Log from Longyearbyen (Spitzberg)


8 April 2007

Log from Longyearbyen

It is seldom that expeditions do not have waiting periods. These vacuous moments when time is suspended leads one to be modest and patient.

Tara is no exception to the rule. The team in charge of the crew relief has been becalmed for a few days in Spitzberg.
The crew relief has been postponed. This operation planned for a long time had been carefully prepared during the whole winter.
Phase 1: a plane having left Russia with twenty tons of kerosene and equipment was supposed to drop its load near Tara to enable the crew to mark out a runway on the ice.
Phase 2 : The 2nd and 3rd of April, the teams in charge of the crew relief flew out from France to Longyearbyen, Spitzberg in the country of polar bears and coal.
Phase 3. After a break of two days in the mineral lights of the Great North, the relief team was supposed to leave for Tara on board a DC3 from Borek Air that had come especially from Canada and was supposed to land on the ice.

At the last minute, bureaucratic complications in Russia and movements on the ice that was under the full moon near Tara disturbed this orderly organization. Around the schooner, the crew has been working hard in the past days to mark out the runway on a stubborn and turbulent ice. In Spitzberg, the team from France is waiting and can do nothing about it.
How can one keep oneself busy when one is waiting and is hoping to leave very soon?

Spitzberg is a beautiful frozen island. It is the land of the polar bears. Longyearbyen is a mining town conceived at the beginning of the past century by Mister Longyearbyen who came there to exploit coal and who gave his name to the town.
Twenty years ago, coal extraction fell and the island opened itself to tourism. There are hotels, a museum on mining, bars and sporting outfits’ shops. Located under the polar circle on 78°13; Longyearbyen experiences days in April with exceptional lengths and very short and grey nights. The changing temperature oscillates between minus 10° and minus 20°. Sometimes, the sky is blue, the weather is calm and the surrounding landscape sparkles.
At other times, the wind carries snow flurries in an unreal and milky atmosphere. Sometimes when the wind has ceased to blow and the temperature suddenly drops after having risen, the fjord becomes smoky and is covered with blue fog.

Thursday and Friday Easter everything is at a halt. The city empties itself. The inhabitants have left on their snowmobiles loaded with food and wood and are dwelling in their little cabins located on the edge of the fjord. In the city, the tourists wander on Main Street, visit the closed down coal mines and the farms that breed huskies. They also explore the city surroundings. Snuggled in their colourful outfits, they get used to the cold and wait. Shivering, they tell each other stories of bears, stories of encounters with the polar bears for in Longyearbyen, one does not go on a walk without taking his gun. Warning signs along the road to the airport invite one to watch out. To meet a bear is always possible. As a logical consequence, another sign in front of the single bank in Longyearbyen reminds each one not to enter in the bank with his or her gun. In front of the Longyearbyen supermarket a sign underlines that it is forbidden to enter with ones pet animal and invites thus one to leave one’s bear outside. A sign with a Polar Bear barred with a red line.

At the same time, the Tara team is very busy. Last shopping. Last parcels. There are regular updates with Romain who is steering the logistics. The film crew is shooting. Meals are taken all together, the rooms are shared. People are in a good mood, with moments of shared laughter and the conviction that tomorrow… Tomorrow will be the day of relief. The orange DC3 of Borek air coming straight from Canada will take the relief team on board and fly to Tara. Tomorrow.

While waiting… While waiting, we take walks. We stroll along Main Street in the middle of closed shops. We get used to the cold by telling stories of polar bears while shivering, stories of encounters with the polar bears. And also… Stories of guns, banks and signs with bears. Tomorrow without a doubt will be the day of the relief.

PS. Tonight at 6 am, the plane of Borek Air landed at Longyearbyen.

François Sicard