ARCTIC FIASCOS

This post summarizes a PowerPoint presentation that was given at the Summit Square retirement community in Waynesboro, Virginia on May 16, 2015.  Most of the events mentioned are documented elsewhere in this blog.  The PowerPoint presentation focused on humorous aspects having entertainment value for a live audience.  Wording is approximate because no script was used in the presentation.  Duration was about 40 minutes.

INTRODUCTION

With a title like this, I realize that some of you may be wondering, why is he so negative, why can’t he talk about Arctic Accomplishments instead?

I promise you, I will talk about accomplishments, but that’ll only take a minute or two. As for the negativity, that dates way back.  When I was a little fellow, I had lots of trouble trying to satisfy my father with my grades in school. I’d tell him I got 93 on a test, and he’d ask what went wrong.  I didn’t like that.  I wanted praise instead.

So, when I got a grade of 98, and he asked the same thing, I screwed up my courage and snapped, “Nothing went wrong. I think that’s a pretty good grade.”  He answered, “Yes it’s very good. But if you’ll think more about the 2% you missed, then you’ll know it all!”

I still didn’t much like it, but maybe I thought he had a point, because…  Now, eighty years later, lots of my memories are about what went wrong. They don’t hurt much if I laugh at them. I hope you’ll laugh with me.

I. SODA STRAW AND OTHER PROJECTS, ALASKA 1952

Here you see downtown Anchorage in 1952. I had gone to work for the Geological Survey a couple of years earlier, fresh out of school.   Now it was time to get some practical field experience.  I was assigned to spend that summer in Alaska, working on several different projects.

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I arrived in Anchorage in early June. Summer was right around the corner, and the city was in festive gear.  I expected to see a frontier town like those of the old West.  No such thing.  It was a modern city with all the latest conveniences – electricity, running water, even traffic lights and parking meters.  Yes, I exaggerate my surprise, but when I saw the first parking meter, I did think it was worth a picture.  The city also had a Piggly Wiggly supermarket, a pleasant reminder of my home in Virginia.

Anchorage was overcrowded by workers who had come for summer jobs. The hotels followed a “hot bed” policy. Day-shift workers rented beds by night, and night-shift workers rented the same beds by day.  Whether bedding was changed in between depended on what class of hotel one was staying at.

I joined with several other geologists in a tour of the Black Rapids Glacier. It had a bad reputation as a surge-type glacier, meaning that it could lie dormant for years, then it could grow rapidly and move forward at a dangerous speed.

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In three months of the winter of 1936-37, it had moved forward at the rate of 1 mile per month. A more typical glacier speed would be around 100 feet per month.

The Fairbanks newspaper reported: “Living, Sinister Mass of Ice 500 Feet High and Mile and a Half Wide Rumbles and Crashes Down Black Rapids Valley.”

The ice dammed up a river and came close to cutting off the Richardson highway. The glacier has been wasting away ever since, but could surge again at any time.  The trans-Alaska oil pipeline now runs alongside that highway.

In the front center of the picture above, you can see where the river was dammed. Also, please note the light gray stuff bordering the glacier and extending up the lower mountain slopes.  Geologists have a scientific name for it, “the bath-tub ring effect.”  It is rocky stuff deposited by the glacier, and it shows the highest level the glacier reached in its last surge.

Glaciers are often described as natural highways in Alaska. Where they have a firm, smooth surfaces, they allow easy walking (below, left).

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Where crevasses – deep, open cracks — ave developed, walking is more dangerous (below, right). Many crevasses were much larger than these, but I didn’t have the courage to get close to them for a picture.  They are especially treacherous in winter, when they are hidden beneath the snow.

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The feature above is known by the French name “moulin,” meaning “mill.” It is a seemingly bottomless hole where meltwater from the surface drains into the depths of the glacier.  It got us thinking seriously about safety.   We asked if anyone had brought a rope for safety.  No.  Did anyone have crampons, which were sets of sharp spikes that could be attached to the boots?  No.  From here on we moved very cautiously.

The Black Rapids glacier presented other dangers. This photo shows where an earthquake caused parts of the nearby mountains to collapse onto the ice. Their debris suddenly covered 5 square miles of the glacier.  This was not a good day to be walking on it.

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Luckily, we had already finished our walk, almost exactly fifty years earlier.

The Army Corps of Engineers had problems with frozen ground in Alaska. At shallow depths, the soils freeze and thaw with the weather, just as they do in Virginia. But in many places beneath that, there is a zone where the ground stays frozen all the time.

