Arctic adventures in the deep freeze

A snowmobile safari across the Arctic Desert in Spitsbergen.
A snowmobile safari across the Arctic Desert in Spitsbergen.

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Gripping their harness tightly, I try with all my might to stop the eager pack of husky dogs from tearing loose.

But not even a fleet of armoured tanks could halt these powerful animals and dampen their desire to run.

Blue eyes glinting wildly in the violet wintry half-light, the lead dog burrows his paws into the thick snow as if revving up an engine.

Barking, wailing and howling impatiently, eight packs of dogs are raring to take their, understandably nervous, passengers on a ride through remote Arctic valleys visited only by a fortunate few.

But as the noise reaches a deafening crescendo and my fingers turn blue from both cold and constricted blood flow, the starting signal is given, blissful silence falls and the magic of this wild and other-worldly landscape takes hold.

Lying just 819 miles from the North Pole, Longyearbyen – the capital of Spitsbergen which is part of Norwegian archipelago Svalbard – is one of the northernmost settlements in the world.

The former mining town already attracts tourists during the summer season, many hoping to catch a glimpse of the fierce but irresistibly enigmatic polar bear. But now visitors are coming specifically for the winter months, to experience activities such as dog sledding, ice caving and snowmobile rides through the Arctic Desert.

Thanks to the influence of the Gulf Stream, the climate is ‘mild’ enough to make visits possible throughout the coldest periods – even though there were reports of a wind chill factor of minus 50C just days before our early March visit.

Thankfully, it’s only minus 20C during our dog sledding adventure with the Green Dog yard in Bolterdalen, 10 minutes outside Longyearbyen.

As night falls, along with the temperature, owners Claire and Martin invite us into their traditional trapper’s hut to warm up in front of a crackling fire with a traditional Arctic meal.

Inside the cosy hut a muskox hide hangs from one wall, while the jaw bone of a polar bear is less a hunting trophy and more a reminder of the hostile environment.

Our visit coincides with Longyearbyen’s return of the sun festival, which takes place on March 8 every year. But when we arrive, I’m surprised to find the town already bathed in hazy light.

The sun has been hovering above the horizon since mid-February, clawing back half an hour of daylight every week.

The festival commemorates the moment when rays finally stretch above the mountains and strike the old hospital stairs, one of the town’s few historical monuments .

Spitsbergen Travel organise snowmobile safaris through the Arctic Desert, a vast, dry, icy expanse that forms the second largest desert in the world (after Antarctica), and receives about the same amount of precipitation as the Sahara.

Clinging tightly to my driver as we zig-zag through narrow valleys, shifting weight from side to side to balance the heavy vehicle, I experience a mixture of panic and exhilaration.

Leaving snowmobile trails behind us we plough through pristine snow, taking paths that appear totally untouched.

It really is a winter wonderland.

TRAVEL FACTS

Sarah Marshall was a guest of Hurtigruten (0203 5826 642; www.hurtigruten.co.uk) who offer two, three and four-night land-based short breaks in Spitsbergen in March, May, October and December. A two-night stay in March starts from £811pp, including accommodation and excursions (a 45km snowmobile safari through the Arctic Desert, ice caving and a wilderness evening). Flights are extra but can be booked via Hurtigruten.