Land of the Polar Bears

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Jordan and I set off for Norway on July 31st, arguably one of Lyon’s hottest days. The weather was 104 degrees, and we were ready to trade for something a little cooler. Instead of flying out of Lyon, we decided to fly out of Paris to have a direct flight to Norway and limit our time in the airport.

On our way to the train station to catch the direct high-speed train from Lyon to Paris, we saw not one but two people faint in the same tram car as us. It was hot! After briefly panicking that we would not make our train to Paris, we ran into the train station with our heavy bags to find out that the train was delayed from departing by five minutes. Phew!

We made it to Oslo without any interruptions and flew to Svalbard the next morning. Our pilot’s first thing he said after we got on the plane was, “we’re sorry we weren’t able to land yesterday, but we will try again today, and we assure you we have plenty of fuel.” The flight that left the day before had flown the three hours from Oslo to Longyearbyen, tried to land, and then flew three hours back to Oslo because it couldn’t land. We hadn’t even thought about the weather conditions being a factor in our trip! 

When our plane arrived in Svalbard, the pilot came over the speaker again. He said, “there’s too much fog right now, so we are going to go into a holding pattern.” We considered this a free scenic flight of Svalbard! We circled Svalbard for only about ten minutes before the pilot said that fog conditions had improved and we would try to land. Our plane started to go down beneath the fog, and we could see the town below it. Then the thrusters began, and we started ascending again! Our plane had tried to land but wasn’t able to, so the plane circled again, and after the second landing attempt, we had made it to the first destination on our itinerary!

View of Spitsbergen from the plane

Svalbard. The land of the polar bears! About 3000 polar bears call Svalbard their home year-round. Svalbard is located high up in the arctic circle and is part of the Kingdom of Norway, but if you talk to the Norwegians, they will tell you that it doesn’t feel like Norway. And we see why! It felt otherworldly.

Danger — polar bears

We stayed in an area called Longyearbyen. The town gets its name after an American who discovered the site, John Longyear. We thought that the town was named after the fact that there are months with 24 hours of sunlight, but that was not the case! While John Longyear was there, he found coal and had it analyzed. It was some of the purest coal in the world. He set up some mines and started mining for coal. He was relatively successful with his mines, and after a while, sold them off. Mining in Longyearbyen was never profitable again. The mining operations stopped, but the equipment and infrastructure never left the town. We were able to see the old mining system and many remnants of the mines during our stay. 

Old mine entrance

Due to permafrost, all pipes are built above ground and stay exposed. The homes are all built on stilts. We were surprised by the bright colors of the homes in Longyearbyen. A local told us there’s an approved palette of colors that builders can choose from. Funnily enough, the person who created the palette no longer lives on the island! We think the bright colors provide a neat contrast to the otherwise brown and browner landscape.

Colorful homes in Longyearbyen

We experienced the midnight sun while in Svalbard. The sun never set! It was 24 hours of daylight, and we were thankful we had blackout curtains in our hotel room when we were ready to go to bed. It was such a strange feeling when it was almost midnight, but it looked like noon outside instead. Our bodies did not adjust, and we found ourselves staying up way later than we had planned each day.

We had three days of excursions planned for our trip. We hoped this would be enough time to spot the elusive polar bear. Polar bears are protected, and there are no excursions that you can book to see one, but we were still hopeful we could spot one. We knew it was infrequent to see a polar bear – our guide said we only had about a 5% chance.

Our first excursion by a glacier

I’m not sure at what age I started to like polar bears, but I had always heard they were “southpaws” like me. I’ve grown up with countless comments about how shocked people are when they find out I’m left-handed, so it was cool to know that polar bears were the same way. Jordan “adopted” a polar bear for my birthday one year, and we named it Bob. One of my bucket list items was to see a polar bear in the wild, so we knew we had to go to Svalbard to see how Bob was doing.

We got lucky! Right after we finished a delicious dinner near a glacier on our first excursion, Bob was waiting for us on a patch of sea ice as he enjoyed the midnight sun. Our guide popped champagne to celebrate, and we stopped for a few minutes to watch Bob. Our boat didn’t get too close to disturb the polar bear. It didn’t seem to notice we were there. We found out that Bob was a female, and it was a dream come true for me to see Bobette.

Bobette

We enjoyed the two other excursions that we took – an all-day trip to visit the world’s northernmost settlement and a kayak trip in the deep fog. I’ll share more on these trips once we get back from vacation and I have more time!

Kayaking in the fog

We spent our time in Longyearbyen talking to others we had met on our excursions. We all shared stories about what we had seen on other tours, and there was so much excitement about the possibility for people to see a polar bear. There were a momma polar bear and its cub in the valley near Longyearbyen, and you could tell there was a lot of excitement and nervousness for it being so close to the town.

We spent our few days hearing about where locals last spotted them. We even learned that the town had lost sight of the polar bears’ location in all the fog! Even though I knew the polar bear would likely not come into town or that we would spot it, I was so excited to be somewhere where the polar bears roamed. I imagined that I walked where a polar bear had walked or had been in a boat where a polar bear had swum. It was fun to let my imagination go wild on how the polar bears lived in Svalbard!

We used all our luck to see the polar bear, as our flight from Longyearbyen to Tromso was canceled. There was heavy fog, and the plane could not land or take off. Our rebooked flight was for the following evening, but it would not take us to Tromso. Instead, it would land in Oslo! We would have to stay the night in Oslo and fly to Tromso the next morning — two days after we had planned.

With no other options, we made the best of our situation. Our airline, Norwegian airlines, made the inconvenience easy by texting Jordan all the information we needed to know. They made sure we had dinner, a hotel room, all meals the next day, a hotel room in Oslo, and breakfast before our last rescheduled flight to Tromso. We did not go hungry! They even set up a dinner buffet in the airport just for us.

We also made a friend in the rebooking line in Svalbard, a local Norwegian named Elizabeth, and spent the next 24 hours hanging out with her! She was traveling solo, and it was great to hear her story and learn about all the places she has traveled.

Our new travel friend!

We had booked a rib boat glacier tour for our unplanned extra day. Unfortunately, the weather was still poor, so the company also canceled this. We could go on a fossil hunt near a glacier instead and see blue sky above the fog!

Hiked above the fog hovering over Longyearbyen

Svalbard used to be near Antarctica and has moved up high in the arctic circle over millions of years. It used to be lush and full of trees and forests, but you wouldn’t believe it by seeing it today. We found many fossils of leaves and were able to take some small ones home with us as souvenirs.

Fossil of a leaf

The rest of the week has been scheduled each day. We canceled all of our hotels and weren’t able to do many of the hikes or planned stops on our itinerary. But it’s been incredible, and we still have over a week of our trip to go! We should be back on track with our itinerary soon.

So far, we’ve stayed in six hotels and flown on three airlines in four airports. Remember when I mentioned at the beginning of the trip that we tried to avoid spending a lot of time in airports? All the hotels and airlines are handling the Coronavirus differently. Rarely anyone is wearing a mask around! I’ll do a full write-up of our travel experience in hotels and planes once we get back from vacation.

I have so much more I want to share, but not enough time to write it all right now. We are off to start our second week of the trip!

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