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Kayaking in Svalbard, The danger and beauty of ice

The sound of gun fire caught my attention, then thunder. Silence. The huge slab of ice fell away from the glacier almost in slow motion. Then, there was an almighty ’BOOM’ as the huge ice fragment crashed into the water with the sound of a giants roar as the displaced water sprayed upwards producing a huge fountain. If I had blinked, I would have missedthe most beautiful hazed rainbow hanging in the mist. The delayed sounds echoed around the fjord adding to drama of this most magnificent show that was seen only by us. The mini tsunami caused by the ice fall followed some time later, causing my kayak to rise up and down gently a few times with the swell. I was mesmerised.

Lillliehöök glacier is 8km wide at the waters edge. The 50 meter wall of ice towered above me. The dense white, craggy surface was interrupted with patches of a deep baby blue from the freshly exposed ice that shined as bright as the smile currently on my face. The glacier and all its might was simply the most spectacular thing I've ever seen, words simply cannot give justice to its beauty and almighty size, sounds and movements. I viewed it as a living being, an animal that lies in wait to surprise me, its prey. I felt like it was trying to scare me, catch me out with its sudden eruptions of movement, to show me who was the boss with brute power and noise. I was intimidated but fascinated in equal measure. I could sense the glaciers erratic emotions, the tension always present just waiting for a sudden outburst, a release of its heavy ice burden allowing a brief period of serenity and peace in the fjord until the tension built up again.

Despite being utterly captivated watching one of natures greatest shows, I was always aware of the potential danger of my position. My every sense was heightened as I took in the scene around me, I was always cautious of maintaining the suggested 300 meter safety distance from the glacier, prepared to respond to falling ice and subsequent tsunami’s immediately. As I paddled around with frequent carvings around me, I was on edge, excited, slightly nervous and totally awe struck by natures power. I’ll never forget that tension.

The larger ice fragments clawed their way out from under neath my kayak as I drifted over them, loudly scratching the underside of kayak. My paddles hit the hard, heavy lumps of ice with every stroke as I navigated my way through the ice field, trying to avoid the larger ones and a certain titanic ending. They have the right of way, when hit at speed they could easily cause the kayak to capsize.

My hands were painfully cold on this first day of the expedition and despite the show, I had to paddle to keep warm and prevent the wind from pushing me into the larger icebergs. In a moment of time travel I reminisced about my favourite childhood breakfast. Before school each day I would have a bowl of rice krispie cereal for breakfast. In that moment I remembered my delight at pouring milk over my cereal with my ear practically in the bowl, listening to the sound of crackles and pop’s erupting that the cereal brand was iconic for. I felt like I was kayaking through that bowl right now. As the ice fragments melt the compressed air within them is released, making the popping sound of my favourite childhood breakfast. I couldn't help but chuckle at the memory and comparison.

Our first night camping was on a beach within small harbour a few kilometres away from the glacier. We could still hear the thunder and roars in the distance each time it calved. It never stopped and continued as I tried to sleep. I woke many times on that first night, the result of a bad dream of polar bear attacks, sudden outbursts of noise from the glacier combined with the energising, around the clock day light. 

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The following morning the wind and rain had gone and the sun was shining. There was barely a ripple in the water on which the peaks of the snow capped mountains were almost perfectly reflected upon. Silence. We were totally alone in this vast mountain scene. This is the stuff adventure dreams are made of. I couldn’t wait to dismantle camp, pack our kayaks and get onto the water to explore.

We were never really alone, such the abundance of wildlife in Svalbard. Steep, towering cliffs were a crazed scene of bird activity with parents feeding newly hatched chicks. Puffins, with their cubby bodies and short, dangling legs flew low over head as we paddled across the open fjord. Groups of seals followed us inquisitively with no fear at all. The beauty of kayaking is its silence and movability. We could quietly approach 250kg bearded seal relaxing on the ice and observe them from a respectable distance without intruding. Bulgur Whales swam by, only meters away from us as if we weren't even there. 

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On land I’d follow trails of foot prints and try to recognise which animal they were from. Polar bears, reindeers, different birds and arctic fox were all seen every time we stopped on sand. Reindeer antlers were scattered everywhere, only recently shed. Some were as long as my legs. I’d find patches of white fur, easily identified as either a reindeer or polar bear by its tensile strength. If broken when stretched between your fingers it belonged to a reindeer, if not, its from a polar bear. I tested a lot of hair and was disappointed every time it didn't  brake.   

Everywhere I looked there was life, but the stark reality of the end of life in the high arctic was unavoidable too. Every night, after a solid day kayaking we set up camp on a different beach. The beaches reveal everything about the struggles for survival here. Whole skeletons of birds, reindeer and whale bones were littered among the stones. Seal carcasses, recently abandoned by polar bears after they’d had their fill were abundant. 

It was appallingly sad to see the unnatural deaths, the ones caused by humans who shouldn't be interfering in the circle of life. The gulf stream brings much of the human made materials leading to the demise. Fishing rope was an all too common sight. I still can’t shake the images in my mind of two dead reindeers, tied together with fishing rope by their antlers. The rope gets caught in their antlers as they feed on the beach and the two reindeers are terminally bound as they rut. They fight to exhaustion, unable to part, until death. One, often days after the other as it cannot part from its conjoined corpse to feed. Tragically this was seen on a few separate occasions. As the expedition progressed and we ate the contents of our kayaks we filled them with rubbish, especially fishing nets. For this reason my kayak was actually heavier at the end of the expedition than at the beginning.

We’d see the fight for survival daily. An example was when I was watching a family of Eider ducks, swimming close to shore with 6-8 ducklings in tow, seemly new to the water following their parents in a panic of chirrups. Gulls were always watching, looking for an easy target. I could not intervene with nature as the following dramatic scene played out. The gulls dive bombed the duck family, the helpless parents fled whilst the chicks dived under the water to escape capture, until, exhausted, they could no longer and were flown away in the claws of their predator. It was painful to observe, a typical desperate scene ending in death I could imagine wildlife presenter Sir David Attenborough narrating as he famously does in each episode.

Piles of rocks plainly demonstrate the place where, hundreds of years ago, humans met their end too. Rudimentary, shallow graves covered in rocks are located next to their occupiers tiny, semi derelict wooden huts, no bigger than a garden shed. These graves are the physical reminders of how hard life was up here for its first human inhabitants who were drawn to the riches of trapping animals for their furs. Part 3 to follow.