I woke with a start at 2.45am.
The ship was pitching and rolling like a mad thing: coats on their hooks sliding back and forth across the cabin wall; the ladder at my side threatening to jump from its hinges and crash to the floor.
From the bunk below, my cabin mate Helena sleepily opened our small curtain and I peered out into bright light. Grey-white froth and spittle pounded on the window. The waves were huge and we seemed to be at completely the wrong angle to stay upright. For the first time I thought less about the potential of an impending day of seasickness, and more about whether our ship could actually capsize.
My first morning above the Arctic Circle was nothing like I expected.
66° 33´ North: crossing the Arctic Circle
We’d celebrated the night before, toasting complimentary glasses of champagne handed out by Adrian the bartender as our ship crossed an invisible latitude line in the still-calm seas.
The official placement of the Arctic Circle isn’t exactly obvious, though. There’s no piece of string stretched across the water, and if the captain hadn’t made a rare appearance in the Panorama Lounge to announce the occasion, none of the passengers would have realised exactly where we were.
All we had to guide us was the Arctic Circle Monument on a little island outcrop. A ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ moment.
It’s a Quark tradition to make a ceremony of an Arctic Circle crossing – and when the ship moved smoothly past the famous monument, our expedition leader John appeared on deck in a knitted Viking beard to splash ‘pure, authentic Arctic water’ on everyone.
He was joined by various members of staff wearing bedsheets, blankets and kayaking drysuits. For the rest of the night, they were polar bears and walruses instead (complete with homemade rolled-up-paper tusks).
After being ceremonially christened into this new part of the world, my senses were primed for a discernible change in the surroundings. Even though the ship’s meals were served at the same time and we continued with our program of expert lectures, I found my eyes continually drawn to the panoramic windows.
Waiting for something different to happen.
Our first sight of icebergs
“Can you hear them tinkling?” said Pimm from Amsterdam, as we stood together on the viewing platform. Dozens of aquamarine and bright blue misshapen blocks of ice bobbed past our ship’s hull, some floating on the surface and others submerged like half carved sculptures.
“They are talking to us!”
The noises shifted and popped as the ice drew closer, bubbling and cracking. I had no idea that ice could sound like this: dozens of tiny buffets of escaping air, which just might have been decades or even centuries old.
A sensory switch
Back below decks, I’d raided the on-board library and found a book by an Austrian housewife called Christina Ritter, who’d joined her hunter-trapper husband for a Svalbard winter in 1933. Unlike her husband, Christina had no experience with isolation in freezing landscapes: no knowledge about how to cope with three months of perpetual darkness – and most importantly, she had no prior passion for the Arctic.
Yet she was immediately captivated by the clear air and far horizons. The darkness of the open water. The sheer power of the ice.
As I read snatches of her book in quiet moments, I found myself paying more attention to the sensations of this place. The noises that the ship made around me: a radiator squeaking in an erratic rhythm; the creaks and groans hidden in the narrow gap between my head and the cabin roof; the rumbling engine.
At the same time, we were constantly faced with stillness: something which I realised is somewhat difficult for me. Days at sea move slowly when you’re always bound to the same square footage, and although I can be a solitary and introverted person I’m anything but idle.
So I had to learn to observe. Out of the window, I stared at blue shadows. At captured light and soft swells; darkness on water; snow reflected inside spiny mountain crevices like glinting metal.
My thoughts became abstract, and where stillness once made me fidget and look for distractions, melting back into my own mind became a luxurious pursuit. Long after the other passengers had gone to bed I sat up in the Panorama Lounge with a gin and tonic from Adrian the barman, curled myself into one of the swivel chairs and read Ritter’s words.
It didn’t matter what time I looked up. The sun still blazed its way through the clouds overhead. It’s a strange feeling when your eyes contradict your mind, and you find you’re trusting in the midnight sun more than you believe the clock.
Wet landings and walks in bear country
After two straight days at sea and an overwhelming afternoon of polar bear sightings from the side of the ship, we changed up the pace and finally headed to the landmass we’d been aiming for throughout the journey.