We call this permafrost. It’s a few feet thick in some places, hundreds of feet in others.  Beneath a construction project, over time it can shift or melt away and the structure may collapse. Permafrost also makes it hard to find water sources for wells.

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The Engineers were charmed with a new product called the Porta-Drill (left), mainly because Porta meant that it was portable by only two men, while most drill rigs were much larger. They thought it might be the perfect gadget to explore permafrost and take samples of it, and even to find underground water sources.  They asked us to buy one and field-test it in Alaska.

As the new kid on the block, I got to run the tests, which were expected to take all summer. Nobody in Washington knew any details about the drill, so I had arranged to stop by the factory where it was made, on my way up to Alaska.

Soon after I got to the factory, I got the bad news. This was a diamond bit coring drill made for mineral prospectors. It could drill through hard rock and take samples to show if there were any valuable minerals there. It probably wouldn’t do anything worthwhile in permafrost. As for finding underground water sources, the advice was, “Well, you might put a soda straw down the hole and see what you can suck up.”

I told the boss all this and he said to keep an open mind. After all, anything that could drill through hard rock could surely get through permafrost.

I met with a field assistant who would help me haul the thing around, and we started drilling. I named the project Soda Straw.WbRszaAK 1_0014      WbRszaAK 1_0012

The boss’s advice wasn’t quite right. Below, you see two diamond drill bits.  The left one is brand new.  The one on the right has drilled through only 5 feet of frozen soil.  As we drilled, the soil thawed and slumped against the side of the bit.  Each particle of sand and gravel in the soil wore the bit down until diamonds in the lip began to fall out.  If there were any core samples, they turned into muck and got lost.  We never did manage to stick a soda straw into the hole.

There was another problem. When the drilling stopped, the soil quickly froze up again and trapped our drill rod.  We had to call a wrecking truck to pull it out.

It took only ten days to show that the Porta-Drill was useless for what the Engineers had in mind.

Now for the rest of the summer. Before I got my next assignment. I had to wait two weeks in a dreary town, in a dreary hotel where the best entertainment was a juke box playing Jalousie and Blue Tango.

My next assignment took me to into the mountains of the Alaska Range. Spectacular scenery.

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This was supposed to be another shot of those beautiful mountains, but a Smart Alec kept poking his face in front of the camera. Oh, well…

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Road maps at that time showed symbols looking like towns every 30 or 40 miles along the highways. These weren’t towns, but simple lodges such as the one below, which also had a nearby gas station with a few groceries, and a well-stocked liquor store.  Nearly all the roads were unpaved.  What we see here is the Richardson Highway, at what later would become the entrance to Denali National Park. On this road, driving a jeep at more than 25 mph would bump one’s head against the ceiling of the cab.

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I lived mostly in this log cabin (below) at Mentasta Pass. The shovel I held was a substitute for an outhouse.

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For whatever the cabin lacked in conveniences, it compensated with beautiful mountain views.

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My main work that summer was an engineering geologic survey along 50 miles of the Glenn Highway. I turned the report over to my party chief, a university professor who’d been hired for the summer. He was expected to publish it along with other results of the party’s work that summer.  I saw him a few years later. He had never gotten around to publishing the results, and he had somehow lost the only copy of my report.

II. THE SPY SHIP, NORWAY 1955

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In the mid-1950s, the US and its allies were busy building a ring of airbases around the Soviet Union and China — large airbases that could handle nuclear bombers. NATO wanted to fill a gap in the ring, in the Norwegian territory known as Svalbard.  This included the Spitsbergen island group, only 600 miles from the North Pole, and Bear Island farther south.  Svalbard was close to several parts of the Soviet Union: Franz Josef Land, Novaya Zemlya, and the Murmansk coast.

My job was to find and survey sites in Svalbard where an airbase could be built.

Norway governed Svalbard under a treaty that allowed no military use of the land. So I had to work in secret.  Things like that often happened in the Cold War.

We sailed aboard the Godønes, a seal-hunting vessel that was built to handle pack ice and powerful storms on Arctic voyages lasting several months at a time. I learned after boarding that it had been outfitted as a spy ship to detect and study Soviet radars.  This gave us even more need for secrecy.  We were warned: If the Soviets suspected what we were up to, they could easily board our ship and send us off to Siberia.SvGodønes

There were 15 men aboard. Five Norwegian intelligence specialists.  Five Americans, including four intelligence specialists and a geologist (me).  And a Norwegian skipper and crew that totaled five.

