"Stone after stone. I am now seeing stones in my sleep and when I am awake. They are going to get on my nerves; I can feel it. This stony land, the total gigantic barrenness, is going to haunt me as a bad dream."
Christiane Ritter (1897-2000)
Clearly this person was no geologist. Every stone that litters this landscape has its own story of an unseen past, from the fossilized leaf on a scree slope to the glacially striated boulders marking the presence of these land moulding machines of nature that I have not only seen on a daily basis but also walked on and slept next to.
I chose to study the quaternary history of Svalbard aswell as Arctic marine geology. So far this has allowed me to witness and begin to understand the processes that have occurred in order to have formed this land. The quaternary period being characterised by ice covering the landscape and causing it to undergo some unknown metamorphosis, this ice at times also melted causing the sea to rise forming new beaches and allowed the land itself too actually grow, to rise out from the immense pressure of the ice that had once crushed it. Even today this is happening, glaciers in fact cover more than half of the land mass here and as a result we can only see as much as nature has allowed us to. It is for this reason that I would not describe this place as "gigantic barrenness” , gigantic yes but not barren, it is full from the small settlements and the variety of people within them to the glaciers and creatures that live and change from season to season. This place has a raw, naked beauty about it that only a land just being formed can possess. The same beauty I can see Scotland having around 10,000 years ago when the glaciers of the younger dryas would have uncovered what we can see now.
I have not long returned from two field excursions that have kept me on my toes for the past two weeks. The first excursion involved camping and sleeping in a cabin at the head of Billefjordan where the thunder like cracks of the calving glacier Nordenskioldbreen could be heard throughout the day. Although there was a cabin it could not fit us all, therefore some slept in tents; a thin piece of nylon separating you from the Arctic tundra. This introduced us to a new element of camping in Svalbard, the polar bear watch. For an hour a night you and a partner, a husky, rifle and flare gun would keep a lookout over the camp and surrounding area for this great white bear that roams the land. Despite the cold winds that blew with strength from the surrounding glacier the hour of watch duty was never laborious, the excitement of this surreal setting that you were placed in kept you entertained.
After a one day turn around in Longyearbyen a small 16 man plane was boarded to take us to the research community of Ny- Ålesund. Every day was a new adventure that began with donning a survival suit and getting aboard the polar circles; boats that had a large outboard motor that allowed for fast transport on the Arctic waters. Our first journey to Leinstranda involved a rather tense crossing with the polar circles. It was commented that the amplitude of the waves were surprisingly high for their relatively short period. What started as an exciting adventure soon became a rather enduring feat but an adventure nonetheless. Storming the beaches, boots on, rifles half loaded and spades at the ready the geologists took the beaches of Leinstranda. Each day was like this, with a new objective and location I felt truly privileged to be able to participate in these excursions and with the goal to obtain data that we would use for term projects. This was the beginning of our research, our science.
Our last day in the field began with negotiating a beach landing that had many icebergs blockading the shore. After we had managed to jump off and prepare for the walk ahead we were told once again of this great white bear. A beast that disappears into its snowy landscape. A beast that walks at our running speed. The way that it is spoken about, either as drunken tales from shady bearded men in the local bar or as tales of warning from supervisors. They are the reason we consider a rifle as common as hiking boots when going for a trek. This day in the field, one had been spotted in the area and we were warned. Taking the precautions we stuck to high ground giving us the layout of the land. We began doing our work, gathering data. All under the protection of one professor that constantly scouted the land with the use of his binoculars. Then whistling was heard, the professor getting the attention of our group to climb the moraine. No words were exchanged. We knew. One had been spotted. On the opposite island, some distance away white figures were seen, at this distance they were only blurs in my eyes. Adrenaline running I dare not close my eyes even with the cold arctic wind causing tears to run down my face as I fixed my eyes on the island to catch a better glimpse of this creature that struck me more as myth. In the end only a few saw it. No pictures were taken. This great white snow bear has remained in my view as the Bigfoot of the Arctic tundra.
With my experience so far of this vast land which differs in every single fibre of its existence to that of the world I came from I know this is something I will not consider a “bad dream”. I will consider these moments to be something that one day I may question if they actually occurred as if some part of a lucid dream.
I know wait for my next excursion, a 6 day cruise around Svalbard studying marine geology. Maybe then I will see this beast of legend.