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Take Me Back to the Arctic: Part 1

Traveling. It leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.

— Ibn Battuta

I am nearly just as excited to be writing about the Arctic as I was to go to the Arctic.

I had the time of my life!!  I most definitely say that after just about every trip I go on but what can I say?!  I just love life!!

And I love to explore, adventure, meet new people, make new friends, learn new things, you name it, I’m all over it!!  The Arctic was all that and more!!

It all began on Friday, June 8th when a group of us boarded a charter flight to Longyearbyen, Svalbard.  By the way, thank god that you don’t have to hear me pronounce some of the city names going forward…I sounded like hot mess every time I tried 🙂

Anywho, Longyearbyen is the northernmost settlement in the whole world.  You literally cannot fly any further north.  That alone is awesome.

All of us were incredibly anxious to board the Nat Geo Explorer but knew we had a few hours to kill.  Luckily, they were all planned for us and quite frankly, kept me super entertained (as if that’s hard to do…).

Our first stop was to Svalbard Brewery.  Yes, they have a brewery in Longyearbyen!  And we had a blast there!  Our tour guide was a tremendously good storyteller and had us laughing out loud for the good part of an hour.  Though I couldn’t try the beer, I heard it was pretty good.

I couldn’t get over how they actually were able to orchestrate all the statistics in order to get the necessary supplies to Svalbard and actually be able to make and export beer!  It was very impressive, living proof that there are no excuses.

After the brewery we headed to a camp??  Ha!  I am not actually sure what it was but it had a whole bunch of working dogs, each with their own little cubbies, and then tents with gloriously warm bonfires blazing.

What I do know is that I loved HARD on all those dogs and then enjoyed a wonderful lunch inside the tents as we learned a little bit about Svalbard.  This was also the first time one of our guides was carrying around a rifle, something we would get very used to during our expeditions to shore.

To leave the city of Longyearbyen, you must carry a rifle in case you run into a polar bear.  I asked one of our Naturalists onboard during our first excursion to land what the laws were regarding ownership of a polar bear rifle.  He explained to me that you must get permission – a license I presume – from the police and then you can buy a rifle.  Only certain rifles are permitted for use as a polar bear rifle and only two different kinds of bullets are allowed.

Our fearless guides with their rifles, cameras, and binoculars 🙂

If you do come in to contact with a polar bear and have to shoot it, it must be with one of these two types of bullets.  Regardless of which bullet you use, it is still illegal to shoot a polar bear and you will be tried.  Even if in self-defense, you still must prove you did everything in your power to avoid contact with a polar bear from the start.

Another fun fact, if I remember correctly, your polar bear rifle cannot be used to hunt any other animals unless you get it registered as a hunting rifle as well.

Obviously, as you might be able to tell, I was super interested not only in Svalbard’s gun laws but also in the protection of the big, beautiful ice kings 🙂

Shortly after lunch we headed into town.  We still had an hour to go so the whole lot of us, 133 folks in total, took over the small but charming downtown area of Longyearbyen.  As we were pulling in, we saw the most fantastic scene take place!!

There was a dog chasing a reindeer through town and then a little boy chasing his dog!  It was absolutely adorable!  I wish I had got it on camera to share with you all – seriously, way way way too cute!!

AND FINALLY after three flights, five days in Iceland, two days in Norway, and two days of just travel time, WE WERE HEADING TO THE SHIP!!!!

As we pulled up to the dock, we quickly noticed the ship was anchored out and we were going to be taking zodiacs out to it in order to board!!  I’m not sure everyone was thrilled about this but I was losing my mind!!  What a cool fucking way to start an expedition into the Arctic!

That night there was a mandatory ship safety drill, we met the staff that was going to be guiding us through the Arctic, and we enjoyed our first dinner onboard.  And to seal the deal, we saw our first whale.  It was none other than the gigantic, majestic Blue Whale.

Life was beyond good.

