This Disappearing World
Sunday, July 5, 2015
My alarm woke me just after 7:00 a.m. this morning. Silversea Expeditions’ Silver Explorer was rumbling quietly beneath my feet – a sign I took to be the anchor letting loose. I opened the curtains and let an uncensored stream of expletives escape my mouth. I ran over to grab the camera – fumbled around to find the battery I’d stuck on the charger – and snapped a photograph.
We were in another world entirely; the alluring confines of Burgerbukta, Svalbard.
I finished last night’s post at 1:30 a.m. When I wheeled around from the desk in my suite, I was surprised to see that full-blown daylight greeted me from the balcony door; I’d opened the curtains earlier in the evening so I could have a view while I worked.
I can understand why the Midnight Sun can seriously mess people up. It’s as bright outside as if it were the middle of the afternoon on a winter’s day. I went out to take a picture; even the Silver Explorer’s deck lights were extinguished. There’s just no need to turn on external lights this far north.
I came back inside and snapped the curtains shut. I hit all the light switches in the room and waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. Silversea has great curtains with thick black-out drapes, but this is the one time in my life I wished for an inside cabin: light permeated from the seams of the curtains and bled into the room. If you’ve seen the movie Insomnia, I felt a bit like Al Pacino’s character, Detective Will Dormer (Dormer is actually French for ‘sleep’), who is sent to the northernmost reaches of Alaska and is unable to get any sleep as he hunts a killer played by Robin Williams.
Finally, I went and dug out one of the business class amenity kits I travel with. I threw aside the socks and lip balm and dental floss before finally discovering what I wanted: an eye mask. Yes!, I thought. The eye mask will do the trick!
What I didn’t realize is this: my brain had already been fooled. Sleep proved to be elusive.
However, one could argue that sleep is for the dead. There’s a lot to enjoy about today – and I couldn’t wait to get started!
Nestled deep in the heart of Hornsund, Burgerbukta is a feast for the senses. It’s like Glacier Bay, Alaska on acid. With no wind to speak of and temperatures hovering around 2°C (36°F), it was actually quite a pleasant morning, and a lot less cold than it sounds thanks to Silversea’s spectacular red expedition parkas that are provided to each and every guest.
What should you pack for the Arctic? Waterproof pants are a must. I bought a pair before I went to Antarctica earlier this year – and grudgingly paid full waterproof price. However, I have no regrets about my purchase now; unlike water resistant pants, the more expensive waterproof ones will keep you nice and dry.
Gloves are a must, and you might want to bring a warm cap – or what we Canadians would call a toque – with you.
Layering is also a good idea, but how many you choose is up to you. The cold and I are better friends than the heat, so I am fine with a polo shirt, an insulated windbreaker, and the Silversea parka. It’s the wind that makes it cold, not so much the temperature itself.
Our Zodiac was led by Expedition Team member Chris, who took us on an amazing Zodiac tour of the area. Silversea likes to keep things small and manageable, so there were just five guests in our zodiac. A few went out with six, but even then, the Zodiacs can handle many more guests than that. By putting fewer guests on the Zodiac, guests are able to swivel around to take pictures and enjoy the scenery without knocking into each other.
The glaciers here in Burgerbukta are all retreating – some more rapidly than others. We saw a handful of chunks calve off, but we kept a safe distance. It’s not uncommon for parts of the entire face of the glacier to shave off in one massive movement. This creates a dangerous situation for two reasons. The first is that you run the risk of becoming trapped and carried away by the resulting ice. The second is that the ice is much colder than the water it’s entering. Have you ever put an ice cube into a room-temperature glass of water and had the ice snap and blow little chunks back at you? That’s what can happen to a large piece of ice as it calves and enters the water – except the “little chunks” it hurls into the air are now the size of a refrigerator.
Of course, with the talk of retreating glaciers comes the question of Global Warming. Chris explained that the term “Climate Change” is probably a better descriptor. I’m inclined to agree based on things I’ve seen on repeat visits to Alaska, my trip to Antarctica, and a trip to The Kimberley Coast in Australia (the latter aboard Silver Discoverer).