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Leiv Isaksen, the skipper (left), was an outstanding seaman and navigator, famous for having made many rescues at sea. Sailing in the far north was a dangerous business.  In a storm just the year before, five ships went down with all hands aboard.  We were glad to have him with us.

The five Americans included some oddball types.  The electronics technician, who SvJRBinstalled our spy gear and kept it running, always turned the back of his head to a camera, and never told any of us who he worked for.  I’ll pass over the next two because I’ve told some really awful tales about them. At sea, they ignored their duties and preferred to hunt seals and polar bears, for the money their skins were worth.  While ashore, they hunted other species, to the point that one of the two got tied up in a paternity lawsuit.

After speaking of so many oddball Americans, I added this picture (right) to prove that at least one of them was, well, normal… Actually, he sort of looks like the Smart Alec we saw in Alaska….

Our first views of Svalbard didn’t promise much in the way of sites for airbases. Bear Island presents these thousand-foot cliffs (below left), populated by so many birds that they darkened the sky when someone fired a rifle.  But parts of the island are lower, and there we found cliffs only 100 feet high. We clambered up on all fours, dragging our camping supplies behind us.

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 The islands of Spitsbergen, farther north, are dominated by mountains and glaciers (below right). But here and there we found level areas on raised beaches, as in the foreground of this picture.  Places like this gave the best prospects for airbase sites.

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This is Ny-Ålesund (below), one of the few towns in Svalbard – a coal mining town in 1955, and now a research center. It has an established port facility that is warmed by the Gulf Stream and usually remains ice-free all year.

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Svalbard dominates the sea lanes that were used to supply the Soviet Union during the Second World War. The Germans attacked Allied convoys by both sea and air.  They left behind many artifacts.  Shown below are a battery-powered robot weather station, and a cabin built by a German pilot.   He used it for shelter while he repaired his plane after an emergency landing.  The timber had to be air-dropped to him — he couldn’t have found so many neat boards there, although many large cut logs are found on the beaches of Svalbard.  Ruts left by the plane were still visible ten years after the war.

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I’ve mentioned American oddballs. The Norwegians, too, included at least one of these. A young military officer took a stint as guest at the ship’s wheel.  To see what this baby could do, he slammed the ship at full speed into a huge slab of ice.

The collision disabled the ship. We can only thank the good Norwegian shipbuilders that it didn’t sink right then and there. But we faced a long tow back to Norway — 600 miles, taking 10 days, and every day either in sea ice, or in rough seas under gale or storm conditions.

We saw the damage in a shipyard in Norway: The collision had bent the propeller shaft, and a propeller blade is lodged against the rudder.

 

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This damage ruled out what would have been the major success of the electronic intelligence mission — a sweep along the Soviet shores of Franz Josef Land, Novaya Zemlya, and the Murmansk coast

My own work ashore was already done. I had surveyed 8 sites for major airbases.  The one I rated best was a place called Kvadehuksletta, shown below.  It is six miles from the town of Ny-Ålesund.  Access by sea through that port was a major plus for this site.

SvKvadehThe following year, two high-ranking Norwegians visited the site and agreed it was an excellent place to build the airbase. One of the two was a military official, the other represented the Scandinavian Airlines System.  They formally proposed that the airline build an emergency landing field here.  This was, of course, nothing but a cover story.   The Norwegian government debated the proposal for the next two years.  Then the Soviet Union protested that it was a military project, which was forbidden under the Svalbard Treaty.

And so the project died, and it remained secret until 1996, when a new Norwegian administration apparently decided to embarrass its predecessor by revealing the whole story.

III. THE OIL LEASE, ALASKA 1977

In 1977, the Federal government was moving to put a lot of Alaskan public lands into the National Park System. Private companies stood to lose mineral leases in those areas.  If they had done any work on a lease, the government would reimburse them.  If not, they would not be paid.

Shell Oil held a lease in the Samovar Hills, a small area completely surrounded by extensive glaciers. Shell had never worked on the lease, but now saw reasons to get started.  For any plan they proposed, my office would have to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement before the plan could be approved.

This map shows a small rounded bump on the south coast, indicated by the red arrow. That little bump is the enormous Malaspina glacier.Alaska77 arrow

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In a closer view by satellite, the glacier includes both white areas and most of the adjoining gray areas, where the ice is covered by rock debris. The glacier is about 40 miles wide from east to west.

