A dense cloud of snow followed 30 teambuilders on their journey across the Arctic plateau in April. Travelling first on snowmobile and then by dog sled, we experienced three minus 15C degree days on an Arctic adventure.
Longyearbyen Airport, Friday 12 April, 13:30:
“It’s not often we have a whole weekend with this kind of weather up here.”
Guides and hosts are quite conclusive in their verdict of the weekend’s weather forecast as we arrive. Clear blue sky, sunny, no wind and “this heat” is not typical at this time of year. We choose to believe the weather gods planned the conditions according to our schedule, as most of our time will be spent outdoors and on the go.
Before we take on the polar hills we are to explore the deep underground of Svalbard. After a hefty snowcat ride out of Longyearbyen, we climb down into the icy deep of Longyearbreen glacier. Through the narrow passages of white, black and emerald green ice along the melt water channels, only our headlights illuminate the path. With sparkling ice walls and surrounding darkness we are told the thousand-year-old story of the glacier by our guide.
One hour later, the snowcats rumble back to town and we get just a taste of what we can expect for the rest of the weekend: chalk white hills, bright blue sky, sparkling sun and full speed ahead.
Following a short stopover at the hotel, we continue through Longyearbyen and another 15 minutes in the opposite direction. We stop on the side of the road, in the middle of the wilderness. The city has disappeared behind us and all we can see ahead are three small wooden cabins: Camp Barentz seems like the final outpost before the ice frontier.
We receive a warm end to a cold first day in the Arctic; next to the bonfire and under a “lavvu” ceiling. The hosts welcome us, armed with guns on their backs and aquavit on their serving trays – in case of polar bear visits or thirsty Omega guests.
It is already 7:30pm – but there is no sign of dusk. We have to move inside to get the feeling of approaching darkness. Lit only by the fire, in the middle of the circular building, we are served the local soup; a heavy stew with reindeer meat and vegetables followed by a brick-heavy brownie and steaming hot coffee, straight from the pot over the fire.
As dinner settles, the Arctic cold creeps through the walls and we draw closer to the fire, our hostess tells us the Svalbard story; the first settlers and explorers, the development up until her own time here, and life alongside polar bears and the midnight sun.
Our first morning on Svalbard. We wake up to sunshine and minus 15 degrees Celcius, some of us even wake up to find reindeer peering into our hotel room. With a panoramic view of Longyearbyen from the hotel, we prepare for the day, travelling 120 kilometers southwest, in proper Arctic transportation.
Just outside the city center we saddle up, each on our own snowmobile: with basic driving instructions, heavy winter shoes, a thermal suit over a three layers of wool, Finnish hoods and helmets, we turn the key.
In one, long convoy, we creep further and further away from civilization, and approximately one kilometer into our journey, we stop for a final check, before heading into the white of no man’s land. Several hours will pass before we see civilization again. The sun keeps an eye on us from a clear blue sky.
All we see is an endless snowy wilderness, but we never get tired of it: over each new hill another winter panorama awaits. Through the Coles Valley, over a mountain, along a hillside, down a hollow. We pass some reindeer at Kapp Laila and imagine that one of those lumps of ice in the water at Kapp Heer might actually have been a polar bear.
Four hours later we get our first glimpse of smoke seeping from the chimneys of Barentsburg. In the middle of the ice desert, we are suddenly surrounded by a Russian winter village – a quaint collection of brick buildings with hints of the old Soviet world, smack in the middle of nowhere. The Russian mining village is currently inhabited by approximately 500 people, mainly Ukrainian miners.
A Russian lunch buffet awaits us at Barentsburg Hotel, before we wander the streets on a guided tour of the city: from the hotel, to the newly renovated hospital, the school, past the dilapidated wooden houses, the sports center, the orthodox church, and the industrial brick buildings. We are closely observed by the Lenin statue, resting on the hillside above the main street of town.
We turn our snowmobiles towards “home” again, but take a new route this time, stopping for what probably is the most spectacular coffee break we’ll ever have. On top of a hill, surrounded by nothing but white plateaus as far as they eye can see.
It is after 6:30pm when we get back to the hotel. Despite almost 9 hours on the “road”, we could easily jump back on our snowmobiles for another ride. We are ready for more.
Through the valley by paw power
Even if the speed doesn’t reach the same level the following day, we are still in for another Arctic action ride on our last day of the teambuilding. However, this time it will not be a motorized outing. Twelve kilometers outside Longyearbyen we arrive at the Green Dog kennel, situated in the centre of the Bolterdalen valley.
One hundred and twenty-five polar dogs are nonchalantly strolling around several doghouses. Once again we get a quick course in local driving. Pairing up, we are assigned a sled and six four-legged guides for the day, who will take us through Bolderdalen valley. The drowsy dog faces gradually come to life as we follow them to the front of the sleigh and strap them into their harnesses.
They look almost too disengaged to start with, but as one sleigh after another takes off, the wild beasts in them wake up: Wolf howling, and barking, yapping and spinning paws in the snow, they are more than ready to take off, and when they finally get the go ahead there is almost no stopping them. For three hours we take the dogs for “a walk” – passenger and driver each get a turn driving the sled through the valley and, just like the day before, there is nothing but clear blue sky, a glowing sun and white horizons surrounding us.
The previously sleepy dogs now show strength and are all eager to get ahead of the line of sleds as we move through the valley. Overtaking is strictly forbidden, and we have to keep a strong hold on them. Fortunately, they are all obedient, Tyson, Bowie, Nemo, Ross, Lulu, Ask, and the other Green Dogs, as they pant their way through the valley. They never seem to get tired. Neither dogs, nor passengers, would mind a longer ride, but departure from our polar adventure is approaching.
A final Svalbard meal is enjoyed at the hotel and we take in our final look at Longyearbyen before heading off to the airport and back to reality; first by bus, then by plane. Transportation on wheels and in the air seems so boring now, after a weekend of Arctic sleds and snowmobiles. The sun also bids us farewell on our way to the airport. As we take off, rain and wind arrives in Longyearbyen.