BEAR ISLAND, SVALBARD, 1955

Scientists will point out a number of factors influencing the color of the ocean, but in my northern travels one factor outweighed all else, and that was the mood of the sky. Whatever hues shone down upon them, the waters returned these with heightened intensity. Beneath the blue skies we found along the Norwegian coast, the sea was an inky blue bordering at times on indigo. Now as we headed into open ocean, the mood was quickly altered. The skies were sullen gray, as if brooding over the intrusion of the Gulf Stream into these chilly fringes of the Arctic Ocean. The sea responded in a murky gray tone reminiscent of tarnished lead and seemingly just as opaque.

During my total of about 12 days spent sailing in these waters north of Norway and south of Spitsbergen, normally the minimum wind condition I heard reported was gale (32 to 63 mph), which produced respectable ocean swells with whitecaps, causing rolls and pitches of the vessel that made walking on board an unsteady process. Then at frequent intervals lasting several hours to a day at a time, the winds increased to storm levels (64-72 mph). Here, waves regularly broke over the forward deck. They washed the lifeboat dories mounted on the second deck as the ship rolled to extremes which I at first found alarming. And water occasionally splashed into the steering house. Walking became a series of short dashes from handhold to handhold. Traversing the open forward deck had to be timed as well as possible to avoid the breaking waves.

BearILocMapAlone amid these restless waters, some 300 miles north of mainland Norway and 200 miles from its nearest island neighbor, Bear Island hunkers down in its long-standing defiance of the elements. A rocky island of sixty-some square miles, it is rimmed everywhere by sheer coastal cliffs, rising to 100 feet in the lowland parts and to more than 1,000 feet in the hilly parts of the island. The incessant breaking of waves against these cliffs, the frequent noisy rock falls, and the massive piles of rock debris and the spectacular rock chimneys and pinnacles that fringe the coastline, all these bits of evidence make it clear that the island is but a remnant of its former self, and is being diminished perceptibly even in the course of human history. Inland from the coast, this land sports no soaring peaks nor sparkling glaciers; instead, the gray and tawny shades reflect from lake-dotted plains and subdued round hills that were ground low and smooth by the stone-studded sole of the overriding ice sheet. Appropriately enough, the highest peak on the island, at about 1,700 feet, is named Miseryfjellet or The Misery Mountain. Now the ice sheet is gone, but frost continues a relentless attack. Hard sandstones are shattered into mile after mile of bouldery waste, with fragments from the size of one’s head to the size of one’s small auto. Softer rocks are churned by cycles of freeze-and-thaw into huge convex clayey polygons rimmed by rings of cobblestone and gravel. At times, even during the brief clearings of the skies in this region, the island seems to wrap itself in the protective folds of its very own fog bank and cloud cover. But to no avail, for high winds and fog seem to have no trouble coexisting here.

Polygonal patterns, shown in this view, are a common feature where there is intense freezing Fig06-copyand thawing in the upper soil layers and, below depths of a few feet, the soil is permanently frozen. 

Bear Island has a bad reputation as a place to visit. The reason has nothing to do with its name. Bears are not a usual part of the local fauna. Polar bears habitually stay with the pack ice, far to the north during the brief Arctic summer, where their chief prey of seals can best be hunted. The island was named by Willem Barents to commemorate the killing of a bear there in June of 1596. But by the mid-twentieth century, the much more benign ice conditions as well as the increased hunting pressure by man would have made a summer visit by the creatures most unexpected. No, the island’s notoriety stems from its windy weather combined with its lack of protected waters for landing. Landings must be made on small rock ledges or pocket beaches open to the full force of the ocean waves. Heavy weather has stranded travelers ashore here for as much as a month. The frequent presence of the fog bank is an additional nuisance. We were at one point in radio contact with a ship attempting to reach the island; they were in its vicinity and had been making passes at the island for two days without finding it in the fog.

