2020, Position 79.49.2N Latitude 012.22.1E Longitude.
Just 12.3 miles to go. The cloud ceiling has lifted to 2,000 feet and visibility has improved. But the west wind is increasing, now to 10 knots, and the ice leads ahead are less open. We need four hours to get to 80 degrees, and back to this point, allowing for a zigzag course in the leads. If the breeze builds much more we will have to turn back. But if it holds steady, we are probably okay.
Earlier this morning, we departed from Ny Alesund, a research village located at the sight of a former coal mine. Nine countries have facilities here to study polar phenomenon. During the summer, 200 hardy scientists call this home. There is a tiny harbor, partially protected by a small breakwater, into which Wind Horse barely fits. Ashore, there is a small store, museum, dormitories, a communal cafeteria, and research facilities. Ny Alesund also boasts the northernmost post office on the planet. This prosaic description, however, does not do justice to the ambiance.
Under a low, overcast sky and weak sunlight, a giant satellite dish and the remains of a coal mine combine to give the surroundings an otherworldly feel. This could easily be a remote outpost on the cold moon of a different planet. Walking into the log cabin bar, we half expect a scene from “Star Wars” to unfold.
Moving down the “main street” yields a different sensation. Think of Clint Eastwood’s film High Plains Drifter and you have the setting down cold. Replace rugged frontiersmen with scientists suited up and armed for survival (nobody takes the polar bears lightly) and the scene is complete.
Polar bears move with seals, which in turn follow the ice pack. As fjord ice melts and the polar pack heads north, this mammalian food chain retreats with the ice. Bears who miss the ice retreat are left to scavenge the islands, trying to subsist on birds’ eggs, the odd seal, or, if lucky (or unlucky depending on perspective) the occasional biped.
They are intelligent hunters who carefully stalk their prey, going so far as to cover their black noses with snow to hide from seals. They are also good climbers, often erupting from the sea to take seals on the ice edge. And they can run 20 miles per hour for short distances.
Due to the bears’ migratory pattern, yachts visiting Svalbard rarely see polar bears.
Ny Alesund is on one arm of a complex of fjords known as Kongsfjorden. The glaciers in Krossfjorden are active right now, and as the sun is shining, we carefully spring and warp our way out of Ny Alesund’s tiny harbor and head northwest. A couple of wondrous hours of sightseeing has us at the edge of the ice floes off Lilliehookbreen glacier. This is the perfect spot for a photo of the boat surrounded by ice with a giant glacier face in the background, and we prepare to launch the dinghy.
While we are releasing the lashings, Joe is scanning for wildlife with his 15-power binoculars. The launching halyard is being wound around the electric winch when Joe shouts “Polar bear! He’s swimming across the fjord, just off the port bow, 100 yards off.”
We grab cameras and observe Mr. Bear cross the fjord. He paddles at an easy three knots, faster than you could row an inflatable with a balky outboard. Had Joe not seen him, and had we launched the dinghy, one of us might not now be writing this story. Reaching the shoreline, the polar bear lunges up on the boulder-strewn beach, and leisurely proceeds up the steep mountain at a pace you could not duplicate running on flat ground. At the summit he pauses and looks over his shoulder at us as if to say “next time.”
We’ve been close up and personal with Alaskan grizzlies, shared coves with cavorting humpback whales, and watched 20-foot crocodiles swim past our anchored yacht, but nothing we’ve seen in the past compares to being in the same fjord as a polar bear.