From the southern end of Edge Oya, we swung our bows west towards our last major challenge, the distant outline of Spitsbergen, 70 kilometers away. Strangely, like all our open crossings, the weather shifted to calm and we crossed un hindered. Throughout the day the sun slowly dropped lower in the sky, and for the first time on our journey, I watched it completely disappear below the horizon. The temperature plummeted and an icy layer of frost formed on the deck of our kayaks as we paddled. In the early hours of morning we hit land, 15 hours after setting off from the far side.
One grey afternoon we spotted a couple of humpback whales off the coast. Jaime and I deviated and spent a while with them, watching and listening to their long, loud exhales breaking the eerie silence. Soon they arched their backs, flicked their tails in the air, and slid quietly below. For those magical moments, I didn’t care that PG was waiting for us on a beach, frustrated and anxious to keep moving. This was one of those small, incredible moments I had come to Svalbard for.
Our last Polar bear encounter was to be had in the dark back on Spitsbergen, Jaime was on watch around the camp fire, and despite having his eyes open for marauding bears, he soon discovered he was looking at a polar bear, a mere 200 feet away, walking straight at him. without hesitation he said he stood up with the rifle half in the gun bag, and just started walking straight at the bear, yelling and swearing. by the time he had the rifle out, not only had the bear turned around an ran for the hills, but PG and I also had exploded from the tent in terror ( I often got upset with how calm Jaime was around polar bears that came close to camp, so hearing him loosing his shit, made me think he was actaully getting eaten!). We ended up counting 40 (Jaime argues 39) polar bears on our trip.
The sea’s off the Surkap where angry and cold, waves exploded against the rocky reefs and cliffs of the coast, we had paddled from the northern most point of Nordaustlandet, and over four lines of latitude to reach Spitsbergen’s southern tip. My hands tingled and my feet were numb with the cold, but for a brief while my heart was happy. The cape marked a massive milestone for me. It was the realization that we would we would complete the dream. From here, it would be a straightforward run up the coast, back towards Isfjord, the giant fjord that would lead us home.
We found our way through thunderous waves inside the western reef that protects a lot of the southern shore, and Small waves broke on rocky islands, and flocks of birds flew over us. I paddled with a smile on my face for a brief while before the weather wiped it from me. The sky grew darker as we made our way north, and soon an offshore wind started to build. As the hours went by, the guys moved further from me. Strong gusts of wind threatened to rip me from the coast and catapult me out to sea. I synched my hood in tight and pushed on. Small waves broke onto the kelp covered stony shore, and above, a low bank provided some slight respite from the wind. I lost all sight of Jaime and PG in the distance, and as the winds continued to increase, I wondered how much more of it I could handle before I would have no other option than to pull ashore. It was right on the edge of both my capabilities, and my comfort. I was sliding along the surface of the windswept water, barely able to keep within grasp of the shore.
Just when I was about to land and attempt to drag my boat along the shoreline, I spotted two kayaks on a beach in the distance. It took me at least another hour to reach them. A steady stream of tears rolled down my face but I could not stop paddling to wipe them away. Every part of me was freezing, but as I finally landed, I pulled myself together and the tears stopped.
For nearly three days, we were blasted by gale force winds, and squalls of driving rain and snow. We continued our bear watch routine, which entailed huddling in a hole in the ground, trying to shelter from the raging winds, every few minutes peeking out to look for bears. The tears started streaming again, this time from the smoke that was blown chaotically in all directions from our fire. I stood, shaking with the cold, unable to even pour a hot drink without it being blown out of my small cup. All this was one thing, though the ever increasing pressure was the dark, every day there was a deeper and longer darkness setting into the night, it was one thing to spot a Polar bear in daylight, it was another to do it in the dark. We needed to keep moving. We all breathed a sigh of relief when the storm eventually let us leave.
During the last two weeks PG kept pushing further and further each day, and because I was so far behind, I could do nothing about it other than to keep paddling to the place where he would eventually stop. Most days I would be on the water for at least an extra hour than him. It was not the end of an adventure which I had looked forward to, no savoring the feeling of success, knowing that we would make it, and just enjoying travelling slowly though such a beautiful, wild place. Jaime had now slowed to paddle with me, and we were both disappointed and aware of the opportunity’s we were missing along the way to just enjoy the last weeks. But as a team we needed to stick together in order to succeed even if one of us wasn’t willing to slow down.
In the days that followed, PG left us in the mornings and paddled off into the distance and we wouldn’t see him again until he had decided he’d had enough for the day and set up camp, and unfortunately this was the same for the last day.
PG had left us, saying he would wait just before the official end, which sat a mere 20 kilometres away. We pushed away in the dim light, ribbons of cloud in front of a pink sky. I was tired, and I paddled slowly, but Jaime patiently waited for me every few hours. As we rounded the last headland, we laid eyes on the place where we had camped 71 days earlier, on the first night of our adventure. There was no sign of PG.
Jaime sat with an expressionless look on his face, and I really felt for him, this trip had begun as his dream, and we were just lucky to become a part of it. And now PG had just paddled off and finished the trip ahead of us, for no other reason than his desire to get to town for a shower, pizza and beer. We both sat for a while without saying much, and then continued on towards town.
On the 5th of September, 71 days after setting out, Jaime and I approached the edges of the colourful town of Longyearbyen. We paddled past familiar beaches and tiny coal miners’ huts. And all of a sudden, the end was in front of us, and so now was PG who had paddled back out to meet us, and paddle the last 2kms together back into where we began at the camp ground in Longyerbyen. I slowed down, turned and glanced at the panorama of glaciers on the other side of the fjord. It was a surreal moment. Although my resilience had been tested more than ever before, I didn’t regret that it happened. I felt enriched by the experiences that Svalbard had given me. It was an adventure on a scale I could never have imagined; it had been both brutal and beautiful, and it had taken me through some of the most stunning landscapes I had ever seen. I’d paddled with pods of pure white beluga whales, listened to the whistling of walrus, and felt the magic of the remote ice-covered north-eastern coast, a land ruled by polar bears. It was as if I had woken from a strange dream I had no control over. Then, driving my bow into the stones, I breathed a quiet sigh of relief.