A giant leap into a hostile environment

Last updated 09:31 16/09/2013
Fairfax Australia

Break the ice with polar bears and spectacular scenery in the Arctic on board the Aurora Expeditions' Polar Pioneer.

Arctic Std
Chris van Hove
LEAP OF FAITH: The author takes a plunge off the side of the Polar Pioneer in the Arctic.

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In the Arctic, life is on nature's terms and, as with most truly wild places on Earth, travelling here requires flexibility.

Heavy pack-ice drifting from the north means the captain of our vessel, Aurora Expeditions' Polar Pioneer, changes course to avoid the worst of it.

Doing so adds another day at sea to our itinerary and while the crew grimace at the dangers the ice poses, the ship's passengers are enthralled with the hypnotic beauty of this foreign environment.

The ocean here stretches like a mirror towards the horizon, dotted with thin pancakes of sea-ice that thicken into lashings of frozen white foam. Above, the sun loops the sky like a solar lasso, offering 24 hours of disorienting sunlight.

We have spent the first days of our 14-day Jewels of the Arctic cruise exploring the wilderness of Spitsbergen, in Norway's Svalbard archipelago.

Walls of ice calve with spectacular ferocity from the face of glaciers,  and streams of meltwater cascade from icebergs that dwarf our vessel.

Conditions are mild, with sunny skies and no wind; some passengers even take the opportunity to dive into the freezing water from the gangway while the ship is at anchor.

The extra day at sea en route to Greenland has been a welcome opportunity to let the experience sink in. But at 10pm, when the sun is low, the call goes out over the ship's crackly PA: a polar bear had been spotted dining on a nearby ice floe.

We gather on the bow like an Arctic paparazzi. In the distance, a hulk of white fur the size of a small car peers at us, his muzzle and chest tinged with pink from the seal he has devoured. His curiosity eclipsing his appetite, the bear leaves a small pile of entrails and heads towards the edge of the ice floe for a closer look.

Our cameras poised, we wait for him to leap into the water. Instead, pressing down with his paws, he snaps off the edge of the ice and sinks downwards, like a kid awkwardly trying to stand on a body board in an backyard pool.

"The Arctic is not a romantic place," the Polar Pioneer's naturalist has advised passengers, "it's a fight to eat, breed and protect yourself.''

But while watching the Arctic's apex predator roll over on the ice floe like an oversized puppy, it is easy to fall prey to the region's deceptive summer enchantment.

From the safety of our 54-berth ship, we have conveniently forgotten that the European Arctic has never really been tamed: not by explorers or whalers or the miners who exhausted the region's coal stocks.

We travel to sites in Svalbard and East Greenland accessible only by boat. Although the tundra appears barren from afar, up close it thrives.

Butterflies feed on the nectar of colourful wildflowers, while sweet-tasting Arctic berries grow in abundance on the slopes.

The landing locations we moor at are dotted with abandoned trapper's huts that make for the best wildlife watching spots: all creatures go where the food is.

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In Spitsbergen, our expedition leader has explained that the reindeer we see grazing are drawn to nutrient-rich grasses fertilised by 20,000 screeching birds nesting in the cliffs above.

Later, an Arctic fox trots nearer to our group for a closer look; the cliffs provide it with an easy dinner in the form of guillemot chicks that fall from their nests.

Human hunters once came here for the snowy white pelt of the Arctic fox. The crude, cruel remains of traps designed to suffocate the foxes still litter the ground, protected as part of the area's heritage.

After our captain steers the vessel past icebergs the size of city blocks in Nordvestfjord, Greenland, we make a landing spot and see the remains of an Inuit winter camp, dug into the frozen ground and lined with thick stone.

Despite being more than five centuries old, artefacts and bone tools, including a serrated knife, are still visible.

Seven graves occupy the site. The ground is too frozen for burial, so in centuries past, bodies were covered with rocks to prevent scavengers from getting at the remains.

I peer through a weathered pile of rocks at one grave and am startled to see a small skull.

It's hard to imagine how anyone could ever live in this desolate and hostile environment.

I'm hoping that Ittoqqortoormiit, one of the world's most remote towns, will provide an answer.

