Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Longyearbjen, Spitsbergen

March 28, 2010
-17°C, Clear. Lots of wind.

I spent this morning cozily in the hotel, napping, watching TV and eating a leisurely lunch. Around 2:30, I started getting the layers on: full-body under armor, a flannel, two sweaters, my yoga pants, two pair of regular pants, three scarves, my hat, jacket, and gloves. Two men picked us up at our hotel, and we piled into two cars and drove to a small wooden house along the edge of the water. We were each given a full-body snowsuit, face mask, fur hat, gloves, and knee-high snow boots. We looked like those little kids in the snowsuits who are so overdressed that they cannot move their limbs properly. Every time I lost my balance, I had to grab on to something or I would have gone down hard.
We got back into the cars and were driven about seven kilometers to where the dogs were housed: about a hundred dogs, each chained individually to a straw-filled dog house. I felt kind of bad for them, but when I went to harness them my sympathy left immediately. As much as they loved humans (and they were very affectionate), they could not wait to get out and run. We were instructed by our guide to walk them over to the sleds on their hind feet, because they were far more powerful than us and could easily pull us to the ground and drag us along. It was hard work getting the six dogs strapped to the sled. Even though they were very agreeable and would lift their paws into the harness, their excitement made them difficult to control sometimes. As Matt stood with the two leaders, I dragged and strapped in each one, and by the end of the task I was sweltering in my snow suit and couldn’t imagine being cold ever again.
The dogs’ order on the sled was carefully prescribed to minimize fighting, though quite a few got very feisty. I stood on the breaks and waited to go, perhaps as anxious as the dogs, who were crying and whining and barking. Some were running in place, either out of anticipation or the cold. Finally, our guide whistled and his dogs took off, then in turn each of our teams started running. I was at the end, and nearly fell off the sled as the dogs started sprinting. The well below freezing wind cut through all of my layers, and I couldn’t believe that we were actually dog-sledding in the arctic.
This entire area is made out of glacial valleys, similar to Juneau. We sledded up a valley west of the town, half of which is liquid water in the summer. The sun was shining, and I wrapped my face up tightly, and couldn’t believe the landscape of huge beautiful snowy mountains. We didn’t see any polar bear, or anything really – the Arctic is more like a desert than any other biome we’ve been to. There were two Svalbard reindeer, but they were closer to town. On the top of one of the western mountain ranges, there was a factory that was surrounded by a hundred meter radius of black coal dust. It was really gross, but it is because of that coal that goes to the coal plant that our hotel is so toasty and has an unlimited supply of hot water. Pipes run along the town, bringing hot water from the plant.
Those few hours seemed to go by in no time at all, and we were suddenly pulling back into the dog’s kennel area and unleashing them. A few hours of gripping a sled tightly, and keeping myself warm had really worn my out. When I went to unleash the largest of our team, he pulled me down and I face planted into the snow. Luckily, our guide took him from me and I was unscathed, and took the smaller dogs back to their kennels. We fed each dog, patted them goodbye, and went back to our hotel.
An absolutely amazing day.

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