So this Bear Island was our first destination, and the crossing took 36 hours.  Upon our arrival, we anchored in Sørhamna (South Harbor) to wait out the latest bad weather.  This was a partly sheltered cove without any reasonable access to land because of the extremely high and steep cliffs rimming it.  Nevertheless it offered some respite from heavy seas and an opportunity to fish.  As if on cue before even the first nibble, the sun came out, the winds died down, and the storm waves faded to gentle swells.  This calm could be brief, so we upped anchor quickly and chugged some five miles up the west coast to our preselected landing site, where we anchored about a quarter mile offshore.

Scheduled to camp on Bear Island for ten days, we were mindful of its nasty reputation and took provisions for a month for the shore party of four: Bruce, Tore, Frank, and me.  Getting all this ashore was too much for our little fiberglass motorboat to handle, so one of the large, heavy lifeboat dories was lowered and put into service.  Four or five men on deck handed the packages down to four men on the dory, timing their moves with the rise and fall of the sea swells.  I was on the dory, and working at my right side was Leiv.  Losing balance at one point, I clutched the gunwale in front of me to steady myself.  Almost immediately I was whammed by what seemed to be a baseball bat, slamming into my midriff and across the insides of both elbows.  The blow broke my grasp on the gunwale and sent me crashing on my rear end.  In what must have been fractions of a second, two realizations came upon me:  First, that the bat was in fact Leiv’s left arm, swinging straight and rigid.  And second, that even as I was still bouncing, the dory and the Godønes crashed together with a loud creaking and scraping.  Leiv had seen my eight fingers draped over the point of imminent contact, and had saved them by his usual alertness and instant reaction.

We drew ashore at the base of a vertical 100-foot cliff where a tiny beach, 6 feet wide and some 30 feet long, was situated at the mouth of a ravine.  The ravine afforded a steep route but one which we could clamber up on all fours, dragging our supplies with us, to the level ground up top.  Many hands assisted, and within an hour the job was done.  We pitched camp alongside a creek about 100 yards inland from the cliff edge.  The camp consisted of one large tent, about 9 feet square, for supply storage, meals, and socializing; and a pair of two-man mountain tents for sleeping.

Fig03-BrICamp

Once the camp was set up, our shipboard friends wished us good luck and sailed off.  The ship was hardly out of sight before the clouds returned and the wind and waves resumed their rampage.  At no time in the next ten days did we see even a brief spell of calm that would have permitted a boat to land or depart from the island.

Sleeping at night was somewhat of a problem.  For starters, broad daylight continued around the clock.  Next, rock falls along the coastal cliffs produced booms like distant claps of thunder, several per night, which I found unnerving at first.  Further, the winds seemed to pick up in intensity around midnight, at the dimmest level of daylight, to cause incessant loud flapping of the tent.  Finally, as the wind picked up, it rained every night.  Put all this together with Frank and me bundled up and stuffed tightly into a tiny tent, and the result was a continual noisy face slapping by wet canvas.  Two hours of this was enough for Frank; he went to the supply tent, lit up the Primus stove for warmth, and made his bedroom there for the rest of our encampment.  Alone in the mountain tent, I still had the noisy flapping but at least I could avoid bodily contact with the canvas.

Fig05CabinBrI A cabin built by a German pilot after    a wartime emergency landing on Bear Island.  Supplies including timber were airdropped to him. He apparently flew off before finishing the cabin.  Ruts left by the aircraft were still visible ten years after the war. 

After a few days we recognized a deep mystery.  Though our campsite was rained upon heavily each night, nearby areas showed no sign of rain the next morning.  The soils were always moist, but there were scattered boulders that should be wet and should have puddles in their crevices; instead, they were dry.  Could we possibly have our own private rain cloud hovering above in all this wind?  And then one night I solved the mystery in a somewhat unpleasant fashion.  The tent flapping was especially loud and rapid and growing more so each minute.  As it approached a climax I lost hope of ever getting to sleep.  Then the noise stopped abruptly and total silence ensued.  I luxuriated in this sudden calm for what seemed like several minutes.  But it could only have been the several seconds needed for the collapsed tent cloth to settle down on my face; one of the two tent poles had broken under the force of the wind.  Grumpily I moved out of the warm sleeping bag, out of the fallen tent and into the cold wind and rain, in stocking feet and long underwear, to seek a replacement tent pole.  Fortunately there was one, and I soon had it in place and all was in good flapping order again.  Before reentering the tent, I looked down the creek to where it cascaded over the cliff’s edge.  It was not cascading!  Instead, the fierce westerly wind was picking the creek up bodily and hurling it back as a torrential spray onto our camp.

