Tuesday, 16 February 2021

The northernmost wedding - a high arctic adventure

Pick your tongues back up off the floor...  Nope, I didn't get married...  Not yet anyway. 😜  Casting my mind back to February 2020, this was the last foreign holiday we had for a long while and we certainly did it with a BANG!  Svalbard - what, a, place!  Quite a contrast from our last adventure in Costa Rica.

This holiday was a great blend of adventure and romance, journeying into a desolate sub-zero environment with the added bonus of our friends wedding.  Definitely not your average wedding venue, making it a unique and memorable experience for all of us.  The husbands to be are our best friends Martin and Stu, we were truly honoured to share their big high arctic day with them.  Although they are a second visitor to Svalbard having been two years before.  Here's a summary of what happened from 16 February to 23 February 2020...


Day 1

We started the adventure with an early morning drive to London Heathrow to catch our flight to Stockholm.  Norway know their style and their airports were no exception.  We hung around the airport for a short while then caught our next flight up to Tromso, which was early eve by time we got there.  What a view to greet us: dark blues with giant mountain covered in whiteness; night approaching; dimmed lights; snowing and near minus temperatures.  Winter vibes all over again!

Signalled a taxi and headed off to our hotel via a network of underground tunnels under Tromso.  Wow, the hotel was beautiful which had the architectural design of a ship! Everywhere we went, the style and design was impeccable.  We checked in, had a brief rest then suited and booted up to head out for a short walk around the harbour.  Later that eve we went to Pizza Pepes and ate enormous thick pizzas.  Well you have to add some internal layers to keep warm!  Afterwards someone had the idea of walking across the huge main harbour bridge to the Tromsø Cathedral - basically a huge Toblerone building.  Well, that walk we had on the bridge - reality struck how cold I was going to be on this trip.  It wasn't sub-zero here but extremely cold and that windchill on the bridge made my face scarily numb.  At this point, little did I know I was yet to have my coldest and painful experience of my life.

Day 2

Shorter daylight hours here, so still very dark till about 9-10amish.  Had a glorious breakfast buffet at the hotel!  Got our thermals, suited, booted etc, this is a daily must when exposed to such temperatures.  Had a stroll back over the main harbour bridge to go up a cable car.  I childishly 'masturbated' a troll outside a shop, not a real one, a large replica as it had a big nose.  I started feeling a bit light headed and wondered why - I think I was overheating due to thermals and it not being officially sub-zero.  But I had to have them on due to windchill.  I just couldn't get a good balance Tromsø, I didn't have issues in Svalbard though...  I had an hilarious moment of trying to cross a road that was extremely icy.  Whilst walking like Bambi, the traffic light was about to change and I panicked.  So I threw myself on the floor and shuffled my away to the other side - folks were in stitches!  Walked through a small alpine-like suburban area before reaching the cable car station.  The cable car straight-lined a rock-face, taking us to to vantage point that overlooks the whole of Tromsø and neighbouring islands.  Roamed around the area which was like a glistening beach but with snow - had a fair few snowball fights, took some Instagram-worthy pics.  Then had a warm up in the café with a hot chocolate.

Headed back down to the city and had the remainder of the afternoon at The Polar Museum.  Interesting but also fumed at barbaric medieval hunting practices.  Rested our (my) achey feet at the hotel and went out to get our grub.  Headed back to hotel whilst looking out for the famous Northern Lights, although too cloudy- I have seen them once before in Iceland with a rare red colour, a visual delight that is like an interactive rainbow.  Hunkered at the hotel reception to play some card games, only to be rudely interrupted by the Northern Lights appearing.  Exciting after we had a false start via Stu the night before that turned out to be a street light at the side of a mountain edge.  We rushed out, not having our thermals on, and caught a glimpse of one of the illuminate green streaks.

The morning after we made our way to the airport for the main part of the trip... the high arctic! As we waited at the gate to board the plane to Svalbard, I had a moment of despair of not being able to cope with the cold that awaits me.


Day 1

The guys caught my reaction to the cold as I stepped off the plane - oddly no terminal.  My face was hit with an icy dry blast.  Now this was a totally different welcome, the shocking temperature was unlike anything I've experienced, far colder than my touchdown in Iceland.  But the views, oh my, the views!  White mountains with pink tones.  Me and Gary were in total awe.  We managed to get an extremely quick pic of a signpost with different countries on.  To my excitement, I saw tiny footprints in the snow that lead under the airport building, which I immediately knew had to be Arctic Fox.  We travelled to the town, Longyearbyen, which is like a large village really and arrived at our snugged spa-like hotel, Funken Lodge.