The Samovar Hills lie near the head of the glacier, where they are surrounded on all sides by ice at least five miles wide.

Seen from a helicopter, the Malaspina glacier extends as far as the eye can see. Light-colored bands of clean ice alternate with darker bands of ice covered by rock debris.RszaSamovar pix 35_0006                  RszaSamovar pix 35_0004

Our helicopter landed in the Samovar Hills. Yes, there is oil here. We saw black tar in the creeks that flowed out from the hills and into a lake that is named Oily Lake.

Shell Oil employs many brilliant scientists and engineers, but they weren’t going to waste their time discussing environmental impacts with government employees. They sent their rookie team to deal with us.

Our first question was, “How will you move the oil out of here?”

(I must admit, the next three pictures of plans to cross the ice are fakes.)

They answered quickly, “By pipeline. We’re going to build a pipeline across the ice.”

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Didn’t they realize that glaciers move, and they would tear up a pipeline as they pulled it along?

The team needed a week to think about that.

They came back with the answer – A pipeline on wheels!

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We looked at each other in amazement. Don’t these people realize that the glaciers have crevasses and all sorts of other obstacles that will snag the wheels?  If nothing else, the mere drag of all those wheels on a pipeline five miles long, and anchored only at its two ends, would be enough to tear the pipeline apart.  Did they have a solution for that?

This time they needed two or three weeks, and then they presented a wondrously complex plan.

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They would drill a large borehole at an angle beneath the glacier, until the hole was under the glacier’s midpoint. There they would insert a radioactive source.

They would drill a similar borehole from the other side of the glacier. Homing in on the radioactivity, it would come within three feet of the first borehole. Explosives would then be used to shatter the rock between the two holes so that oil could flow from one to the other. Ta da, an underground pipeline!

The Shell people admitted that all this had never been done before in a single project. But each of the critical steps had been done successfully in one place or another.

We had our doubts, but we couldn’t rule the plan out as an impossibility. So we’d have to go ahead with an environmental impact statement.  By the time we gathered a team to do this, word came down from on high in Shell Oil to their rookie team, to this effect:

“This firm will not get involved in such a hare-brained scheme just to get some reimbursement from the Government. Cancel the project.”

No telling how many dollars were saved by the cancellation. We in the government couldn’t take credit for the savings.  Credit goes to Shell Oil for finally displaying some common sense.

 

IN CLOSING

These three trips took up a total of eight months, and they were expensive. Now it is time to see what was accomplished, as I promised you.  Most people would weigh this against its cost to the taxpayers. I would also weigh it against the use of eight months of my life.

 ACCOMPLISHMENTS DURING EIGHT MONTHS IN THE FIELD

Project Soda Straw: The Porta-Drill was shown to be useless for its intended purposes.

Black Rapids Glacier: We learned about the hazards of this glacier. We forgot to take any safety devices, but we still survived our walk.

Glenn Highway Geology: Report completed, but the only copy was lost.

Electronics intelligence: The main mission, to detect radars along the Soviet coasts, failed because tomfoolery wrecked the ship.

Airbase construction: I found and surveyed eight sites for an airbase, but the base was never built because of a Soviet protest.

The Oil Lease: Oil was never produced. Shell Oil withdrew its proposal, and taxpayers saved, at the very least, the cost of preparing an Environmental Impact Statement.

 

SPY SHIP

When the events described here took place in 1955, I realized immediately that it was an unusual story to say the least, and that it deserved to be told. However, I was not authorized to take it public; my last reading from the Pentagon was that it was likely to remain secret for as much as five years.

So I waited five years. I waited ten. Then twenty, and thirty. Finally, after 41 years, the story did go public in Norway, in full detail. Having a keen memory of the events, as well as many notes, records, and photos, I was then able to put together a manuscript, get it reviewed by fellow participants, and finally in 2006 publish a book titled The Cold Coasts.

THE MISSION

The star of the show was the motor cutter Godønes, 85 feet long and with berths for up to 19 men. Known as a “polar vessel” or “sealer,” she was designed for expeditions lasting two or three months at a time into the Arctic pack ice to hunt polar bears and seals. Vessels of this type had sturdy wooden hulls, which tended to bounce off ice chunks that would have cut into comparable steel hulls like a can-opener.

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During midsummer festivities, the Godønes slipped out of the Bergen navy yard and headed north. For five days she sailed along the spectacular Norwegian coast. The accompanying photo of a globe shows the region where this mission took place.

