The day (or night, it was hard now to tell these days) was sunny and beautiful, the wind had been minimal as we had pushed north with our sea kayaks through the sea ice on the way to a bold and prominent cape jutting out into the arctic sea. I gazed down the open coast inside the sea ice that Sat just off shore along the shore we where about to reach, humbled and belittled by the grand and beautiful landscape all around us.
“Do you think they are ahead of us?” I asked
“Nye, they took the coastal route it had to be choked with sea ice and slower” stated PG.
“I think it is 50/50 which one was a quicker option” I stated bemusedly as “After all they where 3 hours ahead, and the coast looks pretty clear from here”.
We had just paddled some 9 hours and 40+ kms from our island campsite where we had last seen the Norwegian team of 5. As they paddled past our camp that morning we had hiked the nearby hill to gaze out and get an idea of the sea ice layout for our approach to Kapp Platen. From that spot we watched the 5 person team paddle off northward toward the sea ice. From our vantage we could see it was worth heading straight north to push through a patch of open drift ice to a large lead (passage way in the ice) that appeared to run east all the way to the cape, and that had been our attack. The plan had worked well getting us to the cape in good time, despite some strong wind pushing us west for a while and then having to navigate through some tight ice areas. Now we where almost at the cape and ready for camp, but we where not entirely sure which way the Norwegian team had gone, last seen they where heading straight north after all.
Tara stated ” you know what would be funny?… If they where at the spot we are heading to camp, and with a fire going.” I retorted ” no, what would be real funny is if they showed up to our fire and campsite a couple of hours after we had set up!” I was told I had a “twisted mean” sense of humor by my team mates.
With the midnight sun casting a lovely light on everything, we paddled on along the large open path in the sea ice that lead straight to the cape. We arrived at the cape after 12 hours paddling to find it absolutely choked with ice past its point. After a bit of a poke around we found a good access to a beach to camp, about 5kms short of where we had planned. We set up camp ate dinner and I was just heading off to bed when guess who showed up? You could tell they where furious, though eventually they came In to share the camp and fire, the Norwegians where gob smacked we had arrived before them, they were certain we would be behind them and insisted we must have been paddling as fast as we could to do it, while they had paddled steadily along the coast between the sea ice with a little dragging. Despite the initial tension things where friendly enough, though now we could tell that the mood was shifting between us all. I got the sense we had got ourselves unintentionally wrapped up in a race for “the first kayakers to get around Nordaustlandet”.
That night We all shared bear watch, doing an hour each which was quite a luxury and also a Lesson in how useful doing 2 two hour shifts was in camp, you got a lot done on shift, and with a single one hour one all our systems got thrown off. The up side to less watch time was more group socializing in the morning. I really enjoyed the Norwegians and was a bit sad our friendship was getting tainted by a race, though we had been granted an amazing weather window to get around the north of Nordaustlandet and we weren’t going to stop just to be polite. Nordaustlandet was the crux of our Svalbard circumnavigation, the last team that tried this island almost had a death and we had paddled a month to get here and had a month after to paddle to finish; where as the Norwegians had a drop off/pickup by a cruise ship and were spending only 20 something days doing just this island. How did it end up being a race, if you had different goals, You might be asking? Especially when going all the way around Nordaustlandet added significant time to circumnavigating Svalbard archipelago. The answer is the fact we had a food drop in the middle of Spitsbergen and Nordaustlandet that we needed to visit before and after, meant we would also complete a full circumnavigation of Nordaustlandet in the process. The reason for this food drop location was so we only needed to have one drop, and it allowed us many alternative choices to tackle Svalbard depending on ice conditions, including doing a figure eight, and this meant we had become unintentional competition. After discussions as a team we decided that we would not change our decisions to avoid racing OR EVEN “to race”, we would simply stay clear and stay safe, just like our initial call back at the depot cabin when we decided to not leave straight away when the Norwegian team did, instead waiting for a clear break in the ice –
It had been a tense week waiting at the cabin for the ice to break in the north of Nordaustlandet, at first the cabin was a much needed respite, we where able to put the kayaks right next to to cabin with the trip wire fence around them, which meant we could all sleep inside the cabin at the same time for as long as we wanted and this was a real treat after almost a month of rostered polar bear watch. However like all good things to much is not good, and we all, especially Tara, started suffering from cabin fever, even the novelty of the sea ice that pushed down from the north after we arrived, walks In the mountains and lots of Sunshine didn’t help. After 3 days we were ready to move, and hopes of doing so where starting to fade. Finally we decided to paddle out to the close sea ice too play with our systems and get used to what we would have to deal with once traveling up north with all the ice waiting for us there. Amongst this floating aliean landscape we clambered and dragged and paddled about, then PG sighted 5 white kayaks paddling up to the hut from the south. “It is the other team!” He exclaimed as he paddled over to alert us.
