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Exploring Ice Caves in the Arctic Wilderness

Field Notes
By Bill Andrews
Mar 26, 2015 11:02 PMNov 20, 2019 4:49 AM


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The climax of my trip to Svalbard may have already taken place with Friday's spectacular total solar eclipse, but that didn't mean the adventure was over. We still had one full day left before having to return to Oslo, and I got to spend it doing particularly Svalbard-y things. First up, I went ice caving in the morning. A group of about 15 of us rode up to a nearby glacier in a bumpy old army transport vehicle ("It's built for safety, not comfort," the tour guide warned us), and descended down into its depths. They provided us metal cleats for our boots and headlamp helmets, and soon we were climbing down ladders and sliding down icy paths with nothing but ropes and each other to steady us. The pathway we wended down formed when rushing water carved it out in the summer months, only to freeze anew in winter. This means that every year it's a different path, a different cave to explore with different sights and destinations. In fact, last year they couldn't offer this trip because the cave that formed was too unsafe for travelers. Among other things, we spotted a variety of ices and stones, frozen stalactites and stalagmites, a variety of formations we nicknamed handlebars, chandeliers and curtains, and even a chunk of decades-old Styrofoam that had washed down into depths of the cavern. Even here, miles away from any settlements in a pristine cave, mankind's trash made an appearance. The best part was the air down there was a by-now-comfortable freezing, much warmer than the outside air temperature. As we descended and climbed, some of us actually had to take off our winter gear because we were working up such a sweat!

Our group makes its way through the ice caves. Credit Bill Andrews, Discover

Out in the Arctic Wilderness

After a few hours of recuperation and lunch (complete with plenty of fish  every buffet we visited had at least 5 fish options), it was time for the day's other major activity: A trek out to Camp Barentz to see how early explorers in this area lived and, possibly, to spot some auroral activity in the skies. The camp looked small from the outside, just a couple of square buildings and round lodges. Once we entered the main lodge, though, we realized it was a comfortably big, if low-tech, room centered around a roaring fire. While cooking dinner on it, the guides told stories of Willem Barentsz, after whom the camp was named (though yes, spelled differently), as well as other early explorers and how they survived Svalbard's harsh climate. When dinner was served (a hearty ox and vegetable stew), the topic switched to polar bears. All the tour guides were actually researchers at the local university, and so among them could regale us with details about the polar bear's lifestyle, habits, hardships, turn ons and turn offs. The polar bear is a kind of unofficial mascot of Svalbard, so it was fun learning more about them, and our questions kept the guides busy all through dessert.

A polar bear warning in Svalbard. Image by Kitty Terwolbeck / Flickr

Looking for the Lights

Finally, when it became late enough, it was time to brave the wind and the night air to try to spot the northern lights. The previous night, Friday, had been a huge success, as a cascade of greens exploded across the skies, dazzling and inspiring all the Camp Barentz guests. Alas, we weren't quite so lucky, as clouds and a bright sky conspired against us. But we definitely spotted some faint auroral activity to the south, so the night wasn't a total bust. It wasn't until the bus ride back that someone pointed out the interesting fact that we were so far north that we had to look south for the northern lights! But, sadly, that's where the adventure ended. We left for Oslo the next day, and then our respective homes after that. It was an amazing trip, though. Just visiting such a stark example of the brutal beauty deep in the Arctic Circle would have been memorable enough, but add in that perfect eclipse, and it's a week I'll never forget. The only thing that might compare is a trek to Bali for next year's eclipse!

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