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Near the northern tip of Norway, 900 miles from where she began, the Godønes rolled and tossed at anchor, buffeted by a cold wind and a choppy sea. She was ready to leave the protected coastal waters and cross the open sea, still headed north. In her parting view of mainland Norway, the Lyngen Alps stood bold and beautiful (photo courtesy of Odd Magnus Heide Hansen).

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To this point the voyage might have seemed ordinary. Now some remarkable things took place. Electric generators and radio antennas were uncrated. The skipper was allowed for the first time to enter his own cabin, where he saw stacks of electronic equipment. He learned that the ‘scientific expedition’ for which he thought the ship had been leased was, in fact, an intelligence mission. There would be electronic sweeps of Russian coal-mining settlements in the Norwegian territory of Svalbard, and then along nearby coasts of the Soviet homeland itself. While in Svalbard, teams would be put ashore to look into the possibility of building large airfields and developing harbors to supply them.

It was impressed upon the skipper that this was a dangerous mission and that Russians might capture the ship. In such a case, the people on board should expect to end up in Siberia. The year was 1955. The Cold War was in full swing. Remarkable things like this often happened during the Cold War.

Sixty-five days after she sailed from Bergen, the Godønes limped back into the port of Tromsø, mechanically disabled and under tow. The Godønes is shown below in a shipyard for repair, and the photo at right shows the damage – bent propeller shaft, propeller blade lodged against rudder – that made the tow necessary. The distance towed was 600 miles, and it took 10 days. That works out to an average speed of 2.2 knots, or 2.5 miles per hour.

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One might wonder why I called such a serious mission a “caper.” As the word “caper” implies, the story does have some comic elements, including cases of incompetence that were reminiscent of the Keystone Cops. One such incident explains the damage to the ship. The ship got into an “argument” with a huge ice floe 200 feet wide, 7 to 8 feet thick, composed of hard, dense blue ice known by the Norwegians as “steel ice.”

Crewmembers would have avoided such a large ice floe, but one of the Norwegian military people did a stint as guest helmsman. He must have been thinking, “Let’s see what this baby can do.” We rammed the ice at full speed. The ship rode up onto the ice, sat there for a moment, and then broke through. In the resulting turmoil, the propeller stopped turning and couldn’t be started again.

THE MEN ABOARD

There were 15 men aboard: The skipper and crew totaled five. There were five other Norwegians – military intelligence officers and electronic specialists – and five Americans.

T3sv2F6Leiv Isaksen (left) and Tore Snefjellaa

Leiv Isaksen was skipper of the Godønes. An excellent seaman, he was always alert for things that might go wrong. His eyes fascinated me as they flashed from sky to sea to ship and to each of the people in view. Thanks to this alertness, he survived a hazardous career to die of natural causes at a very old age. He was famed for having performed difficult rescues at sea.

Bjarne Thorsen was the expedition leader and a lieutenant commander in the Norwegian navy. During World War II, he had been a resistance fighter and spy against the Germans in occupied Norway. He also served on the British naval frigate Nene.  After the war, he ran many intelligence operations against the Soviets.

T3sv2F7Bjarne Thorsen

Tore Snefjellaa was a full commander in the Norwegian navy, a colleague of Bjarne, and with a similar history. He was a last-minute volunteer to come along as field assistant, because he simply loved going to Svalbard.

Frank Arnesen was a lieutenant in the Norwegian Air force, trained as a radio telegrapher and Russian interpreter. He assisted me in field work ashore. We became close friends and remained so for the rest of his life.

FHArnes300Frank Arnesen

The Norwegian electronic specialists included a leading designer of electronic intelligence gear, and his assistant.

Among the Americans, Bruce Johnson was a marine geologist. We were concerned that any recommended airbase sites should be accessible by sea. Bruce studied navigation conditions and sites for ports, harbors, landing beaches to supply each of the recommended sites.

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Bruce Johnson

The three Americans concerned with electronics intelligence, unfortunately, cannot be identified here. Fritz, the technician who installed our equipment and kept it running, never revealed his employer, and never presented his face to a camera. Fred and Doug, captains in the Army and Air Force, respectively, accomplished so many misdeeds in the story I have told that I don’t dare reveal their true names or their pictures.

I was the fifth of the Americans, a geologist employed by the U.S. Geological Survey. My assignment was to locate and describe sites suited for the construction of large airfields. From a study of maps and aerial photographs, I had selected eight study areas where sites might be found for runways of 10,000 feet or more.

