A First Encounter With A White Polar Bear: The Adventures Of Ivan Kutasov

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We continue herewith Ivan Kutasov’s series of articles about his adventures in Svalbard. In the following article Ivan will disclose why you can’t even lift a log in the archipelago, what the northernmost town on our planet looks like, and how a polar bear tried to find his way onto the expedition’s yacht in search of fish.      

On the 40th day of the expedition we left Ny-Ålesund – the northernmost town in the world, which is situated at latitude 78° – and headed straight to the northern part of the Archipelago. Our path lay through the famous Nordvest-Spitsbergen National Park – these places are very interesting. We spent a few days exploring Krossfjorden. It is a unique fjord, which is situated on the western coast of Spitsbergen, with its enormous glaciers.

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 Photo by Ivan Kutasov

The history of this place is extraordinarily interesting. The origin of its name, which is translated as the “Cross Fjord”, has a simple explanation: the earliest explorer in this region, the Englishman Jonas Poole, left a tall cross on the hill with an inscription to mark the date of his arrival. The first settlers, although they were not expected to be permanent, appeared here only at the beginning of the 17th century: British sailors appreciated the secure position of the harbor (however, as it turned out, there aren’t a lot of suitable harbors in Krossfjorden, on the contrary, its coast is rocky and forbidding); and soon, in 1600, the first whalers’ village was set up on the coast of Krossfjorden.

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Photo by Ivan Kutasov

In 1662, the whales disappeared from the sea near Spitsbergen, the whalers’ base became unprofitable, and soon afterwards it was abandoned. Only the cemetery, which serves as a reminder of the severity of these places, and the fragments of a furnace for making oil from whale fat, have survived to the present day.

 

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 Photo by Ivan Kutasov

Next we visited a small bay called Virgohamma, which is situated on the northern coast of Danes Island. In order to visit it, we had to get specific permission in Longyearbyen from the governor of Spitsbergen, who is called here the “Sysselmannen”.

 

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Photo by Ivan Kutasov

The fact is that this bay is a kind of open-air museum, and, among other things, there is a law which applies on the entire territory of Spitsbergen. It prohibits picking up any artifacts, and even an ordinary log might have archaeological value, since there are no trees on Spitsbergen, therefore a log could have been brought here either by man or by the elements. Virgohamma is translated from Norwegian as the “Virgin’s Bay”, and it was named after “Virgo”, the boat which belonged to the Swedish engineer and explorer Salomon Andrée.

 

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Photo by Ivan Kutasov

This historically eventful place has traces of as many as two polar expeditions. One of them is associated with the aforementioned Salomon Andrée who, in 1897, made an attempt to reach the North Pole in a hydrogen-filled balloon called “The Eagle”. The outcome of this endeavor was tragic: Andrée and two of his companions died on a deserted island in the north-west part of Spitsbergen after three months of torturous wandering through Arctic ice packs.

 

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Photo by Ivan Kutasov

The other explorer who chose Virgohamma as the starting point for his polar journey was Walter Wellman, from the U.S. In 1906, he built a hangar for an airship, and a camp on the bay, but, like Andrée’s expedition, Wellmann’s ended in a fiasco. There are still sights on the island which are associated with the two polar expeditions: a metal scrap yard, footings of the wooden house, and graves.                      

 

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 Photo by Ivan Kutasov

Alkefjellet is situated in the Hinlopenstretet. It consists of basalt cliffs which are reminiscent of an ancient castle, and it is a home for more than 200 thousand guillemots.     

 

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 Photo by Ivan Kutasov

Magdalenefjorden is known for its dazzling glaciers, and it is the very place where William Barents came up with the idea of naming this archipelago Spitsbergen, which means “pointed mountains”. Jagged mountaintops that look like a gothic castle ascend on either side of Magdalenefjorden.    

 

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 Photo by Ivan Kutasov

We also had our first encounter with a polar bear in these parts. It happened like this: we woke up early in the morning, started to prepare to leave the bay, and began to raise the anchor. At this moment, the bear appeared on the shore – he jumped into the water and began swimming straight towards the yacht. Apparently, he smelled the fish which was drying on the deck. We had to ward him off with sticks and shouts, as we prepared our weapons. Fortunately, after half an hour of attempting to climb on the deck, he accepted that he had failed to do so, and sat with an aggrieved look on the shore. After this incident, we began placing a tripwire across the deck to forewarn us in case an unexpected guest boarded our ship.

 

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 Photo by Ivan Kutasov

In fact, there have been occurrences when bears have climbed aboard yachts when everyone was sleeping, and then the members of the crew found themselves in a trap.

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