boat trip!

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I was lucky – really really lucky – that my parents love me a lot, and for my birthday they bought me a boat trip. Starting from Longyearbyen, there are several fjord cruises that go to different outposts. Helen and I really wanted to see some more of Spitzbergen besides just our little valley. So I was very very thrilled that my parents got me the best birthday present ever! It was an all-day affair, heading up to the former Russian mining outpost of Pyramiden by way of a few other places of interest.

I’m crunched for time and about to head to the airport so I’m not sure how much I can write, but I’ll at least post some pictures.

It started off with fog, clouds, and bad weather in Longyearbyen. What else is new. As we headed out, the coast was cloaked in fog.

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But look over there! It’s sunny on the other side of the fjord! And as it happens, the other side of the fjord is where we are heading, lucky us.

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First though, a stop at some bird cliffs. Hundreds and hundreds of birds perching and nesting on the rocks, although my zoom wasn’t big enough to give you a clear shot of them. The white stuff is bird shit.

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From there we headed out a long way, past some beautiful mountains and low islands, to a glacier.

Now: we have seen local glaciers. We have seen them from above, from the side, from below where they melt out into a moraine and a messy expanse of soil and sediment and boulders. Land-bound glaciers are impressive. But we hadn’t seen, yet, a glacier that goes down to the sea. It’s a whole different animal when you can see how tall and thick and just generally massive a glacier is.

We were wowed.

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While we were approaching, the boat slowed and our guide and the crew fished a piece of floating ice out of the water. It was quite the operation. Then he smashed it into smaller pieces with a mallet and served us all some whiskey on the rocks: the rocks being 3500-year-old glacier ice. That was something unexpected.

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(Photo credit: Helen. As usual, I’m blinking.)

It was… not very good whiskey. But we gamely drank it down anyway, you know, take a hit for the team. And it’s true that whiskey really does warm you up, so no complaints there.

And then we had drawn closer to the glacier. We’re really still quite far away, which makes it insane when you realize the scale of the ice chunks and fissures in this crazy blue-white texture.

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We had a grilled lunch on the deck. Yum. And then we headed over to Pyramiden, finally.

The history is interesting and I’ll try to summarize it briefly: although Svalbard is technically part of Norway, it’s also an international archipelago governed by a special treaty. The Russians have/had several mining communities, including one, Barentsburg, which is still running. Pyramiden was originally Swedish, then sold to the Russians, who then had to dismantle it at the outset of World War II so it wouldn’t be captured by the Nazis and used as a base. They began rebuilding after the war and production started up in 1956. It was going, going, going – with a population of 1200 at its peak – until the fall of the Soviet Union. Then it gradually tailed off and was closed in 1998. For ten years nobody was there. Now, 15 people summer there running a hotel in one of the old buildings and giving guided tours.

It was fascinating.

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Seriously. Wow.

There are major questions about what will happen to Pyramiden. The site has, unsurprisingly, horrible contamination and environmental damage issues. The governor of Svalbard reportedly wants Russia to scrub the site. But Russia doesn’t want to do much of anything (the site is still owned by the state mining company), and Norway is very sensitive to putting pressure on Russia.

Another suggestion is to turn it into a scientific research station. But, of course, scientists are the people who would care the most about the environmental issues, so there’s a bit of an issue there.

It’s pretty sad to see all the buildings abandoned: many still with furniture and empty beer bottles inside. The longer it stays not cleaned up, the less likely they will ever be suitable for use again.

Two more things of note: first, we had an awesome guide. Besides these awesome clothes, he was pretty funny and very interesting. He has lived in Pyramiden for three summers and spends his winters traveling. Last winter he hitchhiked around Iran and this year he wants to go to Argentina “so I can see some green trees for the first time in a long time.”

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And secondly, we saw an arctic fox pup playing!! (These photos are Helen’s: spot the fox!)

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Well: I’ve gotta run, but that’s the news for now. We’re off to Latnjajaure Field Station in northern Sweden, where we will have communication only by satellite phone. Check in a little later for updates when we get back!

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