Every morning Lucho, our fearless expedition leader, woke us up with a calming “Good Morning.  Good morning, good morning,” shortly followed by demands to get our butts out of bed and come see whatever wildlife they had currently spotted!

I was always up and at ‘em!!  I threw on my clothes as quickly as I could, brushed my teeth, and ran up to the bridge!!  I couldn’t wait to see what nature had in store for us!!

On that very first day, it was a polar bear!!  OUR FIRST SIGHTING!!!  They were kind of far away but definitely visible with binoculars and amazing nonetheless.  This first sighting, however, just had us all itching for more…

There he is!!  Top center of the photo!!  Do you see him?!

That afternoon we had the pleasure of getting off the ship for our first on-land adventure.  Like most days following, the expedition team offered long, medium, and short hikes.  They often times also had photography walks and zodiac rides as well.  You could pick whatever you wanted to do everyday.

Being that I was in the Arctic, I wanted to experience as much time outdoors – learning and exploring – as possible!!  So everyday I took the long hike.  And if I had the opportunity to do the zodiac as well, I did that too.  And when we were given the opportunity to set out on kayaks, I did that as well!!  It was my goal to be one of the first ones off the boat and one of the last ones on the boat every day; I wanted as much fresh air and adventure as I could possibly soak in.

All the hikes were different; each had its own unique and memorable characteristics be it the flora, fauna, or fungi we found.  All the landscapes were remarkable and distinct and each Naturalist had his own way of teaching us about the Arctic.  The long hikes were the best part of my day and every time one ended, I couldn’t wait to figure out where the next one would begin the following day.

I won’t walk you guys through every single hike as I might bore you death talking about the soft rocks, weird fungi, crazy bird colonies, friendly reindeer, a darting Arctic Fox, a dead Arctic Fox, flowing streams, serene lakes, marshy ground, snow covered mountains, icy spots, wild winds, a peak-a-boo sun, and oh so much more!!!  But I will share photos because I believe they showcase the beauty of what we saw every single day far better than words ever could.

At the end of that second day, I enjoyed dinner with a truly amazing family I met from Boston.  My mom wasn’t feeling well and decided not to eat and these guys swooped me up and adopted me in the blink of an eye.  I am so, so glad they did as like many of the other friends I made onboard, I look forward to staying in touch with them for a very long time to come 🙂

After dinner and quite a delightful amount of wine, we rushed outside to see a spectacular show put on by at least five Humpback Whales!!  I was awe-struck!!  For the first time ever, I got to see Humpbacks feed.  It was incredible!

They would swoop up out of the ocean with their mouths agape and then would engulf serious amounts of water filled with prey before smashing back down and creating a huge splash.  It was unreal!!  And it happened over and over again!!

We were all ohh’ing and ahh’ing as these magnificent creatures continued to capture prey and then show off their distinct flukes as they dived deep into the ocean.  It was truly an evening for the books.

The next morning we had another polar bear sighting and as per usual, I went rushing up to the bow!!  This time, the polar bear was so close that you could actually see him with your naked eye and better yet, he was curious and heading our way.

As the polar bear approached, we were all waiting silently in anticipation, clicking away on our cameras.  The closer he came, the more of a show he put on.  He was pawing the water, sticking his head in, and then shaking it off.  Then he’d move on to another ice sheet and do nearly the same.  He actually reminded me a lot of Barkley, he had a lot of cute dog mannerisms.

At one point, he actually leaned backward and sat on his two hind legs.  When Barkley does this, he wants a hearty hug… I’m assuming this guy wasn’t interested in any of our hugs but my god, if he was… 🙂

After watching the polar bear for what felt like hours I had another moment of, “I could go home right now.  It’s over!  I’m going to die of happiness no matter what else ensues!”

Stay tuned for Take Me Back to the Arctic: Part 2!!

Lick the Bowl – You Only Live Once,

Tara Rylie

*Most photos were taken by my mom – she is a true photographer at heart!  Thanks Mom!!*