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Jim Burns

I hiked over all eight areas, making an engineering geologic reconnaissance, and I hauled back hundreds of pounds of soil samples for testing by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The best sites were all on raised beaches that, here and there, fringed the mountainous, glaciated interiors of the islands (a raised beach appears in the foreground of the aerial photograph shown below at left). My top-rated site was at a place called Kvadehuksletta, on the west coast of West Spitsbergen (at right).

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THE FOLLOW-UP

The next summer, in 1956, two Norwegian brothers named Pedersen visited Svalbard and agreed that Kvadehuksletta was the best site for a large airfield. One brother was a military officer, the other an official of Scandinavian Airlines System. They proposed that SAS be permitted to build an emergency landing field there. This was negotiated with the government and various leaseholders for the next two years.

In 1958, the Soviet Union made an official protest, claiming that the landing field could be used as a military airbase. The Svalbard Treaty prohibited any military use of the land.   End of subject; silence and secrecy prevailed until 1996.

The story went public in 1996 through a series of newspaper interviews with the skipper and with Frank Arnesen.

Frank thought that the Norwegian government authorized this release for political reasons, namely to embarrass the party that had been in power in 1955 and had allowed these things to go on. If that was the motivation, Frank provided the bombshell that was needed. He claimed that explosives were aboard, set to go off if Russians approached. This would sink the ship and the secret electronics, and would leave the men to fend for themselves in icy water.

For reasons given in my book, I believe this was a false rumor cooked up by the crew, but I certainly can’t prove a negative. The issue is still being debated in the Norwegian press, about both the Godønes and other ships on similar missions later. This has led to heart-wrenching interviews with seamen, making such statements as “They played with my life, and I didn’t even know it.” And today, nobody really knows.

This posting is an updated selection from my book, The Cold Coasts (Kindle, Paperback, and Hard Cover).

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.)

ARCTIC HUNTING: SVALBARD, 1955

The once-flourishing Norwegian culture of arctic hunting has vanished.  The animals are now protected by law, much of the hunting territory is now designated as national parkland, and Norwegians have found other more profitable and less risky pursuits.  But in 1955, every polar bear and every seal was fair game without limit.  And men risked their own lives in the pursuit.

I had several opportunities to learn something of the activity while aboard the sealing vessel Godønes in the summer of 1955, as follows:

1. AN EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT

About two in the morning I awakened to much rattling and shaking.  The Godønes was ramming its way through nearly continuous pack ice.  The ship bumped repeatedly and also gave sidewise jerks as it glanced off the larger floes.  In my bunk in the bow of the ship, I idly mused over the possibility of a large chunk of ice suddenly appearing in the cabin.  After all, less than a hand span’s thickness of wood was keeping it out.  But there was nothing to be done; so I repeatedly put my faith in God and the good Norwegian shipwrights, rolled over, and fell asleep – to awaken again upon nearly falling out of bed at the next violent bump or jerk.  By ten in the morning the Godønes was making good progress.  Though much ice was still around us, we could easily avoid it through broad leads of mirror-smooth water.

Presently there was a bustle among the crew as a large male polar bear was sighted on one of the ice floes ahead.  Kaare, the chief engineer, rushed up with a rifle and took a seated position at the ship’s bow.  The engine slowed more and more as we approached the bear; 300 yards, then 200 yards.  The bear grew nervous.  Then, at about 100 yards he clambered over the edge of the ice and splashed into the water.  Could he have dived deeply as a seal, this would have been his escape.  But, strong swimmer that he was, he was trapped at the surface where he could not survive.  The ship bore down on him until its prow hung almost over his head.  As close an enactment as I have ever seen of the old phrase, “shooting fish in a barrel.”  I recall the turning of his head to give a look back over his shoulder just as two shots were fired.  The water erupted in a geyser, then another; then it turned bright red.

A looped cable was quickly passed under the armpits and the body was hoisted onto the forward deck.  Fast work with sharp knives, and the skin was removed along with a 3 to 4 inch layer of fat, which they called spekk, still attached.  Within a few minutes the bloody Sv2Bearcarcass was hoisted again and dumped into the sea.

