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TARA MULVANY

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THE GREAT WAR OF ISISPYNTEN - 3 kayakers, 9 hungry polar bears & 200km of glacial cliffs

Posted by Tara Mulvany on October 6, 2015 at 2:35 PM

Along the entire North Eastern coast of Nordaustlandet lies one long line of glacial cliffs, which at this latitude stretch nearly an entire parallel. For more than 200km the Austfonna Glacier heaves masses of ice into the Arctic Ocean and guards Svalbard’s shores. From the information we managed to gather, we had an idea that there could be a few potential landing points along the glacier, but none could be guaranteed. We knew that a passing of the cliffs was going to be an epic undertaking and were prepared for the likeliness of having to run the cliffs in one long, 180km paddle which would take us close to 40hrs of non stop paddling. I really hoped that wouldn’t eventuate.


At Kapp Laura we left the north coast behind and turned our bows south, following the cliffs towards our last possible landing, 40km south at a place called Isispynten. On our maps it was a small peninsula jutting out from the coast, but we had heard that maybe it was an island. No one we spoke to who ‘knew’ the area was really sure. Either way we were confident that we could land there, and it would be a good starting point for when the weather window opened up for us.


The current was with us as we threaded a line close to the base of the cliffs, and 65 kilometres later we landed on Isispynten, discovering that it was in fact an island. We pulled up onto a rocky beach and lifted PGs boat up and over a jumbled pile of ice which marked the high tide line. We were on the edge of a small lagoon, and figuring it would be easier just to paddle around to the other side, Jaime and I jumped back in our boats. 10 minutes later we entered the lagoon, and through the fog I spotted something on a patch of snow which looked the distinct creamy colour of a polar bear. I paddled closer. From less than 50m away I still couldn’t work out if it was actually a bear – it wasn’t moving, but if it was a bear, it was huge and sleeping. I crept away quietly and pulled up beside Jaime, pointing at the small patch of snow. “I could be on crack, but i think there’s a big polar bear just over there,” I stated flatly. A minute later he confirmed that yes, we were camping 150m from a sleeping, giant polar bear, who was most likely hungry and held hostage on an island that was no longer encased in sea ice. I was not happy, but PG and Jaime were convinced it wasn’t a problem – if he did wake up and decide to come for a visit, we would just scare him away. Easy.


We had barely been on the island for 15minutes when our new friend decided to wake up, roll onto his back and stretch his legs. I would have thought this was cute on TV, but in real life.. I was a little anxious. Then the bear started walking towards us. We yelled and he didn’t flinch. PG was ready to fire a round on his rifle, and the plan was that we would quickly follow with a flash bang on the signal gun. Instead of grabbing the signal gun which was right beside him, Jaime continued faffing with his camera. Typical. I abused Jaime, grabbed the gun, loaded it and fired two seconds after PG. My shot landed directly in front of the bears nose and exploded with a big flash and a bang, just like they are supposed to do. The bear shat his pants, turned around and ran off, glancing behind him as he went. Kayakers one. Bear nil.


A minute later I glanced to the left of our camp and one by one more sleeping polar bears awoke from their small patches of snow. It was something of a weird horror movie set and we had just woken up four more big male bears. Not ideal. Bear number two came at us with a trot and the three of us moved forwards, holding our ground and then firing more rounds and the signal gun. The bear was closer than 100m and the gun shot 100m.. I didn’t want to shoot behind it so I fired slightly up. Bang. It exploded up in the air. The bear got the message and turned and wandered slowly off back to his patch of snow. Kayakers two. Bears nil.


Turns out polar bears are slow learners and bear number three hadn’t figured out what was going on. He wanted a turn too. So we again moved forwards, he walked slowly closer, we shot some rounds, fired the signal gun and he too wandered off. These bears would be trapped on Isispynten until the sea ice came back in the winter, and during that time they would be forced into a docile state, sleeping to conserve energy and most likely being without any significant food. It seemed to us that the bears had been forced to co exist, there was an obvious hierarchy and each bear had their own territory. We kept an eye on our friends as we ate our dinner beside the fire, and they kept an eye on us, a couple of hundred metres away. Most of them lay back down to sleep.


