The Arctic Birds of Spitzbergen

The Norwegian Kings Bay Company ran the research station at Ny-Ålesund with a light touch, and like everything Scandinavian, its influence was civilized and benign. The self-service mess hall, which catered for a summer population of 130, occupied a purpose-built facility with windows on three sides. When we arrived for breakfast on the first morning, our Norwegian neighbors were already washing down their Geitost cheese with spoonfuls of cod-liver oil from a glass jeroboam in pole position on the serving counter. After the meal Nick, the manager of the British hut at the multinational research station, gave me a tour of the mess complex, at every stop launching into a lengthy anecdote that did not end until a fresh one took over the baton. In one wing he revealed the byzantine waste-disposal system. It represented a new art form, but even these complexities could not compete with the arrangements I remembered with agonizing clarity from McMurdo Station in the Antarctic. There a maniacally ecological management had come up with so many different categories of waste that I once stood in front of a row of bins having a breakdown as I attempted to dispose of a Pringles tube. The lid had to go in Plastic, the paper wrapped around the cardboard tube had to be peeled off and put in Printed Paper, the tube itself went in Thin Cardboard, the foil inner lid in Foil, the metal rim at the bottom in Light Metal, and the remaining Pringles, accidentally contaminated with Avgas, in Food Waste. The polar regions, invested now with sacerdotal status in the race to save the planet, foreshadowed waste-disposal governance coming soon to a kitchen near you.

Before I was allowed to walk beyond camp alone, I was required to take a rifle course. This, Nick assured me, would save me from the jaws of one of the many polar bears in the vicinity. One end of a gun was much the same to me as the other, and I had little appetite for learning the difference; but the alternative, being crushed to eternal oblivion between the tobacco-yellow canines of a polar bear, attracted me even less, especially after my near-death bear experience on Southampton Island. The first component of the course consisted of two hours in a seminar room. The teacher, Terje, was a ruddy-faced Norwegian in his twenties, and I was his only pupil. Sun poured through plateglass windows, varnishing the long blue desks, and in the room next door, vast marine specimen chest freezers hummed in unison. Terje began with the demoralizing news that in Svalbard the average male bear weighs in at between 880 and 1,320 pounds (though it could be worse: elsewhere they swell to 2,200 pounds). “He can run at twenty-five miles an hour, which is twelve yards per second,” Terje continued with pride, as if he had trained the beasts personally, “and unlike a tiger, he will never try to hide.” It was also disheartening to learn that bears are moody, wayward, and unpredictable. The most dangerous ones are the two-year olds who have just left their mothers, as they are inexpert hunters, and hungry. “So you might want to avoid those,” said Terje. Old and sick bears are also best avoided, as they can no longer hunt. “If he’s smacking his teeth”—Terje demonstrated—”he is already annoyed, so get ready.” Spring was apparently a risky time to travel, as mothers protect new cubs by attacking. So it was important to bugger off if you saw any cubs at all. Nor was summer a season for relaxation. Here on the ice-free side of Spitsbergen, bears might be hungry owing to a lack of pack ice on which to hunt. Terje illustrated each of his categories with examples of maulings somewhere in the archipelago, acting out the stories by dropping on all fours and straining the hinge of his jaws. In 1977—this was just one from an extensive repertoire of episodes—a group of Austrian campers at Magdalenefjord heard strange noises outside the tent. When one of them stuck his head out, a bear smashed it with a front paw and dragged the man to the sea ice, where, in full view of the other campers, it ate everything except a section of jaw and a belt buckle. (Terje removed his belt and swung it in the air.)

I looked out the window, certain that I would see a bear speeding toward the glacier with Nick dangling from his mouth, still talking. Finally, Terje launched into a story about a bear headbutting the door of a trapper’s hut. The scientist inside had a rifle, but it was on the other side of the hut. The bear, who had bashed the door open, was between him and his gun. “But it was all right!” said Terje, triumphant for once. “The door was too small for the bear to get his shoulders through. He could only fit his head and neck in.” Silence hung heavy in the lab as I digested this information. “Surely,” I asked, “the head is the business end?” “The scientist hit the bear on the nose with a frying pan,” Terje concluded, brandishing an imaginary utensil.

