The evening was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences. All of the beaches around the fiords (nearly) empty of detritus. Just us seven humans, sailboat in the distance, bleached bones and rocks scattered about, and the walruses. Grunts and snorts seem to surround us, midnight sun gilds a watery path out to our three-masted schooner…it could have been a couple of centuries ago.
Back in Longyearbyen now. Perfect week…perfect…you’ll see what I mean as the posts continue. Now I’m back on dry land in my room here at Basecamp, a room even cozier than the last, all rustic and hand-hewn wood (although there is not a tree in Svalbard?), fluffy white duvets and wooly blankets. I’ve been to the grocery store for yogurt and cinnamon rolls and French-herbed cream cheese and a can of pears so I don’t get scurvy while sheltered from the big bad freezing rainstorm predicted for tomorrow. May the weather gods smile on each of us individually—meaning all other visitors to Svalbard will be out kayaking and hiking and polar bear seeking on a brisk sunny day—but I will be wrapped round by a dark stormy raincloud. After the morning dog-wagoning of course. Tuesday, August 14 was the first adventure day; a walrus day. Here’s the thing with all animal-seeking explorations whether in the African bush or on Norwegian glaciers. One is never guaranteed of actually seeing the sought-after creatures—places for that level of certainty are called zoos.
The Linden was chilly for the first evening and my dreams (of me)—warm and snug on the gently rolling seas—were threatened for a minute. By the morning my sweet bug-in-a-rug hopes were reality. Fresh brown bread, Norwegian butter, ham, cheese, thick berry jams, and some of Mette’s homemade Kombucha for sustenance. Low-key friendliness of the twelve people for companionship. The grandeur of the uninhabited Arctic, all coolly offered up in the bright blue, unrelenting gray-green-brown and turquoise-brightened white of sky, sea, mountain and glacier. I just googled synonyms for ‘wow.’ Unsatisfactory results: holy cow, holy mackerel, holy moly, whoa: cool, amazing, awesome, far out, hot damn; (dated: golly, gosh, ye gods, gadzooks…) So just Wow.
We made our first foray of the day out on the zodiac with the intent of hiking up a low hill and getting the lay of the land generally. We had just made shore and started up the hill when a small coast guard boat pulled up and warned us of a polar bear sighting nearby. Nearly every adult carries a rifle everywhere, the exception being on main street, but there are severe consequences should you ever use it to kill an animal. The circumstances had better have made the killing unavoidable or the shooter will be in serious trouble. Fair enough. While I’m not anxious to be eaten by a polar bear, let’s face it, there are way more useless little old ladies in the world than there are big beautiful white bears left. We followed the coast closely for a few kilometers of shoreline on the off chance of a bear spotting before heading back to the ship.
Back to the ship for lunch and a short nap. Lunches are simple but always just right, bit of nice meat or fish, not too many veggies, juice, coffee. The captain/owner and small crew, being Danish, appear to believe in the concept of hygge (“a type of lifestyle practiced in Denmark where the focus is on simple pleasures, comfort and cosiness, and spending time with friends and family…”)
Now, time for adventure. Walruses have been spotted not too far from the Linden. We suit up for the zodiac…which turns out to be the hard part. Big heavy black waterproof lined suits. Heavy…did I mention heavy? Then high boots, even heavier. After which one must climb down a ladder to the zodiac, the bouncing zodiac. Okay, did that. We head for shore.
Yes, there they are. Walruses. Huge. Did I know walrus were that big? I mean I’ve seen them haven’t I? Fisherman’s Wharf? This herd of roly-poly funny-ugly creatures are at least baby elephant big. What ungainly beings they are, at least out of water. The herd is lolling about in a sort of friendly bundle just up a small slope from the water. All pushy in an-annoying-your-sibling-kind-of-way and snuggly. Really? Snuggly? That does seem to describe how they relate to each other, but who would have thought a walrus snuggly? Mette is our walrus expert. Basic facts: they like to be close to each other in their beach huddle but continually break away for a swim and snack, living on mollusks except when they happen upon a slow-moving seal and can suck its brains out through its eye sockets. (Thanks for that image, Mette) They’re not particular fearful of humans although they don’t like sudden movements or a lot of noise.
Even though you see our guide and captain with hunting rifles, walruses are strictly protected and can never be killed in Svalbard. The rifles are, as always, polar bear protection in a worst case scenario.
Home to the Linden to some fine oniony meat patties, potatoes and carrots, brown gravy and lingonberries. Late evening with small chat, red wine and stinky cheese provided by Elodie, our French plankton expert, a quick hot shower and long night, sleepily rocking with the waves. My jet lag is over and I’m a sailor now.
The Walrus and the Carpenter (by Lewis Carroll)