We had established our territory and there seemed to be no immediate threat – if any of them came back for a second go and weren’t easily scared then we would reconsider paddling back in the direction we had come. But for the next 12 hours our friends kept their distance and we slept in turns, only getting up once to chase away bear number one who was too scared to go back to his patch of snow and instead tried to curl up in a tiny patch 50m from the tent. The visibility was still poor and the winds weren’t forecast to ease off for another 12hrs, so logic was that the longer we could wait out on bear island, the easier our lives were going to be for the passing of the cliffs.


I had just finished my shift and Jaime had just gotten out of the tent when a new, rough looking, yellowy coloured, giant bear appeared out of the fog not far away. He was even bigger than the rest and probably weighed more than 800kgs. This guy was clearly the ruler of the island.. there was something about him that meant trouble. I quickly grabbed the signal gun and woke up PG while Jaime again with his priorities set grabbed his camera. It was game on. The bear walked towards us and we stepped forwards, firing the first round and dropping a flash bang in front of his nose. He didn’t even flinch and wandered closer. Behind him sleeping on his patch of snow was bear number 4 – who we had named John. He hadn’t given us any trouble so far and he freaked, jumped up and ran away. John was a smart bear.


Giant bear took more steps towards us and the distance that separated us was not much more than 60-70m, slightly too close for comfort. We fired more rounds but still no reaction. Then I fired a flash bang which landed a metre behind him.. he obviously wasn’t expecting it and lunged forwards a couple of steps.. Ekk! Eventually, after the most intense few minutes of my life, some 13 rounds and 6 flash bangs later, the bear turned and slowly walked away. It was a close game, but we had won. Polar bears nil, kayakers, 4. It was time to leave the island.


Just as we turned to walk back to the tent to start packing up, another big bear appeared over the top of the hill walking straight towards us. Nooo! I was well and truly over fighting giant bears now, I just wanted to get off the island but we had another war to win first. Bear number six came in close and we struggled to scare him off, it was again touch and go whether he was going to turn and walk away. Thankfully he did.


The air was still filled with a thick creepy fog, and a southerly wind blew. We knew we couldn’t afford to set off for the cliffs until the conditions improved, so we packed up, slid the kayaks down to the waters edge, and sat around our fire for a couple more hours, killing time and watching out for bears. Later in the afternoon the sky’s cleared and the cliffs emerged out of the fog. We pushed away, heading south hoping that we would find somewhere to land 35km away at a place where we had been told the glacier was surging forward. If not, then it was going to be a long, long day.


The sea was calm and it was a pretty surreal feeling to be finally here, paddling beside the cliffs that we had spent so much time dreaming about. Apart from Team Norway who were somewhere behind us, we were very much alone. Since leaving our waiting hut before heading onto the northern coast we hadn’t seen any boats, no huts and no human sign. 50m high cliffs of crumbling blue and white ice stretched as far as we could see in front of us before disappearing into the cloud. We were all in high spirits. The forecast was good and the ice charts showed only small patches of drift ice. There was no turning back.


We were paddling along separated by a couple of hundred metres when Jaime yells out “polar bear!!” and I see a large white head chasing PG up in front. At this point I’m thinking, cool, time for photos and I keep paddling towards the bear. Jaime turns, points and yells at me to paddle left. PG is paddling full speed and the bear is hot on his tail. Luckily the bear gets distracted and doesn’t know which one of us to chase and becomes tired after a couple of minutes. PG is still shitting his pants, and me and him keep our distance. The same can’t be said for Jaime who pulls out his camera and paddles closer to the bear. Part of me hopes the bear takes a swipe at his kayak to teach him a lesson. We lead him to an iceberg and he climbs on top – now it’s time for all of us to pull out the cameras and even PG backs in close to get a selfie with the bear!!


