Author – Sally Cooney, Production Director, PCGraphics (UK) Limited
In the summer of 1994, I spent four weeks on a glacial research expedition to Spitsbergen, the largest island in the archipelago of Svalbard, situated in the Arctic Ocean some 400 miles from the North Pole. It was part of my Geography degree and became the topic of my dissertation.
There were only six of us to go – two lecturers, two postgraduates and two little undergraduates (of which I was one). It was a character building and life changing experience for me. We had to fundraise to pay for our travel and I recall doing a carwash in Safeway’s carpark and roping in all my University friends to help. I had to raise £1000 to fund the trip.
We flew to Oslo, on to Tromso and then on to Longyearbyen in Spitsbergen. I was 20 years old and it was the first time I’d been on an aeroplane. To get to the research site, we had to travel on a very small boat for 12 hours. Some of this journey was on the Arctic Ocean where the waves were as big as the boat. I get seasick at the best of times and I was not at all well on this voyage!
We camped just near Van Kuelenfjorden, hundreds of miles from any civilization. The weather was about zero degrees but that’s not so bad when you’re wearing four or more layers of clothing. Being so close to the North Pole, I was expecting more ice and snow, but it was the summer, so much of the terrain was gravel. However, this also meant we had daylight for twenty four hours a day. You can get used to this though if you’re tired enough.
Our biggest worry was the threat of polar bears in the area. We did take rifles as a contingency measure and made a “bear alarm” trip wire round our camp to wake us at night if one of these enormous beasts should fancy a midnight snack on a sleeping researcher.
I don’t think I realised at the time the danger of what we were doing. I’m not even sure the rifles we were given were working properly. When I heard about this poor chap in August 2011 it brought it home to me just how at risk we were.
The following is taken from an article in the Holme Valley Express and Chronicle dated January 13, 1995.
An Ice Way to Spend Summer
The “geography field trip” conjures up pictures of rooting around on the moors, dabbling about in a riverbed or gawping at soil sections.
But for a student from Burnlee it meant a near 2000 mile journey to a godforsaken spot in the Arctic Circle, just 400 miles from the North Pole.
Sally Hill, a third year geography student at Southampton University, spent a few weeks last Summer in the freezing wastes of Spitsbergen, a group of Norwegian islands which in the summer months bask in 24 hours of daylight.
Well maybe “bask” is not quite the right word.
Cloud and rain were rarely far away and the midsummer temperatures struggled to get very much above zero while Sally and the rest of the small party studied the island’s glaciers and glacial sediments. Wind chill often brought the temperatures down to -10 degrees.
All this, in Sally’s case, for the sake of gathering the information for her 10,000 word dissertation.
The first leg of their journey took them from Heathrow Airport to the Norwegian Capital Oslo. From there they flew on via Tromso in the far north of the country to the island group itself, deep in the Arctic.
What lay before them from there, said Sally, was a gruelling 12 hours in a small boat which took the by now desperately seasick group to the barren shoreline that would be their home for the next several weeks.
They lived in small tents, their only lifeline to the outside world via a Cambridge University group living in fur trapper’s huts elsewhere on the archipelago who were in radio contact with the nearest settlement.
The islands are so inhospitable that year-round habitation is impossible. Spitsbergen’s population of seal hunters, whalers and, of all things, coal miners leaving as winter closes in, in what for us would be early autumn.
Life for the students and the expedition experienced lecturers was pretty basic in their temporary tent village.
Day-to-day tasks like cooking, washing up, fuel gathering and the dreaded water collecting were rotated between the members of the group. Heat came from driftwood fires.
And daytime studies were a far cry from the warm university library where most of the students polish off their dissertations in centrally heated comfort.
A normal day would see the group out on the surface of the glacier or scrambling about in the shifting sediments on its leading edge.
There were icy rivers to be crossed, where one slip could end in disaster, and ice bridges to be crossed whose strength was unpredictable.
Food was rationed…and perhaps that was just as well.
Sally, who received cash from the Holme Valley Parish Council and who recently gave a slide presentation on the trip to a full council meeting, highlighted one particular element which had stomachs churning.
A type of Norwegian cheese was one of the staples – “a bit like fudge that has gone off a bit,” Sally told the councillors who helped her out at the start of this year with a £100 grant towards the trip.
But the cheese, gruesome as it might have been, was the least of their worries. There were other far more serious perils lurking along the shoreline…in the shape of polar bears.
Bears had been see roaming in the area just a few weeks before the students’ arrival – and the risk of attack had been spelt out. The group had been issued with old Spanish rifles and dum dum bullets to be used as a last resort.
A shot could only be fired if life was threatened – shooting a polar bear going about its normal business can carry a fine of up to £1000 under Norwegian law. But, said Sally, members had been told they should start worrying if a bear began to “advance towards them at a rapid trot.”
In the event, an easy stroll was quite beyond the capabilities of the only bear seen on the entire journey, never mind a brisk trot.
The bear in question was stuffed and put on display in a large glass case in one of the Norwegian airports they passed through on the way home!
Thanks to the hard work put in on the trip to Spitsbergen, I came away from Southampton University with a 2:1 Second class honours Degree in geography, which led me into cartography and, eventually, running our own company.
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