I've never seen such a desolate but beautiful landscape.  Its such a dry and extremely cold place, which averaged between -20 and -30 during our visit.  A completely different look during their Summer months.  Mind, it wouldn't have been as a good experience without ice and snow.  I wasn't as keen on my eyelashes icing together and my nose bleeding, not gushing, but because of my nasal passages were freeze dried and cracked.  Honestly, how did I survive to write this?  Tip - dress like a space man!  It's worth every penny spending it on top quality snow/ski gear.  Its so much more enjoyable when you have the right clothing on.  As Martin said "There's no such thing as bad weather, just have the appropriate clothing and protection".

Later that night we did our did our first activity, a Northern Lights trip.  We went to one of the darkest locations without light pollution and only the satrs to light the way, Camp Barentz.  It was pure silence, and blackness and unbelievable cold, I recorded -22 at that point.  It was such an isolating feeling and reminded me of the Long Night scene in Game of Thrones.  To add to the fear, we had to be warned about polar bear attacks, which they said could come at any time, but was low.  The guide had some sort of rifle too as is law when venturing out of the town boundaries. I guess they were extra cautious too as a polar bear was walking Longyearbyen during the night in the month before!

We had our debrief by the activity guide and what we were going to be doing for the night.  Which was primarily looking our for the Northern Lights, but there was two wooden shacks that we would dwell, in two groups  We were immersed in some old storytelling about the history of Svalbard while we were served with a local dish, a kind of stew.  We had a choice of wine, hot blackcurrant cordial and even vodka!  We had an interval where we went outside to see what the Northern Lights development was.  There was some development through the clouds and we caught a glimpse, but not enough for the full experience.  Some of us scuttled back inside and listened to a presentation of the science behind the aurora borealis. I learned a lot from this, like their growth stages and how they time it for when to look out for it.  However, our human eyes can't see their full glory when in the full expansion stage.  A journey back to the hotel and had a quick walk around block in search of the lights again, for one last hope.

Day 2

We woke up to snow blizzards and drifts, which signalled a day of exploring around Longyearbyen in it.  We took a walk down to the town which consisted of a small strip of craft and clothes shops, including one central supermarket and a shopping centre.  We continued walking down past the university, through to the beach where the sea was part frozen and sea ice crashing up against the shore.  Back up to the town to stop for a much needed warm up with a hot drinks and cakes.

We half attempted walking up to an iconic landmark, a polar bear warning sign on the outskirt boundary of the town.  But fear of attack and isolation got the better of us!  So we took back to the hotel and to take advantage of the free afternoon tea at the hotel - a content Danny with tea and views in a blustery wilderness.

For evening food we walked up a mile+ stretch northward to the old kooky Coal Miners Cabins, which Gary had found out about.  Strong icy winds continued which we had to force ourselves through.  An interesting place that felt industrial but modern, with extremely tasty food.  On the walk back we were greeted with native wild reindeer.  They were curious of us while they were digging for grass to eat in the frozen compacted ground.  As we were approaching our hotel, to our surprise, Martin spotted arctic foxes scurrying around near some parked snow mobiles.  I investigated...  As I did a magical moment happened, one came up toward me a couple of metres away, stood staring at me for a few seconds then ran off.  That was a big wow moment and I totally didn't expect to see any wildlife during this trip.  Now the challenge to see a polar bear was on!

Day 3

Now this was an unlikely morning - me, Martin and Stu visited a closed but well preserved coal mine.  Gary decided before we booked this that it wasn't for him and he had a day at the hotel relaxing and drawing.   There are many mines in Svalbard as the town was built upon this industry.  In many countries, miners are looked down on but not here as it was the top job.  Guided and narrated by such a knowledgeable guide, miners turned up to this site on a day back in 1996 and were told that the pit is closing due to little coal remaining in it.  The mine was left as it were back in the day.  Machinery, tools and paperwork still left out - an apocalyptic feel.  Inside was a test seed vault that was using natural permafrost as the main one is part machine operated.  The one inside the mountain has a 100 year test range which started in 1984.  There was another vault that was a history archive where countries from around the world could put items in, like tapes and synthetic DNA.  They felt it as important as our ancestors tried to tell our future selves things, i.e. through drawings.  The guide said it is being discussed what language is best to used to communicate to our future people.  We navigated through a lot of tunnels, collected some coal as a memento and then had a go at climbing through an excavation area that the miners would have had to work in.

In afternoon we did took an expedition on snow mobiles, approx. 70 km.  After a short briefing and what we may encounter, including ahem, polar bears!  We had a demo of the snow mobile anatomy.  Geared up like levelled up space men.  We tested our first drive and skimmed over a frozen lake and through windy valleys.  Requiring much focus and technical skill.  I found it challenging as the first stretch was very bumpy, due to the lake and I was at the back, so I felt a tad stressed like I was playing catch up.  On the first stop off to see if everyone was ok etc, I was moved behind the lead which I found better but later was told on way back to increase my speed over the bumpy parts!

