Ocean Drive

“Everything is fine”

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I’m now in my last two days here on Svalbard. It’s been pretty quiet recently, the snow is melting and I have exams to sit before I leave. The exams are the only contribution to this semesters results, and they make up 60 credits of a total of 120 for my final year at uni – stress levels are extremely high!

On Monday, I sat one of these two exams. Since I have 10 days until the next exam, this called for a celebration. A number of us went down to the fjord to take a nice, refreshing dip in the freezing water. It was quite something! This was then followed by burgers and drinks, of course! Tuesday was a relaxed day, we were taken to see KSAT, a ground satellite station service for polar orbiting satellites.

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Now that the snow is melting, there isn’t really any opportunity for the usual trips. However, 4 of us decided it was a good idea to drive over to the east coast for one last big trip and stay in a cabin for two nights. I was very nervous about the trip before the departure and nearly bailed last minute because I was panicking, but I knew once we got going this would be a fantastic trip and I wouldn’t want to miss out. The snow conditions were quite bad close to Longyearbyen, but somehow we made it out of Adventdalen! Just as we were clear of the water and slush, the visibility dropped very rapidly. We were driving through a hideous storm – strong headwinds and lots of snow. It continued nearly the whole way, and we had a couple of nervous stopped as scooters got stuck in deep snow and we had to dig them out. Keeping polar bear watch in this low visibility was very challenging!

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Slightly low visibility…. Photo credit: Daniel Nilsson

5 hours later (10pm), we made it to a beautiful (and reasonably clear) east coast! About 100m from the cabin we crossed some polar bear tracks coming from the sea ice, and then we saw more around by the cabin. I did get slightly worried that the bear might be sheltering from the wind behind our cabin, but we were safe! As it was snowy and windy, it was clear these tracks were very fresh. We unpacked the scooters and got the fire going in the cabin. We had a small room on the way in for firewood, scooter kit and boots and then the rest of the cabin had a small stove, a small fire burner, a single bed and a bunk bed. For the more mathematically able of you (i.e., not my mother), that is 1 more person than available beds – Katie and I spooned for two nights (it was glorious). We had a late dinner and eventually went to sleep, falling asleep to the sounds of the fire burning and the wind hitting the from of the cabin as it came off the sea.

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Our beautiful east coast home.
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Relieved we survived the storm!
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Our first stop to hunt for the invisible polar bears.
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Cabin and scooters
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Taken from the window in the cabin – our east coast sea ice view!
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Complete view – cabin, scooters and sea ice.

We woke up late the next morning (probably afternoon) and had breakfast. We then went out for a walk along the coast and saw yet more polar bear tracks, again very recent due to continued snow. We walked up higher and looked out on the sea ice but there was no sign of the bear. After taking the scooters for a short drive along the coastline, we headed inside for some lunch and revision. It was quite something, 4 of us revising in a small cabin in the arctic looking out onto the sea ice, no electricity or running water, no towns nearby, occasionally checking for polar bears, only heat source was the fire burning in the corner of the cabin. During this revision period, we did spot a Walrus on the sea ice! It was a fair distance away, the camera doesn’t show it very clearly but I can promise you that is a Walrus (or at least a seal). The binoculars showed it more clearly, we could see the animal moving around and decided it was probably far too big to be a seal.

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That little black dot is a Walrus!

When we arrived, we had a few litres of water with us. This ran out reasonably quickly with 4 of us drinking and cooking. We had to start boiling snow for drinking and cooking instead. This was quite something, being out in the arctic filling up my water/cooking pasta etc with boiled snow.

That evening we had another late dinner, had a few drinks and played cards. It was a pretty late night, and meant a very late late start the next day. We didn’t get up til gone 1pm, so by the time we’d eaten and packed up to head back to Longyearbyen, it was already nearly 5pm. We had a particularly long route planned for the way home as well in an attempt to both make the most of this trip and avoid driving back through Adventdalen.