We had been expecting we would meet the Norwegian team at this hut, as it was the only logical place to stay before heading for the north coast, and we weren’t going to move north until the ice was breaking. We all excitedly paddled back to the hut, where we meet Simon, Segrid, Dag, Madds and Skjell, and, with 8 kayaks racked up within the trip wire fence outside the cabin, we ended up having a big kayaker gathering sharing stories. The new team brought a breath of fresh air to our team, lots of new things to talk about, and distractions from little annoyances of being penned up in a little cabin with same three people for a week. We where sad to hear the group planned to push on straight away the next day, we thought it a bit bold as the ice wasn’t yet giving way. Tara exclaimed “I think they must be expecting a miracle if they think the ice will break up this week”. I threw in that “the ice can just break over night when the conditions are right”, however I also felt it was a bit premature. That night we all bunked up together, the hut was the perfect place for such a chance gathering as it was kitted out with 9 sleeping bunks and a large common room. In the morning we awoke to a Monday and the new ice chart in our inbox via our Iridium Go satellite system. last Friday the sea ice had started to open, not much but a bit, and today the chart showed further promise and the other team was off by early midday. We had decided we would wait 2 more days to make sure the break up Pattern would continue. We bid the other team farewell and good luck, and we went back to our cabin fever.
Two days later the ice had indeed continued to break up and we set off saying love hate farewells to our amazing cabin. It was Great to be finally on the north coast, as we rounded the NW point the coast was wide open. “It is hard to believe just 24 hours ago this was packed with ice” exclaimed Tara in joyous wonder, and just then a large walrus pops up over her right shoulder. I go to take a photo but my camera is on The wrong setting, Tara looks back to see this monster Sniffing the back of her Kayak and is startled into frantic paddling, this in turn startles the walrus and I laugh as they both part ways at the same time in splashes of haste. The weather is sunny and the wind non existent, we never expected this! We made good head way, and even when we meet the open drift ice and spent most of day winding through it and pulling out on top of flakes to pee and take food breaks. We even got side tracked for almost an hour on one ice flake as a young walrus came to inspect us and ended up spending 20 minutes swimming by us, and coming right up to the edge, at one point he even gave the tail of Tara’s kayak a shove with his tusk and almost dragged it back in the water. After a few more underwater displays of swimming prowess as we gazed down at him, he eventually got bored and with a snort that resembled a fart, he dove down and disappeared.
Eventually after 12.5 hours and some 55kms we reached scoresby island as enjoyed and beautiful camp site and well deserved rest. I awoke the next morning to Tara telling me the other team where here, and they where heading for the Kapp Paten. I climbed out of the tent to find 5 white kayaks sparkling in the sun in the calm water. We all chatted a bit, they where amazed that we had caught up to them in one day, What had taken them 3, though ultimately it was jut that we had waited for the sea ice to be more open and where lucky it worked, it was not that we had any special prowess.”Team Norway”. as we had come to call them, said their goodbyes and paddled on and we climbed the hill to scout the sea ice in the north and watch the 5 kayakers paddle off into the northern distance, soon to meet again at the next camp spot…