Smeerenburg, the Dutch Whaling Settlement

We spent a couple of days in the thrall of the astounding Smeerenburgbreen, the glacier named for the nearby 16th century Dutch whaling settlement of Smeerenburg. This was possibly the largest glacier we saw during our trip but it certainly had the greatest presence; muffled thunder and sudden cracks sounded out a few times an hour, and calving ice rocked our ship all through the nights.

 

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The Antigua at Smeerenburgbreen. For scale, the ship’s mainmast is 31.5 meters tall and the face of the glacier is ~60 meters

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Being such an active glacier meant stunning blue ice and water full of icebergs and littler bergs, hissing and crackling like effervescent soda pop in the ocean. The contrast between the quiet, still moments where you could hear the soft lapping of the water at the edges of the ice and the sudden cracks and crashes of the calves… it was really a magical place.

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Two of our guides and Nemo at one of our landings

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A sunset at Smeerenburgbreen

The area provided several great spots to land, lots of floebergs (beached icebergs) for the art residents to work with, and some quiet time where we got to stay in place for more than a day. After our stay at the glacier, we visited what was left of the settlement of Smeerenburg, which translates to “Blubber Town”. Located on the little island of Amsterdamøya, not much remains aside from scattered logs and bricks. A single whale vertebrae, a couple decrepit blubber ovens and the yellow, fat-saturated ground still oily with the remnants of the whales.

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Leaving Smeerenburgbreen in the fog and clouds

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Smeerenburg whaling settlement

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What’s left of the blubber ovens

Here’s an updated map of our trip so far! Coming up, some epic mountains and equally epic disappointment when the weather turns against us.

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Svalbard: Breakdown

W_W_Svalbard_LandSat7_21.14475E_78.71545NSvalbard is an archipelago, a clumpy chain of islands in the far north of the arctic ocean. It’s made up of 11 sizeable islands and many additional small skerries. The area boasts many hundreds of rivers, fjords and glaciers, and has many eerie former settlements sprinkled across the islands, too. The islands also became the launching point for a number of Arctic explorers, including William Edward Parry, Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, Otto Martin Torell, Alfred Gabriel Nathorst, Roald Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton.

Spitsbergen is the largest island in Svalbard and the only truly permanently populated settlement, Longyearbyen, is located there. Although some weather and research stations exist on the other islands, none of them have a population over 10 nor are they permanent communities.DeGeerdalen, SpitsbergenSettled in the 17th century as an ideal location for whaling and then coal mining, Spitsbergen is a cold, mountainous place. Besides Longyearbyen, with a population of around 3,000, Ny-Ålesund isa former mining town, permanently settled around scientific research. Ny-Ålesund has a winter population of 35 and a summer population of 180. 

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Longyearbyen

Barentsburg is the only remaining Russian settlement since Pyramiden was abandoned in 1998. All facilities are owned by Arktikugol, who operate a coal mine (operations have, however, been stopped since 2006). Pyramiden is a tourist favorite for taking creepy, ruin-porn photos of the abandoned town.

A scene from Pyramiden

A scene from Pyramiden

Nordaustlandet is more northely in the chain and is mostly covered in ice caps. Another island in Svalbard, it had previously been the site of walrus hunting, and to this day is still populated by reindeer and walrus. Edgeøya, an island further south in the chain, has within it the massive glacier Edgeøyjøkulen. Barentsøya, located in between Edgøya and Spitsbergen, has some truly incredible scenes of the beauty of the arctic desert.

A Nordaustlandet walrus

A Nordaustlandet walrus

Kvitøya is the island I am most excited to visit. Known as White Island, Kvitøya is the site of S.A. Andree’s death, where his and his comrades’ bodies were recovered forty years after he first set sail in a balloon from Danskøya, Svalbard in 1897. I’ve written about S.A. Andree and his failed ballooning attempt to reach the North Pole; his story, and that of his two companions, is amongst the greatest and saddest in the whole saga of Polar Exploration.

Andree sets off from Danskøya

Andree sets off from Danskøya

The ørnen, crash landed not three days after take-off

The ørnen, crash landed not three days after take-off

Memorial for Andree and his companions, Nils Strindberg and Knut Frænkel, on Kvitøya

Memorial for Andree and his companions, Nils Strindberg and Knut Frænkel, on Kvitøya

What to Wear

I’ve been asked a lot of questions about the weather and conditions in Svalbard during my trip there next fall. How much sunlight will there be? How cold will it be, will there be a lot of snow?

