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Arctic dawn

11th - 16th February 1998

Wednesday 11th February

The airplane upon which I embarked one hour ago in Tromsø flies over Bear Island, located at 74°30'N 19°00'E. I recall last summer, when we made the same journey onboard a sailing vessel in four days of little sleep. We came to this place after much trouble; we intended to sail further to the island of Spitsbergen, where I'm now going, but we turned back at this island and headed back to Norway. Then it was the recollection of a trip to Spitsbergen that I made in December which drew me northwards, now, twice as eager, I look forward to enjoy a few more days at the top of the world. Here, simultaneously the full moon now rises from the clouds in the northeast and the sun sets in the southwest in almost perfect opposition, as if two balls in a heavenly game. I look at the watch. 14:00. I've entered the polar night.

The full moon rising
[The full moon rising] 1998/2/11 14:05MET
105mm ; f/3·5 ; 1/60"
Blowing snow
[Blowing snow] 1998/2/11 18:00MET
35mm ; f/8 ; 6"

Gale at the town's school
[Gale] 1998/2/14 20:50MET
50mm ; f/1·4 ; 1/8"

At three o'clock the bus takes me to Longyearbyen, a town inhabited by 1200 Norwegians, located just 800 miles from the North Pole. Right now the polar night is almost four months old, but in a few days the sun will rise. Now only I see this arid land in daylight, or rather in a half-light. At the other side of the fjord Hiorthfjellet towers; I recall the first day I was here: I arrived early in the morning, and that December day was so dark that it passed before I even noticed the mountain, which I now cannot miss, in the dim shine of the crescent rising moon. The mountains are illuminated by a cold, blue colour; this is after all, as the Norwegian name Svalbard denotes, the land of the cold coasts.

After a few hours the town slowly falls into a darkness as that of December. As common during the winter, winds sweep across this frozen landscape; snow rushes 100 feet towards the sky, so that it forms a fog. The air, however, isn't so cold as to bite my face, it remains around -8° centigrade, a great deal warmer than the cold that I have endured here before. The first night I refrain from any exertion, I just walk around the town, for I've had a fever for two days now; I'm tired. I have a temperature of 38·3° and go to bed.

Thursday 12th February

I only have a light fever and I feel better; I hope to recover soon. The weather is unchanged, it is cloudy and snow blows around the corners of the houses. I prepare for a skiing tour; the photographic gear makes the backpack heavy, therefore I dress as light as the cold permits, which is equivalent to -30° effectively. Also, the Mauser rifle burdens me somewhat; as all these posters at the airport warn, guns are to be carried in the field; recently a polar bear was seen near the airport, from the outskirts of the town came reports of tracks, one bear was even killed in Ny-Ålesund and others have distressed the settlement, and finally, these days ten bears restrain the population on Bear Island; thus the gossip goes.

Ready for skiing
[Me] 1998/2/12 11:55MET
50mm ; f/5·6 ; 1/15"
The moon and aurora shine
behind the haze
[The moon] 1998/2/12 22:35MET
50mm ; f/2 ; 4"

I ascend the glacier Longyearbreen. I'm sweating. The wind hinders my progress more than it makes me cold. The glacier takes me 1500 feet above sea level, whereupon I enter a white nothingness. Because of fog and blowing snow every contour has been blended, wherever I turn I see nothing, the ground is like the sky, there is nothing on which I can fix my eyes, my eyes shift, I feel dizzy; occasionally I see a stone or the shadow of a snowdrift, but I cannot fix my eyes on them without seeing anything but unsteady spots. In the end I give up and turn back; surely there is no reason, if I will see nothing, for me to go on, and it is already getting dark. In more than four hours I made just 9 miles.

In the evening it clears up and the full moon shines behind a haze. For a few minutes bright aurora swiftly roams the southern sky.