We disembark from the Polar Pioneer to Zodiacs but our first attempt at landing at Ittoqqortoormiit is thwarted by gale force winds that threaten to flip our Zodiacs.

The Polar Pioneer is one of only a handful of cruise vessels to visit in the late summer, when the sea ice clears sufficiently to let ships through.

We roam about the town, visiting the museum, weather station and church, but we're asked to not buy from the local general store: just two supply ships a year service the town - one group of cruise passengers can buy out the year's chocolate supply.

On the shoreline local kids play in our Zodiac, metres from where a ringed seal lies peeled open.

In Ittoqqortoormiit's museum, black and white photos show a small child sitting atop a plump narwhal. In the tourist office, ammunition is sold next to whalebones the size of dinner plates.

At one house, what appears to be a white sheet hanging from a clothesline turns out to be a polar bear skin drying in the sun.

Hunting is essential to life here. Seals, polar bear, musk ox and narwhal are hunted primarily for their meat, and to a strict quota, the skins sold as a byproduct. I trek up a hill past brightly painted houses to watch the local meteorologist release a weather balloon.

Afterwards, he shows me the weather station's ''art gallery'', wallpapered with black and white portraits of the community. I ask him to point out his family among the hundreds of photos. "All family," he says, smiling and gesturing at the walls, ''I am from here.''

As part of the itinerary, passengers are invited to see expeditioner Gary Rolfe feed his pack of dogs. Originally from East London, Rolfe runs sled dog tours of East Greenland from his Ittoqqortoormiit base.

"It's a difficult place to live. You really want to know why you want to be here," Rolfe says.

Tourism, he says, is in its infancy. "It's very raw. Cruise ships are very important, because people know there is regular income... where they can sell wares and be employed.''

Despite the potential tourism offers, Ittoqqortoormiit is a struggling community.

Established in the 1920s, the town is heavily subsidised by the Danish government, which must keep the land populated in order to maintain its territorial rights over Greenland. The reason? What lies deep beneath the permafrost: minerals and oil.

And it's here that a bigger tragedy and terror of the Arctic is playing out. While man has struggled to survive in the Arctic, the region now struggles because of man's influence.

Just days after I disembark from the Polar Pioneer, the Arctic dominates global headlines: the biggest Arctic ice melt ever recorded is announced.

Some scientists predict that the ice could disappear altogether during the summer months.

Conservative estimates put it as occurring within just 10 years.

The writer travelled as a guest of Aurora Expeditions.

TRIP NOTES

CRUISING THERE Aurora Expeditions has two 14-day Jewels of the Arctic expeditions taking place in 2014 aboard the Polar Pioneer.

From August 9 to August 22, a cruise takes place from Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen, to Iceland via Greenland, priced from A$8950 ($10160.5) a person, twin share. A pre-departure package including flights from Oslo to Longyearbyen, accommodation, transfers and internal flights in Iceland is an additional A$800 ($908) a person.

From August 22 to September 4, the Polar Pioneer cruises the reverse, from Reykjavik, Iceland, to Spitsbergen. This cruise is also priced from A$8950 (10160.5) a person, twin share.

WHILE THERE Longyearbyen is one of man's successful attempts at settling in the Arctic, thanks to science, tourism and a curious treaty that gives sovereignty of the Svalbard archipelago to Norway, but allows citizens of signatory nations to live there.

The biggest minority group to take advantage of this are Thai nationals and there is a sizeable population of Thais working in Svalbard.

The town's Thai restaurant, Mary-ann's Riggen, is highly recommended, but be aware the menu is limited: in a place where alcohol is cheaper than milk (Longyearbyen is  mining town), restaurants are geared to minimising waste.

BEARS THERE While the summertime is the good time for most creatures, for the Arctic's poster boy, the polar bear, it's the hardest time to find food.

Living a solitary life on the sea ice, bears often retreat to the Arctic islands during the summer months when ice breaks up - sometimes struggling to find food.

Unfortunately, polar bear attacks do occur, albeit rarely. As a precaution, guides carry flare guns and rifles during each landing. If people do encounter a bear, the advice is generally uniform from all Arctic specialists: don't run.

MORE INFORMATION auroraexpeditions.com.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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