Antarctica is actually one of the driest continents on the planet. It gets very little precipitation – or it did, until recently. Now, there’s more snow than there has been in years past. Here in Burgerbukta, you can see evidence of where the glaciers were not so long ago. Chris produced a map of the region that’s kept in the Zodiac’s emergency pack. The map shows the area where we were as being covered with a glacier – despite the fact that we were still many kilometres away from it.
There’s also an interesting thing that happens when polar ice calves and gradually melts. Polar ice is made of freshwater, and it’s entering into a body of salt water. Because it is fresh water and not salt water, it doesn’t sink down, preferring to stay near the surface. This screws up the “conveyor belt” of warm and cold currents that cycle through the ocean. And that, in turn, changes the climate of the world.
For a more visible example of climate change, look no further than Europe. The daily newsletter-style paper here onboard Silver Explorer tells me Paris, France will hit 36°C today – well hotter than average for this time of year. Europe is trapped in a heat wave, and the eastern coast of North America just clawed its way out of one of the coldest winters on record.
My personal fear as we bobbed around in the Zodiac this morning, engine off, listening to the ice crackle and pop as it melts, is that someday none of this will be here. And that ‘someday’ might be sooner than we think.
Back onboard, I relaxed in the Observation Lounge all the way forward on Deck 6. It’s a great place to sit and read a book – or, in my case, type. That it has tons of books on polar exploration doesn’t hurt, either. But I eventually took my work down to the Panorama Lounge for mid-morning bouillon and coffee.
This afternoon, we arrived at Gnålodden, Svalbard. Just six nautical miles from this morning’s anchorage, Gnålodden is completely dominated by a towering cliff face that is teeming with bird life. At its base is an unassuming trapper’s hut, modest in size, that was the home to a woman named Wanny Wolstad.
Wolstad was from northern Norway, and she spent five years holed up in this hut. Not many women are trappers, but Wolstad braved five winters of total darkness and five summers of perpetual daylight in this small but functional hut.
Some photos of our wonderful afternoon of exploration ashore:
By the way – if you think any of this sounds even remotely awesome (and it really is), you should know that Silver Explorer’s Svalbard season is rather short. There are only two more voyages scheduled this year before the ship heads off to Iceland and Greenland, and next year there are but three 10-night voyages between Tromso and Longyearbyen (pronounced longyearben) or reverse:
- V7613 – Tromso to Longyearbyen – 23 June 2016
- V7614 – Longyearbyen to Tromso – 3 July 2016
- V7615 – Tromso to Longyearbyen – 13 July 2016
There is also one unique, seven-day voyage scheduled for next year – V7616 – that operates roundtrip from Longyearbyen. It departs on 23 July 2016. After that, Silver Explorer once again sails for Greenland and the High Arctic on several voyages before finally concluding her Arctic season in late September in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
Impressively, the first voyage from Longyearbyen to Reykjavik, Iceland – V7617 – is already completely sold out, over a year in advance. People love the Arctic – and they tend to book early.
Before I left for this trip, one of my readers asked me to investigate the onboard supply of whiskies here on the Silver Explorer. So, for all those who are curious: here’s what is currently offered onboard:
- Johnny Walker Red / Black
- The Glenlievet 12 Year
There’s also a nice stream of bourbons and Canadian ryes, if those tickle your fancy.
There are also some extra scotches available from Silversea’s Connoisseur Selection that come at an additional cost. They are:
- The Macallan Select Oak – $10
- Highland Park 1998 (Orkney, Scotland) – $10
- Highland Park 25 Years Old (Orkney, Scotland) – $30
- Johnny Walker Blue
After I went to Antarctica in January, I thought nothing could top that. And it’s true – Antarctica is without equal on this planet, and I dream of the day when I can return. But the Arctic is more subtly charming. If Antarctica is in your face with its over-the-top majesty, the Arctic wins you over with her inherent beauty. It is, ironically, the prettier of the two destinations: there is more diverse life here, from flowers and lichens and mosses to reindeer, polar bears, and dozens of kinds of birds.
Don’t come here to see the polar bears; they’re just an added perk. Come here to see this lovely, surprising and disappearing world.