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Whisky served on glacier ice.

We began making our way South along the coast to find another area of coast line and sea ice. It was absolutely stunning, and after finding a pretty great spot to sit and eat, we went for a drive along the coast line. At one of the stops along the coast, Kristian and I decided to chill on a floating block of sea ice. It seemed like a good idea at first, the ice was stationary and seemed perfectly safe. Soon after the smiles quickly went, as the wave picked up and we were suddenly moving out to sea at a fast pace. We both managed to jump off it quickly and get back to the safe ground, but I was pumped full of adrenaline by then. We continued along the coast and found yet more polar bear tracks which we could see getting fresher as we followed them before they disappeared down onto the shoreline. Once again there no sign of the bear, but we did spot more walruses out on the sea ice!

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Views from our lunch spot
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Views from our lunch spot
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It’s all fun and games until you start floating away on sea ice. Photo credit: Daniel Nilsson

After this, we headed for Svea. But in our way stood a wind tunnel filled glacier. This was quite terrifying, we were travelling very slowly carefully trying to stay on Kristian’s track and it was just continuous sudden drops into wind tunnels. Kristian got stuck at one point, and we jumped off the scooter to grab spades, but as soon as we stepped off we were knee deep in snow. It was horrible! Soon after, the bearcat got stuck as we drifted away from Kristian’s track. After that we were managed to keep going and made it off the glacier and on to Svea. Once we reached Svea, we had phone signal to get hold of people that might have been worrying about us. It was now midnight, we were supposed to be back by 6pm…

Just past Svea and we saw yet more polar bear tracks, and still no polar bear (there’s a theme to this trip…). Reindalen was an interesting (and also fun) drive – a lot of slush in the valley mean we had to keep the speed up. And then it was pretty much straight back to Nybyen! There were a few moments of difficult driving again thanks to bad snow conditions, but by 2am we made it back to Nybyen with the same number of scooters and people as we left with. As we drove over Longyearbreen, there was a ray of sunlight shining down on Longyearbyen welcoming us home. It was pretty amazing that we did manage to make it to all the places we intended to see and get home okay. We risked it storms, high avalanche risk and polar bear territory but it was an incredible trip and we all made it home. Maybe not the smartest trip to have taken, but no regrets! I enjoyed every minute of it (even when I was quite scared).

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Photo credit: Katie Herlingshaw

I have now finished my exams and hence finished my entire degree!! I have partied and I’m now in my last 2 days on Svalbard. It’ll be a bitter-sweet moment when I leave – I am leaving behind this wonderful place and the wonderful people I have met, but I will be reunited with my family and boyfriend, and I’m ridiculously excited to see them all again.

Oh yeah, I’ve also seen a Bill Bailey gig and swam in the fjord twice since the last post (it has to be done whilst you’re here!)

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Front row seats!
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Team fjord dip day 1. Photo credit: Kieran Davis

There will be at least one more post on surviving up here on Svalbard, do not panic 🙂

Skål!

 

The Cave

“I am serious… and don’t call me Shirley.” – Dr. Rumack (Leslie Nielsen), Airplane

One month gone, already. It’s definitely been a bit up and down emotionally. Every so often, mostly whenever I’m outside and it’s incredibly windy, cold, and I’m tired, I think to myself “What the hell am I doing here?!” (censored version, as requested by mother). I mean, the arctic is a pretty hostile environment anyway. It’s not easy to live here.

On the flip side, the more permanent thought running through my head is how incredible this place is. It’s so unique and absolutely stunning. I’m studying some great modules out here in a beautiful place. It’s such an incredible opportunity, and one that I was really keen to be given as soon as I heard it was possible all those years ago on the Aberystwyth University open day.  I feel even more excited that, in nearly 7 weeks, I get to show my family and Tom what an amazing place I’ve been living in.

