It was mid-winter in the Svalbard Islands. The North Pole was barely 800 miles away. When I stepped outside, my nostrils clamped shut in protest – a reflex act of self-protection. I was setting out on a three-day dog-sledding expedition, and I confess to a few niggling anxieties. Had I packed enough socks? How does one pee when encased in 27 layers of clothing? Was I going to freeze to death?
Longyearbyen on the island of Spitzbergen is a tenuous town on the edge of a frozen fjord – the last outpost of civilisation and central heating. I found my guide waiting in the lobby of my hotel where a polar bear skin the size of king-sized duvet was pinned to the wall. In the Arctic, polar bears are not cuddly figures. Longyearbyen is littered with notices like wanted posters to warn you about them. The gist of the posters is that the bears are dangerous killers who will probably rip your face off should you be unlucky enough to meet one on your way home from the pub.
Pouring over detailed maps of breathtaking emptiness, the guide was laying out the journey in a low monotone. We were going to sled across frozen wastes. Our destination was the Noordelicht, a two-masted schooner, frozen in the ice of Templefjord, almost 50 miles away. There seemed to be only two problems: the weather and me.
Leaving myself aside for the moment, we turned to the weather. A glance out the window told us all we needed to know. You could barely make out the buildings on the other side of the street. The winds were blowing out of the East – apparently into the faces of the dogs – which was going to slow us down considerably. And, of course, as I was a novice at the dog-sledding game, we couldn’t expect great speed. So we might not make it to the ship in a single day, he said. In which case, we would have to camp, he said. He dropped this bombshell into the conversation as casually as if he was announcing lunch.
While images of frozen sleeping bags played round my neurotic imagination, we kitted up – an elaborate procedure including the donning of intricate undergarments and countless layers that might have be vaguely familiar to Tudor damsels. I won’t bore you with the details, but it involved woollen boxer shorts and three different kinds of hat. The final layer was a windproof, waterproof (and presumably dog-proof) jumper-suit. I lumbered outside into the blizzard feeling like the Michelin Man.
Down at the dog yard, my arrival as the Michelin Man set 90 huskies howling like the wolves to whom they were so clearly related. Huskies are remarkably keen on their job. At the first sign that sled-pulling might be on the day’s agenda, they become hysterical. The hounds stood on their hind legs, straining at their chains, and frothing at the mouth.
The guide handed me the harnesses, told me the names of my six dogs, and waved me in the direction of the howling masses. Tiptoeing just out of chain-reach of baying huskies, I found my dogs: Troika, Ivar, Wilheim, Jinx and a couple of backmarkers whose names I had already forgotten. Releasing them from their chains, I hung on to their collars as they dragged me towards the sled.
Given this level of canine enthusiasm, departure was a tricky business. In dog sledding, the chief danger is that the dogs will leave without you. To avoid this ignominy, the sledder hammers a metal anchor into the hard-packed snow. As the team was rigged up one by one, their excitement became deafening. The sled, the rigging and I – everything trembled as the dogs strained at their harnesses. When I finally lifted the anchor and took my foot off the brake, my whole body experienced a kind of whiplash. For a moment, I seemed to be horizontal.
The first half-mile was a terrifying blur. It was downhill on a slope that tilted steeply from right to left. Hanging on for dear life, I had to lean far out like a sailor in a keeling yacht to keep the sled upright.
But once we had reached the flat, the dogs lost their initial fever, and we settled down to a steady and relatively comfortable pace. In a matter of moments, the buildings of Longyearbyen had fallen away, and we were engulfed in the white, empty world of the Arctic. The guide’s sled took the lead, and my team followed obediently, panting like lions. I had only to lean on the brake occasionally – a bar with spikes that dug into the snow – to keep my over-eager hounds from running up the back of the guide’s sled. With no noise other than the sibilant whisper of sled-runners on snow and the padding of the dogs’ feet, we sailed across the snow fields. It was, quite simply, the most beautiful way to travel.
An archipelago the size of Ireland, the Svalbard Islands lie almost a thousand miles north of the Norwegian mainland. Sixty per cent of the islands are covered by permanent glaciers. From April to August, the sun never sets; while from the end of October to mid-February, it never rises. The permanent population – a mixture of research scientists, miners, government officials and tourist guides – is outnumbered by polar bears.
Global warming may be threatening the whole Arctic environment, but on Svalbard, only an expert would notice. The name means ‘cold coast’ in Norwegian. This is a case of Nordic understatement. In mid-winter, temperatures regularly plunge to minus 40 degrees Celsius, but the wind’s chill-factor often makes it feel more like below 70.
We followed the flat valley of Adventdalen as it swung eastward towards Sassendalen. The swirling snow reduced the landscape to a fathomless and unblemished white. There was no horizon, and the rocky heights on either side of us appeared only as ghostly shapes. The Arctic was strangely like the desert: empty, disorientating and dream-like – a place of visions and confusions. There was little to distinguish between what is real and unreal: what you saw, and what you thought you saw. Distances were impossible to estimate. In Templefjord, a small pylon appeared. It looked to be a few hundred metres off. It turned out to be our ice-bound ship, still miles away.
We reached the good ship, Noordelicht, in blue twilight. Mercifully, no camping was required. Hitching the dogs to night chains beside the ship, we threw them some cuts of frozen meat, and gave each a handful of straw to sleep on while we retired to the warmth and comfort for a few drinks and a huge meal aboard the snug vessel, which seems to act as the world’s most remote B&B.
After dinner, I went out on to the moonlit deck with the guide. Our breath plumed into the night air. All round us, the waters of the fjord were frozen to a depth of two feet. Moonlight glinted on the Von Post glacier a couple of miles to the East. I could feel the wind biting into my cheeks. We both knew that without all the support equipment and without the dogs, we wouldn’t survive an hour in this extraordinary place. The idea was strangely entrancing.
I asked him why he loved this frozen landscape.
“Because it makes me feel so alive”, he said.
[Photos are by Stanley Stewart]
Stanley Stewart is the author of three highly acclaimed travel books and several-hundred articles based on journeys across five continents, for which he has won numerous journalism awards. He is a contributing editor of Condé Nast Traveller and his work appears regularly in the Sunday Times. He has also contributed to the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the Independent and the Times. He writes for the National Geographic Traveler in the US, the Sunday Times in South Africa and the Australian.