I didn’t quite know what that meant, so I went into my suite to take a look.
The faintest scent of lavender washed over me when I entered the suite. Everything looked as it always had – spectacular. But on the bed was a small card, stating they’d run me a nice, hot lavender bubble bath.
Now, I’m not much for baths – never cared for them – but what amazed me was the thoughtfulness of it. Sure, it comes standard with this category of Suite, but stepping back into a warm bubblebath after a day of freezing temperatures ashore.
That’s Silversea’s entire mantra, by the way: give people more than they’d expect. It’s worked well on their classic luxury fleet. It’s working even better on the Expedition ships, where the contrast between the rugged landscape and the ultimate luxuriousness of the Silver Explorer is more pronounced.
So, since the bath was drawn…I had a bath. It warmed me up, relaxed me, and taught me the value of slowing down and taking it easy. After all – there’s another week of expedition adventure still to come.