Friday 13th February

The fever is gone, the weather is unsteady. Now and then the greater part of the sky is clear, and I judge that the weather will improve as the day dawns. Before I left home, I got myself a list that predicts certain flares in the sky. Such a flare lasts for a few seconds and might shine 600 times as bright as the brightest star Sirius; the reason for these phenomena lies in the sunlight, which is reflected by satellites, so-called Iridium satellites. At 16:45:12 a flare of this kind will appear, which I wish to photograph. I ascend the mountain Platåfjellet, from which there's a view of the town's surroundings. I watch a magnificent blue light, getting darker every hour, enclose the town under a nearly clear sky. I prepare the photographic instruments, and, while the gale whistles as it passes through the tripod, I take several photos; the wind is such now, that with my back against it, I must keep the instruments gripped firmly in my hands to prevent everything from being immediately swept away.

Shortly before the satellite is to appear it starts to cloud over, but the layer is thin and the satellite will shine through. I adjust the camera and wait for the flare. I see several satellites; nevertheless, the bright one which I'm expecting I did not see.

Blue light
[Lia] 1998/2/13 14:55MET
50mm ; f/1·4 ; 1/30"

It's getting dark
[Harbour] 1998/2/13 15:35MET
50mm ; f/1·4 ; 1/4"
It's getting even darker
[Operafjelelt] 1998/2/13 15:40MET
50mm ; f/1·4 ; 1/4"

Soon night
[Lia] 1998/2/13 16:55MET
50mm ; f/1·4 ; 4"

Saturday 14th February

Dawn is here and I put on my skis. Today I wont ascend any mountains, thus I wont get lost in fog; I go into Adventdalen under an unsteady sky, one moment cloudy, the next clear, but the wind is at least calmer. When I was here in December, I went over the snow with a dog team; under the daytime sky full of stars and the northern lights it was a magnificent experience. After a few hours I turn back towards the town in order to keep an appointment. I have time to look for another satellite, but not even that one appears.

The former airport in Adventdalen
[Airport] 1998/2/14 12:05MET
50mm ; f/1·4 ; 1/500"
The entrance
[Grotto] 1998/2/14 17:05MET

I've agreed with seven people to explore the grottos of Longyearbreen. These grottos are formed by running water during the summer, and therefore change every year. We crawl into a network of tunnels inside the glacier; it really is a different and strange world.

Inside the glacier
[Grotto] 1998/2/14 17:15MET
50mm ; f/1·4 ; 3"

We leave one grotto
to explore another
[Grotto] 1998/2/14 17:25MET
50mm ; f/1·4 ; 4"
Sunday 15th February

Today is my last chance to make a skiing tour, but the weather is turbid; it snows and much snow is blowing. I ascend the glacier Larsbreen. First I see little, then nothing.

In every directions all that I could see...
[Visibility] 1998/2/15 11:40MET

At the top of the glacier the visibility is greatly reduced; sometimes I can make out stones and other things through the blowing snow and I estimate the visibility to be less than 25 metres.

Good visibility
[Larsbreen] 1998/2/15 11:00MET

Poor visibility
[Larsbreen] 1998/2/15 11:30MET
Time for a break
[The Sarcophagus] 1998/2/15 12:05MET
For a short moment the town
is revealed below the fog
[The Sarcophagus] 1998/2/15 12:05MET
On the summit of the Sarcophagus
[The Sarcophagus] 1998/2/15 12:15MET
50mm ; f/4 ; 1/60"

I turn and set course for the Sarcophagus; perhaps there will be a view of the town from the top of that mountain. I go on along a ridge of the mountain, on both sides nothing comes into view through the fog. I reach the top; if it had been clear, I would have seen the town at the foot of the mountain; but now I can barely spot the town. I rest and eat a frozen lunch. Suddenly the fog clears and I'm able to see the town and I pull out the photographic gear. Shorty after, however, it gets cloudy again, then gusts come from the east so fierce that I fear I might be unable to hold onto the gear. Again I give up, collect my things and descend the glacier.

The lower part of the glacier is steep, and I dare not descend it with my skis on, so I take them off. I carefully make my way down, but for a moment I lose my footing. Oh! A ski slips away from me! In the bewilderment I lost one ski; now it rushes towards a grotto, at the edge it stops for a moment, then it disappears into the abyss. But I, so to speak, sacrified the ski for my neck. With little hope of its recovery I approach the edge looking for it, and, incredibly, I see the ski lying in the grotto. With ease I climb down into the grotto, recover the lost ski and climb back.

