Monday, 27 March 2017

Arctic Blog: Tuesday 11th Oct; 7 glaciers; nature mort et vivant

Tuesday 11.10.2016  Ny Ålesund 78°55.6´N, 011°56.4´2°C 12m/s wind changing SW - SE - NE, Sunrise 09:53 – Sunset 17:32  

Early morning, sails set, we leave Ny Ålesund under cover of darkness and travel north, blown by southerly winds.
Choppy pale green sea.
Rain in the air, overcast sky
Given our northerly location it’s not particularly cold. This is the area from which Spizbergan (Svalbard) gets its name (Spitsbergen originated with Barentsz, who described the "pointed mountains" he saw on the west coast), a mass of peaked mountain ranges rising out of the sea counteracted by the downward sweep of glaciers; and the glaciers just keep on coming...  en route in the course of the day we will pass seven - Forstenbreen, Andrebreen, Tredjebreen, Fjerdebreen, Femtebreen, Sjettebreen, Sjubreen

It’s a day for seeing nature – mort et vivant. A dead sperm whale lies in the shallows caught on the rocks, waves slowly rocking the body; as we get closer the smell is terrible. Pale glaucous gulls wheel over the corpse, perching on top to feast; even from where we are we can see the red marks of the flesh revealed under stripped skin. Who knows what happened – death by natural causes hopefully. 
pic courtesy of Jennifer Crouch see:

Curled asleep on a nearby ridge is a Polar fox, clearly sated from a fortuitous meal of whale meat. Raising its head to check us out a few times, then, having been disturbed, begins to pick its way between rocks down to the sea.

We continue sailing north, passing more glaciers; I’m drawing and drawing.
Small sketchbook 11x21cm
Small sketchbook 11x21cm
Then in the afternoon our first (and only) polar bear is sighted wandering slowly along the shoreline between rocks. A rush for binoculars and long lenses; even from this far vantage point watching through binoculars you can see the thick coat and powerful large limbs and feet that allow them to cover miles on foot or swim for hours in freezing sea. It raises its head looking out at us, unconcerned by our presence, and continues to pick its way along the shoreline. It’s a thrill and a privilege to see a polar bear in its own environment, even from this far away.  Cameras click. 

Innuit refer to polar bears as nanook. Not territorial, but adult polar bears generally live solitary lives, so we are not likely to see another around here. Described as marine mammals, being strong swimmers they spend much of their time on Arctic sea ice flows (there’s been sightings of them in open Arctic waters as far as 200 miles from land). They have an incredible sense of smell, can sniff out prey from up to 16km away, so this one is bound to know about the meal of whale meat up ahead.

The biggest threat to polar bears is climate change; rising global temperatures means that sea ice they use as a platform to hunt seals, is melting earlier and forming later each year, leaving polar bears less time to hunt for food. The forecast is that there will be a decline in numbers. 


We travel all day and I spend most of the time on deck watching mountains and glaciers pass and I keep on drawing, although the periodic rainfall doesn’t help much. It's getting colder the further north we go - which is a good sign; the rain stops, a glimmer of sun appearing on the snow slopes.

Small sketchbook 11x21cm
Small sketchbook 11x21cm
Small sketchbook 11x21cm
Small sketchbook 11x21cm

I'm aware of the noise of a bird singing; a small bird has arrived on the boat, sits on the boom above me; then, flying down onto the deck, it perches for a moment on one of the Zodiacs and is gone. Identified later as a Sidensvans, which I think translates from its Norwegian name as a Bohemian waxwing, it’s very rare for this bird to be seen so far North, perhaps blown off course; perhaps more indication of global warming.
We peer into the deep recesses of the Magdelenefjorden as we pass by; Gullybreen lies on one side and at the far end is Wagonwaybreen. The boat turns into the narrow gap between the mainland and an island called Danskøya and sails into Bjorntfjorden. Dark rock towering above us on the right then flattening out on our left as we skirt round the island into Smeerenburgfjorden, and early evening we anchor at Virgohamna, 79°43,3´N, 010°54,5´E, northwest Svalbard. It's been quite a journey. Then I’m informed that this small island is Dane Island and I suddenly realise that this is where Salomon August Andrée with his two companions - a photographer and engineer - launched his ill-fated hot air balloon The Eagle in 1897.
Dane Island
A small barren rocky beach close to the base of the mountains, all that now remains of the adventure is a few parts of the wooden structure built to house the balloon; too many souvenir hunters have been here. Photographs taken at the time show the construction of hydrogen balloon launch site on Dane Island and preparations for launch.

