Ny Ålesund, Nordenskiöld and Near Misses

I went to Svalbard with lots of hope but low expectations; I tried not to plan any projects that required a specific landscape or a just-so kind of set up because I knew we had no set itinerary and the logistics of arctic weather, boat travel and some 20+ other individuals traveling with me may not work in favor of tightly planned projects. Instead, I opted to take a dragnet approach, opening my mind and cameras to whatever happened to present itself to me each day. For 99% of my trip, that work amazingly well. But then there was this one day, this one spot that I had grown increasingly excited to visit, and poof! The arctic weather took it away from me.

Ny Ålesund is a scientific outpost in Svalbard, a hub for bird research as well as geological and meteorological work. Though it has a population for a few hundred in the summer, when the birds come to nest, only a couple dozen scientists remain through the winter. The settlement got its start like all others in Svalbard as a mining town before transitioning into a research base in the 20th century. A miniature train sits by the harbor, rusting, as a reminder of the industrial coal roots of the area. We docked in Ny Ålesund at night and walked into the town center (there’s basically one road and it makes a loop). Excited to see it in the morning, we went to sleep happily moored at a dock for the first time in weeks. You may be asking, why was I so excited to see a scientific outpost? While Ny Ålesund was a mining outpost, it was also something else: the launching site for a number of dirigibles attempting to fly to the North Pole in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The airship mast that moored those vessels is still there today, and I was really, really jazzed about seeing it.

Morning came, and as we filed into the salon for breakfast we couldn’t help but notice that we were no longer near land. A gale had come in the night and blown us away from the town, and given the strength and direction of the wind we could not go back. The chance to visit Ny Ålesund had to be abandoned. Dejected, we settled in for a long day of watching Werner Herzog docs and napping in the salon; with bad weather there was little else for us to do. Luckily the storm cleared enough overnight that we were able to head off to our next stop, the abandoned Russian mining town Pyramiden. On our way we did a drive-by viewing of the magnificent Nordenskiöldbreen glacier, towering and toothpaste blue.

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Nordenskiöld Glacier

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