For the next stage Terje drove us up to the rifle range on one of the low hills behind camp. A cover of gray cloud had moved in, masking the sun. The air was like something paralyzed. I struggled through the bullet routines before letting off a succession of rounds at a target, unnerving explosions in unmoving silence. We agreed that I was a useless shot, and that was that. The first drops of rain fell, smacking the stones on the hills. Terje took the opportunity to tell me I was not, according to Svalbard legislation, supposed to shoot until the bear was eleven yards away. Eleven yards was the length of the Zodiacs in which we had been zipping around the fjords. “But I can’t even load in that time,” I whined. “It is the sysselman’s [governor’s] rule,” intoned Terje in his metronomically measured English. “If you shoot a bear, you must inform his office, and an investigative team arrive.” I had the impression that if the bear ate me before I could uncock my rifle, it would be shrugged shoulders all around among the sysselman’s filing cabinets.

Our neighbor Maarten Loonen was a familiar figure in Ny-Ålesund. One of the tall inhabitants of the Dutch house, and the chief Dutch scientist on station, he was based at the University of Groningen and had been studying the fluctuating population of barnacle geese in Kongsfjord since 1990. In 1943, fewer than three hundred roosted on the archipelago; at the time of my visit, the population had swelled to twenty-five thousand. Extreme weather stresses Arctic ecosystems (which are relatively young: ten or twenty thousand years, following the retreat of the ice sheets, compared with millions in the tropics). An unseasonal snowstorm or a big freeze can destroy a whole generation, in turn jeopardizing species higher up the food chain. Maarten’s geese showed what a changing climate can do—if PCBs don’t do it first.

Like many Dutchmen, Maarten spoke better English than I do, and with his spiky hair, round belly, and smooth skin, I could imagine him turning into a barnacle goose when my back was turned. He invited me to go out observing with him for an afternoon, and so with rifles loaded we started off past the Japanese station, past the airstrip, past the rocket launchpad, and over a bridge fording a river bloodied with sandstone deposits. There we reached a pond, and Maarten put up his tripod and telescope. At a distance of two hundred yards, he read out information from rings he had put on geese feet three years previously. I didn’t believe it, so I looked through the lens myself. “If the sun is behind me,” Maarten boasted, “I can read them at three hundred meters.” We walked on to Brandal Point. The rain had begun to pound down again. All around, goslings had just hatched. Only the female incubates: to facilitate heat transmission, she has a pair of breast patches without feathers. For the first three days, goslings live off absorbed yolk. Then they learn to feed. A strong young goose pecks 120 times a minute when it finds food. But the Arctic fox population had kept time with the geese. “The average barnacle couple,” said Maarten, “produce fifty eggs, out of which two-point-two chicks reach adulthood.” I had watched the dog fox opposite my window ferrying goslings to his vixen and kits.

We walked on. “This grass is too long for them,” Maarten remarked after we had reached stands of wet green at the lakeside. “In this state, it’s like spaghetti for geese, and they can’t eat it.” The sun had briefly reappeared when the rain stopped, but now it vanished behind a cloud. When it went, the colors went too. “I see the grass here with my goose mind,” Maarten concluded before stopping to scrutinize a white blob against a patch of scree on the lower slope of the nearest mountain. But it was a boulder, not a bear. After all his years in the field, Maarten had plenty of experience with a rifle, but like me, he was uncomfortable with the idea of a gun in his hand. “It’s a cultural thing,” he said. “In Holland you are perceived virtually as a criminal if you hunt. But here in Norway you’re almost a homosexual if you don’t.”

A finger of land divided two narrow fjords, and the cliff at the end of it attracted birds. Puffins, pink-footed geese, long-tailed ducks, ivory gulls, dunlins, king eiders, sanderlings, and red-throated divers shrieked and squawked around lime-stained fissures. It was startling to see species familiar in dowdy British winter coats resplendent in summer plumage. Gray phalaropes in Arctic carmine, snow buntings transformed from dusty slate into dazzling black and white, golden plovers with refulgent breast feathers. Guano had fertilized the soil cover below the cliff, enabling saxifrage and moss campion, Arctic battlers that blossom in the short burst of summer, to outwit the permafrost. If you’re under snow from September till May, you need to grow a lot in the short burst of twenty-four-hour light. (The highest woody-stemmed plant in the archipelago still reaches only six inches.) Fauna also has to maximize the brief growth period. The flight feathers of a barnacle gosling grow a quarter of an inch a day after hatching in Svalbard in June. Lichen approaches the problem from the other end by living so long that it can grow as slowly as it wants. Some patches on the bird cliff were alive before Britain became an island.