Our zodiacs landed at Bellsund, a site of the Svalbard archipelago which was once renowned for its whaling opportunities. Now, the waters lapping at the shore are quiet – but the whale bones scattered across the earth are indicative of a century of hunting and slaughter.
Although the men throwing ropes and spears into the sea have vanished, the danger of polar bears is still very real. John and the other members of staff had shifted into protection mode, hands clasping their guns as they delivered safety briefings and told us to stay close.
We were like ducklings in our bright yellow parkas – completely out of our depth in this environment, and content to follow without question.
We took cautious steps across springy moss and slippery ice; bent down to investigate whale bones grown over with tiny purple flowers; and crowded around the upturned boats left by whalers in the 1930s, who never returned to claim them.
A polar plunge amongst the walruses
That afternoon, I threw caution – and my clothes – to the wind, and raced into an ocean that was only just above freezing. The ‘Polar Plunge’ above the Arctic Circle is a time-honoured tradition for Quark Expedition passengers and being one of the youngest on board made me feel duty bound.
In waters where I’d seen walruses cavorting only minutes before, I pushed my unhappy legs to move further forward and immediately felt like a dozen firecrackers were exploding against my skin.
Even as I was undressing, the other two polar plunging folk had both run straight in and immediately out again – so I was alone in the water as people stood watching me on shore and from nearby zodiacs.
“Someone give me a countdown!” I shouted, the idea of dunking my head at once horrific and wholly necessary to feel like I’d truly ‘done it’. More pain; more firecrackers; a horrible amount of gasping and screams which simply don’t belong in public view.
Even though I’ll admit some of the photos are pretty wonderful.
In no time, I was back on shore with chattering teeth – although the air no longer felt cold in comparison to being under the sea’s surface.
Another side of the Arctic
Once I realised quite how cold and unforgiving that water was, the Arctic felt different. There was a violent undercurrent to the things we saw: a menacing sense that this landscape had no concern for human wellbeing. It’s a place which does not forgive.
The weather, when it changes, is dramatic and worryingly quick. Wind whipped across my face so loudly that I couldn’t speak. I was wrapped up in layers of thermal, micro fleece, waterproof and fur lined jackets, but it didn’t matter; the wind still cut straight through and I could feel it, fresh and sharp, on my skin beneath.
Luckily, any misgivings I had about the Arctic environment was overshadowed by the passion of our guides, which shone through above all else.
At the start of the journey, I’d wondered quite why they seemed to be chomping at the bit for the last days of the trip – but once we reached Alkahornet, a mountain on Spitsbergen’s western coast, I finally understood their excitement.
“There’s no silence as loud as Arctic silence..”
After walking for a half hour, Will had stopped our little group of eight hikers halfway up a lookout point: an averagely steep grassy slope looking out across the shining flat sea, flat mountain tops with ribbons of snow falling down them on the horizon line.
“If we can just refrain from using cameras and moving anything like plastic or waterproofs, anything that makes a loud noise, that’d be great.”
He asked us to sit down and take in our surroundings. Moving my head slowly, I looked around to see a group of reindeer happily snuffling in a snow bank to my left. The clattering sound of hundreds of bird wings echoed around the towering cliffs behind me. Further off in the distance, I could hear ice calving from the bergs.
Everything seemed utterly still – and yet a hundred different activities were going on, all around us.
After two weeks on board, our ship eventually docked in Longyearbyen, the largest settlement on Svalbard and the world’s northernmost town. I walked unsteadily through the streets, breathing the thin, tight air and staying quiet until I reached my little guesthouse (the appropriately named ‘Gjestehuset 102’ – Norwegian for guesthouse) and sat in a leather chair, feeling the building gently swaying beneath me.
Snow fluttered down past the window opposite. A pair of Arctic terns – birds I could now name, thanks to the boat guides – flitted quickly through the sky. The sound of scratches and shuffling on the ground below hinted at a reindeer or an Arctic fox; theoretically even a polar bear (not likely, but there are statistically more bears than residents on Svalbard).
I couldn’t shake the sense of surreal connection to this Arctic world – and honestly, I didn’t think I wanted to. No matter what I’d originally expected from this place. The reality of life above the Arctic Circle is something I’m still trying to comprehend.