Next morning Frank and I pondered the possibility of moving camp, but decided against it.  It was not only the labor of moving our mountain of supplies that deterred us.  It was the fear of losing one or both tents to the wind if the two of us attempted to move them without the help of others.

Although the higher coastal cliffs of Bear Island are famous bird rocks hosting millions of nesters from June through August, the inland fauna is sparse indeed. We glimpsed a blue fox one evening as we were bedding down in the open after working some miles from camp. The fox was more troubled by our presence than we by his. Then there were a few birds, notably skuas and terns, who found the solitude of the upland plains preferable to the crowding of the cliffs. Their nesting areas could often be spotted by the litter of broken crustacean and mollusk shells reflecting the diet these birds had won from the sea. My first encounter with these ground nesters involved the old broken wing ploy. I saw this apparently injured bird hopping along, dragging one wing on the ground. Following to see if I could help, I was led to a safe distance from the nest, whereupon the canny creature took off and flew normally. Once tricked, I would not play that game again, but would merely exert caution against stepping on eggs. This decision was at my peril. For when the broken wing ploy failed, the dive-bombing plan was put into effect. This was not a ploy or a threat, but a genuine attack involving real bumps on the head, forcing me to hold onto my hat and protect the eyes. Upon mature consideration, I decided that playing along with the broken wing ploy was to be preferred.

I once read somewhere that no vegetation in Svalbard exceeds six inches in height. There may be exceptions, but none that I ever observed. Among vast barren stretches on Bear Island I saw scattered patches of thin mosses and lichens, brown or darkish green, and bits here and there of the whitish reindeer moss I had come to know earlier in Alaska. The brightest greens, seen only at a distance, were on ledges of the highest coastal cliffs where bird droppings had created a rich soil. During our stay of ten days in early July, the spring thaw was just ending on the island. The rotten ice covering the lakes and ponds finally broke up and disappeared, as did the snow banks on the shadiest north-facing slopes. So this was a poor time to judge what lusher tones, what blossoms might brighten the landscape a few weeks hence at the height of the brief summer…

Bear Island – Bjørnøya in Norwegian – had been a particularly unpleasant place to visit, yet there grew in me a haunting sense that it had the force of a special personality. Perhaps this stemmed from the human-style crosscurrents and inconsistencies of its nature. Harsh and austere, the island in its serene moments hinted almost at hospitality in the smooth contours of its gently rolling lake-dotted plains and its homely subdued hills. Its stony resistance to the elements was more than matched by vulnerability and, ultimately, a capitulation sometimes noisy but never quite ceasing. And behind all this stood the fact of its lonely vigil amid such great expanse of angry sea. Somehow, all this became a symbol of something deeply echoed within the psyche. When I dream of travels past, more often than not I see Bear Island, lonely and forlorn. Only two other places ever brought a reminder of that island and of the feelings it stirred. One of these was the barren, sulfur-decayed landscape of the Arminius pyrite mine at Mineral, Virginia, before its reclamation. The other was the site of the first lunar landing.

Our farewell view of the island was along the thousand-foot high bird cliffs on the southwestern coast. The waters here were busy with feeding birds of many kinds: puffins, auks, gulls, kittiwakes and murres, and more that I had never heard of. As we passed, one of the crewmembers fired a rifle and the sky darkened with millions upon millions of birds from the cliffs. I was unaware at the time that the shot was illegal during the nesting season. Only by hindsight, as an avid watcher of nature study shows during the ensuing years, can I now grasp the tragedy of countless chicks and eggs dropped, lost, or abandoned during that moment of panic. At the time, I felt only awe at the spectacle.

Fig04(2)BrI_Clfs

(The above is based on my book The Cold Coasts.)

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