Swapping stories on an Arctic adventure

Tromso, gateway to the Arctic
Tromso, gateway to the Arctic
Breakdown workers preparing to haul out of the sea one of the cars involved in an accident on the Havant by-pass

THIS WEEK IN 1970: Havant by-pass cars plunge into the sea

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It’s mid-afternoon, minus 20 degrees and pitch black. There are polar bears out there, somewhere, and our guides are armed.

The only sound is the breathing of six husky dogs pulling our sled along the snow-carpeted valley floor.

Our intrepid group are on the island of Spitsbergen in the Arctic where the 2,500 inhabitants are outnumbered by 3,000 polar bears.

Each year, more and more tourists are opting for their own Arctic adventure, and my group has elected to come in winter, during the ‘polar night’ season, when the sun doesn’t rise and the only light comes from the moon.

Standing 78 degrees north of the Earth’s equatorial plane, halfway between Norway and the North Pole, there’s no better place for would-be explorers than these Arctic Ocean islands.

Known as the archipelago of Svalbard, they belong to Norway and were originally a base for whalers in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Now the untouched landscape attracts tourists keen to experience the wilderness and wildlife (plus spot the odd polar bear), even if it’s just for a few hours at a time before returning to the comfort of their hotel.

My first ‘expedition’ on Spitsbergen is a dog-sledding trip along the Bolterdalen valley.

Arriving at the kennels to meet the huskies who will be pulling us is a noisy experience: the dogs are friendly, excited and raring to go.

We’re taught how to harness and attach them to the sled, which is exhausting as the dogs rarely keep still and it takes several attempts to put them in the harness.

What doesn’t help is that I’m dressed in a bulky polar survival suit, with several layers below that and a pair of itchy long johns - all a must when the temperature is 20 degrees below.

Dogs attached, we’re ready to go. In a convoy we glide over the snow, at what seems like breakneck speed, into the valley.

The sledge is difficult to manoeuvre at first but I feel like Amundsen himself, the Norwegian explorer who was the first to reach the North Pole after he set off from Svalbard in 1926, once I get the hang of it. It’s hard work but exhilarating.

After an hour we head back to the warmth of the Basecamp Trapper’s Station.

Inside there is a glowing fire and we happily swap stories of our mini adventure as would-be mushers (dog-sled drivers) over a welcome bowl of Norwegian ‘klippfisk’ (dried salted cod) soup.

The main settlement on Svalbard – and one of the world’s most northerly – is the town of Longyearbyen.

We stayed at the Basecamp Trapper’s Hotel, a quaint lodge furnished with driftwood from Barentsburg (the Russian settlement on Spitsbergen), slate stones and furs.

No rooms are alike and it gives the feeling of entering a Spitsbergen hunter’s cottage.

There are plenty of other activities on offer in the winter season and a slightly higher-octane excursion is a snowmobiling polar night safari.

For the more cerebral visitors, there’s also the Svalbard museum that opened in 1979 and was, until December 2005, located in the very oldest part of Longyearbyen.

Before embarking on our trip to Svalbard our party spent two days on the Norwegian mainland in the city of Tromsø, considered the gateway to the Arctic.

It is a lively city with a rich history, culture and vibrant social scene and top restaurants. It is also an ideal base if you’re keen to catch a glimpse of the spectacular Northern Lights.