To experience the romance of the trapper, I went to stay in the nearest hut. It was only a mile from base, but still. Two new arrivals at Nick’s empire were coming along: Antonia, a wildlife watercolorist from Dorset, England, on a mission to paint barnacle geese, and her partner, Richard, a landscape photographer. In the mess hall, I ordered a field box of food for three, ticking off items on a printed list. The rain had finally ended, cleansing the air. When I breathed deeply, it was as if my lungs had been rinsed. The ground beyond the shingle beach was crunchy underfoot when we jumped from the Zodiac, as the sun had not softened the fretted ice above the permafrost.

A broadloom of dirty ice and meltwater streams patterned the land around the point. Three female geese had set up a crèche in the shallows of the fjord. The hut itself, fifty yards from shore, was made of rough-hewn planks weathered to the color of birchbark. An anteroom contained a set of bunk beds, and the single inner room a wood-burning stove, a table, two benches, two gas rings, and kitchen equipment including a stack of plates welded together by fossilized food items. Remembering Terje’s story, I had brought my own frying pan for self-defense purposes. We fired up the stove, which quickly began to draw. Odd gloves dangled from pegs on a line above it, and someone had pinned the skin of a harp seal on the wall over one of the benches, opposite a small window with fl oral curtains looking out at the Conway Glacier at the southern end of Haakon VII Land. One particular trapper occupied the hut for many years. He used to return from his annual visit to the mainland with the previous year’s supply of Tromsø newspapers. Each day, on his way to his traps, he would deposit a newspaper in a mailbox he had made near the hut. Then he would collect it on the way back and enjoy last year’s news. Trapping flourished until 1940, and the governor still issues permits to individuals keen to live the polar life (or live a version of it—a trapper on Kapp Wijk has a fast satellite Internet connection in his hut). Trappers have been banned from taking bears since 1973, but they still catch eiders for down, and Arctic foxes in white or—if the hunter is lucky—blue winter coats. It seemed a desperately romantic life, Internet notwithstanding.

The three of us walked along the point. The rubbly strand was thick with Siberian driftwood, swept from the great rivers as they froze and spun in the circular currents of the Arctic Ocean before being blown onto the beaches of Spitsbergen. Antonia already had her sketchbook out, whipping through pencil drawings of a pair of geese on the edge of Brandallaguna, a triangular body of water behind the point. The light was flat. Big wind-sock-shaped clouds hung in the sky below a layer of cirrostratus. Richard lay down to photograph ribs of driftwood. I picked among beluga tusks and rusted barrel hoops in the yard-high ice foot, a weak and unstable wall of ice and snow left on the shore when the winter sea ice broke up. We looked out for bears and listened to small waves slap the pebbles. Out in the open sea at the end of the fjord, a dazzling stripe on the underside of distant clouds mapped the sea ice. In a polar phenomenon called ice blink, clouds are lit from underneath by sunlight reflected up from a patch of pack ice in a contrasting dark area of water. When Nansen first came upon ice blink, he wrote, “I felt instinctively that I stood on the threshold of a new world.” Of all the Arctic landscapes I have seen, this one, without a permanent population, could claim to be the purest. Like the Antarctic, Svalbard was terra incognita (or frigore inhabitabilis, as it appears on pre-Renaissance maps). No people had invested this land with the spiritual meaning that confers a sense of ownership more powerfully than political foot stamping. Whalers, trappers, explorers, miners, and scientists—they were visitors, like me. It was easy to feel at home in a place that was nobody’s home.

The portions of food neatly wrapped in the wooden box were moderate, except for a whack of sausages, which was unfortunate, as it turned out that Richard and Antonia were vegetarian. But we also had some pancake mix. Then it emerged that the propane bottle had run out of gas, so not even I could tackle the sausage mountain. We had plenty of bread, though, which we could eat with jam and—ham. In the evening we set the kettle on the stove and looked out the window. Sunlight shone through in moteless shafts. The stove was an efficient heater but a poor boiler: its tower design meant that very little heat was coming out of the top, so that after two hours the water in the kettle was only tepid. The trapper was never in a hurry. Nor were we. Midnight could have been midday—in every sense. Even when the sun doesn’t set, at sub-Arctic latitudes a temperature difference distinguishes day from night, because at midday the sun is at the highest point of its trajectory, making the air warmer, and at midnight at its lowest point, thus cooling the “night.” The difference in the sun’s altitude between midday and midnight reduces as one approaches the Pole—and so, therefore, does the temperature differential. (The farther north you travel, in other words, the smaller the difference between day and night—a suitable metaphor for the otherworldliness of the polar regions.) Kongsfjord was not far from the 80th parallel, a latitude at which the planet enters the magic zone of day-night equilibrium. But the presence of the frying pan in the sleeping bag was not conducive to sound slumber.

Click here to read a slide show on arctic life.

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