The intensity of the backdrops we were driving through we're purely breath taking.  Driving through an ice-olated landscape and in the middle of nowhere - just incredible.  We stopped at the final place with a view point for a break.  We all had a hot drink and taking to one and another.  Saw two wild reindeer too, a few moments later we set off back.  Feeling more confident this time, but desperate for a wee which was affecting my concentration.  We made it to a stop off with two beds and some sort pot, which had a story of how it helps with navigation back home.  Afterwards, we went to the town to Martin and Stu's favourite place, Svalbar to eat delicious much deserved food.

Later that night, literally by chance as I was retiring for bed.  I opened the window as it was quite hot in room, sounds stupid I know.  There were two people outside and one woman shouted pointing, "It's going green!".  So I just knew to immediately to look up and I saw the Northern Lights.  Bright and bold, so much better than the other night.  So me and Gary grabbed our stuff in a rush, got Martin and Stu and went behind hotel.  What a display!  This beat the views I got in Iceland in 2011, we even saw them dance and shimmer across the night sky - well we are in the high arctic here.

Day 4

The big day! On the morning of Martin and Stu's wedding, as we headed to breakfast Gary and I said we'd like to show you some things.  We gave them our card and gifts we brought with us.  Gary had designed a unique graphic symbolising Martin and Stu's names with Svalbard which was engraved on some slate coasters - it can be seen in the video thumbnail.  Then... We said we've got something else.  Video messages from each of their families.  They were genuinely surprised and touched by it - priceless to see.

After breakfast we got all suited up in our wedding outfits, me childishly playing wedding related songs in the process, e.g.  The Dixie Cups Chapel of Love.  We took some pictures around the hotel and a very quick one outside the hotel, slipping around without any grip on our posh shoes.  The taxi arrived around 1pm ish to take us to the town government office, the taxi driver kindly didn't charge us, he must be a romantic at heart.  The central office was very nice inside and has a massive view overlooking the valley, along with a telescope to use.

Nerves and emotions heightening as were getting to the time of vows and marriage.  Berry, the mayor of Svalbard introduced herself to us and chatted with Martin and Stu.  Then we headed into a very nice candlelit room with a nice glass polar bear ornament on the mantle.  The ceremony begun with a nice and appropriate humanistic Irish message.  It was such a beautiful ceremony and totally Martin and Stu - glad to share it with them.  The wedding breakfast (our evening meal) was a gorgeous treat of a meal at Funktionaermessen Restaurant. Gary was ready for some fine dining and this was 3 courses of delicious posh grub.

Day 5

Today was an activity day sledding with the Green Dogs.  I like animals but those who know me that I don't have patience for dogs, especially when they jump up at me and push me over!  We had a little brief on health and safety and then were instructed to harness our sledding dogs.  I tried to help with the dogs but they were so strong and one of them pushed me over, subsequently I was annoyed and stood there begrudgingly.  So our guide and Gary did the initial work.  Today was a very cold day and I was cold before we set off.  Plus we were in the open space all day, I was very frozen to the bone and it hurt me so much I thought I got frostbite.

Once we prepped the dogs and those that were leading knew how to handle to the dogs speed and sled, we set off.  Luckily we had the guide lead our sled.  I was ok being a passenger, but in doing so I wasn't making much body heat.  But at points I did stand up and join our guide at the back.  We journeyed through the mountains and canyon-like areas leading us to a tent perched on an open space.  There was a pole at the side that had an opening into the snow.  In a few moments we climbed through it which took us inside a dramatic glacier.  Our guide told us that they have to find this every year as the snow hides it.  Afterwards we had food and a warm in the tent then headed back down to the main site.  There were some steep bits when we were coming up, so going back down was exciting as it felt like a wooden roller-coaster, to which I screamed!  Fearful for my life (slight exaggeration) as I was in severe frostbite pains.  And embarrassingly remembering what I said earlier in week "I could easily live here".  I changed my mind this day.

We went for food and a drink at the Svalbar again, then continued with cocktails at the hotel courtesy of my mum.  Followed by more competitiveness and savageness with Dobble, inventing new rules with it and generally enjoying each others company.

Last morning

Before we left to go to the airport, I took a walk out to get mine and Gary's passports stamped with a free polar bear template.  Having a moment, I took in the final views and thought how I'll miss the pink sunlight on tips of mountains and the Hoth-like landscape.  Whilst in the shop I saw two books I didn't expected to find, one on birds and mammals of Svalbard and a detailed booklet on the geology of the place, but had to go get my wallet first.

We're very lucky to have shared my friends wedding, but also to visit another beautiful country.  I'd like to return to this place in the Summer season sometime to see some great whales! 🐋

Below is a rough video capturing some of the activities we did, followed by the wedding wishes video we surprised Martin and Stu with.