I spent the first 3 days of this week barely being able to walk properly, thanks to the plateau hike destroying the top of my calves with every step that I tried to lift my tired feet out of the snow. I made use of the free swim that the gym offers to students Monday-Wednesday from 7 to 8am on Tuesday and Wednesday. It was pretty important I started to make use of this offer after buying a new swimming costume and goggles last week. It’s great, but does make an early start!

Thursday was pretty special. It was the last day of lectures for the next two weeks, we had Friday off and we have two weeks of field work starting Monday. After the lectures, I was allowed to finally move back to Barrack 11, for good this time!

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Image Credit: Jack Jenkins

Whilst I’ve been here, I constantly check the KHO all sky camera to see if there is an aurora visible. Thursday evening, we saw an incredible aurora. I unfortunately don’t have the camera and equipment out here to photograph something like that, but I went outside in my pjs for about half an hour just watching it. I was out the back of the barracks and lost a lot of the light pollution, I’ve never seen so many stars! Above is a picture by Jack taken that night to show the beautiful aurora and stars that evening.

The images below show screenshots from the KHO skycam taken just before I went outside. This all sky camera can be found here. Best to check it after about 4pm when it’s darker.

Oh yeah, “Lucy face” has now become a thing. A lovely, gormless face which I seem to naturally pull. So any photo taken of me when I’m not expecting it tends to show classic “Lucy face”. Thank you to Kieran.

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The Friday mini trip out the back of Longyearbyen.

Friday was great because we had the day off. I got to lie in, go for a wonder out the back with Kieran, Jack, Lloyd and Heather and get some good photos then come back and a few of us had pre drinks before Friday Gathering. Tip: No matter how fun it seems, do not put a bottle of wine in a water bottle with a built in straw. (Especially when that water bottle can hold an entire bottle of wine).

After a great Saturday of laziness in the barrack 11 kitchen watching rubgy and airplane and complaining about the take away we ordered, Sunday was a lot more eventful. I went with Jack, Heather, Noel and Alex to explore the ice cave on the glacier Larsbreen. On the way up, we discovered a little man made snow cave which we took a little coffee break in.

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Mini snow cave

I must admit, after seeing photos of people who went to the ice cave before, I thought there was no way I would be to do that. It looked incredibly small and the steep downhill (and narrow) entrance looked terrifying. When the suggestion of going to see an ice cave came up, I didn’t realise we’d properly be going into this same ice cave (I guess I’d hoped it would be a different, more spacious cave). But no, we arrived and I saw this small cave entrance with a steep downhill and began to get very scared.

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The ice cave entrance on Larsbreen with Longyearbyen below

A few encouraging words from Noel and a slow decent in the middle of the group, and I started to feel much better. Once I begun to head down it open out slightly and it wasn’t too far until it flattened out. I then realised my toes were far too cold and I was struggling to move them, so I got to spend the next 10 minutes lying on the floor with my feet on Heather’s stomach to warm them back up. It worked a charm, it was then onwards into the cave.

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Chilling in the ice cave. From the left: Jack, Noel, Alex, Heather, me 🙂

Noel (geologist, loves glaciers and rocks) was running around having multiple “geogasms”… He was like an excited puppy, it was incredible. He would regularly disappear round a corner and we’d just hear a strange combination of noises as he spotted more features. It was absolutely beautiful in there, so who could blame him anyway.

There were multiple occasions of ducking and turning sideways. We also had one opportunity to head off course and climb up a small ledge. It was pretty narrow, but it was pretty high which made it feel a bit more spacious. It’s only possible to go to a certain point without your own climbing ropes, and so after about 45 minutes we’d gone as far as we could. We came back up to have a small amount of light and walked back down to Longyearbyen. This was a fantastic trip, made even more special by the fact that I felt like I achieved something after being a bit scared of the cave beforehand.

Jack also put a lovely video together of our day in the ice cave, find it here.

The next two weeks are field work! All day off so that we can stay up late in the observatory. First stop, KHO!

Skål!