Not being a hunter, I was stunned by the whole procedure.  True, I had often fished, but always in the strong belief that killing for food is somehow acceptable in the order of nature.  This bear died not to furnish food but to grace someone’s den with a rug.  I felt compelled to say something, yet was fully aware that a sealing vessel would not be a rewarding stage for a tirade on animal rights.  So I blurted out the query, “Why let the carcass go to waste?  Why don’t we eat it?”  I was both invoking my killing-for-food principle and tossing an insult toward our regular shipboard cuisine.

But my subtle ironies were lost on all who heard; ’twas probably for the best.  Bjarne took my questions at face value and responded matter-of-factly, “We never eat bear meat.  Trichinosis.”  An astounding revelation, this, which hardly fitted my concept of the pure and pristine Arctic.  I was aware of problems with eating a bear’s liver, owing to excessive concentrations of Vitamin A, but this was different.  When back home, I would surely have to do some research on it.

One further question occurred to me about this killing.  I am no connoisseur of furs, nor do I know what wonders furriers can perform.  But it seemed to me that, if this bear’s destiny was to become a rug, he should have made a good rug of thick, lustrous winter fur.  His fur in July seemed dingy, thin and ragged.  I hoped it would not turn out to be a waste.

During the course of the afternoon several bearded seals were sighted on the pack ice and shot.  The chief difference from bear hunting was that the seal had to be shot dead while on the ice.  In the water, this excellent swimmer would instantly make its escape by diving.  The seals always rested near an open lead or water hole into which they could slip quickly if threatened.  The hunt then became a contest to see how close the hunter could come before alarming his prize.

Kaare took his sitting stance as before.  As the vessel approached within 150 yards, the engine was cut off completely and we continued drifting forward.  Usually at about 100 yards the seal would perk its head up, and then CRACK! and it was all over.  Kaare was near fifty years of age, but his eyes must have been very youthful.  One bullet, one seal.  Not only did he never miss; he never missed the particular place on the neck where a bullet was quickly lethal, yet least damaging to the value of the fur.  From the hole in the neck a fountain of blood would spurt for several minutes while the ship pulled up and several crewmembers stepped onto the ice to skin the carcass.  But before skinning began, there was a curious ritual.  Kaare, the hunter, would stoop down and drink the spurting blood.  This was a common practice jokingly explained as a means to get a quick shot of vitamins, much needed in the absence of fresh food.  But I speculated that it was a tradition with ancient roots and a more mystic purpose.

Sv2KaareSv2Seal

It took about five minutes to skin a seal, after which the pelt was hoisted aboard with a 2 to 3 inch layer of spekk attached.  With sealskins as with bearskins, shipboard processing consisted first of removing the spekk from the skin.  This was a laborious operation akin to the cutting of a fish fillet, followed by much scraping.  The spekk was stored in a barrel on deck; it would fetch a handsome price at the rendering plant.  The skin was sprinkled liberally with salt crystals to preserve it until it could be gotten to a tanner; it was folded and tied up in a neat package, and stowed in the hold.  After all this, the deck would be slippery with animal fat for many days to come.

In all their handling of seal pelts, the men had to exercise great care not to cut themselves.  The pelts frequently carried a gonorrhea-related infection that would enter a wound to cause a condition called spekkfinger.  This was an infection that refused to heal, continuing to fester as it spread slowly over the hand, attacking bone and muscle as well as skin.  Modern antibiotics could handle it, but in the old days a finger or two were often lopped off to stop the spread.  Kaare showed me an extensive scar on his right thumb and forefinger where he once had a case that was finally cured by antibiotics.  Strike two for my concept of the pure and pristine Arctic.

Normally, seal carcasses were left on the ice where they were skinned.  But on one occasion a slab of meat was brought aboard for the evening meal.  We were assured that the spekkfinger bug did not inhabit the meat.  So I was open-minded enough not to pass up an opportunity for fresh meat, especially if eating could help justify a little bit of the killing.  As we gave cooking orders, I heard Fritz go for extremely rare: “Just restore the body temperature, please!”  I wasn’t as open-minded as that.  As the saying goes, I might have been crazy but I wasn’t stupid.  I ordered mine well done.  It was a pleasant meat, dark and fine-grained and with a somewhat strong taste.  Reminded me more of beef liver than anything else, although it was not at all rubbery.  After my return home, I read a bit on trichinosis in polar bears; seems they caught it by eating seals.  I wondered whether Fritz ever came to regret ordering his meat rare.  Strike three and out for my concept of the pure and pristine Arctic.

