A black-footed kittiwake swooped in from the Arctic Ocean and landed on the bald head of Lenin, the Russian communist revolutionary, politician and political theorist. Not in political defiance, but because the top of the granite statue was a good vantage point to check out the busy rookeries all around and the rich oceanic feeding grounds below. The lone and sternly looking face of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov was located high on a stone pillar on the main square of the now-abandoned mining town Pyramiden in Spitsbergen, Norway.
Owned by a state-owned Russian mining company Arktikugol, Pyramiden once had more than 1,000 workers milling about. They have since been replaced by thousands of nesting birds. In 1998, the final coal was extracted from the mine and the last permanent resident left the town. Since then, most of the windowsills in the empty Soviet administration buildings have been populated by nesting kittiwake pairs, and tussocks of wild grass and clusters of Arctic cotton have invaded the former parade grounds. Loading docks were crumbling and defunct mining equipment rusted all over in quiet silence. It was amazing how nature was taking back the territory, steadily but surely, and for me, it was as if the authoritative statue of Lenin was now the guardian of that natural takeover.
Standing below Lenin’s bust, our small group of four friends and expedition sea kayakers had just been ferried in from Longyearbyen, the capital of Spitsbergen, five hour’s boat ride away. We were preparing to start our 100-mile journey through the large Isfjord complex, running east to west through the central Svalbard archipelago.
Spitsbergen is the largest and only permanently populated island in Svalbard, which belongs to Norway. It is only 600 miles from the North Pole and is bordered by the Arctic Ocean and the Norwegian and Greenland seas. Due to its relatively warm oceanic summer currents, the surrounding waters are rich breeding grounds for many seabirds, and the region also supports polar bears, reindeer and marine mammals. Apart from the abundance of wildlife, the island has many glaciers, rarely visited mountain ranges and remote fjords. To protect this largely untouched yet fragile environment, six national parks have been established, one of them along the northern shores of our route in Isfjorden.
Our plan was to paddle along the shoreline of Isfjorden National Park, which stretches its long fingers into the waters of Spitsbergen and almost splits the island in two. The area embraces all of the periods of Svalbard’s history, from the early presence of whalers in the 17th century to the Soviet post-war mining efforts to the present, where many tourists have found this Arctic archipelago a wildlife destination well worth visiting.
Our exploration was to be self-supported, bringing everything along packed in our kayaks, including food, commissary, guns and ammunition. Yes, even rifles and bullets, because Spitsbergen has a large polar bear population, which requires a lot of precautions for those traveling on foot or by kayak. In this High Arctic kingdom of Ursus maritimus, we were mandated by the local police authority to prepare for an eventual encounter with a wild polar bear. We had to obtain gun permits for the rifles we rented in town and we also brought along pepper spray cans, flares and horns to scare bears away and defend ourselves, if necessary. We even brought along a self-made mobile polar bear fence system. It was constructed from a thin nylon fishing line, strung between ski poles and connected to explosive devices that (in theory) would activate to scare off intruding bears. Essentially, we were told to know how to handle any bear encounter—without killing or injuring the wild animal.
For sure, there are lots of polar bears in Svalbard to be on alert for. A helicopter census in 2004 counted approximately 3,000 polar bears around Spitsbergen in the sea and on land, out of an estimated 25,000 on a global scale. Luckily, we did not encounter a single one of these wild bears on our expedition, but one day, while walking the mudflats, we did see fresh footprints from a medium-sized bear, rummaging for food along the shores. It was a sobering discovery, and that same night, we decided to rotate our crew as armed guards, which is the best (but most exhausting) way to secure an expedition camp against polar bears.
However, other people did encounter polar bears at the same time we were in Svalbard, and perhaps it was the same animal that had left the tracks we saw. Flying out of Longyearbyen on the last day, we received a sobering message. We learned that only 40 kilometers away from our route and at the same time we were out in the field, a starving polar bear had attacked a party of young British adventurers. It succeeded in killing a 17-year-old boy and four others were hurt, two of them seriously. The bear was finally shot dead by one of the expedition’s leaders, who himself suffered severe head injuries. Officials ruled later that the incident could have been prevented if the expedition members had stayed in cabins instead of tents, had used guard dogs, or had deployed someone on a 24-hour polar bear watch.
Man and bear have had a long and adversarial relationship in Spitsbergen. Polar bears have been mercilessly hunted by humans in Spitsbergen for centuries. In the winter of 1784-85, Russian trappers harvested 150 polar bears in a single location in northeastern Spitsbergen. In the early 20th century, Norwegian hunters were harvesting hundreds of bears per year, applying mechanized and overpoweringly efficient methods of hunting and trapping. The Norwegians used “self-killing guns,”comprised of a loaded rifle in a baited box that was placed at the level of a bear’s head, which then fired when the string attached to the bait was pulled. The numbers of bears killed grew rapidly in the 1960s, peaking around 1968 with a global total of 1,250 polar bears killed that year!
Research predicted that if these massacres were not stopped, this northwestern population of polar bears would go extinct. Polar bear hunting was finally banned in Svalbard in 1973, after 100 years of intensive exploitation, and the population has since recovered significantly in recent decades. But bears are still threatened by humans and by the rapid warming of the Arctic, which decreases the amount of oceanic winter ice that is home to seals, which are polar bears’ preferred food source. The dramatic effect of global warming in the Polar regions is something that we also encounter on an expedition cruise in Arctic Svalbard.
The Spitsbergen wildlife experience is, however, about much more than polar bears. Two other terrestrial mammalian species inhabit the island, namely the Arctic fox and the endemic and distinct subspecies of the Svalbard reindeer. There are also more than 20 different species of marine mammals along the shores and in the surrounding seas, including whales, dolphins, seals and walruses. About 30 types of bird are found on Spitsbergen, most of which are migratory. The Barents Sea is among the areas in the world with most seabirds, with about 20 million counted during the late summer. The most common are little auks, northern fulmars, thick-billed murres and black-legged kittiwakes, just like the one that was standing on Lenin’s skull.
We had a wonderful kayak trip in the wildlife and nature paradise of Svalbard. Hopefully, visitors to Isfjorden National Park will contribute to the conservation of all this wonderful wildlife and we will learn to live in harmony with nature in the Arctic.