Half an hour later we came across a low point in the glacier. As the tide was high, it was only a 1.5m climb up onto a small ice ledge before another scramble up on top of the glacier. Perfect! It took a bit of effort but we were able to climb out and haul our loaded kayaks up onto the ice before securing them with an ice screw. It was a magic setting – a carving glacier stretching to the horizon in both directions and the ocean filled with ice bergs, drifting with the currents.


We slept on the ice for the day before we packed and began the process of lowering the kayaks and ourselves back down to the water. From here to the end of the cliffs was only a little over 100km in a straight line. We expected it to take us around 24hrs. Into the fog we paddled. Soon enough a band of slushy ice halted our progress and we turned around, forced our way back to semi clear water and paddled away from the cliffs in search of an easier path. For the next 17hours we followed our compasses, occasionally checking the GPS to adjust our course through the fog. It was mentally brutal not being able to see anything apart from a silvery sea, ice, and two other kayakers, hour after hour. We pushed our way through large sections of ice, our bows making unnerving crunching noises every few seconds, noises that we have become accustomed to. Thankfully, apart from some cracked gel coat issues, our fibreglass/Kevlar Zegul kayaks have stood up the the punishment we have given them.


By the 14th hour I was starting to fall asleep and downed a couple of caffene pills. After that I felt good.. As good as you can be when Jaime is singing irritating songs at the top of his voice. Luckily he got tired of that after an hour. Then came the stage when I felt sea sick.. I quickly swallowed some sea sick pills and held everything down. When we eventually hit the cliffs again at around the 70km mark things got easier, at least we had something to look at. We stopped for a while and PG boiled the cooker on the front of his kayak and we had a hot feed.


At the 90km mark we rounded a corner and spied a giant waterfall spilling out over the lip of the glacier. Even after 24hrs of paddling I couldn’t resist the temptation to paddle under the falls – there is something so powerful about being so close to a huge waterfall. Out came the cameras and we messed around for a while, trying to capture the magic of this place that I struggle to find the words for. I was taking photos of the guys in the falls when I glanced to my left… there was not one swimming polar bear but two!! And they were hunting me down. I yelled at Jaime and PG then paddled away as fast as I could.


The bears followed, making horrific grunting noises that said ‘I want to eat you!’. They’d obviously been in the water for a while and didn’t have the pace of the first swimming bear, so we lead them to a pretty looking, picture perfect iceberg in front of the falls. They clambered out and continued their grunting. The bears were a similar size and we had initially thought it was two males, but turns out it was mum and her grown male cub. We took photos and they kept trying to get us before it was time to continue on the paddle.


Eventually, after being in our kayaks for 26.5 hours we touched land. The Austfonna Glacier was over. It had been a surreal experience, and the 72 hours since declaring war on Isispynten were some of the most epic and intense of my life. The war, then the night on the carving glacier, the bands of ice, the swimming bears, the waterfalls and the never ending fog. All of it combined to make one epic, barely describable experience.


Nordaustlandet had given us an adventure on a scale of which we couldn’t have imagined. It had been brutal and beautiful, but there was no time at that moment to reflect, all I wanted to do was sleep.


The next day after we had all slept a total of 12hrs, we packed and paddled away, heading for our food cache halfway up Hinlopen Strait. We paddled for 18hours, again much of it in thick fog, navigating by compass and pushing through small sections of ice. That night we officially completed a circumnavigation of the island, and won the unfortunate ‘Race for Nordaustlandet’ . Not that it really mattered, we still had a long way to go to get back to civilization and even further to complete our goal. That night, while we were camped in a swampy bay filled with goose poop I couldn’t help but think of Team Norway, who in a couple of days time would be lying in a hot tub on the deck of their mothership drinking cold beers as they sailed home. Part of me envied them, but adventure was calling and so was the coast ahead. The adventure continued.


You'll find all the other blog posts from this adventure at www.svalbard.worldwildadventure.com

 :) Tara

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2 Comments

Reply Kavita Nahar
4:26 AM on June 23, 2017 
Your adventures make great reading
Reply trtf
12:29 AM on June 11, 2016 
What an adventure! Glad it didn't have a sticky ending at the hands of a man-eater!!!