Sv2CubLate in the afternoon we sighted a young bear, scarcely 3 years old and probably not long independent of his mother.  He hadn’t yet learned to fear mankind.  Standing motionless on the ice, he watched with interest as the Godønes drew within 50 yards of him.  Bjarne stepped down on the ice carrying a slab of salted, dried cod, and the bear ran forward to meet him.  Prudently, Bjarne made a hasty retreat and spent a while close to the ship before moving out again.  When the two were about 30 feet apart it was Bjarne, not the bear, who decided that this was close enough.  Bjarne gave the cod a mighty toss and then reboarded the Godønes, leaving a very happy bear behind.

2. THE HUNTER’S HUT

Sv2HuntHutAlong the western shore of Forlandsletta we visited a hunter’s hut that had recently been used.  (The author is shown standing by the hut.)  Lace curtains at the windows strongly suggested a woman’s presence in the not too distant past.  But the most recent occupant was a lone male hunter/trapper who had left a note as he departed some 20 days before our arrival.  He indicated that he was rowing to Ny-Ålesund, his boat loaded to the gunwales with blue fox, bear, and seal pelts, spekk, and eiderdown.  He had left an additional load of eiderdown under the cot, and would appreciate it if anyone headed for Ny-Ålesund would bring it along to him.  The down was not under the cot.  Apparently someone had already picked it up.  What stunned me was the journey he was undertaking in an open rowboat.  The shortest route, totaling roughly 65 miles, began with nearly 40 miles northward along the rugged mountainous west coast of Prins Karls Forland, exposed to the open ocean; the remainder was in reasonably well sheltered fjords.  A southerly route would reduce his open ocean exposure to about 10 miles, but would increase the total to about 85 miles.

3. THE RADIO REPORT

After the Godønes was disabled, another sealing vessel, the Blåsel, towed her back to Tromsø, a difficult and dangerous procedure that required ten days for the 600-mile distance.  After one day spent zig-zagging through pack ice, the remaining days were spent in rough seas under gale or storm conditions.  A small sample of that weather experience, with its implications for Arctic hunters, follows.

We rode out strong winds and heavy fog in the shelter of Halvmåneøya (“Half Moon Island”) for more than 19 hours.  Then, though the fog continued, the wind slackened and we moved out shortly past noon of the fourth day under tow.  We set our course for Bear Island, which we hoped to pass within two or three days.  For some hours we made excellent progress, but by 9 in the evening the storm had returned or a new one had overtaken us.  This time there was no sheltering land nearby, so the Blåsel just kept chugging ahead as best she could.  The wind came on with a howling fury, but its direction out of the west allowed us to keep up a bit of southward progress, about 2 knots.  Few aboard the Godønes managed to sleep that night; the rolling and pitching of the ship were more extreme than I had yet seen.

Next morning, as the wind tapered off and visibility improved, we sighted Hopen Island off the port stern.  A quick check of the map showed that in 22 hours we had progressed 65 miles from Halvmåneøya, but were already blown 30 miles eastward off our course.  A new course was set, and with slackening winds our speed was back up over 3 knots.

That evening we heard a radio report that another sealer, just off North Cape at the tip of mainland Norway, had nearly capsized in the same heavy weather.  Aboard were two hunters returning from a two-year stay on Edge Island.  In the crew’s frantic efforts to save the ship, all deck cargo was thrown overboard.  This included the entire catch of bear, seal, and fox pelts, eiderdown, and spekk that the hunters had collected in two years.  It also included their team of dogs, presumably kenneled in crates on deck; the dogs were shot before they were thrown overboard.  Aboard the Godønes, spirits were indeed low that evening.

4. A VISIT ON BOARD THE BLÅSEL

After we arrived in Tromsø, I had the opportunity to see other aspects of the hunting culture.  The Blåsel had already completed a successful hunting expedition before taking us in tow.  There were many sealskins and bearskins in their hold, most of which were eventually traded to a couple of our American party in return for cash and whiskey.  One of the bearskins represented a mother bear who was found with her two small cubs.  The cubs were still alive, caged on deck in stout wooden crates, frequently being fed evaporated milk by crewmembers, and destined for sale to a zoo.  These were considered a special prize; one of the experienced sailors estimated their value in port at 5,000 American dollars (as of 1955) each.

(The above is based mainly on my book The Cold Coasts.  For readers of Norwegian, an excellent and thorough description of the hunting culture, and of the men and ships involved, is presented in the series of books by Odd Magnus Heide Hansen, titled Ishavsskutenes Historie – Fangstkulturen som ble borte.)