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These are all great questions, so I thought I’d answer them here!

-Svalbard is located between about 78° and 80° North, making it just 10-12 degrees shy of the North Pole.

-Svalbard experiences about 125 days of Midnight Sun and about 112 days of Polar Night. Every day that I am in Svalbard will be shorter by about half an hour, which definitely will make me, as a photographer, work under pressure!

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-The arctic is a desert, so despite the presence of snow and ice the humidity is very low and dry skin and chapped lips are a serious concern! The chance of precipitation doubles over the course of October, so I will expect some snow while I’m there but not an inconvenient amount.

So what about the temperature, you ask? Well, given the weather we’ve been having here in New York and New England this winter, it really won’t be all too cold! I will experience a high of about 30°F and a low of 14°F, averaging around 20°F without windchill. That being said, it’s very rarely sunny in Svalbard! So although there is not much windchill to take into account, there also isn’t much sunshine to warm you up.

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NOPE. not anymore.

Given all of the above, how does one dress for this climate? You might be imagining mountainous fur coats and gargantuan parkas, but that’s not the best tactic for dressing in this kind of climate.

I made a little video to summarize what I learned about dressing for the arctic, which you can watch below. (Email subscribers click here to watch!)

Unpacking the Antarctic with Elise Engler

Although my journey this fall will be to the Arctic, at the northern end of our planet, and not to the Antarctic, I have a keen interest in heading to the southern continent in the future.

I had the pleasure of attending one of the Explorers Club’s great Monday night lectures a few weeks ago, given by the artist Elise Engler. Engler is a New York based painter/illustrator/drawer with an immense patience. She talked us through her influences and her early work, which included some excellent Renaissance and early American influences and a 15 panel piece (each panel being 5 foot by 1 foot in size) in which she drew every object she owned. Yep, every object she owned. She then started drawing smaller collections of contained things, like the contents of handbags, every object in a firetruck and every object in a virology lab.

After a few other residencies and adventures, Engler was awarded an opportunity to journey to Antarctica through the National Science Foundation as part of the Antarctic Artists and Writers Program. Below is a selection of her work, some of which she made whilst in Antarctica and some made upon her return.

Some of my favorite pieces that Engler made from this journey are her Window View series. The final objects are accordion books, each panel a meticulous and spirited depiction of the view out each and every window in, for example, McMurdo station, or the Lake Hoare station.

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Engler also made an enormous number of small paintings both on site (in watercolor) and from images (in oil). They are all quite small, less than 6″ on a side I believe, but the smallness seems wonderfully appropriate to me. One attendee asked Engler why she chose to paint on so small a scale, finding it “ironic” that she choose to depict her experience and observations in Antarctica, this massive and looming continent, in such a small manner. I loved her answer, chiefly that the size actually brings an intimacy and delicacy to the pieces that she likes very much. But I also think she brought up another point in her lecture, that of SCALE and its inherent absence on the continent. Antarctica is so frequently remarked on as being totally lacking in a sense of scale; a mountain may appear no more than a hill until you start walking, a glacier could be the width of a road or the width of a canyon, and owing to the lack of any recognizably sized object around (there’s not even trees or grasses) there’s no real way to tell just by looking.

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With that in mind, I adore Engler’s small paintings! I think of them as being out of scale; these delicate little things that draw you in nose to nose with them that, in your minds eye, are actually a peep hole into a land of brobdingnagian beauty.

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HMS Alert and Discovery

The ships HMS Alert and Discovery were the British Arctic Expeditionary vessels of 1874-1876. The ships were separated by the heavier than expected ice they encountered as winter 1875 approached, and the Discovery ended up overwintering in Lady Franklin Bay alone as the Alert pressed further north. Ultimately stuck in the ice at Floeberg beach, a small band from the Alert set out for the north pole on foot, recording a northernmost point about 83° north. Plagued by snow blindness, exhaustion and scurvy, the Alert and her crew never made it further than that. It was considered a successful expedition in most respects; the captain of the leading HMS Alert, George Strong Nares, was knighted upon his return to England. Below is a really beautiful, detailed map of the paths of both ships, as well as that of the North Pole group that struck out over the ice.

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