The sky clears later that night. I hope to observe another satellite; at 19:03:58 it will appear and it will shine 500 times brighter than Sirius. I prepare the photographic gear at the shore of the fjord, but I do not see the satellite.

One satellite, however, which is not found in my list, I did see today. I wrote a note: time: 15:58, azimuth: 290° ą20°, elevation: 18° ą4°, magnitude: -5 ą1.

I'm glad, however, that the weather now is great; I stand in the centre of the town; how many stars! here I see the Milky Way and stars of fifth magnitude. Near zenith is the North Star, to the south I see Orion, to the north Hercules. I take several photos, capturing stars of ninth magnitude.

I later learned that two bears today were astray on the sea ice outside the town.

[Longyear Valley] 1998/2/15 19:20MET
50mm ; f/1·4 ; 4"
Orion to the south
[Oriōn] 1998/2/15 20:00MET
50mm ; f/1·4 ; 2"
Funken Hotel
[Funken] 1998/2/15 20:10MET
50mm ; f/1·4 ; 4"
Stars of ninth magnitude
Orion is behind the mountain
[Stars] 1998/2/15 20:15MET
50mm ; f/1·4 ; 20"
Monday 16th February

Around two o'clock I will be heading back to Norway. Now I notice that the day arrives one hour earlier and the night one hour later. About seven or eight o'clock I realize what kind of weather it is today; within an hour the light becomes breathtaking. It is perfectly clear, I feel a gentle breeze; though the temperature has dropped below -20°C, the breeze feels warm. I walk around with my head and hands exposed, and I don't suffer the cold. I feel sorry to leave this place!

[Clear] 1998/2/16 08:20MET
50mm ; f/1·4 ; 1/8"

The return of the sun!
[Sun] 1998/2/16 11:55MET
105mm ; f/3·5 ; 1/30"

This will be a magic day. The 16th of February is the first day of the year when the sun will touch the mountaintops with its beams. I really want to ascend some mountain, but there is no time for excursions. Still, I ascend the mine 2 mountain, even though it is too small for the sun to reach it, and I wait for the moment. At noon the sun paints the mountaintops in a dark red hue, just like I imagined. Truly great!

The first sun of the year
[Sun] 1998/2/16 12:00MET
105mm ; f/3·5 ; 1/30"

After a couple of hours the blue light once again encloses the day. I take the last photos of this magic land from the airplane.

Soon a violent storm assails the town: still just as cold, gusts of 81mph are recorded at the airport.

Back at home I discover the reason why I saw no satellites; the orbital data I was using were too old. More recent data confirm it; using those I find the single observation which I made: time: 15:57:41, azimuth: 270°, elevation: 21°, magnitude: -6·0.

Adventdalen, Operafjellet,
Endalen, Todalen
[Adventdalen] 1998/2/16 15:15MET
50mm ; f/1·4 ; 1/30"
The mine at Svea
[Svea] 1998/2/16 15:18MET
50mm ; f/1·4 ; 1/30"
Posted 26th February 1998.


The archipelago
of Svalbard

2000: An expedition to Svalbard

This is an account in six parts about a voyage on board the Havsul of Tromsø across the Barents Sea to Spitsbergen. We visited the fjords and explored the land, and we were in for a few surprises.
To the story.
Posted 13th November 2000

1999: Awaiting the returning sun

I saw the first sunbeams of the year reach Longyearbyen on 8th March. That day the children gather at a certain place in the town where the sun can be seen for the first time in five months. Then the weeklong sun festival begins.
To the story.
Posted 20th March 1999

Returning sun
1997: Navigation to Bear Island

I went on a voyage to Spitsbergen this summer. However, after many difficulties, we landed at Bear Island, and we decided to abandon our planned destination and to return to Norway from here.
To the story.
Posted 7th August 1997

Bear Island
1996: Polar midnight

I went on my first trip to Spitsbergen in December. I saw a wonderful land and great darkness, as the sun is as much as 12° below the horizon at noon in the midwinter. I also got to feel the icy gales of the arctic.
To the story.
Posted 21st April 1997

Arctic midnight

Steinar Midtskogen