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Polar Jazz: Longyearbyen, Svalbard, February 3-7, 2011

John Kelman By

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February 6: Winding Down in the Ice Caves

The majority Polar Jazz guests were set to leave early the following afternoon, but a packed flight meant a lucky few were left to wait until the day after, providing more time to explore of the area surrounding Longyearbyen. One of the trips people seemed to talk most about was the ice caves—a winding series of caverns inside one of the glaciers, a few miles outside of Longyearbyen. And so, after saying goodbyes to old friends and new acquaintances, it was time to suit up and snowmobile out of town. But because this was taking place at 4:30pm rather than the 8:30am mountain trip of a couple days ago, it meant the trip began in the dark of night, an entirely different experience, and one that brought into sharp focus, just how much even a little light means when you're in the middle of Polar Winter.

With wind blowing up and around the small group of half a dozen snowmobilers, it was another surreal experience as, leaving town, the convoy wound its way along a river, with walls of snow on either side, to a small area where, buried in what appeared to be a small mound of snow, was a small wooden door. It was only then that those who were thinking of ice caves as something big realized that they were in for another experience entirely. The ice caves, buried in the glaciers of Svalbard, were not large caverns; instead, they were narrow alleyways through the ice, where it was often necessary to duck to get from one space to the next, and at other times necessary to truly squeeze through small openings to get to the next (slightly) larger one. This was not a trip for the claustrophobic.

But it was another amazing view of an otherworldly place, where the only light provided was from the headlamps worn by the cavers—turn those lights out, and it was absolutely pitch black. The stunning ice formations ahead, behind, around and above the cavers, soon rendered any initial trepidation unimportant, as the group wound its way about 150 meters into the glacier. It may not sound like a lot, but it took a good 20-30 minutes to go into the caves, though it took a little less time to get back out. And while most of the cave was narrow, there were occasional larger openings, where the group could collect, as its guide talked about the formations, how the age of the caves is measured, and more.

It was also not a trip for those out of shape; getting in and around the caves required ascents and descents with ropes, and inside the caves—where, in contrast to the windy -20°C outside, it was a balmy -2° or -3°—everyone worked up a good sweat. While there truly was safety in numbers, it didn't take much imagination to appreciate the risks of coming into the caves. After all, no cell phone signals reached them, and other than it being known that a group had made the trip, there was no way to get help, if anything were to happen. Still, that was also part of the Arctic experience; while these trips are orchestrated to be as safe as possible, there are absolutely no guarantees.

February 7: Dog Sleds and Leaving Svalbard

That there are no guarantees on these trips into the Arctic wilderness was made patently clear the final morning when, embarking on a dog sledding trip into the mountains, before flying out of Svalbard, the tour guides had their eight guests sign a waiver that also committed, were anything to happen, that they would listen to and follow the instructions of the guides under any and all circumstances. It hammered home that, while Svalbard has a tremendous record of safety in its outdoor pursuits, this is still the Arctic, and one never knows when a sudden storm might blow up, or any other untoward event might happen.

Still, few were thinking of these eventualities as they suited up and were taken to a dog yard outside Longyearbyen, where the few dozen dogs began to go absolutely crazy, the minute the van pulled up. Sled dogs, it seems, absolutely live to be on their sleds, and the trick is not training them to go, it's training them to stop, as these Siberian Huskies can literally go for upwards of ten hours with only the occasional short break, pulling heavy sleds with one or two people and, sometimes, cargo as well.

As with all of the Arctic trips, guests are not mere spectators, they are active participants, in this case not just driving the sleds, but going into the yard and picking up the dogs, in order, and hooking them up to the sleds. It was more than just a beautiful trip on a morning where the light was spectacular; it was an opportunity to really understand what sled dogs are about; what motivates them, and how they live their lives. The dogs love people—after all, any time they appear there's a good chance they'll get to do what they live for—but their relationship with each other is more complicated. Dogs have to be brought out to the sleds in pairs, as they are friendly with their partners, but it's necessary to keep distance from other dogs on the sled, because there are pack issues involved, and while it doesn't often happen, fights can occasionally break out.

The front dogs are the only ones who understand directions of right and left; the rest of the dogs simply follow their leaders, and driving a sled is actually relatively simple. There are only a couple of rules: one, make sure you have one foot on the sled and the other on the brake (a metal bar, with teeth that dig into the snow) at all times; two, always have at least one arm wrapped on the sled at all times; and three, don't leave the sled for anything unless it's firmly anchored to the ground. The dogs want to run, and so if the brake is released, or if you leave the sled or let go for any reason, the dogs may well head off and you'll find yourself left behind, sledless.

In contrast to the snowmobile trip a couple days back, driving a dog sled was a calming, almost meditative, experience. At rest, the dogs barked, howled, played and were clearly itching to get going; once running, they became strangely quiet, and the only sound was that of sled on snow. It was not possible to go as far as fast as with the skidoos, but it was a more organic experience, and an even better chance to appreciate the harsh grandeur of Svalbard, as the sleds headed through the mountains into a valley, only stopping briefly to make sure everyone was ok. It was a transcendent experience, and while there was no denying the cold brutality of the environment, it became easy to understand why the community on Svalbard is so close. Out there, the people you are with are all you have. When you go on a tour, it's not solitary or passive, where everything is done for you; it's an active experience, with everyone, to some extent, responsible for everyone. There was plenty of time to quietly appreciate the beauty of the Arctic, but equally, it was impossible not to engage with everyone on a more personal level; while it's certainly not true for all, there were new relationships forged on these trips, making them even more enriching and rewarding.

It was the perfect finish. Only four days had passed since arriving on Svalbard, but somehow—between the surreal landscapes, the unusual lighting and an internal clock completely confused by the long, long stretches of night—it felt like a much longer stay, in the best possible way. As everyone wrapped things up, and headed to the airport for what was going to be, for many, a two-day trip to get home, there was a strange, new understanding. Many, upon arriving on Svalbard, felt that they were going to have the experience of a lifetime, but few expected to actually understand why people would choose to live in such a remote place. But with only a few days' of experiences—from the compelling debut of Arctic Mood and the rest of Polar Jazz's fine performances, to trips to the mountains and ice caves, time spent with friends old and new, and an opportunity to experience, first-hand, the close-knit community of Longyearbyen—this had become a life-changing experience, and as the plane ascended from Longyearbyen airport into the Polar night, there was a new sense of longing for a place that would soon be distanced by a great many miles, but would remain permanently etched in the mind, the heart and the soul.

Visit Solveig Slettahjell, Beady Belle, PUST, Brynjar Rasmussen, Werner Anderson, Halvdan Sivertsen, Stian Carstensen and Polar Jazz on the web.

Photo Credits

Page 1, Flying Into Svalbard: Ann Kristin Arntzen
Page 4, EISCAT: Tony van Eyken
All Other Photos: John Kelman


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