Here, on July 11th 1897 at 2:30 in the afternoon, the flight order was given and the hydrogen balloon lifted off from Danes Island, carrying August Salomon Andrée, Knut Fraenkel, and Nils Strindberg. The balloon rose hopefully into the air trailing its long guide ropes across the surfaced of the sea, heading north against a grey sky.   

"We can not fail" said Andrée
Then it vanished from view. This was the last time the three Swedish aeronauts were seen alive. Soon after take off the balloon was battered by wind and weighed down by fog frozen into ice came down onto an ice flow. Yet it had managed to float hundreds of miles north before landing or perhaps more accurately, crashing

After this they camped on ice floes and dragging their equipment trying to reach land.

Food seems to have been relatively plentiful over the three months the three men survived after their balloon came down on the ice. A photo taken by Andrée, shows Fraenkel (left) and Strindberg standing over a polar bear shot during the trek south. They needed their strength: for 3 months each had to drag a sledge piled with gear and supplies, weighing about 300 pounds. Given what I have seen and read of the Arctic terrain this is an amazing achievement in itself.
This was not enough to keep them alive. The remains of the balloon, its contents and three skeletons were discovered thirty-three years later on White Island, now called Kvitøya and the remotest island of the Svalbard archipelago at 80°N/32°30’E. Photographic glass plates (see the images above), their equipment, tent, food, and diaries, were all discovered at this site, charts their desperate journey from July 14th when the balloon went down and their flight failed
Extract from the Private Journal of Nils Strindberg:
- 8 January, 1898 -
'If only our critics could see us know! The skeptics who would cast doubt in the hearts of our benefactors and compatriots, the cowards and equivocators who would claim that our company lacked the endurance and spiritual equipment to conquer to north! Where are they now?
Unified in purpose and undeterred by the dangers lurking in the ice, we continue our journey into the wilderness. We march in step and persevere, building our shelters, sharing our food, surviving against these momentous odds. Our balloon and the bitter ironies of plight are but a distant memory now, but the dream lives on. We will fight the forces of Nature, and we will prevail.
We are in good shape. Our stores, the ones that survive, are well stocked with provisions. Our guns fire without hesitation. And while our clothes have suffered the sharp and unrelenting abuse of the elements, our hearts and bodies remain fit and full of fire. We shall not want. We were blind and bitterly cold but now we see, as real explorers do, walking the verge of the abyss. Tomorrow we start with renewed strength. Home is near'.

The last entry in Nils Strindberg's diary, on October 6, was 'Resignation'. Strindberg was the first to go - seized by what the other two men decided was a heart attack. He died within a few hours. Two weeks later Knut Fraenkel died in his sleeping bag, and Salomon August Andrée died propped against a rock. No-one is clear what it was they died of.
The last recognizable date written in Andrée's diary is October 17th1897; the words are indecipherable.

Now back home I'm currently reading Andrée's diary.

For more info see

(Photographs from Grenna Museum, Andrée expedition Polarcenter/Swedish Society for Anthropology & Geography)

I feel very frustrated; I wished I’d known that we would be travelling to Dane Island; it would have been a perfect place to pay homage to the ‘First Attempt of a Flight to the North Pole’, and to launch a small helium balloon or even fly a kite. But it doesn’t seem possible to allow me to land on the island, let alone try to launch my kite, and anyway there’s no wind, the sea in the bay is completely calm.

Light fading, we take to the Zodiacs for a trip around the bay; a large group of harbour seals loll on rocks watching us watching them; not particularly interesting, But I’ve seen lots of seals before and I’m not really in the mood to enjoy them. Leaning over I look down into the clear watery depths beneath the Zodiac, seaweed sways slowly back and forth over rocks, mist hovers on the mountains, the light is fast disappearing and I imagine The Eagle slowly rising and heading out into the ice and sea. A small trappers cabin Torsbu sits on the island Æøya; it would be nice to be there, just to be quiet for a time, away from the constant hum of the boat, away from everyone (although somehow writer and poet Jess Arndt manages to persuade the leader to allow her to spend the night there protected by the guides with rifles). By early evening darkness has descended upon us. I retire to my bunk. I've had enough of the day.
Post script: When we visit the Spitsbergen Airship Museum in Longyearbyen on another occasion, I find a small fragment of the balloon and stare at it for a long time, imagining.